Sony A9F 4K HDR Master Series TV First Look Review (XBR-55A9F, XBR-65A9F)
Stephan Jukic – August 29, 2018
Recently, 4K.com was invited by Sony to New York City for an extensive hands on demonstration their new Master Series 4K HDR TVs, which are being released for the U.S market “sometime in the fall” according to Sony representatives. The two models presented to us at the Sony event consist of the new 2018 A9F OLED 4K HDR TV and Sony’s (Finally unveiled) successor to the now old but still incredibly good Z9D 4K HDR LCD TV. This latter model is called the Z9F. Together, they make up what the company is calling their “Master Series” ultra-premium 4K UHD TVs for late 2018 and early 2019.
What we saw at the Sony unveiling with these Master Series TVs was, to say the least, quite impressive. Granted, the TVs were shown to us under highly controlled conditions and we were undoubtedly being given the best possible view of their capabilities but after a thorough run-through of different demonstrations for picture, audio and design qualities, we’d have to argue that it’s hard to fake quality of the kind we saw. Quite simply, both of the new televisions are fantastic performers and while their predecessors were excellent models as well, the new A9F and Z9F editions surpass them in some highly specific ways. In this review we’re focusing on the A9F OLED model in particular, and we’ll get right down to the concrete impressions its performance gave us while also explaining just how it outshines and outperforms its own A8F predecessor that we reviewed in much greater detail earlier this year.
- Incredibly bright highlights by OLED and even LCD standards
- Typically fantastic OLED black levels
- Vivid-as-hell color performance
- Perfect OLED dimming
- Remarkably good native audio system
- It’s going to be expensive (Sony didn’t reveal a price but we’re sure of this)
- Lean-back design isn’t to everyone’s taste
What We Liked
Once again, we need to stress here that this review isn’t absolutely hands-on because while we were given an extensive series of demonstrations of how well the A9F works, the TV in question was subject only to calibration by Sony and specific specs measurements of any kind were not allowed. Thus, what we’re describing here is based on what we could see, hear and touch under conditions controlled by a third party (Sony obviously enough). That said, even with these caveats in mind, we have little doubt that the A9F is going to be one hell of a performer when released for the consumer market. The A8F was fantastic and this model definitely and visibly/audibly outperforms its still very new predecessor in certain key ways, some of which we’re about to elaborate on in slightly more detail.
Improved Picture Performance and Picture Processing
First and foremost, Sony made a big issue about recreating as much of the professional-grade picture quality delivered by its own X300-Series production reference 4K monitors in the Master Series 4K TVs. This of course includes the A9F and one of the recurring themes about this television was that it comes a little closer to delivering the kinds of extremely precise, vibrant and accurate colors, contrast and shadows that the original creators of content would have wanted for their movies and shows. Obviously enough, the A9F doesn’t match the pro-level color, contrast and general calibration performance of Sony’s extremely expensive BVM-X300 4K V2 OLED Master Monitor but one thing that Sony claims is that this Master Series TV and the Z9F both come closer than anything the company has ever produced for the consumer market to achieving this goal. All of this of course motivated by the desire for Sony to create the best possible visual fidelity calibration they can.
For this same reason, Sony is promising out-of-the-box picture calibration that is better than it ever has been before so that consumers who don’t want to waste time tinkering with their own A9F’s picture settings can be pleased with how well the TV works the minute it’s unboxed and plugged in.
What we can say is that based on what we saw, the A9F does an admirable job of delivering on all of these things. The picture settings shown during the hands-on demos offered up stunningly good colors, superb contrast and shadow control and some excellent levels of detail in both bright and dark scenes. If those presentation settings are what Sony will be giving the A9F when its delivered to consumer households later in 2018, most people will probably love the quality they get even without manual calibration.
Underlying all this is Sony’s single most important innovation for creating such excellent display performance, the new X1 Ultimate Processor engine, which will be exclusive to the Master Series TVs for the time being. The X1 Ultimate really does some impressive stuff when it comes to rendering details even in complex content and in a demonstration in which we were able to watch the A9F deliver different types of movie scenes in comparison to one of LG’s 2018 OLED 4K HDR TVs sitting right next to it, the Sony model created notably better color fidelity and deeper levels of detail in shadowy scenes where specific things were visible that the LG rival didn’t show. In terms of brightness, the A9F didn’t look like it was doing better however.
In addition to the X1 Ultimate Processor, Sony has given the A9F what it calls Pixel Booster technology, which participates in the same process of making the TV’s pixels stand out more sharply for their individual contrast and rendering of vibrant colors. The effect then translates out to the entire TV display itself across all 8.29 million pixels on the 4K screen. Again, given the level of color performance we could observe, the quality was impressive indeed.
We should also note that the A9F supports all three of the major HDR formats right out of the box. No more waiting for an eventual Dolby Vision update later on. On this baby the format comes along with HDR10 and HLG right away for the content that also supports any of these formats.
Sony’s vibrating display sound innovation, first introduced in the company’s first 4K OLED TV, the A1E is again present in the A9F just as it also was in the A8F. However, in the case of the A9F, a major improvement is in place in the form of what the company calls Acoustic Audio+, which consists of a third on-screen actuator right in the middle of the display for a center channel between the spaces where the previous models’ stereo sound configuration was placed.
This center channel makes a serious difference in terms of both overall sound quality and the simple improvement created by it directing sound much more accurately from the very sources playing put on the screen. On top of this, a second bass driver has been installed so that the A9F delivers what functionally amounts to a 3.2 sound system.
In a live demo of the TV’s sound performance, we were quite impressed and decided that the A9F delivers enough audio quality so that the further detail of accurate sound origin even makes this model perform better than external sound systems for conventional Audio needs during conversations and lower-volume/bass sounds on the screen. We were in fact also shown the new central third actuator inside the screen and its design was more robust than that of Sony’s previous OLED 4K TV.
The physical design of the A9F goes back to the lean-back build of the original A1E OLED and while some consumers might have preferred the more conventional vertical build found in Sony’s A8F TV, we’re happy enough with how the A9F looks. The display itself is extremely thin, as is typical of OLED 4K TVs but because all of the TV’s hardware is located in the inclined stand behind the TV, this thinness translates to all of the four outer parts of the TV’s screen instead of just its top half. From the front, the A9F actually looks almost indistinguishable from its 2017 A1E predecessor and it’s only when you get a look at the back of the TV that you notice how the supporting stand is different due to its wider, downward angled build.
Also See: Our review of the Sony A1E 4K HDR OLED TV, Sony’s first-ever and now very affordable OLED 4K HDR television
We also loved the way the TV’s cable management looked based on our examination of the back of the A9F and the bezel along the edge of the screen is so thin that it becomes invisible in a darkened room. We should also mention that the A9F will come in two sizes that we know of at this time, a 55 inch model and a 65 inch edition.
OLED Blacks and Picture Brightness
The OLED black levels in the A9F are pretty much the same as they’ve ever been in any OLED 4K TV we’ve reviewed; since OLED technology delivers total, perfect black levels by default, there’s not much to improve on its maximum expression. However, due to the above-mentioned X1 Ultimate processing technology and Sony’s new Pixel Booster enhancements, the black levels in the A9F can vary with far better subtlety than we’ve ever before seen for shadowy scenes. As we described earlier in this review, this capability directly translates to much finer and more visible detail rendering in deeply shadowy onscreen content. In comparison to one of its LG OLED rivals, the A9F handled these finer details in dark content much better than we’ve seen done before in an OLED TV.
As for this model’s peak brightness and overall display luminosity, we weren’t able to do any comparative measuring to see how it compares to its own A8F predecessor or LG’s fantastically bright 2018 OLED 4K TVs but based on what our eyes could see, the A9F is at least as bright as any of its existing 2018 OLED rivals. Standing next to one of them and outputting the exact same content, it seemed to deliver identical brightness highlights. We’re suspecting that this particular OLED is going to reach 1000 nits with peak brightness during playback of HDR content.
Netflix Calibrated Mode & Reference Settings
Sony made a huge issue out of its efforts towards “creators intent” for its new Master Series 4K TVs. The phrase and variations of it were tossed around repeatedly by both representatives of the company and those of Netflix and other partners. This is because Sony has made a maximum effort in collaboration with these partners to deliver what they essentially claimed was a lens to screen level of quality for certain categories of high quality content.
On the one hand, this consists of bringing the Master Series TVs and the A9F among them closer than ever before to delivering the same raw picture quality that Sony’s professional X300 4K OLED production calibration monitor is capable of, and on the other hand this included a new “Netflix Calibrated” mode that’s exclusive to the Master Series TV models for the time being. For this latter feature, Netflix worked with Sony to create a range of settings that can be automatically activated to show the best and most production-accurate visuals for HDR content from Netflix’s growing library of original series and 4K HDR movies.
Both Zack Estrin, Executive Producer for the Netflix Original Series “Lost In Space” and Netflix VP for device partner ecosystems, Scott Mirer were on hand for the Master Series demo to explain how the new TVs and the A9F excelled at displaying their content at its absolute best. Sony partner Display Portraits has also had a hand in the refinement of picture quality for the A9F and Z9F Master Series TVs. Their CalMAN calibration software/hardware is designed to automatically calibrate these televisions to a professional degree –a useful feature for pro reviewers and home users who want to make their own A9F work at its absolute optimum settings.
Most importantly of all for the vast majority of A9F owners, the TV comes with what Sony now calls “Reference Mode Settings” already enabled on this model. These are found under the TV’s Custom menu and replace the previous Cinema Pro Plus settings. They have been fine-tuned by Sony itself so that the A9F performs better than you’ve ever seen a 4K HDR TV perform right out of the box. At their demo of the A9F, Sony showed the TV performing under its reference Mode and what we saw looked superb by the standards of how most 4K TVs show color, contrast and brightness right out of the box.
What We Didn’t Like
Based on our somewhat limited viewing on the Sony A9F OLED, there was very, very little to really dislike about this TV. However, until we can do a more in-depth and more hands-on review of the latest OLED 4K HDR model from Sony, the following are a couple of things we think are worth mentioning:
For starters, the design of the A9F is something that at least some users might not like. For our part, we have no problem with it at all and even if the screen is leaning back slightly when in a stand-alone position, the incline is very small and shouldn’t really affect how well you see what’s being displayed. We mention this detail here only because some users might simply not like the easel build of this new model, and those of you who don’t might be happier with the structure of the more classical looking Sony A8F OLED from earlier this year. It’s almost as good but comes with a typical vertical stand. It will be cheaper too.
Release Date Issues
Sony is now retailing the A9F 4K OLED model for $3,499 for the 55 inch model and $4,499 for the 65 inch version. This is distinctly pricier than the A8F. This is to be expected but what’s slightly annoying here is that buyers who already forked over plenty of money for “the latest and best” in Sony OLED technology with the A8F can now be disappointed to know that they won’t actually be getting that, that it’s out of date after only a few months. It almost seems absurd and could be viewed as insulting to Sony fans.
So the A9F is costs something more than the A8F but it’s definitely at least a slightly better performer. So if it’s any consolation, by failing to have waited until you got your hands on this truly best and newest of 4K OLED TV s from Sony, you’re not going to miss a tremendous amount. It will still be annoying though, knowing that certain features of the A9F are locked into it exclusively only months after the company’s most recent previous OLED release.
The Bottom Line & Price vs. Value
We can’t confirm any price specifics for the A9F but this TV model will probably cost a nice little chunk of change more than the A8F does. This is to be expected. What we can say is that in terms of overall quality it is also a better TV in terms of certain minor improvements in color, motion handling and contrast refinements. However, as for whether or not it’s going to be worth buying, we’d say go for it only if you haven’t already bought a Sony A8F or some other 2018 OLED 4K HDR model. On the other hand, you could also wait until the LG 2019 4K OLED TV models come out to see what they have to offer. This might actually be the best idea even if it means waiting several months for their releases.
Key Sony XBRA9F OLED 4K HDR TV Specs
- Screen sizes: 55 inch XBR-55A9F, 65 inch XBR-55A9F
- Smart TV: Android TV smart platform 2018
- HEVC (H.265) Included: Yes
- VP9 Included. Yes
- HD to UHD upscaling: Yes
- HDCP 2.2 Compliance: Yes
- HDR Support: Yes, HDR10, Hybrid Log Gamma, Dolby Vision
- Refresh Rate: 120Hz native refresh rate
- Screen Lighting: OLED display
- Resolution: 3,840 x 2,160 pixels UHD
- Wireless Connectivity: Yes, includes both built-in WiFi and Ethernet port
- Remotes: Sony smart remote, voice control, remote app for iOS and Android
- Connectivity: 4 HDMI (all of them 2.0a and HDCP 2.2) ports, 3 USB ports, 1 Ethernet port, 1 Digital Audio Out, all located in eternal One Connect box
- Contrast Ratio: infinite (OLED)
- Audio: 13 W + 13 W + 13 W + 13 W + 13 W + 13 W + 10 W + 10 W via Acoustic Surface Audio with Actuator and subwoofer
- Maximum Peak Brightness: measurements weren’t allowed but roughly 900 nits based on comparison to other OLED TVs we’ve reviewed
- 3D Technology: N/A
- Processor: X1 Ultimate Processor engine
Display Performance Specs
We’ll save the detailed performance metrics of this particular Sony 4K OLED TV for when we have a full hands-on review in our hands. For the time being, we can safely say that the A9F OLED model offers up a selection of very impressive color, contrast, black level and motion handling performance metrics that are unlike nearly anything we’ve seen before in one of this or any other brand’s OLED 4K HDR TVs. The color delivery of this model showed itself to be downright spectacular and with some extremely good color fidelity for the content we were able to see displayed on the A9F during Sony’s demo session. Furthermore, motion delivery with Sony’s A9F did really seem at least as good as we’ve seen it before in other OLED 4K TVs, from Sony or any other brand.
The contrast of the A9F IS definitely better than we’ve seen it before in previous OLED 4K HDR TV models, at least when it’s being used to display HDR content and this was not only demonstrated to us but is something quite evident. This TV simply does a fantastic job of showing fine details even in very shadowy scenes on the screen. The color quality we observed on the screen was also distinctly vibrant but managed to conserve excellent accuracy at the same time.
Sony’s ZBR-A9F OLED 4K HDR TVs maintain all of the latest and most commonly used connectivity ports and technologies, just like pretty much any other 4K TV released in 2018 so far. This model will not come with HDMI 2.1 unfortunately (as far as we know at this point) but it does come with the essentials for a great content viewing experience across the board and offers full HDR video support in all of its HDMI ports. The connectivity specs of the A9F are as follows:
- HDMI : 4 (2 and 3 come with HDCP 2.2 and full HDMI 2.0a capacity)
- USB : 3 (USB 3.0)
- Digital Optical Audio Out : 1
- Analog Audio Out 3.5 mm : 1
- Tuner (Cable/Ant) : 1
- Ethernet : 1
- HDR10 support: Yes
- Hybrid Log Gamma HDR support: Yes
- Dolby Vision HDR: Yes
The Sony A9F TV models also offer audio connectivity in the following types.
- 1 Passthrough ARC Dolby Digital
- 1 Passthrough ARC DTS
- 1 Passthrough Optical Dolby Digital
- 1 Passthrough Optical DTS
Pricing and Availability
Sony will be selling the A9F OLED 4K HDR TV 55 inch model for $3,499 and the 65 inch model will cost $4,499. Both Televisions, along with the Sony Z9F Master Series LCD model, will be going on sale in the fall of 2018.