Review: Sony A1 OLED UltraHD TV (Model KD-65A1)

CH-1-18 pg54Sony has made quite the splash with its first OLED TV, writes Stephen Dawson. But how does it stack up to the competition?

In a field largely dominated by LG, and lately entered by Panasonic, Sony’s first effort with OLED technology has been quite a departure from the established design aesthetic.

A departure, but at least as stylish as what has gone before.

What it is

Stylish indeed, but big and heavy as well. OLED panels are able to be extremely thin since the cells generate their own light, no backlight or mirrors required. And generally TVs have been built to highlight that. But not this one.

Which isn’t to say that it’s especially thick. I measured the main panel at 7.4mm thick. LG ones are typically less than 5mm. Those extra couple of millimetres make the whole thing feel a lot more robust.

It presents a true ‘pane of glass’ look, and the bottom edge of the TV rests on the bench rather than being held up by a stand. You will not be placing a sound bar on a bench in front of it. The bezel consists of just a little more glass rather than a distinct frame.

The TV does have a stand though. It’s heavily built and joined to the back of the TV near the top with a hinge. It folds out and acts as a kick stand. It contains the electronics and connections, along with a subwoofer, and apparently some extra weight to ensure that the TV won’t topple forward. Placed on a bench, that leaves the main panel leaning backwards by a few degrees, so it works best on a lowish TV bench.

(Mine isn’t. TVs work best on it perfectly upright, so I put a board underneath the kick stand to keep the panel vertical. The stand’s weight ensured reasonable security, but in a home you’d probably want to tie it down.)

The TV can be wall mounted as well. One final note on the panel: while the subwoofer is built into the stand, the main speakers are the panel itself. Sony uses something called ‘Acoustic Surface technology’, with speaker actuators attached to the back of the panel so that the screen itself vibrates to produce sound.

It uses of course an OLED panel. Organic light emitting diodes generate light in each subpixel. Red and green subpixels are fine, but blue ones aren’t quite as bright as the other colours. This panel uses the LG system for overcoming this problem by also including white subpixels. (I assume that the panel is actually manufactured by LG for Sony.) So each pixel is RGBW rather than RGB.

The resolution is UltraHD – 3,840 by 2,160 pixels – at up to 60 frames per second. There is also support for HDR and wide colour signals. There are four HDMI inputs and each supports the HDCP 2.2 required for UltraHD Blu-ray. There are no component video inputs, only a combo 3.5mm socket for composite video and stereo audio.

The TV runs Android 7.0 Nougat and has the full Android TV experience going, with Sony’s shade on proceedings. There are all manner of apps available, not least Google Play and Netflix, both of which have dedicated buttons on the remote control. Additional apps can be installed. There’s 16GB of system memory. As I write, not having installed many additional apps, there’s 6.9GB of memory available to the user.

The TV connects via Ethernet or WiFi up to dual band 802.11ac standards. It has three USB inputs – one of them with USB 3.0 support. You can use that one for plugging in a hard disk drive for recording and time shifting TV.

Among the other smart stuff: the TV supports voice control. Google’s voice recognition tech is among the best available, so it was very good at correctly interpreting the words I said, but the main use was not for controlling the TV (I couldn’t get it to switch to just playing a TV station or switch to a specific one) but for doing internet things, or searching for content on its streaming services by name. I wanted to watch a specific YouTube video and was able to bring it up just by speaking three words. It did work fine on selecting inputs (‘Switch to HDMI 1’), so maybe it was just a matter of finding the magic word combination to switch to the TV input.

But when it comes to switching to TV, Sony has provided something far more important, something that few other makers provide: a ‘TV’ button on the remote control. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, just tap the ‘TV’ button and you return to the good old fashioned core function of the device. With most TVs the ‘TV’ function is treated as just another input.

Watching

Setting up the TV was easy, thanks to a Wizard and thanks to me being an Android phone user. The TV did all the auto scanning, and on the network side asked if I wanted to set it up using my phone. A few permissions later, my Google credentials had been transferred over and it was all working brilliantly.

I’m normally one to reject the default settings of a TV set, finding the sharpness and edge enhancement settings distressing – they make the picture edgy and tiring to watch. I went through the routine of turning everything off, and was surprised to find that I was enjoying the picture less than usual. So I reset to standard picture settings and went through more carefully. As usual, dragging the ‘Sharpness’ control from its default down to zero provided a noticeable improvement in smoothness, but Sony’s edge enhancement system – ‘Reality Creation’ it’s called – was well worth leaving on the auto setting. It did nothing much to UltraHD content, but it did tighten up the picture quality of SD and HD material. Yes, closely examined test patterns did reveal a couple of tiny artefacts, but I saw none of that during program material. Instead, I saw a cleaner, sharper picture. Blu-ray could almost be mistaken for UHD.

As for UltraHD material, I watched the first five Harry Potter movies on their new UHD releases. Blacks were immaculate. Sections, like the spectral bus ride through London in Order of the Phoenix, which would generally be problematic with LCD TVs, or with 8-bit video sources like regular Blu-ray were rendered perfectly here. There was never the slightest evidence of colour banding – a result of HDR – and overall colour performance was very strong.

Detail was stunning. That all of these were shot on film was clear, as was the fact that the film makers seemed to resist the urge to ‘clean’ the film of grain.

Some TV makers work on the bright end of the scale, achieving enormous contrast ratios by dint of having a very bright top end. OLED TVs achieve their near infinite contrast ratios at the other end of the scale: by having perfect blacks, and by having near blacks graduated seamlessly all the way down to full black.

As I will get to, that’s one of the things I truly love about OLED TVs. So far they don’t go quite as bright as the brightest LCD TVs, but you can get a very close effect simply by turning off the viewing room lights. The bright parts of the picture, already more than adequate, will seem much brighter by contrast with the blacks that remain virtually perfect.

How bright does this TV go? Sony doesn’t specify an output level. Running the test patterns on a Sony UltraHD Blu-ray discs – you bring up the main menu and key in ‘7669’ – the grey scale from 0 to 100 nits was clear and well defined, and that from 100 to 1,000 nits, equally so, although with perhaps a slight lessening of difference between the bands right at the top end. The brightness of some bands above 1,000 nits were very slightly distinguishable, but only be close examination of the picture. For practical purposes, the 1,000 nits signal level is where this TV tops out.

(This does not necessarily mean that the TV is capable of 1,000 nits of brightness. It might simply be set to scale a 1,000 nits down to whatever its true maximum output capability is, and scale lesser brightnesses appropriately.)

With lesser material, such as 576i50 and 1080i50 material delivered in original format from disc or DTV receivers, the TV did a reasonably good job of detecting the video or film based nature of the content and deinterlacing it appropriately. I’d prefer to use my Blu-ray player to do that because it has more control and a slightly better auto system.

The TV incorporates motion smoothing – judder removal – and Sony’s is I think one of the best available. But it remains imperfect. Its strength is that it seems to avoid applying a glossy sheen over the picture, and rarely introduces any of what I call the ‘heat haze’ effect around the edges of moving objects. But still it would occasionally do something peculiar, like move the position of objects on the screen. I use a section 50 minutes into The Fugitive to assess this performance. After a juddery flyover of Chicago, which the TV rendered very smoothly, Harrison Ford goes to a telephone. The rivets on the bridge behind him flickered between markedly different positions, thanks to this processing. I could not find a setting in which there was both some amount of smoothing and no affect on those rivets.

Nonetheless, I spent most of my time with this TV with the motion smoothing set to ‘Standard’, and rarely noticed any more such artefacts.

For gamers, the processing is pretty fast. In the ‘Standard’ picture mode with motion smoothing in operation, the delay was 102 milliseconds on a full HD image. In ‘Game’ picture mode, that fell back to a mere 47.5 milliseconds. Auto lip sync via HDMI was supported.

The TV has Chromecast support built in, but happily also supports DLNA rendering. That’s important in some installations because for reasons I’ve never understood, Chromecast does not support MPEG2 video streams. With this TV if you select the TV as a Chromecast device you can’t play recordings of standard Australian TV from the network, but if you choose DLNA you can. That said, Chromecast is generally going to work better with Google Home systems.

I don’t normally even mention the loudspeakers of a TV on the assumption that our readers will be using an external audio system, but this TV is so unusual it warrants mention. The ‘Acoustic Surface’ technology actually wasn’t too bad. This TV sounds significantly better than regular 65” panel models. Yes, the sound was clearly coming from the screen – from distinct spots to the left and right. It was fairly well localised, so it didn’t have that diffuse effect that large panel speakers can sometimes produce. Meanwhile the woofer in the stand produced useful upper bass so that even music sounded respectable.

All that said, I used the TV’s Audio Return Channel via HDMI to pipe its sound to a home theatre receiver.

Conclusion

The Sony A1 OLED TV is a worthy entry into this corner of TV technology, and is well worth examining by those thinking of purchasing at this price point.

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