“8K demand surpassed expectations in 2019” according to Samsung. We don’t know what those expectations were – to sell more than 100 8K TVs? 1000? 10,000? – but it means only one thing: Samsung is relentlessly pushing 8K TVs again this year.
It has every right to. For one, its 2019 Q900R/Q950R 8K QLED TV was, while arguably premature and overshadowed by the better value of its 4K QLED flagship, a great telly. And also, as we're seeing at CES 2020 this week, 8K TVs are a hot topic among rival TV manufacturers, with LG, Sony and TCL joining Samsung in their 8K efforts.
For 2020, Samsung will have two 8K QLED TV ranges, the Q800T and flagship Q950 (Q950S in the US, Q950TS in Europe), and it’s the latter all-singing-all-dancing model we’re focusing our attention on here.
We don’t wish to undermine Samsung’s picture achievements for 2020, which we’ll come to shortly, but it’s hard not to jump straight in with the Q950’s beautiful – and, yes, headline grabbing – design.
One day, TV bezels will be a thing of the past, considered a nuisance of a bygone age. Until then we’ll mostly have to put up with them – although not on the Q950. Thanks to Samsung’s new zero-bezel ‘Infinity Screen’, 99 per cent of its front facade is for your TV-watching pleasure.
What's more, despite being a Full Array set and having eight speakers around its frame, the Q950 is only 14.9mm thick too. Concept TVs aside, the Q950 is probably the most gorgeous TV we’ve set eyes on.
Our first impressions of its picture, derived from two demos in which Samsung played stock 8K and 4K video content, don’t stray far from superlatives either. While Samsung’s focus for its 2019 QLEDs was on enhancing blacks and viewing angles, this year is all about improving brightness and fine details.
To that end, the Q950 is powered by the next generation of the company’s 8K Quantum Processor, which is capable of some serious upscaling alchemy.
While last year’s Q900R used machine learning to create a formula for upscaling sub-8K content to its panel, the Q950 advances the upscaling process by adding a ‘deeper’ algorithm on top. It’s based on a pre-learned neural network (a limitless, continually expanding database of images) with numerous layers of algorithms, each of which provides a different interpretation of the data. The TV can use these to help restore fine detail and in turn create a realistic upscaled picture. This upscaling is done on a pixel-by-pixel basis, too – remarkable when you consider how many thousands of them are in the panel.
Samsung demonstrated its Q950 next to the 2019 Q900R and indeed the new set revealed notably more textures – tree bark was more convincingly etched, and cloudy skies had greater detail and depth. These extra details sharpen up the picture without looking unnatural. Considering the upscaling tech uses an increasing number of images and algorithms it should get only more and more accurate, too.
The other big picture enhancement comes around brightness. The Q950’s Full Array Local Dimming (FALD) system is now more efficient, thanks to Samsung’s new Local Power Distribution strategy. Essentially it works to redistribute power from the darker areas of the scene/panel to the brightest areas that need it most. Because of that redistribution, Samsung claims highlights can go up to 20 per cent brighter – without increasing power consumption. Samsung was quick to show that the Q950 actually requires slightly less power than the Q900R.
While it's true that YouTube, Vimeo and Rakuten streaming services have committed themselves to delivering 8K content, HDMI 2.1 is capable of transmitting 8K at 60fps, and this summer will see the 2020 Olympics broadcast in the resolution, there’s no denying 8K ecosystem is still in its infancy. One of the forecast problems of streaming 8K is the bandwidth it will require – which Samsung claims to have solved with its AI ScaleNet technology. Promising on paper, it works to scale down 8K material so it can be transmitted at the reasonable bandwidth that’s required for 4K (10-15mbps), and then scale it back up to 8K again. Naturally, the Q950 harnesses this tech – Samsung says it’s capable of restoring 95 per cent of an 8K image through this method. We’ll have to wait to see if service providers use it too.
We’ve learned at CES this week that a trend is emerging for 2020 TVs: to improve picture performance according to the brightness of the room. LG and Panasonic are supporting Dolby Vision IQ for enhancing Dolby Vision content depending on room conditions, but Samsung is implementing an ‘environmental enhancement’ (shudder) feature of its own.
Adaptive Picture+ mode works to optimise the picture automatically, based on the lighting of the room conditions; this goes beyond simply tweaking brightness levels. Turn a light on or off and after a second or two the Q950 adapts to the change in conditions, and indeed does ensure the picture remains clear and coherent. Time and time again, we see excellent HDR grades of content that look excellent in optimal dark conditions but not in well-lit rooms – which Adaptive Picture+ will no doubt help remedy.
The sonic brethren to Adaptive Picture+ is Adaptive Sound+. It aims to improve the clarity of voices when the TV detects an increase in surrounding noise. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new sound features for the Q950, though.
The Q950 introduces OTS+ (Object Tracking Sound), which aims better to pinpoint and ‘track’ sounds on the screen to create a more immersive soundfield. The TV achieves this by positioning a soundtrack on a horizontal plane, analysing it and then sending specific sounds to specific speakers on the TV.
There are no fewer than eight TV speakers: a tweeter and midrange on each side, two tweeters at the top, and a subwoofer at the bottom. So believe us when we say the Q950 offers superior sonics worthy of its flagship status.
Thanks to the new Q-Symphony concept, the Q950 will work in unique harmony with one of Samsung’s 2020 Q-series soundbars too. Rather than the TV speakers being mute when the soundbar is connected, they will be used alongside the drivers in a soundbar. In our demo, the soundbar played the front channels of the music signal while the TV’s top speakers played the surround channels, and while we’d have got a greater impression had the TV being playing an actual film, the soundfield did undoubtedly have a much greater sense of space to it.
Last year we concluded that Samsung’s 8K TV, while very good, “doesn’t quite convince us to take the 8K plunge just yet”. The upscaling was hugely impressive and everything we loved about the picture of Samsung’s 4K QLEDs was present and correct; but, considering its lofty price and the lack of 8K content around, we preferred the company’s excellent flagship 4K proposition.
There’s every reason that could turn out to be the case this year. The Q950 (available in 65in, 75in and 85in sizes) is bound to ask a considerable premium over the 2020 flagship Q90T 4K QLED, and the 8K content landscape probably won’t look too different at the end of the year from how it does now.
Still, even if that does play out it, seems likely the Samsung Q950 will still be one of the most desirable TVs of the year, given its very promising picture and sound enhancements and genuinely knock-out design.