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Review: Sony Z9G (ZG9) 8K

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With Z9G (ZG9), Sony is launching its first 8K TV. In 85 and 98 inches. FlatpanelsHD had a chance to spend a full day with Z9G so we brought as much equipment as we could carry for this mini review where we will be focusing on picture quality. Z9G features a 8K LCD panel with 'Backlight Master Drive', which is Sony's special full array local dimming system. It also features Android TV, an improved speaker system, 'X-Wide Angle', and of course HDR support.

Z9G is probably too expensive for the majority of buyers but it represents Sony's first step into the field and may give us some fascinating insights into how Sony is approaching 8K development.

Also read: Sony 2019 TV line-up

Sony Z9G will be available in June in 85 and 98 inches for $13000 and $70000 USD, and in Europe as the Sony ZG9 for €15999 and €79999, respectively.


Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer







First impressions

Sony Z9G is mammoth. We had access to the 85-inch model but it also exists in 98 inches, which is... a lot more expensive. Since this is a very large TV, Sony is not shipping it out to reviewers for practical reasons. That is why the company arranged that we could have a full day with the TV in a dedicated room in their office. We brought our testing equipment - as much as possible - but of course we had to limit ourselves since we only had one day to test the TV. We call this a mini review but we have still tried to include as many evaluations as possible.

A 85-inch screen is a very large TV, even by today's standards, but it is important to remember that 8K resolution demands a large screen. It is certainly possible to mass produce 65-inch or even smaller 8K TVs but you would have to sit very close to the TV to see the benefits.

As for the TV itself, the 85-inch version has a table top stand with four legs that extend beyond the LCD panel to support the weight of the TV. It is not the most elegant TV around but it certainly has character. Sony has had an eye for detail. The part of the frame that holds the speaker units has been pushed back, the feet have some nice details, and the back is made from segments to give it a distinctive look rather than just being a large unsightly surface. For the larger 98-inch model Sony has created a floor stand.

This is Sony's first generation 8K TV. We have already reviewed Samsung's first 8K TV. A common theme emerges here, we think. For 8K TVs to make it into the mainstream, they will have to become a lot less bulky and lighter, too. And then there is power consumption and heat generation. We will get back to those subjects later on.

Before Sony's representatives left the room, they shared with us a presentation about the technology inside. We will cover some of those subjects in the picture quality section.




User experience & features

Sony Z9G runs on Android version 8 (Oreo) and uses the same MediaTek SoC (MT5893) as other 2019 Sony TVs. As such, the user interface and all Android features are identical and we will not cover those here. We refer to our Sony's X950G review for more information. Z9G also comes bundled with Sony's new remote control.

A few things to note. The Android TV user interface has not been updated to run in native 8K resolution and looks somewhat soft on Z9G. Our 8K test clips did not play on the TV and Sony informed us that the MediaTek SoC does not support decoding of 8K HEVC or VP9-2. Sony added that it remains undecided on whether to back the new AV1 video format or something else for 8K video. Z9G will not play YouTube 8K either. To input 8K signals you have to use an external player with HDMI 2.1. We will cover that in the picture quality section.

Dolby Atmos support will be added through an update later this year so we were unable to try it. During our time with the TV, we had a chance to evaluate the speaker only sporadically. The speaker system is quite powerful and the extra units in the top frame help give the impression that human voices emanate from the screen (or speaker's mouth), although voices are not as direct as in Sony's 'Acoustic Surface' system implemented in the OLED TVs. Z9G also has built-in subwoofers that are quite powerful and punchy (for a TV). Overall, we think that users will be pleasantly surprised about the speakers but of course if you are buying a high-end TV like this you would want to pair it with a full surround set-up for the best possible movie experience.




Calibration

Since we only had one day with the TV, we did not calibrate the TV. Instead, we dedicated more time to examine the pre-configured picture modes. Like other Sony TVs, Z9G has several and we would advise against using the Vivid and Standard picture modes.

Sony has also made a change, which we first commented on in our review of the Sony A9F OLED. Cinema mode is no longer Sony's most accurate and this may confuse some buyers. In fact, Cinema mode now pushes SDR content, meant to be reproduced in Rec.709, into the panel's native color space. This is intended behavior, says Sony, as Cinema has been reconfigured for daytime use in bright living rooms. For the most accurate pre-configured profile you should now select Custom mode. You can see how they compare in the box to the right, where we have also measured Game mode, which respects the color space of the content.

As you may know, Sony's HDR modes are derived from the corresponding SDR modes so if you make picture adjustments they will be shared. As such, we can only reiterate what we said before. Cinema mode has been designed for daytime viewing and as such the PQ curve is brighter than the reference to compensate for a bright viewing environment. Again, use Custom mode if you want the most accurate results.

In our measurements of the HDR picture modes you will also notice that the PQ luminance curve acts a bit strange, topping out before 100% and then dropping down quite considerably, which it should not do. The effect depends somewhat on the selected picture mode but the issue affects all modes to some extent. We double checked. We asked Sony's picture engineer, who was on stand-by at the office during our review in case any potential questions would arise, about it and he informed us that Sony has seen the phenomenon before. It should be fixable through firmware but we do not know if Sony has any intentions to do so. It occurs to us that Z9G has a little trouble controlling its zone dimming backlight as it approaches the highest luminance levels. This is not uncommon. The same is true for Samsung's LCD TVs.

As you can see, Sony Z9G is capable of hitting 4000 nits peak brightness with theoretical test patterns but because it drops as it approaches 100% luminance, it effectively hits 3000 nits. Again, this is with theoretical test patterns that do not represent real use. In actual use, you are more likely to get 800-2000 nits peak brightness, as revealed by our ANSI measurement and multiple window measurements. That is unless a relatively large portion of the screen is bathed in light. In these cases, Z9G can pump out 3000 nits or a little higher. It all depends on the picture composition and detail complexity of the movie or game scene. You are very unlikely to ever see a star sparkle with 4000 nits - let alone 2000 nits - intensity on Z9G.

Z9G reproduces 91% DCI-P3 / 66% Rec.2020 (xy). This is comparable to other Sony LCD TVs that rely on phosphor-based LEDs. Currently, LCD TVs with quantum dots deliver a larger color space. Now, you may be wondering; "What happened to Sony's quantum dot solution that was introduced years before Samsung began to rebrand LCD TVs as "QLED" TVs"? We asked but did not get a clear answer. You may also be thinking; "Wait, I thought quantum dot were required to hit these brightness levels"? Don't believe everything you hear. High brightness on LCD TVs is made possible by sending a huge power boost to the LEDs, which can be easily observed by employing a power consumption meter. It has little to do with quantum dots.




Measurements

In our "measurements" section we include all measurements and our suggested calibration settings. If you want to learn more about our test methodology click here.






Sony Z9G (ZG9) review


Picture quality

Before we dig in, we want to briefly cover some of the technical details that Sony talked about during its short presentation. First of all, Z9G is powered by the same X1 Ultimate chip that is employed in the some of the company's high-end 4K TVs. For upscaling, it uses a system that matches up to a database of reference images. These pictures help determine the best approach for upscaling, Sony said. Sony emphasized that it has been doing this for many years in 4K TVs, even though some competitors are only just now starting to talk about it. In addition, Sony has also been using object-based analysis (where it detects objects in the picture such as a face, an apple or a flower) for upscaling for many years. Sony just refrains from called it "AI".

So let us start out by examining upscaling. We started out with some test patterns to examine how the TV handles difficult pixel compositions. Now we will not bore you with all of the nitty gritty details but one funny situations arose when Z9G appeared to mishandle a 4K black/white pixel pattern, causing it to create unintended, inharmonic patterns during upscaling. We say appeared because it seemed to be a trick on the mind, which is interesting. We have not seen something similar before - it was not classic moire, at least not any pattern that we are familiar with. We called Sony's Japanese engineer over and he was surprised, too, but we put a microscope on the panel and we both confirmed that it was upscaling pixel-perfect. But somehow the sheer amount of pixels on such as large surface seemed to trick our mind to see these strange artefacts. Weird. We will get back to why we brought it up in a minute.

As for 4K upscaling - object/database-driven or not - we remain unconvinced that 8K TVs can add much extra value to 4K content. True 4K content already looks good and is detailed enough to present well even on a 85-inch TV but these upscaling systems cannot magically add extra details in real-time processing. There are algorithms trained by machine learning that can do exciting stuff but we are still years away from doing it in real-time with 8K resolution. And if the game or movie industry want this to be applied to content in the first place, they should do it on the studio side - not in TVs. We had a Sony 4K TV next to Z9G and despite limited time we think it was fairly obvious that there is nothing of essence to gain. Like 4K upscaling before it, manufacturers' "8K upscaling" remains mostly an exercise in determining the best approach to apply artificial sharpness around objects. We maintain that this is picture enhancement, not upscaling. Upscaling is the process of recalculating pixels to fit on the full-screen panel.




Like the Samsung 8K Q900R, we must emphasize that buying an 8K TV based on the assumption that it will lift your 4K catalog to new heights is a wild goose chase. You will only spend a huge amount of money to ultimately fool yourself.

This was perhaps more clear with Z9G than any other 8K TV that we have seen before, mainly because of its sheer size and the fact that we had almost full control of the TV. To enjoy the benefits of 8K, you must have true 8K content. As mentioned in the beginning, our own 8K video clips did not work as Z9G is incapable of decoding them. Sony has built a custom solution with an external video player that can decode 8K video, output it via 4x HDMI 2.0 ports to another box that couples these four feeds together into a HDMI 2.1 output that is then passed to the 8K TV.

So we had to rely on Sony's 8K demo reel, which includes Gran Turismo rendered in 8K (only the cars, not the environment) and real recordings in 8K from a Brazilian carnival, and more. It was not a lot but it was enough to determine that having true 8K content on a large-size 8K TV looks visibly better than 4K content. But not just for the obvious reasons (as a side-note Sony's 8K content was 8K60, compressed in HEVC at 180-200 Mb/s bitrate).

Our point is this: 8K may be, depending on distance of course, too high resolution for the human eye to appreciate the extra detail (compared to 4K) and it is only natural to have this discussion about the benefits of 8K versus 4K. However, our mind plays a huge role in how we perceive contrast, color, resolution and moving pictures in general (as demonstrated by the weird mind trick that the TV played on us). You can go to the eye doctor and look at the black on white letters but those letters do not represent in any way how you perceive complex picture compositions. And this is one of the points that we have been reiterating about 8K since we first saw Sharp's 8K prototypes way back in 2012. 2D 8K video can look almost 3-dimensional at times. There is so much picture information in 8K that it seems as if your mind perceives it almost as reality and starts to apply depth to it. This is not something you can measure easily or quantify with test patterns. You need to sit down, put aside your graphs, and look at the TV.




In 8K TV testing and through 8K TV demonstrations we have found that this 3-dimensional depth effect also relies heavily on contrast performance of the TV. Contrast is perhaps the single most important factor in enabling good picture quality. We have seen 8K TV demonstrations where the depth effect is more pronounced than on Sony Z9G, such as 8K OLED and prototypes of 8K LCD with miniLED backlight. Which brings us to our evaluation of contrast and HDR.

As discussed in the calibration section, and shown in the measurements section, Sony Z9G can hit a maximum of 3000-4000 nits peak brightness but only in very special situations. Put a checkerboard pattern (8 white squares, and 8 black squares) on it and it hits "only" 1025 nits peak brightness, while black rises to 0.23 nits in the center of the black square and 0.45 nits along the edges. This was in 'Custom' mode. While this may sound technical, it is really quite simple. LCD TVs rely on a backlight and Z9G has zone dimming so as brightness goes up, so does black levels in adjacent areas. These extreme peak brightness levels are an example of quantity over quality because all of that light cannot be tamed and applied in small segments of the picture - where it is most relevant - due to limited backlight control. We counted a total of 720 dimming zones (36 horizontal, 20 vertical). Sony declined to confirm/deny but it should be in the ballpark. In other words, each single dimming zone covers 46080 pixels. Sony explained that 'Backlight Master Drive' in Z9G is a little different from the original implementation in Z9D where each LED could be controlled individually. Z9G operates its backlight unit in "segments".




Sony Z9G also has 'X-Wide Angle' that was first introduced in the disappointing Z9F where it reduced black levels significantly, and later in X950G where Sony had tweaked the balance between wide viewing angles and contrast reduction. Sony explains that the implementation in this 8K TV is similar to X950G but again tweaked somewhat. Nevertheless, the system still affects black levels. Contrast is higher than on X950G but not drastically.

It is often possible to observe those raised black levels, mainly in a dark room, as the TV starts to flex its dimming zone muscles. It does not "bleed" into the black bars like it did with Z9F but at times you will notice that it affects the black bars. Subtitles continue to confuse the dimming system to the point where I personally have a hard time watching a movie with subtitles due to visible levels of blooming. With that being said, Sony's zone dimming system is better than Samsung's. Sony has struck a better balance between brights and darks, and Sony does not have the distracting boost and cool-down delay of Samsung's zone dimming in LCD TVs. Also, Sony Z9G can maintain peak brightness for long stretches of time without removing the foot from the pedal to cool down.

Still, it is my conviction that a native contrast of around 2500-3500:1 and 720 dimming zones are not enough for excellent HDR picture quality. Coupled with 8K, Sony Z9G does manage to produce impressive picture quality but occasionally, more often than not, you will spot the limitations of the system while enjoying movies and games. Sony's own OLED TVs deliver better HDR picture quality, if you ask us.




There are also some other factors to consider in terms of HDR. One is format support and Sony Z9G supports HDR10, HLG, and Dolby Vision. We do not have equipment or content to test Dolby Vision at 8K but Sony assures us that 8K Dolby Vision should work.

Another concern is power consumption. Like Samsung's 8K TVs, Sony's 8K TV draws a massive amount of power, especially in HDR mode. It has been given the worst 'energy label' rating, and we can understand why. In HDR mode it often peaked at 800W and usually it was hovering around 400-700W, depending on the type of content. For SDR, it usually hovered in the 250-450W range. The panel also gets quite hot.

Speaking of limitations, Sony Z9G only has a single HDMI 2.1 port (HDMI4), which is problematic if you are planning to connect more than one 8K source in the coming years. Considering how expensive Z9G its and considering that LG's mainstream 4K OLED TVs this year are equipped with four HDMI 2.1 ports, surely Sony should have implemented four HDMI 2.1 ports.

Also read: HDMI 2.1 finalized - 8K/10K resolution, variable refresh rate, eARC, new cable

The HDMI4 port has a special menu that can be used to activate "enhanced mode" (for 8K or 4K120). Sony Z9G also supports eARC but we did not have an eARC-compatible system available at the time of testing. Sony's TVs do not support HDMI 2.1 features such as VRR, QMS, and ALLM.

We had only limited time with the TV so we did not have time to sit back and relax with a game controller in hand. However, the Gran Turismo videos in 8K HDR strongly hinted that gaming in 8K HDR should be an absolute joy to behold, at least in bright and colorful sequences. We are more concerned about Z9G's capabilities in dark game sequences.

We measured input lag to around 70-100ms outside of game mode, and to between 26-35ms in Game mode, depending on resolution and SDR/HDR (see measurements table for details). We do not have equipment to measure 8K input lag. These values are decent but not on par with the fastest TVs out there (currently LG 2019 OLED). The LCD panel in Sony Z9G exhibited some slight motion trailing but nothing too critical.

Also read: The best TVs for gaming

We were not able to evaluate how Sony's various picture systems such as MotionFlow tie in with 8K processing because we had so limited access to 8K content. For 4K content, we did not observe any noticeable differences. MotionFlow is still one of the best motion systems and Sony's 'X-Motion Clarity' / backlight scanning helps improve motion resolution, with minimal cost to brightness. And since Z9G can go so bright, the reduction in brightness is of no concern.

Our sample had good backlight homogeneity but these things tend to vary from one sample to the next. We have also included long-exposure shots to give you an idea about the level of blooming. The level of blooming will depend on the type of picture content.




As a result of the 'X-Wide Angle' system, viewing angles are fairly wide but not perfect. Colors and contrast still lose some intensity off-axis but viewing angles are significantly improved compared to a standard VA LCD panel. This is one of the big challenges facing makers of VA LCD TVs as the industry transitions to 8K and HDR. Especially because 8K TVs are so big and because you need to sit relatively close. Under these circumstances, narrow viewing angles will affect how the picture looks along the edges even for the person sitting directly in front.





Conclusion

We spent a day with Sony's 85-inch 8K Z9G (ZG9 in Europe) and a few things became clear outside of picture quality. Google's Android TV system is not yet optimized for 8K and neither is the current MediaTek SoC that is powering Sony Android TVs as it lacks 8K video decoding capabilities. There is only a single HDMI 2.1 port in this very expensive TV that consumes enormous amounts of power. These are some of the problems that TV makers will have to overcome if they have any hopes of taking 8K mainstream.

In terms of picture quality, Z9G dazzled us with its high brightness, 8K resolution, and its large format. After having experienced several 8K TVs now, we think that it is wrong to try and quantify the 8K experience in terms of pixels alone. When combined with HDR, content looks so lifelike and real, almost 3-dimensional at times - as if the picture somehow tricks the brain into applying depth. On the other hand Z9G's limited number of dimming zones (720, if our counting is accurate) and softness in dark tones affect HDR presentation at times. With theoretical test patterns we measured 3000-4000 nits peak brightness, depending on various factors, but the TV will rarely hit those numbers with actual content, unless large parts of the screen are bathed in light. Even at 500 nits, black levels will be visibly compromised. And even though Sony's 'Backlight Master Drive' system works well and is well-balanced, you will have visible blooming. Viewing angles are wide but not perfect.

There is close to nothing to gain from upscaling 4K content 8K on Z9G, besides some artificial sharpness that is not true to the creator's intent. Only with true 8K content will you see the benefits and 8K content is more or less impossible to find right now. That will change but by that time 8K TVs will have evolved and be much more affordable. Of course, the large 85-inch screen and its HDR capabilities will lift the viewing experience but those things are not related to 8K per se. You can get excellent 77" 4K OLED TVs that in our opinion deliver better HDR picture quality for a third of the cost of Sony's 85-inch Z9G. Sony Z9G will have a better speaker system than most of those TVs but how much are potential buyers really willing to pay for built-in TV speakers?

After having reviewed two 8K TVs (and seen many more), we believe that 8K as a format has its merits but only when we approach the 75"+ class of TVs and only with true 8K content. We are not there yet and we think that the industry will have a harder time transitioning from 4K to 8K than it had transitioning from HD to 4K. Sony's first 8K TV can deliver excellent picture quality but there are also a number of issues and limitations that concern us. Perhaps these large, heavy, bulky, power-hungry 8K LCD TVs will become dramatically more elegant in the coming years but those are just some of the challenges. We predict a tough road ahead.


Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer


8K HDR can look amazing
Balanced LED zone dimming system
Powerful TV speakers


Only one HDMI 2.1 port
No built-in 8K decoding
Very high power consumption
Big, heavy, bulky even for 85" TV
Very expensive








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