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LE40M86BD Picture Quality

by Vincent Teoh
15 April 2007

General Comments

Black Level

The glossy Super Clear Panel™ really does wonders for blacks – in this particular regard the Samsung LE40M86BD has the lowest black level of all the LCD TVs we've tested so far. Heck, if I really wanted to insist (for purely academic purpose), I could have dialed the black level down even more to exceed the reference-level black on Panasonic TH42PH9 plasma. This is made possible by the addition of "Backlight" option (not available on LE40F71BX) on top of "Energy Saving" option for further backlight finetuning.

But because lowering the backlight to such an extent entailed too much sacrifice in shadow detail and overall luminance, I settled at a slightly higher backlight level while maintaining video black. Even then the Samsung LE40M86BD had no problems matching the blacks on the recent Panasonic TH42PX70 plasma TV.

Shadow Detail

If only the shadow detail on the Samsung LE40M86BD was as good as its black level... but the skewed gamma tracking made sure that this wasn't going to happen. Don't get me wrong, the shadow detail on the LE40M86BD ain't bad, it's just less well-defined compared to some of its closest competitors.

The thing with shadow detail is that unless it's truly atrocious (big black blotch in place of grey gradations), most people don't know what they're missing until they see another TV with excellent shadow detail side-by-side. Is the blazer jacket totally black, or are you meant to see a faint outline of the lapel? Fortunately we had our resident Panasonic TH42PH9 and the recently reviewed Panasonic TX32LXD70 (both track gamma respectably) available in-house so it was easy for me to compare.

Contrast Ratio

The contrast ratio also received a welcome boost as a result of the Super Clear Panel™: not only does the Samsung LE40M86BD maintain LCD's characteristic brightness, black level has now extended low enough to rival the best of plasma TVs. In fact, the Samsung LE40M86BD cleared 1200:1 effortlessly, making it the HDTV with the highest calibrated dynamic contrast ratio among all that we've tested.

Colour Reproduction

In isolation most viewers probably wouldn't complain about the colour palette on the Samsung LE40M86BD, but once you've seen a few display units that reproduce colours faithfully, you get the feeling that something is amiss in this aspect. Sure the colour composition was balanced thanks to a near-D65 greyscale, but even after spending hours tweaking the colour and tint, I just could not get skin tones to look as healthy, and green foliage to look as lush as those found on the spot-on Pioneer PDP4270XD plasma.

This is not to say that the Samsung LE40M86BD is totally unacceptable for day-to-day viewing; it's more of a rant at the off base chromaticity of LCD TVs in general. If you're willing to accept some minor colour inaccuracies (which are usually difficult to detect anyway compared to more obvious flaws like poor blacks), I can categorically say that so far I haven't seen any other 1080p LCD TVs that can definitely beat a calibrated Samsung LE40M86BD in terms of colour reproduction (I rate the Sony KDL40W2000 to be equal). But if you're anal about colour accuracy, you're more likely to find solace in plasma TVs.

Detail & Resolution

This is the main reason to buy a 1080p panel: to fit an incoming 1080 signal onto every pixel on the screen (1:1 mapping) to create a seamless and detailed image.

Towards this end the Samsung LE40M86BD offered three HDMI connections that are capable of doing just that. When fed with 1080i signal through any of these HDMI ports with "Just Scan" enabled, the LE40M86BD fully resolved every horizontal and vertical 1-pixel lines to achieve 1:1 mapping. Putting up the overscan pattern demonstrated a loss of white lines at the top and bottom of the screen amounting to what seemed to be 0.1% vertical overscan, but in truth this was due to the 2 millimetre black masking obscuring the white lines rather than true overscan, as illustrated by the following overexposed photo:

overscan

I had less success in attaining 1:1 pixel mapping over component and VGA (tested using HTPC... I've sold my Xbox 360 to fund more HDTV purchases). With the former, a 1080 input signal was overscanned then cropped. With the latter, the "Just Scan" option was not available for PC input; the LE40M86BD simply auto-adjusted compatible resolutions to fit onto its panel. When my ATI Radeon-equipped HTPC was set to display a resolution of 1920 x 1080, an oversized desktop was generated much to my disappointment. Maybe a Geforce video card or some Powerstrip fiddling might do the trick, but due to limited time and resource I did not pursue this further.

Motion Handling

Despite a quoted response time of 8ms, the Samsung LE40M86BD handled motion as well as what you could expect from an above average LCD. It's no worse than other 1080p sets like Sony KDL40W2000 and Sharp LC42XD1E, but if you've just migrated from CRT TVs you may need some time to get used to mild motion blur during fast action scenes.

While not strictly speaking a dealbreaker, I secretly wished that Samsung had incorporated 100Hz motion compensation technology (as found on the Panasonic TX32LXD70) into the LE40M86BD to help with motion handling. Unfortunately it's only implemented on the 32-inch LE32M86BD.

Viewing Angle

Samsung's previous 1080p LCD TV, the LE40F71BX, used S-PVA panel technology to achieve a wide viewing angle spanning 120° before contrast, colour saturation and blacks start going awry.

Things are different with the Samsung LE40M86BD. You won't see a sudden drop-off in contrast and colour, but from 45° off-axis onwards you'll detect the colours being slowly drained away from the screen. I suspect this is an undesirable side effect of the Super Clear Panel™ – it reduces light dispersion to boost contrast, unfortunately at the slight expense of viewing angle.

Blacks also became lighter with off-axis viewing, which made screen unevenness more obvious. If it was up to me, I'd grab the centre seat every time, or make good use of the swivel stand.

Video Processing

I didn't expect Samsung LE40M86BD's video processing to set the world alight... not at this price point. What baffled me was Samsung's curious decision to cripple LE40M86BD's 3:2 cadence detection for film mode deinterlacing. Let me explain.

With "Movie Plus" disabled, the Samsung LE40M86BD doesn't detect 3:2 cadence and hence doesn't apply film mode deinterlacing correctly to NTSC, HD DVD and Blu-Ray materials. I confirmed this over component in 480i and 1080i; and over HDMI in 1080i (the LE40M86BD doesn't accept 480i or 576i over HDMI).

Sidenote: "Movie Plus" was automatically engaged (as long as it's possible) every time I changed input source, or even change resolution/ aspect ratio over the same connection, despite it being labelled clearly as "Off" in the user menu. To disable it I had to turn it on first and then turn it off.

Update To Sidenote (20 May 2007): Newer panels with the latest firmware no longer have this problem – "Movie Plus" settings are now saved per input.

"So what's the problem? Just let Movie Plus do its thing and get on with it." I hear you say.

The issue I have with Movie Plus is that it features Samsung's own frame interpolation technology which was intended to reduce telecine judder but only succeeded in introducing unnatural sped-up motion and erratic lip-synch delay reminiscent of "TruD" on the Sharp LC42XD1E. I suppose some people can get used to it over time, but for me it got rid of the all-important "film-like feel" of movies... it's as if I was watching an amateurish video production instead.

Also, "Movie Plus" cannot be enabled when "Just Scan" mode is on (necessary for 1:1 mapping). So users are forced to decide between a rock and a hard place: should you put up with a blurrier overscanned image to obtain film mode deinterlacing (with its own set of flaws)? Or should you opt for pin-sharp image but know that your NTSC, HD DVD and Blu-ray films are not deinterlaced properly?

I have fired an email off to Samsung informing them about this issue, as it could potentially be fixed with a firmware update.

Otherwise, the LE40M86BD employs rudimentary motion-adaptive video deinterlacing and minimal (if any) directional filtering, so you would inevitably see scan line artifacts like jaggies and twitter on video material especially when the resolution or bit-rate is low. Scaling quality is acceptable.

The image displayed on Samsung LE40M86BD looked clean enough from 8 feet away so I saw little need for further noise reduction. The "Digital NR" option in the user menu is actually satisfactory in my books, as there was only minimal loss of detail and no motion smearing, so feel free to apply it according to your taste for SD programmes.

Standard Definition

I've just noticed that all this while we've commented on high definition first, then followed by standard definition... I'm going to reverse the order to save the best for last, so to speak. Let's start with the most challenging source:

Freeview (Digital TV)

Depending on how far you sit from the screen, large-sized LCD TVs usually fall at this hurdle due to a combination of poorly encoded material, overzealous MPEG compression and demanding scaling requirements (you're trying to fit a 576 signal on a 1080 screen).

Obviously it varied from channel to channel, but I thought the Samsung LE40M86BD put in a decent performance here. Channel 4 has consistently streamed broadcasts of a very high quality, so when it screened Mel Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" over Easter, I took the opportunity to catch up on a film I missed when it first came out.

christ christ-1

Some of you may disagree with me but I thought the 2-hour long movie was beautifully shot and hauntingly powerful. No red push was evident on the Samsung LE40M86BD: blood – painted relentlessly throughout this violent film in drops, drips, puddles, smears, drenches and whatever form you can imagine – looked realistic without being overbearing. Weak flesh tones was my main complaint, but sitting from 10 feet away I didn't get the feeling that I was missing out on too much. But then again I'm much more forgiving when it comes to SD content because I know that if I look closer I can pinpoint many compression and video processing artifacts easily.

There was also plenty of football action this week, so I gleefully examined LE40M86BD's motion handling. There was a hint of motion blurring (common to even the best of LCDs not equipped with motion compensation technology), but not to the point of distraction. The green of the football pitch was tolerable, though tilted more towards emerald compared to that depicted by plasmas. Jaggies, twitter and mosquito noise cropped up fairly frequently here... as with most flat panel TVs these artifacts can usually only be eradicated by an external video processor.

One thing worth pointing out is how our Samsung LE40M86BD coped with daytime viewing. Many potential owners are concerned – rightly so – by the reflectiveness of the panel. Personally I didn't find this to be a problem: as long as sunlight doesn't hit directly on the glass screen and there's light coming out from the TV, you'll probably lose yourself in enjoying the picture rather than noticing the glare.

In fact, I contend that daytime viewing actually highlights the strengths of the Samsung LE40M86BD. Ambient light will further accentuate the excellent black level to give the impression of infinite nothingness (unattainable by lesser LCD TVs with greyish blacks), and its inherent LCD brightness will confer a significant advantage over plasma TVs in a bright environment.

Regular DVD

For all my criticism of Samsung LE40M86BD's poorly executed 2:3 pulldown in the form of Movie Plus, there's one sure way to solve the problem. Just outsource the deinterlacing to your DVD player or external video processor, so that the TV receives a progressive signal and only needs to handle scaling (or not... if it's a 1080 signal).

And all this talk of 3:2 and 2:3 and telecine doesn't matter one jot when you're watching PAL DVDs which the LE40M86BD deals with satisfactorily even with Movie Plus off. My PAL test disc on this occasion was Wayne's World, a brainless comedy that is as funny today as it was 15 years ago, starring Mike Myers in his pre-Austin Powers days.

wayne wayne-1

Upscaled through our Toshiba HD DVD player (which has a superior scaler to all the HDTVs that we've tested) to 1080i resolution over HDMI using Just Scan mode, the characters truly came alive on screen, spewing out lines after lines of hilarious gems. The charcoal blacks acted as an anchor for the ultra-balanced colours, adding a degree of pop to the whole experience... it's hard to believe from the quality that this movie was filmed 15 years ago.

By lowering the output resolution from the player to 576i, the picture became softer (and overscanned) as you would expect, though from 10 feet away I found little to complain. Experimenting with the Movie Mode accelerated PAL speedup even more, so I left it off.

divergence divergence-1

The only NTSC disc that I had lying around was the Hong Kong film Divergence (many of you probably won't know this), an intersecting story which landed Aaron Kwok the first of his two consecutive Golden Horse Best Actor Award (Hong Kong's equivalent of Oscar). Again the colour balance shined through here, although the most impressive bit was how the Super Clear Panel™ layered the image with depth and three-dimensionality.

Without Movie Plus switched on (meaning that 3:2 cadence is not detected and film mode deinterlacing is not applied properly), I spotted combing and twitter from 4 feet away. If you're watching NTSC DVD, my advice is to let your DVD player do the interlacing (i.e. output progressive signal), because the other lousy alternative is to turn on Movie Plus and endure the pseudo-fast-forwarded motion, which – while less noticeable compared to PAL – was still disconcerting.

High Definition

HD DVD

miami-vice gong-li

I had the Miami Vice HD DVD on rent from Lovefilm, so it become the test disc for the evening. Although let down by a forgettable plot and indistinct dialogue, the movie oozed flair and flamboyance vividly captured on digital video by the visually stylistic methods of director Michael Mann. The Samsung LE40M86BD was equal to the task – its 1200:1 contrast ratio afforded ample dynamic range as the camera swung from sweltering Miami sunshine one moment to murky underground the next.

The Heat-esque gunfight climax in Miami Vice served as a reminder of both the greatest asset and biggest weakness of the Samsung LE40M86BD. It had inklike blacks that most LCD TVs can only dream about. But while I was totally engrossed by the inviting pitch-dark backdrop barely illuminated by flashes of gunfire, my eyes felt mildly strained in making out the action in darkness. Both the Panasonic TH42PH9 and the TX32LXD70 flanking the LE40M86BD were slightly better at quenching my thirst for shadow detail.

Knowing the Samsung LE40M86BD's deficiency in 3:2 cadence detection when Movie Plus is disabled, I specifically looked out for deinterlacing artifacts. From 10 feet away I couldn't see any, which was not surprising given the high resolution (the jaggies would be ultra tiny). On closer inspection I could pick out the odd twitter... turning on Movie Plus would fix this, but then unnatural motion would creep in so I disabled it.

I noticed some graininess on certain dark scenes throughout the movie, which I attributed to intentional grain introduction by the director rather than bit-processing fault on the Samsung LE40M86BD, simply because the LCD TV's performance so far has been nothing short of outstanding. A quick comparison with other HDTVs at hand confirmed my hunch.

Satellite HD

In a crooked sense, at times I prefer HD satellite broadcasts over HD DVD in spite of the lower bit-rate, because I get to feast my eyes with the entire screen real-estate and not get annoyed by the black bars encroaching the top and bottom of the panel. And in the realm of satellite transmission few programmes can surpass BBC's Planet Earth in driving home all the benefits of high definition.

mountain panda
deer bird

Most decent flat panels should render high definition well: the sheer resolution lends itself to heightened perception of detail and sharpness. What puts Samsung LE40M86BD ahead of non-1080p sets is how the delicate detail is portrayed. With a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 at its disposal, each stroke of the imposing mountains and every speck of rock were presented seamlessly, stamping a smooth flowing quality on the final picture.

Because the image was so alluring, I always got the urge to move closer to the screen to soak up all the fine detail. And when I did, I was not disappointed. Whereas non-1080 displays would exhibit visible pixel structure and plasmas would show typical PWM shimmer, nothing – not pixel grids, not video blocks – interrupted the flow of fully resolved pixels from one to another on the Samsung LE40M86BD, just the way it should be when you move closer to an object in real life. This, together with the glossy Super Clear Panel™, contributed significantly to the "looking out the window" lifelike clarity and transparency that most videophiles die for.

golf-1 golf-2

Never held a golf club my whole life, but I tuned in to watch the US Masters 2007 just to check out the sport in glorious high definition. I couldn't help but notice the mildly inaccurate colours on the Samsung LE40M86BD. On Planet Earth this was not so obvious because I haven't laid eyes on any of the landscape/ animals before so I had no frame of reference, but the US Masters broadcast was filled with human faces and greenery that I see in everyday life.

Grass looked bright with a touch of unwanted digital effect, and skin tone verged on the side of undersaturation. The starkest example I remember is how we didn't realise Justin Rose's face was tanned light-brown when he was interviewed by Gary Lineker... until we compared it side-by-side with other HDTVs we had available at that time.

We tried approximating the skin tone (and came pretty close) by playing with the colour controls, but then other colours would become blatantly wrong, and on other programmes the skin tone would go all haywire requiring further adjustments. In the end we chose a colour setting that gave the best balance across all programmes without needing frequent tweaks. Saturated? Yes. Accurate? Unfortunately no.

Well, at least every blade of grass and every bunch of leaves were as crisp as the golf swings, as could be expected from a HDTV fed with pristine HD signal...

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