Okay, remember all the times over the past couple of years that we said Ultra HD is about more than just resolution? The jump from an HD to UHD resolution isn't going to be as obvious as the jump from SD to HD, at least at popular screen sizes in the TV realm. But the full Ultra HD spec brings a lot more to the table, including better color that will be obvious even at smaller screen sizes.
Our reviews of early UHD TVs came with some big caveats about their lack of support for higher bit depth and a wider color gamut, as well as incomplete HDMI compatibility. The good news is, this year's UHD TV reviews should have a lot less caveats, as many TV models are poised to exploit the real potential of Ultra HD. Maybe not the full Rec 2020 potential, but at least a big step toward that long-term goal.
Samsung is leading the charge with its new SUHD TV line. Don't ask exactly what the S stands for; nobody really knows. Just know that these are the top-shelf UHD TVs that Samsung will offer in 2015, and they feature two important technologies: HDR and nano crystals (aka quantum dots). For in-depth explanations of these two technologies, you can read my two post-CES stories here and here, but the short version is this: HDR provides better contrast, and nano crystals provide better color.
The SUHD line consists of three main series (and a few single-skew models at larger screen sizes). The JS8500 Series is the lowest priced and comes in screen sizes of 48, 55, and 65 inches. The JS8500 has a flat-screen design and uses edge LED backlighting with Samsung's Precision Black dimming, a 10-bit panel, a quad-core processor, and a 120Hz refresh rate. The step-up JS9000 Series is also edge-lit but has a curved screen and a faster octo-core processor. At the top sits the JS9500, also a curved design with a full-array LED backlighting system that allows for the best combination of light output and black-level performance to take advantage of the HDR technology. Of course, that step up in performance comes with a huge step up in price: the 65-inch UN65JS9500 carries a price tag of $4,999, while the 65-inch UN65JS8500 being reviewed here carries a price tag of $2,999.
While I have not done my own hands-on review of the top-shelf JS9500, I've sat through a couple of in-depth previews that included comparisons with other 4K OLED and LED/LCD models, and its performance was very impressive. How far does the lower-priced JS8500 go in delivering a similar experience? Let's find out.
In many respects, the UN65JS8500 is the 2015 version of the UN65HU8550 that I reviewed last year. Each represents the highest-priced non-curved-screen model in Samsung's UHD lineup. Since I still use the HU8550 as a reference display, I did a lot of comparisons between the two for this review.
The bezel of the UN65JS8500 is a tad bit wider than last year's model and is all brushed aluminum, instead of a two-tone black/brushed-aluminum combo. This year's stand is also more distinctive in its design, with a black base in the center that extends a few inches to the front and back for stability and a long, brushed-aluminum bar providing additional support and a bit of style to the front. Without the stand, this 65-inch TV measures 1.2 inches deep and weighs 60.8 pounds.
Whereas the HU8550 had an integrated connection panel, the JS8500 uses Samsung's separate One Connect Mini box to house its HDMI and USB 2.0 ports, which makes for an easier upgrade down the road, if necessary. The box sports four HDMI 2.0 inputs, all of which have HDCP 2.2 copy protection. There's also one optical digital audio output and two USB 2.0 ports.
The rest of the connections reside on the TV itself, including an RF input for the internal tuner, mini-jacks for composite and component video (with supplied adapter cables), a LAN port for network connectivity (built-in Wi-Fi is also included), a third USB port (3.0), and Samsung's EX Link port for integration into a control system. This TV lacks an integrated camera, but you can add one via USB. You can also add a USB keyboard or Bluetooth keyboard/mouse/gamepad if desired.
This year's package includes just one remote control: a small, Bluetooth-based model with a smattering of buttons, including Source, Menu/123, Volume, Channel, a Directional Keypad, Exit, Play/Pause, and Smart Hub. Gone is the standard Samsung IR remote with its full button array, and gone are the touchpad, voice control button, and full transport controls that were included on last year's egg-shaped Bluetooth remote (voice control can still be activated via an onscreen menu option). Instead of a touchpad, you get a pointer control that allows you to navigate onscreen menu options using motion control. I found this to be faster and more reliable than the touchpad. The small, curved remote fit comfortably in my hand, but its cramped button layout and limited backlighting made it tricky to use in the dark.
Once again this year, Samsung has added a universal control function where you can easily set up the remote to control your cable/satellite set-top box during initial setup; this year, you no longer need to attach an IR blaster cable. The system automatically controls the set-top box when connected via HDMI; however, since the remote has so few buttons, you have to use onscreen menu options for almost all of the set-top box navigation and control, which isn't as quick and easy as just using your cable/satellite remote or a universal remote...but it gets the job done in a pinch.
All of the picture adjustments you'd expect to see on a high-end Samsung TV are here, including two- and 10-point white balance, 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 Samsung has wisely brought back the Cinema Black setting that darkens the top and bottom portions of the screen during 2.35:1 movies--a feature that was missing from the HU8550. The Auto Motion Plus menu allows you to select from various options for blur and judder reduction. The menu includes settings for Off, Clear, Standard, Smooth, and a Custom mode in which you can independently adjust blur and judder and turn on LED Clear Motion. We'll talk performance in the next section.
This is a 3D-capable TV, and one pair of active-shutter glasses is included in the package. The menu has a variety of 3D adjustments, including the ability to adjust 3D perspective, depth, and left/right imaging.
On the audio side, the TV has two front-firing 10-watt speakers and two 10-watt 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 or Bluetooth headphones. Auto Volume is available, as is the ability to set up the HDMI inputs for PCM or bitstream audio and set the digital audio output for PCM, Dolby Digital, or DTS. As with last year's model, I 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.
Finally, we come to Samsung's Smart Hub platform, which has been completely revamped this year. Samsung now uses the Tizen OS, which looks vaguely similar to LG's webOS platform in that both begin your smart TV experience by putting a row of brightly colored app options on a banner along the bottom of the screen--allowing for quick access to recent and frequently used apps. I'm going to cover all the features of the new Tizen-based Smart Hub service in a separate review, but I will say here that it provides a more streamlined, intuitive smart TV experience.
Overall this year, I'd say the changes that Samsung has made in its remote, its set-top-box control, and its smart TV platform simplify the process and lead to an improved user experience.
After breaking in the UN65JS8500 for a week or so with some casual HDTV viewing, I sat down to measure and calibrate it. For my first round of measurements, I stuck with the current Rec 709 standard that I use with all TVs, since that is still the standard to which the majority of today's content is mastered.
The TV has four picture modes (Dynamic, Standard, Natural, and Movie); not surprisingly, the Movie mode was the closest to those reference standards out of the box, with no adjustment at all. In fact, the preset values are so good, a professional calibration really isn't necessary. Using my X-rite I1Pro 2 meter, DVDO iScan Duo pattern generator, and CalMAN software, I measured a highly accurate color balance, a gray-scale Delta Error of just 2.16 (an error under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye), and an average gamma of 2.29 (I use 2.2 as the target for TVs). All six color points had a Delta Error below three, with red being the least accurate with an error of just 1.9.
Of course, I went ahead and calibrated the TV anyhow and was able to further improve the color balance and gamma with minimal effort--ultimately obtaining a gray-scale Delta Error of 1.09 and a gamma of 2.22. (See the measurements charts on page two for more details.)
Because of the TV's use of nano-crystal technology, I also wanted to see how wide a color gamut it could achieve. A wider color gamut doesn't mean much with existing content (wider equals less accurate), but it will matter with future UHD content that has been mastered to a wider reference. See our article The Color's the Thing That Will Make 4K So Amazing for more details. Samsung claims the TV gets "close to" the D-Cinema P3 theatrical color space, so I set my CalMAN software for that, I put the TV in its Native color space, and I used 100 percent color bars for my test pattern. The top chart to the right shows the measurement results. Indeed, the UN65JS8500's Native mode produces a much wider color gamut than the Rec 709 target, but it doesn't quite get to the target P3 points, especially green. The official Rec 2020 UHD standard (bottom chart to the right) is even wider than P3, and to my knowledge no TV manufacturer is claiming that its quantum-dot and wider-color-gamut TVs can do Rec 2020 this year. The technology just isn't there yet, I've been told. D-Cinema P3 is the goal everyone is trying to reach right now, as that's what you're getting on the theatrical side.
The one performance parameter of the UN65JS8500 that I felt demanded adjustment was the light output. As I would expect from an HDR-capable display, this is one bright TV. In the brightest and least accurate Dynamic mode, I measured 127 foot-lamberts (435 nits) on a 100 percent full-white field. Even the Movie mode is bright, measuring about 54 ft-L (185 nits) out of the box and capable of about 97 ft-L (332 nits) if you turn the backlight and contrast all the way up. (I got the same brightness numbers in window test patterns as I did with a full-white screen.) That's awfully bright for dim- or dark-room viewing and will lead to eyestrain, so I dialed the backlight down to a setting of 8 (out of 20) to get to 34.6 ft-L. If you plan to use this TV in a very bright viewing environment, you'll have plenty of light output to work with, and the reflective screen does a nice job rejecting ambient light to improve contrast in a bright setting.
Another reason to lower the backlight is to improve the TV's black-level performance, which is only average out of the box, even with the Smart LED local dimming enabled. Once I adjusted the UN65JS8500's backlight to that 35-ft-L range, the black level proved to be very good...but not exceptional, due to some common limitations of edge-lit displays (more on this below). My favorite black-level demo scenes from Gravity, The Bourne Supremacy, and Flags of Our Fathers revealed a respectably deep black level with excellent black detail, creating a rich, well-saturated film image in a completely dark room.
I did a lot of direct comparisons with last year's UN65HU8550. When calibrated, these two TVs look very, very similar. To my eye, the new UN65JS8500 produced slightly more neutral skintones (with less red in them) and more neutral deep blacks (with less blue in them). In terms of black level, it was quite close between the two, but I'd say last year's model actually produces a slightly better black level overall, in part because it has a more precise local-dimming control. However, the HU8550 also exhibits more light bleed at the screen's corners and doesn't have the Cinema Black control to darken the top and bottom bars in 2.35:1 movies, so these bars consistently looked darker on the new UN65JS8500, which creates an improve sense of contrast in 2.35:1 movies.
I also had a chance to briefly compare the Samsung with Panasonic's new TC-60CX800U UHD TV, which is also an edge-lit panel with local dimming. Again the black levels were comparable, but I found the Panasonic to have a slight edge in overall contrast and in reproducing the darkest black elements within a scene. On the other hand, the Samsung had better overall brightness uniformity, and it did a better job rendering the 2.35:1 letterbox bars and keeping bright elements within a dark scene looking bright.
The UN65JS8500 passed all of my 480i and 1080i processing tests from the HQV Benchmark and Spears & Munsil test discs. In terms of motion resolution, with the Auto Motion Plus control turned off, the resolution pattern on the FPD Benchmark Blu-ray disc still showed some visible lines at HD720, which is pretty good for an LED/LCD. The setting that delivers the best motion resolution (with no smoothing or soap opera effect) is the Custom mode, with blur reduction set to maximum, judder reduction set to zero, and the LED Clear Motion function turned on. In this configuration, my motion-resolution patterns were crystal clear. However, because LED Clear Motion uses black-frame insertion, you lose a fair amount of image brightness, and I noticed a subtle but still fatiguing flicker in this mode. Ultimately, I went with the Clear AMP mode; it offers very good motion resolution, and its motion-smoothing effects are scarcely evident. Those who like motion smoothing should be happy with the Standard AMP mode.
The UN65JS8500's 3D performance is also quite good, thanks to its high light output and natural-looking image. In demo scenes from Monsters Vs. Aliens, Life of Pi, and Ice Age 2, I did not see any blatant ghosting, and flicker was not an issue with the active-shutter glasses. The supplied SSG-5150GB glasses feel flimsy, but are light and comfortable to wear.
Last but not least, it was time to dig in to some Ultra HD content, courtesy of the Sony FMP-X10 media player and Amazon Ultra HD streaming service. The Official 2014 FIFA World Cup 4K Film, which is offered at 3,840 by 2,160 at 60 frames per second, looked gorgeous through the Sony player, with excellent detail, smooth motion, and rich but natural color. Likewise, the downloaded file of Captain Philips through the Sony player was very clean, natural, and well detailed. I also streamed many episodes of Orphan Black through Amazon's Ultra HD service, and playback was smooth and glitch-free.
These UHD sources looked good; but, as I've said in the past, there's not necessarily a clear difference over the 1080p versions, due to the compression required to deliver them via download or streaming. The good news is, Ultra HD Blu-ray is coming soon, which will support 10-bit color, a wider color gamut, and HDR--all of which this TV will be able to accommodate.
Samsung did provide me with a USB thumb drive with some HDR-encoded clips of Life of Pi and Exodus. At this moment, only the Samsung's USB ports support HDR playback; when you plug the USB thumb drive into the One Connect Mini box and launch an HDR-encoded title, the TV automatically switches into its HDR mode, which maxes out the TV's contrast and backlight settings. These clips were certainly eye-catching, and it was much easier to discern the differences in peak brightness and color that this format will provide. However, maxing out the backlight does hurt the TV's black level, which limits the full contrast potential of HDR. I'm guessing a full-array LED panel or an OLED panel would be better able to compensate for this. (FYI, since I don't have HDR-encoded test patterns that force the TV into HDR mode, I'm still working out the best way to measure the TV's peak brightness capability in HDR mode; I will update this review if I obtain those numbers.)
The recently announced HDMI 2.0a spec will add support for HDR content to the HDMI ports, and Samsung reps have told me that a simple firmware update will do the job. It hasn't happened yet, but I suspect it will happen in time for those first Ultra HD Blu-ray players.
Amazon is the first streaming service to offer HDR content, in the form of its series Mozart in the Jungle. I streamed the HDR version through the UN65JS8500, right beside the standard Ultra HD version on the UN65HU8550, and I did see some subtle improvements in the peak brightness, although it wasn't the clear improvement that I saw with the USB samples.
Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...