Best Products of 2016: Audio/Video

Samsung’s Ultra HD Blu-ray player is the single most spectacular TV source of 2016

best products of 2016 audio video samsung ubd k8500 v4
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Winner
Samsung UBD-K8500

It would have been easy to pick LG’s gorgeous B6 series OLED for this year’s Best Home Theater Product of 2016 (it’s still one of two runners up), but here at Digital Trends, we’re not about easy. After a great deal of consideration, we ultimately decided Samsung’s UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player deserved to take the prize.

Not that long ago, we thought discs were dead. It seemed streaming would be the wave of the future for next-gen video delivery, with promises of 4K Ultra HD content right around the corner. But then the Ultra HD Blu-ray player came along, proving the internet isn’t ready to deliver the best quality home entertainment experience just yet.

It’s certainly impressive that today services like Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu offer an increasing amount of 4K Ultra HD content in one or both of two HDR formats (HDR 10 and Dolby Vision), but the quality of that content and its availability both leave something to be desired. Streaming 4K Ultra HD content in HDR, while a significant leap forward from where we were just two years ago, is still significantly compressed, thus reducing video quality. And despite that compression, it’s still a bandwidth hog – there are many folks across North America who simply don’t have the internet access or bandwidth to support streaming 4K Ultra HD video.

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The Ultra HD Blu-ray disc provides superb video and audio quality at high bitrates and with more color depth and a minimum of compression. The picture and sound is very visibly and audibly superior. Plus, it doesn’t require any internet connection for delivery.

Now, with studios increasingly mastering their movies to take full advantage of Ultra HD Blu-ray’s capabilities, we can view the most stunning pictures ever seen in our homes, rivaling that which we see at the theater.

While we’re clearly praising the format here, the fact is Samsung brought it to us first. The company was ready to bring Ultra HD Blu-ray into homes starting as early as February of this year, and the UBD-K8500, while not perfect, is the best player available in 2016. Thanks to Samsung, the very best TV’s can be truly taken advantage of with the very best content – everything else is a compromise.

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Best Products of 2016 LG B6 OLED

Best Products of 2016 AVRunner up
LG OLED55B6P B6 Series OLED 4K HDR TV

Though Sony’s amazing Z9D series LCD TV (see next runner up) put up a very tough fight this year, in the end LG’s 55-inch B6 OLED came out on top as the best TV of 2016.

Not only does LG’s B6 series OLED offer the same outstanding picture quality as the company’s more expensive models, it’s also the only flat OLED in the 2016 lineup, and the least expensive.

LG also distinguished itself this year by being the only TV manufacturer to offer a certified Ultra HD Premium TV with both HDR 10 and Dolby Vision HDR support right out of the box, with access to the apps and streaming services that could provide Dolby Vision content. It’s the OLED’s black levels, however that clinched LG’s OLED the win as best TV of 2016. As impressive as some LED/LCD TVs have become, none of them can rival the perfect blacks that come from an emissive display like OLED. The fact that picture performance like that is coming down in price to match the flagships of other TV manufacturers is a pretty big bonus. Currently, the 55-inch B6 is available at $2,000, though LG did run a promotion that dropped that amount by $200 over the Black Friday weekend – a signal that the price could be dropping again before the end of the year.

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best products of 2016 audio video sony z9d v4

Best Products of 2016 AV

Runner up
Sony Z9D series LED/LCD 4K Android HDR TV

Sony deserves some high praise for developing and bringing to market the Z9D series television. A TV we hailed for “making us believe in LED” again, the Z9D is the most over-the-top, engineered-to-the-hilt  LED/LCD TV we’ve seen yet.

What makes the Z9D so special is its intense backlighting system, which places a very tightly-packed array of over 500 LED backlights behind the TV’s panel. Each one of those LEDs is “individually addressable,” which means each light can be dimmed, turned off, or cranked to maximum brightness independently – a huge upgrade from traditional “zone” approaches, which apply the same dimming or brightening based on large groupings of much fewer backlights.

All of that micro-dimming control should, in theory, result in much less halo effect and blooming, and it does, but those problems aren’t eliminated entirely. Add to that the fact that since Sony uses a VA type LCD panel for this TV, it’s black levels are better, but viewing angle is very limited. Contrast takes a big hit if you stand up above seated viewing level, or move left or right of center.

Indeed, there is no magic bullet for solving LED/LCD TV panels inherent limitations. Still, Sony has done a better job than anyone else of making the most respectable TV of its type thus far. And if you like intensely bright pictures, you’ll love the way the Z9D pulls off HDR – one of the three most impressive examples we’ve seen yet, right along with Samsung’s KS9800.

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Whew! Rough year. Fortunately, we got some amazing tech out of it. Digital Trends’ expert editors picked the most amazing gadgets in their respective categories, then convened as a panel to pick the one that towered above them all. Join us every day between now and Jan. 1 as we recap our favorites, and build up to the big Best of 2016 reveal!
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