(Pocket-lint) - The days when every new generation of OLED TVs typically only ushered in small, incremental improvements in picture quality are over. All of the big TV brands in 2021 have introduced new premium OLED ranges built around ‘next-gen' panels that deliver significantly more brightness than OLED has been capable of before.
Sony's entry into this new premium OLED battleground is the A90J range, which delivers its enhanced brightness alongside a new aluminium heat sink and an all-new Cognitive XR video processing system. Fancy features means a fancy price point, though, so is it worth it compared to the competition?
- 4x HDMI inputs (2x HDMI 2.1), 3x USB ports
- Wi-Fi and Bluetooth multimedia options
Viewed from the front or at a slight angle, the A90J arguably delivers the most striking "all picture, no hardware" design of any TV to date.
The dark frame around the image is incredibly narrow, while the panel's depth at its outer edges is the skinniest around (aside from the wafer-thin depth of LG's ultra high-end Wallpaper TVs). Even the TV's desktop feet become practically invisible when they're positioned in their flattest configuration beneath the screen's bottom corners.
You can also, handily, position the feet closer together so that the TV can sit on a narrower piece of furniture, or you can adjust their fit so that they raise the screen up a couple of inches to make space for a soundbar. There's no doubt, though, that attaching them flat to the outer edges delivers the most elegantly minimalist look - if you've got furniture large enough to accommodate.
While the outer edges of the A90J's panel are exceptionally thin, the central third or so of its rear is unusually chunky for an OLED TV. This gives the design a pleasingly industrial look, though - and anyway, the A90J has to make space somewhere for its bleeding edge (and invisible) Acoustic Surface sound system. Not to mention the drivers for the new panel and Sony's new Cognitive XR processing system.
The A90J's connectivity is, at the time of writing, a slightly mixed bag though. Two of the four HDMI ports are built to the latest HDMI 2.1 specification, whereas with LG's latest C1 and G1 OLEDs all four HDMI make the 2.1 grade. What's more, while the A90J can handle 4K at 120Hz, none of those HDMI ports can't currently handle variable refresh rates (VRR).
This is supposed to be coming soon via a firmware update, but it seems odd Sony couldn't offer this at launch on a flagship model - given that VRR has been available since 2019 from other brands. It's worth noting, too, that even when the VRR support comes, it doesn't seem that it will include the AMD Freesync and Nvidia G-Sync variants supported by some rival brands. All it will cover is the standard HDMI VRR version.
The A90J's third HDMI supports another feature associated with the HDMI 2.1 spec (but actually often found on HDMI 2.0 ports): e-ARC. This lets the TV pass through uncompressed Dolby Atmos sound to e-ARC compatible soundbars and AV receivers.
- Smart System: Google TV
Having been one of the first TV brands to wholeheartedly adopt the Android TV smart platform, Sony has become the first brand to step up to Google TV in 2021. And a very welcome step it is too.
The interface is cleaner and better organised to represent TV (as opposed to smartphone) use than its predecessor. Its focus is more clearly and sensibly on video rather than gaming or infotainment content. And best of all it feels much better at building a bespoke experience tailored to individual viewers. Especially when it comes to highlighting content that users might like based on their viewing history.
The interface is still full screen rather than being superimposed over the picture, and unfortunately at the time of writing Sony has issues with YouView that mean the set currently supports hardly any of the regular UK terrestrial broadcaster catch-up apps. Sony continues to promise that this problem will be solved, but it's been saying that for many months now without anything happening.
One last noteworthy smart feature is Sony's new Bravia Core streaming service. Where most streaming platforms top out at around 25Mbps streaming speeds, Bravia Core can support streams up to 80Mbps (provided your broadband can meet such speeds!). This really does result in superior streamed picture quality - and if you buy a A90J, you'll also get Bravia Core credits that allow you to watch a number of films for free.
- HDR Support: HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision
- Processing engine: Bravia Cognitive XR
There's always a worry when a TV brand suddenly goes for broke with new hardware and processing that its picture quality will take one step forward and two steps back. This most definitely does not happen with the A90J, though. On the contrary, both Sony's new processor and, especially, new high-brightness panel design simply amplify the brand's already much-loved OLED picture quality.
The single biggest advance comes in Sony's previous biggest area of OLED weakness: brightness. The new panel achieves just over 910 nits in its Vivid picture preset, which drops to around 790 nits in its Cinema preset. This compares with around 710 nits and 590 nits respectively on Sony's previous A9 OLED range - a jump of around 25 per cent. However, these numbers don't quite reach as high as those obtained from Panasonic's flagship, the JZ2000.
This brightness boost is particularly punchy when it comes to bright highlights in high dynamic range (HDR) images - such as sunlight gleaming off metal or glass, artificial light sources, direct sunlight, and so on. Given that the intensity of these has been ramped up without compromising the gorgeously deep black tones and pixel-level local light controls for which OLED has been renowned for years now, the A90J enjoys a truly spectacular contrast range. So much so that it delivers arguably the most outright HDR pictures, at least at times, that any OLED TV has ever produced.
In fact, while there are a few LCD TVs out there that can deliver significantly more peak brightness - we're talking well over 2000 nits in some cases - those LCD sets' inability to deliver anywhere near such fine light control means that Sony's OLED set can still look more intense at times. Especially during HDR shots that contain a mix of bright and dark content.
Sony's new XR processor seems to have an impact on the A90J's HDR impact, too. The degree to which it can detect and then emphasise the sort of peak brightness highlights that are such a key part of a convincing HDR picture is seriously impressive.
The Cognitive XR processor works its magic, too, with subtle manipulations of local brightness and sharpness, to create a strikingly immersive, three-dimensional quality to the A90J's images, especially with high-quality 4K sources, that really does feel subtly different - in a good way - to the images of rival premium TVs.
This might sound to image purists like excessive meddling with the way source content was designed to look. But it really doesn't feel that way when you're watching. If anything it actually feels as if the processing is better picking up on the cues contained in content than other TV processors.
The part that local sharpness control plays in the Cognitive XR effect is only possible, of course, because the A90J is capable of delivering spectacularly crisp, clean and sharp 4K images which prove that Sony has lost none of its detail knack in the move from the old X1 Ultimate processing.
Camera pans and action scenes confirm, similarly, that the A90J also retains Sony's legendary prowess when it comes to motion handling. There's a motion option here - even motion processing off - that can deliver a look compatible with any tastes and any source.
Colours across the board look quite beautiful on the A90J. Full of subtlety and nuance, but also richly saturated and effortlessly balanced - no matter how potent on the one hand or restrained on the other any given source might look. Don't forget, either, that the A90J's colour board is significantly larger than that of previous Sony OLED TVs thanks to its extra brightness unlocking more of the colour volume that's so important to a full HDR experience.
The A90J's extra brightness over previous Sony OLED panels is also evident where light HDR content fills the whole screen. This full-screen HDR improvement isn't quite as pronounced as it is with small HDR highlights of more mixed image content, but it still gives a more consistent HDR experience, makes HDR images more satisfying in a bright room, and reduces the traditional LCD brightness advantage. While also, to reiterate this point, maintaining OLED's traditional local contrast advantage.
As usual with OLED there's no loss of contrast or colour from wide viewing angles either, and despite the intense depth and neutrality of its black levels, the A90J is also excellent at rendering subtle details in dark areas. In fact, its extra core brightness makes it even better in this respect than its already impressive Sony predecessors.
Sony's traditional strengths with upscaling sub-4K content to the A90J's 4K screen are also maintained if not actually slightly improved by the new Cognitive XR processing. And happily given the skin Sony has in the console game, the A90J's gaming performance is strong. Cutting-edge 4K/120Hz games have never looked more buttery smooth and clean, detail levels are solid, and contrast and colour are excellent. Though to some extent the A90J's gaming chops do also cause frustration at Sony TVs' ongoing lack of VRR and Dolby Vision game mode support.
Aside from having to wait for VRR, there are only a couple of small picture niggles to report with the A90J. The first is that HDR colours occasionally show signs of mild banding/striping noise. The second is that the screen can dim a little when there's a static bright object on the screen - a scenario which can crop up relatively often, of course, when gaming.
The A90J continues Sony's still-exclusive tradition of using its screen to produce its sound. It does this by placing 'exciters' behind the ultra-skinny OLED panel that can vibrate it to create sound.
It's hard to believe such a system could actually work well - but it really does. It immediately, for instance, impresses with how forward its sound is, pushing movie and TV soundtracks into your room rather than leaving them sounding as if they're coming from somewhere behind the screen.
There's a strikingly open, expansive tone to the A90J's sound, too, that's hard to reconcile with the TV's ultra-minimalist design. It turns out as well that Sony's new Cognitive XR processing doesn't limit itself to pictures. It also noticeably improves the accuracy with which sound effects are positioned in the correct place on the A90J's screen - something that's always been a strength of Sony's Acoustic Surface OLED technology, but which is taken to a new level by the A90J.
While bass hits deeper than expected, thanks to dedicated low frequency drivers built into the TV's rear, it can sometimes sound a little detached from the rest of the A90J's mix. Also in the negative column, with particularly loud, dense movie moments the Acoustic Surface approach can cause vocals and trebles to sound a bit brittle and hard.
Overall, though, the A90J's audio is a suitably accomplished partner for its outstanding pictures.
There's no getting around that the Sony A90J is expensive for an OLED TV in 2021. If you're well-heeled enough to see past that, though, its uniquely punchy HDR pictures, gloriously minimalistic design and powerful, room-filling sound may well make its movie-friendly charms too hard to resist at any price.
Panasonic's third-generation of high-brightness OLED is typically excellent - and, unexpectedly based on past experience, cheaper than the A90J. It delivers fantastically accurate out of the box colours, and provides better game features than the Sony. It also features a good Dolby Atmos sound system that's simply stunning.
LG OLED G1
This OLED set is much more affordable, despite also utilising a new higher-brightness panel. LG's set also carries substantially more comprehensive cutting edge gaming features than Sony's new OLED flagship. Sony's set trumps the LG model with the intensity of its HDR experience, though, and also enjoys a more satisfying built-in sound system and some uniquely clever picture processing.