Samsung PNxxC550

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Samsung PN63C550 calibration report/review

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the new Samsung PN63C550 at Cleveland Plasma. I've liked some of the nice touches Samsung has included in their higher end models lately, so I hoped that in the C550 I would find a TV that gives up some of the fancy stuff while retaining the core picture quality of Samsung's best. Is the C550 the answer for the enthusiast who loves a great picture but doesn't care about 3D or having the latest 1.4" inch thick panel?

One of the things the C550 gives up to it's more expensive siblings is the Real Black Filter. While all plasmas pick up reflections and glare, there is a large difference between plasmas in how much typical living room lighting effects the picture quality. The C550's screen lightens up quite a bit in bright rooms; for the best picture quality, keep lighting controlled. If the C550 has too much ambient light to compete with, the blacks and contrast will loose their richness.

Though I normally calibrate and review plasmas that have had at least 80 hours or so to break in, the C550 I worked with was brand new out of the box. I was unable to make the evaluation room dark, though ambient light was mild, with no harsh direct light.

After putting my familiar Blu Ray test material on the C550, I checked out the picture options. Of the 3 available picture presets, Movie looked the most natural before making any adjustments. Colors looked rich and fairly natural, though overall the picture was a little grainy and seemed to lack punch and vitality. Attachment 1 shows the measured performance before calibration in Movie mode. Movie actually had more peak brightness than Standard mode (attachment 2), which put out an unacceptably dim 21 fL in addition to having less accurate colors and gamma. At no time did I hear any buzzing from the panel.

I checked the service menu and found nothing useful there; so, not wanting to do too much dangerous experimentation, it looked like Movie mode would would be the best starting point for calibration. Movie mode has all the normal contrast, brightness, color, and similar controls in addition to high and low end grayscale controls and gamma selection. Movie mode proved very straightforward to calibrate, and the results were good. Though there was some unevenness in the grayscale tracking, it was benign in nature and severity. Shadow detail was superb; dark images came out of black at a good rate, neither too hard to see nor too washed out. Stability was good, with no black level fluctuation or pumping. Color, however, was a bit problematic. As with the Samsung PN-C7000 plasma I reviewed recently, with the color set the way the measurements suggested real program material looked far too rich and colored. Perhaps Samsung has implemented a more aggressive auto color function and kept it hidden in these latest models; but for whatever reason, it is necessary to back off the color from the measured perfect levels in order to have a more natural looking picture.

When it came time to measure black levels, I purposefully gave the set time to rest (about 20 minutes), briefly put on the screen wipe function, and then let it rest again before making any measurement attempts. I covered the screen with a black blanket to eliminate any stray light and switched from the Eye One Pro to my Trichromat-1 meter, which is much more reliable at low light readings. The resulting black level was a surprisingly good .011 fL, and the modified ANSI contrast ratio was a superb 2470:1! Since these measurements were so much better than I expected, I double checked them with similar results. In a dark room, the C550 should have an outstanding amount of pop and contrast.

Unfortunately, since I could not evaluate the C550 in a dark room, I could not see it at it's best. I would expect the C550's great blacks and contrast to be much more apparent in a dark room. However, it did look very good, with a natural, easygoing look. Fleshtones, as with the C7000, were a little hot, but many people will love that presentation. If you're not one of them, taking the color down a few more notches or turning the fleshtone adjustment in the advanced menu toward green would result in more palatable fleshtones without compromising overall color too much. The graininess noted before calibration was gone. The only serious obstacle to a great picture was the room lighting, which the C550 was not able to prevent from washing out the blacks. If I were not concerned with matching it's light output to a nearby Sharp for picture comparison purposes, I could have bumped the C550's light output up a bit more to compensate for the washed out blacks.

I had the opportunity to compare the C550 to a Sharp 60LE820 that I had also calibrated. A high grade HDMI distribution amp was used to feed the same picture to both sets at once, and their light outputs were matched to within 5%. Both sets were angled to the viewing position. The comparison was done in the same lighting conditions described above.
With the power off, the Samsung looked much milkier, but reflections drew less attention; the Sharp had more noticeable reflections, but it's black filter soaked up the light better without washing out and turning gray.
The Samsung's fleshtones were slightly more colored in the DVE restaurant scene. The Sharp was slightly sharper and clearer; it had more pop because the screen was darker. The Samsung had a slight greenish cast in comparison. The Sharp looked slightly more cool, clinical, and harsh; while the Samsung looked softer, but slightly more natural.
White clouds looked more natural on the Samsung, but more like an enhanced glossy picture on the Sharp.
There was much more green shading on the Samsung. For example, the bank vault in The Dark Knight looked steel gray (not green enough) on the Sharp, but greenish (a little more than normal) on the Samsung.
Much more pop and impact came through on the Sharp. Shadow detail was excellent on both.

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