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First look at Sony's A1 OLED & 2017 high-end LCDs

30 Jan 2017 | Rasmus Larsen |

Sony surprised everyone at CES by unveiling a stunning OLED TV with Dolby Vision. The company will also bring Dolby Vision to several of its 9 series LCD models. We saw, touched and experienced all of them at CES 2017 and here are our first impressions.

First look: Sony A1 OLED

Sony’s first large-size OLED TV is incredible. It really is. Only a few millimeters thin but still packing some of the most advanced picture technology you can ask for. The picture looked amazing – so did the ultra-minimalistic design. It also brings to the market a novel audio system not found in any previous TV.

Sony A1 OLED

If not LG had unveiled a slightly more impressive wallpaper OLED TV, Sony’s OLED would have been the star of CES 2017. In a way that also sums up Sony’s long-standing wish to launch an OLED TV because what has really made all of this possible is LG.Display’s huge and vigorous investments in the next-generation display technology. Sony has a small-scale production of OLED panels but these are only used in incredibly expensive film studio monitors. Sony never managed to realize mass-production of large-size OLED panels so it has turned to LG.Display for help. Talk about a shift in the power balance between Japan and South Korea.

Of course, Sony is not keen to admit it but it is sourcing 55, 65 and 77” OLED panels from LG.Display. The proud Japanese company is also, as usual, refusing to give out specifications but we do not really need Sony to do that because LG has already spilled the beans on the specifications of the 2017 OLED panels. At CES 2017, LG.Display also let slip that it has been working on a “Crystal Sound OLED”, which uses the actual OLED panel to vibrate and thus act as a speaker. If that sounds a lot like the “Acoustic Surface” speaker that Sony is touted for its A1 OLED TVs, that is because it is the exact same concept.

Sony A1 OLED

Sony says that it has developed the speakers in the TV in-house and spent “many engineering hours”. We have no reason to doubt that. After all, it looks like a classic Sony design and the Japanese company has integrated the subwoofer in the stand for a more comprehensive sound package. But Sony has not had the luxury of having a big R&D division dedicated to realize the potential of OLED so it has probably received a little help from LG.Display.

Update 31.01.2017: Sony has sent us the following statement after we published our article:
- "The Acoustic Surface technology was developed solely by Sony. While actuator is generic principle technology, the A1 series is the world’s first large screen TV in which this type of sound technology has been applied. Peripheral patent for this technology is now under pending patent."

If we had to guess, Sony and LG.Display finally closed the OLED panel sourcing deal on the provision that Sony would get exclusive access to this audio technology (for the time being). Of course, we cannot know for certain and the important thing here is that Sony will be the one actually bringing all this technology out to consumers. That is what counts in the end.

So how did they sound? Well, due to an unfortunate double-booking we had to leave Sony (to visit Dolby) right before we got to the demonstration of the speaker system. But we hear from trusted colleagues that sound is surprisingly good. We will get another chance to hear it later this week when Sony introduces its 2017 TV line-up at a private event.

Sony A1 OLED

We did get some technical information out of Sony though. The audio system works be using two actuators (see module attached to back of the OLED panel in photo above) to send vibrations through the OLED panel. This is possible because the OLED panel is made from only one layer. It would not be feasible with sandwich-structured display panels such as LCD. The stand does not come off so if you want to wall-mount the TV you can instead fold it. However, the TV still needs some distance to the wall for the subwoofer to work. The subwoofer has been integrated separately on the stand to avoid low frequencies going through the OELD panel (that would probably have been visible to the naked eye). Sony says that it supports standard VESA brackets. The input ports are located at the bottom of the stand.

So, back to the picture. Sony had prepared perhaps the biggest surprise at CES 2017 by announcing a partnership with Dolby that will bring Dolby Vision support to not only the A1 OLED but several other Sony TVs as well. This means that Sony in 2017 will sell a comprehensive package including 3 HDR formats (HDR10, Dolby Vision, HLG). That is 1 less than LG has but we can forgive the lack of Technicolor’s ‘Advanced HDR’ format since it has very little traction in the market.

We think it is great that Sony is partnering with Dolby. After all, Dolby Vision is the best HDR format - even if it is proprietary. Dolby Vision operates with 12-bit color depth and has support for dynamic metadata, unlike HDR10. The first UHD Blu-ray players with Dolby Vision will also come out in 2017 but for some strange reason Sony has not implemented in its new X800 player. If we had to point to one weak spot in Sony’s 2017 line-up it would be this player because Sony’s TV line-up looks incredibly strong this year.

Why did Sony partner with Dolby for its proprietary HDR technology? Motoi Kawamura, Head of TV Marketing and Product Planning for Sony Europe, says that besides it being a great HDR format, it is “easier to explain” to consumer. There are so many technical details in HDR to be aware of but Dolby Vision simplifies all that while at the same time being a premium HDR format.

As said, Sony refused to share specifications but since this is a 2017 LG.Display OLED panel we know that peak brightness is somewhere around 800-1000 nits, depending on picture settings. DCI-P3 coverage is 99% and black is, well, black. True black is one of the fundamental building blocks of a good picture, and perhaps more important than ever in these days of HDR. True black and pixel-level control, meaning that OLED can control the full luminance range in every single of the over 8 million pixels, are some of the key advantages over Sony’s Z9D flagship LCD. Sony said that it has managed to improve reproduction of shadow details on the OLED but that is the same message we hear from all of them (LG, Panasonic and Sony). It is hard to tell whether this is just LG.Display optimizing the panels or based on each manufacturer’s own efforts in the area.

Speaking of Z9D (ZD9 in Europe), Sony will continue to sell it throughout 2017 (and update it to support Dolby Vision). Z9D and A1 will both be positioned as Sony’s flagship TVs in 2017. Z9D will still feature the highest peak brightness of the two but A1 has other advantages. Pick your favorite.

Ahead of CES 2017, there were rumors that Sony would launch these new OLED TVs at $2000 and $3000 dollars for the 55” and 65” sizes, respectively. We asked everyone we could find from Sony at CES and the closest we came to a price was Motoi Kawamura who told us to expect a “price on the same level as Z9D”. That certainly does not sound like 65” at $3000 so we recommend that everyone reset their expectations.

All in all, our first impressions of Sony’s A1 OLED are very positive. You have to see it, especially the 77” version, to truly appreciate how cool a TV it is. The picture was immaculate but we cannot say that it looked better (or worse) than LG’s new OLED TVs. As said before, we generally refrain from commenting on very specific picture parameters based on CES demonstrations because most of the demonstrations are misleading. The design of A1 looks like something only Sony could create. The TV oozes Sony, which is why the Sony logo placed on the lower left of the frame will be so tiny. Sony even indicated that it may remove the logo altogether.

But at the same time we have mixed feelings about Sony’s partnership with LG.Display. On one hand we are ecstatic to see Sony finally launch an OLED TV but on the other hand we had hoped that Sony would produce the OLED panel in-house. The risk for Sony is that you can get more or less the same picture quality with one of LG’s OLED TV at a much lower price. We can only hope that Sony will set reasonable prices.

Sony A1 OLED

Sony high-end LCD TVs

As said, Sony will continue to sell Z9D throughout 2017 and it will even get a firmware update to support Dolby Vision. Based on our own review and the (limited) time we spent with Samsung’s “QLED” LCDs, we believe that Sony Z9D will remain one of the best LCDs this year. Perhaps even the best but that depends on whether Samsung and Panasonic decide to launch new FALD LCD TVs or not.

Sony will position the new X93E (XE93 in Europe) and X94E (XE94 in Europe) models below Z9D. These are successors to last year’s X93D and X94D.

Sony A1 OLED

We were curious about X94E because the back looks a lot like Z9D. However, Motoi Kawamura explains to us that X94E does not feature the same backlight technology. It is more the same LED local system that Sony employed in X93D last year but it has been tweaked to be “brighter” and have “a larger color volume”. Sony refused to put numbers on those claims.

The picture on X94E looked great. It also gave us the first glimpse of the upcoming Gran Turismo Sport in 4K HDR. The game looked amazing and we cannot wait to play this game on the PS4 Pro and, preferably, the Sony A1 OLED. Gran Turismo Sport will apparently be built from ground up to take advantage of HDR. This is one of the advantages of owning both a game studio and an electronics arm. Sony knows in which direction the market is moving and can act on it before most of its competitors.

Sony A1 OLED

Sony X93E on the other hand has “more zones” and “is brighter”, according to Motoi. Sony has developed an “improved zone structure” for the TV. It is still technically edge LED but Sony believes that X93E will be capable of reproducing better HDR than most other edge-lit LCDs out there because of these improvements. If you want true local dimming LCDs you still have cough up the extra money to pay for X94E or Z9D though.

Ohh yeah, X94E and X93E will also get Dolby Vision. However, one thing that you have to be aware of is that Dolby Vision will not work at launch on any of the new TVs. It will be added through a later firmware and software update. We have more details on that here.

Sony A1 OLED

The same is true for Android TV 7.0, YouTube HDR, and HLG. Sony will add everything through later updates. We speculated that this has to do with Android TV 7.0, which is required for system-level support of all these formats, but Sony can of course decide to support for example Dolby Vision and HLG only via HDMI initially (and later via apps/streaming).

Sony is hoping that the Dolby Vision update will be ready by the middle of this year but no guarantees.

Lastly, Sony will launch the first HDR-capable Full HD TVs. These are designed to be used with PlayStation 4. We did not get a chance to see them in action at CES 2017.

Based on what we saw at CES 2017, Sony has a very strong line-up this year and when you think about it probably the most comprehensive HDR portfolio based on PlayStation 4. There was not much talk about Android TV and very few demonstrations on the show floors but Sony appears to be fully committed to Google’s project despite some hiccups in the first two years. The A1 OLED was the highlight from Sony at CES and we except it to deliver some of the best picture quality in 2017. Sony obviously agrees because the OLED was put on more than one pedestal.

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