With exquisite picture quality and a striking design, Sony has put forward a worthy contender for the OLED television crown. OLED televisions offer the best home entertainment picture that money can buy, thanks to the fact that – unlike LED-backlit LCD screens – OLED doesn’t rely on a backlight. This lets OLED produce perfect blacks and amazing contrast, underpinning phenomenal overall picture quality.
LG has ruled Australia’s Ultra HD OLED television market for several years, but now its home entertainment rivals are also vying for a slice of the OLED action – first Panasonic with its impressive EZ1000 and now Sony with its A1.
Sony’s A1 is available in 55 and 65 inches, at $4999 and $7499 respectively, which makes them roughly the same price as the equivalent mid-range LG and Panasonic Ultra HD OLEDs. It’s worth noting that those rivals both offer entry-level OLED models which sell for around $4000 without sacrificing on picture quality.
Little separates the three vendors in terms of picture quality, which isn’t surprising considering they all buy their OLED panels from LG Display, but each television maker adds its own video processing – the secret sauce which helps a less-than perfect image look good on the big screen.
A cumbersome work of art
The most striking thing about Sony’s Australian OLED debut is not the fantastic picture quality but the amazing design, which helps set it apart from its rivals.
Rather than a traditional stand, the A1’s screen rests directly on your television cabinet, with an easel-style stand on the back to hold it almost completely upright like an enormous picture frame. Alternatively you can wall-mount the A1, although it’s not going to sit flush like LG’s wallpaper W7 OLED.
To be blunt the television is bulky, difficult to unpack and comes with terrible set-up instructions. It’s also difficult to access the four HDMI inputs and other connectors because they’re built into the base of the stand rather than the back of the panel.
Thankfully once you’ve wrestled the A1 into place it looks amazing. From the front all you see is a giant slab of glass resting on the cabinet, surrounded by a black bezel only a few millimetres thick.
The screen features an anti-glare coating, like every LG OLED and top-shelf Panasonic, to reduce reflections when watching in a brightly-lit room.
OLED offers great viewing angles, which means the picture looks excellent even if you’re not sitting directly in front of the screen. The fact that this Sony screen tilts back slightly means the picture looks a tad distorted when you’re watching on an angle, but you soon forget about it once you’re engrossed in the action.
From side on the OLED panel is only around 7mm thick, but the design still looks bold rather than elegant due to the hefty stand and the thick support bar running across the back of the screen.
The television looks far more impressive from the front as the stand is completely hidden, as are the speakers – because the entire screen acts as a giant speaker cone.
That thick bar across the back of the OLED panel contains four speaker drivers, spread across the screen to ensure good stereo separation and a wide sound stage.
In terms of sound quality, during day to day viewing the A1 can hold its own against rivals with a soundbar built into the base. It does a good job of filling a medium-sized room although it sounds a bit harsh when you crank up the volume.
The television offers a choice of sound modes, including cinema mode for a more full-bodied sound and voice zoom to make the dialogue clearer. There’s also night mode to turn up the voices and tone down the explosions so you don’t need to keep riding the volume buttons to avoid waking family members at night.
Unlike LG’s televisions, there’s no support for Dolby Atmos – although admittedly the improvement is subtle when you’re listening via your television rather than a full surround sound system.
Sony’s OLED has a subwoofer built into the back of the stand but unfortunately it really lets the television down, meaning explosions lack punch and soundtracks are lost in the ambient noise.
This is really obvious watching The Matrix when Neo and Trinity storm the foyer of the building where Morpheus is being held – the distinctive sound of the shell casings hitting the ground rings through clearly but the shotguns sound muffled and the soundtrack’s thumping baselines are all but lost.
Dip into the advanced sound menus and you’ll find a 7-band graphic equaliser, but it can’t work miracles. If you’re really care about your base then the television’s sound quality is not enough on its own to justify paying extra for this Sony over its entry-level OLED rivals, considering you could put the savings towards a premium standalone soundbar/subwoofer combo which would sound much better.
Peering into the darkness
Of course the point of an OLED giant is picture quality and here Sony doesn’t disappoint. It certainly knows a thing or two about picture quality, already making the best full array and edge-lit LED TVs on the market which come the closest to matching OLED.
When it comes to colours and contrast, Sony’s A1 OLED can go the full 15 rounds against LG’s phenomenal Ultra HD OLEDs. The faintest stars shine through in Gravity as Sandra Bullock spins off into the distance, while you can still see the finest details in George Clooney’s white gloves as he reaches out into the bright sunlight to retrieve a wayward bolt.
If it came down to a points decision the LG might just come out ahead, as in one of my contrast torture tests I’d say Sony fell a fraction short of LG in revealing the finest details of dark objects on a black background, but I’d need to see the two televisions side by side before passing final judgement.
Switch to High Dynamic Range Ultra HD content like The Martian and the Sony screen really sings, ensuring the deep Martian shadows still reveal the finest details of the rock faces.
One key benefit is that, like LG, Sony’s OLEDs support Dolby Vision HDR – optimising the picture for every scene in a movie. It’s not enabled yet but is coming in a firmware update.
This will leave Panasonic as the odd one out, but it remains to be seen whether movie makers get onboard with Dolby Vision. Right now it’s limited to a handful of Netflix titles and it’s coming to Ultra HD Blu-ray discs this year.
Sony also supports the Hybrid Log-Gamma HDR standard for broadcast television, but don’t expect Australian broadcasters to get onboard any time soon.
As an interesting side note, Sony’s OLED television only supports HDR on input 2 and 3. Even then it failed to automatically detect HDR content coming from a Samsung Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player – which meant the screen didn’t automatically adjust to reveal the finest details in the shadows.
You can manually enable this in the television settings, something you’ll only need to do once, but the television had no trouble detecting HDR content coming from Sony’s Ultra HD Blu-ray disc player.
Thankfully you still have full control over Sony’s advanced picture settings when watching HDR content and, like its OLED rivals, you might be tempted to bump the colours up a notch and perhaps tweak the colour temperature to taste when watching blockbuster movies. Not so for nature documentaries like the incredible Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray in HDR, which looks exquisite as is.
Traditionally Sony video processing has been a little too aggressive, causing as many problems as it solved when watching lower-quality content like DVD or free-to-air television. The A1 OLED is surprisingly good out of the box once you switch to Cinema Home picture mode and tweak to taste. The default Standard picture mode is too harsh, if you’d never bother changing this then honestly you’re wasting your money on OLED.
OLED’s lack of motion blur can create issues when you’re dealing with 24 fps content unless you dial up the motion interpolation, but it’s not quite as noticeable here as on the Panasonic.
If you’ve secretly wished that LG would swap out WebOS for Google’s smart TV platform, so you could combine the power of Android TV with the picture quality of OLED, then this is the television you’ve been waiting for.
Sony’s A1 runs Android TV 7.0 – that’s Android N for Nougat – but Sony says it will eventually get the Android O update – not surprising considering that Google used a Sony television to show off the Android O beta to journalists at Google I/O back in May.
You can stream video to the television as a Chromecast receiver, but Android TV far is more than just a television with a built-in Chromecast dongle. You’ve got access to the extensive Android TV corner of the Google Play app store, with Android working hard to weave free-to-air, recorded, subscription and streaming television into the one interface. You’ll find support for all the usual streaming suspects including the Google Play content store.
You can also hold down a button on the remote to talk to the television, including Google search access, but Android O will offer full Google Assistant integration.
There’s no arguing that Sony’s OLED picture quality is amazing, especially with the insurance policy of Dolby Vision support, and the price tag is quite reasonable considering that you often pay a hefty premium for the Sony logo.
If money is no object and the hefty A1 wouldn’t look out of place in your lounge room then it won’t disappoint, but if all you care about is picture quality then keep in mind you’re paying a premium for Sony’s bold design, impressive audio and slick Android TV implementation.
Now that Australian OLED shoppers are spoiled for choice, you’ll need to decide where your priorities lie before pulling out your wallet.