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Samsung UN55C9000 55" 3D LED HDTV Review

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SKYMTL

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In today’s HDTV market, the vast majority of products tend to cater to the lower-end of the spectrum in the sub-$1500 category. Below this price point, many times the panel quality isn’t all that great, features are either cut or missing altogether and overall design trends tend to focus upon utilitarian functionality rather than pushing the envelope. But for those of us who want a product that’s a cut above and not owned by every second person on our street, there are a few HDTVs out there which fit the bill.

In the latter half of 2010, Samsung had a massive selection of LCD, LED and Plasma TVs that span literally every price point from $400 on up. However, they hadn’t really scratched the ultra high end market’s surface even though some of their HDTV proved themselves to be superlative performers. The UN55C9000 was created to fill this perceived gap by offering stunning picture quality and features which would make any aficionado weak in the knees in what is simply one of the most stunning designs we’ve ever seen. Naturally, this came at a steep cost: a whooping eight thousand bucks but time has allowed this particular C9000 to fall to a “mere” $5000.

With a price which approaches that of many used cars, Samsung had to take things to the next level and in many cases it looks like they did. Very feature which Samsung currently implements on their HDTVs has been included with the C9000. This includes a TV-based internet / widget service, custom apps, an impressive looking touch screen remote, 3D compatibility and a laundry list of other features.

In order to cut down on the overall thickness of the TV, a standard CCFL-based LCD wasn’t possible so an edge-lit LED panel was used. This will likely be a controversial decision since in this price range many will be looking for slightly higher performance local dimming models but that technology takes up precious space and Samsung wanted the most compact design possible.

Some may be wondering whether the C9000 is really all that relevant considering we are on the cusp of the next generation D-series release. Well, due to the ultra high end nature of this set and the advanced technology behind it, Samsung has decided to keep it around well into 2011 where it will continue to act as a flagship product.

During CES 2010, many commented about how unique the UN55C9000 looked but we’re about to find out whether it’s all flash and no dash or really something which can set Samsung apart from their competition.

 

SKYMTL

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The UN55C9000’s Specifications and Features

The UN55C9000’s Specifications and Features




 

SKYMTL

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A Closer Look at the UN55C9000

A Closer Look at the UN55C9000



A front-on view of the C9000 shows us a design that looks like any other TV on the market albeit with a brushed stainless steel bezel and base. In high light environments, the stainless bezel really wasn’t all that distracting as long as the sunlight was hitting it at an angle rather than face-on.

Gone is the Cylon BaseStar base from other LCD and LED models. Samsung replaced with a flat slab which doesn’t necessarily look pretty but as we will see below, it is the heart of this HDTV and the reason behind its miniaturization.


Unlike nearly every other HDTV currently on the market, the C9000-series uses the base as a hub for connectors and all of the electronics which drive the panel. This means the base is no larger than past models with monolithic-style designs but it is slightly higher at around an inch. Hidden inside of the base is a motorized slide-out panel which houses some basic touch-sensitive controls.

When the TV is used in wall-mount mode, the base detaches and becomes a separate entity which sits below or behind the C9000 in order to feed it signals.


With all of this set’s electronics packed into its base, Samsung was able to slim down the panel to the point of ridiculousness. At less than ½” thick, this is the thinnest HDTV currently offered and will likely be the subject of many conversations once your guests see it. Unfortunately, in order to provide enough reinforcement for the included wall mount, an area at the panel’s midpoint needed to be beefed up and the result is a long horizontal bar that projects ½” outwards.


This bar can’t be removed even though there are screws holding it in place since Samsung welded the two adaptor plates onto the panel. All in all though, most people won’t see this reinforcement since anyone who buys the C9000 will likely mount it on a wall where its slim profile can be on full display.


The included wall mount kit (which usually goes for around $200 at retail stores) will allow a near-flush mount to literally any surface provided there is ample reinforcement within the wall structure. We didn’t try to install it but from the instructions this thing looks like an engineering marvel but it doesn’t seem to have the ability to angle the TV in any way.


The connectors on this Samsung TV are broken into two separate sections of the base. The leftmost side houses a pair of USB 2.0 ports which can be used for external data hookups or the included WiFi adaptor and a single HDMI input. Meanwhile, the back features an additional three HDMI connectors as well as inputs for various other video sources (see the Specifications page in this review for the full list) and an optical audio output. There are also connectors for a standard antenna and a LAN jack for internet access and file sharing over a network.

If you are someone who changes out their connectors on a regular basis, this setup likely won’t be appealing. However, most of us play a game of “set it and forget it” when it comes to input and output cables so Samsung’s design likely won’t cause an issue.


The WiFi adaptor comes in two different forms; one which mounts at a right angle with the C9000’s base which the other longer one is used for wall mount applications where are larger antenna is required.
 

SKYMTL

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A Remote to Remember

A Remote to Remember



The remote that comes with the C9000 is truly something to behold. Samsung has ditched the usual button-centric model and has designed a touch-screen unit which has a custom Android-based OS that still includes a few basic buttons on its slim frame.

Both WiFi and infrared communication with the TV is possible but actually getting the WiFi to work is a lesson in frustration since after the remote is paired with the network once, it takes a full system reset in order to do it again. Since the C9000 piggy-backs off of your current wireless network instead of creating its own ad-hoc hub, any change will break down the link between TV and remote. This means if you upgrade your in-home wireless network, the communication with the TV through WiFi won’t be possible without going through the complete setup again an wiping the remote’s onboard memory.


With a thickness of barely ¼”, there really isn’t all that much space for additional buttons along the remote’s edge for any buttons but Samsung has included the ubiquitous port used to recharge the batteries. Unfortunately, only a basic and frankly ugly power cable is given and as usual, Samsung has decided to use a non-standard port so a mini USB jack can’t be used. Loose that small cable and you’re screwed.

Get used to this location because you’ll be using it often. Our sample exhibited an absolutely atrocious battery life of less than 36 hours when in standby mode and a mere 45 minutes of continual use. Combined, it never netted more than 24 hours of real-word on / off use.


Without a doubt, this remote will likely be a conversation piece among your jealous friends but the frustrating nature of its onscreen menu design will always be nagging at the back of your head. Samsung has tried to take inspiration from the wildly successful Harmony line of products but have forgotten one of the cardinal rules of touch screens: small buttons just don’t work. Another serious omission here is the lack of a DVR Record button which is a must for any remote with visions of becoming truly “universal” these days.

When inputting commands, most people tend not to look at the TV when pressing buttons and require tactile feedback to get a lay of the land so to speak. However, a single plane touch screen surface doesn’t allow for any type of feedback so unintentional button presses will become the norm and frustration will mount in no time. The small size of the inputs just adds insult to injury.


Regardless of the other significant shortcomings, the keyboard function is well done. However, once again there is a small issue since very few of Samsung’s applications actually allow for actual keyboard text entry.

With WiFi enabled there is an extended feature set which includes the ability to “twin” the remote with your TV in order to take your show with you wherever you go. Basically, this streams the TV signal over the wireless adaptor to the remote’s LCD screen. It’s particularly effective when you’re watching a live sports broadcast and have to run to the bathroom. In our experience, this streaming feature works quite well but actually getting it to function properly is a bit of a challenge and the signal tends to drop intermittently when used outside of a 20 ft radius from the TV.
 

SKYMTL

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Touching Upon Samsung’s Apps

Touching Upon Samsung’s Apps


With the word “App” being throw around with wild abandon these days, it was only natural that Samsung would use it in some form for their new HDTVs. In this case, Samsung Apps have supplementedthe [email protected] technology with a friendlier and more straightforward user interface and easily accessible features.


The idea behind the App interface is to give users quick access to information but not overload them with unnecessary options. Apps can be downloaded from the Samsung Apps tab in the main window and they will appear in the My Applications section. Most are basic like the History App which allows you to see what happened in the past on every calendar day but it is done without multimedia or interactivity. Others like the Youtube App quite well done and feature a full interface with multiple playback options. Another improvement is the ability to watch the current TV program in the upper right hand corner as you browse through the menu options.

There are however some instances where it seems that Samsung’s App environment is a few steps behind the C9000’s technology. To begin with, the remote is unable to use its onboard keyboard for text input within any of the apps. So if you are searching for something on YouTube for example, text will need to be entered through the 1-9 number keys even though T9 predictive text entry is available. Many of the included free programs also seem half-baked and simply don’t live up to expectations.


One of the largest issues with Samsung’s App interface is its elimination of the usual TV menu controls. Most just aren’t available so picture quality is horrible at best as you can see in the picture above. This adversely affects everything from Youtube videos to the downloadable artwork.
 

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Viewing Conditions

Viewing Conditions


Before we get to the calibrated settings, it should be mentioned that my viewing environment isn’t exactly what you would call optimal for TV watching. During the day, we get a ton of light coming in from our monstrous second story window while at night there is a street light directly opposite the viewing room. If anything, this emphasizes that even though I have included my somewhat finalized settings below, everyone’s viewing conditions will be different and as such you should take these as a starting point rather than an end-all of calibrations.


Calibrated Settings


Mode: Movie
Backlight: 7
Contrast: 97
Brightness: 51
Sharpness: 7
Color: 53
Tint: G45/R55

Advanced Settings
Black Tone: Off
Dynamic Contrast: Off
Shadow Detail: +1
Gamma: 0
Color Space: Auto
White Balance: Default
Flesh Tone: +1
Edge enhancement: Off
xvYCC: Off
LED Motion Plus: Off

Picture Options
Color Tone: Warm2
Size: Screen Fit
Digital NR: Off
HDMI Black Level: Normal
Film Mode: Auto1
Blue Only Mode: Off
Auto Motion Plus:
Custom: Blur Reduction = 8
Judder Reduction = 2

Game Mode: Off
Energy Savings: Off


The following changes were made when gaming:

Brightness: 59
Sharpness: 35
xvYCC: Off
Game Mode: Off
 

SKYMTL

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General HD Picture & Image Quality Observations

General HD Picture & Image Quality Observations


Much like every other TV and monitor we have looked at in the past, the out of box picture quality of the UN55C9000 is poor at best and unwatchable at worst. Whites are overly saturated, there is frequent black crush in darker images and with the Auto Motion Plus set to Auto every scene looks like it was shot with a camera on rails.

In order to rectify the litany of picture quality issues, Samsung has included one of the best menu subsystems available on any HDTV currently on the market. We have explored the menus of other Samsung units before and in terms of options, the interface on the 9000-series is really no different other than the addition of separate menus to control the 3D features. Once these are used, the picture quality improves by leaps and bounds to a point where we would call it impressive in most cases.



Click on images to enlarge

Overall, the C9000 produced some of the best HD picture quality we have seen in a long, long time. Color reproduction was mostly spot on and every possible detail had that legendary “pop” which distinguishes the good TVs from the great ones. The vibrancy every scene held was simply mind boggling when you considering this type of picture is coming from a panel that’s a scant 33mm thick. Skin tones were also well represented without the odd shift towards red some Samsung products exhibit.

The thin profile of this HDTV does come with a drawback we have see quite a few times: the edge-mounted LEDs producing a slightly uneven lighting effect on some parts of the screen. With the C9000, this potential issue has been reduced to the point where it likely won’t be noticed in most normal viewing conditions. Let’s be honest though, having a uniform colour, black or white background just doesn’t happen in most movies and shows but when watching ice hockey, it is subtly noticeable at the very edges of the picture. We also saw it at some points in very dark movies like The Spirit and Sin City.



Click on images to enlarge

In most cases, we were quite satisfied with the inky black appearance of most dark scenes but at times things did take a bit of a turn for the worst. In these situations, the blacks had a softer quality which we didn’t really appreciate since they degraded the overall crisp look of the HD picture. The odd thing is this didn’t happen with every scene within a given movie so it seems like certain on-screen scenarios can contribute to degradation in overall depth.

Motion performance with the custom AMP settings was next to perfect without a single instance of ghosting or judder and unlike other HDTVs, higher instances of interpolation didn’t cause any noticeable onscreen artifacts. This in and of itself makes the C9000 a very good companion for sports where quick camera shifts and zooms are the norm.

Another interesting thing to note is this set didn’t exhibit any of the telltale stutter from processor overloading which plagued some other Samsung HDTVs we have reviewed.
 

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Gaming Impressions & 3D Performance

Gaming Impressions


We’re going to go out on a limb here any say that if you have the money for this TV, you’ll likely be feeding it 1080P24 content most of the time and not using it as a gaming platform. Usually gaming is the almost-exclusive realm of the plasma HDTV but believe it or not, the UN55C9000 acquits itself very well which is surprising when you consider how we have lambasted past Samsung LED TVs in this area.


With excellent color reproduction, bright pictures and impressive motion reproduction, most current 120Hz and higher LED and LCD TVs should be considered prime candidates for an excellent gaming experience. Unfortunately, due to the panels being too slow to pick up quick inputs and excessive image post processing, even the most expensive sets succumbed to the dreaded specter of input lag. To give you an idea of how bad it got, the UN55C6500 we reviewed exhibited nearly a quarter second between a button press on the controller and the associated action showing up on the screen. That’s not acceptable in our books.

The UN55C9000 seems to be made of tougher stuff since input lag was measured at a much more acceptable 101ms without Game Mode enabled. This still isn’t plasma style quickness but it is still a testament to the 240Hz panel and next generation processor which accompany this TV. Naturally, Game Mode reduces this even more but the associated loss of overall picture quality just isn’t something we are willing to sacrifice.


However, without increasing the overall Brightness level some areas become inky black messes. This leads to one thing we wished this TV had: user selectable presets so if you are feeding multiple signals into a single source (in this case a HD A/V receiver), different settings can be selected with the touch of a button. Having to always modify the Sharpness and Brightness before gaming gets old very, very fast.



3D Performance


There is a good reason why we have left this section tucked away below a discussion about the gaming results of the UN55C9000: in our opinion 3D in a home movie environment just isn’t ready for prime time. There are several technical hurdles Samsung and their competitors still have to overcome; the main one being that the current panel technology with its motion interpolation to allow 240Hz isn’t up to the challenge of feeding a clear 60Hz image to each eye.

With that being said, the C9000 does a remarkably good job in some situations we normally associated as problem areas. Even though the active shutter glasses tend to cut down on the overall vibrancy of the picture, Samsung has set this TV to automatically boost its brightness levels to compensate whenever 3D is enabled. Black level performance was actually quite good as well.

However, the novelty of 3D quickly wears off. There is constant cross-talk which causes halo effect around images and can become headache inducing very quickly. Artifacts also tend to pop up here and there while the Depth setting which is supposed to reduce eyestrain remains unusable in the vast majority of situations for some reason.

The 2D to 3D conversion works quite well but the lingering issues with ghosting remain and they make the whole experience downright unwatchable for long periods of time. Honestly, we highly recommend avoiding 3D at all costs and ignore the false hype until manufacturers can work out all of the kinks.
 

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Panel Uniformity / Viewing Angles

Panel Uniformity



Samsung seems to have improved most aspects of the C9000 over the other models in their lineup and this view towards flagship quality has cascaded down into the panel uniformity column as well. Back when we reviewed the UN55C6500, the results in this crucial area were simply atrocious but things in the high end market are quite different.

The UN55C9000’s overall uniformity is quite good though there are some areas to the right of the panel that display a bit of bleed. However, the flashlighting and clouding which have distinguished other products are a thing of the past. This is a phenomenal result considering the disasters we are used to finding.


Viewing Angles



The difference in saturation and black levels when moving off-center is quite noticeable in the pictures above but remember the rightmost photo displays a “worst case” scenario of more than 60 degrees off center. Anyone sitting within an area of 10 feet away and 6 feet off center won’t see any discernable color shift or black level reduction. All in all, this is a very good result.
 

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Conclusion

Conclusion


Some may question the need behind ultra expensive pieces home entertainment equipment like the UN55C9000 and they’re right to do so. Why? Because for the vast majority of consumers, it just doesn’t make sense to spend obscene amounts of money on an HDTV which doesn’t perform all that much better than less expensive products. And yet we have to remember that Samsung never intended this to appeal to mom and pop down the street. The C9000 is a high performance TV which has been wrapped in an iconic design which makes it a poster child for opulence but it is firmly geared towards people that can afford to spend a small fortune on an impulse purchase.

While Samsung has attained engineering excellence with the C9000, this wouldn’t mean a damn thing if it fell flat in overall picture quality. Luckily, they seem to have hit the nail on the head in most cases regardless of the fact this HDTV uses an edge-lit panel. Motion performance, colour accuracy and panel uniformity were all very well done and SD upscaling was remarkably accomplished with a bare minimum of noise and artifacts. Gamers will also appreciate the C9000 since it boasts some of the lowest input lag we have seen in a while.

Our experience with the UN55C9000 wasn’t all wine and roses though. Black level performance was a far cry from what one would expect from a flagship model but that was to be expected considering the far from perfected technology which Samsung used for the panel.

What came as a surprise though was the absolutely atrocious 3D picture quality even though it was nice to have fluid 2D to 3D conversion available at the touch of a button. Ghosting was absolutely everywhere and with the Depth setting needlessly inaccessible in most cases, vertigo and headaches were a common occurrence. I’m a firm believer that 3D has no place in our living rooms until panel technology can catch up and the C9000 chiseled that opinion into concrete. It just feels like Samsung should focus upon improving current technologies like edge lit LED panels and the issues associated with 3D before pushing out ultra high priced designer HDTVs.

The remote Samsung included really is something to behold up until those first few button presses. After a few minutes of fiddling with the nonsensical interface, it ends up being nothing more than a novelty item and you’ll end up ditching it for a Harmony. But when company comes over, don’t hesitate to take it out since it will have people oohing and aahing in no time. Just be prepared to recharge it every day or so.

There is no denying the fact that the UN55C9000 is a technological tour de force but does fall short in several areas. However, this doesn’t stop it from being the poster child for what the future of HDTVs will hopefully look like. It improves upon some of the weaknesses we saw in past LED HDTVs and the overall great HD picture performance belies its ultra slim frame. As such it receives our Dam Innovative Award.


 
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