Samsung PS51E8000 Plasma 3D TV Review

Image Retention

The PS51E8000 doesn’t quite match the PS60E6500′s uncanny ability to avoid image retention, and after a half hour or so of news channels with their irresponsibly designed on-screen graphics, the panel did show some ghost images of logos and headline tickers. However, this faded after a few minutes of leaving the channel, and the Samsung E8000 is still less susceptible than what we’ve seen of the 2012 Panasonic plasma lineup (which isn’t exactly bad in this regard either).

Black Level & Contrast Performance

Black levels on the Korean brand’s plasma TVs are improving year on year, although unlike Panasonic’s efforts, the larger Samsung panels still have deeper blacks than the smaller 51-inch units. As a result, it wasn’t too surprising that a black screen (with a few pixels of white placed in the upper corner to defeat the auto-dimming) measured at 0.042 cd/m2, with the middle black patch in an ANSI checkerboard test returning 0.055 cd/m2. Both of those numbers are respectable, but some way behind the supremely dark 0.009 cd/m2 of Panasonic’s mid-range plasmas, and the better contrast performance of the mid-range PS60E6500.

It used to be the case that Samsung plasmas had visibly better contrast performance in the 60hz output mode, meaning that viewers of video games and US television content were experiencing the best overall image quality. This is a thing of the past: we confirmed that full-screen black level with a 60hz output was only a tad lower than the 96hz “Cinema Smooth” output mode, and the 100hz output mode used for European-style 50hz video. Actually, the 60hz output mode still produces a marginally better black level, but it’s less than 0.01 cd/m2, which is why we say there is no visible difference.

The Samsung PS51E8000 shuts all light output from the panel off when a fully black screen is input. Because this doesn’t return meaningful measurements for the case scenario of actually watching the TV, the “black screen” measurements you see above actually have the auto-dimming defeated by including a small amount of brighter pixels (outside of the area being measured). The auto-dimming can make its presence known during fades or cuts to black during films. However, users who find this effect annoying can sidestep it by raising the brightness control by one click beyond the “correct” setting. This defeats the auto-dimming, has a negligible impact on low-end gamma, and because the control is so fine, it does not raise the minimum luminance level of the panel, meaning that contrast performance is not harmed.

In terms of brightness, the 51E8000 didn’t disappoint. Measuring a full 100% white window pattern, we managed to meet our target of 120 cd/m2 in the “Movie” mode, which is some 20 cd/m2 better than what we managed on the larger PS60E6500 (no doubt this is a size vs power consumption issue). Samsung’s brightness limiting is quite aggressive though, with brightness falling off quite quickly according to how much of the screen is bright. This is considerably brighter than the European versions of Panasonic’s GT50 and VT50 plasmas running in their most flexible picture modes.

Motion Resolution

The PS51E8000 manages somewhere around 850-900 lines of resolution from the scrolling FPD Benchmark test. The ability to discern the fine line pairs depends on the brightness level, with the black-on-grey lines being more smudged than the grey-on-white. Samsung’s panel driving method is a little bit noisier (more dithered) than Panasonic’s, also. On the other hand, motion on Samsung’s plasma TVs has none of the coloured false contouring that can appear on Panasonic’s offerings, especially when those are operating at their higher output refresh rates (96hz for films and 100hz for European TV signals). The only coloured artefacts visible on the Samsung E8000 are some very slight (pixel-thin) orange and blue edges, which are the result of phosphor afterglow.

Keep in mind though that the European model Samsung PS51E8000 has undefeatable noise reduction running at all times. This won’t affect a resolution test (it would take unwatchably bad amounts of smearing to blur out the black and white line pairs in the test chart), but it does mean that actual content suffers from a slight lack of motion detail due to picture details being smoothed over by the noise reduction processing. We discuss real examples of this below.

Luminance Stability

As we mentioned when we reviewed the Samsung PS60E6500, the company’s plasma products do feature slight brightness shifting issues. The same “brightness pops” we discussed during that review are present here, as are some very mild “floating blacks” (which we feel are minimal in terms of annoyance due to the fact that the transition happens as a fade rather than a direct change). We didn’t remeasure the “brightness pops” on the PS51E8000, but the effect is the same, so, here’s proof of their existence on the PS60E6500:

ABL behaviour on Samsung and Panasonic plasma TVs

Unique to the E8000, however, was some very gentle flicker during brighter scenes. We would assume this to be just a different manifestation of the same issue, but the puzzling thing is that it happened on largely static material with very little change in picture brightness. The effect was very subtle, at least.

High Definition

Another Samsung HDTV analysis, and another review where we have to lament the lack of a proper “Off” switch for the [Digital Noise Filter] control. Like last year’s displays, and the ones before that, the PS51E8000 has some light noise reduction running at all times, which can smear heavier film grain in a distracting and unnatural way, and also erase other details from high quality sources. Last year’s models had this issue fixed with a firmware update later on, but it’s back again in 2012. The only way to avoid this mis-feature is to enable the “Game Mode”, which can be configured to give an accurate and reasonably high quality image. However, that disables access to the 10-point white balance menu as well, so it’s not free of trade-offs. Last year we calibrated the PS51D8000 in the “Game Mode” for that reason, and we attempted the same this year. However, this gave us visibly poorer greyscale tracking quality (a blue tint in darker areas) so we found ourselves missing the 10-point white balance feature.

Brad Pitt in Moneyball

The irony here is that the only people harmed by this are video enthusiasts calibrating the TV, that is, the people who are most likely to want to see an untouched picture in the first place. To keep it in perspective, the light amount of noise reduction which is permanently running in the background isn’t enough to totally bulldoze the intended look of grainy films (although it does change them). Likewise, it’s not the sort of thing that most people will be able to spot. However, that doesn’t detract from the absurdity of the fact that the £700 cheaper E6500 series, and the American version, are free of this issue, and both have superior motion detailing as a result. And let’s not forget the larger absurdity of Samsung not allowing the user to make up their own mind on the TV that they’ve just paid a decent amount of money for…

Moneyball screenshot 2

We had a look at the recent Moneyball, which was shot on Super35 by film die-hard DoP Wally Pfister, who’s probably best known for his work on Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Unlike those movies, which suffer in the resolution department on Blu-ray due to the use of intermediate photochemical colour timing steps, the BD version of Moneyball is made from a digital intermediate, meaning that the last film step in the production chain was during the shoot – the camera negative was scanned and coloured digitally, meaning that the resulting HD video master and the resulting Blu-ray encode contains an outstanding level of clarity and fine, natural film grain, which survives without much in the way of visible corruption due to the high capacity of the Blu-ray format. It still looked excellent on the Samsung PS51E8000, although some artefacting was present in the grain pattern during some scenes. For example, in a sequence where Brad Pitt’s character gestures wildly with his hands, the film grain starts buzzing around and stretching when his gesture changes the motion in the scene. It was still a very, very nice presentation, however, thanks to the many other positive aspects of this HDTV. Digital productions, such as Drive (shot on the Arri Alexa) also looked excellent on the E8000.

Moneyball screenshot 3

Ironically enough, the undefeatable noise reduction filtering did the most damage to all-digital CG productions, where there was no real visible grain to start with! For example, in The Adventures of Tintin, at 41:37, the characters are out at sea in the middle of a rainstorm, hiding from a searchlight, which illuminates sparkling rainfall. The rain is gone on the Samsung PS51E8000, blurred out by the averaging effect of the temporal noise reduction (the human eye and brain might know the difference between rain and grain, but to a computer chip, they’re both just semi-random patterns with no similarity from one frame to the next). Remember that the plasma panel is of course more than capable of rendering crisp motion: this is an engineered-in video processing issue.

For balance, we should add that there’s almost no “trailing” effect like you’d get with cruder temporal NR systems (Samsung’s processing is excellent, but we just want to be able to turn it off), but on a high-end television, we should just be able to see every last drop of detail from the source. We offer this information hoping that it’s kept in perspective: the loss of detail is subtle and not something that will leap out at the average viewer, but given how high the standards are when it comes to top-end plasma displays, it doesn’t make sense for Samsung to deliberately design in any features that have the unintended effect of hampering performance – even if subtly. The end result is that Samsung’s top-end plasma TV has LESS motion detail than their mid-range model (and the equivalent American model) – not to mention their closest competitors at Panasonic, who consistently give the user full control over this. We hope that they finally adds a “hands off” mode for film lovers on later models.

With that out of the way, on to the many strengths of the Samsung E8000. Its pre-calibrated picture quality in the “Movie” mode is very good, and although greyscale accuracy wasn’t ideal (the image had a slightly incorrect overall tint), the various strengths inherent to Samsung’s version of plasma display tech still allowed it to be one of the better HDTVs we’ve seen lately. Near-perfect screen uniformity and very little image retention are strengths that Samsung currently has over Panasonic, and while the Korean manufacturer’s plasmas have visibly greyer blacks (on the 51″ sized models), the PS51E8000 still produced a dark enough shade of black – and, importantly, a consistent shade of black across the entire panel surface – for us to not consider this a huge issue.

After calibration, the 51E8000′s image quality was taken up a notch. The red tint visible in the pre-calibrated state was gone, as were the slightly desaturated (and in the case of red, overly bright) colours. Running calibrated to industry standards, images on the E8000 had a new amount of depth and apparent contrast. While the darkest black the TV can show is not the industry’s best, the consistency of the blacks – something that’s often ignored – is as visibly perfect as we’d expect from a plasma display panel (PDP), which plays a major part in the viewer being able to mentally “tune out” the black areas and associate them with darkness. It’s not easy to do that on LCD TVs, which typically display an inconsistent purple-ish glow instead of satisfying black, when viewed in anything but a bright room.

All in all, the Samsung PS51E8000, problems included, produces some of the best quality images out of any HDTV on the market today. Running at its best after calibration, its greyscale, gamma and colour accuracy are all outstanding. The plasma panel itself is capable of sufficiently good blacks, bright whites, and motion clarity which is still excellent.

3D Material

We had a scare when we first flipped the 3D switch (okay, 3D remote button) on the Samsung PS51E8000, because the quality of the menu graphics degraded, becoming more pixellated. Don’t worry – the video underneath is still the crisp, 1080-line Full HD image that Samsung have been consistently delivering on their 1080p plasma televisions. This is in contrast to Panasonic’s 3D plasmas, which do not deliver all 1080 lines, and appear to be addressing some subfields only on alternate lines (which results in a softer image with some jaggedness).

We ran the latest version of our 3-D resolution test pattern, which fades through all possible luminance levels to reveal limitations such as the one found on Panasonic 3D PDPs, and confirmed that the PS51E8000 was not dropping a single line. The image does become noisier (more dithered) in the third dimension, though, due to the reduced gradation. This is inevitable given the demands placed on the Plasma operating in 3D mode: the refresh rate has to be doubled, whilst keeping the spatial resolution the same (1920×1080 twice), all while delivering a satisfactory level of brightness even with the dimming effect of the 3D glasses.

We checked 24p frame-packed material (the “Full HD 1080p” you’ll get from Blu-ray 3D), and were glad to see that the “frame skipping” issue we found on the recently-reviewed PS61E6500 plasma is not present here. 50hz 3D signals, and also the 60hz variety, are both also played back without skipping or juddering. We double checked that the 50hz 3D playback is done without interpolation or other frame rate conversions, and sure enough, all is well: all frame rates are output either natively (60hz) or at multiples, to avoid juddering, tearing, or other problems.

Extra-dimensional content looked excellent on this display, with movies like Hugo appearing nearly as crosstalk-free as we’ve ever seen them. As with nearly all 3D plasma TVs, though, the resulting tri-dimensional image just doesn’t have the same quality or brightness as the silky 2D pictures.

Standard Definition

Samsung’s current generation of flat-screen HDTVs get nearly everything right with standard-def content. As usual, the main talking point is their scaling algorithm, which resizes SD (and 720p) content to fit the 1080p panel in a way that is nearly entirely free of ringing, while still looking smooth and sharp. This feat means that even badly compressed SD TV channels can actually looks strangely decent.

France 24

Video mode deinterlacing is good, with very little in the way of jaggedness. Unfortunately, Samsung dropped the ball on film mode detection, with the 2-2 PAL cadence test failing (on both the “Auto1″ and “Auto2″ film mode settings). All of the American-centric NTSC cadences work properly, unsurprisingly. However, this isn’t the end of the world, because most standard-definition television channels are so aggressively lowpass filtered (basically, blurred) that the resulting jaggies are hard to see, even at this screen size. What’s more, it’s possible to buy a cheap Blu-ray player these days that plays PAL DVDs properly, so users with large collections of DVDs don’t have to rely on the TV’s own processing.

Resolution & Frequency Response

There’s no unwanted edge enhancement on the Samsung PS51E8000, although of course, the user can enable it by nudging up the [Sharpness] control. Fine pixel-thin details are completely clean, and inputting a luma zone plate test card reveals only very minor moiré artefacts, nowhere near the levels seen on the Panasonic GT50 and VT50 plasmas. In practice, there’s not much difference, but it does mean that if you hook up a laptop to the PS-51E8000, you won’t see anything in the way of rogue pixels or ragged edges surrounding fine on-screen text.

The resolution of fine coloured details on the PS51E8000 isn’t quite as good as on Panasonic’s PDPs. Normally when we observe and discuss limitations in chroma resolution between displays, we mention that any such issues tend to not result in a real visual difference on television-sized screens. We were surprised to find an actual visible difference with The Adventures of Tintin‘s desert scenes, in which the CG filmmakers have simulated optical chromatic aberration effects which would occur with lenses in live action production. It’s a designed-in touch similar to the emulated anamorphic lens effects that Pixar has added to some of their films. The visual result is slight coloured fringes (usually purpleish or reddish) around the “actors”. While a TV without chroma bandwidth limitation kept this effect visible, the Samsung’s chroma resolution limitation was actually enough to remove this subtle touch. It’s still a very minor point, but we mention it because it’s the first time where we’ve actually seen a chroma resolution issue in an HDTV change the look of a shot – however slight. (“Game Mode” bypasses more video processing, so has higher chroma resolution, however).

Console Gaming

Gaming was a pleasure on the Samsung E8000, thanks to a suitably low response time of 31ms in the “PC” mode (activated by labelling the HDMI input with “PC”). The PC mode cuts out a lot of video processing, restricting the calibration options. The reward is full 4:4:4 chroma reproduction, with absolutely zero coloured blurring or ringing.

There’s also a “Game Mode” which has more options available, and feels just as fast.

Conclusion

The Samsung PS51E8000 is a great Plasma TV. It features good black levels, and since it’s a PDP, those blacks are consistently dark across the entire screen surface and viewing area – even although they’re not the absolute darkest out there. After only a basic setup, picture quality is good, with a calibrated E8000 producing some of the best images we’ve seen lately.

However, if you’ve been reading this review and thinking that it lacks the sheer enthusiasm of our earlier review of the E6500 plasma, you’d be right. The PS51E8000 features almost no picture quality improvements over the midrange E6500 series, and more irritatingly still, the European version features a years-old Samsung misfeature where the noise reduction filter can’t be turned off. This means that even with high quality noise-free content, film grain (which isn’t the same as noise!) and other fine motion details can be blurred out – a difficult pill to swallow for video enthusiasts on a high-end display, and downright silly considering that the cheaper E6500 series is free of the issue. It also appears that the unlockable CAL-DAY and CAL-NIGHT calibration modes found on the US version have been left out of the European model, which is another missed opportunity to add more value to this top-end plasma.

That leaves the subjectively better design, slimmer profile, extra USB input, and built-in webcam and mic unit (with the attached voice control, gesture control, and Skype video chat potential) as the only reasons we can see for justifying a step up to the E8000 plasma series. The fact that Samsung are being generous with their midrange plasmas shouldn’t mean that we penalise the high-end version, however – but we do have to remind readers where the best value for money lies.

Compared to Panasonic’s excellent 2012 plasma range, the 51-inch Samsung plasma stacks up well. The Panasonics have considerably deeper black levels, but if you watch the television in a brighter environment, Samsung’s limitation here won’t matter much, and let’s not forget that Panasonic’s European GT50 and VT50 models produce a dimmer picture in their most configurable modes (which is another instance of manufacturers somehow managing to saddle their more expensive products with strange limitations that aren’t present on cheaper variants). Both are more or less even for motion quality, although Samsung manages to avoid coloured streaks becoming visible at higher refresh rates, which is an issue with European-style 50hz video. Samsung wins for 3D picture resolution, presenting a full 1080 lines with absolutely no jaggedness – something Panasonic can’t claim – although the Japanese manufacturer’s 3-dimensional images are more naturally coloured.

In the end we decided to give the Samsung PS51E8000 a somewhat hesistant “Highly Recommended” rating. As enthusiasts, we’re tired of Samsung (and LG) TVs performing unnecessary and damaging video “enhancements” that can’t be switched off, and we’re willing to bet that a good part of our target audience (AV die-hards) will have already scratched the 51E8000 off their shortlists as a result of this. However, the fact remains that this is small fry compared to the numerous worse problems that exist on nearly every other flat-panel (LCD-based) TV on the market. The European version of the E8000 series plasmas are hobbled, but they’re still some of the best HDTVs available today. Accordingly, the PS51E8000 just manages to score a highly recommended rating, but we feel that Samsung still need to be reminded that AV enthusiasts want a natural, unprocessed image.

Highly Recommended

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