Review: Samsung QN65Q9FN Offers Game Breaking Black Levels
One of the bigger announcements from Samsung for 2018 was the return of full-array LED backlighting with local dimming in select 4K Ultra HD QLED TVs and after having had a few days to run through the brand new 65-inch QN65Q9FN, we can confidently say the technology lives up to the hype.
This set has one of the best pictures we’ve seen in a consumer television of any technology. It offers both the brightness and contrast benefits of a powerful direct backlit LED LCD TV and the deep, pure black levels of many OLED displays. The Samsung QLED viewing angles still aren’t quite as wide as they are on an OLED TV, but they are much improved this year and not far off from the self-emitting competition. Added to this is a sophisticated matte-black metal-frame design that makes this panel look like a framed painting in a modern art museum.
Samsung has also upped the ante in the smart TV game,by improving one of the most intelligent platforms for streaming entertainment services. In addition, it provides a new level of intelligent control of smart home appliances along with the television’s control settings through voice-powered AI.
Finally, the set has been engineered as a video game player’s dream, offering snappy low lag times in both 4K HDR and SDR modes.
As we reported in our review of the 2017 QN65Q9F, Samsung dropped full-array local dimming in favor of edge-lighting throughout the range, which caused a number of picture quality issues, and diminished the television’s ability to effectively control LED backlighting to produce black levels as pure as competing OLED products. This was done, in part, to achieve a thinner overall panel depth to improve set ergonomics.
Frankly, thin-panels are nice but the one-inch panel depth in this year’s Q9FN series would never be a deal breaker in this reviewer’s purchasing decision, especially when the use of superior full-array local dimming is at stake.
Samsung seems to have figured a lot of things out. Set buyers in 2018 get the same one-inch panel depth of a year ago and full-array LED backlighting to boot.
Importantly, Samsung has also lowered the pricing on this year’s sets significantly to more closely match or beat pricing on LG’s 4K OLED models. The QN65Q9FN was launched at a $3,799.99 suggested retail price, down $2,200 from last year’s whopping $5,999.99 introductory price for the QN65Q9F.
The 2018 QN65Q9FN has one of the best-looking designs of any television on the market. It features a flat screen–no curved screens are available in the Q9FN series—and an ultra-thin bezel trim around the face of the screen. This extends to the bottom of the screen as well, helping the television look like a picture frame. This black trim is connected to a one-inch-deep matte-black metal frame that runs around all four sides of the panel. The back of the QLED set has a textured matte-back surface that features a slight convex curve across the middle of the back panel. Like last year, the overall cosmetics present a sophisticated, upscale appearance 360-degrees around the television. Samsung continues to provide its popular thin cable connection to the outboard One Connect box, but this year the connection includes power as well as source connections, enabling the use of only one line, without the need of a second power cord to the display.
The cable isn’t fully translucent but is inconspicuous through the use of clear plastic insulation around the braided wire and fiber optics that channel both power and source signals to the screen. Unfortunately, this cable isn’t fire safety rated, so installations requiring runs behind walls should be handled by professionals.
The primary difference in appearance between this year’s and last year’s Q9 is in the included tabletop stand. Gone are the two black tube feet from 2017, replaced by an elegant, yet sturdy matte black square-frame base made of solid metal bars that connect to the back of the television by a pair of risers. These bars safely contain a slight panel wobble if the set is accidentally nudged.
Contrast And High Dynamic Range
The black levels on this 65-inch beauty appear deeper and darker than any we’ve seen on an LCD TV before. At the same time, fine details remain visible in dark shadowed areas without being engulfed. The full-array backlighting and Samsung dimming circuitry also removes the blooming effect associated with bright objects on black backgrounds, giving nice contrast between blacks and whites without annoying cross contamination.
Gone from the image in the Q9F series was the problem with backlight bleeding from the picture into letterboxed on-screen borders that we noticed last year in darkroom viewing conditions. In addition, the picture quality this year stands up in either bright or darkroom viewing conditions, after last year’s attempt to optimize the picture for the majority of viewers who watch TV with the lights on.
Where this QLED model tops OLED appreciably is in the brightness category. We measured HDR peak brightness levels of 1,475.6 nits measuring in a 10% D65 white window pattern in “HDR Movie” mode (the setting we expect most video lovers will select); 1401.9 nits at 25%; 746.2 nits at 50% and 623.4 in the center of a 100% white screen. These levels get appreciably brighter in Dynamic HDR mode, but this is not a recommended setting (or realistic measurement) for most viewing conditions.
We noticed the brightness levels hit their peaks instantly and quickly ramped down to 1226 nits (10%), 1369.4 nits (25%) etc., so that brightest points are only sustained for momentary impact purposes. Despite this, we found the flash of explosions and rocket launches delivered their intended realism without a noticeable loss of intensity or continuity of screen illumination. At these levels, the brightness reduction probably saves the viewer a little temporary blindness, anyway.
Black levels were especially impressive. We measured 0.0061 nits of luminance measuring a target pattern of concentric circles of ever darkening shades of gray with a pure black center. We measured an OLED-matching 0 nits in the center of a black test pattern with 1% white windows in each corner of the screen.
Helping this out was a glare reduction filter in the LCD panel that helped to significantly knock down interference from ambient light while significantly reducing noticeable reflections on the screen.
As in the past, the ramp up and ramp down in brightness alternates continuously when a static white pattern is left on screen for a prolonged period.
Regardless, this did not present any obvious or distracting fluctuations in perceivable picture brightness with real-world viewing material. Luminance levels appeared even and natural over a wide range of content sources, and light bleeding or haloing were effectively neutralized.
Pre-calibrated HDR color showing 96.9% of DCI-P3 color gamut in Calman calibration software from SpectraCal.
The colors in QN65Q9FN were also impressively wide and rich, covering a measured 96.9% of the DCI-P3 color space recommendation in the “Warm2” (Color Tone) color temperature setting. Only 90% coverage or better is required for Ultra HD Premium LCD TV certification standards.
For HDR, the QN65Q9FN supports the baseline HDR10 static metadata profile as well as Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) and HDR10+. The latter is a Samsung-developed profile for injecting dynamic metadata into the signal to deliver light and color tone mapping instructions to the display on a scene-by-scene basis. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any HDR10+ content to evaluate how the set handles this new profile.
However, our tests of HDR10 were expectedly satisfying. The campfire scenes in the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray version of The Revenant showed discernibly brighter light from the flames with a rich orange glow against the stark gray tones of the twilight forest. Similarly, Wonder Woman’s lasso seemed to glow off the screen in streaming HDR10 version of The Justice League through VUDU.
We sampled several live programs in 4K HLG on DirecTV including pre-recorded travel fare, concerts and live coverage of the Masters Golf Tournament from Amen Corner. Images were richly colorful, although some of the bright highlights tended to slightly washout contrast in portions of the surrounding image. We chalked this up to the differences in HDR delivery between HLG and metadata-driven HDR10, as content in HDR10 was beautifully represented by the display.
Samsung does not support Dolby Vision HDR, although when HDR10+ Ultra HD Blu-ray movies become available in coming months, they should offer performance levels that are very comparable to that profile. Dolby Vision-encoded UHD Blu-ray Discs will default to HDR10 when played on this set.
Samsung continues to use a VA LCD panel in this year’s series, but the viewing angle is getting close to the nearly 180-degree angles seen in IPS LCD screens. Images were colorful and contrasted from angles as wide as 150-degrees. However, the image does lose some color depth and contrast viewed from a high or low angle, (above or below sweet-spot) which some might want to consider before mounting the set too far above the typical viewing level line. While the QN65Q9FN shows improvement this year, OLED technology still has the edge in off-angle viewing.
Samsung’s Auto Motion Plus motion handling tends to be pretty good every year, and this year is no exception. With the right settings, images are smooth with minimal judder. We found that using the custom settings was required to dial in the right amount of de-blurring vs. de-judder to keep from introducing the dreaded soap opera effect. The standard mode produced a little more judder than we’d like to see in sweeping pans across latticed brick or stone work and tree lines. We found dialing de-judder up to 5 and de-blurring down to 7 provided a good balance,
Samsung’s image processing has been very good for some time and it continues to get better. This year’s Q9FN models do a better job with color banding (false contouring) this year., but it’s still not perfect. Up conversion from Full HD Blu-ray sources is exceptionally clean, clear and color accurate, while upconversion from standard definition DVDs was acceptably clean without introducing any overt blurring of faces, or overtly pixelized edges around on-screen titles or credits.
In the Blu-ray version of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which is our favorite torture test for low-light noise handling, the 65Q9FN presented exceptionally smooth background colors with almost imperceptible moving background noise in the opening ocean cave sequences. Yet, a satisfying amount of grain was left to preserve the look of film.
Standard Dynamic Range
Although 4K Ultra HD and HDR content are spectacularly presented, the QN65Q9FN does an equally masterful job of presenting upscaled HD and Full HD images, which will represent the bulk of what anyone watches.
Despite the absence of a working AutoCal system, the 65Q9FN was a breeze to calibrate with the voice control remote calling up and adjusting the settings on our spoken commands. We found that the default “Standard” picture mode was too bright and needed to be knocked down a bit in Movie mode for our viewing room conditions.
Post-calibated 2-point gray-scale for SDR, in CalMan ISF workflow from SpectraCal.
This was quickly accomplished by entering “Movie Mode” in the picture mode settings, with “Warm2” selected as color tone. The 2-point gamma setting required only a couple of points of adjustment in a moderately well-lit room to get a pretty consistently accurate white point, without going into the laborious 20-point mode. For those who are compulsive about color accuracy, the controls are there if you’ve got the spectroradiometer, CalMan software and test patterns. However, we don’t believe this would have made a very obvious improvement in real-world viewing material for the time expenditure required. If you want to be sure the TV is adjusted spot on, we suggest you call an ISF trained calibrator and have the set professionally adjusted to your viewing environment.
Post-calibrated SDR (REC.709) color in CalMan ISF workflow from SpectraCal.
The very good black levels seen in HDR carried over well in standard dynamic range, although we noticed some crushing of fine detail—like the disappearance of the lapel’s on Donald Trump’s black suit jacket in a recent news clip on CNN. But this could be adjusted by slightly bumping up contrast and gamma.
One of the weaker points we noticed in the 65Q9FN was in screen uniformity. Some faint jail bar patterns and dirty screen blotching does come through in pans across backgrounds of mostly solid light and bright backgrounds. In SDR images, we also noticed some slight color shift toward red when mostly full screen bright backgrounds are displayed. Other than this, though, the television offers a very clear and clean picture most of the time, and only careful eyes are likely to pick up the blemishes.
As with last year’s Q9F, the sound in the Q9FN series is more than adequate to do the job if a full home theater system or sound bar cannot be added. Dialog and mid-range tones are clear, while soundtracks produce an acceptable level of musicality to accompany the video. However, we wouldn’t recommend using the TV’s speakers for any serious music-only listening. Also, the bass is a bit thin for movies with a lot of explosions or roar engines, but this is pretty much standard for speakers built into thin-panel televisions these days. Bottom line, most will be happier with a very good soundbar or Dolby Atmos speaker setup.
One Connect Box
Samsung’s larger One Connect Box on top of a Samsung Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
As mentioned, this year’s 65Q9FN continues to use an outboard box, called a One Connect Box, to house much of the display’s circuitry, software and source inputs. But the 2018 version is substantially larger and heavier than the 2017 version, because the company has opted to put the power supply in the box along with a special cooling system that eliminates fan noise. The One Connect Box is now almost the size of an Ultra HD Blu-ray player. In fact, it’s taller than one of Samsung’s models, at 2.5 inches high x 15.25 inches long and 5.25 inches deep. This is something to consider if the television is being placed in a location where the box will be hard to conceal.
As discussed, the One Connect Box this year truly has one connection to deliver both power and source signals to the display panel. The cable, though a bit thicker than last year’s, is still easier to conceal than typical power and HDMI cords, and can be painted to match a wall without the need to snake any wires behind the living room sheet rock.
As in the past, the One Connect Box offers an ample selection of inputs including four HDMI 2.0 connectors with HDR support; three side-mounted USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, an optical audio output and an RF antenna input. There are no analog composite or component video inputs. As in the past, the One Connect Box also adds an Ex-Link serial interface, which can be used with the new AutoCal system in SpectraCal’s CalMan calibration software to take direct control of picture settings and significantly speed up the calibration process. Unfortunately, the latest version of AutoCal wasn’t ready yet for the Q9FN series, and we had to do our calibration the old fashioned manual way. Samsung said a compatible AutoCal version is expected to be delivered in a future update.
Unfortunately, the One Connect Box does not offer HDMI 2.1 connections at this time. No one’s televisions are likely to have them this year. Samsung doesn’t know yet if it will offer a replacement One Connect Box (Evolution Kit) for this year’s models once the HDMI 2.1 interface chips and hardware are ready for market.
One of the more brilliant features added to this QLED model is called Ambient Mode. The neat extra is designed to turn the television into true wall art when not being used to watch video. This feature fills the screen with personal photographs or special artwork. In addition, in wall-mounted applications, Samsung has developed a special mobile device app that lets you take a photo of the television against the wall and then uses that image to fill the screen with digital matching digital wallpaper, making the screen disappear . Only the ultra-thin bezel trim remains visible to the eye. On top of this, Samsung offers some subtle images that seem to float open the wall surface for an interesting artistic effect. Alternatively, the screen can run data screens with news and weather updates.
Samsung continues to make its televisions smarter every year. The QN65Q9FN’s user interface hasn’t changed significantly from last year’s – it still has a very slick layout with intuitive operation. The TV just does more. For example, this go-round, the company is re-introducing its Smart Things system, which is designed to turn the television into a hub for the control of compatible home automation devices connected through the home Wi-Fi network. To do this, Samsung has added its Bixby voice-controlled AI system (similar to Siri or Alexa) from its smartphones into the television. To operate a device, the user needs only hold down the microphone button on the remote and speak a command into its pinhole mic.
The system will let you control a range of devices like smart appliances, lighting or robot vacuum cleaners right from the sofa. We didn’t have any compatible smart devices available to try, so we can’t say how effectively or ineffectively it performs. Just keep in mind that this is the second time Samsung has tried to implement SmartThings into its televisions. The first attempt, which required an aftermarket USB dongle to get the set up and running, ran into some hiccups. But Samsung assures the capability is real and built into this year’s premium models.
As for voice control within the television, Samsung continues to offer one of the most effective systems for making picture-settings adjustments via voice. Just as last year, we could call up settings by speaking the proper setting name without having to dig into multiple menu levels with the remote. This helped to significantly speed up the picture calibration process. The system is also designed to call up through the TV Plus icon on the selections bar available programming services and content from the smart app platform as well as from live TV sources.
The TV setup was quicker than ever using a free SmartThings mobile device app that the television instructs the user to download to upon startup. From there, the app makes all of the connections to the home network without the need of usernames and passwords and guides the viewer through the connection to cable, satellite TV and terrestrial TV sources.
Devices like Ultra HD Blu-ray players and Roku devices are instantly recognized and labeled on the appropriate HDMI input upon connection to the television.
In the last couple of years Samsung has taken serious interest in developing televisions that can stand up to the latest and greatest video games, and the QN65Q9FN might be the best yet. We measured an incredible average input lag of 17.4ms in game mode using a 1080p signal on the Leo Bodnar input lag tester.
Samsung this year has added a Game Motion Plus setting, which significantly boosts brightness and sharpness, while providing customizable controls for motion judder and blurring. However, the picture quality benefits are somewhat offset by added lag with the setting turned on.
Another new feature is Auto Game Mode, which unfortunately was grayed out for our testing. This feature is designed to auto-detect when a compatible video game console is connected and playing a video game in order to automatically switch the television in game mode. The system is also supposed to support a new variable refresh rate feature, which will be part of the forthcoming HDMI 2.1 spec, bringing enhancements to reduce frame tearing while further lowering set input lag.
Samsung made a big splash at CES 2018, where it introduced the industry’s first 4K Ultra HD MicroLED TV, and an 8K TV based on a its QLED quantum dot LED-LCD technology, but whether or not those products make it market this year, the QLED 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD TV tier will stand as the bread and butter of the company’s television business in 2018. If the QN65Q9FN is any example of what we can expect from the rest of the line, Samsung should have a very good year.
With the combination of brightness and black level this set produces, the comparisons between OLED and QLED this year will be closer than ever. We haven’t had a chance to review a 2018 LG 4K OLED model up close yet, although from what we’ve seen under controlled conditions, the picture quality will also see some improvements in picture processing this year. From what we can tell, the QN65Q9FN should be a formidable force in the market against both OLED and other brands of Full Array LED LCDs from LG, Sony, Vizio and others. In fact, this year’s model not only delivers top-class picture quality, it rings in at $700 less than LG’s equivalent 65E8 4K UHD OLED set. We urge anyone looking to upgrade or add a premium 4K Ultra HDTV this year to carefully check out both of these models at a local showroom. We think the QN65Q9FN will leave you impressed.
We therefore award the Samsung QN65Q9FN five out of five hearts.
The Samsung QN65Q9FN used for this review was a company loan.
By Greg Tarr
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