OLED perfection? We put the new Sony AF9 to the test
OLED TVs offer the best picture you can buy. And Sony is always right up there when it comes to OLED.
A year ago, the manufacturer launched its first TV with organic light-emitting diodes, the Bravia A1. Then, a few months later came the AF8, an OLED model with the same panel but a different stand. According to Sony, this was a new series, not a successor.
The KD-AF9, to give it its official product name, is actually the A1s successor. Sony sees its very own Acoustic Surface Audio+ sound technology and overhauled X1 Ultimate processor as real strengths. And the new Android Oreo operating system should earn bonus points too.
I’m excited. Based on its predecessors, it’s a given that the AF9’s image quality will be impressive. But I’m more interested in how it performs compared to its big OLED competitor, LG, and whether the upgrade is worth it for owners of the previous model?
Design - it’s never been Sony’s weakness
Design-wise, Sony really stood out last year. The A1 is designed so that the panel doesn’t «sit» on its stand, it leans on it. It’s a bit like a picture frame that you don’t hang, but stand somewhere or other. The Japanese manufacturer has stayed true to this concept: the AF9 leans on its stand too.
It might seem strange at first, but as soon as you’re curled up in front of your AF9 with your favourite series on, you won’t notice the tilt at all. If you don’t have a tall TV cabinet and your TV sits a little lower, the angle of the tilt will be perfect for you.
Either way, when you look at the AF9, the focus is on the most important element: the image. And that’s the biggest asset of this design.
Sound: another design-based decision?
Sound is traditionally a weakness of TVs. This is mainly down to the speakers, which have to be built into the panel somewhere without taking up too much space. This is restrictive, as speakers make air vibrate to transport the sound to your ears.
This is particularly difficult with OLED TVs because, unlike LCD models, they don’t need backlighting, so their panels are made even thinner. They definitely look stylish, but leave even less space for speakers than before.
Sony turned this into a positive and solved the issue last year with its own «Acoustic Surface Audio» sound technology. Two actuators behind the screen vibrate the panel itself and the stand extends the system as a subwoofer.
The new AF9 uses the same principle, but there are three actuators rather than two, with the middle one working as a centre speaker. Even the stand has had an upgrade, with two subwoofers instead of one. All in all, the Sony OLED has a 3.2 sound system, and, my oh my, you can hear the difference.
The scene that I filmed for this demonstration, but was later blocked by YouTube, shows Thor (Chris Hemsworth) arriving at the final battle of «Avengers: Infinity War». Alan Silvestri’s «Avengers» theme rings in my ears. Goosebumps. The other superheroes can hardly believe their luck, as the battle looked to be lost. «You guys are so screwed now,» shouts Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) at his enemies with childish glee.
The way the system creates a voluminous sound that fills my living room without surround sound is impressive. The bass rumbles with Hemsworth’s low voice («Bring me Thanos!»). In contrast, the LG C8, which I tested last May (report in German), looks outdated. The sound on the South Korean model is considerably thinner too. I’m surprised: «Acoustic Surface» replaces a sound bar in the 600 – 700 francs range, such as the Sony HT-ZF9 I tested.
I don’t say that lightly. In my tests, I regularly swore by my Sonos Playbar, which I still think is the best sound bar in its price range. However, this was the first time that I felt that I would be fine without it (and I was during the two-week test phase).
However, especially when playing music, I still prefer the Sonos, but that’s being incredibly critical. After all, the Sonos Playbar has nine speakers: six mid-range drivers and three tweeters. But Sony’s technology is impressive nonetheless.
Mini bonus: if you have a surround sound system, you can also use your TV as a centre speaker thanks to the centre speaker inputs in the stand.
The ultra HD image is hugely impressive
During my two-week test phase, I rattled through at least half of my UHD Blu-rays. And, if you read my articles occasionally, you’ll know that there are quite a few of them. I watched every film in Cinema Mode, where the colours are warmer and closer to the vision of the directors and camera operators.
Less surprising is that the high-resolution UHD image with HDR colours has it all. The deep, rich black levels are as magnificent as you’d expect from OLED. They enable an image with the highest ever contrast values.
In «The Revenant», I shuddered when an exhausted group of Rocky Mountain Fur Company trackers is attacked by Arikaree Native Americans. The ambush takes place somewhere in the frosty forests of what is now North Dakota. It’s morning, the sun is still low in the sky and a thin layer of mist is rising above the raging river. The UHD panel with its 3840 × 2160 pixels captures the atmosphere flawlessly.
As I watched, it became more and more clear that the detail rendition is extremely good. Every blood splatter hurts just from seeing the arrows of the hostile natives find their mark. And when dust swirls up from the riverbank as unfortunate riders are shot from their horses, every grain of sand is identifiable.
What about colour reproduction? «The Revenant» looks natural, but somewhat desaturated. This is down to the director placing great value on filming exclusively with natural light and without subsequent colour grading. The latter is one of the reasons we don’t like CGI in films.
Next up was «Avengers: Infinity War», which is pretty much the opposite of the Native Americans vs. bears epic.
I wasn’t disappointed. The colours in the opulent comic adaptation during Thor’s battle with Thanos (Josh Brolin) are vivid, yet not supersaturated, thanks to Cinema Mode. No matter how fast the camera pans during the fast-paced action scenes, the image is smooth. This was also a huge strength of the Bravia A1.
Streaming: Netflix under the microscope
Streaming is one of my favourite pastimes when it comes to TV. I sought out two examples to test two different features of the Sony: detail rendition in dark scenes and colour reproduction.
In the Netflix original series «Stranger Things», young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing from the fictitious town of Hawkins. His three friends try to find him somewhere in the dark forest in driving rain. But instead of their friend, they find a mysterious girl.
Every branch, leaf and raindrop is clearly visible, even in deep darkness. I really didn’t make it easy for the AF9: it was a lovely day and the sun was streaming right into the living room, as you can see above. Despite this, I could still see the image clearly as long as I sat directly in front of it, which is a testament to the brightness of OLED TVs.
But I had to give up if I moved even slightly to the side, like in the photo above. You might see more on LCD-based TVs, which are generally twice as light as OLEDs, but they show far fewer details in dark scenes.
What can the new X1 Ultimate processor do?
I wanted to know what Sony’s overhauled image processor had going for it. It’s one of the most important elements of any TV – it’s like its brain.
The main task of an image processor is calculating and improving video signals from the tuner or input channels like HDMI ports. The live TV signal is mostly only full HD, but the AF9 has Ultra HD resolution. The TV processor scales up the input, suppresses unwanted image noise, smoothes the edges and boosts the colours. The chip carries out such image optimisation processes for all sources – even for UHD HDR material – but to different degrees.
According to Sony, the X1 Ultimate processor goes even further. It claims to be twice as fast as its predecessor, which benefits both the new Android Oreo operating system and the rendering of UHD content at 120 Hz. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any suitable test material at the time this article was uploaded. In addition, object-based supersampling should ensure that individual objects are recognised and optimally scaled to UHD quality, even in non-high-resolution material.
In my test, I identified no significant differences compared to the previous model. This doesn’t mean that the processor isn’t good. Quite the opposite. It suggests that its predecessor – the X1 Extreme – delivered outstanding results.
While we’re on the subject, football coverage is a good way to determine the quality of the processor. Pay attention to the ball in the example clip below: are there any streaks when it rapidly changes direction? How good are the contrast values of an image with no HDR source? Do so many changes of direction cause image artefacts because the processor can’t handle the calculations?
It struck me that the ball is hardly streaked at all, but there is a small loss of sharpness in the acceleration and slowing phases. The Alpha 9 processor in the LG C8 performs a little better on this score. The colours are more natural too: the pitch has a fluorescent green tone here, which I found annoying – even in Standard Mode. I didn’t even activate Vivid Mode to start with.
However, I used Vivid Mode for most non-HDR content beyond football and for YouTube videos. Its «Contrast Pixel Boost» ensures that the OLEDs are better addressed and the base colours of red, green and blue seem richer than usual. This makes the pixels brighter and everything creates a great HDR feel.
In general, I really advise playing around with the different image modes to find out which you prefer for different kinds of content. Vivid Mode impresses for YouTube videos: the colours are bright and unpleasant streaks and stutters are nowhere to be seen.
The new operating system: finally it’s good
One thing is clear: the X1 Ultimate processor gets to flex its muscles when it comes to the new operating system, the Android Oreo 8.0. A firmware update should make it available on other Sony TVs, but it only works smoothly with the X1 Ultimate.
The operating system is neat and tidy, which I wouldn’t have believed based on my experiences with the previous model. The main apps like Netflix, YouTube and Spotify are easy to find and can be arranged according to personal preference.
There are a few nice extras too: with Netflix, I can see all the shows I’m watching at the moment before I even open the app. If I click on the relevant icon, the Netflix app opens on the right episode in the series. It’s similar with Spotify, but with my playlists or albums. And with YouTube, I can bring up my favourite subscriptions.
These little details save a surprising amount of time when you use the operating system every day. And because the app is Android-based, there’s an abundant app store. It’s a lot of fun. Android Oreo 8.0 has no reason to shy away behind LG’s WebOs 4.0 or Samsung’s Tizen.
Update 9/11/2018, 14:43: It doesn’t seem to be possible to install the Kodi Media Center as an app. There is a workaround (in German), but it doesn’t seem to be particularly satisfactory. Thanks to @Leser JiSiN for the tip!
Verdict: one of the absolute best high-end (and pricey) TVs
The Sony AF9 has nothing to fear from a comparison with its competitor LG, but it doesn’t set any benchmarks. The panel delivers balanced colours, which produce the «punch» OLED is known for. I think LG just edges it when it comes to the image processor, though, as I prefer the way it reconditions non-UHD HDR content.
When it comes to sound technology, the AF9 does everything right with Acoustic Surface. The tone comes across as really voluminous and space-filling, the likes of which I haven’t experienced in a TV before. And it saves you the 700-franc investment in a sound bar.
The Android Oreo 8.0 operating system is particularly good. It’s clearly structured and runs incredibly smoothly. I liked it a lot more than the LG or Samsung. The only criticism I have is the price: the AF9 is just too expensive. At the time of this review, its direct competition – the LG [G8] (https://www.digitec.ch/en/s1/product/lg-oled65g8-65-4k-oled-televisions-7952091) – was some 600 francs cheaper. The C8, which is entirely comparable in terms of image display, is available on our website for a whopping 1,700 francs less. That’s a big difference.
Yes, the Sony AF9 is right at the top end of the OLED market and it delivers just as good an image as its competition from South Korea, but this comes at a price. I would advise owners of the previous model to wait at least another year before upgrading. But the AF9 is a great choice for OLED newbies.