The room in which I did my evaluation wasn't pitch-black at the time, but it was suitably dark. I asked video calibrator David Abrams of AVICAL to measure and adjust the set before I sat down with it. David didn't have time to do a full calibration, but he was able to give me some numbers. Reportedly, the colors out of the box weren't perfect, but were close to what David was looking for, and it was pretty easy to get the set dialed in accurately. David added Cal-Day and Cal-Night modes using the Movie mode as a starting point, which was important, as the set wasn't going to live in a pitch-black room. Imaging Science Foundation founder Joe Kane did the rest of the TV's calibration. Without question, if you are buying this HDTV, you should hire a top calibrator to come to your home and run the full calibration so that you can know you're getting the most out of it. Calibration is well worth the investment on a $1,500 Panasonic ST plasma, and it's an even better idea on a $40,000 Samsung Ultra HD set.
We began by running native 3,840-x-2,160 SMPTE test patterns through a Media Center PC into the S9. Most people don't get excited over test patterns, myself included, but I have to say that some of the familiar patterns looked notably more resolute and clear. If you stick your face right up to the set, you can see each pixel gradation in test boxes that looked like white boxes on every other set that I've ever tested. Needless to say, the S9 had no trouble showing the minutest of details with Ultra HD patterns.
Speaking of minute detail, I was treated to a slideshow of amazing still photos that were shot at over an 8K resolution and downconverted to UHD for display on the Samsung panel. I also saw the same photos downcoverted to 1080p and then upconverted by the Samsung's internal scaler to 3,840 x 2,160. The difference between the native files and the scaled ones was dramatic. On two separate men's shirt patterns, you could see exponentially more detail in the native Ultra HD files. In one example, the Ultra HD image resolved the actual piquet pattern in a blue golf shirt, whereas the 1080p upconverted option was missing that level of resolve. It's nerdy to study photos this closely, but it shows you just how amazing native Ultra HD images can be on a display like the Samsung UHD S9. I only wish I could've seen more true Ultra HD content during this demo, but that's all that was available at the time.
Moving to 1080p content, we looked at a few downloaded clips through the Media Center PC from the likes of the Friday Night Lights trailer and the first Harry Potter movie. Both looked a little bit washed out in terms of color and noisy to my eyes. Colors didn't pop like they did with the higher-resolution still images. The set's video processor was good, but it couldn't turn lemons into lemonade with these lower-quality, compressed downloads.
When we switched to higher-quality 1080p Blu-ray content, things improved drastically. I watched some of Season Four of Mad Men, and the color fidelity in Christina Hendricks' blue dress made it look velvety soft. Later in the same episode, they were painting a wall a lighter shade of blue than it was originally. Even in shady sections, you could really see a difference between the two hues as the new paint went up. Close-ups on crystal Scotch glasses highlighted the vibrant yet realistic light reflection in the glass that may not be evident on a traditional set.
After my demo time with the UN85S9 ended, I was left wanting more. What I really wanted was a comparison of all three of the big-screen UHD sets, from Samsung, Sony and LG. As of right now, comparing the same UHD content on all of the UHD sets is close to impossible. Sony won't let dealers use its UHD server with other UHD TVs. Most UHD content is on USB flash drives, but even those don't go from port to port like a lonely sailor looking for love. I was willing to settle for the next best thing: a 1080p Blu-ray comparison on all three sets. I grabbed The Dark Knight on Blu-ray and headed over to Video and Audio Center, where I knew all three TVs were on display. The staff was kind enough to let me feed the iconic opening scene from The Dark Knight on all three TVs. I also took a trip to the local Magnolia, where I was able to compare the Samsung with a brand-new, just-out-of-the-box Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 plasma.
I did the rounds with two groups of people to watch this scene on the three UHD sets, and it was unanimous that the UN85S9 was the pick of the litter. The scene looked very good on the Sony XBR-84X900, which I'd say served up the most "film-like" image of the group. The blacks looked black, but if you looked carefully, especially during the opening studio promos, you could see the edge lighting. The upconversion of The Dark Knight from 1080p to UHD was rock-solid, and the resolution of native UHD content, like the Spiderman clip being used at the store, was excellent. The LG 84LM9600, meanwhile, is less expensive than the Sony and provided similar performance. You have to nitpick pretty hard to see how the Sony is better, but in terms of screen uniformity and brightness, I'd give the nod to the Sony over the LG. With the LG, I could see some noise in an early part of the Dark Knight scene where the robbers are shooting a grappling hook. The drywall along the back wall was noisier through the LG than it was through the Sony and Samsung.
The UN85S9, meanwhile, was the clear winner, especially in scaling 1080p up to the display's native resolution. The skyscraper glass was nothing short of amazing. The detail of the phone box, with all of the various colored wires, was as razor sharp as I've ever seen it before. You look in and think that you could change the phone lines yourself, it's so resolute. The Samsung's full LED backlight gave it much better screen uniformity than the LG and Sony sets, where you could see light in the corners of dark scenes. I thought the S9's uniformity was as good as that of the Panasonic ZT plasma. The Panasonic's blacks may have been darker, but it was close. Really close. The Panny's detail was very good, but not to the level of the UHD sets in the fine details, like the exploding window of the skyscraper that opens The Dark Knight. The closer for me was the detail of the plastic hair on the masks of the robbers through the Samsung. Never before in the hundreds of times that I've seen this scene could I see just how hand-made the masks were. You could see the specific detail of how they were pulled and how cheesy or goth they looked. It was the best that I've ever seen The Dark Knight look on a flat HDTV ... ever.
Of course, native Ultra HD content is what will put UHD sets over the top, and sadly we are a ways away from getting that kind of content via Blu-ray, broadcast or streaming. But if you like a good demo loop, you're in for a treat when you visit a local retailer that carries the UN85S9. Samsung's test loop has major WOW factor. If I owned a store that sold this UHD, I would NEVER turn this loop off. There was one scene where you tour a home with a gorgeous library. From a distance of easily 30 feet, you feel like you can read the titles without your glasses. Close-ups of gorgeous models reveal every imperfection of the makeup jobs and their damn-close-to-perfect complexions. One of the shots was a helicopter view of Sydney Harbor. What's stunning is the emerald green color of the water paired with the detail of the churning waves, based on the boat traffic below. Glance up a little, and the next thing you see is the most stunning level of detail and depth that you've ever seen in the skyline. In the next scene, you're flying over a bridge on which you can see every bolt and part, even from a pretty distant view. If you aren't blown away by this demo, I'd suggest you are either jaded or blind - an allegation that I would make to many mainstream writers who suggest that you can't see the difference between UHD and today's content. Guys, are you crazy? With upscaled Blu-ray content and especially native UHD content, an 85-year-old could see the difference on this 85-inch Ultra HD set. It's that dramatic.
Price can't be a downside. Let me say it again, because I made the rule: Price can't be a downside. Price can't be a downside.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding Ultra HD at this stage. Samsung has provided an upgrade path for the UN85S9 to get HDMI 2.0 and, supposedly, higher color bit depth. But that's a lot of money to spend on "supposedly." If you drop the $40,000, don't come back and complain that you got hosed, as this is about as bleeding-edge a product as we've ever sampled ... even more so than first-generation Blu-ray players that cost about a thousand dollars and did not have all the functionality of today's $100 players. The pros who are making the content and defining the standards are using tools like the Samsung UN85S9 to define the rules of the road for later. If you want to be the coolest guy on the block now, you know what it costs.
The lack of Ultra HD content is obviously a huge downside. Without a Hollywood-style, professional Da Vinci editing bay, a RedRay player or a PC system designed to play back native Ultra HD content, it's hard to get UHD movies into this UHD TV. Even people in the Bel Air Circuit can't get those native 4K files into the Samsung S9, since those files are designed for D-Cinema and that resolution is slightly higher. Moreover, you'd likely be breaking every rule of the Bel Air Circuit, which could get you tossed out of a very exclusive club that earns you access to first-run movies in your home, day and date. Stick with your Barco or Christie 4K projector if you are one of the 1/10,000 of one percent of the people in the world who land in this elite group.
At least the Sony 84-inch Ultra HD TV comes with a little server that provides some Ultra HD content. Sony also plans to sell the standalone FMP-X1 UHD player, but it's apparently proprietary to Sony UHD TVs. I know Samsung doesn't own a movie studio, but the company has friends in Hollywood and could have cooked up a few dozen servers to provide content for anyone who's willing to actually buy this product. At least that would let you do a quick demo of your new toy at a dinner party to show your friends what Ultra HD is all about, since it's going to be a long time before Ultra HD is beaming down from DirecTV or being piped in via some streaming service. Your best bet for an Ultra HD source is Blu-ray, and the powers that be are way behind on an Ultra HD Blu-ray standard. It's inexcusable, but that's not directly Samsung's fault.
One final downside may be the ability to actually get one of these TVs if you want it. My buddy who wanted to buy one was having trouble finding it. While some are on display, they aren't exactly stacked, packed and ready for delivery like a pile of Vizios at Costco. You might actually have to wait to get your hands on one.
Comparison and Competition
Despite the fact that the Sony XBR-84X900 got a review from CNET.com that was only a little less harsh than Guy Fieri's American Kitchen & Bar review from the New York Times, that TV is still a player in the early adopter world of Ultra HD. It doesn't have as clear an upgrade path as the Samsung potentially does, but it does come with a server that offers actual Ultra HD content to view. The Sony image might also be the most film-like of the group.
The LG 84LM9600 is the least expensive of the three large-screen models but, like the Sony, it might not be upgradeable to the higher bit color and higher refresh rates.
There is always the low-price leader Seiki, with its $1,299 50-inch UltraHD set. As some who have played with it have suggested, this TV is more of a computer monitor than a full-function HDTV. It does do UHD at a low cost, but perhaps at a size so small that it's not really worth the consideration.
The Panasonic ZT plasma is pretty damn good. It doesn't have the V12 power in terms of resolution, but it has a killer black level and comes in priced at one-tenth the cost of the Samsung S9. For most consumers at the high-end level, this is as high as they need to go. But then again, there are those who want to go to the extreme, and that's why Samsung decided to sell the 85UNS9 set in the first place. You like to go fast, don't you? Really fast ...
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Remember the first time that you heard about an electric car? It was pretty amazing. Engineers were making dreams into reality in ways that could make our world's dependence on fossil fuels a thing of the past. The entire idea was awe-inspiring in ways that planted seeds in the consciousness of millions upon millions of consumers that "one day I might buy an electric car." More than two decades after the concept of an electric car started getting any meaningful press, we have cars like the Tesla, the Fisker and offerings from Nissan, Ford and many others. The idea of plugging in your car isn't farfetched anymore, nor is the idea of powering it from the sunlight that beams onto the roof of your house, office, local shopping mall and beyond.
Ultra HD is to video what the electric car is to the automotive business. The 3D TV era did nothing for consumers other than make them want to barf, even though passive 3D is drastically improved in Ultra HD. I'm not kidding; it's really much better, but it's still no reason to buy a new HDTV. Ultra HD and its potential are something to be excited about. Truly excited.
Skeptical AV writers can take an easy potshot at a leading-edge product like the UN85S9. It's certainly an easy target. There's no content, it's insanely expensive and its form factor is way outside the box. But those aren't the reasons why the set was made. Samsung is trying to package its forward-looking concept as best it can for the real world. If you want to suggest that the company shouldn't try to sell this specific unit to consumers, I guess I could see your argument, as that was my initial reaction at CES. Then again, how many S9s do you think Samsung is really going to sell? Nevertheless, it's a real product in the marketplace today - a television that has the ability to resolve video in ways that few other products can and is helping engineers and filmmakers alike suss out the exciting, higher-resolution future of video.
Should a home theater enthusiast buy a Samsung UN85S9? Unless you are a true photo enthusiast who shoots his or her images in raw 8K resolution or a beyond-HD filmmaker in your spare time, then I say, not just yet. Just as you didn't buy an electric car the first time you read about it in the paper, you are likely only starting the process toward your first UHD set. The good news is, there are great new technologies, techniques and standards brewing in the world of video. Technologies that can blow your mind. We are seeing them coming out of the labs and into stores - perhaps a little too early, but better than not at all. These are exciting days to be a home theater enthusiast, even if we have a ways to go to make Ultra HD a mainstream consumer technology.
One final note regarding our star ratings. There was really nowhere to go with the value rating but one star, which unfortunately drags down the overall rating of the Samsung UHD S9 quite a bit. If you can't easily afford a $40,000 UHD set in a way that you can amortize or consume the drop in value from this initial public offering of a television set, then I suggest you don't buy it. If you have the cash, then ignore the value rating, because you likely will enjoy the hell out of it. On the flip side, I enthusiastically give this product a very rare five-star performance rating. Of the early UHD sets, it's best in class and worthy of the rating for both upscaled 1080p content and native UHD content. Beware looking at the overall rating and thinking that this set is a stinker, because overall it rocks. It just costs a ton of money to get up on stage with the Samsung UN85S9, and the two elements offset each other a bit.