Samsung UE55ES8000 3D LED LCD TV Review

Black Level

At the beginning of this review, we said that Samsung are largely responsible for bringing LCD TV picture quality up to the standard required for high quality video usage, thanks to their development and frequent usage of SPVA LCD panels. The most common competing type, IPS (used in LG, Philips and Panasonic LCDs) has superior off-axis viewing angle quality and less low-tone motion smearing, but considerably poorer black levels. Contrast performance is incredibly important for satisfying video images, which is why we tend to recommend SPVA LCD displays like the ES8000 over other LCD types – assuming all else is equal.

When we were performing measurements, we saw some unusual behaviour with the luminance output of the Samsung UE55ES8000. Its output would occasionally vary when fed with sequential patterns. For example, during the beginning of the measurements, we measured a mostly black screen (with a few white pixels at one of the corners, to avoid the TV turning its lighting out and giving a false impression of real-world performance) at 0.05 cd/m2, and a fully white screen as being the 120 cd/m2 we’d lined it up to during calibration. Then, measuring the same encoded brightness values from the separate ANSI-style test chart, we saw the same 0.05 cd/m2 measurement for black, but a brighter 140 cd/m2 white, indicating that some sort of contrast manipulation is going on in the HDTV.

Later, when we returned to measure black again (without changing the [Backlight] setting!), the panel was producing a darker 0.03 cd/m2, with white now coming in at just 76 cd/m2 on the full white screen, and just 90 cd/m2 on the ANSI chart. We then went into the menu and set [Backlight] to “8″ again, which caused the TV to suddenly jump up to a higher level of light output, and the original numbers began appearing. All of this points to the Samsung UE55ES8000 performing some manipulation of contrast at both the video processing level, and also at the physical light sources (LEDs). It’s incredibly subtle, and we wouldn’t have noticed it if we hadn’t actually measured the light output from the display. We’re intrigued as to what’s going on, but the bottom line is that the contrast performance is excellent, and we noticed nothing in the way of distracting darkening or lightening during viewing.

There is also a mysterious new option called [Black enhancer], the description of which reads: “Enhance picture depth by adjusting black colour depth”. This option appears to be a repackaging of the [Shadow Detail] control found on previous Samsung LCD televisions. Enabling [Black enhancer] simply dims the LED lights further during dark scenes. With this control enabled, a nearly (but not entirely) black screen measured at 0.016 cd/m2. Of course, this sort of light source manipulation isn’t for free: the trade-offs for perceptibly better blacks are that shadow details will become harder to see, and colour saturation will be lessened during these moments where the ES8000 is dimming the lights.

Peak White Output

The potential brightness of LED LCD TVs is one of the biggest advantages of the technology. It can produce huge amounts of light for comparatively little amounts of power. Like with most LED LCD displays, the intensity of the LEDs is controlled by the [Backlight] control on the Samsung UE55ES8000 (it’s not really a backlight anymore, but like the rest of the industry, Samsung has chosen not to confuse things with the naming of the control).

Keep in mind that the minimum luminance level (or black level) and the amount of light the screen is outputting are tied together. Because all that’s increasing is the intensity of the light sources (the LEDs), the rise in light output is basically linear. In other words, if you set [Backlight] to a setting that produces an eye-searingly bright picture, the blacks will get greyer. Conversely, if you turn down the [Backlight] to get a dimmer picture (more suitable for darker viewing environments), you’ll see dimmer whites, but better blacks. The control can be adjusted from 0 to 20, so there’s plenty of room to please most users and environments.

We used a Backlight setting of 8, which meant that peak white brightness measured at 120 cd/m2, our usual calibration target. (We routinely calibrate HDTVs this way so that they’re evaluated on a level playing field, but in practice, we recommend that users set the control so the television is producing a bright enough image for their individual viewing environment).

Screen Uniformity

For an edge LED TV, the Samsung UE55ES8000 exhibited good performance, which was a relief, since LCDs of this thinness typically don’t do very well in this area. A dark screen in a dark environment revealed a little bit of “clouding”: slightly lighter patches near the top left and bottom right. However, unlike previous similar displays we’ve tested, this was minimal after we’d dimmed the [Backlight] control to make it suitable for our moderately lit environment. And, unlike those previous edge-lit LED-based televisions, we didn’t see any non-uniformity during actual viewing.

The fact that Samsung can produce a large 55-inch LCD panel with this level of uniformity is very reassuring indeed. Previously, IPS LCD panels (LG, Philips and Panasonic LCD TVs) have exhibited better uniformity. Then again, the fact that we see less clouding on IPS LCD panels may be related to the fact that they have poorer black level performance – perhaps if they could produce the same deep black shades as Samsung’s SPVA LCDs, they’d reveal something similar.

We’ve been pretty down on ultra-slim edge-lit LED LCD models in the past, due to the fact that they showed poorer uniformity compared to their slightly bulkier CCFL LCD counterparts. However, it seems that the performance gap has now disappeared, leaving only the slim benefit.

Motion Resolution

Samsung’s [Motion Plus] motion settings allows for Blur Reduction and Judder Reduction to be independently adjusted, meaning that unlike some older 100hz/200hz LCD TVs, it’s possible to gain crisper motion without introducing the controversial “soap opera” effect into film material. That means that the “Custom” mode can be selected, with the blur reduction setting set highly and the judder reduction setting set off. However, as was the case on previous Samsung LCD HDTVs, we found that this configuration could cause the UE55ES8000 to temporarily show motion stutter in video sequences that alternated between low motion and high motion content (an example would be clips of a film intercut with video camera interview material). In the end, we selected the “Clear” [Motion Plus] mode, which we found to be the best compromise. Our custom-built test pattern revealed that this does introduce a little bit of motion interpolation, but not enough to cause a visible “soap opera effect” with films, and not enough to cause motion artefacts with most content. In any case, Samsung gives full control over to the user in this area, which is great.

In this configuration, the Samsung 55ES8000 had no trouble in drawing all 1080 lines in the FPD Benchmark Software test, although as we expected, there was a little bit of low-tone smearing, whereby the black areas of the chart would leave subtle grey shadows during motion (the effect could be compared to phosphor trailing on Plasma TVs). In real-world use, we only saw a few instances of this effect, the most noteworthy being an actress with long black hair moving across the panel, with her hair blending with her flesh-tone to make a small reddish-brown tinge on her face. Motion on LCD still doesn’t appear as crisp as on Plasmas during high-motion video content, though.

Samsung’s [LED Motion Plus] also makes an appearance. This appears to be an LED scanning system, which in theory, should help prevent the human visual system from perceiving blurred images during motion. In practice, we found that it made a very small improvement, but because it barely reduces the brightness of the screen, we saw no harm in leaving it on.

Overall, the motion performance is exactly what we expected from a premium LED LCD TV – it’s good, but it’s not quite up there at Plasma levels.

3D

Overall, the Samsung UE55ES8000 handles tri-dimensional content brilliantly. There are still some performance limitations, but it joins the Panasonic LED LCD televisions in producing 3D picture quality that is nearly up to the same standard as its 2D images.

This is in contrast to Plasma TVs, which excel at producing 2D images and at providing a 3D experience that’s nearly free of double-image (crosstalk) artefacts, due to that technology’s motion driving mode. However, every Plasma TV we’ve seen has featured lessened gradation (more coarse transitions between colours and tones) and a higher amount of panel-generated dithering noise in the image. Additionally, one manufacturer’s plasmas have exhibited lessened resolution throughout some of the tonal range when operating in 3D. Plasma televisions produce excellent 2D images and their 3D images excel at being free from double-image artefacts, but the venerable display technology is no saint when it comes to overall quality in 3D.

The 3D images put out by the UE55ES8000 are 100% Full HD, with no jaggedness at all. Nearly every drop of detail from a 1080p source reaches the screen (we say “nearly” because the film grain smoothing that Samsung enforces could be seen as a form of detail reduction). Either way, the 3-dimensional images on the Samsung ES8000 are every bit as sharp and free from jaggies as the 2D display mode.

There’s still more crosstalk than IPS-type LCDs and Plasma displays, but it’s not too obvious. As usual, high contrast edges will show the effect up a little – the white Dreamworks logo at the beginning of How To Train Your Dragon, for example. It’s slight, though, and the Samsung ES8000 does give a very appealing 3D effect, especially thanks to the aforementioned gradation and resolution qualities.

Unlike several other LED LCD 3D TV displays, including some older Samsung models, the right-eye view is drawn at full precision. Older ones presented a sort of “stipple” effect in some areas of the picture, which was presumably a shortcut used to address the entire LCD panel with both views. Some Sony LED LCD 3DTVs have shown an unusual effect where the right-eye view appears with visible vertical lines through it. The 55ES8000 has none of these effects.

We ran our usual 3D motion tests on the Samsung UE55ES8000 to detect any issues with judder in 3D content. With [Motion Plus] turned off, the 50hz test displayed with motion judder. Enabling the higher levels of [Blur Reduction] removed the judder on our test sequence, but not during some actual 50hz 25fps 3D film content. However, as with last year, we found that entering the “Game Mode” (which by default, produces a very sharpened, blue-tinted picture, but can be calibrated to a high level of accuracy) solved any judder and reproduced cinema-smooth playback of 50hz films.

24p 3D material – the kind of video you’ll get from films on 3D Blu-ray discs – also displayed with essentially identical performance to the aforementioned 50hz material. Unfortunately, turning on Game Mode didn’t resolve judder here. Fortunately, it was mild. So, if you want to avoid some light motion judder, you’ll need to turn on the TV’s own motion-smoothing features and find a good balance of a setting that avoids the judder but doesn’t introduce much of a “soap opera” effect. This does mean that you can’t get cinema quality motion from the Samsung UE55ES8000 in 3D, though.

Unsurprisingly, the 60hz video standard, used by the USA, Canada, Japan, and South Korea, worked perfectly regardless of the configuration. This sort of thing is just another example of why, in this reviewer’s opinion, Europe should have adopted 60hz for HD broadcasting – but that’s a rant for another article.

It appears that the design of Samsung’s 3D LCD products is 60hz-centric, which is understandable. This is in contrast to LCD and Plasma offerings from Panasonic, all of which have been configurable to replay all types of 3D content without judder and without requiring frame interpolation. However, we didn’t feel that the judder was a huge deal, and importantly, greyscale tracking and colour were both up to a good standard (although neither were quite as accurate as in 2D).

One other interesting point, which has some ramifications for hardcore users (and calibrators!) who’ll be calibrating the 3D mode of the 3DTV, is that when you’re watching 3D content on the Samsung UE55ES8000 and press the 3D button to “flatten” the video into 2D mode, the panel driving mode does not change, as it did on previous Samsung LED LCDs, which would blank out the panel for a second before returning to 2D mode. The picture settings don’t change, either. That means that if you calibrate through the 3D glasses for perfectly coloured 3D images, and then change to 2D mode, you’ll be seeing tinted pictures. Fortunately, we don’t envisage too much interest in flattening 3D content into 2D, but it’s something to consider if you have a 3D copy of a film, not enough glasses to go around, and a room of incredibly picky video enthusiasts! If you are in this position and want to avoid colouring the picture, then you’ll need to feed to force your 3D Blu-ray player to output in 2D mode.

Standard Definition

Samsung’s scaling is still the best in the industry. While it can’t make SD images look as detailed as real HD ones (if only!), Samsung’s edge-adaptive scaling algorithm does at least make them look wonderfully smooth and free of aliasing (unless the content itself is full of it). The UE55ES8000 also does a wonderful job of avoiding jaggedness during the conversion of interlaced SD content to the progressive HD panel.

As with the company’s most expensive 2011 Plasma TV, the excellent PS64D8000, the ES8000 didn’t engage film mode deinterlacing when fed with 2-2 PAL telecine material. That means that films transferred to PAL TV will display with some extra jaggedness and loss of vertical resolution. Hopefully Samsung can fix this with firmware, because their HDTVs have managed this in the past. It’s not a huge issue, fortunately.

High Definition

On the whole, high-def content looked very appealing on the Samsung UE55ES8000, provided that we played by the LCD rules and made sure to sit face-on with the screen. As a PVA panel, colours can lose their vividness when viewed off-angle, something that could be a consideration for large, wide rooms. On the other hand, viewers who sit in the same on-axis position will have nearly nothing to worry about, because the UE55ES8000′s on-axis images are smooth, vibrant and deep.

Especially in a daytime viewing environment, the calibrated UE55ES8000 looked stunning. As we already mentioned, LED LCD technology is especially suited to brighter viewing environments, where the efficient LED light sources can pump out enough light to compete with bright lighting or sunlight. They can produce a picture that’s both accurate and also very bright. The “Ultra Clear Panel” did a wonderful job of presenting a rich picture with minimal reflections. The LED LCD sore points of uniformity errors – which our Samsung ES8000 review sample really had very little of, anyway – and off-axis viewing limitations – are also not really visible in these brighter environments.

Taken

In darker environments, the UE55ES8000 put up a very fair fight. Dark scenes in movies still had a lot of depth to them, although as with every LED-based LCD we’ve seen, blacks took on a slightly purplish tinge. The very accurate greyscale, gamma, colour hue, saturation and luminance levels, coupled with the high performance of the SPVA LCD panel, all worked together to produce very satisfying video.

With film content, there were basically no motion issues to worry about. It’s possible to get cinema-style motion out of the ES8000, that is, to have the TV display the 24fps content without any motion judder, and without the TV generating any new inbetween frames (motion interpolation).

We did notice that the UE55ES8000, sadly, applies noise reduction to all incoming video, even with the [Digital Noise Filter] set to “Off”. This has been the case with certain Samsung HDTV models over the past couple of years, although some of their Plasmas we reviewed late last year didn’t suffer from it. Some previous Samsung displays featured a bug where the NR would revert to its highest setting, despite being reported as “Off” in the menu. This caused some quite obvious motion smearing with grainier films (think Black Swan). That bug is fixed, so the bulk of the smeared motion is now gone. However, viewing of familiar film material and synthetic test patterns designed to reveal motion processing let us see that the “Off” feature still isn’t actually “off”. Fortunately, what’s left of the forced noise reduction is quite light, but, so is the amount of grain in modern Hollywood film-originated material, so the light amount of NR being done by the TV is still enough to change the look of some films and make them feel perceptibly less detailed. To summarise, we just don’t understand why Samsung can’t let the user make up their own mind. It’s a little disappointing, especially since when we reviewed some of their Plasma TVs late last year, we saw that the latest firmware had put this control entirely in the user’s hands. As always, “Game Mode” reproduces every last pixel’s worth of detail from a high quality HD film scan, but this introduces other compromises (lack of 10-point white balance control, judder with 24p film content, dynamic backlighting).

Stop Press: after participating in the 2012 Value Electronics flat panel shootout, we had the chance to calibrate and investigate the US model of this HDTV, which has a correctly implemented “Off” feature for the Noise Reduction setting. Our understanding is that this is the intended behaviour for the European models too, which gives us hope for a firmware update to address the issue.

Of course, if you’re watching noisy/fuzzy low-light video camera footage on Samsung 55ES8000, the noise reduction is a good thing. The company’s noise reduction processing is the best in the industry, reducing video fuzz with minimal artefacting. (That doesn’t mean we want to use it all the time, though).

Unlike the recently reviewed Panasonic flat-panel televisions, the Samsung drew a luma zone plate test chart very cleanly, without any excessive aliasing or moire. That means that it’s not oversharpening any details in the picture, unless the user elects to turn up the [Sharpness] control. Panasonic’s subtle sharpening turned out to not be visible with video content, but we always think full control should be in the user’s hands, so thumbs up to Samsung.

Gaming

The standard viewing modes on the Samsung UE55ES8000 feature an easily detectable amount of input lag. While this might be fine for slower-paced games like turn-based RPGs, anything requiring a constant interaction/feedback loop with the user will benefit from enabling [Game Mode], which is buried in the System > General menu. By default, this produces a very blue-tinted, sharpened picture, but it can be adjusted back to a high level of accuracy.

“Game Mode” drops the lag to a very good 31ms, which isn’t the fastest around, but was enough to provide a good experience.

Additionally, Game Mode does remove the aforementioned undefeatable noise reduction, allowing all of the texture of high quality film scans to come through untouched. It also features higher chroma resolution, with sharper tiny coloured details, although this improvement is subtle. It does also feature dynamic backlighting, meaning that the ES8000 will darken and brighten the intensity of the LED light sources relative to picture content (for example, a dimly lit scene in which a dark, cloaked character steps into the frame will cause the TV to shift brightness on-the-fly). For that reason, we didn’t use the Game Mode for films as we sometimes do to avoid the noise reduction.

Some users prefer LCD-based displays for playing current-generation video games. Most software for the now-underpowered Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (PS3) systems can only manage a low 30 frames per second (fps), and some games (Halo: Reach is an example) actually feature programmed-in motion blur to present smoother motion within the frame rate limitation. These users complain of a flickering effect when this low frame-rate content is played back on a Plasma TV. The subtle motion blur that LCD panels introduce can actually be seen as beneficial in this case, as a sort of “free” motion smoothing which doesn’t involve laggy video processing.

Smart TV Features

Samsung’s Smart Hub portal is launched by pressing the stylish diamond-shaped “M” button on the remote. The interface is up to the Korean TV manufacturer’s usual standard, and features five wallpaper backgrounds to choose from. The video image is shrunk and displayed in a box at the top left. Installed apps appear at the bottom of the screen, with highlights being displayed in the top half of the screen. There’s a Camera app, a fairly usable web browser, and perhaps most worthwhile of all, a Skype app.

This is the first time that we’ve actually used Skype on an HDTV, because although the concept is a good one that’s been advertised before, competing models require a separate camera/microphone unit, which typically isn’t supplied. We imagine that for this reason, the 2012 Samsung Smart TVs will be many users’ first experience of Skype on the big screen. Being able to participate in free video calls via a device that’s typically installed in a communal setting (a TV in a living room) is a very appealing idea, and a great way for geographically scattered people to stay in touch.

Voice and Motion Control

Voice and motion controls will naturally conjure up sci-fi-esque ideas of users effortlessly commanding machines to do their bidding, and the idea is a pretty appealing one. Not only that, but the voice controls especially could act as an easier way for people with musculature problems (who might find using a remote control uncomfortable for extended periods) to interact with the display.

Of course, in the real world, the technology is still in comparative infancy. The Samsung UE55ES8000 faces several challenges to making this sci-fi UI dream a reality. Remember that the microphone is mounted on the television itself, which is typically a good few metres away from the user. For that reason, a suitably quiet and echo-free environment is needed, and during the setup, the ES8000 of course reminds you that you need to speak loudly and clearly. Additionally, the TV has to be able to distinguish between voice commands and the sound coming out of its own speakers. Not only that, but we can’t even begin to imagine the difficulty that must have been required to get voice features working across the many European languages and accents.

Samsung does have a partial solution to the distance problem, though, because the secondary remote we described earlier does have a small microphone fitted to it. Rather than using simple infra-red commands, this secondary remote uses Bluetooth technology to send these voice samples to the TV for recognition. This solves the distance problem, but of course, then you’re already holding a remote, anyway. The mic on the remote needs to be activated by pressing the “Voice” button – if it was operating constantly, it would eat through batteries very quickly.

So, how does it work? In practice, we found the voice control worked well in some environments. In one test room, there were few problems with getting the UE55ES8000 to pick up simple commands. In another, which had only a PC (with slightly noisy fan) running, it often had difficulty in distinguishing commands. When it did work, though, Voice Control presented a fun (and lazy!) way to operate basic settings on the TV, such as changing volume, channel, switching inputs, and starting Smart TV apps. Actually, we caught ourselves saying things like, “Hi TV. Mute. Thanks!”. We look forward to seeing it develop, although for the time being, didn’t find any reason not to use the (very nice) traditional remote. Samsung do recommend that the ES8000′s volume should be set at level 10 for best results, but this is far too quiet for actual viewing.

There are a few things we’d thought were usability issues, but in fact, were things we’d overlooked. For example, we tried saying “Hi TV – volume up plus ten” to raise the volume by ten clicks (saying “Hi TV, Volume up” does it only by one notch). Samsung informed us that it’s possible to do this, with the command being “keep up”.

Less importantly, it’s a shame Samsung didn’t implement voice recognition for the input labels. We selected the predefined label “Blu-ray” for the HDMI1 input, but we couldn’t say “Hi TV, Source, Blu-ray” to switch to it – it had to be “Hi TV, Source, HDMI One”. It’s not a big deal, but given that voice recognition is probably going to appeal to tech-phobic users, we think that being able to recognise labels would be a nice touch.

Just as the voice controls depend on a suitably quiet environment, motion controls naturally need a certain level of brightness in your room. We certainly preferred the voice controls out of the two new control options. If you manage to successfully activate the motion control mode (by waving at the TV), a cursor appears on screen, which is controlled by moving your palm around – all while holding it up. Once you’re hovered over a button, selecting it is accomplished by closing your palm. We found this to be pretty tiring, so instead used the voice controls and standard remote.

Conclusion

The Samsung UE55ES8000 is a high quality edge LED LCD HDTV. It produces good black level depth in dark rooms, and blacks that look exceptionally inky and deep in brighter environments. Crucially, the review sample we received had significantly less screen uniformity issues than last year’s models. Some mild clouding was visible in darker areas, but there were no effects where the top of the panel appeared brighter or darker than the bottom, for example: no uniformity errors were really visible in practice, other than a very slight lightening near the edges of the bezel.

Like most LCD-based displays, it is in bright environments where the UE55ES8000 excels. It can produce huge amounts of light to produce a clearly visible picture in brighter, sun-filled environments, and its Ultra Clear Panel does a fantastic job of giving the panel a glossy appearance while keeping reflections down. Performance in darker rooms is better left to Plasma TVs, but the Samsung ES8000 puts up a very good fight here too, with blacks remaining suitably deep and involving provided the user sits face-on with the HDTV.

Additionally, 3D performance on the UE55ES8000 is nearly at the same level of quality as 2D. There are no resolution limitations at all in the 3D display mode, and no dithering or coarse gradation as we’ve seen on some 3D Plasmas. However, there is more visible crosstalk than those, and the ES8000 can’t display 24p content in 3D without some subtle motion judder.

The UE55ES8000 is another Samsung display which features forced noise reduction, although a bug which caused severe film grain blurring with this feature has been corrected on this 2012 model. There’s still some noise reduction present even with the user has turned the control off though, meaning that some film grain textures become blurred and the look of high quality Blu-ray Discs is changed by the TV. This does cause them to appear perceptibly less detailed. Most users are unlikely to notice, but image quality enthusiasts might find themselves looking to competitors who allow full control over this feature.

While there may be other less expensive HDTVs (mostly plasmas) that arguably deliver better value-for-money when it comes to 2D picture performance in a darker viewing environment, the Samsung UE55ES8000 remains one of the best LED LCD TVs we’ve seen lately. It is definitely recommended for those who watch TV mainly in a bright room, and 3D enthusiasts who crave for extra-dimensional images that are as good as those in 2D.

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