In a somewhat unusual move, Sony has added two flagship TVs to the line-up late in the year with the ‘Master’ series TVs. The Master series includes Z9F (ZF9), which is an LCD flagship model, and A9F (AF9), which is an OLED flagship model. Both are being promoted as being true to the “creator’s intent" in terms of picture representation, and for the first time Sony support CalMAN’s auto-calibration software. We have the A9F OLED, which supersedes last year’s A1 model, offering features such as a more powerful Acoustic Surface speaker system, an easel stand, a more powerful video processor (X1 Ultimate), and not least Android Oreo (version 8), which is also powered by a new processor.
Sony A9F in the US and AF9 in Europe is available in 55 and 65-inch sizes. There is no 77-inch version available. We are reviewing the 65-inch model.
First, I have to say that A9F was not our first priority when requesting a review sample of Sony’s Master series. We had requested the Z9F model because it offers a reengineered LCD panel but unfortunately a review sample was not readily available so we settled on A9F instead.
From a design perspective A9F in many ways resemble the now-discontinued A1. It is based on the same concept with an easel stand being an integrated part of the TV. The solution includes a foldable easel stand and a module that houses electronic components and subwoofer. As such, the foldable part of the stand cannot be removed. It adds some extra thickness to the design, even when compared to the usual electronic box that other OLED models have attached. This may be a concern if you are planning to wall mount the TV.
If you prefer to have A9F on furniture you must attach a metal segment that comes bundled with the TV. This ensures that the TV has stable foundation. The TV takes up some space so your TV furniture must be deep enough to provide support at the back and front, and because the front of the screen rests directly on your furniture, it is not really possible to place a soundbar at the base of the TV – unless you are planning to wall mount it.
A9F has Sony’s upgraded Acoustic Surface speaker system, which has new actuators plus an extra set of actuators in the center, meaning that you get 3-channel front audio instead of 2-channel stereo on A8F and A1. Most of the ports are found at the bottom of the stand and all ports are facing the right way (down). Sony has upgraded the HDMI module, too, meaning that all HDMI ports now support full bandwidth (4K HDR 60Hz). Sony is also first to integrate the HDMI 2.1 standard’s eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel) in a TV. To round things off, we should add that Sony has included speaker terminals that allow the buyer to use the TV’s center speaker in a surround sound setup. On the side of the TV you will find one HDMI port and one USB port.
The back of the TV can be fitted with fabric covers to give the TV a completely streamlined and pleasant look. Compared to A1, Sony has made the easel stand more triangular and it probably looks a little less intrusive even though it is in fact larger. With its minimalistic front, a black metal bezel, and streamlined back, A9F is pleasing to look at even when not in use.
Reflections in the panel are comparable to other OLED model and better than most TVs on the market. In the photo below you see A9F in front of my aging Sony X85C and the difference in reflectivity is apparent. You may also notice that reflections in the OLED panel have a faint purple tint.
Sony has (unfortunately) also included its remote control, which I will bash in a moment.
User experience & features
As one of the first TVs on the market, Sony A9F runs Android Oreo (version 8) that introduces a revamped home screen. In addition, Sony has equipped its latest Master series TVs with an upgraded chip, specifically the MediaTek MT5893 SoC as compared to MT5891 that Sony has been using for a few years now.
Operating system & smart TV
Oreo has finally arrived
Android Oreo has a revamped home screen, which is based on content rows that highlight content from various services and apps. There is still a dedicated app row to make your favorite apps easily accessible but in addition to this you can add a dedicated row for the specific services that you use (if the app supports it).
At the moment, only a limited number of apps support this type of integration (Google calls each row a “channel") so there are limits to how much you can customize the home screen. Netflix and Google’s own services work but Amazon Prime does not support “channel” integration. Unfortunately, we encountered a persisting crash issue after adding TV channels to the dedicated row. Whenever we moved the marker to a preview window for specific channels, the TV would crash. It took a hard reset (pulling the power cable) to get it back to life. We have made Sony aware of the issue and they are investigating but did not have a definitive answer in time for publication. The various app rows can be arranged as you please, including the apps row.
The new home screen is a full-screen overlay that takes priority whenever you engage it, and some users may find it a little invasive compared to LG’s webOS and Samsung’s Tizen. Sony – like Panasonic – still lets users to add shortcuts to a custom menu that slides up from the bottom but the menu is not interactive like Tizen’s bottom menu so it is not capable of puling content from within services. With Android’s home screen taking over the full screen you are often reminded that the Android TV operating system is mostly an overlay on top of Sony’s underlying menus and not a fully integrated part of the TV.
Besides the new home screen, there is not much of essence to say about Oreo. You have access to the same apps from Sony, which includes pre-installed apps (depending on your region) as well as Sony’s own app for viewing photos and video. There is one addition, though, which is an app for Spectracal’s CalMAN software and auto-calibration. You can of course download apps from the Google Play stores but many apps need to be updated to work properly with Oreo’s channels. We did not manage to get Kodi up and running and were unable to find one of the popular streaming services for our region, which is odd considering that it is available for all previous versions of Android TV.
As a substitute to apps, you can use built-in Chromecast that supports most streaming apps out there, with one of the only notable exceptions being Amazon Prime Video. However, built-in Chromecast continues to be locked to 60Hz, meaning that viewers in Europe watching 25/50fps content will see judder. Google does not seem particularly interested in fixing the limitations of built-in Chromecast – the issues have persisted for years – so we do not have high hopes.
Switching our attention to speed, A9F delivers a noticeable improvement due to its more powerful MediaTek Soc. Compared to A8F the difference is really significant. It no longer lags when navigating menus (not even in HDR mode) and apps now boot up faster. Users of Nvidia Shield have been used to a better Android TV experience for a few years but Sony has now taken a significant step forward. This is how Android TV should have performed at launch. Using Android TV is a completely different experience.
Below, I have embedded a short video where I navigate the menus to give you an idea of the improvements.
Since Sony is on team Android, its TVs receive software updates from time to time and as such the TV may improve over time unlike TVs based on Tizen and webOS. Neither of these two manufacturers offers software updates for any of their TVs.
As discussed earlier, Sony’s Android TVs sometimes wake up from stand-by to do… something, after which they return to stand-by mode. This problem has not been solved with A9F. There are long discussion threads where people discuss the issue but Sony has not provided a definitive explanation as to what the TV actually is doing when it should be sleeping. Unfortunately, we forget to examine the issue on Philips OLED803 (sorry!) so we are not sure how widespread it is. However, the culprit for these random events is a Google service so the two parties should probably join hands to resolve the issue. The result is that the TV’s power consumption jumps significantly during these cycles (>20W) and that it activates external USB units connected to the TV. Sony users can reduce the effect by deactivating “remote start" but to avoid the phenomena entirely you must turn off the TV at the power outlet whenever you are not using it. A few times, the TV even woke up our devices connected over HDMI.
In the box we found Sony’s standard remote control that has been around for years. It does not deserve a photo so I have re-used the photo taken for my review of Sony A8F.
It is still an incredible cheap piece of hardware that does not belong with a premium product. The buttons are bad, there are far too many, the back flexes when you hold it, it is too directional, and the weight is off. Come on Sony, you have by far the worst remote control of the leading manufacturers!
I am not saying that Sony should copy Philips’ slightly misplaced attempt at reimagining the remote control with a touch surface but it may be worth checking out what Samsung is doing in this area. We are talking about a premium TV here so if cost is a concern, why now just increase the price by $100 and give us a remote control that is worthy of the TV and that people actually want to use?
TV channels, recording & sound
Since the TV channel interface is unchanged from Sony A8F, I will refer to our previous review for more details. However, one note here; the upgraded MediaTek processor gives everything a boost.
I switched my attention to sound because Sony has made further improvements in this area. The TV is equipped with new actuators that should provide improved vibration control of the OLED panel leading to better treble performance. Sony has also added an extra set of actuators in the middle of the screen that serve as center channel and are designed to give the impression that human voices originate directly from the people on-screen. Lastly, the subwoofer is been redesigned and is now firing to the sides rather than towards the wall behind the TV, which is said to improve bass response when the TV is wall mounted. Sony has dubbed this new configuration Acoustic Surface+.
Another new feature is that A9F is equipped with standard speaker terminal for using the screen as the center channel in a surround setup. You are not given free rein to drive the center channel in the TV at maximum effect. Rather than letting the user drive the center module in Acoustic Surface directly from a receiver, the TV is using the input signal to regulate its own amplifier to ensure that you do not push the center speaker past its limit.
What this means is that you have to adjust the level for your center channel to match the rest of the system via the center channel adjustment option on your receiver. Of course, this limits how much the TV can contribute to an overall setup but the same is true when using the TV alone. If you prefer level 7 exposure when watching movies in your living room A9F may not by the best center channel for your needs. It cannot reach these levels.
I did not have a full surround sound system available during testing but I have had, on several separate occasions, a chance to listen to Sony A9F in such a configuration. Like the previous implementation of Acoustic Surface in Sony’s TVs, there is a clear difference between having center channel audio emanate directly from the screen compared to a soundbar or center speaker underneath the TV. It sounds like the words are actually coming directly from actor’s mouth.
Sony A9F rises above the pack and delivers more powerful bass. However, treble still has a tendency to sound a little shrill and the screen lacks some power in the mid-tones. If you are comparing it to a conventional surround sound system, you can buy a dedicated center speaker that surpasses A9F without having to invest a lot of money. Nevertheless, I believe that having a dedicated center channel in a TV is valuable – and several of our readers have shown interest in the implementation. If you are planning to expand the sound stage, my recommendation is to use A9F’s center channel with mid-size surround systems and not those types of setups where each speaker has been handpicked to provide best possible performance.
As an extra plus Sony A9F is the first TV on the market to support HDMI eARC, which makes it capable of handling lossless audio formats. For example, it will be possible to pass Dolby Atmos in Dolby TrueHD or DTS:X to a soundbar connected to the TV via HDMI – also pass-through if sound is coming via a HDMI source connected to the TV.
One of the features that eARC brings to the table is mandatory lip-sync synchronization, which is a common complaint when connecting TVs to soundbars. eARC is a new foundation and it effectively means that you can bypass the receiver and ensure that picture and audio is always perfectly synchronized. Sony recently updated its range of Atmos / DTS:X capable soundbars with eARC so it is setting the stage for improved TV audio.
eARC is part of the HDMI 2.1 standard but can be implemented in some HDMI 2.0b TVs. Sony has yet to adopt other elements of the HDMI 2.1 standard such as variable frame rate, auto low latency or quick media switching (QMS).
With the ‘Master’ series models, Sony has made some changes to the calibration menu and the various picture modes that are accessible to the user. First and foremost, advanced users now have access to a CMS (Color Management System), meaning that both primary and secondary colors can be adjusted. Secondly, Sony has added support for auto-calibration via the CalMAN software (not yet publicly available), however, not on an underlying hardware level like in LG’s OLED TV. It works via DCC meaning that CalMAN can pull the same levers that you have access to in the user menu.
On the other hand, Sony has improved how its TV interacts with CalMAN by developing an app that helps you pair the CalMAN software with the TV. This app lets you to select which HDMI input you want to calibrate. Unfortunately, it does not replace the signal generator that still has to be connected to the HDMI port, which makes it less useful than it could have been. Why not let the app generate the test patterns that are needed to calibrate the TV? That would make it possible for far more users to “just” invest in CalMAN and a sensor. Or smarter yet; let the TV control all measurements via the CalMAN app that could be sold as a premium app. We do not expect that to happen any time soon, though. However, we can reveal that Sony is apparently planning to implement autocal in some of its previous TVs (according to SpectraCal).
Unfortunately, we never managed to get our hands on the beta version of CalMAN that supports Sony’s auto-calibration features. With the upcoming version of the software you gain access to two extra picture modes that are otherwise inaccessible. Without autocal, we had to do everything the manual way and we used the ‘Personal’ mode as the basis for our calibration (as seen below). It is not spot-on out of the box but it took relatively few adjustments to achieve a good result. Perhaps a little ironically, the ‘Game’ mode is almost as accurate out of the box as the ‘Personal’ mode, which is obviously great news for gamers.
Sony is aiming for gamma 2.4, whereas we are targeting gamma 2.2 for a somewhat brighter picture. Just by using the basic adjustments, we were able to hit dE (color errors) of 1-2, which is typically said to be visually indistinguishable from perfect. You can improve things further via 10-point adjustment. With our sample, there was something to gain by adjusting the red and magenta colors via the CMS but we are not aiming for calibration perfection but rather trying to illustrate what a typical buyer can expect from the TV. The dangers of adjusting CMS have been well-documented and you risk effects such as posterization artefacts so we are often careful when it comes to CMS, unless it is done on an underlying hardware level (like LG). Roughly speaking, any TV comes with a set of standard values in its color look-up table and what you are doing is simply adding / subtracting from this starting point, which also means that you can force the look-up table into situations where it no longer behaves as intended.
In terms of HDR, we are seeing decent results. Sony continues to extrapolate its curve for HDR from SDR via a calculation so adjusting white balance for one particular color temperature setting will reuse the same parameters in all other places. If you want different calibration parameters for two different inputs you must therefore use different modes for color temperature, which on A9F and Z9F more or less requires you to use auto-calibration to gain access to the two extra picture modes. If you look at the PQ curve for HDR, you can see that it rolls off towards the brightest tones but grey tones otherwise follows the reference fairly strictly. You may also notice that peak brightness seems to be somewhat limited, which we will comment on in the picture quality section.
With the Master series, Sony has collaborated with Netflix to create a “Netflix Calibrated” option (not a picture mode), which can be activated only from within the Netflix app. For good reasons, this keeps us from loading up our patterns to take measurements since it is only active for Netflix shows but based on what we can see, it more or less matches the Movie mode. Similar to buttons dedicated to a streaming service on the remote control, we think it is not particularly useful to elevate apps in this way – regardless of how powerful the provider may be. It is there and it may provide viewers with accurate colors but at this time we cannot quantify it.
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 10 bit colors - Rec.2020 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – HEVC
Netflix 4K HDR
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 10 bit colors - Rec.2020 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – HEVC
YouTube 4K HDR
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 10 bit colors - Rec.2020 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – VP9 Profile2
Works (HDR fails)
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 23.976fps – 10 bit colors - BT.709 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 51.4 Mbps bitrate – HEVC - .ts file
Costa Rica 4K
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – BT.709 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 12.71 Mbps bitrate – VP9 - .mkv file
Terrifying Pyroclast 4K
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – BT.709 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – variable bitrate – VP9 - .mkv file
Big Buck Bunny HD (.ts version)
HD (1920x1080 pixels) – 8 bit colors - YUV color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 2.5 Mbps bitrate – 60fps - HEVC - .ts file
Big Buck Bunny HD
HD (1920x1080 pixels) – 8 bit colors - YUV color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 60fps - 2.2 Mbps bitrate – HEVC - .mkv file
LG Arctique 4K
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 8 bit colors – YUV color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 50.0 Mbps bitrate – 29.970fps - AVC - .mp4 file
Eutelsat 4K demo
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 10 bit colors – YUV color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 23.1 Mbps bitrate – 50fps - HEVC - .ts file
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 50fps frame rate – 10 bit colors – BT.2020 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 20.7 Mbps bitrate – HEVC – HLG – .ts file
Ghost Towns 8K
8K (7680x4320 pixels) – variable frame rate – 8 bit colors - YUV color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 20.7 Mbps bitrate – AVC - .mp4 file
HFR (100fps) test file
4K (3840x2160 pixels) – 100fps – 10 bit colors – Rec.2020 color space – 4:2:0 subsampling – 23.7 Mbps bitrate – HEVC - .ts file
Note: We include calibration settings only for SDR, not yet HDR. For our calibration we have deactivated the ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts the backlight setting according to your environment. You may prefer to have it enabled.
Let us start be addressing the elephant in the room; peak brightness and not least the automatic light dimming function (anti burn-in). Starting with peak brightness, you can see that we hit peak brightness that is actually a tad lower than A8F. A9F hits around 720 nits, whereas A8F hit 750 nits. Compared to LG and Philips, there is some ground to cover before Sony can hit the 800-900 nits that these TVs are capable of. The built-in ABL (Automatic Brightness Limiter) function is not as unrestrained either as on Panasonic FZ800 so brightness drops faster as a function of APL (Average Picture Level = % coverage of the full screen).
The difference between 700 and 900 nits is visible to most eyes so if you are yearning for “more light”, OLED TVs from LG, Philips and partly Panasonic can hit higher values – otherwise you have to consider LCD TVs such as Samsung’s Q series or Sony’s own ZF/XF TVs. It is a little disappointing to conclude that Sony seems stuck now that it is promoting these TVs as “Master”.
Over the summer, there has been a lot of discussion in regards to a firmware update that Sony pushed out to its A1 OLED model. The update included a new automatic dimming function that sometimes erroneously kicks in when there are static elements in the picture. After the update, owners of the A8F model started reporting similar issues so we re-tested an A8F sample. The mechanism is a safeguard to reduce the risk of burn-in but unfortunately it also kicks in when playing console games showing static elements such as a map or when watching sports with a static scoreboard at the top of the screen. We have not been able to establish the exact percentage of the screen that must be static in order for the dimming algorithm to kick in but we can conclude that A9F employs the same algorithm. In the graph below you can see how we use a HDR test pattern to replicate the effect. The TV starts lowering its overall brightness and the process takes about one and a half minute before it settles on a lower brightness level. When switching pattern (in this test from a 2% to 5% window), brightness peaks temporarily after which it quickly starts to dim.
Once the TV starts running this dimming cycle there is not really any stationary start level on which it can maintain its highest brightness level and only after “cleaning” the screen with a more varied video scene can you once again achieve normal brightness for about 30 seconds. To properly measure HDR peak brightness on Sony OLED we were required to “trick” the TV with fresh content before taking the measurement.
So how does it affect the viewing experience? Below I have include to photos from the game Spider-man, where the left side is the starting point with normal brightness levels and the right side representing the state after the TV after having been inactive for a couple of minutes.
It is not possible to see the gradual dimming with the naked eye when sitting in front of the TV and the end result is not particularly obvious unless you know what to look for (i.e. highlights). For mixed use, we did not encounter problems and we only observed this with HDR content with static elements, not with SDR content. We encourage Sony to improve its algorithm to make it less sensitive but at the same time we have to conclude that the issue may be a bit overblown.
Let us switch our attention to color and grey tones. Sony is claiming that its Master series of TVs are as true to the film creator’s intent as possible with today’s technology and looking at our measurements the TV can indeed hit very accurate levels – after being tweaked. I am not overly impressed by performance in the standard picture modes and for example Panasonic provides better out-of-box accuracy. After calibration, A9F delivers improved color accuracy and thanks to Sony’s “smooth gradation” compensation you can get very smooth color gradations. A9F is the first Sony TV to actually have Dolby Vision enabled at the time of our review and in this regard we should note that the “smooth gradation” feature is not as useful with Dolby Vision content as it has a tendency to make the picture too soft and affect fine details. As a consequence, we recommend that you activate it only for HDR10 and SDR content. Luckily, this is possible as the TV allows you to set it independently for each mode.
A9F can reproduce all of the steps on the grey tone scale and does not crush either highlights nor shadow details. Support for Dolby Vision allows the TV to process content in the dynamic metadata format, which is an advantage if you own an Apple TV 4K, capable UHD Blu-ray player – or use the built-in Netflix app. By now, there is a good portion of HDR10 content available but one of the major sources, YouTube, is not yet supported on Sony’s TVs. It appears that the built-in YouTube app now recognizes HDR streams but it fails to trigger HDR on the TV, so it never switches to HDR mode. It is unfortunate that it is taking so long for Sony and Google to support YouTube HDR on Android TV since there is a lot of great demo material available.
The quality of upscaling of low-resolution sources is great so even conventional TV broadcasts will look decent on A9F. Sony’s video processor has historically excelled in this area and the upgraded version continues to offer excellent performance across the board.
OLED panels tend to suffer somewhat when it comes to reproducing low frame rate content, caused by the panel’s extremely fast response time. The result is that motion shot at low frame rate (i.e. movies at 24p) tend to have a sort of stroboscope effect that is perceived as motion stutter. The optimal solution would be to start shooting content at higher frame rate but that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. As a user, you can reduce the effect by activating the TV’s motion system that can insert artificial frames into the video stream for smoother video. The downside is that this technique often leads to the so-called “soap opera effect” (SOE) but Sony offers user settings and the MotionFlow system can effectively improve motion without introducing visible artefacts around moving objects and SOE.
In this area, A9F performs like A8F so there are no significant improvements to be had from the upgraded video processor. It manages to maintain a decent level of motion resolution (with MotionFlow set to ‘Personal’) but it still trails Sony’s own X900F LCD model that is currently our reference for motion.
The OLED panel homogeneity is not perfect and we spotted some mild banding below 5 IRE as well as a weird bright section near the left border. Homogeneity varies from one sample to another so our sample may not be representative for what buyers will get. It can go both ways. On the other hand we did not encounter any issues with color tinting.
One area that has seen improvement as a result of the upgraded X1 Ultimate processor is gaming, specifically input lag. Sony has managed to reduce input lag especially for 1080p HD gaming, which is good news for owners of the “old” game consoles. In Game mode we measured input lag to less than 28 ms for both 1080p and 4K, with and without HDR. For the other picture modes, A9F ticks in at over 80 ms, which is too high for gaming. The Game mode can relatively easily be calibrated to deliver accurate colors (which is not always the case) so we recommend that you use the Game mode for console gaming.
As part of the upgraded hardware, Sony A9F now has four full-bandwidth HDMI ports, meaning that you can connect 4K HDR 60Hz sources to all four of them at the same time.
The viewing angles are as wide as you would expect from an OLED TV – and almost perfect. You can enjoy the picture from any angle, including HDR video.
As said, A9F was not the Sony ’Master’ series that we would have preferred to examine as reviews of OLED TVs tend to get a little tedious since all of them are based on the same LG Display panel. Still, A9F offers some new features that made it worthwhile. The TV has an updated version of the Acoustic Surface (now with a ‘+’) audio system comprising new actuators and the option to use the TV as a center speaker in a surround sound setup. It has also gained support for HDMI eARC that allows it to handle lossless audio, including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
A9F has an upgraded ’X1 Ultimate’ video processor that delivers the same high standard of performance that we have come to expect from Sony. Furthermore, the TV has an upgraded MediaTek chip and Android Oreo that together deliver a far smoother user experience, now with a revamped home screen (as part of Oreo) that pulls content from within your favorite apps directly onto home screen (however, only a handful of apps support this integration). The design will likely divide opinion as it is not the slimmest out there but it is worth pointing out that A9F has high-quality materials – with the exception of the remote control.
We had hoped to see higher peak brightness so A9F could rise above A8F and match OLED TVs from rivals and Sony should also improve its dimming algorithm (for anti burn-in protection). Gamers on the other hand will be happy to learn that Sony has reduced input lag to less than 30 ms for HD and 4K, with and without HDR, and that all four HDMI inputs now support full bandwidth.
A9F in the US and AF9 in Europe has a list price that is 20-35% higher than A8F / AF8 and it offers some meaningful advantages mostly in the area of features and user experience. Support for auto-calibration is good news and an advantage over A8F but from a picture quality point of view the improvements are so small that we refrain from passing on our Reference Award – we are not operating with .5 increments. You should buy A9F for the upgraded processors and more future-proof features, not picture quality that is more or less matched by the cheaper A8F.
Picture quality is assessed as overall picture quality, including color reproduction, image processing, contrast, motion etc. Features is an evaluation of the built-in functionality such as apps, connector ports, tuners, recording capabilities, decoder formats, and how useful they are, as well as sound quality. User experience is evaluated on the basis of user friendliness, speed, build quality, and day-to-day use of the TV Total score is weighted: 50% Picture quality, 25% Features, 25% User experience. All scores are calculated based on a moving maximum target, defined by what we currently consider the best on market. It is then presented as a percentage. This means that a score will fall over time as new and better TVs set new standards. This allows you to compare scores across years. A score of 100% in a given category means that it is consider the best available product in this category to date.