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Review: Sony A8H (A8)

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In Sony's TV line-up for 2020 there is currently no new 'Master' range of TVs but the company will introduce a high-end 48-inch A9 model later this year. A8H in the US and A8 in Europe is the step-down model that replaces last year's A8G (AG8). The 2020 version features Sony's Acoustic Surface speaker system, Dolby Atmos, and HDMI eARC. It also comes with Android 9 pre-installed.

Sony A8H (A8) is available in 55 and 65 inches. We are reviewing the 65 inch model.

 Also read: Sony 2020 TV line-up


Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer


First impressions

For a few years now, Sony OLED TVs have come with a minimalistic appearance, helped by the fact that the speaker is part of the actual OLED panel. Sony refers to its in-panel speaker system as Acoustic Surface. Sony A8H has a very slim metal bezel and only a faint logo in one corner reveals that you are looking at a Sony TV. The flat base that the company previously used for its OLED TVs has been replaced by a two-legged stand that provides a solid foundation under the TV, but it will no longer fit on narrow furniture. The feet can be adjusted between a flat configuration that lowers TV down towards the surface or a high configuration that raises the TV to allow room for a soundbar. During the review we had a sample of Sonos' Arc soundbar available. It was not possible to fit Arc under the feet of the 65-inch Sony TV so you may need to consider a shorter soundbar if you were planning to fit one under Sony's TV. The back of the TV is not as refined as last year's 9 series, with its detachable covers designed for hiding input/output ports and cable. Luckily, all ports face either down or to the side, and several ports are hidden inside a cavity. Unlike A9G (AG9) there is no fancy cable management system in A8H (A8). There are 4 HDMI ports with HDMI 2.0 bandwidth but there are no HDMI 2.1 ports available. It may seem odd that Sony, the company behind PlayStation, has disregarded HDMI 2.1 in a high-end TV that launches just months before PlayStation 5. The lack of HDMI 2.1 ports is tied to some of the other hardware in the TV, which we will examine in a moment. Most of Sony's 2020 TVs, including A8H (A8), now feature Dolby Atmos support (decoding) and together with HDMI eARC you should, in theory, be well equipped to get Atmos into your living room. The TV packs two subwoofers in addition to the drivers integrated behind the OLED panel as part of Acoustic Surface.
There is nothing new to report in terms of the OLED panel. The anti-reflective coating remains unchanged. It is effective but in a brightly lit environment you will see reflections and LG Display's OLED panel still has some ground to cover before it matches the anti-reflective coating in Samsung's Q90R. At CES 2020, Sony announced a new remote control with backlit buttons but it is not included with A8H (A8).

User experience & features

Sony A8 comes pre-installed with Android 9 (Pie). The company said that it will make updates available in the future but did not specify timing or details. Many previous Sony Android TVs have received Android updates but there are also examples of the opposite. The latest version of Android for TVs is version 10 and Google is expected to release Android 11 later this year.
"Android Pie"
With Android 8 (Oreo), Google introduced a new user interface and Android 9 sticks to the concept of a full-screen home screen. There are only minor tweaks in Android 9. In a TV with apps and tuner capabilities I am not a particular fan of the full-screen concept. To me, it seems a little intrusive compared to a menu that slides up from the bottom of the screen, like the one in LG, Samsung and Panasonic TVs. Sony A8H (A8) comes with 16GB of storage capacity, of which only 8GB is available to the user. As for the chipset, it is identical to the chipset introduced in the A9F (AF9) model 1½ years ago but with reduced RAM. It may not impact app performance much but with status quo in this area you can start to see why this TV also lacks capabilities like HDMI 2.1. It is a trickle-down hardware platform from a previous high-end model. As such, the Android portion of the TV is largely identical except for the small tweaks introduced with Android 9. The same applies to app performance. After a slow start, Android TV now offers a good selection of streaming apps. From the Google Play store you have access major apps, including Amazon, Disney+, Netflix, and HBO. There is currently no Apple TV app available for Android TV but Sony has promised to introduce it on its TVs later this year. Unsupported streaming services can be used via the Chromecast system from your Android or iOS handheld device. A new features compared to last year's 8 series Sony OLED TV is support for AirPlay 2 and HomeKit, which is now widely available in Sony 2020 TVs. With AirPlay 2 you can also push content, including streaming video, wirelessly to the Sony TV from an iPhone or iPad. Unfortunately, there is a persistent limitation in these cast systems in the sense that they are locked to 60Hz, meaning that content in 25/50fps (European content) will exhibit judder. We have complained about this limitation for years and we should emphasize that Sony is not alone. HomeKit compatibility in the TV allows you to integrate a Sony TV into a connected home together with smart bulbs, video cameras, and other IoT devices. At this time, you can turn on/off and select input source on the TV via an iOS device. You cannot control audio volume or other functions of the TV. When used in HomeKit automation or scenes, HomeKit TVs (and AirPlay 2 devices) can be used as 'slaves' to react on something else, for example you turning on the lights. In other words, HomeKit integration in TVs is currently limited. Be aware that to wake a Sony TV from a network function you must enable the feature in the TV, which in Sony's case raises stand-by consumption to no less than 28W - an expensive feature from a climate point of view. One area where Sony has made some adjustments this year is in its picture menus. The old menus were a little tedious to navigate and Sony has now introduced a harmonica structure that lets you fold out submenus. I think I actually preferred the old menu structure. It is still tedious to scroll up and down and hard to see which menus are open and which are closed. Furthermore, Sony has added small pictograms with an accompanying text to explain specific menu functions, which is a good idea, but it makes it more difficult to see where you are in the menus. Plus point for trying, minus point for execution. Normally, we would not dive into specific apps and describe their features but we have to comment on one particular app that has been updated as part of Sony's 2020 TV generation; the pre-installed media player app that is intended for media playback via a USB stick or a network drive. The app has a revamped interface to make it easier to navigate your media files. That was long overdue as the old app was very slow and cumbersome to use. While user interface has improved, its functionality has unfortunately almost completely vanished. The new media app was unable to play any of the video clips that we use to check video format compatibility. A few of our HDR test patterns made it through the eye of the needle but as soon as we skipped to another unsupported video clip, the TV would crash (no other apps would run either). We then had to pull power and start again. Our advice: Stay as far away from Sony's media player as possible and find another app for this purpose. In previous years we have criticized Sony TVs for periodically waking up from stand-by to do something. The procedure would also wake up connected USB devices. Once again this year we find that the TV will wake up periodically, which raises power consumption to around 50W. That is certainly not insignificant and it is problematic that you cannot put the TV into deep stand-by state to avoid this.

Operation

At CES 2020, Sony revealed its new metal remote control with backlit buttons that automatically light up when you use it. However, Sony A8H (A8) comes with the company's standard metal remote control without backlit buttons. It is more or less the remote as the one that came with last year's Sony TVs and it is a clear improvement over the cheap plastic clicker that Sony previously offered. The remote still has a myriad of buttons, including sponsored Google Play and Netflix buttons. You could probably throw away half of the buttons without negatively impacting operation of the TV.

Sony A8 review

The tactility of the buttons has changed this year compared to last year's remote. Unfortunately, it is a return of the spongy buttons that defined Sony's cheap plastic clicker of the past. I would have preferred if Sony had not changed button tactility. As part of Google's Android TV package, Sony TVs gain Google Assistant voice control. You can ask Assistant general questions about the weather or to find specific content. You use the microphone in the remote control that can be activated by pushing the microphone button.

TV & audio

The new TV user interface that Sony introduced last year makes it easy to navigate channels via the menu at the bottom of the screen as it includes program information. From here you can also pull up the full TV guide to get a better overview. Overall, TV channel functionality in Sony TVs works well after the recent changes but one area that leaves room for improvement is speed. It still takes too long to change the channel but this is not unique to Sony, as it tends to affect most TVs after the switch to digital transmission. Sony A8 in Europe comes equipped with a dual tuner but unfortunately you cannot watch two TV channels at once in PiP (Picture-in-Picture) or PbP (Picture-by-Picture). Dual-tuner functionality is limited to recording where it allows you to record a channel into a USB drive while watching another channel. Also note that there is room for only one decoder card (there's only one CI) so the dual-tuner will not let you use two coded channels at once.
The only HDMI 2.1 feature (which can be supported on HDMI 2.0 chipsets) in Sony A8H (A8) is eARC (enhanced Audio Return Channel). The same feature was supported in A9F (AF9) from 2018, which is hardly surprising considering that the two TVs use roughly the same hardware platform. Support for eARC is not "HDMI 2.1" but it can be a very useful feature together with Dolby Atmos support, specifically if devices deliver Atmos in Dolby TrueHD or via PCM, which is the case with Apple TV 4K and Xbox One. For the test we used the new Atmos-compatible Sonos Arc soundbar and we did not encounter any issues with sending Dolby Atmos from Apple TV 4K via Sony A8 to the Sonos soundbar. Also read: HDMI ARC (Audio Return Channel) and eARC explained Sony's TV also supports Dolby Atmos decoding, meaning that you can pull down Atmos from built-in apps that support the format and output Atmos to a soundbar or receiver via HDMI eARC. The TV is not equipped with Atmos-capable speakers so it may confuse some buyers that Atmos is highlighted as a key feature in marketing. It is perhaps comparable to HDR that TV makers today use as a marketing label on pretty much any TV. Like HDR, you need specific equipment to enjoy Dolby Atmos sound and very few TVs are equipped with such speaker hardware. To enable Atmos pass-though via the TV's eARC function you must activate eARC in the menu, and to get Atmos (in DD+) via streaming from apps like Netflix you must set the TV's audio output to 'Auto 1'.
The Acoustic Surface audio system that uses the OLED panel as a speaker membrane has two speaker channels - as opposed to three channels in some previous high-end Sony TVs - so any type of surround effect will be simulated. A new feature this year is an embedded algorithm designed for audio adaptation via the remote's built-in microphone. It works by having the TV output test tones that the remote can pick up from your usual seating position. The TV then tries to adapt its sound profile accordingly. We generally like Sony's Acoustic Surface technology. It is an innovative way to use the OLED panel as a speaker, and as a result deliver very "direct" sound as if voices were coming from the people in the picture. It is a better-than-average TV speaker solution but it has limitations, especially in bass and low frequencies. It is not possible to connect a subwoofer directly to the TV and A8H (A8) cannot be used as a center channel in a larger HiFi set-up, like previous 9 series Sony OLED TVs. For movies we recommend that you consider a potent soundbar or a dedicated surround system to match the wonderful picture quality of OLED TV.

Calibration

A couple of years ago, Sony made adjustments to its picture modes and as a result you should now use the 'Custom' mode. There are still too many picture modes available and most can be disregarded. If you had to change anything for other scenarios it would probably be to use the picture mode called 'Game' for PC / console gaming, in order to bring down input lag. 'Game' mode is not as accurate but still decent. Unlike some other TVs, it is not possible to activate a game function on top of other picture modes in Sony's TVs. Sony has not embraced Filmmaker Mode either. It argues that its own 'Cinema' mode already offers similar characteristics. Sony A8H (A8) can change its picture mode to the type of content you are watching (sports for example) but we recommend to steer clear of such dynamic adjustment. Sony has made a lot of noise about its commitment to staying "true to the creator's intent" and in our opinion they should follow through by removing all of the redundant picture modes. And the most accurate picture mode should be the default. To calibrate a Sony TV, you tweak it in SDR mode and settings will be automatically be transferred to HDR by the TV. It did not take much adjustment to the 2-step curve to reach a decent result. If you want more accurate colors you will need to use 10-step adjustment. Sony has supported CalMAN's auto-calibration features for a few years now, and it unlocks a couple of extra modes. We have explored auto-calibration in previous reviews. In line with our expectations, LG Display's OLED panel (used in all OLED TVs today) delivers roughly the same color gamut coverage and brightness in Sony A8H (A8) as competing and previous TVs. We have not witnessed any improvements in this area for years now and it will probably take a different OLED stack to get us closer to Rec.2020 colors.

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. Note: We include calibration settings only for SDR, not 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.
Sony A8 review

Picture quality

As shown in our calibration section above Sony A8 delivers fairly accurate colors, although not fully as accurate as Panasonic's HZ1000 that we recently reviewed. We are splitting hairs here. Examining modern OLED TVs is becoming repetitive as they all performs more or less to the same high standards, which is not surprising considering that there is only a single OLED TV panel supplier. Of course, there are some finer nuances in terms of picture quality, processing, and of course other features. So let us focus on some of these nuances instead of repeating everything that we are already covered earlier reviews of OLED TVs. Starting with video processing, Sony's video engine is still one of the best on the market for upscaling and general video processing, and A8 is no exception. Japan's Panasonic has also for many years been considered one of the top performers in this area but it at same time competitors from South Korea have made gains in recent years to close the gap. There is no clear loser amongst the leading brands today. A few of the recent developments for Sony include the 'Smooth Gradation' system that can help reduce banding, although it still, at its lowest setting, crushes some details for Dolby Vision content.
Turning our attention to HDR and peak brightness, Sony OLED TVs tend to deliver somewhat lower peak brightness than other OLED TVs on the market. We measured A8 to 650 nits, which is approximately 100 nits lower than Panasonic HZ1000. Last year's Panasonic GZ2000 hit 1000 nits with its customized OLED panel, so Sony has some ground to cover in this area. One could argue that lower peak brightness may reduce the risk of image retention where the brightest objects on the screen can leave a faint shadow for a little time, but as noted last year Panasonic's GZ2000 seemed to almost eliminate retention despite its noticeably higher peak brightness levels. Sony A8H (A8) exhibited some retention during our test and perhaps as a consequence it will sometimes dim its panel if it detects static elements in the picture. This 'feature' cannot be deactivated but we only observed it during our static 'torture' tests with HDR patterns and measurements for calibration. We did not experience it during normal use. The TV supports HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision, and some may recall that back in the early days, the introduction of Dolby Vision in Sony TVs led to some compatibility issues with players. A new low-latency Dolby Vision (LLDV) implementation requires that source devices do the heavy lifting. It is not a bad approach but it moves some of the responsibility from the TV maker to the playback device maker, which can create issues. Specific for Sony TVs you are seeing an effect on brightness.
A movie scene in Dolby Vision has a given brightness level that defines how bright and dark parts of the picture should be represented. If the content comes via an app in the TV Sony can control this to fit the panel's capabilities. If the source is an external player such as Apple TV 4K, the TV must communicate its capabilities to the player for it to be able to set it levels to match. In the case of Sony it appears that the information about the panel's capabilities is set to a wrong level (perhaps because it matches its LCD panel with higher brightness) and the result is that Dolby Vision content looks slightly darker from a source like Apple TV 4K. In the photos above you can see the difference in a scene from Stranger Things played via the TV'ets built-in Netflix app and the Netflix app on Apple TV. Notice the building on the left where you should be able to see that shadows look brighter. The picture is not as dark with the built-in app. It should be easy for Sony to fix via firmware so our appeal is to get it in order. It should be noted that this applies to all Sony TVs with Dolby Vision.
A8H (A8) is Sony's first OLED TV to implement a new feature introduced by LG Display in its OLED panel, specifically a new Black Frame Insertion (BFI) algorithm. The system's purpose is to insert black frames between picture frames in the video stream to help cancel out the human eye's memory effect for bright images in order to make motion look sharper. Previously the BFI system was limited to one black frame for every actual frame, meaning 60Hz, which produced very visible flicker. The new algorithm lets you control the duration of the black frame, which is much more effective. The disadvantage is that it still leads to significant drops in brightness for HDR, which is not attractive.

Brightness with BFI

SettingBrightness
Min
240
720
1
240
617
2
189
504
Max
125
370
SDRHDR
Our measurements of Sony's BFI implementation (setting found under MotionFlow) show that it affects brightness less than in some competing OLED TVs. As you can see, you will lose around 100 nits in peak brightness at the lowest setting, and a little more when moving one step up. Max setting corresponds to the old 60Hz method so you should stay clear of that one. Combined with Sony's other MotionFlow settings it is now possible to get the same motion resolution as the now-discontinued plasma TVs and the best LCD TVs with scanning backlight activated - and without losing too much brightness like in Panasonic HZ1000. Well done. However, it is worth emphasizing that if we want better motion resolution in general the solution is to improve the frame rate in content, especially low frame rate content such 24fps, 25fps and 30fps.
Sony is also highlighting support for IMAX Enhanced (yet to be launched in our region) and Netflix Calibrated Mode. Both systems are sold as ways to achieve the best possible picture (and sound for IMAX) but in our experience you can achieve the same thing by using the TV's 'Custom' picture mode, or by having the TV calibrated. Other hot topics include HDMI 2.1 - or the lack hereof. Sony A8H (A8) is not equipped with HDMI 2.1, besides eARC that is implemented on its HDMI 2.0 ports. It seems a little strange not to include HDMI 2.1 and features like VRR (variable refresh rate) when next-gen consoles are just a few months away. In other words, 4K120 gaming / video is not supported on Sony A8H (A8). The TV does not feature ALLM (auto low latency mode), the system to automatically switch into game mode, but Sony has implemented a custom system to let PlayStation and its TVs do something similar, although with the limitation that it cannot distinguish movies from games on PlayStation. A better approach would probably be to make ALLM activate a game function on top of the TV's picture mode instead, rather than switching picture mode. Luckily, the game mode in Sony's TV is pretty decent. Also read: HDMI 2.1: 8K/10K, variable refresh rate, eARC, new cable To round off gaming performance, we measured input lag to 18 ms in both 4K and 1080p in 'Game' mode, which is improved performance over last year's A9G (AG9) that came in at 26.6 ms. It brings Sony very close to its competitors that are all under 20 ms now. With such low input lag most gamers should be satisfied, and you are unlikely to feel any lag when using the game controller (that will however introduce its own lag). If you are using mouse and keyboard you may still feel a little lag. The other picture modes in Sony A8 have input lag of over 80 ms and are not suited for console gaming. This is true for all TV brands. Examining the OLED panel's homogeneity we put on some dark patterns. Our sample of A8 does not suffer from noticeable banding. This will vary from one panel to the next so other than being able to say that we did not experience issues, we cannot make conclusions as to the performance of other samples. We did not spot color tint on bright tones either so overall good homogeneity.

Conclusion

Sony A8H in the US (A8 in Europe) represents the step down from Sony's flagship OLED TVs and it is a direct competitor to the new Panasonic HZ1000 and LG CX OLED TVs. Sony A8H (A8) is not a major upgrade over last year's 8 series but it does come with some added features, including Dolby Atmos decoding support to let you pull down Atmos from Netflix and other apps, as well as eARC. In terms of picture quality it is still a top performer and by adding a much-improved black frame insertion, or BFI, (under MotionFlow) system to the mix, you can get improved motion on OLED, although at the cost of brightness. On the other hand it lacks HDMI 2.1 ports, including features like VRR, ALLM and of course 4K120 HFR, which will be supported by the next-generation of game consoles that are expected to hit the market in late 2020. Sony Android TV has reached version 9 but there is not much new under the sun. You have access to apps and games from the Google Play store, and with both Chromecast and AirPlay 2 on board you can also push content wirelessly onto the screen from a smartphone or tablet. Sony's underlying TV menus have been tweaked and are in general responsive and pleasant to use. Sony A8H (A8) is priced a little higher than LG CX and Panasonic HZ1000. It is more feature-packed than the latter but does not fully match the features of LG CX, with its HDMI 2.1 ports and functions. It is up to you to decide whether that matters but ultimately, given the competitive field, Sony's TV falls just short of our Highly Recommended Award.

Price and retailers:

US retailer
UK retailer
DE retailer

Excellent HD, 4K & HDR
Contrast & viewing angles
Better-than-average TV sound
Great motion system
Atmos support & eARC


Too aggressive dimming algorithm
Peak brightness lower than other OLED TVs
MediaTek Soc has less RAM
No HDMI 2.1







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