What’s it like being in the world’s first commercial cinema equipped with a Samsung Cinema Screen 4K LED commercial theatrical display? Last week I had a chance to find out when I visited the Lotte World Mall in Seoul, South Korea, and watched Stephen King’s It in pristine 4K.
Entrance to the Lotte World Mall in Seoul, South Korea where It screened at the Samsung Super S theater.
Surprisingly, the first thing I noticed upon entering the Samsung “Super S” auditorium is there’s nothing outwardly unusual about the image on the screen. I had expected some telltale sign that this was a flat-panel display and not front projection. However, I instantly learned that the image produced by the Samsung Cinema Screen is totally natural.
The second thing I noticed is the absence of the projector, because even though there was an image on the screen, the back wall was dark. I settled into a good seat—centered in the eight row—and watched the horror movie It while scrutinizing the audio and picture quality. There’s much to discuss!
The Cinema LED screen consists of direct-emitting LED tiles, which fit together to create the desired screen size. Unlike many video walls I have seen that use LEDs, in this system there is no visual evidence of a grid; to the viewer, the screen is seamless. Also, the fine pitch of the LEDs used in this 4K screen—2.5mm—means that individual pixels are not visible unless you walk right up to the screen. And with its ability to reach 500 nits peak brightness along with “infinite” blacks, Samsung’s Cinema Screen is HDR friendly but also an impressive sight to behold with SDR movies like this presentation of It.
The goal of watching the movie was to demonstrate how well this screen renders a properly mastered commercial-cinema release of a mainstream film—in other words, how it fares as a direct replacement for a DCI-certified projection system. And to my eyes, the result is essentially perfect. Indeed, Cinema LED even overcame one of the most notable issues with projection-based systems—exit signs that spill light onto reflective screens, ruining the “bottomless” effect of the deepest darks. In this case, the screen simply soaked up the light from those signs, so when the screen went black, it was truly, utterly, completely black. Perfect for horror! But also an excellent quality for a screen to possess regardless of genre.
One of the greatest weaknesses of projection is the necessary use of a lens, which adds various distortions to an image. From focus irregularity to light fall-off to geometric distortions to issues with contrast and lens flare—not to mention chromatic aberration—glass lenses create issues that completely evaporate with emissive flat-panel displays. According to Samsung, the Cinema LED achieves 95% screen uniformity from edge to edge with perfect geometry.
Among the concerns expressed by readers when online-shashki Forum Editor Scott Wilkinson reported on the debut of Cinema LED Screen was losing the physical center channel speaker(s) typically found behind a perforated screen. Cinema buffs consider proper dialog placement a crucial element in the movie-watching experience, especially with a big screen (as opposed to a TV). Well, it turns out that the Harman sound system used in the theater was effective at placing dialog right in the middle the screen, where you’d expect it to be.
Much to my surprise, the virtual center-channel effect was consistent, regardless of what seat I was in. Over the course of an hour, I tried just about every location within the theater. Even in the extreme corners, the soundfield was rendered with proper correlation to what was on screen. Furthermore, I was able to close my eyes and still hear the same effect of the voices coming from the direction of the screen. The overall quality of the audio was great, certainly up to the standards of a premium theatrical experience, and the visual benefits of the screen are such that trading acoustic transparency for the superior image quality of a direct-emitting LED screen is a no-brainer.
And that brings us to the one thing missing from the presentation—I did not get to see the HDR performance of Cinema LED on this trip because It was shown in DCI-compliant SDR. HDR with 500-nit peak luminance is a capability that puts this screen in a league of its own versus all projection-based solutions currently used in cinemas. For example, Dolby Cinema’s 108-nit peak luminance is just over double the 48-nit DCI standard, a bit more than twice as bright. But Cinema LED offers 500 nits, which is more than four times brighter than Dolby Cinema. I wish I could have seen that.
In terms of size, this screen was typical of what you find in a modern multiplex, measuring 38 feet (diagonal). But when I asked Samsung reps if it was possible to do an 8K screen in the future, they noted that 8K resolution is achievable today. All you have to do is put four of these 4K screens together and voila, 8K. Plus, the end result would be roughly the size of an IMAX screen, measuring 76 feet diagonal, yet able to handle 500-nit HDR and display a near-infinite contrast ratio!
Watching Stephen King’s It, I found myself looking for any sort of telltale glitch or picture-quality defect, but I never saw such a thing. It displays movies cinematically without any distortion of color or motion. Evil clown staring out from a storm drain? Creepy, yes. And also superbly rendered. The deep dark shadows were seamlessly rendered, an abyss from which monsters emerge. I’d argue that Cinema LED made It even scarier because it delivers such a pure, unadulterated rendition of the film.
Samsung notes that this screen technology offers a high ROI (return on investment) that should make its adoption attractive to theaters. Plus, it offers versatility that projection systems cannot provide, in that the screen can operate with the lights on as well as in the dark. That could be the perfect thing for screening kids movies with dim lights, dine-in theaters, live-streaming sports in 4K (or even 8K), and other non-traditional uses for these futuristic amphitheaters.
Projectors have enjoyed a 120-year run as the primary way movies make it onto the big screen. Now that I’ve seen what comes next, it’s clear as 4K that the days of commercial cinemas relying on projectors are numbered. The only question is, how long will it take before this technology comes to a theater near you, and when will a home-theater variant become available. Based on what I saw, Cinema LED Screen is the future of movie watching. When it comes to really big screens, projectors have finally met their match.