Samsung Onyx Cinema LED is a new kind of cinema display system that is very promising. Traditional film projection has limits with peak brightness, deep black, or general vibrancy. This technology has the potential to solve all these limitations in a cinema.
The Onyx LED is really a LED display in the way that it is self emitting with no backlight, so it has the potential to deliver true black. This is unlike consumer LED TV which is a marketing lie – because those consumer LED TV is actually LCD TV with a LED backlight. The key difference here is that one is self emitting (good for black), one is not (bad for black). Backlight is evil because you cannot have true black without turning it off, but you also cannot have any picture at all if you turn it off. Flagship LCD TV for home use has backlight that can be turned on or off with up to hundreds of zones, but this is still imperfect. To find a similar technology available for home use, I think OLED TV is perhaps more similar to Onyx LED than other consumer LCD TV, plasma TV or projectors.
Onyx LED cannot be used at home, however. Unlike OLED from its competitor, Onyx LED has a high pixel pitch. If you walk close to a few feet from the screen, you’ll see huge spaces around the tiny dots. This makes it impossible for use at home with a short screen to seat distance.
Let me talk about the good things first, and leave a major problem to the last. Onyx LED is comprised of segments, similar to the structure of typical outdoor advertizing panels. It is really hard to make every segment look the same, and the advertizing panels are usually not good. In the cinema I went to, I did not notice any consistency issue at all.
Colors are indeed vibrant as I expected, without feeling exaggerated like the infamous default color scheme of consumer LCD TV from this brand. But to be fair, all brands of consumer TV are shipped with wrong picture defaults.
Watching Onyx LED is like watching a really large TV, and is unlike traditional film projection. I found it to be sharp and could identify the tiny details clearly, but strangely a friend did not think it is sharp. More importantly, the general feeling is very different. Some may prefer the look and feel and softness of the traditional film projection, and not used to the contrast of the picture that some may find it to be “hard”. I have no problem with it.
The marketing boasts a high peak brightness, so I expected a HDR-like presentation. This did not happen. It is certainly brighter than film projection and is therefore better than other traditional cinemas in this respect, but nowhere near as bright as I expect the technology to be capable of. It’s definitely less bright than my mid-end LCD TV at home. Then I found out why. One web site says it has 300 nits, while much higher than any typical projector, it is on the level of the worst low end consumer LCD TV. Another web site gives a conflicting specification of 500 nits, which is actually just on the acceptable level even if it actually delivers that. Typical consumer OLED TV exceeds 600 nits, and flagship LCD TV usually delivers the required 1000 nits for HDR and may even exceed that. There are people who does not understand HDR and says that this is too bright – this claim is wrong because with normal picture content only the sun or something like a torch will be super bright,, not the human faces or normal objects. There are badly made HDR video that are overall too bright, but those are bad work and do not represent how HDR display technology should be used. That being said, even though Onyx LED is not really capable of delivering very good HDR experience in the cinema, its brightness is more than enough for SDR viewing – it is not likely to have HDR movies in cinema anyway.
Another observation is that the smoothness of the video has the exact right amount of smoothness – and roughly resembles typical film smoothness. I speculate there is some trick involved, however. On typical consumer TV with all motion interpolation (that results in fake frames invented by the TV) and black insertion turned off, playing a 23.976Hz movie usually results in a very choppy video.
I checked for flicker during the movie and did not observe any. However, once the credit rolls the background strangely flashes.
The single greatest problem with my Onyx LED experience is a wrong black level. When there is nothing shown on screen, it is perfectly black as expected. When the movie is actually being shown, the movie black is light grey. This is assessed from a strict standard, and is not worse than traditional film projectors, which cannot show deep black anyway. I have several theories to explain this issue:
- The Aquaman movie as delivered to the cinema I went to may have a wrong black level. It is rather common for video discs to have wrong black levels, but major Hollywood movies should not suffer from this technical error. My coworker went to IBC trade show said the Onyx LED has good black level, so this issue is hopefully not intrinsic to the hardware.
- The Onyx LED hardware is not calibrated in the cinema properly. This is not likely because I expect all these cinema equipment should have been professionally installed. The segment nature of the technology may perhaps imply every segment needs to be calibrated anyway.
- This is even less likely, and is pure speculation: perhaps the technology has a limitation with displaying shadow detail (which is a very different thing from a complete black), so the calibrator opted to raise the black level in order to retain more shadow detail, instead of having black crush.
So, is this better than film projectors in a cinema? Yes. Is it better than the best home theater setup (other than a super large screen)? Not necessarily. I suspect that a consumer OLED screen can give a better picture at a small size, but of course OLED will burn in, and that is well proven.
Having watched Aquaman on UHD Blu-ray again, I discovered that the UHD release also has wrong, inconsistent black levels. Many CG scenes look washed out.