While ultra-expensive Sony OLED screens have long enjoyed an enviable reputation in the professional video mastering world, the brand hasn't dipped its toes into the consumer OLED market since it launched a miniscule 11-inch model back in 2008. Until now.
For 2017 Sony has finally re-entered the OLED TV world in a big way. Literally. Its new A1 series of OLED TVs come in 55-inch, 65-inch and 77-inch versions, with each screen squeezing in a 4K-resolution pixel count.
As you'd expect of a premium TV range these days (the A1's starting price is £3,500 for the 55-inch model under scrutiny here), the 4K native screen resolution is backed up by support for high dynamic range (HDR) technology and an innovative, attractive design.
In fact, Sony claims that part of the reason it's taken so long to jump back in with an OLED TV is that it's only now felt able to contribute enough of its own design and performance DNA to stand out from the crowd. Does this ring true?
Sony KD-55A1 review: Design
- 4x HDMI input
- 3x USB multimedia ports
- LAN and Wi-Fi
- Optical digital audio output
There's never been a TV that looks quite like a Sony A1 OLED.
From the front it seems as if the only visible thing is the picture. Partly because the frame around the screen is remarkably thin and finished in a black tone that matches perfectly with the incredibly deep blacks you get with its OLED pictures (more on this later). But also because there's no visible stand; Sony has designed the A1 like a photo frame, where the screen is supported by a fold-out rear leg.
Even more innovative is Sony's solution for getting invisible speakers into the 55A1. Essentially, the A1's screen is the speakers; twin exciter arrays fixed behind the OLED panel vibrate the screen to produce the TV's sound. Sony has even come up with a way of allowing each left and right half of the screen to produce its own sound, to deliver a proper stereo effect.
The downside to the 55A1's incredibly minimal front view is that it's chunkier around the back than most of today's TVs. Also, while the fold out leg support cleverly incorporates a bass speaker to underpin the innovative front speakers, the way this leg when folded in becomes a wall mount does mean wall-mounting this telly can compromise its bass performance.
Sony KD-55A1 review: Picture features
- HDR support: HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision via future firmware update
- Processing engine: Sony X1 Extreme chipset, driving Triluminos and 4K X-Reality Pro systems
Using an OLED panel inside the 55A1 means that every one of its 3840 x 2160 pixels can produce its own light and colour, independent of its neighbours. AV fans have long been aware of the positive impact this can have on contrast, versus LCD TVs that share external light sources across multiple pixels.
The 55A1's images are powered by Sony's X1 Extreme engine - which just so happens to be the most powerful processing system Sony has ever created. Among its highlights is a dual-database system that compares incoming sub-4K content against a built-in treasure trove of Sony's TV experience to deliver better noise reduction and improved upscaling on the fly.
The X1 Extreme processor also gives you Sony's gorgeous Triluminos colour management, which continues to serve up class-leading tonal subtleties amid consistently spectacular rich tones. Sony's unique and brilliant Super Bitmapping system is worth a mention too, for the way it removes colour striping from HDR sources of the sort that sometimes infiltrate HDR playback from most if not all other TV brands.
X1 Extreme also gives us arguably the finest motion processing in the TV world, Sony's Motionflow system, as well as being powerful enough to add support for the premium Dolby Vision advanced HDR system (that'll be via a firmware update later this year). Right now the A1 can handle playback of the industry standard HDR10 format, and the Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) HDR platform broadcasters are expected to start using soon.
Sony KD-55A1 review: Smart features
- Smart systems supported: Android TV, YouView
The 55A1's smart interface and features are the classic game of two halves.
In the losing half is Android TV. Google's supposedly TV-friendly interface is cumbersome, often sluggish, almost immune to customisation, pretty much hopeless at streamlining access to your favourite content, and possesses almost no understanding of the sort of content most people actually want to find on a TV rather than a smartphone. It's prone to crashing, too.
In the winning half is YouView. This is designed to streamline access to the catch-up TV platforms of the UK's key terrestrial broadcasters, including The BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Particularly welcome is the way it lets you access shows you may have missed by including them in an electronic programme guide that scrolls back through time as well as forwards.
One final note worth adding is that the 55A1's Netflix and Amazon apps both support 4K and HDR streams.
Sony KD-55A1 Review: Picture quality
For the vast majority of the time, the 55A1's pictures look nothing short of beautiful.
Colours, for starters, are exquisite in their presentation of rich, vivid tones with more of the blend finesse and tonal subtlety that's become a Triluminos trademark in recent years. Actually, Triluminos works even better than usual here, due partly to the power of the X1 Extreme chipset, and partly due to OLED's ability to stick rich, bright colours right next to deep, natural blacks.
In fact, with shots that combine dark areas with bright areas the A1's colours look richer than those of Samsung's QLED TVs, despite those LCD-based sets supporting measurably higher colour volumes. This is because the OLED technology means there's no saturation-sapping backlight pollution hanging over the colours in such mixed scenes.
The 55A1's black level performance really is stunning too. The darkest parts of the darkest images appear without so much as a hint of greyness or blueness, leaving them looking natural and immersive.
Sony KD-55A1 review: Black level prowess
Even better, despite this being Sony's first OLED TV for years, the 55A1 avoids a couple of common OLED black level problems.
First, it ensures there's no sudden "stepping" of brightness when the picture requires pixels to go from full black to marginally brighter than full black. Second, there's lots of subtle detail in dark areas, which means they don't start to look like empty back holes.
The 55A1 also benefits from OLED's ability to be watched from far wider angles than any LCD TVs without suffering any drop-off in colour saturation or contrast.
If you've still got any lingering doubts over whether a 55-inch TV can deliver the benefits of a native 4K resolution, the 55A1 puts you straight. Its beautiful colour and light controls enable it to pick out every last pixel in a 4K image without any pollution from the colour or light of the pixels next door, and you can feel this clarity in every frame of a high quality native 4K source.
Sony KD-55A1 review: Strong upscaling
That's not to say that the 55A1 can't also make HD sources look good. Sony's X1 Extreme upscaling engine sets the bar for accurately injecting the millions of extra pixels required to make an HD image a 4K one.
Sealing the 55A1's clarity is its brilliant motion handling. Even if you'd rather not use its Motionflow processing, it handles movement and camera pans exceptionally cleanly. There's really no harm in trying Motionflow on its Standard or True Cinema settings, though, as these both reduce judder without generating many of the shimmering, twitching side effects associated with most motion processing engines.
While beautiful, the 55A1's pictures aren't perfect. There's a slight tendency to flare out in the brightest areas of HDR pictures (standard dynamic range ones, though, actually do look pretty much perfect), and pictures aren't as bright as they ideally would be.
This latter issue means that HDR pictures don't look quite as balanced, bold and life-like in their luminance levels as they do on some rival premium sets. Especially premium LCD sets, but also other 2017 OLED models including LG's 2017 range and Loewe's Bild 7.
Many video enthusiasts may well consider this slightly muted brightness a relatively small price to pay for the 55A1's prowess in other areas (the "OLED + Sony processing = take my money" equation has been doing the rounds in AV circles for years). Especially if they're looking for a set to go into a relatively dark room, or a TV they want to be at its best with the lights dimmed for a serious movie viewing session.
Sony KD-55A1 Review: Sound quality
- Speaker configuration: 10W x 5 (including four flat surface exciters, and a subwoofer)
While there's no doubt the 55A1's Acoustic Surface technology is as clever as hell, it's surely too much to hope that it might also sound good, right? Wrong.
Right away the 55A1 impresses with the raw power of its sound, pumping out a sound stage big enough to fill a big room. There's plenty of precision within the power too. Details in a sound mix aren't just delivered cleanly and punchily, they're also placed in the right place onscreen with almost uncanny accuracy. So much so that when people of different heights are talking within a shot, their voices actually seem to be coming from different heights.
The sound expands comfortably beyond the edges of the TV's frame too, for added immersion, and voices always sound rounded and well contextualised within their backgrounds.
Bass levels are better than expected too, thanks to that subwoofer in the lean-to stand. However, as might be expected with a flat surface exciter audio system, if the 55A1's audio is pushed hard with a particularly dense sound mix at high volumes, it can occasionally become overwhelmed and collapse into a sudden drop out, loud buzz or distracting crackle.
The 55A1 is almost everything you could want from an OLED TV. It looks stunning, is packed with the sort of innovation and uniqueness that Sony is increasingly striving for these days, and best of all produces some genuinely beautiful pictures and strong sound quality.
Just bear in mind that while lovely, its pictures aren't the brightest around. So despite OLED's outstanding contrast capabilities, the A1 doesn't sell HDR quite as explosively as some rivals, and may not be your best bet for a really bright room.
Sony is back in the OLED market with a bang.
The alternatives to consider
This incredibly designed 2016 55-inch OLED TV from LG is still widely available, and at a heavily discounted price. While it's a great OLED option if you want to save money, though, it lacks a little brightness, and isn't as sophisticated with its image processing as the Sony 55A1.
Read the full article: LG OLED E6 review
If you can cope with its extra 10 inches of screen size, this flagship Sony LCD TV serves up a much punchier, brighter HDR picture than the A1 that's better suited to a typical bright living room environment. It's also now much cheaper than it was when it launched late in 2016.
Read the full article: Sony ZD9 review
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