Review: Samsung 65QN90A Neo QLED Pushes LCD Needle
Samsung is preparing to deliver its first Neo QLED Active Matrix Mini LED LCD TVs into the U.S. market, promising more OLED-like blacks, bright highlights and thinner panel designs, among many new features and advancements. After having tested the 65-inch 4K 65QN90A, we found a lot to like in this latest evolution of LCD technology.
What’s noteworthy about Samsung’s first implementation of “Neo QLED” is that it marks the first use of active matrix (Samsung calls this Quantum Matrix) Mini LED technology, presenting nicely realistic looking image quality, excellent gamma performance after calibration in both SDR and HDR content, and sharp clear images that enhance the feeling of three dimensionality in a picture. The technology reduces some of the issues with flashing sometimes found in early Mini LED implementations, although it doesn’t completely eliminate blooming issues common in backlit displays.
Nevertheless, black reproduction is among the best we’ve seen in an LCD television. High dynamic range (HDR) images are presented with nicely defined dark shadow detail and pleasingly inky blacks, though, as mentioned, the technology still exhibits some light blooming (or haloing) around bright white objects on black backgrounds. Some milky blooming can be seen around star clusters in the moving Star Field test pattern from the Spears & Munsil 4K UHD test disc.
However, this is greatly reduced from other LCD displays we’ve seen and we didn’t pick up any flashlighting or spillage of light into black letterbox frames on screen.
At the same time, viewers get brilliantly bright HDR specular highlights with peak brightness levels exceeding 1785 nits and up to 100% color volume. The overall picture quality and color accuracy was immersive and engaging enough to keep our attention focused on the story and not the picture limitations.
This high brightness impacts contrast only slightly. A faint hazy cast can be seen across the screen in some bright scenes from both standard dynamic range (SDR) and high dynamic range (HDR) material. Thus, the conundrum for buyers continues to be making a choice between nearly pure black (OLED) or nearly 2000 nits of peak HDR brightness (Neo QLED) with 100% color volume and all of the color shading nuances that brightness delivers. Both LCD and OLED technologies are advancing significantly this year, so we continue to urge readers to get out and see a demonstration of each to determine which presentation is most important to you.
Beyond the picture, Samsung delivers a beautiful overall design here, with a significant reduction in panel depth (just one half inch in this series). The QN90A models omit the One Connect box found this year in forthcoming Samsung 8K series like the QN900A. This enables connections to plug directly into the back of the panel. Side-facing inputs are located to right side of the screen facing out toward the right side of the frame from the viewer’s perspective.
The QN90A Series
Samsung’s QN90A stands atop of the Samsung 2021 4K Neo QLED series offerings in the United States. The series’ five screen sizes (most available for pre-order today) include: 85 ($4,999.99), 75 ($3,499.99) 65 ($2,599.99), 55 ($1,799.99), and 50 (arriving later, price TBA) inches. All offer similar features and performance levels except the 50-inch which has Quantum HDR 24X processing system instead of Quantum HDR 32X in other models. It also lacks the Q-Symphony sound feature and has a 40-watt 2.2-channel on-board audio system instead of the 60-watt 4.2.2-channel surround sound system found on the larger models.
What is Neo QLED Mini LED?
Unlike previous Samsung QLED TVs, the 2021 Neo QLED series are based on new Mini LED backlight technology. This means the tiny LEDs that illuminate the LCD images from behind are reduced to 1/40th the height of a conventional LED. These smaller LEDs enable fitting in more individual points of light across the back plane to illuminate pixels with greater control of LED local dimming zones for more accurate results. Unfortunately, this still isn’t controllable at the pixel level as is the case with self-emitting display technologies, like OLED or MicroLED. That means, there will still be some blooming issues and slightly weaker overall contrast. Still, the large number of dimming zones (more than 700 in this case) means getting more precise control of dark elements of the picture by nearly shutting down areas of emitted light. It does a nice job of creating nearly pure black without crushing out dark shadow detail. That’s an important benefit to some video gamers who demand seeing every nuance of an image to gain competitive advantage.
Samsung said that Neo QLED increases the luminance scale to 12-bit with 4096 steps to make dark areas darker and bright areas brighter.
Instead of using a lens to disperse LED light, the Quantum Mini LEDs use very thin microlayers filled with many more LEDs. The new Quantum Matrix Technology Samsung employs enables ultra-fine and precise control of the densely packed LEDs. This helps to reduce blooming, though not entirely eliminating it. It also reduces flashing which has resulted in some passive matrix LED implementations.
We ran the torture test of the amassing legion of dark wizards from both the Blu-ray (SDR) and streaming 4K HDR versions of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and found the faint white mist that encircles the group during the night-time scene to remain both visible in the shadow detail and light gray in color — not changed to a black blob or crushed out of view entirely, as some lesser televisions render it.
Similarly, we found the opening starfield during the title sequence for The Martian nicely presented the range of visible stars while preserving the inky black background of space.
Our review sample had fairly even white and gray screen uniformity, with little to no dirty screen effect. We only noticed darkened bands along the vertical left and right edges of the screen, and this was virtually invisible behind real world video images. Black screen uniformity was similarly excellent.
Neo Quantum Processor
To control all of the new picture processing elements, Samsung uses its new Neo Quantum Processor with enhanced upscaling capabilities. This employs up to 16 different neural network models, each trained in AI upscaling and deep learning technology. The Neo Quantum Processor can optimize picture quality to near 4K output from various quality levels of source content. Native Full HD and 4K UHD picture sources offered clean, smooth images and colors with very little added or noticeable color banding (contouring) artifacts. Lower resolution material, such as DVDs, appeared as they would look on a native HD screen without added upscaling noise or blocking artifacts. Analyzing a DVD copy of Alfred Hitcock’s Psycho showed the opening on-screen credits with no greater blocking artifacts around lettering than can be seen on 720p screens, and picture noise was not overly enhanced or smoothed over to remove the desired original black-&-white film grain. Viewing the opening night harbor sequence from the standard Blu-ray version of Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End presented some low-noise artifacts with Picture Clarity settings turned off but these cleared nicely without impacting desired film grain when Noise Reduction was turned on.
Quantum Dot Color
Of course, as a QLED TV, the Samsung 65QN90A continues to feature a quantum dot color enhancement film layer embedded with nano-sized spheres of heavy metal elements that glow brightly when excited by photons from the LED backlight. The reaction gives off wider, brighter color tones than conventional LCDs can. Color gamut coverage is much the same as it was in last year’s models, with wide color gamut coverage of between 93.8% (xy) and 95.4% (uv) of the DCI-P3 color gamut recommendation, although this is slightly lower than found in better Samsung QLED sets two and three years back. Samsung continues to use 10-bit LCD panels with a 120 Hz native refresh rate.
Coral reef scenes from the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray version of The BBC’s Blue Planet 2 were brilliantly rich and detailed without being overly saturated. Similarly, the red in the Ohio State NCAA football uniforms was accurately presented without blowing out details or adding noisy unnatural looking over-saturation.
Wide Viewing Angles
Samsung has done a lot to reduce OLED’s “ultra wide viewing angle” advantage over the past three years, with its own “Ultra Wide Angle” technology (just “wide viewing angle” in the 50-inch model). This year’s QN90A series continues to provide nice wide (left-and-right angle) contrast and color retention although some contrast is lost when viewing from a high angle looking down on the screen, as would be the case when standing up from a seated position in front of a table-top set placement. Samsung also continues to provide its anti-reflection film technology that significantly reduces the amount of visible room reflection when looking directly at the screen. When a room light is shining into the set a bright spot and cascading rainbow patterns are slightly visible on the screen, but this is controllable by simply lowering the lights or removing the light source. The reduced screen glare is one of Samsung’s big advantages over some OLED models, which tend to have highly reflective screen surfaces.
Although we expect many people who purchase a QN90A series model will opt to add-on a soundbar or home theater surround sound speaker package for the best sight and sound result, those who don’t have the budget or space for this will find the delivered sound output from the TV is quite good. Samsung continues to evolve the sound output of its televisions using AI technology that auto balances the sound settings to ambient room conditions. Samsung also offers in this series Object-Tracking-Sound-Plus processing that creates the effect of following objects and people in the scene around the screen in relation to their position relative to the audience. Samsung’s Q-Symphony feature offered in most models allows linking a supporting Samsung Soundbar to the television to tap the on-board up-firing speakers to expand the center and elevated surround sound effects.
Samsung equips the sets with tweeters and woofers at the bottom right and left of the screen along with tweeters at the top in the back. This provides a full, wide sound stage for a built-in sound platform, although it is somewhat thinner and boxier than a full external home theater surround sound speaker set up with a nice subwoofer. It’s also not quite up to the level of a good Samsung Dolby Atmos soundbar. Adding one on that supports Q-Symphony keeps the TV’s up-firing speakers active, giving sound a more spacious and encompassing effect. Samsung continues to offer a new voice amplification system that lifts voices for clearly audible dialog in lower-volume soundtracks or against loud sound effects. Samsung also provides a system that can automatically adjust dialog levels against competing ambient room noise.
Samsung offers four HDMI inputs on the back of the QN90A series models, only HDMI input No. 4 offers full HDMI 2.1 with up to 4K/120 fps high bandwidth support and the latest gaming features. This is unlike the 8K QN900A series where all four HDMI outputs support full HDMI 2.1 4K/120fps (an option serious gamers might want to consider stepping up to have). Other advanced gaming features supported in these models include Variable Refresh Rate (VRR), FreeSync, Auto Low Latency Mode, and High Frame Rate (through No. 4 only). The HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) and new enhanced ARC systems are supported on HDMI input No. 3.
Other inputs include: 2 USB, 1 Ethernet, 1 optical audio output, 1 RS232 control port, and 1 RF antenna input.
These models also support built-in WiFi 6 (802.11ac) Bluetooth 4.2, DLNA, Tap View, Connect Share, AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support (requires iOS 12.3 or later or macOS 10.14.5 or later).
The QN90A series features an elegant looking “NeoSlim Design” with a “sand black” stand and bezel trim. The “Bending Plate Stand” is a central pillar-style base that screws into place at the center rear of the set. The stand allows 2.5-inches of clearance between the top of the base plate and the bottom of the bezel chin. This might result in blocking a small portion of the bottom of the picture with some soundbars. The base plate protrudes about 3.75 inches in front of the screen. The design offers an ultra-thin bezel leaving about a quarter of inch of black trim framing all four sides of the screen. The back of the set is made of a nice looking mat-black textured plastic with a slight convex arc starting from the edge of the border trim running out toward the middle of the screen. Samsung provides channels along the back of the set and down the stand for cable management to hide cords.
Samsung continues to upgrade its popular Tizen smart TV operating system to provide both more streaming entertainment content options and add-on capabilities to help make the television useful as a communications tool during the Covid-19 crisis, such that an optional add-on camera can be used to engage in video calls and conferences through the big screen.
Among some of the new and popular returning features this year are the following:
Multi View provides a picture by picture feature that enables watching two sources on the same screen at one time. This will enable calling up YouTube, for example, on one screen while watching a broadcast TV program on the other. Alternatively, one screen could be used to view a mirrored smartphone screen to take a video call while continuing to watch a sporting event on the other. Users will have the option of viewing two pictures of the same size at one time or adjusting the various screen sizes for a customized view.
Some of this year’s sets, including the QN90A, feature the ability to add on an optional Logitech USB camera to gain Web Cam functionality. This could be handy for a number of purposes including self-monitoring an exercise workout while following a video tutorial on a second screen. Eventually, the system will also enable making video calls, using a Google Duo app.
Most 2021 Samsung TVs including the QN90A continue to offer the company’s Smart Things app for use with smartphones and tablets (iOS and Android based) to allow users to integrate smart home device control. This enables controlling networked lights or monitoring surveillance cameras through the television set.
To facilitate use of the television for work-at-home tasks, the company has developed the Samsung DeX system enabling a smartphone and television on the same WiFi network to show what is basically a Windows desktop on the television screen using documents from the smartphone. A mouse and keyboard can be wirelessly linked to the television.
Samsung QLED televisions can also access and edit Office 365 documents from the Microsoft cloud, using a wireless keyboard connected via Bluetooth.
This year, Samsung significantly steps up video gameplay functionality with a new Game Bar mode that will quickly call up pertinent display information for getting the most out of advanced games. When the set is connected to a PC with a higher performing graphics card or an advanced gaming console, users will be able to use a long press and hold on the play button on the remote to bring up a menu with information on image resolution, refresh rate, aspect ratio and sound to make fast adjustments on the fly. Firmware in our review sample was not fully operational, but when fully installed and updated the Samsung television will display games from high-level graphics cards with extra-wide picture aspect ratios including 21:9 and 32:9, where supported.
Input lag for 1080p and 4K Ultra HD at 60Hz measured an excellent 9.2 ms.
Samsung will be supporting its 2021 Neo QLED TVs with Portrait Display’s AutoCal system for its Calman display calibration software. However, it wasn’t ready in time for our test. Fortunately, we found out-of-box settings under “Movie” mode to require very little manual adjustment for both SDR/BT.709 and HDR/DCI-P3 to achieve an excellent picture. Samsung provides nice gamma controls that were very responsive and helped us dial in the perfectly flat levels for SDR gamma at a 2.2 pattern level for our moderately bright testing room. After grayscale calibration, the television’s EOTF pattern followed the ramp pattern line tightly, indicating accurate brightness.
For HDR, Samsung televisions continue to support the HLG, HDR10, HDR10+ and new HDR10+ ADAPTIVE system that uses HDR10+ dynamic metadata, in conjunction with real-time ambient light information, to automatically optimize brightness levels, on a scene-by-scene basis. This helps to ensure the creative intent remains in tact under different lighting conditions.
To operate the slick on-screen user interface and smart TV functions, Samsung continues to use its minimal button One Remote. But this year, the familiar candy bar shaped unit offers some major changes including built-in rechargeable batteries that can be repowered with solar energy or by plugging in a USB-Type C power charging cable. This is one of Samsung’s ways of being more environmentally responsible this year, and should save users the bother and expense of periodic battery replacement. The remote offers three fast-access buttons for Netflix, Prime Video and Samsung TV Plus apps. The latter is Samsung’s own portal for free ad-supported content and special interest/how-to channels, some of which might be subscription based in time.
Samsung again offers the new Filmmaker Mode developed by the Ultra HD Alliance to automatically put the television into the best mode for film-based movie content to preserve the creative intent for the title. This basically puts the television settings at close to Movie mode levels, while ensuring Picture Clarity settings are turned off to prevent the dreaded soap opera effect (SOE). We point out, however, that this tended to darken the overall look from our calibrated settings. In addition, Samsung’s motion reduction system has been improved over the years to greatly diminish SOE when properly adjusted. This can be helpful in reducing annoying judder that results in some camera-pan sequences. We suggest using the Movie Mode and experimenting with the customized picture clarity settings to tune in the right amount of dejudder and noise reduction for your tastes, keeping an eye on any sign of over sharpening that can result in SOE along the way.
Samsung QLED TV purchasers this year will also get a built-in over-the-air TV tuner supporting both the legacy ATSC 1.0 and newly emerging ATSC 3.0 “NextGen TV” stations. When connected to an over-the-air TV antenna appropriate for your reception conditions, this ensures the TV will be ready for both today’s and future OTA broadcasts offering some of the latest capabilities, like 4K UHD support, HDR etc., when or if local broadcasters choose to implement those features.
We were duly impressed with the advancements Samsung has introduced in this year’s 65QN90A television. The television offers a large pallet of new features and picture and sound quality enhancements. Neo QLED proves that LCD technology is still a viable display technology in this evolving age of high dynamic range, offering bright colorful images while adding a good degree of additional shadow detail and luminance control. The image quality is beautifully clear and bright, and after calibration colors are natural and accurate, without crushing detail or over saturating color tones. The sound quality is quite good for a built-in speaker implementation, and those who opt to add a Samsung soundbar get an additional boost in surround sound effect from the Q-Symphony-Plus system. Thus far, this is the best 4K Ultra HD LCD TV we’ve tested. Launching at a $2,597.99 unilateral pricing policy tag, the 65-inch Samsung 65QN90A is a bit pricey compared to other 4K Ultra HD models on the market, but with this level of style and performance, we think many will still find a good value here. We therefore find Samsung 65QN90A to be a recommended buy and award it five out of five hearts.
The Samsung 65QN90A test sample used for this review was a company loan.
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By Greg Tarr
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