OUR FULL REVIEW OF THE SONY A1 IS BELOW, BUT YOU CAN SEE THE ORIGINAL MAGAZINE PAGES BY CLICKING RIGHT FOR THE PDF >>>>
The first TV-sized OLED panel we were ever shown — back in 2008 — was from Sony. Only 11 inches diagonal it was, and they carried it into our office proudly, lifting it onto a table with one hand. Sony still makes OLED panels today, very good ones, which it sells to the medical industry. But for the consumer TV market Sony has stuck with LCD until now, or until 2017, when it started buying OLED panels from LG.Display. It bought 100,000 of them in the first half of 2017 (Business Korea figures), it is projected to double that in the second half of 2017, and it apparently hopes to buy 600,000 a year from 2019 when LG.Display’s upcoming Guangzhou factory is scheduled to come online (over-optimistically, say some, predicting an OLED TV panel supply crisis that year).
So Sony is clearly enthusiastic about OLED as a TV technology, and is already successful in its OLED TV shipments. Spending time with this 65-incher, well, it is not hard to see why.
For such a tremendous screen, set-up was gloriously trouble-free, assisted a little by the supplied pictograms and very usefully by an online Sony YouTube video. You lift the box to reveal the TV, pull the integrated stand out to its angled position, attach a previously constructed silver rod thing, and miraculously construction is finished without even removing it from the box. You can then lift it (two people recommended) from the back and front corners. Clean off fingerprints gently and you’re ready to admire the TV in place.
And what a TV it is. The stand works like it’s a giant picture frame, and leaves the screen at a fixed angle facing slightly upwards. So this will point directly at you only if your tabletop is pretty darned low — about 40cm from the floor, we reckon, assuming you’ll be viewing from an average couch height. Even a 60cm bench height (about right for getting the screen’s midpoint at eye level) leaves the screen pointing upwards rather than the ideal of straight at you. The further away you sit, the greater the discrepancy (the angle would be fine from one metre away, but that’s a little close for some people). Happily OLED performs brilliantly off-axis so this is no great problem, but it’s worth considering wall-mounting if you don’t have such a low cabinet. Nor should cabinet-top users consider a soundbar, since the Sony A1 has no stand height at all — it sits right on the desktop.
And this is what makes it such a spectacularly pure piece of design. Sony used to put big elephant-ear speakers on the sides of its premium TVs, while top-tier TVs from rivals are getting permanent soundbars fixed to their stands — redundant for the many users preferring to attach a superior sound system. The A1 has none of that — no speakers, no soundbar, no visible stand. Just a big slab of glorious 16:9 glass. In aesthetic terms it banishes design to display only its purest purpose — the picture. That’s all you can see, with a mere centimetre of black edging around the picture and a few extra millimetres for the bumper at the bottom.
Not only does this remove clutter around the TV, it is the best possible solution for Sound+Image readers, many of whom wouldn’t dream of leaving a panel this good with sound of its own making, and will add a stereo or surround system of quality. The A1 has both optical and analogue minijack outputs for this.
Talking of inputs, you get four HDMI, all UHD and HDCP2.2 compatible, and the second of which is specified for sending back ARC audio if you’re connecting a receiver or soundbar. There’s a composite AV minijack input and three USB sockets; these can be used for playback or for adding memory to record. Antenna and Ethernet (Wi-Fi if you prefer) connected, you’re ready to go.
Let’s start with the sound system. It’s exciting stuff, literally. Sony’s genuinely innovative solution here is to use the whole front of the TV as a flat-panel speaker, excited (vibrated) from behind in what Sony calls Acoustic Surface technology. This is, we gather, patent pending for Sony, although the idea of flat-panel speakers are not new — we remember the 1990s launch of NXT panels out of Mission loudspeakers; NXT had hopes of vibrating everything from walls to cars to aeroplanes (cancelling in-flight rumble as well as delivering audio). Some of it worked, and today’s BMR (balanced mode radiators) speakers use the principle to put a flat tweeter on the front of a conventionally pistonic cone.
But never do we recall a TV being suggested as a candidate for vibration. Yet it makes great sense — as TVs get bigger, even integrated speakers get physically divorced from the screen, whereas here the screen itself makes the mid and high-frequency sound, so the sound comes directly from the image, and of course from a far wider area than a humble speaker cone can present, a full 65-inch diagonal indeed! Another advantage of flat-panel radiation is lower drop-off of volume level with distance compared with conventional cones, which might be handy if your family sits at different distances from the screen, fighting over level preference.
Here the screen vibrates in stereo too — there are four actuators on the back of the A1 located as two pairs; these vibrate the OLED panel and its bonded glass (no air gap) directly.
Why doesn’t vibrating the TV make the image vibrate as well? The higher frequencies are, evidently, too rapid for our eyes to perceive, in addition to being forward-back motion anyway, rather than side to side. And further, the screen doesn’t do the lowest frequencies — there’s a separate subwoofer behind the screen, firing and porting through the rear of the stand. Sony Australia’s Dan Kennedy, who knowledgeably answered all our queries in this regard, assures us that VESA-type wall-mounting solutions will leave enough space behind the stand to prevent the grille and port from being flush to a wall and thereby muffled; indeed he says it serves to support the bass content better than when free standing on a cabinet.
This ‘invisible’ built-in audio proved well up to the level of a simple soundbar (and rather better than the Sony soundbar reviewed this issue), the vibrating 65-inch delivering a well-balanced sound with a natural tone and a good level available. There’s no TV-like thinness, not even the cut-off-at-the-knees feeling of low-price soundbars. It’s a full sound, with a well-designed crossover between rear sub and the screen’s mids and highs. We wondered if the 55-incher might sound quite different, having a lot less radiating area, but that would affect bass more than the high frequencies handled here, and Mr Kennedy assures us they sound very similar.
And yet… after finishing set-up and leaving it ready to use, the missus proclaimed it muffled and hard to understand, having been up late watching some good murder. She has an excellent track record in identifying audio problems, and sure enough when we settled down the next day to enjoy some Blu-ray music, the results were odd. Neil Finn and Paul Kelly’s Opera House concert looked magnificent, but Mr Finn’s vocal seemed swamped in reverb, far more than we recalled, with all the close-miking cues seemingly lost in the mix. Moving off-axis to listen out for comb distortion from the multiple actuators, we instead found a weird phase variation that seemed to flange white noise as we moved around. We recalled seeing a surround effect in our early familiarisation with the menu options, and sure enough by invoking the handy ‘Action Menu’, the sound options showed something called ClearAudio+ checked and active, and this also set the ‘Surround’ to Auto. Under advanced settings the Surround could be seen as being up at 6 (out of 10).
We turned off ClearAudio+ and everything was fixed — no flanging, no echo on Neil Finn, no more complaints from the missus. Given we could hear no apparent merit to ClearAudio+, we suggest you kill it if using the TV’s own speakers. You’ll need to do so separately for each input.
Thus clarified, the Finn/Kelly concert both looked magnificent and sounded enjoyably musical — well short of hi-fi magic levels, but easily listenable without irritation, with such delightful involvement, indeed, that we played this concert from end to end at a fair old level, with only occasional nudges down to tame a little peakiness when overstretched. And no, we never saw the image vibrating, even right close up.
There is a ‘music’ EQ option which punches things up unusually successfully for an EQ mode. We enjoyed it, but became paranoid that it was introducing just a slight sync delay issue, so we went back to good old ‘Standard’.
For the first weeks with the system we used the TV’s own audio delivery exclusively, and then we used Naim’s Uniti Atom to listen in higher quality stereo through our reference German standmounters — the minimum such a magnificent panel deserves. All worked perfectly from the optical output, with the unusual bonus that the TV remote’s mute button silenced the optical output as well as the TV’s own speakers. Sync seemed particularly well handled by this TV.
So let’s talk about the image quality. We’ve never seen better. The best LED TVs are stunning these days, but the best OLEDs are clearly better. Only front-emissive technology can do blacks so black that you can’t see where a black image ends and the borders begin. The colours are bright but natural too, so that during real-world content (as opposed to promos designed to thrust colour gamut and dynamic range to the fore) the images aren’t so extravagant as to disenfranchise your immersion. But we were definitely going ‘wow’ whenever bold sharp bright-coloured titles and graphics appeared on the Sony; it was like watching a master tape. For HDR and wide colour gamut, the ultimate results are achieved from HDR Blu-ray — magnificent dark details on Ghost in the Shell, beyond-cinematic presentation for Max Max: Fury Road. But you can also thrill to UHD on YouTube, Netflix and file-based playback, while more to the point for many users, standard Blu-rays are gobsmackingly stunning on the A1 OLED, as are 1080i TV broadcasts and PVR recordings. One title we rush to view on OLED is the Blu-ray restoration of Cecil B DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments, which bursts from the A1 in a riot of colour, wondrous detail and luxurious costume textures in the close-ups, the long-shot scale of the picture well served by this great 65-inch picture sheet — more than 1.14 square metres of image. Gamers get a low-latency mode and can enjoy easy brand-compatibility for 4K HDR gaming from Sony’s PlayStation 4.
From the ‘standard’ picture mode presets, we did start making a few adjustments, notably bringing down sharpness and brightness to tame the characteristic film-grain speckling of bright areas that still typify OLED panel reproduction. Film grain is good, of course, but the speckling on high brightness areas can be distracting, and can be usefully calmed here by bringing the sharpness well below 50.
Our best results came from tweaking off the ‘Cinema Pro’ setting, and we’ll avoid reinventing the wheel here by pointing you to the recommended settings at flatpanelshd.com, on which we couldn’t improve. Certainly Sony’s Motionflow smoothing is one of the best on the market, its combination of interpolated and black frames achieving judder-free performance without any apparent image ‘glossing’ or haloing effect. Applied to the credits of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which at 02:45 have the writers’ credit in fine text displayed over rushing water, judder was evident with MotionFlow off or in TrueCinema mode, but immediately smoothed under smooth or medium, with smooth (or custom, with a smoothness setting of 3) doing the best job of holding the credits steady over smoothly rushing water, a processing nightmare for any system.
Indeed there are an extravagant number of such picture adjustments, each with several settings or a slider control — you can adjust Reality Creation, random noise reduction, digital noise reduction, smooth gradation, Advance contrast enhancer, X-tended Dynamic Range, Black adjust, plus the usual brightness, contrast, gamma, black level, and colour settings (we multiplied the number of options for each together to find a grand total of possible settings too big for our calculator). And that’s for each input. Happily Sony’s defaults seem pretty good, though the light sensor didn’t please us, so those who like to fiddle, in the nicest possible way, may prefer to set each input to a night-time viewing ideal, then memorise the best way to pump it for brighter day-time conditions — to Vivid picture mode if you’re lazy (Vivid mode is less offensive than usual, perhaps partly because the OLED blacks are still black), or a combination of brightness and contrast and black levels if you’re applaudably finickity.
Android TV & smarts
The A1’s smart functionality is run from the traditional remote control. There are dedicated buttons for Netflix and Google play, while the poorly-positioned Home button (surely it should be top centre) brings up the Android TV interface.
We’re becoming increasingly enamoured of Android TV — for one thing, it provides operational familiarity across the brands that use it. Once populated and settled in, it was as intuitive as Android TV always is (it was a bit slow during its first hours), with rows of content and apps, all the usual suspects plus some Sony specials. You can rename inputs to your preference. We used Play store to download Spotify and VLC. We streamed from our 20,000 songs on Google play music, and we signed in to Stan to watch the last episodes of Twin Peaks, and how those black blacks paid dividends in the film noir sections, and the red curtains so red! We also binged through the A1’s spectacular portrayal of Game of Thrones.
Connected casting was less successful — there’s a Chromecast Ultra in there, but we had trouble addressing it from a Google Home, initially because its default cast name was “KD65A1” (we changed it to ‘Sony’), and partly because when we said, say, ‘Play Led Zeppelin on YouTube on the Sony’ the instruction was correctly interpreted by Google’s data farms in America, the TV flickered into recognition, but then “Sorry something went wrong”, said our Google Home. Given the journey, who knows what.
The remote also has Google Assistant voice control, but it lacks context. Say “Open the SBS on Demand app” and it searches Google for SBS on Demand. If you’re already in YouTube and you say “Play Led Zeppelin” it reopens YouTube and signs in again, not realising it was already open. Smart, yet dim. There’s no MHL support here, but Miracast screen mirroring is supported.
So a truly magnificent picture, with excellent processing, all the ease and utility of Android, and that clever audio solution removing the need for side speakers or a soundbar. That serves to make the A1 as compact a 65-incher as can be in terms of width and height; stand users should note its depth, mind you — your cabinet must be at least 35cm deep and a bit more for safety. Wallmounting really does look a good option with this TV.
Is the A1 the best TV on the market? It’s certainly the best we’ve yet been able to review fully in residence, thereby eeking out any imperfections, and the A1 proved to have very few imperfections indeed. That Audio Surface sound is great for starters, while avoiding redundant speakers taking up visual space if you attach a high quality external sound system. And in evening action, the unadorned A1 is a thing of true beauty, with nothing to distract from the ‘wow’ stunning OLED image. We reckon A1 is a very apt model number indeed. Jez Ford