Sony showed off the highlights at CES 2017 in January and last week the company invited us to a local event to learn more about the 2017 TV line-up, including some TVs that were not exhibited at CES. In 2017, Sony will bring 4K and HDR to even more TVs.
4K & HDR to more TVs
Sony kicked off the event by giving us an update on the TV market and sales. Sales of 4K TVs are increasing globally, mainly at the entry level as manufacturers continue to expand their 4K line-ups. There are of course overlaps but HDR is taking up an increasing share of the market, too.
Sony will continue to focus more on high-end TVs, rather than entry-level. All 55-inch TVs and up will be in 4K. 49-inch TVs and below will be Full HD. Sony will for the first time include support for HDR (High Dynamic Range) throughout the line-up, including in the HD TVs. Many limitations will apply so when Sony claims HDR support think of it as software support, not necessarily hardware (display panel) support.
Sony was not prepared to release specifications but we know that mid-range models such as WE75 will lack features compared to more expensive models. In past years, Sony has even sometimes offered extra features on larger TVs within the same range. We will have to wait a little longer for those specific details.
A quick note. XE93, for example, is the European model name. It will be called X93E in the US. XE85 = X85E and so on. Throughout the article we are using the European model names because the event was held in Europe.
Sony embraces Dolby Vision
Some competitors embraced Dolby Vision last year. In 2017, Sony will also embrace the premium HDR format. The company explained that they wanted to see whether Dolby could get market traction before embracing the format. Of course, there are also some risks involved with being a first mover so Sony was cautious.
You could poke some holes in those statements, though. Sony has decided to focus on the high-end segment so arguments are not properly aligned. If Sony wants to capture the sort of mainstream part of the high-end segment, the company needs to innovate and be first-to-market; and implement these kinds of technologies.
Sure, there are royalties and product development costs involved but consumers expect this.
Sony’s 2017 line-up
Moving on, Sony had actually brought with them some interesting products and more information than we received at CES. Let us start at the entry-level. The new R series will be called RE4 and be available in 32 and 43-inch in Europe. The 32-inch has 1366x768 resolution whereas the 43-inch is Full HD. Surprisingly, both will have HDR capabilities.
WE6 is a step up from RE4 with better picture quality. Unfortunately, Sony did not bring any of these two models. WE6 will be available in 49 and 43-inch sizes with Full HD, and a 32-inch with 1366x768 resolution. One improvement over last year’s models is the cable management system.
Moving up to the WE75 series you now get ‘Triluminos’, Full HD and still HDR. There are no local dimming capabilities here, only edge LED. Note that some of these entry-level models may be sold by different model names in your region. Some may not even arrive.
The next step-up series are the XE80 and XE85. These will be the most affordable 4K TVs. Starting with the 8 series, Sony began to go into more detail. The XE80 is IPS panels like last year, while the XE(% seriers are edge-lit VA LCD panels. The TVs will feature Android TV and of course HDR. Again, Sony declined to say anything about nits, the processor, pricing or release timings.
Sony XE85 and XE90
Sony had also set up a demonstration of XE85 versus last year’s XD85, and it seems that there are some improvements to be had. Both TV were set to “Vivid”, which is basically a shop mode that boosts colors, brightness, and everything else to unrealistic and quite poor results. However, this is dictated by Sony headquarters in Japan so that is that.
Without getting into a specific assessment of picture quality based on a flawed set-up, we can say that the blacks appeared to be deeper and peak brightness appeared to be visibly higher on XE85 (right) when placed side-by-side with last year’s XD85 (left).
Sony again refused to comment on specifications. When asked directly, the Sony representative gave me a little nod so all points to XE80 using IPS LCD again, and XE85 VA panel.
XE90 is the lowest priced Sony LCD TV - presumably IPS LCD panel - with backlit LED. However, it is not utilizing the ‘Backlight Drive’ system found in XE93/94. Sony claims that XE90 has better black levels and higher peak brightness due to a type of local diming (and backlight LED).
Sony also gave us a side-by-side demonstration of XE85 versus XE90. This demonstration revealed some differences in the panel such as more details in the dark areas on XE90, but also somewhat brighter skin tones in the scene from the movie “Passengers”.
As said, Sony was using “Vivid” mode so we do not put much faith into these demonstrations. It was evident that XE90 had higher brightness and contrast but the settings were clearly not identical to XE85.
XE93 versus XD93
XE93 will come in 55 and 65-inch sizes and be the first to feature the ‘X1 Extreme’ processor. The same processor will be available in the 75-inch XE94 that switches to full array local dimming.
XE93 is also Sony’s most affordable TV to feature ‘Slim Backlight Drive’, which uses two rows of LEDs along the edges of the panel. This implementation is capable of better preserving dark tones, compared to conventional edge LED systems, says Sony. To demonstrate the improvements, the company had placed XE93 next to last year’s XD93.
Sony wanted to demonstrate that XE93 (right) will have richer colors, better blacks, and higher peak brightness compared to last year’s XD93 (left). We will examine those claims in detail later this year but have included some photos from the demonstration. If we had to say one thing it appeared that peak brightness was higher but of course it is hard to evaluate based on TVs running in ‘Vivid’ mode.
Sony has made some changes to the wall bracket solution this year. Or more specifically, Sony has made XE93/94 compatible with two different kinds of brackets.
The first is a wall bracket developed by Sony, designed to make the TV sit flush to the wall. The same bracket allows you to tilt the TV to a 15 degree angle. The other solution is VESA, which allows you to use any standard VESA bracket out there.
Sony seems particularly proud of the ‘X1 Extreme’ processor that is implemented in the XE93/94, ZD9 and A1 series. Speaking of, we can add that, based on our testing, Sony’s MotionFlow implementation is the best motion engine on the market currently. We can only hope that it extends to the A1 OLED.
“We don’t scale, we translate” said Sony. This statement relates to Sony’s use of an online database that holds information on the particular movie as graded in the movie studio. Sony claims that this information can be used in its picture processing algorithms. Sony believes that the combination of a database and the X1 Extreme processor sets its TVs apart from the rest.
Sony A1 against the world
It is no secret that Sony does not produce its own panels so instead it is sourcing the OLED panels for its A1 model from LG.Display, just like Philips, Panasonic and other vendors.
Sony is bringing its own technology in the form of the ‘X1 Extreme’ processor. So what can we expect? Sony refused to talk specifications but gave us a few demonstrations.
The demonstration underlined all of the usual OLED characteristics. It also revealed that OLED cannot yet match the same peak brightness levels of the brightest LCD TVs on the market.
The design of A1 on the other hand is unique. The Sony logo is hidden in the lower left corner. There is almost nowhere else to place it because everything else is glass. The glass panel looks like it extends all the way down to the table. On the back there is stand designed to incorporate a subwoofer, internal electronics, ports, and a cable management system. The design is very minimalistic but I am not sure how practical it is. As you can see, the TV tilts backwards.
A subwoofer is only one component of an audio system so where is the mid-tone and treble supposed to come from? Well, the OLED panel. This is what Sony calls ‘Acoustic Surface’ audio technology.
There are two small actuators placed on the back of the TV that act as a driver to make the glass OLED panel vibrate. That way Sony can create stereo sound. I should add that you cannot see any vibrations in the screen.
I was in some ways surprised by the sound. Sony had brought in last year’s LG E6 OLED to compare both picture and sound. Sony’s TV had better control of the low tones. The treble was also fine most of the time. However, not everything was great. In one clip, an Alicia Keys music video, the snare drum almost disappeared in the sound space on Sony A1. It sounded like the snares had disengaged.
I also have to ask the question: Who buys a 5000 dollar TV without owning a decent sound system? 50 percent of the movie experience is sound! Unfortunately, this is where it gets ugly. Sony’s A1 OLED is not capable of integrating with the company’s own wireless sound system. If one could add a few SRS-ZR7 and ZR5 speakers to the mix, for example as wireless rear speakers, it would all make a lot more sense.
I don’t know if this video clip helps you in any way but I have included Sony’s demo of A1 playing in a stereo perspective below.
Sure, the sound system is good enough for watching the news or casual viewing but for a better movie experience I think you need to buy external speakers.
It would have been optimal if you could pair the elegant design of the TV with an elegant wireless sound system. Unfortunately, you cannot.
Sony A1 picture quality
As mentioned, Sony had bought an LG E6 and placed it next to the A1 OLED to demonstrate how good A1 is. Sony did point out that this is a 2016 panel versus a 2017 panel so it is not a particularly fair comparison but for obvious reasons Sony could not get their hands on a 2017 LG OLED.
For the demonstration Sony used its own test material that highlighted all of the things that Sony wanted. Obviously, both TVs had great picture quality. We will not say much other than it was apparent that A1 had higher brightness. This is achieved by LG.Display for the 2017 OLED panels and will also apply to all other 2017 OLED products. Again, both TVs were in ‘Vivid’ mode so how A1 truly compares to other OLEDs, is hard to say at this point in time.
Sony did not play any movies with panning shots so despite some chatter about Sony being able to use its MotionFlow system to improve motion over LG’s ditto, we must remain patient.
A1 OLED will be expensive
Sony is still not ready to communicate pricing details but the representative reiterated what had already been said. The A1 OLED will launch “before autumn” and carry a price tag similar to Z9D (ZD9 in Europa) that Sony will continue to sell as its LCD flagship TV.
The 65” Z9D is currently listed for $5500.
We were not impressed by Sony’s remote control in 2016 and unfortunately Sony has not changed the design. The button layout is identical. It still feels incredibly cheap. Thankfully, Logitech and others offer great multi-function universal remotes.
Sony did not comment on pricing details for the rest of the 2017 TV line-up. We will keep you updated if we hear more.
Perhaps you wonder why there is no mention of curved or 3D? Well, as you may have heard all manufacturers have decided to abandon 3D and most have decided to abandon curved. Sony, too.
HLG for 2015 & 2016 TVs
All 2015 models with the ‘Triluminos’ panel will get HLG HDR broadcast compatibility and support via HDMI. Some of these TVs will be limited by hardware but will technically accept HLG broadcast signals.
TVs like the 85 and 90 series were not sold as HDR TVs in 2015 but Sony argues that since the TVs are capable of reproducing the wider color gamut (‘Triluminos’) it makes sense to add HLG. It will be a bigger update for models such as X93C and X94C that are equipped with hardware to take advantage of HDR. Sony argued that since the X1 processor is very flexible in design they can add functionality like HLG later on.
The 2015 models will get the HLG HDR firmware update sometime in 2017 but probably not before summer. Furthermore, all 2017 and 2016 models will get HLG via a similar firmware update.
Lastly, all Sony Android TVs will receive a platform update to Android 7.0 (Nougat) sometime in 2017. It is good news that even the 2016 and 2015 models will get some Android love. More information about the updates is available here.
We also experienced Sony’s new UHD Blu-ray player and heard the audio products. Join us tomorrow for more information.