Upon Further Analysis: Samsung Q9 QLED TV Is A 4K UHD Beacon
UPDATE! About two weeks ago we were given the chance to review a pre-production sample of Samsung’s QN65Q9F flagship 4K Ultra HD QLED TV, but our test sample had a few bugs that prevented us from giving it a final and accurate rating.
At our request, and in the desire to give a fair review of a set consumers are likely to find available for purchase, another review sample was put in our path, and after another analysis we can only say: Now that’s more like it!
This year, Samsung took another step forward in quantum dot technology through the introduction of its three-series 4K Ultra HD QLED TV tier, adding a new metal alloy in the quantum dot structure that contributes to widening viewing angles and boosting both peak brightness and color volume to new heights.
What we can now say after the second time around is the Samsung QN65Q9F presents an image that is brighter than any other TV we’ve tested, vibrant in colors even in the brightest ranges of the picture and 3D-like without the need for glasses. What’s more, the left-to-right viewing angles have been improved to present images that are rich in contrast and color detail from angles as wide as 30-degrees from dead center, surpassing what we’ve come to expect in the past from Samsung’s edge-lit VA LCD panels.
What you are going to have to get used to with this set is learning to watch television with a light or two on in the room, and sitting at least eight feet from the screen. This is because Samsung engineers designed this year’s QLED TVs using viewership studies that found a majority or consumers watch TV with a modest amount of ambient light on in the room, are seated 8-to-9 feet from the screen and rarely sit more than 30 degrees off center axis.
If you turn the lights completely off, you might be disappointed to see the picture lose some degree of contrast, and light bleeding through into letterbox bars when watching either too close or slightly off center axis to the screen. (We were told Samsung is working on another firmware update to correct the light bleeding issue).
Meanwhile, Samsung’s QLED TVs are now available for order including: the 55-inch QN55Q7F ($2,498.99 UPP), the 65-inch QN65Q7F ($3,498.99); the 75-inch QN75Q7F ($5,997.99), the 55-inch QN55Q8C ($3,497.99), and the 65-inch QN65Q8C ($4,498.99). Coming in a few weeks are the flagship 65-inch QN65Q9F ($5,999.99), reviewed for you here, followed by its larger siblings the 75-inch QN75Q9F ($9,999.99) and the 88-inch QN88Q9F ($19,999.99).
According to Samsung, the Q9F series will have the best picture performance of the three QLED series due in part to the use of an edge-lit LED system positioned at the left and right sides of the screen.
The Q8C and Q7F series use LED edge lighting from the bottom of the screen, enabling a thinner form factor. This is expected to result in slightly lower levels of peak brightness for the step-down models, although color volume coverage is expected to be about the same across all three series, a Samsung representative told us.
Read our first-impressions of the Samsung Q9 4K Ultra HDTV after the jump:
Color Volume Debate
Before we begin, the picture performance contest at the top of the consumer television market this year revolves around color volume. According to manufacturers on both sides of the debate, no longer is it sufficient to compare a television’s color performance strictly by its DCI-P3 color space using a (more or less) two-dimensional color test pattern. Actually these color spaces have taken brightness (height) coordinates into account before. But Samsung, LG and others are now looking at reproducing and measuring color shades over the full brightness, looking at how accurate and stable colors remain as the brightness ramps up. This concerns color luminance, which can alter shading with different degrees of light. Samsung uses the example of a leaf in the sunlight which shows different variations of greens and yellows in areas where sunlight falls on the surface or penetrates the leaf cell structure.
Samsung is working with experts like Florian Friedrich to develop a new color volume test pattern and workflow, which is great for measuring a set’s ability to present color volume that is more accurate and stable across the luminance range. In addition the best sets will achieve new levels of brightness that were not possible in consumer displays before, and the Q9F is the brightest television we’ve ever tested.
This means objects that are naturally bright in life appear naturally bright on screen, while preserving the colors and details in highlights virtually as the eye would perceive them off the screen. With regard to its ability to produce the brightest images with the most accurate colors, the QN65Q9F is the best television we’ve reviewed.
But here’s the conundrum for a TV purchaser in 2017: Do you want the brightest, most color-accurate images you can have or images that produce blacks as deep as those you see in life, with rich deep colors in slightly lower brightness ranges? Because, if it’s the latter, LG’s 2017 OLED TVs will be more to your liking. There is no wrong answer here – both approaches (plus what Sony is delivering in its A1 OLED series and the Z9D 4K Ultra HD LED LCD TV line) are valid and offer some of the best pictures we’re likely to see this year.
Samsung’s QLED (or Q Series) 4K Ultra HDTVs are said to produce wide color volumes with high color luminance ranges that don’t washout with white at the peaks the way Samsung says RGBW technologies (used in today’s OLED TVs) do.
(For its part, LG said its 2017 4K OLED sets are able to maximize the color volume benefits inherent in the Dolby Vision HDR format, and we observed that in our recent review of the W7).
The greater color volume in Samsung’s QLED sets is helped by the high brightness performance these sets have been engineered to deliver. The intent is not to blind viewers but to localize brightness highlights to show off naturally very bright objects like a red fire engine reflecting sunlight.
Samsung’s goal is to duplicate any color imaginable, no matter how bright or how dim, and better convey the experience the director intended.
A new workflow provided by Samsung was used to test color volume, which found the Q9 covered better than 109 percent of DCI-P3 with the L (for luminance) coordinate included.
Testing for good old fashion CIE 1976 D65 DCI-P3 color gamut, we also measured the UN65Q9F HDR performance at 98.7 percent of PC-P3 gamut, which is very close to the claimed 100 percent coverage. The DCI-P3 gamut is the same one used by filmmakers in content released to theaters and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs.
New Quantum Dots
The big news at CES 2017 was the new advancement in quantum dot technology which comes under the QLED banner. Samsung said the change revolves around the use of a new metal alloy in the quantum dot chemical formulation that enables making perfectly round nano-particle-sized dots that are placed in a solution and used to coat a polymer film.
That film is then sandwiched between the LED edge lighting and LCD screen and filters. The size of the quantum dots determines the light color properties it will emit when excited by blue LED edge light. This produces a quantum effect that aids in boosting brightness and color range with great stability even at high temperatures.
LED light hits the film from the edges of the screen and the round dot structure of the quantum dot coating widely disperses the light helping to improve the off-axis viewing angle when watching from the left or right sides of dead center.
We tested this and found that the viewing angles are indeed wider than last year’s SUHD 4K Ultra HDTV models. Although VA panels are still used the effect reminded us of the look of an IPS LCD panel — viewing angles were much better when seated from the left or right of the screen, but the benefit was not as pronounced when viewing from a high angle above the display or low angle below the screen.
The new technology also presents another improvement in that the contrast, black level, color saturation and color depth in the picture seemed to improve with overhead ambient light on in the room. Where the HDR color highlights in the campfire flames from the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray version of The Revenant appeared less colorful in a totally dark room, the elements of orange and yellow intensified once the over head lights were switched on. We also found that contrast and color were much improved when seated from an appropriate 4K viewing distance (about eight feet for a 65-inch screen), where contrast elements appeared to wash out the closer we got to the screen.
This should be taken into consideration when purchasing one of these models, and it could impact where these sets are placed for maximum picture benefit. We would suggest a tabletop placement where the main viewer seating is about 8.5 feet from the center screen with an acceptable off-axis viewing radius of about eight to 12 feet from the left or right sides of center screen.
A Samsung executive told us the change in room lighting performance this year was in part the result of consumer studies indicating that a majority of consumers watch television with some degree of ambient lighting on in the viewing room.
No More Full-Array Backlighting
The Q9 Series is the flagship of the Samsung 4K Ultra HD QLED line, and as we said earlier, all QLED TVs this year use a lighting system that places the LEDs at the far left and right edges of the screen. In the Q9, this is a departure from last year’s flagship KS9800 series SUHD LCD TVs that used full-array LED backlighting fully across the backplane of the quantum dot film and LCD panel. Full-array LED backlighting allows more localized control of the backlight to produce deeper blacks with finer detail where it’s needed in specific areas of the screen. This technique also helps reduce certain LCD artifacts like haloing around bright rounded objects on the screen.
We were told Samsung engineers felt the benefits of the new QLED technology was such that full-array LED backlighting was no longer needed and that the new quantum dot system works equally well with edge or full-array LED backlights.
After our initial overview, we preferred the full-array backlighting in last year’s KS9800 to the Q9’s LED edge light, even with the brightness boost. One of the problem areas we noted was that bright white elements near the boarder of the picture tended to spill through into the black letterbox top and bottom frames on wide aspect ratio (2.39:1) Ultra HD Blu-ray and streamed movie content. This was an issue that we first saw in Samsung’s edge-lit SUHD TVs two years ago. The effect was supposed to have been cleaned up with a firmware update in those older models, and it was effectively controlled in full-array LED backlit models. A Samsung representative said he believes much of these issues in the pre-production samples should be correctable in firmware, and we were told several updates were already installed in the days between our initial review and the followup.
We also found that this loss of contrast was noticeable in areas of upconverted live HD pictures, especially when viewed too close to the screen. We could minimize much of this by turning on the ambient room light and stepping back from the screen to the proper viewing distance. But much of this manipulation was not required with the full-array LED models the last two years. We would like to have seen how the latest QLED technology responds to full-array LED backlighting, but we understand this would add appreciably to the price of the set at a time when competition is rapidly making TVs more and more affordable.
The Q9F’s bezel trim.
As mentioned, the Q9F models all have flat screens this year, which is a departure from past flagship model series that had curved LED LCD screens.
In the Q9 model we tested, the screen was framed by a graphite black metal strip measuring 1-inch deep that wrapped around all four sides. The appearance is like a fine contemporary metal picture frame.
The new Q9F, Q8C and Q7F sets also come with Samsung’s “Invisible Connection” cable and the Q9F models include a “No Gap Wall-mount” that enables the TV to fit closely against the wall. A virtually invisible thin fiber optic cable runs between the screen and Samsung’s One Connect box. The box houses most of TV’s electronics and inputs. Both the panel and One Connect box have their own power connections.
In addition to making for a clean tight fit, the wall mount includes a tilt mechanism to improve the vertical viewing angle in elevated placements and has a special leveling feature to aid with installation. The No Gap wall mount is standard with the 88-inch version of the Q9F and is offered as an optional accessory for other Q9 screen sizes as well as for models in the the Q8C and Q7F series.
Samsung is also offering a pair of optional floor stands including an easel design and a low rounded stand with a swiveling screen option.
The “Invisible Connection” is a very thin translucent fiber-optic cord that comes with a 15 foot length. Samsung designed the cable to go outside the wall where it can be easily hidden without requiring the cable to run behind wall boards, although a professional installer can also snake the cable inside a wall where required. Samsung executives said that because the fiber-optic cable doesn’t carry any high voltage current it will not be a fire issue. The 2017 optical cable also does not need a U.S. Plenum Certification for UL listing.
New One Remote Design and Smart Hub User Interface
Samsung is continuously upgrading and improving its Tizen-OS-based Smart Hub smart TV platform. This year’s improvements include an easier step-by-step setup, which quickly recognized and labeled HDMI-connected source devices, including an Ultra HD Blu-ray player and FiOS telco TV set-top box. It wasn’t effective at all in finding and labeling more esoteric devices like a spectroradiometer, or signal lag tester, which is to be expected as very few people own or even use these.
Where available the system defaults to the device’s on-screen graphical user interface – in this case the FiOS program guide or the interface of a selected over-the-top streaming service. Also, when the device menu is being used the television’s menus are suspended, so we couldn’t use the TV’s input source resolution and HDR indicators when watching an HDR10 4K Ultra HD movie on Netflix, for example. We had to use the OTT provider’s usually less informative indicators for that, where available.
Samsung continues to maintain a large library of OTT streaming services including the most important ones — Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and YouTube among many others.
This year’s One Remote has been significantly reduced in size but keeps a familiar form factor and button layout. It also switches from last year’s gray plastic look to a more substantial silver metal appearance.
The remote features a mic to take voice commands. Users can speak simple commands into the remote while holding down the mic button to call up certain menus, search for content and apps, and even make spoken adjustments to picture and sound settings without the need to dig into multiple menu layers.
We found the voice commands to be far more responsive and accurate this year, although learning the correct key phrases that the system recognizes will take some time and practice on the part of the user. Once down, the system greatly speeds up the process of calibration and everyday tasks, making this a highly welcomed addition.
It should be noted that Samsung smart TVs were recently the part of a WikiLeaks posting alleging that the CIA and MI5 have cracked the OS and can hack into sets to listen to private conversations through the mic. To use voice control and other smart TV features, users must sign off on a lengthy end-user license agreement stating the risks and possibilities.
Samsung issued a statement concerning the alleged CIA spying hack on its TVs stating: “Protecting consumers’ privacy and the security of our devices is a top priority at Samsung. We are aware of the report in question and are urgently looking into the matter. The report describes a malicious software [sic] installed through a physically connected USB drive which applies to firmwares [sic] on TVs sold in 2012 and 2013, most of which have already been patched through a firmware update.
Samsung points out that the built-in mic in its remotes require a button be pressed to activate voice pickup while speaking and it will not pickup random conversations otherwise.
“We work hard every day to protect consumers’ privacy,” the statement continues. “We continually monitor for any security risks across our Smart TV platforms and if we find one, we promptly address it. The best action that consumers can take to ensure the security of any device is to always keep their software and applications updated at all times.”
For those still concerned about entities eavesdropping, the HD Guru suggests placing the remote in a closed drawer when not in use or covering over the mic pinhole on the remote with electrical tape.
Samsung continues to stick by its guns on high dynamic range (HDR), supporting only the HDR10 format with its PQ, EOTF BT2084 based static metadata system. This comes even as many other competitors have added support for Dobly Vision, with both static and dynamic metadata, and hybrid log-gamma (HLG). Alternatively, Samsung has developed a system for bringing dynamic frame-by-frame contrast and color grading to the HDR10 platform and we saw buried in the gamma settings of the Q9 menu support for HLG, along with separate settings for BT1886 (SDR), and BT2084 (HDR10).
We were told the HLG setting is offered for content producers and broadcasters using Samsung TVs as monitors to make tests and adjustments to HLG content. Nicely, this means the sets will support HLG if and when it ever gets used in the United States. We still don’t know if HLG will be a standard used in the ATSC 3.0 over-the-air broadcast TV system, although it could conceivably be used for some content streamed from other countries where HLG is part of the other countries’ over-the-air broadcast systems.
As promised, the 65Q9 also added a significant boost in peak luminance from HDR material. We measured the set at 1637.8 nits using a D65 10 percent white window pattern. That is 63.7 percent higher than the 1,000-nit threshold required by the Ultra HD Alliance for “Ultra HD Premium” certification, and presents a nice enhancement to discernible brightness levels in key picture elements like specular highlights.
For black level we tested the 65Q9F at O.016 nits using motion test patterns designed to trick the automatic backlight limiter into staying on. That measurement is 66 percent darker than the 0.05 nit threshold required for Ultra HD Premium certification on a 4K Ultra HD LCD TV.
New Calibration Methods
Samsung made some pretty dramatic changes to the way viewers now make adjustments for backlighting and brightness. In part, this is because Samsung said user were becoming confused by what the various settings did and how they performed, causing them to make images look worse through their untrained adjustments.
For backlight, when users make adjustments it is usually because bright scenes appear too striking. The new backlight control takes this into account resulting in what Samsung calls “a more comfortable viewing experience while maintaining a stunning brightness for smaller highlights like the sun in a beautiful sunset.”
For SDR, the backlight control now affects different levels of APL differently. With low values of Average Picture Levels (APL), the regulation of the backlight is less intense than with high levels of APL.
The backlight control now offers settings in values from 0 to 20. APL-dependent backlight control can be turned off by switching local dimming to “low.” This might be useful for a better calibration and in order to serve bright light environments.
The brightness control now affects the lower end of the Electro Optical Transfer Function (EOTF) curve, instead of the previously much broader range. Positive values will increase the visibility of dark details in the image without pushing the black levels too far, which is helpful in situations with more ambient light. Negative values are now reducing brightness of dark parts in the image for deeper blacks and more depth in dark room environments.
The new settings for brightness values range from -5 to +5.
Traditionally and because of analog signal dependencies, the brightness control was used for adjusting the black level, which most consumers find counter-intuitive.
Nowadays we have digital signals with identical, standardized black levels. The change will enable the use of the brightness control in a more intuitive way to prevent degrading of dark details, Samsung said.
We found the Q9F’s on-board sound to be clear, dialog understandable and music and supporting effects to be relatively full. However, in this price/performance class we expect most users will opt for an outboard soundbar or a full-blown multi-channel surround sound system.
Samsung’s picture processing traditionally has been among the best in the industry. We found images to be acceptably clear when viewed from an 8-foot distance, but again, up close we noticed live HD images of an NCAA basketball game on ESPN to be somewhat blurry in faces and edges. Many of the upconversion issues we noticed in our first test sample were eliminated with the second model. Images were acceptably sharp from both 480p and 720p sources on the 4K Ultra HD screen.
Other content on different channels looked appreciably better from the correct distance.
We used a favorite torture test – the opening ocean cave sequences in the standard Blu-ray edition of “Pirates of Caribbean: At World’s End” to test noise handling. The low-light filmed scenes in the movie are loaded with background noise and film grain. When the upscaling system is bad on a TV, this noise dances around distracting the viewer from the main subjects in the dimly lit scene. The processing in the 65Q9 was good. We did see some noise in addition to desired film grain, but the system managed to reduce it while keeping colors and light at levels we’d expect to see on 1080p display showing the content in native format.
Similarly, the Q9’s Auto Motion Plus motion handling system on the Q9 was pretty good. The 65Q9F has a 120Hz panel. The set features a Custom setting with de-blur turned up by default and de-judder turned up to three. This will add some degree of Soap Opera Effect but can be adjusted to the preference of the viewer. Overall, we found motion handling to be very good.
The Samsung One Connect box offers a good selection of AV in/out ports. The box includes four HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 inputs one of which (HDMI 2) has ARC with 5.1 passthrough for Dolby Digital and DTS; one optical output with 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS passthrough, one Ethernet input, one cable/ant tuner input and three USB ports. Samsung still could not say if the company plans to offer an upgraded One Connect Box with HDMI 2.1 ports once that new standard becomes available.
As mentioned, the One Connect Box connects to the display panel via a supplied fiber optic cable.
Samsung continues to advance the state of the art in quantum dot technology, this time offering a QLED display that manages to make a striking design statement without the need to go the ultra-thin route. Picture quality this year benefits from a significant boost in brightness that electrifies HDR highlights and brings out added color dimensions and shading in full DCI-P3 content without the need for bit mapping. The brightness boost in HDR images was the highest we’ve seen and that only served to improve overall colors and detail in specular highlights and diffuse light.
This year’s sets dispense with the popular full-array backlighting system that Samsung has always reserved for its flagship model line, and while we noticed some limitations from the omission of the full-array LED back lighting, the Q9 did add new dimensions in color volume and HDR brightness that are none-the-less impressive and a worthy challenger to the excellent 2017 OLED offerings from LG and Sony.
Gamers will find the 65Q9F has an impressive 21.4ms 1080/60fps lag time in Game Mode. The 65Q9F (at $5,999.99) will be an expensive undertaking for some, but Samsung offers the somewhat more affordable Q8C series with a curved screen or flat Q7 series for those who want something a little more affordable along with the most of the key benefits QLED delivers. Although, as we said, the brightness levels will not be to the same level as the Q9F. Stay tuned for our review of these other series shortly.
After about a half-dozen firmware updates and a new review sample, we feel comfortable in highly recommending the Samsung QN65Q9F as a top-performing set for movie lovers and sports fans alike. This set will give you all the brightness you can handle along with a wide contrast level, huge color volume and improved off-axis viewing. Still, we can’t help be feel disappointed that at this price level we didn’t get full-array LED back lighting with local dimming, which would have addressed some of the light bleeding issues on letter-boxed pictures.
The UN65Q9F used in this review was a pre-production sample set up for us at Samsung’s New Jersey test lab.
Special thanks to Dominic Jahn for the graphics assistance.
By Greg Tarr
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