Sony 65″ A1E OLED TV Review
By Chris Heinonen on
The A1E is Sony’s entry into the world of OLED displays. Using a WRGB panel from LG, Sony has paired it with their own video processing and an innovative new design that uses the screen as a speaker. This design seeks to distinguish their OLED displays from the options that LG offers, important as the Sony models have to cost more since they are buying the panels from LG. With two of us here having purchased the Sony OLED as a reference display, we obviously feel it represents one of the best displays on the market today, but it is the best option for most people today?
Innovative Design, for Good and Bad
The Sony A1E has two major design choices that stand out: the rear mounted stand and the transducer speaker. The stand is what you’ll visually notice first. Attached to the rear it extends back to hold up the OLED like an easel. This actually puts the front of the display on a slight rear angle when using the stand. I’m sure Sony has done their research and seen that people usually put their TV slightly below your head so the viewing angle will still be good, but that won’t be the case for everyone. It also creates a setup that looks very precarious when standing on a shelf, but so far no one has reported any issue with the TV being knocked over.
Since the stand is attached it also it what you attach a wall mount bracket to. Both of us at RHT that have bought the Sony OLED wall mount it, and this means it sticks out more from the wall than most displays. In my case it didn’t cause an issue, but for Mark is almost interferes with his drop down screen. If you are after the slimmest profile possible, the A1E cannot offer that due to the stand design when wall mounting. Using a thinner bracket like the OmniMount OE120IW can mitigate this, but it is a bit of an odd design choice since an OLED display can be so incredibly thin. By comparison, the LG OLEDs this year are 6” thinner when wall mounted than the Sony A1E.
The other design choice, which is more successful, is that of the transducer speaker. This uses the display to produce the audio instead of having speakers. It also lets you have a thinner bezel on the front of the display, making it appear like a single black slab. The audio quality for such a thin flat panel is very impressive. It plays quite loud for a TV with good bass response, and since the audio comes from the screen it is more like a movie theater. The main downside here is that Sony has no way to use the screen as a center channel speaker for those that have a surround sound setup, because it might be able to do a capable job there. As it is, the A1E offers sound that is better than most TVs on the market today, and does it in such an elegant way that it makes the rest of the TV look better.
The rear mounted stand includes all the inputs and outputs for the A1E. Two of the four HDMI inputs, #2 and 3, are capable of carrying UltraHD with HDR, and Input 3 also features ARC. For those people using the stand on a table, the cables are nicely routed with the stand and make for a clean install. Unlike the LG OLED displays, the A1E has a standard IEC power cord letting you use one of the appropriate length and not being tied to an integrated one.
One downside to the A1E is the included remote. It is very similar to the ones included with other Sony TVs, only with a metal back instead of plastic. It uses IR and has a small window to aim for, so a few times I found it didn’t respond to my inputs. It has a microphone to use Google search with the Android TV OS, so it does use Bluetooth or WiFi Direct, but is still stuck with regular IR for most commands. There are included IR repeaters to allow the A1E to control your cable box if you desire.
Sony also chooses to go with Android TV again here for the A1E. It offers most of the streaming platforms for UHD HDR, including Netflix and Amazon. Currently absent is HDR support for YouTube but that should be coming later this year. Also coming later this year is Dolby Vision support, hopefully close to when the first Dolby Vision titles appear on UltraHD Blu-ray this summer.
Looking first at SDR performance, the Sony A1E OLED is reference quality here. Objectively the test data shows that it is spot-on in the Cinema Pro preset. All that is needed to calibrate it on our side was a slight adjustment to brightness and color, setting the gamma control to -1 and adjusting the two-point white balance. Without any adjustments to the CMS, you can see that the color checker starts out being very accurate with no flaws above 3.0.
Looking at luminances we also see nearly perfect data here, with both shadows and bright areas tracking perfectly.
For another example, you can see that the color comparator, where the top and bottom should match on an ideal display, look virtually perfect.
Targeting an SDR light output of 100 nits, which is the reference, gamma and grayscale track closely enough with the 2 point adjustment that we see no need to do the 10 point option. Sure, it might improve a bit, but we always fall into the camp of “If you can do fewer adjustments, that is better” since you never know how far you can go before introducing artifacts or other issues.
Post-calibration we ran a larger color checker sweep, and that shows that even with a larger patch sample, your SDR image is close to perfect.
Watching SDR content like Skyfall the pure blacks that the A1E OLED offers make the lanterns of Macau stand-out against the water. Letterbox bars remain completely black with the fireworks in the sky, while the attack on Hogwarts in Harry Potter looks better than it has with any LCD. Colors are spot-on with skin tones being perfectly natural at all times. You don’t have any over-saturation or other issues, despite the lack of a CMS, and even dark areas of the image remain detailed without the shadow crush I saw on earlier OLEDs.
Sports look very good on the A1E as well. Basketball and football have fluid motion without smearing, and those that want to use black frame insertion to improve it even more can. You lose half your brightness here, making it better for darker rooms than a bright living room, but it helps push the performance of the Sony OLED past the LG when it comes to motion.
Moving onto HDR, we did lots of comparison between the Sony A1E and the Sony X900E, both in 65” sizes. The X900E sells for $3,000 less but on test data offers brighter highlights than the A1E can do. We will have future comparisons to other displays we will come back and include in here later.
Side-by-side, the X900E performs better than you’d expect for the price difference, but the A1E always offers benefits you can see. Darker areas of the image are clearly darker on the OLED, with letterbox bars being completely black while shadowy areas of the image are darker than the X900E. The full array local dimming on the X900E offers the ability to dim areas of the image, but the per-pixel control of the Sony lets you dim it even more while still maintaining bright highlights in other areas of the screen.
What might surprise some people is that the OLED also offers brighter highlights when watching content than the X900E is capable of. The LCD offers superior performance with test patterns for HDR brightness, but watching a still frame on real world content, those highlights are always brighter on the OLED. If the X900E were to ramp up the backlight to make the portion of the image brighter, it would wash out the surrounding shadows and ruin the contrast ratios. While we love objective data in our reviews of displays and feel it is important, right now objective data for HDR does not always correspond to the real world performance for certain aspects of performance.
On an Amazon demo reel, there is a wonderful image showing some LED Christmas lights against the darkness of night. With the OLED, these blue lights are both brighter than the LCD and offer a more pure shade of blue. The LCD is a bit washed out for the brightest blue highlights as well and the red taillights on a car are not as bright and pure. Dark areas of the screen on the LCD are not as dark, so you’re losing both shadows and highlights on the LCD when compared to the OLED. The LCD still looks very good, as the X900E is a very nice TV, but the OLED just improves upon it in all aspects.
Doing the objective measurements on the A1E for HDR, they certainly fall short when compared to SDR. We see around 700-730 nits of brightness with a 10% white window, which is good but short of the 1000 nits we can hope to see with OLED in the future. The major issue we see with the color measurements on the A1E is that we start to run out of luminance when compared to white. This is the known issue with current consumer OLEDs, which use a White OLED pixel and RGB filters on top of it. With the white subpixel available for each pixel, it lets you have brighter whites since you can use all four subpixels. When you’re trying to do a primary or secondary color instead of white, you can’t use that white subpixel and so the luminance level falls behind. Below you can see the saturations and color checker error charts, both with luminance included and without.
So the real issue isn’t that the colors are not accurate with tint or saturation, but that they are not bright enough. Now LCD displays, like the X900E we are comparing the A1E to, can get brighter and perform better on these HDR saturation sweeps and color checker. However, as we’ve seen in our real world evaluation, they can’t hit those targets with real content as well as the Sony can. The ideal solution here is that we need new objective test patterns that use motion and background content to better simulate the real world, but right now we have to just rely on our subjective viewing. Doing that, the Sony A1E OLED offers a superior image despite lower objective scores.
EOTF tracking on the Sony is excellent. Below is a chart for the EOTF using a 1000 nits signal and metadata. The A1E follows the EOTF up to around 550 nits, at which point tone mapping kicks in. At 4000 nits it follows up to around 450-500 nits, then begins to tone map. Both have peak light output around 700-730 nits and if you switch tracking to relative, follow the curve almost perfectly.
Watching HDR content the Sony A1E OLED is just spectacular. John Wick is a favorite demo title since it both looks great and is a fantastic film. During the bath house attack scene, you have dark shadows with bright candles and bits of colored neon. During the attack on John Wick’s house, the A1E handles the dark shadows superbly and with darker shadows that offer more detail than the LCD.
Sony vs. LG
The biggest question with OLED at home right now is if you should get the LG or the Sony? After all, both are using a panel from LG and so the differences are going to come down to their video processing and styling. Two of us went with the Sony over the LG, but are aren’t certain that’s correct for most people. We’ve also only done the smallest amount of side-by-side testing to this point, so we can’t go completely in-depth.
The main issue with the LG compared to the Sony is the tone mapping. Watching the same clips of Amazon HDR content, the Sony would bring out the detail in bright clouds, which need to be tone mapped because the bright whites are beyond what the OLED can display. On the LG, the clouds start out with clipping, so they are solid white, and then it tone maps them after. Think of it as acting like a dynamic iris on a projector that is slow to react to changing scenes. It is something that many people will not notice, but some will, and once you do you might not be able to stop seeing it.
For us, this pushed us towards the Sony. It lacks a CMS that the LG offers, but the overall performance without a CMS has been very good. Going with the LG you can save $1,500 on a 65” OLED, and for most people that is probably worth it. The videophile will want the Sony for the better tone mapping and also improved motion quality, but for many people the LG will offer almost identical image quality much of the time for far less.
After buying the Sony and putting it through the paces on the objective test bench, we were slightly underwhelmed. The color errors on HDR were higher than we had hoped for, and there isn’t much you can do to correct them. That said, once we moved to doing direct side-by-side comparisons to better scoring LCD TVs we saw that numbers can’t tell the story right now. Content looks better on the OLED, with better blacks, improved shadows, brighter highlights, and richer colors. The objective test data doesn’t line up here, but it is where HDR test patterns are currently falling short.
Right before we posted this we watched Resident Evil: The Final Chapter on UHD Blu-ray and the Sony is nothing short of spectacular. Scenes in dark corridors with very little light aside from a flashlight were fantastic. The flashlight was bright and vivid on the screen, but everything surrounding it remained perfectly dark and black. With a true 4K master and fantastic use of HDR, it showed that the Sony OLED is truly capable of. While we still have lots of work to do on the review, the biggest problem with the Sony might be waiting for content to catch up to what it is capable of showing.