Sony Unveils Master Series 4K HDR OLED/LCD TVs: Sneak Peak and First Impressions
Stephan Jukic – August 01, 2018
At a press conference held in New York City July 21st, Sony Electronics unveiled its latest weapons in the war for consumer home entertainment preference and if what I saw demonstrated is any indication of how their consumer market quality will be, these new televisions will give competitors a run for their money.
The two new TVs shown off this July 31st by Sony are dual parts of the new “Master Series” LCD and OLED lineup and consist of the Z9F, the successor to last year’s Z9D super-premium LCD 4K HDR TV and Sony’s A9F OLED TV, the successor to the A8F OLED released in early 2018. Both new Televisions incorporate several key technologies designed to give them levels of picture, audio and motion handling quality that have never before been delivered in consumer ultra HD television models of any kind. These new developments are largely based off Sony’s also completely new X1 Ultimate Processor engine.
The X1 Ultimate Processor is essentially the core technology for the display improvements in both televisions and while we’ll get to how it and other features beef up so many things in the Z9F and A9F models a bit further down, a couple of things about it are worth mentioning off the bat. For starters, the X1 Ultimate is at least twice as powerful as THE X1 Extreme processor, its predecessor in previous Sony ultra-premium 4K TVs. The X1 Ultimate shows itself capable of delivering incredibly precise picture quality enhancements across a spectrum of crucial specs and in ways we’ve never before seen in Sony’s television models. Examples of these included Object-based Super Resolution that’s designed to increase sharpness in objects on the screen from both 4K UHD and HD sources, and Super Bitmapping for color refinement of HDR and SDR content. The X1 Ultimate also includes an object-based HDR remaster feature for making all SDR content sources more closely resemble HDR in its quality.
Having seen demonstrations of all these capabilities at work (granted, under conditions controlled by Sony), I can say that they definitely impressed. The object-based HDR remaster made standard SDR sample content almost resonate with the sheer quality of color saturation it was able to show when set next to the visibly duller picture of a major premium competitor 4K HDR TV. The Super Bitmapping technology pulled off the same sort of visual magic, delivering video and app graphics in both SDR and HDR that showed virtually no visible banding at all at any point.
For starters in general terms, Sony’s focus on accuracy –for colors, contrast, relative brightness and motion handling– has been taken to new extremes on both the Z9F and A9F. Sony claims that its new processor engine monitors all of these traits on a per-pixel basis in both the OLED and LCD models of the Master Series. These improvements are where most of the specific features that Sony has built into the TVs work and the visual result based on what I myself was able to see in several demonstrations is nothing short of remarkable in certain ways. Color saturation and accuracy in both the Z9F is simply fantastic and the refined shadow levels achieved by both TVs are incredibly subtle in their revelation of visual details in content. Furthermore, the Z9F delivers colors, contrast ratios and local dimming precision that were truly remarkable to see in an LCD television.
More importantly for the Z9F in particular, as an LCD TV with VA display panel technology, the television manages to conserve color vibrancy, contrast and brightness to a remarkable degree even at very wide viewing angles. This development was particularly impressive to behold and when comparing the Z9F to both a Sony Z940E model from 2017 and a rival Samsung Q9FN TV model from 2018, I was able to note a distinctly superior degree of picture fidelity in the Z9F despite viewing the screen from way off center.
Crucially, according to Sony, the Master Series models will incorporate the spectrum of picture technologies described above right out of the box when released, with no need to wait for firmware updates. Thus, right upon release they will come with the full power of the X1 Ultimate Processor’s capabilities, and with HDR10, Dolby Vision and the BBC’s HLG standard running and ready to go. This is in contrast to previous ultra-premium Sony releases which had to wait at least a few months for the Dolby Vision update and other features to reach them.
In terms of how well their displays actually deliver HDR worthy of these standards, both the Z9F and the A9F incorporate several further developments that very definitely give anything we’ve reviewed or seen from any competitor brand a serious run for its money. Both TVs share a whole spectrum of display and picture processing developments between them despite the fact that one of them is an OLED TV and the other an LCD model with full-array LED backlighting.
In putting together these developments, Sony underscored a devotion to delivering visuals that match, as closely as possible, the original visual intent of their creators during production and post-production. This is another major theme that Sony representatives (along with a representative from Netflix and those of other companies present at the event) went back to again and again.
A key Sony partner in this drive for maximizing reproduction of creative intent is in fact Netflix, and its contribution to the development of the Master Series TVs is a new “Netflix Calibrated Mode” for the streaming media company’s content that will be completely exclusive to the Z9F and A9F televisions when they go on sale in the fall. The Netflix Calibrated Mode is designed to automatically adjust picture settings while you as a user watch content through the baked-in Netflix app on either TV These adjustments have been preset to match as closely as possible the finer details for color, contrast, brightness, shadow and motion that the creators of any piece of Netflix content being shown had aimed for during their creation of that video. This features even tries to match refresh rate in the content on your own Master Series TV with how it was mastered during production.
The Netflix Calibrated Mode can be switched off, yes, but Zack Estrin, executive producer of the Netflix series “Lost In Space” who was also present at the event, made it clear that in his view as a content developer, the Calibrated Mode feature is a powerful addition that will create a superb visual result for most viewers.
Beyond the Netflix Calibrated Mode and the other features above, both the Z9F and A9F come with full packages of color management systems. These are aimed at allowing for professional and easier user calibration. Sony has even partnered with another company, Portrait Displays/SpectraCal, that was present at the NYC event, to deliver a new range of calibration tools which can be used with these TVs.
So to summarize a bit here with regards to both of the new Master Series 4K HDR TVs for late 2018, they are the Z9F and A9F, replacements for the 2016 Z9D that was until now Sony’s single best LCD 4K TV, and Sony’s A8F, which is this year’s latest Sony OLED 4K HDR model. Both televisions come with the new Netflix Calibrated Mode and automated calibration tools, both come with a broad range of picture improvement technologies such as those described above through their X1 Ultimate Processor engine, and both models are built to offer superbly accurate picture quality right out of the box without need for further calibration. This last point is vital and notable in the sense that most 4K TVs (even premium models) often come with sub-par picture quality when unpacked and simply turned on. They have to usually be calibrated first and many consumers either don’t know this or lack the technical inclination to attempt it.
With the Master Series TVs Sony has tackled this issue head-on by giving them factory calibration that’s aimed for the best possible picture quality right when unpacked. Sony claimed that many of the demos we observed at their NYC event were with out-of-the-box calibration. If this is to be believed, what I saw was extremely impressive compared to the typical uncalibrated performance of rival 4K TVs.
The Sony A9F OLED Edition
Now moving on to specifics and starting with the A9F OLED model, this TV goes back to the reclining design of the A1E, which was not present in the A8F. Some buyers might not like this but it does indeed look pretty good and barely affects display viewability. This OLED TV model’s single biggest load of improvements over its predecessor is found in its audio performance.
Thus the A9F, Just like its predecessors the A1E OLED and the A8F OLED, also comes with Acoustic Surface technology for sounds right from the screen itself. However, in this new model, the audio has become much more powerful with an expansion to three different actuators vibrating the display for far better sound accuracy relative to its origin within the content. The most important of these is a center channel speaker that delivers the most power of the array. A second subwoofer has also been added in to the A9F. The difference is major too: in comparisons shown by Sony between the TV’s speakers playing back audio from a movie clip and an external speaker doing the same thing, the realism of the A9F’s own actuators was far greater.
Of course, despite its remarkably high 98W of output (the A8F could only deliver 50W), even the A9F’s internal sound system can only pump out so much bass and volume and this television’s ideal setup is to use the center channel speaker in combination with an external surround sound system. This was also demonstrated with fairly spectacular auditory effects.
In visual terms, the A9F delivers a level of picture quality that’s similar to that of the A8F. However even here Sony has managed to boost this model’s color accuracy during both shadowy and very bright scenes. Furthermore, thanks to the company’s focus on delivering what content creators intended (as we explained above), finer details in shadowy content scenes are much more clearly visible than we’ve noted them in other, older OLED 4K HDR TVs. In a comparison with an LG OLED 4K HDR TV from the 2018 lineup, the A9F showed consistently better performance on both of these fronts, though we’re taking this with a grain of salt since we can’t be sure how Sony calibrated either model behind the scenes.
The A9F’s motion handling is also worth mentioning. OLED TVs generally deliver this much better than their LCD counterparts but the effects of the X1 Ultimate Processor were visible here; the A9F showed better motion handling than we’ve ever before seen in an OLED TV.
In a final note for the A9F, Sony’s representatives were absolutely cagey about in any way indicating how bright the new TV would become or if it would get higher peak brightness than the already very luminous A8F, but based on what I saw, it should perform more or less equally on this spcific performance metric.
The Sony Z9F
Where Sony’s new display technologies for the two Master Series TVs really shine is in the Z9F. This long anticipated successor to Sony’s ridiculously powerful 2016, 2017 and up to now 2018 flagship Z9D TV (which was so good that it managed to remain the best LCD television by Sony for nearly three years) is a real beast on display performance.
Sony refused to address how bright the Z9F would get or how many local dimming zones its full-array LED backlight would offer but even if both stay more or less the same as they did in the Z9D that still means almost 2000 nits of peak brightness and at least 700 local dimming zones. The Z9F is however an absolute improvement on its predecessor even if these specs stay the same. We already covered some of the reasons why above but a few further things we’d really like to mention include the following.
For starters, there are this television model’s incredibly good viewing angles. The technology behind this is called X-Wide Angle and in essence even when content on the Z9F is viewed way off to either angle remarkable levels of color, contrast and brightness fidelity are conserved. Sony wouldn’t explain just how it pulled this off but it works remarkably well despite this TV having a VA display panel just like the 2016 Z9D and other premium LCD 4K HDR TVs by Sony and other brands. In viewing angle comparisons between the Z9F and other Sony TVs (as well as the premium LCD TVs of rival brands with VA displays) the Z9F performed much better at viewability from different angles.
Sony has also repeated and further refined its technologies for contrast precision in the Z9F. Aside from the extremely large number of local dimming zones this model features, it will have an improved version of the backlight pinpointing we saw in the Z9D. The X1 Ultimate processor will help considerably here in ways Sony won’t go into detail on except to say that techniques like Pixel Control Booster have been used.
On a final note for the Z9F, I was able to observe the motion handling and motion blur improvements that this model delivers through X-Motion Clarity technology in conjunction with the X1 Ultimate Processor and the result is impressive as well. The Z9F reduces motion blur wonderfully while avoiding soap opera effects and other problems for the most part. This is what the demo model on display showed with its onscreen content at least. Sony is also being fairly quiet about the mechanics of this technology but a representative of the company did explain that the process involved the use of blinking backlight LEDs and localized dimming over moving content.
The two Master Series TVs are without a doubt impressive pieces of 4K TV technology by any measure. We’ll love seeing what Samsung, LG and other rivals cook up by late 2018 or 2019 to rival what these two ultra-premium Sony models can pull off. At the very least, Sony’s innovations for the Master Series should spur some serious competition in really stretching the current limits of 4K TV picture performance.
Sony is releasing the OLED A9F and LCD HDR Z9F TVs “in the fall” without having yet specified a date. We also don’t yet know what retail price they’ll go for but expect them to be fairly expensive.