In some important respects, Samsung’s new top-of-the-line TV improves upon the company’s previous flagship, and at a lower price.
When we last reviewed one of Samsung’s so-called SUHD sets, Ultra HD with high dynamic range (HDR) was not yet available on Blu-ray. But the arrival of such discs—together with UHD Bluray players like Samsung’s own UBD-K8500—has changed the game.
The 4K resolution of Ultra HD sets is all well and good, but HDR is the most eye-popping feature of UHD. Not all 4K sets, however, incorporate HDR, and those that do don’t necessarily perform at the same level. HDR still can’t be done well cheaply; at present, the displays that do it best are their respective makers’ premier offerings. The Samsung KS9800 series definitely belongs in that company—and among the three models within that family, the 65-incher we’re discussing here is the smallest.
There are two major versions of HDR vying for prominence: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. As of July 2016, Ultra HD Blu-rays were exclusively offering HDR10. Samsung’s 2016 UHD sets only do HDR10. We’d prefer that a set have both formats—but if we had to choose just one for now, it would be HDR10, since the most reliable source of high-quality HDR may well be on UHD Blu-rays. Streamed HDR, whether HDR10 or Dolby Vision, is far more heavily compressed than UHD on disc, and its quality depends on the bandwidth available from your internet service provider.
That said, the UN65KS9800’s most obvious feature is its curved screen. You either like this or you don’t. I didn’t care much either way, but it does have consequences for room reflections. A curved TV can stretch reflections from room lights into horizontal bands across the screen, rather than showing them as simple point sources; this makes them more distracting. [Editor’s Note: Furthermore, a curved screen viewed in a darkened room from any typical distance will appear to be bowed in on its top and bottom edges—one of my big peeves with this approach.—RS]
The backlighting of the 65KS9800 (and its 78- and 88-inch big brothers) is full array local dimming (FALD) rather than the edge lighting of Samsung’s other lines. FALD is the best way to achieve superior blacks in an LCD set and is a strong asset for delivering better HDR.
As with Samsung’s previous flagships of recent vintage, most of the inputs have been moved to the company’s One Connect device, a box that’s separate from the TV itself. This provides at least limited future-proofing, as the box can be changed without replacing the TV. And since the One Connect can be put anywhere within the reach of the single cable that links it to the set, limiting the number of cables you have to route directly to the display can minimize installation clutter. This box is a bit flimsier than before—a light plastic case rather than the heavier chassis of last year’s 65JS9500—but that’s functionally irrelevant unless someone steps on it.
Interestingly, the only video inputs available (unless you count USB and antenna) are HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2. No composite, no component—and no separate audio input either. Welcome to the 21st century. Also missing is any kind of ability to display 3D—an omission that will disappoint some potential buyers while prompting an indifferent yawn from others.
The backlighting employs quantum dots. Quantum dots are claimed to offer a wider range of color while reducing power consumption. They’re microscopic inorganic particles that emit a specific wavelength of light when energized. The wavelength depends on the size of the dot. Typically, blue LEDs are used to energize the dots, which are sized to emit red or green light. While the LCD pixels still produce the picture, the blue LEDs and the red and green dots provide the illumination. Quantum dots can be used for edge lighting or, as here, for full-array local dimming. Samsung points out that their quantum dots are cadmium-free, which is safer and better for the environment.
The 65KS9800 claims up to 1,000 nits of luminance for HDR10 sources. It can also accommodate UHD’s 10-bit color depth and wider color gamut. The UHD format—including both displays and the new players—will eventually permit the BT.2020 color gamut. But no consumer sets (including Samsung’s) can as yet reach that far. Like most of its competition, the 65KS9800 approaches P3, the color gamut used for digital cinema. That’s well short of BT.2020, but it nevertheless offers a wider range of colors than our current Full HD (1080p) standard, Rec. 709, something you’ll notice particularly in the accuracy of reds if you mate the set with content mastered to P3.This Samsung TV provides all of the video adjustments expected in a flagship set, including 2- and 10-point White Balance controls, Color Space (a full color management system, or CMS), and multiple gamma settings. Auto Motion Plus is Samsung’s motion-smoothing feature; its separate adjustments for Blur and Judder, when used carefully, minimize the soap-opera effect of most such features. But apart from briefly checking it out, I didn’t use it.
There’s also an HDR+ feature (in the Special Viewing Mode menu) designed to simulate HDR with non-HDR material. It does indeed punch up the picture, but even when I toned it down a bit, I found it artificial-looking in a way that true HDR is not. You can get much of its effect by simply turning the Dynamic Contrast on and setting it to Low. But ultimately, when viewing nonHDR sources, I preferred watching them without either of these enhancements, and I didn’t use them for any of the observations given in this review.
Samsung’s small, non-backlit Smart Remote is an improvement over last year’s. The voice option is still there, but you can ignore it if you like—as I mostly did. There are only a few well-spaced buttons on the remote, and combined with a redesigned menu, they’re more than sufficient and easy to use by feel, even in a darkened room.
No top-drawer UHDTV is complete unless it can perform more tricks than Houdini. This Samsung is no different. Streaming your music, photos, and videos from external devices? You’ve got it. Screen mirroring? No problem. Setup of Samsung’s remote to operate your cable or satellite set-top box? Why not (though I prefer to use remotes designed specifically for the job at hand). Wired or wireless operation, including access to the most popular streaming websites plus web surfing? Piece of cake. Downloadable iOS or Android apps for remote control on a smartphone or tablet? Sure. Bluetooth wireless audio streaming to a compatible speaker or headphones? It’s in there.
This year’s generation of Samsung TVs is also the first to integrate some aspects of the SmartThings home automation platform, acquired by Samsung when it bought the company of that name for $200 million in 2014. According to Samsung, the addition of a SmartThings Extend USB adapter dongle allows the TV interface to provide centralized control of everything from “outlets to door locks to speakers.”
480i, 1080i, and 1080p
The 65KS9800 performed flawlessly on most of our standard video tests from 480i to 1080p (upconverting all of them to its native 3840 x 2160). Its one failure was 3:2 SD, where it perormed significantly less well than my Oppo BDP-105D Blu-ray player. But the 480i artifacts seen from our test discs weren’t evident on normal program material. The TV’s 2K-to4K upconversion, which will be seen far more frequently, was superb—and virtually identical to that of Samsung’s UBD-K8500 UHD Bluray player.
The picture was exceptional both before and after calibration. I subjected the TV to some of my favorite test material, and it never disappointed. A 2008 Kuro demo disc from Pioneer offers brightly lit objects, including a swimming fish and a gold ring, against a totally black background. On the 65KS9800, the fish and ring floated in space, as the black around them blended seamlessly into the surrounding darkness of my room. Was there a little blooming around these and other highlights? Yes, but it was rarely visible and never distracting. Regular video material excelled as well. The wide-ranging images of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray— the dark and gloomy but detail-filled interiors and night scenes, the fleshtones (lots of them), the greenery in the hills, and the monotonic white ice and snow north of the Wall—never looked less than real. The intense colors in animated fare such as Zootopia and The Lion King popped dramatically, too.
The Samsung’s off-axis performance was better than usual for an LCD TV. Yes, I could spot the typical LCD color fade as I moved off center. But even at 35 to 40 degrees to the side (at eye level to the screen), this would likely bother only the most critical viewer—who would grab the center seat anyway!
Ultra HD and High Dynamic Range
All of the UHD/HDR sources used here were UHD Blu-rays. In addition, Samsung sent us an HDR10 reference disc (not available commercially) with test patterns sufficient to properly configure a set’s basic controls for UHD/HDR10: Brightness, Contrast, Backlight, Sharpness, Color, Tint, and Gamma. Calibration software to allow for full UHD/HDR color calibration (white balance and color gamut) are starting to appear as I write this, but they’re still largely in beta form. That said, although no UHD/HDR color calibration was performed for this review, the colors in the sources I saw ranged from consistently impressive (fleshtones, greens) to sometimes remarkable (particularly reds).
Even after I did a basic setup, using that reference disc together with test gear to confirm the luminance levels (for HDR, a 50 percent brightness pattern should measure 100 nits, or about 29 footlamberts), the Samsung produced the best UHD/HDR images I’ve yet seen. What’s more, they were consistent from disc to disc; only rarely did I feel the need to tweak the settings.
Star Trek Into Darkness on UHD/HDR10 Blu-ray looked jaw-dropping on the Samsung, whether I was viewing the deep reds in its opening scenes, the bright lights on the bridge of the Enterprise, or the dark details of the Klingon home world. Even from considerably more than the 6-foot recommended viewing distance (!) for 4K on a 65-inch set, there was no mistaking its resolution and color; most significantly, its HDR was punchy yet natural. The picture never looked uncomfortably bright, even in a fully darkened room, and it offered an unmistakable sense of realism and dimensionality. This was true on other UHD/HDR material as well, from Life of Pi to The Martian.
The only issue I spotted was significant banding on some underwater scenes from In the Heart of the Sea. I never saw this on other material, but it was visible on the Sony XBR-65X930D that I still had on hand from our September issue review; therefore, I suspect it was on the disc itself.
With that Sony XBR-65X930D still in house, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a sideby-side comparison with the Samsung, driving the two sets from the Samsung UBD-K8500 UHD Blu-ray player through a 4K splitter from AVProConnect.
Both sets had been fully calibrated for 2D Full HD (in 1080p). For UHD/HDR, I adjusted them for a 50 percent luminance of 31 ft-L or 108 nits (slightly over the recommended 50 percent value for HDR). In these settings, the Samsung’s near full-field, 100-percent peak-white HDR luminance was 574 nits, while the Sony made do with a peak of 461 nits.
I started with UHD/HDR material, and both TVs looked spectacularly good on the two discs I used for the comparison, Star Trek Into Darkness and the original Independence Day. The color differences between the sets were subtle but notable. The Samsung’s reds were a little deeper (less orange-red), and its greens, though arguably a bit less neutral, were a shade more vivid. Some of these color differences might well even out in some future calibration. I also initially thought the Samsung was a little more detailed, but increasing the Sony’s Sharpness from the default of 50 to 55 rendered this a nonissue.
The two sets ran almost neckand-neck in terms of HDR blacks and shadow detail. The Samsung was slightly better, thanks to its full-array local dimming, but the Sony’s outstanding edge lighting performed very nearly as well. The Sony was more prone to blooming in bright highlights against dark backgrounds, but this was rarely visible.
Although the higher peak-white luminance of the Samsung was occasionally evident, its advantage in this over the Sony would never have been obvious outside of a direct comparison. Still, the Samsung looked subtly more three-dimensional, likely because of those small leads in black level and peak luminance—yet those advantages weren’t all that visibly significant in themselves.
Overall, and even after a few minor tweaks that brought the two sets closer together than initially, I marginally preferred the Samsung’s UHD/HDR performance. But it was close indeed, and different viewers might well come to different conclusions.
In HD with standard dynamic range, the two TVs (which, as mentioned previously, had been fully calibrated for 1080p) came yet closer. I can’t imagine anyone having a preference for one over the other in either color or resolution. The only significant differences were in black level and shadow detail. And even those produced a mixed result. My go-to Blu-ray for these qualities remains Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. In the scene where Neville leads Harry and his friends through a tunnel from Hogsmeade to Hogwarts, the center-screen detail was good on both TVs. But the darkness surrounding it was grayish on the Sony versus black on the Samsung. However, in the panning shot that opens chapter 12, with Voldemort and his minions gathered on a bluff, the Sony had better contrast. On most widescreen films, both sets produced very dark black bars, but on the rare occasions when they differed, the Samsung’s bars stayed blacker. For the most part, though, it was hard to tell the two sets apart with a 1080p source.
The Samsung, with its deeper, curved chassis offering at least a taste of full-bodied sound, handily dispensed with the Sony’s thin audio. A good outboard audio system will easily beat either of them, but the Samsung might well outperform a cheap soundbar. A brief internet search did reveal that, as of mid-July 2016, the Sony’s lowest street price was at least $1,000 less than the Samsung’s—a not insignificant consideration.
The Samsung UN65KS9800FXZA is an expensive set, but it earns its price with some of the best images—HD, UHD, SDR, HDR— that we’ve yet seen from an Ultra HDTV. I’ve tried hard to find something to criticize, but apart from its off-axis viewing (still better than that of most LCD sets) and its HDR10-only status (no Dolby Vision), it’s hard to think of much. If your pocketbook is elastic, and your demands are high, this Samsung will fit the bill.
Editor’s Note: Just before we went to press, Tom was able to complete a full HDR10 calibration on this set using the new CalMAN workflow. The visual results were not appreciably different than what was achieved with the basic test disc. Measurements after full calibration indicated that the KS9800, displaying a 10-percent-size, 100-IRE full-brightness window, was hitting peaks of 1,351 nits (394 ft-L). You can find his full amended Test Bench notes with the web version of this review on soundandvision.com.—RS
Dimensions (WxHxD, Inches): 56.8 x 32.8 x 4.6 (without stand); 56.8 x 36 x 14.4 (with stand)
Weight (Pounds): 62.2 (without stand); 69 (with stand)
Video Inputs: HDMI 2.0a (4), RF (antenna)
Other: Ex-Link, LAN, USB (3, including Internet of Things—IoT—Extend), Audio Return Channel on HDMI 4 (with compatible AVR)
Audio Outputs: Toslink optical digital