Samsung KN55S9C Curved OLED TV Review
The future is now.
Samsung's motto for the S9C—one of only two OLED TVs available stateside—is "Life In Every Pixel." This is appropriate, as the TV's main selling point is its next generation panel consisting of organic light emitting diodes. Though we spent a fleeting day with it off-site back in August, the KN55S9C ($8,999.99) is now nestled safely in our laboratory, meaning we get to test it thoroughly.
Before breaking down the performance details, I'd be remiss not to flag its price: Just one penny shy of $9,000. Why is it so expensive? Because the only other option you have for an OLED television comes from LG, and that one's even more expensive—a whopping $15,000. Like us, you're probably wondering, "Are these TVs really that much better than the one I just bought?"
The answer is yes.
This is the steam engine, the high-speed rail, the sliced bread of television technology. OLED TVs are already creating a major shift in the verbal paradigm we use to discuss picture quality—and while the KN55S9C is only an early iteration, it's still miles ahead of almost anything you've seen before.
Out with the old, in with the OLED
Yes, it's curved. It hangs in a frame. It's smart. Once you've seen this TV, though, none of that stuff will matter—what makes the KN55S9C so spectacular (and expensive) is its OLED technology. Technical details aside, OLED is capable of something that TV manufacturers have spent years striving for: true black.
Of course, we're not just saying that. We wouldn't be expert TV reviewers if we didn't have the tools to check these things scientifically. We took multiple readings—in our lab, in our break room, against test patterns, and during movies—and the evidence is irrefutable. When the S9C displays black, it does so in the truest, most-perfect way: There's no luminance whatsoever. The numbers don't lie—but neither are they what's ultimately impressive here.
What's really so impressive about the S9C's black level is how it looks. It just looks great. We set it side-by-side with a 60-inch 2013 plasma, and the difference between the two was very obvious, even during TV programming like news and sports. You don't have to own a $500 Blu-ray player to appreciate the drastic improvement in picture quality that OLED tech creates. Shadows look darker, spooky caves look spookier, and every contrasting element on screen—essentially, anything that's not black—looks better by comparison.
From a contrast perspective, OLED is truly the best of both worlds. Unlike plasmas—the only other tech capable of similarly awesome black levels—the S9C is spectacularly bright. When the screen is displaying full-field white, like the opening Hoth scene from The Empire Strikes Back, its output remains bright enough to be watched in a room with the lights on or windows open. Smaller, isolated areas of light, such as stars against a night sky, are even more brilliant: The output here challenges even the brightest 2013 LEDs.
Dynamics like this are simply unheard of from any other display tech on the market. It's enough to make discussion of contrast ratio a thing of the past—when they're all infinite, what's left to compare?
The other place where the S9C blows more traditional TV tech out of the water is in color production. While HDTVs are meant to adhere to a set of specific color standards, OLED and UHD TVs are ushering in an era of more-colorful viewing—adhering to a wider color space, which results in more highly-saturated colors that pop off the screen. This has its pros and cons.
Under the Advanced Settings menu, you'll find an option to select the KN55S9C's color space. The "Auto" option tells the TV to default to the incoming color profile communicated by the source material. The "Native" option allows the TV to display content using its natural, wider color profile.
The result is more "colorful" colors—about 25% more color than normal. The closest pre-defined color parameters that the S9C adheres to are those for "Adobe RGB," a wide color space used by graphics professionals when designing digitally for non-digital material, like magazines or newspapers.
Of course, this isn't always the ideal way to watch: Content that's already very colorful, such as cartoons or certain video games, can be made to look severely unnatural. We watched an effects-heavy Disney nature documentary called Wings of Life on the S9C side-by-side with a plasma display running the same footage, and the color difference was easily discernable: For this kind of content, the boosted color saturation not only looked terrific, it made the competing plasma look positively washed out.
Purists will be glad to know that the KN55S9C is still perfectly capable of adhering to standards. A perfect TV reproduces finely-crafted content on a matched, pixel-for-pixel scale, and there are many classic films and carefully sculpted movies that look their best as they were meant to look—not boosted or upscaled in any way. Even setting the S9C to the traditional HDTV color space results in an excellent picture, thanks to its incredible dynamic performance. You can't turn that off, after all.
There are two places where the S9C doesn't differentiate from the current, feasibly-affordable TV crop. Unlike the UHD TVs that have been popping up all over this year, the S9C doesn't support a 4K (3840 x 2160) pixel resolution. Instead, it's simply a 1080p display, which isn't the least bit disappointing. Alone, cramming any more pixels into a 55-inch TV really wouldn't improve the viewing experience, and its native 1080p resolution means it can easily scale incoming 480p, 720p, and 1080p signals—and make them look fantastic with improved color and dynamic levels.
The second non-progressive aspect? Motion performance. The KN55S9C makes use of the same quad-core processing, motion assistance, and backlight scanning technologies employed by Samsung's F8000 LCD flagship. This is one area where plasma TVs still have the leg up: Despite its incredible specs, the S9C's 120Hz panel is still an imperfect producer of very fast motion. In fact, without extra processing, intense scenes look... sub-par. Yet when we watched it side-by-side with a modern plasma, the difference between the two—in motion performance—was very negligible.
"Because we can."
The headline of this TV's design is the curved screen. Wait, didn't we sort of just get flat-paneled TVs? I'm sure many of you still remember the insanely heavy, boxy CRTs of yesteryear—in fact, I know more than a few people who still own and use one without complaint. Thin, light, flat screens are still a luxury item in certain circles, so why are engineers designing curved OLED TVs?
As far as we know, the answer is "Because we can." OLED cells are able to interlock in a non-flush way, meaning they can be curved in construction—it's choice, not necessity.
The KN55S9C's curve is actually quite subtle when you see it up close, but the screen hangs within a fabric-coated rectangular alloy stand that emphasizes the curvature purposefully. Samsung calls this the "Timeless Arena Design," probably because the frame wraps the entire perimeter of the TV... like an arena, or something.
Some people argue that the curve enhances the feeling of immersion while you watch; some that it aids the TV's viewing angle performance. In my experience, the curve relays a three-dimensional feeling only if you sit so close that no one else can watch. What's worse, watching from certain angles causes even minor reflections to be multiplied along the curve's edge, essentially enhancing reflectivity problems—and wall mounting this thing is out of the question. In short, it's a nice way to create some buzz, but the curve is more of a parlor trick than a true enhancement in TV technology. The curving abilities of OLED are probably much better left to things you can wear.
That said, there's more to the S9C than a set of curves. Like Samsung's two 8 Series TVs, the S9C is equipped with a bezel-mounted camera to allow for gesture control—meaning that with some practice, you can operate it without ever picking up the remote... albeit sluggishly.
Samsung's Curved OLED is also equipped with a higher-end speaker array than normal: two 10-watt loudspeakers and a 20-watt subwoofer, potentially providing a much richer sound than run-of-the-mill TVs. However, the most interesting thing about the S9C is that it only hosts a single port to plug into. Huh?
Never fear: That single port is for the included "external mainboard," which houses all the ports you'd traditionally find on the back of a TV. This concept sees a TV's traditional video connection ports, software chip, and processor removed from the unit entirely and contained within a separate box, which Samsung calls One Connect. This box acts as an external media receiver, transferring all manner of inputs—HDMI, component, USB—to the TV via a single cable. This means you can hide all those pesky connection cables away, with only a single, felt-wrapped cord running to the TV.
The One Connect box allows for four HDMI inputs, two USB 2.0 inputs, IR out, headphone out, coaxial, LAN in, digital audio out, EX-LINK, and three splitter ports for component in or two composite in. Whether you like the idea of an external device or not, trying to cram all those ports and inputs onto the TV's backside would really harsh its mellow.
Software & Features
Outfitted as expected
As you might guess, Samsung's $9,000 OLED is smart, 3D, and fully-loaded with all of the software options and features you'd expect from the company's super high-end TVs. In fact, save for a few OLED-specific menu options, the software here is more-or-less identical to other Samsung TVs. It wouldn't feel like a $9,000-dollar TV without some snooty extras, so the S9C ships with several fancy boxes containing its 3D glasses, user manual, and remote controls. Overall, it's clear that Samsung wants the whole "package" to stand out, but most of this stuff's been kicking around since February.
That's not a bad thing by any means. Samsung's Smart Hub internet platform is one of the year's better-equipped software outings. The Smart Hub covers all the basics: apps, a built-in browser, streaming content, and social networking. Where it stands out most, however, is in cable/satellite content integration. Via HDMI communication and an included IR blaster, the S9C can control your set-top-box, pulling program data into Samsung's eye-pleasing "OnTV" tab in the Smart Hub. No more ugly cable menus for you.
Browsing and selecting amongst this sea of content is made much easier by the included Smart Touch Remote, a touchpad-equipped controller that enables fluid, mouse-like control of the on-screen cursor. What's even cooler is the integrated microphone, which lets you command and question the TV within a set of parameters. "Smart Hub" will bring you to the internet platform, while "What's on for Sports?" will see your TV searching through your cable or satellite programming for matching content. Through a processing function called "S-Recommendation," the S9C will eventually begin to learn which shows/channels you frequent, and will populate the Smart Hub with new suggestions automatically.
Click here for a more in-depth look at the Smart Hub.
Alongside its wealth of smart content, the S9C is also equipped with extensive on-board software, most of it geared to allow the consumer maximum control over the TV's picture and audio settings. None of this is particularly unique to the curved OLED itself, but there is one setting, Cell Light, that may seem out of place at first. Like plasma displays, OLEDs automatically limit the amount of light they output inverse to what percent of the screen is bright. This prevents overheating, which can damage the cells and other internal components. Unlike most plasmas, though, Samsung's OLED is so terrifically bright that the reduced light output is barely notable.
We're pleased to see Samsung's usual, fairly-extensive calibration controls here as well. Alongside the basics, users can tailor the TV's white balance, gamma, and color emphasis. You can even order the TV to display in an RGB-only mode.
Samsung also integrates the same sound modes and equalizer options from its other high-end series, and adds one option we've not spotted before—"Custom Sound"—which helps the user tailor output for his or her room specifically. Overall, none of this stuff is particularly new or exciting—this TV's real draw is its picture quality—but it's good to know that Samsung's trying to make the huge price worth it by including all the "goodies" from other high-end models.
After a full run through our suite of tests, the numbers and charts confirmed what my eyes already saw: OLED technology produces the greatest picture quality ever. The KN55S9C may be an early-adopter, price-walled product for the majority of consumers, but those with the deep pockets to afford it can rest assured knowing that there's nothing better to be had—at least for now.
Is $9,000 a fair price for a picture this incredible? That's up for debate. At the speed that technology evolves, it's very possible that by this time next year we'll see vastly more affordable OLED TVs on the market. What's more, widespread adoption will see OLED displays cropping up in drab, featureless outfits, promising a price drop. For what it's worth, though, Samsung's KN55S9C is a long, cool pull from a futuristic flask—and we had no idea how thirsty we were.
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