It’s amazing what a difference 20 inches can make. Last week, we received a 65-inch LG LA9700 series Ultra HD/4K TV for review at our testing lab. It arrived via common carrier, just as it or any other 65-inch Ultra HDTV would if had it been ordered from an online retailer. No biggie.
Bump that TV to 85 inches, and suddenly things get a lot more complicated … and expensive. A review opportunity now involves several hours on a plane. A few months ago, we voyaged to LG’s Chicago-based headquarters to review the 84-inch LM9600. This time, we made a quick hop down to the City of Angels where Samsung held a special West Coast review event.
The S9’s most striking – and, perhaps, controversial – feature is what Samsung calls its “Timeless Gallery” frame.
Let’s step back and think about that for a moment: Samsung believes a difference of 20 inches, advanced full-array LED backlighting, some fancy video processing and the cachet of owning one of the most exclusive televisions in the world is worth a price premium of $34,000 over a (admittedly inferior) 65-inch version. Given that the S9 was created to be a luxury product – akin to, say, a luxury car – we can see Samsung getting away with demanding an asking price on par with … well, a luxury car; but only if the TV can deliver the sort of premium performance expected from a relatively similarly-priced vehicle. Does the S9 succeed in that regard? That’s what we came to found out.
Quick Look Video
Out of the box
Unboxing the S9 goes something like this: A team of professionals arrive at your home as part of Samsung’s “Concierge Service.” The team will bring the TV into your home, unbox it and either mount it on your wall or set it up on its “stand.” Meanwhile, you sip a martini while lounging in your housecoat, occasionally cautioning the worker bees not to accidentally tip over your valuable Ming-dynasty vase. OK, maybe you’re not the condescending type, but you probably have a Ming vase, or some other really expensive ceramic.
The S9’s most striking – and, perhaps, controversial – feature is what Samsung calls its “Timeless Gallery” frame. When used as a stand, the frame is vaguely reminiscent of an artist’s easel. When wall mounted, the frame comes off more like an exaggerated picture frame. While the apparatus pulls double duty by incorporating the TV’s speaker system, Samsung argues the frame is one of the elements that make its premium Ultra HDTV unique. Well, it certainly is that. But we would argue it is also polarizing – folks seem to either love it or hate it. Either way, the frame/stand does allow the television to be moved around and tilted, providing some adjustability in placement.
In the box with the television, Samsung includes its one-connect box, which serves as the TV’s connection bay. From the one connect box, only a single, proprietary cable needs to be run to the TV, keeping the back panel sleek and clean-looking. Also in the box are four of Samsung’s active 3D glasses and a touchpad remote control.
Features and design
As an LED-backlit LCD television, the S9 faces an uphill battle producing deep black levels, superior shadow detail, and decent off-axis performance. In an effort to overcome these challenges, Samsung outfits the S9 with a full array of LED backlights which cover all of the real estate behind the LCD panel. The array is broken down in to numerous zones (Samsung won’t disclose exactly how many, but it’s in the 100’s) which, combined with Samsung’s proprietary backlight management system, is meant to provide the best possible black levels and fine shadow detail. As for off-axis performance, Samsung says its LCD panel is among the best available.
On the other hand, the S9’s LED backlighting means the TV is a naturally great choice for even the brightest of rooms. Samsung’s anti-glare coating also helps with minimizing reflections.
The picture elements Samsung pulls off better than its competitors with this TV are brightness and black levels.
With the recent introduction of the HDMI 2.0 standard, which is necessary for 4K resolution at 60 fps (4K at 24 or 30 fps can be handled via HDMI 1.4, though with less color depth), we expected Samsung would have an easy path to upgrade the set’s HDMI 1.4 inputs. After all, Sony and Toshiba’s 4K televisions will be upgradeable via a firmware download available over the Internet or via USB drive. However, since the S9 uses a one-connect box, we wondered if the box would be updated somehow, or just replaced entirely. Samsung said its plan is to offer an updated one-connect box, but it wasn’t able to specify whether that would be a free upgrade or not.
Speaking of HDMI inputs, the S9’s one-connect box offers four of them along with three USB ports, component video in, A/V input with support for composite video, optical digital audio out and analog audio out, and a LAN port. Note: this is the same one-connect box that is used with Samsung’s KN55S9C OLED TV.
The S9 is outfitted with a built-in camera to support motion control and Skype video calls. A microphone in Samsung’s trackpad-style remote enables voice-recognition, which Samsung’s Smart TV interface requires for content searches. While we’re not all that enthused about the voice-command requirement, we do like that Samsung’s search engine pulls from all subscribed video-on-demand services to present available options. For instance, a search for “Harrison Ford movies” will present a selection of available flicks featuring Harrison Ford, be they pay-per-view or free from a service like Netflix (provided you have activated the Netflix app with your Netflix account). The search engine is a great tool for finding out if the movie or TV show you want to watch is available for free, or if you’ll have to pony up some fees, and, if so, how much.
Samsung’s S-recommendation function is a feature that’s a little before its time, but shows a lot of promise. In a nutshell, Samsung is watching what you watch, and it uses this information to make recommendations on shows you might be interested in. Not only does it recommend movies and TV shows available on-demand, but it will suggest content that is available live via a connected cable or satellite service.
Naturally, Samsung’s flagship 4K/Ultra HDTV features the company’s Smart TV interface, which we’ve covered exhaustively in several other reviews and in other articles. For more information on our appraisal of Samsung’s Smart TV experience, visit here and scroll down to “Smart Hub.”
We were in the room with the Samsung UN85S9 for all of three minutes before we had determined it was the most impressive Ultra HD 4K television we’ve ever evaluated. Note: we said “most impressive,” not “the best.” But before we go on to qualify that distinction, let us explain what makes the S9 so outstanding.
The picture elements Samsung pulls off better than its competitors with this TV are brightness and black levels (combine those two and what you get is outstanding contrast) as well as improved viewing angle. The set’s superior performance in these areas is stark and unmistakable, and you can thank all of it on the TV’s full-array of locally-dimmed backlights, driven by Samsung’s backlight management system.
Not only is each LED hiding behind the LCD panel individually controlled, it’s intelligently controlled. Samsung’s backlighting control constantly analyzes the picture in advance to anticipate how to best light up and dim the backlights. As a result, the S9 can display intensely bright images upon a predominantly black background with a minimum of “halo” effect, which can detract from the overall picture quality. This is something that is extremely difficult for LCD televisions to pull off.
You buy this TV because you’re loaded, and it’s the best of its type out there, and you want to have it before anyone one else.
Can the S9 provide picture performance that matches today’s plasma TV’s? Nope. The best plasmas will always have an edge over even the most advanced LCD televisions, but the S9 does get very, very close. And it can do something no plasma can right now (or probably ever will): 4K resolution.
4K content in general is fun to watch, but on Samsung’s S9 it’s really something of a spectacle. The S9’s superior contrast takes 4K content and kind of rams it through your eyeholes. You have no choice but to drink it in – it’s just that awesome. It’s a lot like OLED in that way, but with more detail and sharper lines thanks to its higher density of pixels (though we must point out OLED’s overall picture quality is on a much higher level thanks to near-perfect blacks and intense brightness).
That’s all well and wonderful, if you live in a magical land where 4K content flows like chocolate through Willy Wonka’s enchanting factory. Unfortunately, here in the real world, 4K content is really hard to come by. That doesn’t mean it isn’t coming (oh, just you wait until CES 2014, folks!) but we can’t help but point out that, in the here and now, most of what is going to get played on this $40,000 luxury yacht of a television is going to be, at best, 1080p Blu-ray or over-the-air broadcast HD. So, how does the S9 handle that kind of content?
It does pretty well. That is to say, it does as good a job as possible of making 1080p look good on an 85-inch screen. Based on what we’ve seen of 4K upscaling so far, it really isn’t all that much better than the improvement seen when a 480p DVD is upscaled to 1080p on a large-screen TV or projector. That’s because, when it comes right down to it, upscaling is a bunch of digital guesswork. It’s a matter of a computer chip looking at an image and quickly figuring out how to spread that image out among a whole bunch more pixels in a coherent way. On a technical level, it is an amazing feat. But from a practical standpoint, it isn’t capable of performing magic.
With all of this considered, we asked ourselves: Is the S9 really the best choice in Ultra HD/4K televisions? Here’s our take: If you want the best possible picture quality in as large an Ultra HD television as possible, the S9 is the best choice right now – there’s no doubt in our minds. But if you start throwing considerations like the law of diminishing returns and “value” into the mix, it gets really hard to argue that the S9 is $15,000 better than Sony’s 4K TV, or $23,000 better than LG’s.
But to explore the value argument probably misses the point. This is a luxury product. We might as well start comparing the “value proposition” in purchasing an opulent vacation home on a private estate in Barbados to purchasing a private island.
You buy this TV because you’re loaded, and it’s the best of its type out there, and you want to have it before anyone one else. If you have to ask if this TV is worth $40,000, then – and no offense intended, here – it simply isn’t for you.
Samsung’s UN85S9 is the best-performing large-screen Ultra HD/4K television we’ve seen so far. But that performance comes at a price. Samsung approached this TV’s design with a no-holds-barred attitude and threw the return-on-investment book out the window. As a result, excellence is achieved, and a luxury product is born that commands a price tag so heavy, only the wealthiest and most enthusiastic dare purchase it. And to those who do, we say congratulations.
So what’s the takeaway for the other 99 percent of us? The S9 represents the future. It’s the sort of television that many of us will be able to own in a few years; and that’s something to get excited about. This level of achievement pushes every manufacturer to aim a little higher, break down price barriers and innovate. And when that happens, we all win.
- Class-leading black levels
- Excellent brightness
- Spectacular Ultra HD resolution
- Rich, saturated colors
- Superior viewing angle
- Prohibitively expensive for most
- “Timeless Gallery” frame is a space hog