It's been almost one year since we reviewed our first Ultra HD TV, the Sony XBR-55X900A. That 55-inch TV had an MSRP of $5,000, and the only UHD content I had at my disposal was a demo reel that Sony supplied. Since that time, we've seen the introduction of many UHD models, at a wider variety of screen sizes and lower price points. We've also seen the mass-market arrival of HDMI 2.0 and HEVC decoding within these TVs, to better support UHD content of both the served and streamed variety. Speaking of content, it has progressed from non-existent to a slow trickle, in the form of UHD movie servers like Sony's FMP-X10 and streaming options like Netflix and YouTube.
Today we're going to look at one of Samsung's newest UHD models, the 65-inch UN65HU8550, which carries an MSRP of $3,299. This is one of the company's top-shelf TVs, sitting just below the HU9000 Series. The primary difference between the two is that the HU9000 (which is $800 more expensive) is curved and the HU8550 is flat. Samsung was wise to send me the flat model, given my already well-documented dislike of the curved design. The HU8550 Series includes screen sizes of 50, 55, 60, 65, 75, and 85 inches.
As a top-shelf model, the UN65HU8550 carries all of the expected bells and whistles in terms of smart TV services, voice control, and performance technologies. This LCD TV uses edge LED lighting with Samsung's Precision Black local dimming, Clear Motion Rate 1200 technology to reduce motion blur and film judder, and the Ultra Clear Panel to improve contrast in a brighter room. This is an active 3D TV, and four pairs of glasses are included in the package.
To keep this review from being 5,000 words, I'm going to cover Samsung's 2014 Smart Hub platform and all of its associated services in its own review (coming soon). Here, we're going to focus on performance, so let's get to it.
Given some of Samsung's recent design efforts, the UN65HU8550's aesthetic is surprisingly traditional. As I said above, it's thankfully flat and sports just a quarter inch of black bezel around the top and sides of the screen. A brushed-aluminum accent strip runs around the outer edge of the TV frame. The matching, non-swiveling, brushed-aluminum stand has a traditional rectangular shape that extends about five inches in front of the screen, with an additional support base that extends six inches behind the screen for added stability. Indeed this TV feels more secure and steady in its base than some of the previous and admittedly more stylish stands. Without the stand, the UN65HU8550 measures 1.4 inches deep and weighs 54.2 pounds.
Unlike the more expensive HU9000 that comes with the separate One Connect box to house all the inputs, the HU8550 has an actual input panel on the TV itself. Connections include four HDMI 2.0 inputs (MHL and ARC are supported on certain inputs), one shared component/composite input, one standard composite input, optical digital and analog audio output, an Ethernet port (built-in WiFi is also onboard), and three USB ports for the addition of peripherals and media storage devices. This TV lacks an integrated camera, but you can add one via USB (the HU9000 Series has a built-in camera). The HU8550 is also compatible with either a USB or wireless Bluetooth keyboard, if desired for faster text entry and Web navigation. You'll notice a One Connect port on the back panel, which will support the future addition of an Evolution Kit to add new features in 2015 or beyond. The UN65HU8550's EX-Link output allows for integration into an advanced control system, while the IR output allows you to connect the supplied IR blaster cable to control other AV sources like a set-top box and/or disc player.
Samsung includes two remotes with the UN65HU8550: the standard, backlit IR remote with the traditional full-button layout and the smaller, egg-shaped, Bluetooth remote with a touchpad slider, a motion-controlled pointer, and a built-in microphone for voice control. Compared with the touchpad remote that came with last year's UN55F8000, this one has a smaller form and a much smaller touchpad area, and the buttons are crammed closer together. It looks more like LG's motion remote, and frankly I liked last year's version a lot better in design, responsiveness, and general functionality - although I did appreciate that Samsung added transport controls (play, pause, forward, and reverse) to this year's version. The touchpad remote also backlighting, so it's more difficult to use in a dark room compared with the IR remote.
As with last year's UN55F8000, you can set up the Samsung remote(s) to control your cable/satellite set-top box and disc player using the supplied IR blaster cable. Setup takes place via a very simple onscreen wizard, and the system did a fine job controlling both my Dish Network Hopper DVR and Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player. Last year's version did not have the correct channel numbers for Dish Network, so I could not use Samsung's program guide and search recommendations as much as I wanted, but that problem has been fixed this year. The addition of transport controls on the touchpad remote makes for an improved DVR/playback experience, but you still have to use its Keypad button to pull up an onscreen virtual remote to access a lot of set-top box and DVD/BD functions. You can use voice command to tune to a certain channel, but the remote's Guide button pulls up Samsung's program guide, not your DVR's. Overall, I preferred using the old-fashioned IR remote to control my other devices because of its dedicated number pad and STB menu/guide buttons. Also, its amber backlighting makes it the better choice for nighttime use.
Samsung has also released a new iOS/Android control app for its 2014 smart TV lineup, dubbed Samsung SmartView 2.0. We'll cover most of its network-friendly features in our review of the Smart Hub platform. As for general control of TV functions, the app worked great, sporting all of the necessary buttons and including a virtual keyboard for text entry.
All of the picture adjustments typically found on a high-end Samsung TV are here, including two- and 10-point white balance, flesh-tone adjustment, multiple gamma presets, multiple color spaces, an adjustable backlight, a full color management system, noise reduction, and more. You can choose how aggressive you want the local dimming to be through the Smart LED setting (off, low, standard, and high), and you can adjust the type/level of blur and judder reduction through the Auto Motion Plus setting (off, clear, standard, smooth, and a custom mode in which you can independently adjust blur and judder and turn on LED Clear Motion - more on this in the next section).
On the audio side, the TV has two front-firing speakers and two woofers, and the menu includes five sound modes, with a virtual surround option, a dialog clarity tool, a five-band equalizer, and the ability to mate the TV with networkable speakers. I actually found the sound quality to be above average for a flat-panel TV; I didn't have to push the volume too high to get good dynamics, and vocals did not have that hollow, nasal quality that's so common in today's TVs.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Performance, The Downside, the Competition and Comparison, and the Conclusion . . .
Of the UN65HU8550's four picture modes (dynamic, standard, natural, and movie), the movie mode is the closest to accurate out of the box, with numbers that are close enough to reference standard that most people will likely be satisfied to skip the professional calibration. The only setting I changed before I did my pre-calibration measurements was to turn off the TV's Eco mode, which was turned on by default on my review sample and will automatically reduce image brightness in a dark room (Samsung says this mode should not be turned on by default in the Movie mode, but you should check). With that function turned off, the movie mode put out a whopping 77 ft-L with a white window test pattern.
The UN65HU8550's grayscale Delta Error was just 4.45 (anything under five is considered good) with a fairly even color balance and a gamma of 2.27. Likewise, all six of the color points had a Delta Error less than three with no adjustment; an error less than three is considered imperceptible to the human eye. So again, simply switching the TV into its movie mode will provide excellent results to those who desire a more accurate picture.
And for those who want the Nth degree of accuracy, I was able to achieve even better results through calibration: a grayscale Delta Error of just 1.02, a nearly perfect red/green/blue color balance, and a gamma of 2.23. I dialed back the light output using the adjustable backlight to about 30 ft-L, for a more comfortable viewing experience in a dark or very dim room. Using the color management system, I was able to fine-tune the six points a bit further to bring the three elements (saturation, hue, and brightness) into better balance.
While performing my measurements, I checked out the TV's native color space and discovered that the color points are not much wider than the points I got in the auto and custom color spaces. These color points are close to the Rec 709 standard for HD content but nowhere near the Rec 2020 points defined for the future Ultra HD standard. Furthermore, Samsung does not disclose whether or not the HU8550 panel will support 10- or 12-bit color, so that's a question mark regarding the TV's suitability to fully exploit the future Ultra HD standard.
Samsung's Precision Black local dimming (called Smart LED in the setup menu) helps this LED/LCD to produce a respectably deep black level while still maintaining good image brightness, which yields an image with excellent contrast. The high setting produces the deepest blacks, and I did not observe any significant glow around bright objects, which can sometimes be a concern with local dimming. In a head-to-head with my reference Panasonic TC-P60ST60 plasma, the UN65HU8550 held its own in black-level performance in demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy, Flags of Our Fathers, and The Amazing Spider-man. The two displays were quite similar; sometimes the plasma's blacks looked darker, and sometimes the Samsung's looked darker. The plasma was better able to deliver bright elements in the darkest scenes, for better contrast, but overall the Samsung proved to be strong in this respect, far surpassing the edge-lit LED/LCDs I've tested that don't use local dimming.
On the flip side, the UN65HU8550 can crank out a lot of light, and the Ultra Clear Panel does a very good job rejecting ambient light to improve contrast in a brighter room. So, this TV is equally well suited for daytime and nighttime viewing. The screen is reflective, so you need to be mindful of where you position it in relation to windows and lamps.
The Samsung passed all of my 480i and 1080i processing tests, as long as I kept it in the Auto 1 film mode. (The Auto 2 mode does a better job with text crawls, though - like the ESPN ticker.) Regarding motion detail, in recent years I have always gone with Samsung's "clear" Auto Motion Plus setting because it provided great blur reduction without adding any of the smoothing effects of the standard/smooth modes. This year, the clear mode didn't seem to do anything at all to reduce blur, so I had to go into the custom mode and set blur reduction to its maximum and judder to its minimum to get the same results. Enabling the LED Clear Motion setting within the custom mode actually produced the best results: LED Clear Motion uses black-frame insertion to reduce blur without any frame interpolation, and it served up nearly perfect resolution in my FPD Benchmark test patterns. This mode does reduce light output a bit, but the UN65HU8550 has plenty of that to spare, so it's easy to compensate by upping the backlight.
I ran through my standard 3D demo scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Life of Pi, and the UN65HU8550 handled them well. The TV's combination of high light output, good contrast, and excellent detail made for an effective, engaging 3D experience. I saw a very small amount of ghosting around the floating spoon in chapter 10 of Monsters vs. Aliens, but I was able to correct it using the 3D perspective control in the setup menu. The supplied glasses were light and comfortable, even when I used them over my regular glasses.
Now let's talk Ultra HD. First I did some direct A/B comparisons between the Samsung's internal UHD upscaler and that of the Oppo BDP-103, and performance looked very similar with test patterns and real-world signals. Next I tried streaming season two of House of Cards through Netflix; this TV does include the necessary HEVC decoding to handle the Netflix Ultra HD stream, and the Netflix info banner did confirm that I was getting the "2160 HD" feed." Netflix recommends 25 Mbps for Ultra HD, and Speedtest rated my download speed at 28.5 Mbps. The opening credits, filled with around-the-town scenery, revealed excellent fine detail in the buildings, trees, and grasses, and overall the TV served up a very attractive, detailed image with natural color and skintones.
Samsung also sent along its new $300 UHD Video Pack, a tiny 1TB server that connects to Samsung's 2014 UHD TVs via USB and is preloaded with five movies and three documentaries: G.I. Joe: Retaliation, World War Z, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Night at the Museum, The Counselor, The Last Reef, Grand Canyon Adventure, and Cappadocia. All I had to do was connect the UHD Video Pack to the correct USB port on the UN65HU8550 using the supplied cable, and an onscreen message immediately prompted me to access the content. It couldn't get any easier (although I did have to turn off the English subtitles every single time I started a movie, which was annoying).
Scenes from The Last Reef, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation looked great. Outstanding detail, excellent image contrast, great shadow detail, and a rich but natural color palette. I did see some compression artifacts in the nighttime sky in a scene from Wolverine, but beyond that, the combination of the TV and Video Pack served up a really nice-looking picture.
The inevitable question is, was it better than a great-looking 1080p picture? To test that, I rented G.I. Joe: Retaliation on Blu-ray and played it back simultaneously through the Panasonic TC-P60ST60 1080p plasma. I sat at a distance of about three times the UN65HU8550's picture height, which put me at 93 inches away from the two screens. That's about three feet closer than I normally sit, but it wasn't an unnaturally or awkwardly close viewing distance. I have to say, at that distance (and when I moved even closer), I had a hard time seeing any difference in detail between the native UHD on the Samsung and the 1080p content on the plasma, even when I paused the scene. Admittedly, the bigger 65-inch Samsung screen looked just as crisp and detailed as the smaller 60-inch plasma screen, and I guess there's something to be said for that (usually, a larger screen looks a little softer). And since you can't get the ST60 or any other Panasonic plasma anymore, maybe it's a moot comparison. But I think it reinforces the idea that a high-performance 1080p TV with excellent contrast can look just as good as, if not better than, a higher-resolution UHD TV, at least at screen sizes of 65 inches and less. In the future, things like Rec 2020 color and increased bit depth (neither of which can be confirmed on this TV) will further distinguish UHD content from standard HD content, but right now resolution is the defining factor...and I just didn't see that big of a difference here.
The single biggest issue with edge-lit LED-based LCDs is a lack of brightness uniformity around the screen, which is especially problematic in darker scenes. With the Smart LED local dimming control enabled on the UN65HU8550, brightness uniformity was solid, but frankly it could and should have been even better given the TV's asking price. There were no blatantly patchy spots that hindered overall black-level performance within dark film scenes, and the screen does turn itself completely off during all-black scene transitions. However, I could see faint hints of light leakage at the corners and along the right edge of the screen, to the detriment of the TV's black level in my darkest demo scenes. Last year's F8000 1080p model performed quite well in the area of brightness uniformity, so I was expecting a bit better here. It's too bad because, were these small brightness-uniformity anomalies absent, I'd really have no performance complaints.
While not a direct downside to the UN65HU8550 itself, the current scarcity of UHD content must be considered when you factor in the added cost of this TV compared with many 1080p TVs. Netflix titles are limited right now, and the Samsung UHD Video Pack (which adds $300 to the cost) only includes eight movies. Additional titles will be available for download, but we don't have a time frame for future releases.
Competition and Comparison
In the realm of sub-$4,000 Ultra HD TVs around the 65-inch screen size, competitors to the UN65HU8550 include the new Sony XBR-65X850B ($3,999) or last year's XBR-65X850A ($3,299) and XBR-65X900A ($3,799); LG's new 65UB9500 ($3,799) or last year's 65LA9650 ($3,299); Panasonic's 65AX800U ($3,999); and Sharp's LC-70UD1U ($3,999). Companies like Toshiba, Hisense, and Vizio have also announced plans to introduce 65-inch Ultra HD TVs to the market in the coming months.
If you open up the competition to include 1080p TVs around the 65-inch screen size, options are numerous. In the higher-performance arena, there's Samsung's own UN65H8000 curved LED/LCD at $2,999 and UN65H7150 flat LED/LCD at $2,099, as well as the PN64F8500 plasma at $3,099. Sony's KDL-65W950B sells for $2,399, while LG's 65LB7100 sells for $2,299. Vizio's new 65-inch M652i-B2, which uses a full-array LED backlight with local dimming, carries an MSRP of $1,499.
For more TV reviews, check out our Flat HDTV category page.
Setting aside the issue of price for a moment, the Samsung UN65HU8550 is a compelling new entry in the TV market. It's got a comprehensive list of features in a (thankfully) flat form factor, and it proved to be very good performer, with the versatility to suit both bright and dark viewing environments, both film and HDTV, equally well. Some minor brightness-uniformity issues keep it from earning a spot on my "best of the best" list, but it will likely deliver the goods for all but the most discerning black-level purists, who are probably looking at Samsung's F8500 plasma anyhow.
Of course, we must bring price back into consideration. On the one hand, the UN65HU8550's $3,299 asking price falls at the low end compared with the other new 65-inch Ultra HD models listed in the Competition and Comparison section above. On the other hand, the Ultra HD resolution gives this TV a premium price tag over comparable 1080p TVs. I don't feel that the UHD resolution makes a big enough difference at this screen size to inspire me to pay more just to get Ultra HD; but then again, what's the cheaper 1080p alternative in the 2014 line? Samsung was strategic this year in the features it put in each of its high-end TV series, ensuring that there's no exact, lower-priced 1080p equivalent to the HU8550 Series. The 1080p H7150 Series is flat but lacks local dimming, whereas the 1080p H8000 Series has local dimming but is curved. If you want the best, most home-theater-worthy performance that Samsung has to offer in a flat LED/LCD, the HU8550 Series is the choice for 2014. I think last year's 1080p F8000 Series offers better black-level performance, and right now you can get the 65-incher for $400 less than this TV. That's close enough in price that it really comes down to what matters most to you: black level or resolution. You make the call.