As 4K HDTVs slowly begin to take over the TV market, the big three manufacturers (Samsung, Sony, and LG) are vying to prove that they can go beyond resolution to provide the very best images in your home, beating out the hordes of second-tier manufacturers vying for consumers' dollars. Indeed, there were dozens of booths showcasing 4K TVs, but most did little to show that they had more than a panel full of pixels to sell.
The grand-daddy of TV manufacturers, Sony, took the opportunity to prove that it still has what it takes to command a premium price. Long gone are the days when Sony Trinitron was the definition of TV quality, but it appears Sony was still eager to prove that it has the best trade names in the business. Its Z9 flagship TV, released in mid-2016, offers the "X1 Extreme" processor along with the absurdly-named "Backlight Master Drive," which provides individual control for each pixel. Luckily, the Z9 looks pretty good in person, and Sony would like shoppers to continue to view the Z9 as the best TV on the market.
But reality bites, and perhaps the most telling trademark Sony proferred was one that it doesn't own: OLED. In the face of blistering competition from LG's OLED tech, Sony was forced to announced its Bravia OLED TV. When pressed regarding the fact that LG has an exclusive on the technology, Sony's rep simply stated that Sony was the first to develop the tech back in 2008. Alas, that doesn't mean much when your 2017 Bravia OLED is actually hiding an LG Display panel inside, but Sony may realize that the jig is up, and it needs to start dancing to an OLED beat.
Samsung was playing its own word name games at its massive booth, which we believe was in fact the largest showcase anywhere at CES, which is saying something. Rather than license someone else's tech, Samsung is holding its head up high and continuing to lean on its Quantum Dot technology, morphed for 2017 into "QLED" TVs. The origin of the naming scheme couldn't be more obvious, and we'd even go as far as to suggest that Samsung is banking on shoppers misreading the product labels while perusing the aisles at Best Buy and confusing these for OLED TVs. Don't get us wrong, though: Samsung's top TVs produce some pretty awesome pictures. In fact, Samsung demos were by far the most effective in terms of highlighting what high dynamic range (HDR) color can do for images. If it wasn't already clear, the human eye is much more sensitive to color and light than it is to resolution (we need microscopes for a reason), and we believe that when shoppers see the kind of demo material Samsung had on display, they'll be tripping over themselves to jump on the HDR bandwagon. In our opinion, it's far, far more compelling than 4K resolution ever was. While the photo below is necessarily limited by the screen you're viewing it on, trust us when we say that in person, the HDR content leapt off the screen, providing a pseudo-3D effect due to its immense sense of depth.
Alas, despite Sony's and Samsung's best efforts, it was pretty clear who won the prize for best display: LG. Its OLED technology already puts it leagues ahead of its rivals in terms of black levels and colors; there's just no question that everyone else is playing catch up. Given that everyone already knows LG has won the picture quality race, LG decided to go one step further and wow the crowd with its insanely-thin Signature 77 TV, affectionally referred to as the "wallpaper" TV. To create a TV this thin (not much thicker than the average cell phone), LG had to move all the ports to a breakout box, which it cunningly hid behind its new 5.1.2 Dolby Surround speaker bar. It also used a custom-designed glass wall to hang the TV on that nicely concealed the cable running down to the box. This will be of concern to buyers who intend to wallmount the TV and don't have a media stand below, but for high-end videophiles who intend to feed this TV 4K signals from a proper 4K player and port sound through a proper AV system, it won't be an issue.
And what about those 4K Blu-Ray players, you ask? Well, last year, Samsung was the only game in town, having announced its 8500-series at the show, which we reported on in detail. Well, it's a new year, and the game has changed. Samsung's player was universally derided for being cheaply made despite its $400 price tag, which could only fly when no one else was playing. And while Samsung did have a new player on display, it hid the device away in an audio listening room, not even bothering to slap a label on it. The new 9500-series player adds only Bluetooth headphone support, or so we gleaned from our conversation with a Samsung rep, given that no information was made available.
Luckily, Samsung is getting some heavy-weight competition, and Panasonic is swinging for the fences with a complete lineup of 4K Blu-Ray players this year. Its "reference" UB900 model, which retails for $700, is already well-known to enthusiasts, being considered in some circles as the best player on the market. But Panasonic knows that a $700 4K Blu-Ray player won't win many converts from existing $50 Blu-Ray players, so it's wisely adding three additional models below the UB900 for 2017. They lose some of the high-end audio processing and cable outputs that audiophiles covet, but will likely provide very similar picture quality.
Of course, LG couldn't sit this battle out any longer, given that it manufactures the very best TVs on the market and needs 4K content to sell them. So it's releasing the UP970 4K Blu-Ray player this year, which will likely undercut Samsung's player in terms of price. Too bad LG didn't have a proof reader look over its signage, as the display humorously referred to the UP970 as a "blur-ray player," not exactly what most consumers are looking for at this point, we'd wager.
Among discriminating audio enthusiasts, there will likely be reason to celebreate Sony's first foray in the 4K Blu-Ray arena. Sony famously announced last year that it intended to rely on 4K streaming going forward to feed its glorious 4K TVs content. Well, Sony, thank goodness you didn't keep to your word. 4K streaming isn't going to work in the United States, at least, until seriously-fast broadband (100Mbps and up) is widely available at low cost. And rather than compete with Samsung on the low-end, Sony aimed straight for Panasonic's UB900 reference model. The new Sony UBP-X800 offers tremendous audio chops, including DSD 11.2MHz, of course including playback capabilities for Sony's groundbreaking, but sadly defunct SACD audio format. Like Samsung's new 9500 model, the X800 offers Bluetooth headphone support, although we can't imagine that many audiophiles will be using the feature. Expect the X800 to come in at $500 or more when it arrives this spring.
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