Samsung HL-S5686W 56" DLP Rear-Projection 720p HDTV Review

The image “http://www.guidetohometheater.com/images/archivesart/706samsunghl.1.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

The rear projection big-screen TV market is hot. Consumers are discovering that the latest RPTVs can often beat plasma in picture quality and offer bigger screen sizes for much less money if hanging it on the wall isn't a priority.
Modern RPTVs are thin, light, and inexpensive compared to the CRT-based monsters of just a few years back. While you can still buy a CRT-based set, they've now been severely compromised in quality to fit into the low-end $1000-$1500 price range. Newer projection technology, such as LCD, LCoS, and DLP, has typically started at over twice this price and industry leading Sony SXRD and JVC HD-ILA sets continue to sell in the $4000 range and above.

For years this reviewer has taken issue with some of Samsung's design decisions and the resulting picture. But the HLS series incorporates changes that greatly improve picture quality at a price tag that's stunningly low—especially considering some of the remarkable features being offered. Could the HL-S5686W be the new leader in affordable giant-screen TVs? Can a 56", 1280x720 DLP HDTV with a "street price" that's under $2000 look good enough for an Ultimate AV blessing?

Notable Features
You'd be surprised how often a set is passed over by consumers because it won't fit within a given physical space. A notable recent example is the first generation of Sony SXRDs, whose width with their non-detachable speakers probably cost Sony thousands of sales. Samsung has designed the HLS series to fit where others won't. It's unlikely you'll find any other projection TV in a comparable screen size with such a small footprint.

Samsung's DNIe (Digital Natural Image Engine) video enhancement circuitry has been controversial with video experts since day one. It's been improved somewhat in this, its fourth generation, but the big news is that this for the first time in years it is completely defeatable in the user menu. In fact, it's turned off by default in "Movie" mode. While DNIe definitely isn't the evil some would have you believe, the fact that you can turn it off is a major step forward in flexibility.

Samsung's Movie mode also boasts an industry first. The color points for its primary and secondary colors are said to be different from those used for the other viewing modes, which are exaggerated and oversaturated. The latter is typical of most sets these days. Some people actually prefer the more vivid factory color to true color accuracy. With the HL-S series, you have a choice of which color space (accurate vs. exaggerated) to use. It's as simple as changing viewing modes.

(Because of the oversaturated colors of earlier Samsung sets, a few ISF calibrators have, for several years now, been using a special technique hidden within the firmware of Samsung sets to correct the color points. Video guru Joe Kane first took advantage of this technique for setting correct colors when he worked on the design of the Samsung SP-H700AE DLP Projector. But this technique requires special equipment, is not a normal part of an ISF calibration, and it's something that can't even be done at all with any competing set we know of.)

The HL-S single-chip DLP sets incorporate a faster color wheel, with five color segments for additional color accuracy and resistance to dreaded "rainbow" artifacts. In addition, the color wheel features an air bearing for longer life and noise free operation. An additional color wheel segment was part of HP's secret to good color (see TJN's recent review of the HP md5880n ). HP used a new, dark green segment while Samsung has chosen yellow and cyan.

The Samsung's connectivity is outstanding for any HDT, let alone one at this price point. Two HDMI inputs are supplied along with a pair of component inputs that will accept all four scan rates (480i/p, 720p and 1080i). A USB input makes photo viewing easy, and an RGB input is provided for PC monitor use. Unlike plasmas, DLP sets aren't at risk for static image burn-in and are safe for static computer images.

This is a native 720p set, and its inputs will not accept present or future 1080p sources. But HD-DVD and Blu-ray players should still look great on this set at 720p or 1080i.

Because video sources can vary somewhat, it's important on any display to be able to customize video settings (brightness, color, etc) for each source separately. Samsung dropped the ball a bit here. While each source can be assigned a video mode (like Movie), your video settings within that mode apply to any source using it. If two of your sources require different settings, you'll either have to make video adjustments each time you switch sources, or you'll have to assign one of the sources to another mode like Standard, Custom, or Vivid, all of which feature less accurate color fidelity than Movie.

The remote is new for Samsung and includes some of my favorite buttons—"Sleep" for those prone to fading late at night on the couch and "Still" for freezing the picture to write down that phone number for some irresistible TV offer. It's black though, and unlit, and hard to see in a room with dim lighting. I would have also liked a signal strength button to facilitate off-the-air antenna orientation. You have to go deep into the menu to find that feature.

Finally, the HL-S5686W includes both an analog (NTSC) and a digital (ATSC) tuner. But there is no CableCARD slot and only support for analog, not digital cable.

Viewing Impressions
Frankly, I didn't expect to be particularly impressed with this inexpensive DLP set, but the HL-S surprised me from the first turn-on. Vivid mode was, of course, the way the set started up when it arrived, and was "overdone" in every way (as it is with all sets I've checked fresh out of the box). But switching to Movie gave a smooth, natural looking picture that was a pleasure to watch.
At first, it was difficult to find much fault with the HL-S, but after firing up my reference 55" Hitachi plasma (1366x768 resolution) right next to it, several differences became obvious. Direct side-by-side comparisons are invaluable for accurately picking out strengths and weaknesses of displays. It doesn't work well in dealer showroom demos because the program material is controlled (and lighting isn't) and you probably won't have the ability to properly adjust the sets being compared.

First and foremost, and especially when compared to the best 1080p sets out there, the Samsung's HD picture is on the soft side and sometimes even slightly blurry when motion is involved. This is the case even with DNIe on, even though this feature does enhance detail. The softness is usually not a big deal. You might even think at first that the source itself lacks fine detail in trees, grass, and foliage moving in the distance. But the plasma was significantly sharper in fine background resolution in a direct comparison, particularly on camera pans.

This wasn't always obvious with much of my HD viewing and it wasn't a real issue for DVDs, which have much lower resolution. Still, if we're looking for weaknesses, this was the biggest one I could find. Over-the-air baseball in HD, shot from behind the pitcher, provided a consistent example. The detail of the grass at a distance was always slightly lacking, though Samsung's built-in digital tuner did look sharper than my reference tuner with an HDMI connection. The Samsung did have considerably better color accuracy than the plasma, which was nearly always noticeable.

The real surprise was in the smoothness of this Samsung's picture. Past Samsung models I've calibrated in the field have been plagued with artifacts, video noise, and dark scene posterization (blocking, or blotchiness in dark areas of the image). The HL-S was surprisingly artifact-free. And while in freedom from video noise the HL-S is not yet in the league with the latest (and much-more-expensive) 1080p JVC HD-ILA sets, the only time that video noise was beyond the capabilities of the set's only moderately effective Digital NR (noise reduction) to adequately control was in certain low light scenes. Drop Dead Fred was an especially troublesome DVD for the Samsung from a video noise standpoint.

DNIe, as mentioned above, has been considerably improved over the years. Samsung lists a variety of things this processing suite does. I mostly noticed a slight and welcome sharpening (but without the earlier versions' excessive edge enhancement) and a slight increase in gamma way down near black that served to enhance contrast (but without the severe black crush of earlier years).

Unfortunately, DNIe also intentionally allows the brightness (black level) to float a bit, rising on dark scenes and dropping on bright ones. This caused an annoying amount of contrast enhancement that was difficult to tolerate except on really substandard broadcasts in a brightly lit room. Adjusting the Brightness control to achieve an ideal black level always resulted in overly dark blacks and excessive contrast in bright scenes. DVDs generally will not look good at all with DNIe activated.

But fortunately you can't select DNIe in the Movie mode that's best for such program material anyway. Contrast that with earlier years when it couldn't be defeated in any mode. Samsung has been listening and responding to the complaints of videophiles. Maybe next year they will make DNIe's floating contrast enhancement a separately selectable option in the user menu.

Black level was fairly low and dark scene detail (Movie mode) was considerably better than my reference plasma and probably a match for even the Pioneer Elite plasma recently reviewed by TJN. Except for perhaps the Pioneer Elite, even plasmas with the best blacks can't usually match the Samsung's dark scene detail. Even the Panasonics, which sport the darkest blacks I've seen in all of plasma land, have a slight problem with posterization (ugly video "blocking") just above black, which can sometimes ruin the look of a dark movie. Overall, the Samsung's dark scene performance is still no match for the premium priced Sony SXRDs or the best CRT rear-projection sets of the recent past. But it was better than most plasmas and LCDs I've seen, and acceptable for movies in a dark room.

While the level of black is important, it sometimes doesn't tell the whole story. Earlier I mentioned that Movie mode had different color from the others. Unlike the CRT sets of old, modern displays can be designed with primary colors (red, green and blue—a mix of those three colors make the final picture) that are considerably different from industry standards. The current trend is to have oversaturated primaries in order to give a more vivid, colorful picture, even if the colors aren't accurate. We see the (unfortunate) result of this all the time in those dreadful lime green athletic fields and foliage that don't even resemble reality.

If you want an excellent example of this, check out any number of scenes in Jurassic Park III. Some foliage looks normal but there are certain shades of green in the forest that look positively phosphorescent on many sets. While the immediate result of an inaccurate green primary color is the annoying green, the effect of it extends (more subtly) to secondary colors as well, even including flesh tones. By providing a completely different factory setup for Movie mode, Samsung has let that mode capture the natural colors of the original source better than most of the competition. Now we're not talking night and day differences in color here, but you can certainly see it in the greens. Movie mode gives a natural color to foliage in Jurassic Park III (and grass playing fields as well), while the other modes bring in some of that awful lime tint. My only recommendation for Samsung here would be to allow users to choose color space for any mode instead of having it chosen for you.

The best HD picture I experienced was when using Samsung's on-board, off-the-air tuner, and even SD broadcasts often looked impressive. The tuner was very good both in its ability to pull in digital stations and in picture resolution, looking even sharper than my reference outboard tuner with an HDMI connection. The set allows different viewing modes for digital and analog stations allowing you to have completely different video adjustments for off-the-air analog reception. Channel surfing speed was slightly faster than average, though still not like older analog tuners.

In the world of bargain priced big-screen HDTVs, the Samsung HL-S5086W is a standout with exceptional performance in many aspects of its picture and no truly fatal flaws. It's bright, vivid, and colorful as you'd expect, but it can also be a highly accurate display device with the touch of a button for more critical viewing. While its picture can look a bit soft, especially with motion, the things that you notice most (color, contrast, artifacts) are done so well that the overall picture is really quite nice and belies the incredibly low price. Blacks aren't "inky black" but in spite of that, the set still does darker scenes pretty well. Add to that its space saving design and complete set of video inputs and you have the new bargain price leader that even a serious videophile could probably live with. I never thought I'd be praising a low-priced Samsung HDTV like this, but I've learned never to underestimate this company. They make dramatic improvements each year and are now a force to be reckoned with in HDTV.

Good overall picture with excellent color
Flexible, lots of inputs, yet low cost
Excellent built-in digital tuner
Fits into smaller spaces than other 56" sets

Slightly soft picture, especially when motion is involved
Black level only average
Can't use one video mode for all inputs with different video settings for each

Article Continues: Manufacturer's Specs

No comments: