Mike Osadciw

Sony XBR-65X900A XBR-65X850A 65-Inch 4K Ultra HDTV webOne criticism of early fixed pixel displays (FPD) was that they didn’t look analogue, like the CRT technology that we were all so used to. The big square pixels that made up the picture of 480p displays coined the term “screen door affect” when describing the viewable image. When viewing one of these displays it literally seemed like you were watching a TV through the screen door of a house. Compared to the smooth image of a progressive CRT display, these new digital video devices appeared unnatural, harsh, and inferior to any theatrical film or home video experience. To improve consumer confidence in these new LCD and plasma FPD video technologies, manufacturers went hard to work. Consequently, they’ve improved on reducing the pixel size, thus increasing visible detail. Even though most of today’s big screen TVs offer a 1080p resolution (1920×1080 pixel array), pixel size can be reduced further. Ultra HD 4K televisions such as Sony’s KDL-65X900 have four times as many pixels as 1080p displays. In other words, a “1080p pixel” is replaced by four pixels in the same space. The result of doing so, is greatly improved fine details with all current 1080p Blu-rays. Better still 4K TVs are ready for 4K content that’s just around the corner. As of September 2013, Sony’s 4K televisions were available in two 55-inch models – the XBR-55X900A ($4,499) and the XBR-55X850A ($4,199), as well as two 65-inch models – XBR-65X900A ($5,999, reviewed here) and the XBR-65X850A ($5,699). The key difference between the X900A and the X850A series are the side-mounted speakers available with the X900A series.

Wow – this TV is wide! When the long box arrived, it took some lengthy unpacking but the assembly was quick. The XBR-65X900A looks different from the rest. Polished in a glossy piano black finish and with built-in speakers on the sides, in the era of thin bezels, this Sony stands out as something different.

There are plenty of inputs and outputs: 4 HDMI, 1 component or 2 composite (shared), 3 USB, an RF, and a number of audio outputs. The television is thicker to accommodate my favourite LCD feature, local dimming, which dramatically improves contrast ratio because of its ability to produce deeper blacks. This TV plays bright so it’ll easily fit into rooms with sunlight. Sony claims a contrast ratio of over 1,000,000:1.

Sony’s 4K X-Reality PRO Picture Engine chip, with Reality Creation and Super Resolution processing, is designed to squeeze the most resolution out of any source. From smartphone video to Blu-ray discs, Sony’s processing will map the video to the 4K screen with the best detail. It’s user adjustable to give the best results per source.

Sony is pushing colours beyond their borders with the TRILUMINOS display feature. Our HD BT.709 specification covers about 37 percent of colours that we can see with our eyes. The TRILUMINOS display increases green and red saturation, if the source material contains it, such as the ‘Mastered in 4K’ Blu-ray discs. Being able to display more colours brings television closer to reality. Sony’s Motionflow XR 960 feature offers a judder-free image with ultra-smooth camera pans. Which of these features you choose to use and to what degree is entirely up to you. For those who love 3D movies, you’ll be happy to know that you can view full 1080p resolution 3D content thanks to the passive 3D glasses. Gamers can also view two completely different full-screen images from the same game when playing 2 player games, without the need to split the screen, by using the optional SimulView glasses.

While most TV makers now offer tiny, albeit lousy sounding, speakers built into their TV sets, Sony has done exactly the opposite with the X900A series. Mounted on both sides of the screen, Sony’s proprietary Magnetic Fluid Speakers allows big sound from six drivers in thin cabinets. The speakers look slightly crammed into the frame, but it’s a big step up from the tinny sound often offered by flat panel TVs. These speakers can also simulate 5.1 surround audio to more than one viewer. While writing this review, Sony announced the new X850A series of Ultra HD TVs which offer all of the same technology as the X900A series, without the speakers – for those who wish to use their own speakers.

Smart TV functionality promises a convenient way to view mobile content from Android devices by using a Mobile High Definition Link cable and various ways of “mirroring” your device’s picture on the big screen. You can also stream online content from the internet, through a wired or wireless connection, from Sony’s Entertainment network and made-for-TV apps such as Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, etc. The X900A series also offers a web browser. Best of all, you can control the TV with your Android or iOS smartphone/tablet and learn about the programs you are viewing or become more social about them with Twitter.

For this review, I viewed the XBR-65X900A with both 4K and 1080p content. An HDMI splitter helped me compare 1080p content on this 4K TV alongside my reference Panasonic 1080p plasma television. Source materials included test patterns from an Accupel DVG-5000 signal generator and an Oppo BDP-95 Blu-ray player. All 4K content was delivered by the Sony POP-FMPA1 content server which was provided to me along with the TV. My viewing distance for both 2K and 4K material was 7 feet. This is my preferred viewing distance for 1080p images on 60” to 65” panels, but it may seem awkwardly close for large rooms (which is why 80”+ panels will be the norm in a few years). A 7 foot distance still takes up less field of view than sitting at the back row of a typical movie theatre – and that’s the selling point of Sony’s 4K: we can sit closer to the image if we want to without the dreaded screen door effect.

Sony’s picture controls are spread out all over the TV’s menu system. Picking the right combinations with the appropriate controls turned on or off is the key to achieving the best picture. If you’re not familiar with the Sony menu, the task can be daunting and you’re bound to miss an image-altering feature. Along with standard image controls, there are user adjustable controls for the Reality Creation, 4K Resolution and Motionflow features. The precise effect of these features cannot be done by eye alone; test patterns are needed to see the effect on all image aspects and most importantly for this 4K TV, preservation of resolution. After spending some time putting the TV’s controls through the grinder by trying every possible combination in a majority of picture modes, I finally settled on one I liked and carried on with image calibration. Using the reference Konica-Minolta CS-1000A spectroradiometer for measurements, I can confirm this TV does an excellent job at keeping grayscale at D65 from dark to bright images and its colour points very close to BT.709. Sony’s only ongoing omission is a colour management system to precisely fine tune colours for hue, saturation, and lightness. Using the HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc, this TV didn’t fare so well in the Jaggies 1 and 2 tests which means that you’ll want to do your 1080i to 1080p conversion outside of the television (as in an A/V receiver or Blu-ray player). For further calibration results, please visit the 4K TVs forum at www.canadahifi.com//forum.

My first impression when watching 4K content on the XBR-65X900A was that the picture looks analogue, very analogue. With the pixel grid reduced to a new minimum, I felt like I was watching an image less digital, rigid and coarse. When watching 1080p material from Blu-ray, the image finally had breathing room that would never be possible on any 1080p television. I noticed an increased presence of ultra-fine details that were nearly completely absent on my 1080p display. I blitzed through many episodes of The Bible miniseries on Blu-ray. The series is bright, colourful, and has become one of my reference discs. The amount of fine texture in clothing and in the background (rocks, sand and dirt) became so apparent on this 4K TV, it could have been mistaken as native 4K content. Without the pixel grid present on the 4K set, I could enjoy the image more like a film rather than video through a screen door. Looking back at my 1080p television suddenly seemed much less satisfying. Screen uniformity was very good from edge to edge. Many cheap LCD screens and plasmas cannot show the same level of white from edge to edge without some dark patches. With the LED Dynamic backlight setting set to ‘Standard’, the image was very impressive. Black level was very deep across the screen, with only a minor amount of glowing around bright objects (typical of LED local dimming displays but an acceptable trade-off to milky black levels.) The drop in black level allow me to see all of the finest shadow details that are hard to see while watching the original 1979 film Alien. I didn’t miss a detail as the Nostromo crew ventured into the dark areas of the alien spacecraft.

While watching film-based movies such as Moneyball and Men in Black, film grain structure finally looked like genuine film grain rather than an annoying artifact obstructed by a pixel grid. The XBR-65X900A delivered an absolutely rock-solid image. With true 4K content, film grain should become even more resolved. But for now, with 1080p content, film purists should be demanding these 4K sets. The conversion of 1080p to 4K is very good; the result is much more impressive than Sony’s own flagship VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector. With the correct combination of the ‘Resolution’ and ‘Mastered in 4K’ controls, I achieved a very pleasant picture with minimal horizontal and vertical edge enhancement. Using native 1080p content, the image this 4K set and my 1080p set beside it began to look similar just before 10 feet away, as the pixel grid on the 1080p display almost entirely disappeared. I chose these films because they are part of Sony’s new Mastered in 4K series Blu-ray disc collection. Sony uses 4K sources for the Blu-ray master and an attempt to ease off on the high video compression (but don’t expect perfection).

When watching 1080p 3D content, performance was quite good using the passive 3D glasses. I didn’t get as much of a headache with the passive glasses and the picture looked much brighter than that from an active glasses system. This gave 3D the punch of brightness is deservedly needs. Watching my IMAX 3D discs and clips from Final Destination 5 was fun but not a priority for me. Just know that if you are a 3D buff, this is one of the few televisions on the market that will give you a bright, punchy, and accurate 3D picture.

I’m a little tired of people saying they need to be sitting very close to notice the benefits of native 4K. Stop listening to those people, it’s simply not true. Using Sony’s 4K media server, I could see the benefits of 4K standing 15 feet back from this 65” TV. Since that’s further than most seats in a living room, that means everyone will enjoy native 4K at home. I got a hold of many of the same 4K demo clips on Blu-ray discs at 1080p, which allowed me to compare the images side by side. At closer distances, 1080p cannot remotely compete with the 4K image. Step back – way back, and the 4K image was still the clear winner with radically refined edges, contrast and depth. The image was also much cleaner from artifacts, likely to do with compression on Blu-ray discs. After seeing this, how could I not be excited for native 4K content!

After experiencing a 4K TV for an extended period of time, I’m completely sold on 4K. Since sending the review unit back, I’ve experienced somewhat of a withdrawal. Watching the Sony XBR-65X900A made me realize what I’m missing on my 1080p television. As I was completing this review, Sony announced that these sets will support HDMI 2.0 via an easy software update before the end of the year. This version will accommodate higher data rates, like 3840x2160p at 60fps, a rate that the current versions of HDMI 1.4 do not allow (max is 2160p at 30fps). Among other benefits, the higher frame rate will improve picture detail in fast moving programs such as gaming and sports. At $5,999, the XBR-65X900A is not an inexpensive purchase but realizing the picture quality it offers makes it easier to justify. And if you choose to use your own speakers, you could save a few hundred bucks by getting the XBR-65X850A model.

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF
Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
(905) 730-5996
www.thehighestfidelity.com

Sony
www.sony.ca
1-888-289-7669

Sony XBR-65X900A 65-Inch 4K Ultra HDTV
Price: $5,999 CAD

Samsung 8500 Series 64-inch Plasma TV (PN64F8500)

News of new video technologies is dominating consumer electronics media. With all of the hype surrounding OLED and 4K TVs, it’s very hard not to get excited about the future of video. But let’s not be too eager to open our wallets for these untried technologies, especially since one of them hasn’t even hit the market yet. What will be the video quality? Will the technology live up to the marketing hype? How good or compatible will first-generation products be a year or two from now as the technology matures and next-generation software becomes available? These are great questions that early adopters rarely ask when paying premium prices to be the first on the block to own the new technology. For the rest of us, we want to know the answers to these questions and feel confident with our purchase. We want to be sure that before we spend a few thousand dollars on a reference video display, that the technology is mature and performs at its best. I strongly feel this way about Samsung’s newest reference plasma TV, the PN64F8500 ($3,499). After years of delivering great televisions, this one takes the cake.

This TV is very attractive. My eyes first landed on the base of the TV. Rather than resting on a pedestal, it has a very modern ramp-style base that curves out from the TV’s outer edges. It’s symmetrical in the front and back, and has a dark titan metal look matching that of the TV’s outer frame. When the TV is off, the screen is jet black. At under 80lbs with the stand, this must be one of the lightest 64-inch plasma TVs I’ve come across. The packaging is well thought out and all small items are contained in a master box to ensure the user doesn’t lose anything during the unpacking process.

Samsung has shifted the majority of connections to the digital realm – there are 4 HDMI and 3 USB, with one USB dedicated for a hard disk drive. The ATSC RF connection with optical audio out is for viewing over-the-air HD, and there is one composite and one component video input available with a mini-plug. A print manual provides 32 pages of information essential for setting up the TV for Smart TV applications and operating the remote control. The remaining information can be found on the TV’s on-screen e-manual which can be updated automatically along with the TVs firmware.

The TV comes with one, small, nearly buttonless remote. This is in contrast to last year’s 8-series TV that came with two remotes. Samsung has ditched the second traditional remote this year and is braving it with a Smart Touch Control Unit only. It’s relatively small and fits in the hand nicely. The most important buttons are on it (power, source, volume, channel, and menu) and all are backlit. The remaining buttons are designed around the Smart capabilities of this TV and the central swipe pad. At first I was nervous about the response of the touch pad. There seems to be an improvement with sensitivity when compared to the previous remote, and the swipes (dragging and tapping) seem to be much better. After getting used to it, it’s easy to use. So why the touchpad? Given the rise in touchpads on consumer devices (eg. smartphones, tablets), it’s no surprise that Samsung is attempting to bring TVs into the 21st century. Clicking on the “More” button, the Smart Touch remote opens a virtual remote on screen that includes a numeric keypad, channel history, hot keys to specific TV controls (eg. aspect ratio) or accounts (eg. Netflix), and the Playback Control Panel for file/media playback. While a virtual remote may sound a little strange, it was easy to use and didn’t make me miss any of the extra buttons normally found on the remote. The touchpad, while not perfect with every swipe, made remote navigation easy to use especially when navigating Samsung’s newest Smart Hub screen.

Samsung 8500 Series 64-inch Plasma TV (PN64F8500) smart tv

To take advantage of everything that this TV has to offer, you’ll definitely want to connect it to the internet, which can be done both through a wired or wireless connection. Last year I wasn’t so hot on the idea of my TV being connected and thought it was better to have a small computer such as a mac mini connected to the TV instead. With a redesigned Smart Hub centered on video streaming, I’ve changed my mind. The Smart Hub home page offers access to popular video streaming apps including Netflix, CinemaNow, YouTube, Skype and the Cineplex Store. There’s also plenty of room on the main page for viewers to place up 30 of their favourite apps on a single page. The Smart Hub looks much like a tablet screen, and the swipe pad on the remote used to navigate this interface feels similar to using a tablet – I enjoyed its look and feel. The Apps area is one of four groups in the Smart Hub, with the others containing Photos/Videos/Music, Movies & TV Shows (with a Samsung account) and Social for connecting with friends and watching user-created content. The PN64F8500 has a built-in internet browser – if you’re into that kind of thing – and I strongly recommend connecting the TV to your home network with a wired connection for the best experience. I found my wireless connection choking when running iTunes radio wirelessly through Apple TV in the same room while trying to start up VIMEO through Samsung’s Smart Hub.

Features carrying over from last year are voice and gesture recognition. I’m still not a big fan of either because I often found myself repeating the same voice or gesture control multiple times, to get it to work. With gesture recognition, the lighting needs to be at the right level and the camera on the top of the TV needs to aim at the seating position. In my room, I sit fairly close to the TV and the camera pointed over my head and hence didn’t capture my gestures properly. The PN64F8500 does not allow you to tilt the camera, which would be very functional. Mounting the camera on the bottom of the TV would also solve this issue. Samsung’s voice recognition has improved from last year thanks to a microphone being built into the remote control. This allows the system to hear your voice better, but if there’s any noise in the room, even from the TV speakers, I found it getting confused once in a while. Overall, I think that controlling the TV with voice commands is gimmicky and takes more effort than just pressing a button on the remote. For example to lower the TV volume with a voice command, you have to press a button on the remote to start voice recognition and say “Hi TV, Volume Down”, which lowers the volume down just one notch. It’s much more efficient just to use the volume down button on the remote.

I mentioned earlier that this TV’s screen looks very black when it’s turned off – the same can be said when the TV is turned on. Samsung touts a new super contrast panel, described on the website in a contradicting manner and not really explaining anything about the panel at all. In plain English, the TV makes bright whites and dark blacks thus increasing contrast ratio even in rooms with ambient light from windows or lamps.

Samsung recognizes that Smart TV functionality is evolving rapidly and hence gives owners the option to install a Smart Evolution Kit (a hardware/software upgrade) to prevent the TV from some level of obsolescence in the near future.

What hasn’t changed on this TV from last year’s model is the 3D capability. It comes with four sets of lightweight active 3D glasses that are powered by a CR2032 battery, so there is no need to recharge with USB cables. Just remember to turn the glasses off when done or else you will find your battery nearly depleted the next time you watch 3D. The look of the on-screen menu is the same and calibrated image modes can be copied over to the Smart Hub control for all media types.

So how does the picture look? I performed a full calibration of the PN64F8500 prior to my viewing session. For full calibration results and measurements, please visit the CANADA HiFi forum at www.canadahifi.com/forum. Watching the TV after the calibration proved that Samsung’s plasma TV technology has once again bested its previous efforts. I was astounded by the television’s deep black level. I purchased and viewed two Star Trek film Blu-ray collections for this review (the Original and Next Generation Motion Picture Collections). I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen any of these movies before, but given the hype of the newest film in theatres, I felt obliged to sit through the good and cheesy films of the past (I was an original Star Wars guy back then). After calibration, the Samsung was excellent at conveying the finest of details in the source material. The first two Star Trek films had excellent transfers and they looked brilliant on this TV. Details were incredible, colour fidelity excellent, and image contrast fantastic. Any Star Trek fan would be happy to watch these films on this TV because it could deliver the deep black of outer space, with only some dithering noticeable in shades slightly higher than black. Dithering is an artefact of all plasma displays, but how much and at what light intensities tends to differ from one manufacturer to another. This effect looks like film grain from afar so most people tend not to notice it at far viewing distances. I also watched a handful of newer films as well: Cloud Atlas looked brilliant with deep blacks and well-saturated colours; Gangster Squad conveyed a gritty, old and worn-out look from days long gone sporting brownish overtones and crushed blacks; and The Hobbit delivered the “you are there” experience that the film has been praised for. Shot on Red Epic cameras, Peter Jackson’s revision of the novel was delivered with precision by the PN64F8500. I haven’t enjoyed this movie as much on my personal TV as I did on this Samsung. Perhaps it’s time to consider a new reference video display.

On the flip side, this TV is so precise at delivering Blu-ray content, it also shows how bad Blu-ray mastering can be. Watching the Star Trek films (parts 3 to 6) wasn’t as pleasant as the first two, and the same criticism goes to the original Star Wars trilogy for their horribly outdated transfers. Compression artefacts blur the image and cause movement in the image that isn’t there in the source. When watching a reference TV like this Samsung, it’s disappointing to see that not every Blu-ray is created equally. I’ve been intentionally sitting closer to this TV than most people do for two reasons: 1) my room is small, 2) to take up a greater field of view as if watching a bigger screen. This is no fault of Samsung, in fact, you want a TV that can reproduce the best image. The best images will look outstanding on the PN64F8500, while the not-so good ones, well there’s no saving those.

Watching Life of Pi in 3D was good, but not the greatest I’ve seen. The effects of 3D are still outstanding, and when calibrated for 3D, the PN64F8500’s image looked just as stunning as it does in 2D. My only complaint is that this TV’s light level seemed to fluctuate between bright and dark by a small amount. At first I thought it was the glasses I was wearing or the angle of my head, but I tried the other sets of glasses and the same thing happened consistently throughout the film. Most viewers may not notice this, but once seen it was tough to ignore.

I would feel very confident purchasing this TV. It looks great in the room, it offers an excellent image quality, a slick menu, it’s got useful Smart TV features, and its remote control is uncluttered, functional, and cool. It’s simple to use and has many options to help you out if you unsure how to get things working, including remote support from a live technician. The Samsung PN64F8500 is a mature plasma TV and provides the best of what plasma technology can deliver today. It knows what it wants to do and it does it very well. If you’re looking for a top-notch picture quality, without investing thousands of dollars into a 4K or OLED TV, this is one TV that you should definitely look at. At $3,499 this TV is worth every penny.

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF
Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
(905) 730-5996
[email protected]
www.thehighestfidelity.com

Samsung
www.samsung.ca
1-800-726-7864

Samsung 8500 Series 64-inch Plasma TV (PN64F8500)
Price: $3,499 CAD

Samsung UN55ES8000F 55-inch 3D LED TV

It was in the Aug/Sept 2012 issue of CANADA HiFi that I reviewed Samsung’s excellent flagship PN64E8000 plasma television. Equipped with many of the latest user technologies and delivering one of the finest images available, Samsung’s reference plasma television leaves little to desire. It’s no surprise that after years of successful products and good reviews, the same can be said of the company’s LED televisions. And just so everyone is clear, and LED TV is actually an LCD TV which uses an LED backlight. The UN55ES8000F, under review here, is part of Samsung’s reference ES8000 LED series, and offers nothing but improvements over previous year’s generation, reviewed in these pages just over a year ago. Reviewing this TV felt like meeting up with an old friend; we picked up exactly where we left off but with a few new stories to tell. The UN55ES8000F retails for $2,799 and like most higher-end TVs it offers 3D functionality and smart TV capability.

The outer edge of the UN55ES8000F appears almost identical compared to last year’s D8000 series, taking the picture right out to the edge of the frame while keeping the depth incredibly thin at 3 cm. What’s new for this year is an improved base which keeps the TV much more upright and stable from edge to edge, rather than being supported only from the centre. A camera also protrudes from the top of the frame for various Smart TV functions. The connections on the back include 3 HDMI inputs, 3 USB inputs, a terrestrial/cable RF input (and the TOSlink out for OTA), RCA component inputs including audio, and a mini-jack for composite video and audio. The UN55ES8000F has built-in Wi-Fi capability and also offers a hard-wire Ethernet option for faster and more reliable online service. A 62 page printed manual is included in the box but some owners might prefer the expanded E-manual accessed directly within the TV’s menu.

Those of you who read the PN64E8000 plasma television review in the Aug/Sept 2012 issue, might remember the many new controls the Smart TV offered. This LED set is no different in that respect. It comes with the traditional and comfortable Samsung infrared remote with large backlit buttons which is best used when not utilizing many of the Smart TV functions. The other option is the Bluetooth Smart Touch Controller which offers far more functionality. This new remote includes essential buttons for power, channel, and volume up/down as well as some new keys for menu navigation, voice control, and “slide-and-touch pad” functions. To utilize its universal remote functionality, you will need to use the external IR blaster (included) to allow this Bluetooth remote to send IR commands to other components. Android or Apple devices can be used to control this TV as well by downloading the appropriate app.

The built-in camera I mentioned earlier can be used for Skype video calling as well as “Smart Interactions” such as voice and gesture controls. The camera recognizes hand and arm movements which allow you to change volume and channels, and control menu navigation. As I quickly found out with the plasma TV, this LED TV must be mounted at a height where the camera can see you for the gesture controls to work properly. More specifically, the TV can’t be mounted too high. In practice, I found the voice and gesture controls worked quite well for basic TV functions. Maybe it’s becoming the old school way of doing things, but I did reach for the “simple” remote often just to get through items faster. Perhaps the voice and gesture controls will be more appealing to the younger crowd who are already familiar with these types of controls in their gaming systems. Give this feature a few more years to perfect and I’m sure it’ll be just as efficient as the hand-held remote. Until then, consumers have the option to enable or disable both features.

Samsung UN55ES8000F 55-inch 3D LED TV 03

In the past I’ve evaluated these Smart TVs primarily as a television while making note of all of its computer-related experiences. Since Samsung’s Smart Hub gave me the feeling that the TV and the PC have converged on the same device, I’ve taken a different approach while reviewing this TV. I decided to use it as my computer for online entertainment, web browsing, music production on Ableton, and general word processing (including the writing of this review). When connected to the home network, web and digital media can be enjoyed on a large screen rather than a puny computer screen. I generally cringe when I hear people watching movies on small computer screens. Not only is the monitor never set up correctly for picture quality, but often the resolution doesn’t match 1080p and requires unnecessary scaling and artefacts. Using the UN55ES8000F offers full 1080p as long as the content is offered in this resolution. I’ll repeat what I’ve said about Samsung’s plasma – many activities previously available only on computers are now possible right on the TV: an advanced movie, photo, and music experience; surfing the Internet on a full web browser; using applications such as Facebook and Twitter; and being able to watch Video on Demand. There are over 200 free and paid apps available for download from the app store (just like on your smartphone). Similar to the sharing capability of Apple products, Samsung’s Allshare technology allows content sharing with compatible Galaxy Tablets and mobile phones. The Smart Hub is navigated by the Smart Touch Controller and becomes fairly easy to operate once you get the hang of it.

After spending about a month using the TV’s online capability, I had mixed feelings about using the TV as the source for my online entertainment. Initially there was a “cool factor” about it but that quickly wore off. The TV is much slower more cumbersome at accessing and navigating online content and is no match for my PC or Mac Mini hooked up to one of TV’s the inputs. I did give it a fair chance by playing with it for such a long time. It definitely comes in handy and does the job if you don’t want to connect a computer to your TV as a source component. But because I had my PC connected via HDMI, I found myself always going back to the PC for everything that I wanted to do online. The image quality was also substantially improved this way. Maybe it’s familiarity, maybe convenience, or maybe a bit of both. As a result, I began wondering whether we need TV to replicate what we already have on so many devices such as smartphones, tablets and computers. Do we really need to access Facebook through the TV too? Perhaps all of this will make more sense in the future as TV processor speeds improve and navigation controls evolve. For now, I prefer just to watch conventional content on my TV.

As in the past, this Samsung TV didn’t disappoint when delivering pictures. All picture modes can be calibrated to the best they allow, with the exception of when you’re using the Smart TV apps. The menu gives an on-screen explanation of how each image adjustment affects the picture, which eliminates the need to refer to the paper manual. Like last year’s D8000 series, the amount of control Samsung offers for image parameters is mind boggling for the novice and without an understanding of the video system and capable measuring instruments, they will most often be left untouched. Samsung has rightly buried all of the advanced controls in the “advanced” and “picture options” sub-menus. Video calibrators may find it a bit cumbersome to navigate so deep in a menu structure for single adjustments (an advanced menu hot key on a remote would be a great addition). For those of you interested in having this reference video display calibrated, Samsung offers both 2-point and 10-point systems for precision gray scale and gamma adjustments, as well as a functioning Colour Management System (CMS). All calibration results of this set will be available on the CANADA HiFi forum at www.canadahifi.com//forum. I will briefly mention in this review that this TV closely conforms to the TV standard and those who enjoy the most accurate picture will be excited to get this television calibrated in both 2D and 3D modes. The UN55ES8000F can convert 2D content to 3D and comes supplied with with four active, lighter weight, third generation 3D glasses which are much more comfortable than any other pair I previously used.

After tweaking the TV to test patterns, it was now time to evaluate its true performance. I started with some over-the-air HD programming and have to say that I really enjoy Samsung’s menus for checking signal strength, programming and navigating over-the-air channels. The image quality was far superior compared to HD cable and satellite, simply because the signal is less compressed. Whether I was watching TV shows or newscasts on CBC in 720p or on CTV in 1080i, the Samsung did not disappoint. The image was sharp and detailed with no noticeable edge enhancements even with the controls for this function turned off.

To test this TV’s video performance with Blu-ray discs, I began with the medical conspiracy film Coma (1978) starring Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold. An odd selection? Maybe, but Warner Bros does a great job at delivering catalogue titles to Blu-ray. The UN55ES8000F kept the look of film intact, even though I was watching 1080p video. There wasn’t a trace of digital artefacts that I could consider objectionable when considering the current video standards. Skin tones were fair, black level was decent for an older film, and white level didn’t appear peaked. When adjusting the backlight, the TV excelled at competing with ambient light and performed better in this regard than any plasma television could.

I also viewed the Wrath of the Titans (2012) Blu-ray, starring Sam Worthington and Liam Neeson, a film that I used to review Samsung’s PN64E8000 plasma in the previous issue. This fast moving film put the TV’s motion response time to the test. Often criticized for lagging behind plasma televisions, LCD motion response has improved over the years. The result is that faster moving images look clearer on the screen. Since all televisions reduce resolution when displaying moving objects, Samsung offers two features – called LED Motion Plus and Auto Motion Plus – to help eliminate this “blurry” problem. Both are on/off selectable and the latter is adjustable in varying amounts. I did not detect a visual advantage using LED Motion Plus. Aside from making the picture a bit darker, I struggled to find a difference when viewing a variety of moving resolution patterns from a video pattern generator and real life video content. Hence I decided to leave this feature off. Activating Auto Motion Plus created a new “look” to video that most people aren’t accustomed to. With this feature enabled the image looked clear and devoid of blur, but also unnaturally sped-up and made film look like it was shot with a hand-held video camera. It’s a choice one needs to make before investing time in front of this television. There are four different Motion Plus options in this menu, one being customizable to personal taste. This feature in general can have both a positive and negative effect on resolution integrity depending on the signal being fed. For example, I found using this feature for native 1080p/24 frames per second a good thing in either standard or custom mode. Clarity was excellent and blurring was absent once getting used to the new look, a look that you’ll need to experience for yourself to fully understand. But I found that the feature did not work so well for 1080p/60 and 1080i sources. Resolution tests showed that in addition to enhanced edges, there was smearing in fine moving detail despite the reduction in blur as well as the occasional hiccup with skipping frames (it looked like the video jumped). Once you determine what’s best for your viewing, you’ll need to decide whether it’s worth your time to activate or deactivate this feature depending on signal type. When viewing this film, the television provided just as much visual stimulation as the Samsung’s latest plasma TV with just slightly less colour fidelity and with a black level that left little to be desired. I still prefer the uniform black level of the plasma, but when the LED’s lamp level is brought up higher for brighter room environments, this LED TV may be the preferred television for dark, fast action films and gaming.

Samsung UN55ES8000F 55-inch 3D LED TV 02

The new Bluetooth 3D glasses are significantly lighter in weight from last year. Since I haven’t purchased any 3D movies lately, I continue to spin my favourite familiar clips from the IMAX 3D Under the Sea and Hubble, as well as The Polar Express and Final Destination 5. I looked for any obvious signs of ghosting with little success. 3D has truly gotten much better since its introduction and crosstalk was very minimal on this Samsung TV. All 3D glasses dim the picture, so the TV kicks itself into a brighter picture mode to offset the glasses. The image did look spectacular after calibration, perhaps even a bit better than the plasma I tested previously because of the increased light output from the LED backlight. While I didn’t test it, I can only imagine that 3D gaming would be terrific on this panel.

During the review I also tried watching some 1080p streamed video but quickly decided that it looked rather disappointing. This TV is just too revealing of the unsightliness of streamed video when compared to a Blu-ray disc. Regardless of the image setting, Netflix and Apple TV looked soft and exhibited video blocking, low detail, and lower colour resolution. I believe in quality over convenience and right now there’s too wide of a gap between convenience and quality. The image quality sacrifice from streamed video was just too much for me. We’re still some time away from substituting discs for downloads. The point is that you won’t experience the full capability of this television if you stream most of your video content from apps such as YouTube or devices like the Apple TV. To truly take advantage of this TV you’ll definitely want to watch Blu-ray discs on it. Its video streaming capability can be considered as an added bonus.

Viewing pictures from my digital camera on the other hand was quite a big surprise. With the Mac Mini feeding the signal via HDMI, my photo collection on this calibrated TV set offered depth and realism that I’ve never noticed before on my computer monitor. This was definitely an enjoyable experience.

Samsung is consistently advancing the picture quality and pushing the envelope of smart TV functionality with each new generation of its TVs. The UN55ES8000F is one of the highest performance 2D and 3D LED TVs available in stores today and with a price of $2,799 it should be attainable to all who appreciate a good quality picture. Its smart TV functionality, while not something I would take advantage of very often, will surely be embraced by some users and show the company’s forward-thinking approach to product development. And for this, we can all be grateful.

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
(905) 730-5996
www.thehighestfidelity.com

Samsung
www.samsung.ca
1-800-726-7864

Samsung UN55ES8000F 3D LED TV
Price: $2,799 CAD

Monitor Audio is a British company that was founded in 1972 and quickly established itself as a credible manufacturer in the audio community. The company’s profile has evolved over the decades to include speakers within different budgets, all the while keeping consistent with both design philosophy and build quality. Monitor Audio is perhaps one of the most recognized manufacturers using metal dome drivers, a material that the company continues to refine, which results in a sound distinctive from paper or plastic cones. The Monitor Audio MR Series represents the company’s most affordable range of full-sized speakers and is designed for those who would like to get a better quality, better sounding product than speakers from a big box store at a comparable price point. The series consists of five speaker models: MR6 ($799/pair), MR4 ($599/pair), MR2 ($399/pair), MR1 ($299/pair) and MR Centre ($259 each). The accompanying MRW10 subwoofer goes for $499. My review set included the MR4 (x2), MR1 (x2), MR Centre and MRW10 subwoofer, for a total system price of $1656. As with many speaker products today, the MR Series is designed in the home country and manufactured in China to be competitively priced. The MR Series uses trickle-down technology from the company’s high end speakers and promises to stay true to Monitor Audio’s sound. Let’s take a closer look at each of the models used in this review.

The MR4 is a non-obtrusive 2.5-way floor-standing loudspeaker which stands about 34 inches tall, and has a depth of just above 10 inches. Its non-dominating appearance is a perfect fit in smaller spaces. I first placed these speakers in a 12 by 14 foot room and they could not have looked better. The polished look of the black oak vinyl suits a variety of décor and is easy to clean. This floorstanding speaker’s tweeter lined up just below my ear level when seated and the midbass/bass drivers were aimed at me, as if they were about to unleash a sound unheard of in this small space. The technology highlights of the MR4 consist of the C-CAM tweeter and the MMP II driver cone. The 1 inch gold dome C-CAM (Ceramic-Coated Aluminium/Magnesium) tweeter is both rigid and light enough to be used for a tweeter. It has a much higher resistance to flexing and twisting during operation compared to a conventional cone. Monitor Audio claims the tweeter’s high frequency extension can deliver detail all the way up to 30 kHz. The C-CAM tweeter is housed in its own chamber to eliminate unwanted resonances. The result is improved stereo imaging during playback. The two 6.5 inch MMP II (Metal Matrix Polymer) cones in each MR4 speaker also follow Monitor Audio’s metal driver design. This driver’s stiffness is created by applying a high pressure injection process, infusing the polypropylene base with metallic particles. The drivers are affixed in their own chambers and are optimised for each MR loudspeaker. One is a mid-range driver and the other is used for bass. Both are said to improve past designs by offering better off-axis response, life-like timber and better reproduction of the critical frequency range for voices. The speaker is front and rear-ported and comes with removable port bungs (foam plugs) which can be used to fine-tune the sound during speaker placement. A removable grill is included with each speaker. The dual speaker posts accept spades, banana plugs, and bare wire; and allow for bi-wiring and bi-amping – I did all of my listening in a bi-wire configuration. The speakers include a set of four spikes which should be used to decrease the colouration of the sound created by the floor.

The MR Centre includes the same technology found in the MR4 which of course makes it a perfect match for the tower speakers. It uses a 1 inch C-CAM tweeter and two 5.5 inch MMP II bass/midrange cones. The enclosure is sealed which helps with bass tightness rather than depth – the MR Centre is said to play down to 60 Hz. Bass tightness is important for a centre channel to ensure that voices don’t sound thick and heavy. The MR Centre can be used in either a horizontally or vertically configuration. If I had the choice I would place this speaker vertically, strictly for improved dispersion characteristics but this may be difficult to accomplish in most living rooms. The speaker includes the same high quality posts as the MR4, just without the bi-wire option. The grill is also removable.

The MR1 bookshelf speaker is attractive in appearance and size. It has a solid feel because of its rigid cabinet bracing and it looks just as good, with the grills on or off, as its larger siblings. If you can, I recommend keeping the grills off for both appearance and improved sound quality. The MR1 uses the same 1 inch C-CAM tweeter and 5.5 inch MMP II driver as the MR Centre. The same high quality binding posts ensure a strong grip on spades or bare wire. The MR1 is designed to be placed on a stand or a shelf – or to be mounted on the wall with a Monitor Audio wall mount.

The MRW10 subwoofer is equipped with a 10 inch MMP II driver and a 100 watt class-D power amplifier, which gives it its punch. The subwoofer is surprisingly small for the big sound it delivers, outputting frequencies cleanly down to about 30 Hz. Monitor Audio has not cut corners with options on this sub. The amplifier has three power switch modes: On, Auto and Off. With the switch ‘On’, the subwoofer never turns off so it’ll always be ready for bass, even if there is no LFE information for extended periods of time. The ‘Auto’ mode is intended for power saving so it takes a signal to turn the subwoofer on. When there is no signal for 10 to 15 minutes, the subwoofer switches to a standby mode until a signal is received again. The ‘Off’ mode is exactly what it sounds like – off. The MR4 speakers aren’t considered to be ‘large’ full range speakers, so leaving the subwoofer in ‘Auto’ makes most sense because bass management will direct low frequencies to the sub consistently. A switch is used to control phase at 0 or 180 degrees rather a variable control, and most installs will require it at 0 degrees. A crossover bypass switch is an advantage on this sub, since most installs will have the MRW10 working in conjunction with the AV receiver’s subwoofer crossover control for advanced bass management.

The owner’s manual goes into good detail about loudspeaker placement for stereo, 5.1 and 7.1 surround systems, including tips about placement along the listening arc and toe-in. I followed the guidelines in my personal set-up which placed the MR4s each at approximately 30 degrees off centre with an 8 foot spread, and the MR1s between 135 to 150 degrees off centre. Monitor Audio recommends placement of each speaker at least 10 inches from the wall on all sides. Any speaker should really follow this rule or expect the sound and soundstage to become cloudy and less coherent. If this isn’t possible, the port bungs may be needed to fine-tune the sound. The centre channel should be placed as close to the listener’s head as possible, but if not possible, ensure the speaker is angled up or down toward the listener’s ears, otherwise you will experience serious dialogue intelligibility problems. Subwoofer placement will need to be determined in your own room using a variety of techniques (which can be found in various articles on www.canadahifi.com/) and you are encouraged to explore the best options for seamless integration.

I tested these speakers on three different systems – one 2-channel system and two home theatre setups. I’m a strong believer that in order for speakers to perform their best, they need to be fed with appropriate high quality amplification, ensuring that the front-end never fails to deliver clean power to the speakers. This being said, just because the price of these speakers is considered to be in the “affordable” range, don’t assume that mating them with a cheap AV receiver will simply do the trick. While the speakers will certainly produce sound, they won’t deliver the best sound they’re capable of. These speakers will easily differentiate between an entry-level AV receiver and a higher-end preamp/amp combo, although of course the MR Series will reach their limit somewhere in between.

For stereo listening I connected the speakers to my Ayre K-1xe preamp, a pair of Theta Enterprise monoblocks, the D-1xe CD player and the Clearaudio Solution turntable (outfitted with a Benz-Micro Glider S cartridge. In a surround setting, I chose to run the speakers with both high-end and entry-level electronics: the high-end setup consisted of the Integra DTC-9.8 surround preamp with five Theta Enterprise monoblocks, and the entry-level setup used a Denon AVR-1706 receiver. All of my impressions of sound below are based on having the speakers connected to these different pieces of electronics. The entry-level receiver did show restraint in dynamics, bass, and treble clarity through these speakers which was completely expected.

I first listened to the small MR1 bookshelf speakers as a stereo pair. The mid range, where most vocals take place, is this speaker’s strongest area. Bjork’s voice on her “Debut” album sounded realistic and the MR1 delivered the dynamic clarity within the recordings. In Tori Amos’ ‘Past the Mission’ on the “Under the Pink” album, her vocal clarity was convincingly good – in fact much better than I would expect from a speaker at this price point. Male vocals on the other hand, depended on the recording. Trent Reznor’s backing vocals on the same track sounded throaty unless I installed the port bungs, which in effect made him more difficult to hear. Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” (45rpm vinyl) has Thom Yorke’s voice forward in the mix as well. Without the port bungs, the speakers had a bit more low-end extension but exhibited heaviness with male voices. With the port bungs installed the effect was reduced with a slight perception that the bass didn’t extend as low. Vocals in Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” album are recorded further back in the mix and David Gilmour sounded fine amongst his guitar strums, bungs installed or not. You’ll need to test out your favourite recordings with the bung options. Across different recordings, the speaker’s limited bass response and splashy top end reduced the soundstage clarity. The MR1s compact size and capabilities makes them best suited as surround speakers rather than main speakers.

The MR4 is a different story. Immediately I noticed a greatly wider and immersive soundstage on all recordings as well as a much tighter and focused centre image. The music seemed to move around more, feel more fluid and had room to breathe – no doubt due to the larger cabinet size. Bass extension was deeper and greater in amplitude. I still couldn’t quite tap my foot along with the kick drum, but it was there this time among the other instruments. The midrange sounded near-identical in tone to the MR1 but with greater precision and spaciousness. The sounds of cymbals now had a step up in clarity, albeit sounded a little on the brassy side. Like the MR1, the MR4 still had some difficulties reproducing complex passages in music when there are many tracks layered in the mix at once. I found the MR4 to sound best in my room with a port bung inserted in the rear port of the speaker (associated with the top driver). This gave the impression of greater bass extension without sacrificing midrange clarity. The sound of both speakers was greatly improved when used with the grills off.

Of course the main purpose of this review was to evaluate the MR Series in a 5.1 surround configuration and this is what I proceeded to next. I listened to music and watched movies with the speakers connected to both my separate components (calibrated with Audyssey Pro) and the entry-level AV receiver (set with a sound level meter). To squeeze the best performance out of any speaker system, you’ll want to make sure that everything is setup correctly. Listening to the Blu-ray of “David Gilmour: Live at Royal Albert Hall” still brings a flood of emotions when I hear the music. The MR4 speakers had no difficulties turning my room into a concert hall and delivered the appropriate reverberation and liveliness of the great musicians on stage. The loud rock of “Marilyn Manson: Guns, God, and Government Live in L.A.” pumped out full-on aggression and sounded very dynamic. The MRW10 subwoofer blended very well with the mains and did not disappoint. Where the MR4 and MR1 rolled off, the MRW10 took over seamlessly. The subwoofer, seemingly endless in output in moderately sized rooms, seemed to transform the MR4 into an entirely different speaker. The two blended together as if they were one, and the sound punctuated dramatic effects on Blu-ray titles such as “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and “War Horse”. The MR system was capable of good dynamics, maybe just a bit stiff sounding during the most intense scenes, but created satisfying sound as a whole. For those who prefer dialogue driven films, “Inglorious Bastards” and “Bridges of Madison County” (DVD) relied heavily on the MR Centre to do the work. Being a centre speaker is a tough job because good placement is often restrictive. The MR Centre did not like to be placed close to the floor. Doing so reduced dialogue intelligibility considerably. I often missed lines of dialogue because of how the speaker was reacting with the floor when placed horizontally on the lower shelf below the TV. Raising the speaker up higher to the listening position improved dialogue as did placing the speaker vertically below the TV, angled up at the listening position. The centre speaker has similar sound characteristics as the MR1 but also appeared to have a slightly greater sensitivity to placement. Again, experimentation will be needed in your room to get the best possible centre channel sound.

The Monitor Audio MR Series offers a great step forward for those looking for an immersive sound experience from a non-dominating speaker system at a very reasonable price point. I can honestly say that this system would beat most speakers that you’d find in a big box store, even those sold at significantly higher price points. These speakers are particularly well suited for movie and surround music discs, and come with a subwoofer that’s tight without much overhang or distortion. The speakers’ stiff cabinet feel and weight is bound to get nods from the men. Ladies will certainly appreciate the silver and gold drivers – they are like jewels in a nice compact cabinet. When good appearances and sound come together in an affordable package – everyone wins!

Monitor Audio
www.monitoraudio.ca

Distributed in Canada by Kevro International, www.kevro.com
(800) 667-6065 / (905) 428-2800

Monitor Audio MR Series
Price (CAD):
MR6 ($799/pair)
MR4 ($599/pair)
MR2 ($399/pair)
MR1 ($299/pair)
MR Centre ($259 each)
MRW10 subwoofer ($499 each)
5.1 System as tested: $1,656

There’s always a learning curve in life. From the first time I put my feet on the pedals of a bicycle to the first time I asked a girl on a date, I learned how to make the best of these experiences despite how complicated or awkward they seemed at the time. Admittedly, asking a girl on a date for the first time could have gone a little smoother. In my 20’s, fresh out of university, I wanted to explore the world without fear and remember the time I climbed a mountain with a friend in the Yukon off the Dempster Highway and stumbled upon a Grizzly bear and her cubs. Now I’m in my mid-thirties and truly appreciate learning new things from the experiences that life sends my way. Case in point is Samsung’s new PN64E8000 3D plasma TV ($3,999) from the top-of-the-line E-series. Evaluating TV picture quality and features is my passion and provides me with plenty of new things to learn – and is much safer than some of the other experiences since it keeps me from being mauled by Grizzly bears.

Samsung has created some wonderful products over the years, each with its own uniqueness compared to the competition. In addition to watching movies and TV shows, Samsung’s TVs allow us to visit exotic places around the world from the safety of the living room couch. The 2010 plasma C-series offered a significantly improved picture quality over previous generations. The 2011 D-series further improved picture quality, while making a rapid movement to make TVs “smarter” than ever before. The new 2012 E-series, subject to this review, continues this trend, especially in the “smart TV” department, offering features previously not available in TV sets from any manufacturers.

The exterior of the PN64E8000 appears to look identical to last year’s D-series. Its depth measures just 1.9 inches and the dark borders around the screen create the perception of a greater contrast ratio when compared to Samsung’s borderless LCD brothers. The screen surface has a tinted and semi-reflective finish to reduce reflections from the viewing environment and likely to assist with achieving deeper black levels. The connections on the back include 3 HDMI inputs, 2 USB inputs, a terrestrial/cable RF input, and composite/component inputs. The PN64E8000 has built-in Wi-Fi capability and also offers a hard-wire Ethernet option for faster and more reliable online service. A 53 page printed manual is included in the box and an expanded E-manual can be accessed directly on the TV itself.

Samsung has given owners many options for controlling this TV. In the box, there are two remotes. The first one is a traditional Samsung infrared remote with large backlit buttons – it is comfortable to hold and use. If you are buying this TV just for its image quality and won’t be using any of its “smart” features, this remote is for you. But those who want to venture beyond the traditional world of television, will quickly turn their attention to the new Smart Touch Controller which offers far more functionality – once you learn how to use it of course. Since this remote communicates with the TV via Bluetooth, you can control it pretty much anywhere in the room without pointing it directly at the TV. The Smart Touch Controller does have the essential TV buttons for power, channel, volume up/down, and some new keys for menu navigation, voice control and functions. Functions are controlled by sliding your finger around and light presses of the touch pad on this remote. Since this is a universal controller it will allow you to control other components such as Blu-ray players, satellite boxes, etc. You will however need to use the external IR blaster (included) to allow this Bluetooth remote to send IR commands to other components. Would you prefer to use your Android or Apple device to control the TV? Samsung has got you covered here as well – you can download control apps for just about any Android and Apple product.

Oh, and we’re not done yet. I never thought I’d be writing about “Smart Interactions”, Samsung’s new buzz term for voice and gesture controls. That’s right – with the help from a built-in camera the TV can recognize hand and arm movements to change volume and channels as well as allow menu navigation. For this to work, the TV must be mounted at a height where the camera can see you and there must be some light in the room. Is this the future of TVs or what? The camera also doubles for Skype video calling. A built-in microphone delivers your voice to those on the other side of a Skype call, and like the camera, it doubles as a voice controller for the TV. If you are within 14 feet of the TV, it will respond to your commands after saying “Hi TV”. At this point, the volume of the TV drops and the TV listens for another voice command. A cool feature indeed! This reminded me of the scene in Back to the Future II when Marty McFly walks into his living room and activates his wall mounted TV with voice commands. Since the movie takes place in 2015, it looks like the film writers were dead-on with this technological innovation. I’m still waiting for the hoverboard however. In practice I found the gesture and voice control to work well for the basic TV functions but I did reach for the “simple” remote to do essential first time set-up items like configuring my wireless network. If you don’t want Smart Interactions to interfere with your daily business or to avoid any embarrassing moments, you have the option to disable both features. When looking at all the control options, Samsung has clearly left the power in your hands – this time not literally!

Now that I learned how to control the TV, I began exploring its features. Samsung’s Smart Hub gives you the feeling that the TV and the PC have converged in the same device. When connected to the home network, the web and media entertainment can be enjoyed on a truly large screen rather than the dinky screen of a desktop or laptop computer. Many activities previously available only on computers are now possible right on the TV: an advanced movie, photo, and music experience; surfing the Internet on a full web browser; using applications such as Facebook and Twitter; and being able to watch Video on Demand. There are over 200 free and paid apps available for download from the app store (just like on your smartphone). Similar to the sharing capability of Apple products, Samsung’s Allshare technology allows content sharing with compatible Galaxy Tablets and mobile phones. The Smart Hub is navigated by the Smart Touch Controller and becomes fairly easy to operate once you get the hang of it.

The Smart Hub has received a facelift since I last looked at it when reviewing the 2011 Samsung TVs. I immediately started looking at the free fitness apps and downloaded an app that has a nice Australian-accented fitness instructor telling me how I’m gonna do a great job. Rather than watching the routine full screen, I chose to watch myself in a virtual mirror as I’m doing the exercises. Since the built-in camera is located at the top of the TV, if you plan on wall mounting it and intend to use the camera, the TV must be at a height that is suitable for Skype calling and other interactive activities or else all you might see is your head and the top of the room. If you use a wall-mount, make sure that it pivots.

But what if you don’t care about any of the above features? Regular CANADA HiFi readers should recall that previous generations of the Samsung plasmas have been praised for excellent image quality in these pages. Those looking for a top notch picture quality will also want to turn their attention to the PN64E8000 since it offers the very best picture of any Samsung TV.

The PN64E8000 has several picture presets all of which can be customized on a per input basis. With the exception of the Dynamic picture mode, all other modes can be calibrated in the picture settings menus. The graphical design of the menu gives an on-screen explanation of how each image adjustment affects the picture, rather than needing to refer to the manual.

The picture presets include Dynamic, Standard, Relax and Movie. The manual’s explanation of these presets is useless. They assume you will never have this TV adjusted correctly to your video equipment and room environment, so provided are a few options that you can match “closest to” as the names somewhat suggest. The amount of control Samsung gives over image parameters is mind boggling for the novice and without an understanding of the video system and capable measuring instruments, they will be left untouched. Samsung has rightly buried all of the advanced controls in the “advanced” and “picture options” sub-menus. Video calibrators may find it a bit cumbersome to navigate so deep in a menu structure for single adjustments (an advanced menu hot key on a remote would be a great addition). For those of you interested in having this reference video display calibrated, Samsung offers both 2-point and 10-point systems for precision gray scale and gamma adjustments, as well as a Colour Management System (CMS). With correct positioning of the controls, there is enough range for the picture to achieve a bright picture without clipping, the brightest white signals while also delivering deep black levels without sacrificing black detail.

Sitting at the top of Samsung’s TV line-up, the PN64E8000 is an active 3D TV and will also convert 2D content to 3D content. The 3D picture controls are kept almost 100 percent separate from the 2D modes, so the image can be specifically calibrated with standard image controls and the 2-point grayscale system. The 10-point control is locked out and the CMS adjustment borrows the values from the 2D mode. Despite the inflexibility of the 10-point control and CMS with 3D, I didn’t find I needed that extra control in 3D as I needed it in 2D. The television comes with two pairs of active, lighter weight, third generation 3D glasses which are much more comfortable than any other pair I have previously used.

Using my Accupel DVG-5000 video generator, both 1080i/p and 720p signals were displayed with no overscan and looked equally sharp. 480i/p signals did have a bit of overscan applied and did not have a screen fit option or an ability to adjust height and width separately. This means if you play a DVD with 480i/p resolution, a little bit of top-bottom-side information will be lost. If using a Blu-ray player set to either high def resolutions this won’t be an issue.

Black level measured 0.0062 fL with a 0% PLUGE pattern because if the TV is fed 0% only, the TV dims the panel to black like LCD sets do (measuring this doesn’t represent the TV’s real black level with picture information and will give a false contrast ratio measurement). While not the blackest panel available, it is one of the higher performers. The PN64D8000 is not short on light output for a screen this size and can compete with a wide variety of room lighting. Without clipping the signal, this TV can easily achieve a reference light level of 45 fL. I’ll accept these measurements as a reference any day!

Greyscale was adjusted using both the 2-point and 10-point RGB controls with the latter also used as a functional gamma control. Despite all user presets being far out from the D65 white point standard, I found this TV exceptionally easy to work with during the video calibration procedure, delivering results on the targets I was after. After calibration, the TV measured exceptionally accurate at 10 drive levels, with a dE of 3 or lower. The on/off contrast ratio measured by alternating the 100 % white window and the 0 % PLUGE measured at 7,250:1. More meaningful is the 100 % ANSI checkerboard contrast ratio which simulates real image content; it measured an average of 1,100:1 from all edges to the centre, which is excellent for a plasma. All measurements were taken with my reference Konica-Minolta CS-1000A spectroradiometer. For more extensive calibration results, please visit the CANADA HiFi Forum at www.canadahifi.com//forum.

Moving from test patterns to real video, I first watched the newly released Wrath of the Titans (2D) Blu-ray, starring Sam Worthington and Liam Neeson. A semi-sequel to the terrible remake of Clash of the Titans, this movie packs both energetic and visual punch in its 90 minute runtime. The image displayed on the Samsung looked stunning with all of its detail and resolution. In this dry world with monsters and mayhem, the violent bursts of flames and kicking up of dust looked convincingly real during Perseus’ battles. There is lots of action on the screen and I didn’t feel that I missed a beat. The Samsung panel is extremely fast in relaying fast action scenes to the viewer which is great for action films and gamers. The high brightness of this TV, without the sacrifice of the deepest blacks, gives an excellent sense of depth and shape to images on the screen. As Chronos goes on a rampage at the film’s climax, his fiery body and unchallenged power threatened to burn up the very room I was viewing the movie in.

I also viewed Jackie Chan’s dramatic role in 1911: Fall of the Last Empire, a film about the fall of the Qing Dynasty by the brave revolutionaries who risked and lost their lives. I was a little disappointed with the length of the movie – feeling that too many events were crammed into too short of a time – but I wasn’t disappointed with how the Samsung delivered this historical Chinese story. The warmth in hues, rendering of colours and excellent contrast delivered in every scene resulted in a visually spectacular treat. I felt the same, if not better, about War Horse. Absolutely striking to look at in every possible way, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography was replicated in the strictest fashion. I highly recommend revisiting some of your Blu-ray collection on this television.

Satisfied with the TV’s 2D performance, I moved on to some 3D content. The 3D glasses included with this TV operate with Bluetooth technology and their weight is further reduced from last year. I watched my favourite clips from the IMAX 3D discs I own (Under the Sea, Hubble) and a few other films I had on hand (The Polar Express, Final Destination 5). The glasses are a cozy fit and delivered native 3D content with ease. All 3D glasses dim the picture and Samsung makes sure enough light gets through from the panel. After calibrating the 3D mode, I found the image to look spectacular. It wasn’t noisy. It was punchy. It had enormous depth and detail, and colours looked fantastic. It looked just as if I were watching a 2D movie without the glasses. The annoying crosstalk (one eye’s image interfering with the other) doesn’t appear to be an issue here either because I didn’t notice it throughout my viewing. Samsung’s 2D to 3D conversion also performs well for non-3D content.

To see the full resolution of 2D video and to get the immersive experience of 3D, I recommend a viewing distance of 7 to 9 feet for this TV. Further distances are certainly possible, but like any TV, the smallest details of 1080p will become less noticeable.
The Samsung PN64E8000 seems to deliver the same image quality as the previous generation 8000 series, with just a bit more light output. Contrast, colour, grayscale, and resolution have solid delivery. The new Smart Touch Controller and voice and gesture commands take some getting used to but after practice they all become easy to master. The improvements made in the Smart Hub propel this TV to the front of the pack, if social media and web browsing is something you would like to do on your TV. This TV packs excellent value for a flagship model with modern and informative menus, extensive image quality controls, and innovative use. I’m highly impressed!

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
(905) 730-5996,
[email protected],
www.thehighestfidelity.com

Samsung
www.samsung.ca
1-800-726-7864

Samsung PN64E8000 3D Plasma TV
Price: $3,999 CAD

Much of the discussion about any flat panel television today is its ability to display true black, like the now historical CRT. There seems to be a race to the “bottom” between all technologies and a desire to move away from the milky-white black levels we’ve seen on most consumer flat panel displays since inception. After all, a good black level – and an accurate one – is the first priority in a series of steps to making a good picture. Without a good black level there is a loss of dynamic range between black and white, or what the marketing departments refer to most often – contrast ratio. Some technologies literally shut down sections of the panel to create dark black but the results can often appear uneven. Plasma technology attempts the use of filters to some degree, enough to keep perceived black level lower, but not enough to cut light output significantly. Panasonic’s flagship VT-series plasma design is considered by many to have the best black levels available today. It has been hailed by video calibrators to measure the lowest level of black among competitors. With its Infinite Black PRO 2 panel technology and the success of last year’s VT series, can the company’s latest offering live up to the same expectations among video enthusiasts and movie buffs? Let’s take a look at the Panasonic TC-P55VT30, the company’s latest 55 inch 3D plasma TV.

This year’s VT-series has an overhauled design and uses a new thinner panel. It sheds 1.4 inches in thickness from last year’s model measuring a mere 2.2 inches deep and is thin enough, with the right wall bracket, to barely protrude from the wall. Weighing in at 84 pounds, the panel feels heavy so it’s best to use two people to safely mount and dismount this unit from a pedestal or an on-wall mount. Thankfully there are handles under the panel that make this an easier chore. The front of the TV is clean of controls and the side buttons have moved from the left side to the right side of the TV and are much less bulky than the large raised buttons of past generations.

Realizing that good quality video switchers have rapidly penetrated the A/V receiver market for the connection of multiple sources, Panasonic has slimmed down the TV’s video input offerings. Miniplugs, HDMI, computer, and USB connections are what can be found, plus an ATSC tuner connector which I used for all of my over-the-air HD viewing with audio output via optical digital. Since all connectors are tiny, Panasonic includes a bag full of adaptors to make connections easier. The only connection that isn’t detachable is the power cord, which is hard-wired into the TV so upgrading to after-market power cords is not possible.

When connected to the Internet with an Ethernet cable or through Wi-Fi (a wireless LAN adapter is provided) the VIERA Connect feature turns the TV into an interactive entertainment device designed around games, news, social networking and other online applications. Access to all these features is activated with the Viera Cast button on the remote. There is not much information about this feature in the manual or online so it’s best to play around with it to fully understand it.

To explore VIERA Connect, I plugged an Ethernet cable into the TV. Using the TV’s standard remote control (no QWERTY keyboard here like the one provided with some of the new Samsung models), I did learn how to efficiently navigate the menus after a couple of faulty attempts, but in little time it was smooth surfing. I began by setting my location to get the most accurate weather forecast because I’m a bit of a weather nut. But since talking about the weather isn’t the best subject to socialize about, I decided to try a few other free applications. VIERA Connect allows you to connect to popular networking sites like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Picasa Web Albums, Cinemanow, Fox Sports and others. You’ll need a USB keyboard to fully take advantage of the offerings here but I found many free applications and games to use with the basic remote control. I spent a good deal of time playing chess against the TV (who would have thought?) as well as a variety of other cute games of varying difficulties. If games aren’t your cup of tea, there is also some video content that can be accessed through VIERA Connect. Since this is a 3D TV, I also played around with some of the 3D downloadable content. While much of it was paid material, there were some free demos available which I tried out. The detail of the 3D material was about as good as standard definition resolution, but with the addition of three dimensionality.

3D video quality is improved in this VT generation by reducing crosstalk between images (crosstalk is the term used to describe seeing double images when wearing the glasses) – Panasonic has created a crosstalk canceller to minimize the double images. Using the Accupel DVG-5000 3D pattern generator, I measured crosstalk to be approximately 3 percent per eye, which is fairly low. The less crosstalk there is, the better the 3D experience. Emission time and process of the phosphors have improved this year to minimize left eye to right eye frame interference. These improvements also reduce what we call image decay or afterglow, which presents itself as images staying on the screen for a fraction of a second too long and thus blurring fine detail. Each pixel on the screen is made up of three subpixels (red, green and blue) and the speed of their rise and decay time is very fast. This combined with Panasonic’s 600Hz subfield drive technology and the other technologies mentioned above improve the clarity of moving images.

Let’s get a little more technical as measurements are the important selling features of this television. The TC-P55VT30 uses the Infinite Black PRO 2 panel which is supposed to produce blacks deeper than the company’s ST and GT models. With both the ST and VT in my lab side by side, appearances are deceiving when the TV is turned off. It looks as if the ST has a darker panel; one would think that the ST series would have a deeper black when playing back images. But when the panels are turned on and are displaying a 0% black signal, it is clear that the VT30 model is not emitting as much light. The advantage is that movies shot in the dark will bring us closer to the dark reality intended by the filmmaker, and all dark images will be shown more accurately rather than in a haze of gray as competing TVs will show.

Using the Konica-Minolta SC-1000A spectroradiometer, one of the best reference measuring instruments available today, I was able to measure the ST/GT series televisions black level at about 0.008fL (0.03nt) repeatable, which is the black level of a CRT reference studio monitor. When using a white level window reference of 35fL, the sequential (on/off) contrast ratio is 4375:1. The TC-P55VT30 had no problem surpassing those numbers, with a black level measuring 0.0043fL, a difference of nearly 0.004fL. While this very small number may seem like an insignificant amount, it elevates the measured sequential contrast ratio to 8140:1. This is a significant improvement and those who will watch this TV in a dark room will benefit greatly. The black level can be further reduced (with just a hint of reduction in white) when the 24p mode is engaged and displayed at 96 Hz. This should eliminate 2-3 pulldown and show film images with less judder, but does so with a bit of flicker. The measured black level dropped to 0.0035fL, bringing the sequential contrast up to 10 000:1. These black measurements are lower than that of reference CRT monitor measurements and are blacker than black, or I should say our previous black reference with greater contrast ratios. These are great measurements with test patterns and equal to that of last year’s VT25, but how do they look with real video material?

There are six picture presets offered by this TV and only a few of them will realize the black level capability, so I recommend staying with Standard, Cinema, THX or Custom. This is the only series in Panasonic’s line-up that has four ISFccc DAY/NIGHT picture modes, two for 2D and two for 3D, and can be activated and controlled via RS-232 by a qualified ISF/THX video calibrator. These modes allow some more image adjustment flexibility and the ability to lock the settings in, preventing others from tampering with the image (great for curious kids, or the kid in us). The THX mode also works well for 3D viewing on this year’s model. And just to make sure you don’t miss out on any 3D viewing, the TV includes one pair of 3D glasses in the box.

August was Sylvester Stallone month for Warner Bros., so I indulged in a marathon of Blu-ray films of different ages. Cobra, Demolition Man, The Specialist, and Assassins were on my hit list, and I also checked out Copycat with Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver. Without a doubt, I enjoyed these movies in a darkened room. Copycat is a serial killer thriller, not a good one by any means, and with a Blu-ray video transfer I viewed as significantly flawed, the film still has deep black levels. Many scenes take place in Weaver’s dark apartment building to heighten the tension and the 55VT30 had no difficulties recreating the grim feeling. Cobra, Demolition Man, and Assassins were much more of a visual treat. The 55VT30 easily showed the differences between the ages of these films. The resolution was excellent when all intrusive edge enhancers are turned off. The rough film appearance of Cobra, grain and all, gave this softer film a smooth look without artificial sharpening highlighting the transparency of this television. Sandra Bullock and Stallone work together in Demolition Man, and minus the outrageous colours of Wesley Snipes’s bad hair and outfits, there appeared to be endless shades of gray in the dull future of Los Angeles. Skin tones looked natural but occasionally the redder faces had a subtle tint of magenta I just couldn’t eliminate with the colour or tint control. The effect was so subtle that I hardly even noticed as soon as I put on an engaging action film like Assassins. The head-butting chemistry between Stallone and Antonio Bandaras was thrilling throughout the full two hours. The video transfer is awesome showing great blacks, excellent whites that aren’t clipped, and a wide range of colours that I would describe as comfortable on the eyes without being overpowering. This plasma never failed in delivering the same top performance that it measured at.

The last film I watched was the terrible Stallone & Stone (yes, Sharon) film, The Specialist. Written so poorly, the movie was gut-wrenching to sit through. But the visuals in the beginning of the film caught my eye. When CIA bomb experts, Stallone and James Woods, are caught between ideologies on their last mission together, I noticed the foliage to be excessively green. At first I thought it could have been a pumped up video transfer, but with a cross reference check with a few other titles I noticed a similar trend. Putting the TV back on the test bench revealed that green and cyan were a little brighter than they should be, and all secondary colours (cyan, yellow, magenta) were also off their reference points. This explains why skin tones sometimes had an unfamiliar hue. My review sample had a March 2011 build date, but I’ve since calibrated more recent builds of this TV which had the colour points correct in brightness and reference. The odd colour of my review sample seemed to be an artefact of the earliest builds (note: I noticed the same effect during my review of the 50ST30 review, but new ST30 televisions measure colour correctly as well). Factory glitches are common in our digital world and many can be corrected with software updates. But it is good to know that Panasonic has corrected the colour of all its more recent builds.

The Motion Smoother feature is still dizzying to watch (not available in THX mode), so while it does reduce motion blurring, it still looks too much like a home video and destroys the feel of film. The dithering can be quite a nuisance especially when sitting at close distances. I especially noticed it in the Blu-ray of Copycat where colour information can be particularly low in some scenes. Plasma panels can have a difficult time reproducing low colour information resulting in minor posterization.

I watched some scenes from Avatar and IMAX Hubble for 3D viewing and was very impressed. Because Avatar rarely moves images out of the screen (negative space) for 3D effects and instead concentrates on image depth (positive space), I find it’s one of the few films I can enjoy in 3D without extreme eye fatigue. The depth of this film is amazing and takes us to places we’ve never been. I felt like I was walking through the jungle with my own avatar, and similarly felt engaged in the battles with the machines versus the natives. Hubble is also one of my favourite titles to return to as we are taken on a virtual space tour from the images captured by Hubble’s lenses into to the deepest and darkest places in the known universe. Panasonic’s 3D glasses are comfortable to wear and make it easy to watch a full length 3D feature. Since 3D viewing does cut back on light and changes the overall colour of the experience, Panasonic does offer the ISFccc calibration modes to be specifically calibrated and customized through the glasses. The result of calibrating one of these modes is a 3D image that’s far superior to what anyone else is currently experiencing, with colours looking more neutral and far less aggressive. Those interested in viewing the calibration data for this television and a further discussion on its gamma performance can view this information on the CANADA HiFi forum at www.canadahifi.com//forum (click on the Plasma Flat Panel Displays forum and then the TC-P55VT30 thread).

Panasonic has improved its flagship model by offering a thinner design, adjustable user 3D image quality picture modes, reference quality colours (on new panels in THX mode), and best of all, the best black levels in the industry – which have now surpassed reference CRT black. Over the air high def has never looked as good as it did on the 55VT30. The increased resolution over cable and satellite makes me want more channels to be added to the 36 or so I have now. Offered in both 55″ and 65″ sizes, this reference television is an absolute must to look at when considering a plasma TV as the centre of your video entertainment experience.

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF Professional Video Calibrator/Instructor with The Highest Fidelity
(905) 730-5996,
[email protected],
www.thehighestfidelity.com

Panasonic
www.panasonic.ca
1-800-561-5505
Panasonic VIERA TC-P55VT30 55-inch Plasma TV
Price: $2,999 CAD

Panasonic is no newcomer to plasma television. Having developed panels for as long as I can remember, consistency seems to be the company’s mission. Solid. Elegant. Functional. These three words best describe how I’ve felt about Panasonic TVs from the moment I first laid my eyes, and my calibration meter, on one. Year after year, Panasonic never disappointed us as it delivered TVs with increasingly better performance. It was as if to tell us that its goal was to reach the pinnacle of the plasma technology and one day reach video nirvana. Well, this year Panasonic certainly managed to get closer again.
The ST series represents Panasonic’s line-up of entry-level 3D plasma TVs. The subject of this review is the 50-inch TC-P50ST30, priced at $1,499. Being an entry level 3D model, where price is a concern, I wasn’t expecting the TV to surprise me in many more ways than one. But it turned out I was wrong.

Not straying too far in design from previous designs, this ST series TV is elegantly fitted with a black bevelled bezel. The result is something less hard and jagged, as even the feel of the plastic surround is somewhat soft to the touch, yet very sturdy. Weighing in at 57 pounds, the panel feels much lighter than it looks. With a 5.4 cm thickness, the TV also feels much more robust when moving and mounting compared to large TVs that are super thin. The front of the TV is clean of controls and the side buttons have moved from the left side to the right side of the TV, and are much less bulky than the large raised buttons of past generations.

The TC-P50ST30 features the VIERA Connect service which can be accessed when the TV is connected to the internet via an Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi (Panasonic provides a wireless LAN adapter with the TV). The VIERA Connect feature is activated by clicking the VIERA Cast button on the remote, and seems to be a redesign of last year’s VIERA Cast feature. This service is Panasonic’s attempt to bridge the gap between computers and home televisions, but it does so with less enthusiasm compared to the Samsung TVs reviewed in the June/July 2011 issue of CANADA HiFi. When reading about VIERA Connect in the user manual and on the company’s website, the information about the technology is fairly vague and uninvolving, and didn’t exactly make me want to explore the feature. While Samsung’s information on its Smart TV technology was very intense and somewhat overwhelming, Panasonic’s seems to be the exact opposite. Like other IPTV services, VIERA Connect will allow you access to popular networking websites like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Picasa Web Albums, Cinemanow, Fox Sports, and many others. You might want to use a USB keyboard to fully take advantage of the offerings here, since unlike the latest Samsung TVs, Panasonic does not provide a remote with a Qwerty keyboard. So, if networking your television with your computer devices is a priority for you, you may want to explore this feature a bit further at your local retailer. As in previous generations, Panasonic offers the VIERA Link feature which enables the control of other Panasonic components with the TV remote, as well as the Image Viewer which enables access to content stored on SD and USB devices (connected to the TV) also via the TV remote.

Are there any improvements in image quality this year over last? The ST series TVs follow in the footsteps of last year’s G series TVs when it comes to black level. This TV has the Infinite Black 2 panel which uses a filter to keep black levels low. The black level does not measure as deep as the top-of-the-line VT-series, but it’s better than the comparable Samsung 6 series. The depth of black (darkness of video black) can be noticed in a dark room with all three panels displaying the same image, but is a bit more difficult to spot when on their own. To tune the picture, the TC-P50ST30 offers five image presets to select from, depending on the room environment in which you watch the television. All picture modes can be adjusted to a certain extent, with only two modes, Custom and Cinema, which can be calibrated for greater accuracy. The TC-P50ST30 also has true 3D capability with compatible Blu-ray and satellite/cable TV signals, although you will need to purchase the 3D glasses separately. This is one way to keep the pricing down of a 3D TV set.

To improve 3D picture quality by reducing crosstalk between images (crosstalk is the term used to describe seeing double images when wearing the glasses), Panasonic has created a crosstalk canceller to minimize the double images. Emission time and process of the phosphors have improved this year to minimize left eye – right eye frame interference. In addition to this, the new panels have fast switching phosphors to reduce what we call image decay or afterglow, which can result in images staying on the screen for a fraction of a second too long and thus blurring fine detail. Since each pixel on the screen is made up of three subpixels (red, green, and blue), the speed of their rise and decay time (getting brighter and darker) is very fast with Panasonic’s 600Hz subfield drive technology and will, with the other technologies listed above, improve the clarity of moving images.

Knowing that good quality video switchers have rapidly penetrated the A/V receiver market for connection of multiple sources, Panasonic has slimmed down its video input offerings and justifiably so. The TC-P50ST30 provides 3 HDMI, 1 component video and 1 composite video inputs, 2 USB, an SD cart slot, and an optical output to access 5.1 audio from over-the-air broadcast (I’m still one to use this last feature). There is also an Ethernet port for connecting to a home network. The selection on the panel is less cluttered and more practical for modern-day components.

I should also mention that Panasonic is trying to be environmentally responsible by offering mercury and lead-free panels so that when its time to retire the TV, the environment won’t take a beating like it has with CRT televisions. While plasma TVs tend to be a little more power hungry than their LCD rivals, Panasonic offers a variety of power saving features in its plasma TVs that can save on panel life and hydro bills. To give it power, the TV includes a large detachable power cable that could be replaced with a high-end cable for improved performance.

I spent most of my time evaluating this TV uncalibrated as most owners still don’t get their TVs professionally calibrated. So, out of the box how does it look? Panasonic TVs come out of the box set to the “Standard” image preset. The image is dark, dull, crushed, and displays massive amounts of dithering in dark areas of the picture (dithering is graininess in the picture due to a reduction in colour depth). Changing the picture mode to “Custom” or “Cinema” got rid of the problem quickly so I was off to watch some Blu-rays. Evaluating at a 7 foot distance to take full advantage of the 1080p resolution, the first title I watched was the most recent interpretation of Red Riding Hood by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. This is a title that I know has a solid video transfer; it’s very clean and the look of the film with all of its obviously fabricated sets has some visual appeal for what it is. While the TC-P50ST30 can’t improve the dreadful story itself, the Panasonic delivered the image strongly and impressively. Amanda Seyfried’s skin looked very polished in each scene as she plays Valerie, the Red Riding Hood. In the Cinema picture mode, colours are much closer to HDTV spec, and the image looked very smooth and pleasant when compared to the Custom picture mode (the latter has its colours a little bright and oversaturated as evidenced on Valerie’s red cloak).

To test the TV’s black level capability and interpretation of film grain, I switched to one of my favourite classic sci-fi horror films, Ridley Scott’s Alien. When the crew sets out to explore the alien spacecraft, the scenes are contrasted with dark interiors and bright hand lights. The Panasonic did not stumble when reproducing the low level detail along the intricately created walls, otherwise known as shadow detail. Much has gone into the set design of the film and it would be a shame to not see the alien environment we were intended to see. 20th Century Fox maintained the film grain for this transfer and I felt that the Panasonic reproduced it well, something that is typically a shortcoming of plasma displays. I then skipped ahead to the climax of the film when the ship’s strobe lights flicker during the self destruct sequence. No matter the intensity of the flickering light, the Panasonic was very stable in holding its black level and low light detail – a very important trait for any TV to make a good picture.

The last film I watched was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a transfer that I know has problems with frozen grain. The TV’s noise reduction feature can smooth out some unwanted artefacts such as what is on this film, although as a purist I don’t recommend NR features, and I don’t think ladies watching this film would want any video circuit obscuring any part of Brad Pitt who plays the villain James. The TV was no coward hiding the problems with this video transfer, so not only will you stay in suspense with the intense dialogue sequences in this film, the Panasonic will show the video as is, warts and all.

As there are upsides, there are downsides. The Motion Smoother feature is still dizzying to watch, so while it does reduce motion blurring, it still looks too much like a home video and destroys the feel of film. The dithering can be quite a nuisance especially when sitting at close distances. The Red Riding Hood transfer does have one drawback: a raised black level. The film’s deepest black is slightly higher than that of the TV, so the TV reproduces it as dark gray. Dithering tends to happen in the darker grays the most as there isn’t much colour detail there. There were times where I found it more offensive than I preferred, but not out of line when compared to other panels found at the same price point. As a result of Panasonic’s processing, some colour banding could be noticed as well, as I saw it several times on Amanda Seyfried’s cheekbone in the warm fire-lit environment, the scene when she first kisses the bad-boy of the village, Peter. The smooth shades between subtle colours just weren’t there and resulted in some posterization. For those interested in viewing the calibration data for this television and a further discussion on its gamma performance, please visit the CANADA HiFi forum at www.canadahifi.com//forum and click on the Plasma Flat Panel Displays forum. Unfortunately I could not evaluate 3D image quality as Panasonic did not provide 3D glasses with the review unit.

It seems likely that “stay the course” is Panasonic’s internal slogan when developing its 2011 panels. While the high amount of dithering can be forgiven at further viewing distances, I’m still impressed with the solid and well built displays when compared to the thin and fragile-feeling competitors. Offered in six different sizes from 42 up to 65 inch, the ST series televisions offer excellent value; full 3D compatibility, deeper black levels, accurate colours in Cinema picture mode, and a solid design. This is a TV you would be comfortable watching for a long time ahead.

Panasonic
www.panasonic.ca
1-800-561-5505

Panasonic TC-P50ST30
50-inch 3D Plasma TV
Price: $1,499 CAD

It is said that when a species evolves, it does so to compete in the environment in which it lives for the purpose of survival. The weaker species becomes extinct and through natural selection, the stronger and smarter species remain in successive generations. While this applies to the biological world, it can be equally applied to electronics. Over the past several years, televisions have seen increased competition from their much smaller, faster, and smarter computer cousins when vying for consumers’ entertainment time. It seems, despite their smaller screens, computer-based technologies are winning the time of the younger generations. The television, as a stand-alone electronic entertainment device, could face extinction.

Not to be put on the endangered species list, TVs are undergoing their own sort of evolution in order to survive in this new age of social networking and application-based entertainment. In an effort to become stronger, smarter, and more complex, Samsung has introduced the Smart TV to its 2011 line-up. Not only do consumers have excellent image quality capability in the 6, 7, and 8-series Samsung displays, but they have access to the TV’s Smart Hub which allows for advanced movie, photo, and music entertainment all through the television. Internet surfing is a breeze through a built-in web browser and a TV App Store is available for applications optimised for television usage. With the addition of social networking, the TV becomes a much more interactive experience for those who demand it. Welcome to the new digital television community.

The topic of this review is the Samsung UN55D8000 LED (LCD) Smart TV ($3,499). There are no surprises in the appearance department: this TV is slim and sexy in design and the picture frame has virtually no borders. The image is displayed right out to the edges with only a razor-thin surround to keep the set together. The back panel has 4 HDMI inputs, 3 USB, 1 D-sub PC in, 1 terrestrial/cable RF in, 1 Ethernet, and several mini jacks for composite, component, and audio ins and outs. I’m not a fan of mini-jacks but they are necessary to keep the TV below its 3 cm depth. For the best picture quality from a variety of standard and high definition signals and sources, it is best to use the HDMI input on the TV and feed other signals though an external video switcher/processor such as an A/V receiver/preamp or a dedicated external video processor. If table mounting, Samsung includes a shiny silver base that is very reflective in the dark. Between the base and the TV is the manufacturer’s name that is illuminated. As cool as this may seem at first, it is possible to adjust the brightness of the illumination and turn it off altogether.

The big push this year is the addition of Samsung’s Smart TV Smart Hub, which effectively turns the television into a computer device. With its Ethernet or wireless connection, the goal is to move people’s web and computer-based entertainment out of the office or bedroom and into the living room where it can be enjoyed on a larger screen. Having the capability of surfing the Internet, use of applications such as Facebook and Twitter, being able to watch Video on Demand, as well as being able to access a large amount of apps from the App Store, are all benefits of the Smart TV. Downloaded movies and pictures can be viewed from a USB memory drive, USB HDD and other compatible DLNA devices through Samsung’s Allshare technology. With this TV’s evolution to a computer-based machine, the remote control effectively becomes a keyboard. Thus, the remote control has changed this year; it’s thicker, a bit shorter, heavier, and double sided. On the one side is a standard remote layout – channel keypad, menu, etc. On the reverse is a fully functional wireless QWERTY keyboard and display. As a result, this side is slanted for comfort when typing while using the Smart TV interactive features (thicker at the top and thinner at the bottom). When using the remote for standard TV viewing, its unbalanced design is awkward to hold. If using a universal remote or an iPad to control a variety of devices in the system, this won’t be an issue and thus the remote would only be used for the Smart TV functions.

Fear not – those uninterested in Smart TV do not need to use it. It’s not a mandatory viewing access point at this time and the TV can be used in a traditional way for cable, satellite, and Blu-ray viewing. For the common TV viewer, the UN55D8000 has several image quality presets all of which can be customized on a per input basis. With the Dynamic picture mode as the exception, all other modes can be calibrated with the use of advanced picture quality settings in the television’s sub-menus. The graphical design of the menu has advanced this year giving on-screen explanations of what each image adjustment does to the picture so there is no need to refer to the manual when customizing the picture.

Being an LED-LCD television, it has a slightly slow response time resulting in a bit of blur with moving images – it’s the nature of the technology. Samsung has a few image adjustments that allow this to be reduced although with some side effects which some people may or may not notice. The LED Motion Plus feature will somewhat reduce light output (the picture will appear a bit dimmer) and the Auto Motion Plus feature (with 4 selectable options), when activated, gives some select frame-rate based material a sped-up home video look. When watching television, some commercials and programs were affected and some were not, suggesting that the feature is selectively applied depending on the incoming frame rates. When a preset is applied, the feature occasionally skips a few frames looking like a “jump” in the video. My preference, despite the bit of motion blur native to LED-LCD televisions, was to leave these features off.

A common drawback with LCD televisions is the higher black level compared to that of plasma. Samsung succeeded in reducing this problem by controlling the light output at various points on the television with the Smart LED function. With the feature set to OFF, the panel suffered from grayish blacks and cloudy patches of white in dark scenes. With Smart LED turned ON (my preferred setting), black levels deepened without a significant loss of detail. The only side effect was that black levels varied across the screen depending on how bright various parts on the image were. It’s completely possible for black to be ultra dark on the left side of the screen but grayish on the right side. Because of this zoning, I noticed several thin lines sectioning in both the horizontal and vertical directions. Some may see it, some may not.

The UN55D8000 has true 3D capability with compatible Blu-ray and satellite devices. It can also convert 2D content to 3D content if so desired. The television comes with one pair of glasses with others sold separately.

Out-of-the-box, the TV came in the “Standard” picture preset, factory adjusted to adhere to California state law, requiring televisions to be power-consumption friendly. As a result, the image was dim to reduce power consumption, tinted blue to give the impression of a much “whiter” white, and had low gamma to brighten up the midrange of the TV. When viewing the montage of images on the Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray before testing, I could tell that the TV had plenty of room to impress.

Before making any picture adjustments, I spent a good deal of time viewing the television using the various picture presets. After spending a couple of mornings watching Morning Live on over-the-air CHCH (HD) in the “Standard” preset, I wasn’t overly impressed with the image quality. For bars, stores and airports that compete with sunlight or bright lighting, the “Dynamic” preset could be a good choice but you certainly don’t want to use this mode at home. The “Movie” mode produced the best preset picture, although I highly recommend some form of picture adjustment even in this mode.

For the purpose of this review, a basic calibration using the Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray put the TV in the ballpark of a better image. To read my comments about picture quality after performing a full calibration of this TV, please visit the “LCD Flat Panel Displays” forum at www.canadahifi.com//forum. My preference was to turn on the Smart LED feature and there was plenty of light output when the backlight was set correctly. The image was much brighter, three dimensional and sharper. The first Blu-ray that I watched was True Blood: Season 3. I started watching this series in the second season and was immediately hooked. The UN55D8000 did not disappoint while watching a marathon of these episodes. In a world where vampires and humans co-exist and interact, it’s no surprise that many of these episodes take place at night. These scenes are great tests to evaluate localized LED black level control. With Smart LED turned on, the Samsung dropped its black level when needed without any noticeable loss of detail. I verified this while watching the same scene with the feature turned off. For example, when Eric and Lafayette were driving at night after a botched deal of selling True Blood, certain shots had the characters’ faces illuminated by the panel while the surroundings outside the car were black as night. With the Smart LED feature turned off, the surroundings appeared dark gray instead of a deep black. The result of turning on Smart LED was a much greater contrast ratio within a scene – a great difficulty for LED-based displays. Since the contrast ratio was much better on the part of the screen where the Smart LED is operating, the visual depth of the program was increased significantly and the white patches of cloudiness common to LCD were eliminated. A deep black level is what all TVs should be aiming for and the Samsung is no slouch with its attempt. Vampires now literally appear out of the dark!

I watched a few other Blu-ray titles such as Wild Wild West and Maverick. After making a quick colour adjustment with the disc in the “Movie” picture mode, the television was able to show subtle differences between colours of these films, whereas it was not as pronounced in the “Standard” picture mode. True Blood has a very vibrant colour palette at times forcing the viewer to focus on certain items in the video frame (pale faces and deep red blood). Wild Wild West and Maverick, both “western” comedy films have an intended older appearance with a slightly muted colour palette and a sepia tone. The cast of brown is dominant in the image whether in a town, in bars, or when Mel Gibson is hung from a tree, with his hands tied behind him and having the fate of his life resting in his four legged horse friend. The sky is mildly blue bringing attention to Maverick’s distraught state of mind. Will Smith’s comedy Wild Wild West has a similar colour tone although because of its modern and western day mix, it tends to be a bit more diverse in its range of colours. The Samsung was able to show the bold makeup colouring in the hilarious Kevin Kline scene when he’s dressed up in drag at the saloon and the drunk, disgustingly sweaty men try a little too hard. The scene makes Yukon’s Diamond Tooth Gerties a palace! Skin tones appeared to have appropriate saturation compared to last year’s Samsung LED models, which were a bit pale in comparison.

The noticeable improvement with this year’s panel is that it can finally show a fully saturated red. In previous years, the Samsung panels displayed red less saturated than the HDTV red point making some skin tones pale. This year’s Samsung LED can display all colours at proper saturation, hue and intensity (after a full calibration anyway).

I spent a little less time with 3D viewing as I’m somewhat sensitive to its effects; the health warnings posted on the TV before 3D viewing are for the small part of the population (like me) that can feel a bit dizzy or nauseated when watching motion through active glasses. Active glasses are different from the passive 3D glasses found in movie theatres because they must sync to the television to create the 3D effect. As a result, when looking through the glasses the image is tinted and needs to be calibrated separately from the 2D picture mode, a task which can be accomplished with a proper calibration.

I first put in one of my favourite 3D titles, Under the Sea, and was absolutely impressed at how native 3D content can make such an impact for entertainment. With the beautiful corals exhibiting tremendous detail and the fish swimming right up to my face, the UN55D8000 made me feel like I was the diver capturing these great IMAX images in this very large and unknown underwater world. In contrast, IMAX Hubble is a 3D title that makes the viewer feel very small in this massive universe we live in. With the Hubble telescope’s high resolution images mixed with computer interpretations, there are several scenes where the viewer travels through space to galaxies we’ve never dreamed of travelling to. What’s amazing is the trip out to the edge of the known universe where galaxies are old and distorted in shape. The UN55D8000 showed unparalleled 3D clarity with this space travel with equal definition edge-to-edge on the panel. Overall, I found that image crosstalk (which appears as faint double lines around objects and characters) was much lower than I remember from last year’s Samsungs.

Testing the 2D to 3D conversion capability, I was impressed how the Samsung was able to turn Maverick, a 2D Blu-ray image, into a picture with increased depth when using the glasses. During the scene when Bret Maverick reveals his poker skills to the players, I was surprised to see the additional depth between Mel Gibson and Jody Foster as they exchanged glances and wits. Much like the effects of human vision, the background of the bar was out of focus yet our focus on the characters was razor sharp and stood in front of the surroundings. The illusion became less of a gimmick when I realized there was a greater sense of realism to the image.

To see the full resolution of 2D video and to get the immersive experience of 3D, I recommend a viewing distance of 6 to 9 feet for this TV. Further distances are certainly possible, but like any TV, the smallest details of 1080p will become less noticeable.

The Samsung UN55D8000 has welcomed improvements in picture quality over the previous year. The TV’s wider dynamic range with the Smart LED function turned on, bright white capability, and accurate HDTV colour makes it a strong contender in the LED television category. With the addition of the suite of Smart TV features, the QWERTY remote control, and the many apps available for the most social-minded, there’s a good chance that natural selection will make the Samsung a preferred option for consumers.

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF Professional Video Calibrator with The Highest Fidelity – (905) 730-5996

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www.thehighestfidelity.com

Why is the proper reproduction of blacks and whites so important in video?

If you have been following my articles in the CANADA HiFi magazine, you will have learned some basic steps to achieving good and accurate video in a viewing environment. If you’ve missed any of my previous video discussions, you can check them out in the Video Features section on www.canadahifi.com/. Many of the suggestions previously mentioned just scratch the surface of each topic without customizing for every reader’s room at home, because as we all know, no two viewing environments are the same. I define custom as “bending the rules” knowing that not all viewing environments will ever be what the professional world refers to as “reference”. While some purists will snarl at me for saying this, “reference” environments aren’t always practical in an average home. But knowing how to follow the rules of good video within a non-reference environment is vitally important to achieve an accurate and pleasing picture. Are you mostly a daytime viewer with regular visits from the sun? Do you prefer to watch movies with some lights on? Did the interior decorator insist on canary yellow painted walls with a dash of tropical blue? Whether you are calibrating a projector and screen combination, an LCD TV or a plasma TV, the attention to non-reference details needs to be considered. If we consider the two of the most important aspects of video – black and white – to any room environment, we are guaranteed to be further along the path to achieving a good picture and usable contrast ratio.

By now most readers know that picture controls on TVs are intentionally cranked up at factory to appear extremely bright on a sales floor. This ensures that the TV will compete with the massive amount of fluorescent lighting in the retail environment. Black levels of the video signal are brought down so low to the point of crushing most details in the darkest part of the picture. White levels force the digital circuitry into clipping to give the impression of a highly bright image. From an accuracy standpoint the image is destroyed, but that’s not their point. Their focus is on the extreme ends of black and white and knowing that these extremes make attractive pictures and sell the most TVs. So, are TV manufacturers on to something? Are their settings right for their purpose, or could a bright image be achieved without destroying so much detail? How does this affect the picture quality when the TV is brought into our home? Do their settings apply or do we need to consider the room at home? Manufacturers aren’t in the dark about what sells, so let’s explore what they are doing and how we can take a better and less compromising approach at home.

Manufacturers know their TVs need to compete with these bright retail viewing environments. They’ll set their TVs bright from the factory just to stay competitive with room lighting and other televisions. A TV not set up for the retail room won’t look good or sell; the reason being the wrong choice for black and white levels, commonly known as the contrast and brightness controls. So the TVs need to be set accordingly to the bright room lighting, but this comes with many compromises to image accuracy. To achieve the brightest picture, the TV can be forced into clipping white. What this means is that the finest gradations of white in the video signal are lost making only one shade of white, but just more of it. More white on the screen translates to a brighter picture because there are more bright sections than what is intended, but the compromise is a severe loss of white detail. If we look at the gentleman’s shirt in Figure 1a sourced from the Monster/ISF HDTV Calibration Wizard DVD, we can see very little detail in the shades of white, especially in the centre. There are a few dark streaks in the shirt, but for the most part, the shirt is almost all white. In Figure 1b, using a test pattern with gray steps increasing in intensity confirms the video display is clipping the brightest whites as demonstrated in two of the brightest bars combined as one white. Each rectangular step should be the same width, but the last one is twice the size because a step in gradation has been lost to clipping. I’ve encountered some video displays that clip many more than two bars, so much so that this man’s shirt is 100 percent white. That’s a lot of missing detail!

We can evaluate the darkest blacks a similar way. The same test pattern can be used to verify a crushed black level with the darkest two bars combined as one. When watching real program material, this translates to a loss in detail in the dark parts of the picture. A crushed black makes our friend in the shirt look as if he has black eyebrows and hair, with no differentiation between strands and colour. If you watch a lot of movies that take place at night or even when trying to see details in dark clothing, it will look darker than it should and make it forever impossible to see those details. Most people will have a difficult time seeing what’s happening in the story. Ever hear people say “I don’t like that movie because the picture is too dark and I can’t see what’s going on!” I hate to break it to you, but it’s not the movie!

By forcing the extreme ends of the video signal into clipping and crushing, the TV appears to have a huge contrast ratio over other TVs that haven’t been pushed to the same extremes. These black and white video settings are very important to TV manufacturers to convince you to open your wallet. But wait! A few more tricks can be made to squeeze out more brightness for increased perceived contrast: a cool colour temperature setting adds blue to the colour of white and the display’s gamma is also lowered to brighten up most of the video range except for the lowest black. Both of these tricks work well on a sales floor but destroy video quality further. Both are also complex topics that are worth discussing in a future article.

So you’ve found a TV with an ultra high contrast ratio. You gently unwrap it from its packaging and place it in your room. The first thing you want to do is turn it on and start watching. After all, that’s what you bought the TV for, right? Once you get past the initial setup, you may notice that all is not right after about 20 minutes of viewing. Your eyes begin to hurt as they feel strained by the constant bright-dark-bright-dark change. This will be noticeably amplified if you watch TV in a dark room with dark surroundings. You are most likely watching it in one of the presets commonly labelled as “Optimum”, “Sports” or “Dynamic” that feature an array of other pro-contrast settings turned on. These settings are designed for sales floors, sports bars, and rooms filled with direct sunlight such as airports. In these cases where rooms are filled with light, bright is better when no regards to image fidelity is desired. But you don’t live in a sports bar. You don’t fall asleep watching the news on a sales floor. And you certainly don’t watch your movies in an airport. But why are you simulating it? By leaving the TV in these settings, people are watching their everyday video as if they are watching it at those locations. These black and white levels are wrong for home viewing in terms of intensity (how much light the TV is outputting) and black level by not considering the actual light in their room and how it relates to the detail on the screen.

The importance of correct black and white levels cannot be stressed enough for home viewing. In the home, we don’t need to make compromises to such extreme measures because the demand to do so is rarely there, but some may still need to be made. What we need to determine is the usable contrast ratio, taking the room into consideration. This is where I refer back to how not all living rooms are ideal for reference viewing, but we can get very close.

The worst situation would be when watching TV with more than the average sunlight in the room. The white level of the TV needs to be high enough to compete with it and the black level needs to be raised so that details in the dark parts of the picture (the darker shaded areas in Figure 2) can be seen without making the picture look washed out in the black background. These black and white levels are often calibrated to the “DAY” settings on the TV offered by ISF and THX picture modes. They allow the set to be calibrated brighter than normal to compete with the ambient light, but still have the rest of the picture’s correlated colour temperature set to D65 and colours set to HDTV standards. All does not need to be lost when calibrating for a bright room.

In most cases, TVs are watched when there is little to no sunlight in the evening hours, to a modest lamp, or in complete darkness. This is when usable contrast ratio really comes into importance. When I referred to the TV sold with the biggest contrast ratio, what good is a contrast ratio that large when it’s uncomfortable to watch and enjoy? The once “best” TV in the store is now the worst TV in the world because it hurts just to watch it. How do we solve this? Thankfully, some people have done research for us already to guide consumers in choosing more correct white and black level settings in darker environments. Most TVs include a MOVIE, PURE, or THX preset mode that has reduced light for dark room environments. I will say that I do *not* recommend leaving these presets in their default values, as most of these modes are still too dark for most living rooms measuring somewhere in the area of 20-25 fL. Remember, living rooms are not reference viewing rooms to which these settings are designed towards, but they are excellent starting points and generally offer all the controls needed to set up the TV correctly. With the help of a set up disc at the minimum, a user can set the black and white levels correctly according to their viewing room habits. With the help of measurement instruments, I recommend setting the reference white level between 35-40 fL for very dark rooms, and 40-45 fL for rooms with moderate to average lighting, providing that clipping doesn’t happen first.

Let’s take a final look at our friend in the white shirt in Figure 3a. Once the white level and black level controls have been set correctly, we can now see far more detail in his shirt, with many restored gradations and image details. His eyebrows have noticeably more colours to them and the strands in the hair stand out much more.

We can confirm this with a test pattern in Figure 3b where we can see the gray steps restored at the top and bottom of the range. Our HDTV system is capable of delivering so much detail and yet so few people are actually taking advantage of their TV’s imaging capabilities.
Room lighting gives a purpose for different black and white level settings, but one must be cognizant when to use different settings and how to use the controls. You don’t want your TV to be set up like it should be in an airport, do you? This methodology applies to both projection images and flat panel displays. As wonderful as it would be if everyone could have a dedicated and dark reference viewing room, it’s recognized as not ideal for most people, even for the ones who care the most about preserving the artistic intent of their favourite films in their homes. Whether you are someone who just wants to kick back, relax and get the most out of your TV or a video purist, setting the white and black level correctly to your room environment is an absolute must to see the most detail, the best contrast ratio and to enjoy a good picture without eye fatigue.

Mike Osadciw is a THX/ISF Professional Video Calibrator with The Highest Fidelity – (905) 730-5996, www.thehighestfidelity.com

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