Samsung PN51E550D1F 3D Plasma HDTV Page 2
Though our standard tests indicate that the Samsung’s video processing is good, on my limited viewing of 480i standard-definition sources, which included two old favorite DVDs, Charlotte Gray and Muppet Treasure Island, the picture looked a little cleaner and more detailed when I first upconverted the SD source material to 1080p in my Bluray player. The quality of the Samsung’s upconversion should satisfy most viewers, but you’ll have to check yourself to see whether you get a better result performing the upconversion from your Blu-ray or HDMI-equipped DVD player.
We suspect that most buyers of a set at this price level will be reluctant to spring for a $300 to $400 professional calibration. Our sample’s pre-calibration color, using the Movie video mode and Warm1 Color Tone setting, never looked wrong. But we have no way of knowing how consistent the out-of-the-box color will be from sample to sample on any display. I did perform a full calibration per our normal procedures, and the resulting test bench results were respectable though not exceptional (see HT Labs Measures). But I had no reservations at all about the set’s post-calibration color on real program material.
The HD resolution was similarly excellent. Some of the sets we’ve tested can arguably do better, but for a lot more money. From the evidence here, it appears that Samsung knows how to build a set most buyers can aspire to that offers first-rate color and detail.
As for black level and shadow detail, however, the Samsung is outclassed by its pricier siblings. When the source goes fully black, the screen often (but not always) does so as well, and it literally disappears if the room is totally dark. While this is visually striking, the actual usable black level, with even the smallest amount of light on the screen, is not as impressive. On the very darkest scenes that exhibit little contrast between the brightest and dimmest details, the battle of the budget doesn’t do this set any favors. But most dark scenes are actually a mixture of dim, shadowed areas set off by a few bright highlights. On such material, where your eyes are naturally drawn to the bright areas and are therefore forgiving of less-than-exceptional blacks and shadow detail, the Samsung holds its own. In fact, considering its unimpressive measured black level (see HT Labs Measures), it does surprisingly well on blacks and shadow detail overall, only betraying its relatively low price on those darkest, most difficult scenes. These kinds of scenes do dominate a few films—the Harry Potter franchise is full of them—but on most movies, they’re relatively infrequent or non-existent.
After two recent trips into passive HDTVland for reviews of the LG 55LM8600 (available in an upcoming issue or online at HomeTheater.com) and the super-widescreen Vizio XVT3D580CM (Home Theater, December 2012), it was revealing to return to a set that uses active glasses. Active glasses do not produce the onscreen horizontal lines typical of passive glasses (their visibility depends on how close you sit to the screen) and offer full vertical resolution. And the increased vertical detail and smoother, less grainy look of active 3D were clearly evident here.
But passive 3D sets typically offer much brighter 3D than most active designs. With rare exceptions, 3D images on an active-glasses display tend to be relatively dim, and even more so on a plasma design. Plasmas are inherently dimmer than LCDs, with little excess brightness to spare for the demands of 3D. In this regard, this Samsung plasma is typical of the breed.
And 3D does push a plasma set to its limits. 3D test patterns of high-brightness whites turned distinctly pink. I could eliminate this by turning down the Contrast control, but given the need to draw on all of the set’s available brightness for 3D, and the fact that this pink shift was not visible on real program material, I decided the best compromise was to live with it.
Despite the above, the Samsung’s 3D brightness level was more than simply watchable. On The Adventures of Tin Tin, Despicable Me, and Tangled, the set had enough snap to keep me involved. Even dark scenes weren’t distractingly dim—though it was obvious that they were dimmer than in 2D.
I did spot some 3D crosstalk (ghosting) on Despicable Me and A Christmas Carol, but it was mild and infrequent. I saw none at all on The Adventures of Tin Tin, Avatar, or Conan the Barbarian (though on the latter I barely made it past the first head-lopping fight). I did see intermittent, serious crosstalk on Ghosts of the Abyss, but it showed up on a Panasonic TC-P65VT50 as well, suggesting that the problem was in the source material (this documentary was photographed in 3D, but over 10 years ago).
Comparisons and Conclusions
The LG 55LM8600 was still on hand as I was wrapping up this Samsung report. Comparing these two sets—one is a budget plasma, the other a pricey LED edge-lit LCD—was not an obvious exercise. But both are superb performers, so I set them side by side, tweaked the basic adjustments slightly to match the visible brightness and gamma as closely as possible, and let them knock heads in 2D on good-quality HD material.
The most startling observation was just how similar these two HDTVs looked in both color and resolution. With both sets calibrated, I’d give the edge to the LG on color, but more because of the LG’s superior measurements than how the sets looked on real-world sources. The visible differences were so small that most viewers would be unlikely to notice them, and even if they did, they might well differ on their preferences. The same goes for resolution. In short, I had no complaints about color or detail on either set.
But black level and shadow detail, at least in a darkened or dimly lit room (bright room lighting can obscure black level quality on even the best sets), ultimately gave the edge to the LG. On those mixed scenes, in which dark areas are set off against bright highlights, the differences between the two sets were arguably small enough to be of little concern to most viewers. However, the Samsung’s grayish, slightly foggy look on very dark, low-contrast scenes was clearly less impressive than the LG’s deep, rich blacks on the same source material.
Considering the price differences between these two sets, however, this was hardly a deal-breaker. And it takes nothing away from the remarkable value the Samsung offers. There may be no miracle here, but Samsung’s designers have come close enough with the budget PN51E550D1F to make for a lot of very happy buyers.