Review: Sony A8F OLED TV boasts brains and beauty
Sony was the first to market with an OLED TV in the form of the XEL-1. Released in December 2007, it boasted an 11-inch screen with 965 x 540-pixel resolution and cost US$2,500. Unsurprisingly, it didn't exactly sell like hotcakes, and it was a decade before the company released another OLED TV – the A1E (which can now be found for the same price but with a 55-inch screen rather than a measly 11). Sony followed the success of the A1E with this year's A8F (AF8 in Europe), and New Atlas has spent a few weeks basking in its impressive glow (and even more impressive blacks).
At a glance
- New tabletop stand removes the lean of its predecessor
- OLED technology provides a welcome return to true blacks
- Shines with 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision content
- Sony picture processing tech impressively upscales sub-4K content
- Acoustic Surface technology makes audio performance a selling point
Our review unit was the 55-inch Bravia A8F model (also available in 65-in), which comes with a tabletop stand, remote control (batteries included), cable support belt, and an array of plastic bits and pieces that can be slotted onto the back of the TV to hide the various cables and cords.
The TV itself weighs 18.7 kg (41 lb), which increases to 22.2 kg (48.9 lb) once the stand is attached, so setting it up is definitely a two-person job. That extra weight in the stand is welcome because it provides confidence in its ability to support the TV despite its small footprint – it measures just 25.5 cm (10 in) deep and 40 cm (15.8 in) at its widest point, meaning the TV can be placed on even small (but sturdy) surfaces.
It's worth highlighting this stand because it's probably the biggest single difference between the A8F of 2018 and the A1E of 2017. One of the standout features of the A1E was its Acoustic Surface sound system, which turned the display panel itself into a speaker. However, for low-frequency sounds Sony embedded a subwoofer within the rear support of the A1E's easel-like stand, which saw the display lean at backward tilt of around five degrees.
Reportedly in response to customer feedback expressing dislike for the A1E's slant, Sony has returned to the more traditional approach with the A8F, which is still on a tilt, but just a very small one that is only noticeable if you look at the TV directly side on. Even with the subwoofer now integrated behind the panel, you're still only looking at a maximum depth of 55 mm (2.2 in), so the A8F is still no fatty by any means. While I much prefer the A8F's stand to that of the A1E, Sony must have had enough customers happy with the A1E's lean as it has decided to give the easel approach another run with the newly announced A9F.
Either way, the A8F looks great even before it's been turned on. It's clean and minimalist look puts the focus on the panel itself, with a barely noticeable Sony logo on the bottom left of the thin bezel the only visible branding. As with other OLED TVs, the display has a more reflective finish than is found on most LCD TVs, so positioning the TV opposite a window isn't a good idea if you plan on doing any daytime viewing.
Even just powering up the A8F for the first time provides a good demonstration of the difference between OLED and LCD technologies when it comes to displaying blacks. A loading animation is displayed on a perfectly black background that looked exactly the same as it did before I pushed the on button. Being so used to the "black" startup screen of my three-year-old LCD TV bathing the room in a dull glow after being powered up, it took me a second to realize the A8F was actually on. It's a perfect example of how used to the inferior blacks of most LCD TVs we've become.
But no one buys a TV to be dazzled by the loading animation, and thankfully setup is relatively quick and painless. After connecting to your Wi-Fi network, signing into your Google account, specifying if you have an Android phone or tablet (the A8F's Smart TV capabilities come courtesy of Android TV and built-in Chromecast support), scanning for broadcast services, and specifying whether the TV is wall mounted or on a tabletop stand to optimize the TV speakers, you're ready to go.
Not owning a 4K TV myself and therefore having no library of 4K content to draw upon, I'd signed up to Netflix's premium tier to access some UHD content. My first port of call viewing-wise was Planet Earth II, and I was immediately blown away with the level of detail, rich colors and, of course, the deep, detailed blacks. To get an even better indication of the black-level performance I switched over to Altered Carbon. This was in Dolby Vision – meaning metadata provides instructions on how to best render each scene rather than the program as a whole – and the picture quality was just as incredible, with details in dark areas that simply appeared as blocks of black (or dark gray) on my LCD TV. The blacks are also displayed with a depth that isn't possible with LCD panels.
But it wasn't just with native 4K HDR content that the A8F impressed. The ability of the brains of the TV, Sony's 4K HDR Processor X1 Extreme and 4K X-Reality PRO picture processing technology, to upscale 1080p and 720p content – and even 480p DVD content – was remarkable, naturally adding detail and sharpness not present in the source material.
With all OLED TVs currently built around panels from LG Display, the image processing technologies are a major point of difference for the various OLED TV producers – and in this respect Sony's picture processing, already refined over many years on LCD TVs, shine on OLED. And with 4K content still thin on the ground, the majority of stuff most of us will be watching, for a while at least, will be in sub-4K resolution, so good upscaling performance of is a major plus.
However, there is one area where OLED can't match it with LCD, and that's brightness. This became apparent when watching something that gets a lot of screentime in my house at this time of year – Australian Rules Football. Being so accustomed to a certain level of brightness for the vibrant green of the grass oval under lights highlighted the relative dimness of the OLED panel in comparison to my LCD TV. Up until this point I had left the picture settings of the A8F largely untouched, (which is remarkable in itself for a settings stickler like me), but was forced to do some fiddling to try and increase the brightness.
Maxing out the Brightness and switching Peak luminance to High provided the best results, but the picture was still noticeably dimmer than on an LCD TV. I'm not saying the picture was unwatchable – far from it – but content that is traditionally brighter, such as sport, is likely to appear dimmer than you're used to on an LCD TV. That said, after a couple of weeks using the A8F I had become accustomed to the slightly dimmer picture and I didn't even notice it anymore. Also, it was a small price to pay for the perfect blacks and extra detail down at the darker end of the spectrum. However, if you do a lot of your TV watching in a well-lit room and are more into gaudy game shows than moody Nordic noir, you might be better off sticking with LCD.
One of the casualties in the quest for thinner and thinner panel TVs has been audio quality. Not so much an afterthought as a mountain too difficult to scale, cramming decent speakers into slimmer and slimmer form factors has generally resulted in sub-par speakers and driven the popularity of the soundbar – at least for those without a dedicated surround sound system. But the difference in the makeup of OLED and LCD panels has allowed Sony to come up with a potentially game-changing audio technology – the aforementioned Acoustic Surface sound system.
Debuting in the A1E in 2017, this system essentially makes the display panel a speaker, with two actuators (which allows for audio to move within the picture) on the rear of the display causing it to vibrate and generate soundwaves. These vibrations aren't visible to the eye and are only good for producing mid- to high-frequency sounds, which is why the system includes a separate subwoofer on the back of the panel. In the A8F this system results in truly impressive audio performance that negates the need for a separate soundbar.
A decent surround sound system will obviously still be capable of better sound, but because the performance of the Acoustic Surface sound system was so good, and because the center channel speaker that usually sits under the front of my TV would have obscured some of the low-sitting A8F, I was hoping to integrate the TV speakers into my surround sound setup. This proved impossible, but apparently I wasn't the only one with the same idea as the new A9F has a "center channel" sound option that allows just that. Unfortunately, because this requires the TV to have a dedicated speaker cable terminal, this isn't functionality that can be brought to the A8F with a software update.
Regardless, Sony has managed to make the audio performance of a flat panel TV a selling point that won't necessarily need augmentation by a separate system.
Getting to grips with the user interface
Audio visual performance may be the main considerations when evaluating a TV, but they aren't the only things worth taking into account. The humble remote control and the user interface of the TV are also important. Starting with the former, the A8F's remote follows the traditional path Sony has trod for the past few years, meaning it's plastic bar packed with as many buttons as can be crammed on its face. In other words, it's not the most user-friendly remote going around and takes a bit of getting used to.
The volume and program up and down buttons and dedicated Google Play and Netflix buttons are easy enough to scope out by feel, as is the central directional button and its surrounding halo, but fumbling for the smaller playback control buttons or numbers on the number pad in the dark is difficult with one hand and resulted in unintended results more often than I'd have liked.
While some form of backlighting would have solved the issue (something not enough manufacturers consider IMHO), Sony has instead opted for a voice control button, which via Android TV allows changing of inputs, opening of apps and even answering of basic queries, such as weather reports. The voice recognition proved pretty accurate, but we're dealing with a lifetime of ingrained behavior here, so buttons still take preference over voice for basic TV functions for a lot of people.
As for the interface, as already mentioned, Sony has stuck with Android TV (version 7.0). Unfortunately, it's a little like the remote – overly busy and requiring a bit of getting used to for the uninitiated. It would be nice if Google paid Android TV a bit more attention and attempted to simplify the layout, but it does provide access to the TV's multitude of features and isn't too hard to deal with at the end of the day. And if you're already familiar with it, you'll know what to expect.
The A8F offers the truly impressive picture quality that OLED TVs are capable of, with deep, inky blacks, sharp detail, and vibrant, realistic colors. While native 4K HDR content is as good as you'd expect, it's the ability of Sony's picture processing technology to upscale sub-4K content that should shuffle the A8F up the lists of prospective buyers. Factor in the Acoustic Surface sound system that allows the TV to produce great audio all on its lonesome and you've got an extremely attractive package, even taking into account the old-school remote control and reliance on Android TV. Highly recommended.