LCD TVs are getting quite a makeover these days. A number of new features are starting to appear, promising to address some of the classic bugaboos that plague this technology, such as wimpy blacks and motion blur. Samsung’s new LN-T4681F is the first LCD TV I’ve seen with some of these new features and the results are remarkable in many respects.
Like virtually all large LCD TVs these days, this 46-inch model sports a resolution of 1920x1080. What sets it apart is its LED backlight. The details of this innovation are beyond the scope of this review, so if you want to learn more about it, see my tech notes at AVguide.com. For now, suffice to say it provides a very advanced type of dynamic contrast that deepens the dark parts of the image beyond what most LCD TVs can achieve without changing the overall level of black as with more traditional types of dynamic contrast. This feature is called LED SmartLighting in the menu, and I enabled it for most of this review.
Speaking of the menu, Samsung has improved it over previous generations. The picture controls are now the first things to appear when you press the Menu button, rather than being several layers deep. Still, the organization could be better—for example, one of the backlight controls is in the main Picture menu, while another is in Detailed Settings; they should be together.
The remote is much the same as earlier models—long and skinny with the ability to control up to four devices other than the TV. As usual for universal TV remotes, you select inputs with a single Source button rather than dedicated input buttons. And you can only cycle through the inputs; I wish you could select them from a list.
As always, I started with Chapter 8 of the Mission: Impossible III HD DVD with its slow pan across a long staircase, which is a real torture test for any TV’s internal video processor when played at 1080i. On the Samsung, the characteristic wavy distortion among the stairs was moderate—not the worst I’ve seen, but certainly not the best, either.
The Matrix is a very dark movie and a great test of shadow detail, so I popped in the HD DVD and took a look. The blacks were astounding, but low-light details such as the walls in the corridor as the cops close in on Trinity were mostly lost in solid black areas. Increasing the Gamm a control to +3 (it’s highest setting) helped somewhat, but the detail in dark scenes was still not great.
As for color, the greenish cast of the movie was faithfully reproduced while keeping skin tones natural— no mean feat. In the detail department, Morpheus’ pockmarked face was all too clear, and I felt positively claustrophobic among the razorsharp jumble of equipment, conduits, and chipped paint in the Nebuchadnezzar. Despite the lack of shadow detail, I found the picture quite compelling.
With blacks this deep, I had to watch something in outer space, and the THX-certified DVD of Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi was just the ticket. The black of space was truly awesome, inviting me to float among the stars. The complex foliage on Endor was crisp and clear, as were scuff marks on the landing deck of the Death Star. I saw a bit of shimmering in the opening text crawl as it disappeared into the distance and in the finely detailed structures on the surface of the Death Star as Darth Vader’s shuttle approaches, indicating a less than stellar video processor.
As before, shadow detail was not great. Large areas of black obscured the cockpit in Vader’s shuttle, and Vader himself was mostly a solid black silhouette. On the plus side, colors were exceptional, with rich and well-differentiated browns and tans in Tatooine’s desert and natural greens in the forest of Endor.
With SmartLighting on, bright scenes were very bright, even with the backlight at its minimum setting. In fact, the picture looked a bit too contrasty for my taste. I wish the SmartLighting control provided levels rather than simply on or off, which would allow you to tame the contrast and improve the shadow detail somewhat.
Turning to HDTV as delivered by Dish Network, Smart Travels with Rudy Maxa on Equator HD looked magnificent. The detail in the renaissance architecture and artwork in Florence was sharp as a tack. There was a little shimmering in the fine detail of buildings during a few long zooming shots, but that was probably the fault of the signal, not the TV. Colors were gorgeous, including skin tones, green grass, and the multicolored paintings in the Uffizi Gallery.
I don’t normally comment on a TV’s onboard audio system—most aren’t that great, so what’s the point? However, the Samsung’s audio is worse than most. The speakers are mounted on the back and fire toward the wall behind the set. On a stand a couple of feet from the wall, the sound was very boomy, and the dynamic range was way too wide—some sounds were fine, while others were nearly inaudible. You can forget about relying on the TV’s sound if you mount it on the wall.
I have high hopes for LED backlighting on LCD TVs, and the Samsung LN-T4681F is a fine first effort. It achieves truly incredible blacks, and the colors are spot on. Overall detail is exceptional, but shadow detail is not, and the picture sometimes has a bit too much contrast for comfortable viewing. Otherwise, this set paints a beautiful picture and points the way toward ever-better LCD TVs.