An Inside Look at Sony’s Latest TV Technology

Last week Sound & Vision editor Al Griffin wrote on this site about Sony’s recent New York event. The subject was the launching of the company’s new Master Series flagship televisions, the new A9F OLEDs (in 55- and 65-inch sizes) and Z9F LCDs (65- and 75-inches). The event was held in a venue that in its past life was an exclusive dinner theater from 1938 to 1951, fell into disrepair in the following decades, and was remodeled in 2013. Since then it has been contracted to Sony, renamed Sony Hall, and used for a variety of theatrical and business events.

The first thing that hit me when the presentation started wasn’t the new consumer sets displayed at the side of the podium but rather the huge screen (at least 10-feet wide) showing one of the brightest, clearest images I’ve ever seen at anywhere near that size. I assumed at first that it was a projected image, but it wasn’t. It was Sony’s Crystal LED, which we first saw in a similar size at CES 2017. Then called CLEDIS, the display is built up from tiled, LED-based modules and costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s obviously not yet a consumer product (though I suppose if you won the lottery…) and for the present is limited to commercial applications such as this one.

But apart from that CLED display’s sheer size, the new OLED and LCD-LED sets were equally impressive. After the morning session, which covered both the sets and other business related topics (much of it related to Sony’s enhanced relationship with Netflix—more on this below) the more technically-inclined of the attendees were given further details and demonstrations in specialized sessions. These covered the Z9Fs, the A9Fs, the new Portrait Display CalMAN auto calibration feature available for both, enhancements to Sony’s Acoustic Surface Audio (in the A9Fs), and the refinements that the new X1 Ultimate processor brings to both models.

LCD Face-Off: Sony Z9F vs. Samsung 65Q9FN
First up was a look at the Z9F. Sony as usual was close-lipped about both the number of zones of local dimming in the set and its peak brightness capability. When asked what the peak brightness was, the presenter responded, tongue in cheek, that it does indeed have a peak brightness. But I’d be surprised if it wasn’t more than competitive in that regard with any other consumer set.

The Z9F was set up side-by-side against perhaps its major competitor for the brightness crown, Samsung’s current flagship 65Q9FN. Sony’s BVM X300 V2 pro monitors were on hand for direct comparison (OLED, 30-inches, $37,000, widely used in the industry as production monitor). For these Master Series sets Sony has dropped the Cinema Pro mode and changed it to Custom mode, (for no obvious reason, except perhaps to give more cache to a new Netflix Calibrated mode), while Cinema Home is now simply Cinema.

The Sony rep took pains to point out the areas in which the Z9F was superior. The Z9F didn’t look obviously brighter than the Samsung overall; the point of high dynamic range (all of the demos used HDR material) isn’t higher average brightness but rather a greater range between the deepest blacks and brightest highlights. In an HDR clip from Pan used in the demo, the Sony clearly won, but by a nose (today’s premium sets are too good for eye-popping differences).

Interestingly, the Sony BVM-X300 pro monitor actually showed less detail in bright highlights than the Z9F. The Z9F, like all consumer sets, tone maps HDR information above its available peak brightness, while the BVM-X300 doesn’t tone map at all but rather clips everything above 1000 nits. The latter is by design; the BVM can’t exceed 1000 nits, and there’s no industry standard for tone mapping (how it’s implemented varies with the manufacturer). The BVM is intended to produce a result usable to all consumer sets, at least up to 1000 nits. And few consumer HDR sets can exceed that, the Z9F likely being one of them.

We were also encouraged to move around the room to check out the Z9F’s off-center viewing performance This is one of the trumpeted advances claimed for the Z9Fs over other LCD designs, particularly those (like this one) that employ the most widely used type of LCD panel (VA, for Vertical Alignment). Sony’s claims for significant improvement in this regard appeared justified, though we hope to evaluate them for ourselves under familiar conditions as soon as review samples become available.

OLED Face-Off: Sony A9F vs. LG 65E8
On to the A9F OLED, again using HDR source material. This time the comparison set was an LG 65E8, together with the ubiquitous BVM-X300 monitors. There were minor differences in color between the Sony and LG OLEDs, along with a little black crush on the latter. But these could have been simply differences in calibration, plus variations in how each manufacturer does tone mapping. One issue with such comparisons is that whenever it’s run by a manufacturer the competing set is nearly always used in one of its stock modes, without calibration. But if it wasn’t, the manufacturer could be accused of misadjusting the competing set, even if that set’s out of the box condition isn’t precisely optimum (and it rarely is). In any event, the Sony did look closer to the BVM.

One glaring difference with the LG OLED was banding in a scene from The Revenant. At about 2 minutes into the film, the sky in the upper left corner showed obvious banding on the LGE8 as the scene faded to black. But there was no banding visible on the Sony. Interestingly, however, I later tried this same scene at home on last year’s LGE7. The latter also showed no banding on this scene, but an LGC8 did (though, oddly, it wasn’t nearly as obvious as on the LGE8 in the Sony demo).

CalMAN Auto Calibration On Board
The third of the four special sessions concerned the new Portrait Displays CalMAN auto calibration feature. It’s designed to radically shorten the time required for a calibrator to do a precise setup. But it still requires sophisticated test tools and the knowledge to use them. It’s not simply a button the user can push to get a perfect result (if that were possible, it could simply be the last step on the set’s assembly line!). This is a difficult feature to clearly demonstrate, but the speed of the calibration compared to a manual setup was obvious. The feature will offer the most tangible benefits (time) to a professional calibrator. I suspect it won’t offer a visible result any better to the consumer than a carefully performed manual calibration.

The auto calibration feature applies only to the A9F and Z9F; it’s not usable on any other current or earlier Sony models. To facilitate auto calibration the Master Series (but not any other current Sony models) adds both a 20-point grayscale adjustment and a full color management system (CMS)—features Sony has never offered before in a consumer display. These new controls can also be used in a manual calibration.

Acoustic Surface Audio Explained
The fourth session was a demonstration of Sony’s updated Acoustic Surface Audio, now Acoustic Surface Audio+ and available only on the A9F OLEDs (it isn’t as yet technically possible to do it on an LCD set such as the Z9F). For those unfamiliar with this feature, which appeared on Sony’s first OLEDs last year, it consists of audio transducers attached to the rear of the screen. The latter acts as the diaphragm, vibrating in response to the transducers to produce sound coming directly from the screen.

This year the transducers have been redesigned and their count upped from two (left and right) to three (left, center, right). As before, woofers built into the rear of the set fill out the bottom end (Sony calls them subwoofers, but that’s a little grandiose for drivers that in no way can perform like even a modest, separate subwoofer). And while the left, center, and right speakers are too close together, even on the 65-inch A9F, to produce true stereo separation at a typical viewing distance, the system does work as well as a decent soundbar. Which is just as well, considering that the A9F has the same easel-like tilt back design as last year’s A1E. This positions the bottom of the screen flush with the surface it sits on in a table-mount installation, leaving no room for a conventional soundbar.

But even a good soundbar is no substitute for a full surround system. To help with the latter, the center channel on the A9F can be connected to the center channel output of an AV receiver and used in place of a dedicated center channel, together with conventional left, right, surrounds, and subwoofers. The connection to the set’s center from your AVR uses the latter’s speaker level output. This doesn’t drive the A9F’s center transducer directly, but rather drives the Acoustic Surface’s own on-board center channel amp. The latter likely uses significant digital processing to linearize the system’s performance; a vibrating screen is bound to have an odd native frequency response without such processing.

The brief Acoustic Surface Audio+ demo included a comparison between a conventional center and the center Acoustic Surface driver, using dynamically unchallenging musical numbers from The Greatest Showman). The Acoustic Surface driver sounded good as a center, though voices were a little bass heavy and it was clearly playing louder than a conventional center operating in a recessed cabinet, giving the latter a somewhat boxy coloration.

The new sets will not have HDMI 2.1 or ATSC 3.0, but then neither will the competition until early next year when we expect to see HDMI 2.1 begin to show up. Not that it will matter much. For the few years, at least, HDMI 2.0 can handle any sources you’re likely to find.

Netflix Calibration On Board
The new Netflix Calibration Mode would seem at first to be little more than a promotional tie-in with Netflix. Assuming Netflix is adhering to the same standards as other home video sources such as Blu-ray, if Sony can provide a picture mode that perfectly matches that standard out of the box (a good trick if you can manage it), why not just do it for the Cinema mode rather than adding to the already confusing (for the average consumer) multiplicity of Picture Modes? I can think of one good reason, however. Whenever you switch to Netflix, the Picture mode will automatically switch to the Netflix Calibrated Mode. Since the average consumers had likely been watching in either the Standard or (yuck) a dynamic mode, they’re guaranteed to then see, at a minimum, a better, more accurate picture. And average-viewer inertia being what it is, they’re unlikely to change back to an inferior mode after their Netflix itch had been scratched. Assuming, that is, that the set doesn’t switch back for them!

There’s still no word as to when the A9Fs and Z9Fs will be shipping (mid-fall would (be a good guess) and at what prices (not cheap but hopefully competitive with the competition).

utopianemo's picture

Mr. Norton, how did the Z9F's off-axis viewing compare to that of the Samsung? It was difficult to tell from the article.

Traveler's picture

I looked at the A1E. It had a great image and sound, but that base was just wrong.

drny's picture

Thanks Tom for trying to convey all the info Sony provided during the event in a few paragraphs.
Both models (OLED A9F, LCD Z9F) seem quite intriguing, but likely at premium prices.
A shootout review with the competing models you noted in the article would be fantastic.