Hands on: Samsung KS9500 SUHD TV

Vibrant, intuitive, and utterly stunning, Samsung's KS9500 just has one catch

Slim and sexy but hiding a secret, the KS9500 impresses until you turn off the lights.

If you’ve shopped for TVs at all recently, you know that Samsung’s JS9500 series SUHD TV was one of the best LED/LCD TVs made in 2015, if not the best. One might think, then, that the 2016 KS9500 would be that vaunted TVs successor, but that’s not the case. This year, Samsung’s flagship series will be the KS9800, making the TV discussed here the second best series Samsung offers.

Typically, taking a single step down a product ladder means giving up little features like voice control, a motion remote, or a curved screen. Here, the difference is a bit more significant. The KS9500 is a remarkably thin, sexy TV, front to back. But to achieve that ultra-svelte profile, Samsung had to forego a premium Full Array Local Dimming (FALD, as we call it) backlight system in favor of an edge-lit system – one that lines the bottom of the TV rather than the sides — and that one change makes a significant difference in picture performance.

Here’s the question we’ve been wrestling with: Is the difference in picture quality obvious enough for anyone to see, or are we really talking about something only apparent to a trained eye? It took us a while to get there, but we believe we have the answer.

Thin is in … again

After easing up a bit on the race to make the thinnest TV possible, it seems TV manufacturers are back to a full sprint again — Sony, Samsung and LG all showed off exceptionally thin sets at CES this year.

To make an LED TV as thin as possible, manufacturers have to make some sacrifices. TVs with an array of LED lights laid out in a grid pattern behind the LCD panel (that’s where we get Full Array) provide very uniform brightness across the screen, and much better black levels and contrast. However, these Full Array backlights take up space, making for a bulkier TV.

That’s why so much engineering effort has gone into making effective edge-lighting systems in recent years. By placing LEDs along the edges of a TV panel, manufacturers save some precious space. However, edge-lighting has always come with inherent problems which video enthusiasts (ourselves included) tend to balk at.

The KS9500 is an edge-lit TV, but unlike many edge-lit displays, its backlighting runs along the bottom edge instead of the sides, and that brings along its own set of issues — more on that coming up.

Full disclosure: We evaluated a pre-production model of this TV, so Samsung can (and already has) implement changes before consumer models ship out. For instance, based on feedback, changes to the set’s firmware were made to improve backlight performance.

It’s all about design

The KS9500 is one of the most beautiful TVs we’ve ever reviewed. Aside from being remarkably thin in profile, the KS9500’s equally thin bezel blends almost seamlessly into the display panel, providing just enough trim to form a sliver of a silver outline.

This is certainly a TV that can do battle in a sun-soaked living room. In fact, that’s where it thrives.

The chrome that borders the TV is echoed in its stand, which is a bit shallower this year, and is confidently stable.

Even the back of the TV is handsome – you’ll find no screws or other hardware here as everything has been hidden under a high-impact plastic shell that’s been stamped with a shirring texture. It’s impressive to see, but we question the value here — how often do you really see the back of your TV?

Loaded with features

The KS9500 series boasts Ultra HD resolution, HDR10 (High Dynamic Range) capability with 1,000 nits peak brightness, and the ability to produce 96 percent of the colors in the DCI-P3 color space, bringing it very close to the color you see in a digital cinema. Those same features also certify it for the Ultra HD Premium  standard – a set of performance qualifications outlined by the UHD alliance. In other words, the KS9500 is well suited to reproduce top-tier 4K content available both now and in the future, including Ultra HD Blu-ray discs (which is a big part of why we were very excited to get our eyes on this TV).

The KS9500 sports Samsung’s One Connect box, which houses all four of the TV’s HDCP 2.2-compliant HDMI 2.0a ports and over-the-air antenna input, allowing a single, proprietary cable to run to the TV. This model’s One Connect box feels lighter and cheaper than it has in the past, but it is also more compact and thus easier to stow out of sight.

Samsung KS9500 SUHD TV
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

In the box with the TV you’ll find two remotes: a so-called smart remote and a more commonplace wand-style remote. Gone for this series is the motion-style remote we’ve seen in the past. Rather, the smart remote allows simple directional cursor operation with a enter key and other basics like power, volume, and mute. We thought we’d miss the motion control, but not so much.

What you won’t find in the box are any 3D glasses. That’s because Samsung’s entire line of 2016 4K TVs no longer support 3D. And while we’re on the topic, 3D isn’t supported by the Ultra HD Blu-ray format either. Indeed, 3D appears to be on its way out for good. And good riddance.

The interface

Samsung’s user menu got a bit of an overhaul, and we like it. It’s now a lot easier to get at commonly accessed settings, and navigation in general is snappy. Our only complaint is that it doesn’t appear you can scroll backward anymore. For calibrators who deal with long lists of options, this is a pain in the neck.

Finally, the bright shining star in terms of user experience here is Samsung’s Tizen smart TV interface, which just got a serious upgrade. Tizen was already a big step in the right direction for smart TV, but now it is much smarter than before.

In a lot of ways, Tizen makes accessing streaming TV feel more like the channel surfing we did in days past.

To start, Samsung’s new smart TV system can recognize a whole host of cable boxes, streaming set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, and DVRs, and automatically control them using the TV’s remote. Technically, the TV remote controls the TV, and the TV controls the connected devices, so there’s no need to make changes to the remote – no searching exhaustively for programming codes for your device, the system does it automatically.

For example, if you hook up a Time Warner Cable box to the KS9500, the TV will detect the device, ask you for confirmation, then set up the remote’s controls to allow channel control, DVR control, programming guide access – all in an instant.  This is the universal remote you’ve been looking for, except it’s built right inside the TV.

Tizen also makes a breakthrough in how easy it is to access the stuff you like to watch. Connected devices are now integrated right alongside popular streaming apps, and because you can customize the home screen any way you like, they will appear in whatever order you prefer. But the best part is how Tizen now gives you direct access to your favorite programing within your streaming services. For instance, if your favorite shows to watch on Netflix are House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and Daredevil, those shows will pop up above the Netflix icon when you highlight it, giving you instant access the next show in the series, or letting you pick up where you left off – you no longer have to open the app, pick your profile, and scroll to the show. You just start watching.

You can also switch instantly between sources, and that comes in really handy if you need to bounce between, say, a cable channel and Netflix. Netflix will pause the show you’re watching if you switch away from it, then pick up right where you left off when you return, no loading delays at all. You can do the same with a Blu-ray player.

In a lot of ways, Tizen makes accessing streaming TV feel more like the channel surfing we did in days past.

As for the streaming apps , you get access to 4K content from Netflix 4K, Amazon Prime 4K with HDR, and M-Go’s 4K catalog. Samsung also has a deal cooked up with DirecTV for some 4K content for satellite subscribers, but all other apps will max out at 1080p.

Picture quality

The KS9500 is going to impress just about everyone on first blush, but is not without its flaws.

On the positive side, color looks very good out of the box, though it can be improved with professional calibration settings. The Movie mode preset looks solid right out of the box; you don’t have to do a ton of playing around to get a really gorgeous picture. When you go to Ultra HD Blu-rays and other sources with expanded color, you can see how this TV will pay off for years to come.

Here’s a couple of  important side notes: First, Movie Mode is the only picture pre-set that allows you access 10-point white balance controls, so if you do a self-calibration on this TV using settings you’ll eventually find on the Internet, be sure to start there. Second, there is currently a conundrum when it comes to calibrating any HDR 10-capable TV in that there’s no clear workflow just yet. The folks at Samsung have developed a process for their TVs, and that should help, but if you do call a professional calibrator, keep in mind they may not be up to speed on calibrating for HDR just yet.

Samsung KS9500 SUHD TV
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

This TV’s 1000 Nit peak brightness helps make for an extremely brilliant picture, especially when watching HDR content. Sparkling spectral highlights, like the white glint on a body of water or the gleam off a shiny helmet, do a lot to add to the TV’s 4K resolution. You get a picture that’s just that much more dazzling, and we’re interested to see how movie producers might take advantage of this open standard as they continue with their filmmaking in a new era.

For an edge-lit TV, brightness uniformity across the screen was acceptable, without any overt hot spots visible during typical viewing. This is certainly a TV that can do battle in a sun-soaked living room. In fact, that’s where it thrives.

Samsung puts top-notch processing in its TVs, and upscaled Blu-ray discs look excellent on this set. The TV also does a good job of cleaning up compressed cable and satellite feeds as well. All sources benefit from a relatively blur-free picture, even with motion smoothing settings turned off, thanks to excellent motion resolution.

So far so great, right? But now we get to a caveat: This TV’s backlighting system tends to show itself in the dark.

A few tradeoffs

This TV is as sexy as it is because Samsung moved the backlighting to the bottom edge, which produced an incredibly thin TV. But the tradeoff is noticeable when you drop the lights. The edge-lighting on the bottom of the TV tends to reveals itself.

In our video above, we exacerbate the issue for technology demonstration purposes by allowing a Samsung logo screensaver to bounce around on an otherwise dark background. Granted, this is not a typical viewing situation, but it does allow us to see how this sets backlight works, which is kind of cool. In this section of video, you’ll see the edge-lights coming from the bottom of the screen, as well as vertical bands of light spreading out from hotspots at the bottom. And then there’s the local dimming algorithm, which, in some cases, appears to energize to full brightness before dimming down.

This is the universal remote you’ve been looking for, except it’s built right inside the TV.

Since the light is at the bottom, Samsung wasn’t able to install its Cinema Black feature, which turns off lighting at the top and bottom of the screen to darken the letterbox bars you get when watching many movies. This was one of our favorite Samsung-specific features, but you won’t get it with the KS9500. Now, the lower letterbox bars on a movie will always look a little grey, and will often show the brightening and dimming backlights, calling attention to an operation that should be kept behind the scenes, not a part of them.

Also, off-axis viewing is substandard. Just standing off our couch washed the blacks out, and color takes a hit as you move off to the left and right. This narrow sweet spot could be a problem for larger families who spread out on a big sectional couch to for movie nights – but we question whether that’s likely. In fact, we found ourselves questioning whether these issues will be a distraction for the majority of viewers.

Dazzling to most, off-putting to others

We sat down a few friends for a brief viewing session in broad daylight, with the shades up. As previously mentioned, the KS9500’s extreme brightness capabilities helped make for an impressive picture that largely received positive comments from our average Joe viewers. For many folks, the problems induced by the backlight will go unnoticed in a day-to-day viewing scenario. In fact, even with knowledge of the intense backlight exposure, we found ourselves “tuning it out” more often than not.

Turn the lights off and draw the shades, however, and that glow becomes more apparent.

Conclusion

You can only cheat the laws of physics to a point. So when style becomes a guiding design principle, some tradeoffs must be made.

Average viewers looking for a really striking TV will love the KS9500. You can’t not look at it when you walk into the room it occupies. And in terms of day-to-day viewing, its performance is outstanding, with solid blacks, excellent contrast, and beautiful color.

But this is not quite a videophile’s TV. If deep blacks are a priority, and bleeding backlights are something you can’t “unsee,” dig deeper into your pockets, and wait patiently for the KS9800, due a little later on in the year. That model is sure to knock off some socks, just as the JS9500 did last year.

We’ll get a production model of this set in for a formal review, and we’ll be pleased if any substantive changes have been made. For now, we’re going to say Samsung’s product line-up this year looks promising, and though it isn’t our cup of tea, the KS9500 is probably going to be a successful model for Samsung.

Highs

  • Stunning design
  • Bright and bold picture
  • Outstanding smart TV interface
  • Instant device control

Lows

  • Restricted viewing angle
  • Backlight anomalies
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