Sony A1E UHD HDR OLED TV Review: XBR-65A1E Updated

Sony A1E

My initial hands-on experience with the Sony XBR-65A1E UHD HDR OLED TV encompassed only a few hours in the studio of calibrator David Abrams of Avical. Then, Sony delivered one to my home, where I’ve lived with it for over a month. I originally published a “first look,” which I’ve now updated to a full review.

The Sony A1E is available in three screen sizes: 55″ ($4000), 65″ ($5500), and 77″ ($18,000). I looked at the 65-incher.

Features

The A1E is Sony’s first foray into large-screen, consumer OLED TVs. That isn’t to say the company has no previous experience with OLED technology. It brought the XEL-1 OLED TV to market in 2008, but the screen measured only 11″ diagonally, and the resolution was 960×540. In addition, Sony currently makes several widely used professional OLED monitors, including the BVM-X300, a 30″ UHD HDR model and the largest of the lineup. However, most of those pro monitors cost well into the five-figure range.

The Sony A1E’s OLED panel is supplied by LG Display, which means it’s WOLED—that is, the OLED material emits white light that passes through red, green, and blue color filters as well as a clear filter that creates a white subpixel in addition to the RGB subpixels. This results in higher peak luminance, but it also reduces color saturation at high brightness levels. By contrast, the X300 is strictly RGB with red, green, and blue OLED material.

Of course, Sony applies its own technology to the panel. Perhaps most important is the company’s X1 Extreme video processor. This powerhouse chip serves three main functions: providing a dual database for noise reduction and 4K upscaling, Super Bit Mapping that smooths gradations by reproducing the equivalent of 14 bits from an 8-bit source, and object-based HDR remastering that identifies individual objects in the image. The same processor is found in Sony’s Z9D, X940E, and X930E UHD HDR-capable LCD TVs.

The Sony A1E supports the HDR10 format for high dynamic range, and it will add Dolby Vision and HLG in a firmware update. This is made possible by the X1 Extreme processor, which is powerful enough to implement Dolby Vision. Previous versions of the X1 found in other Sony TVs do not have the required processing power, so those models will not be getting a Dolby Vision firmware update.

In addition, the Sony A1E is based on Android TV with voice search, and Chromecast (formerly Google Cast) lets you send content from a mobile device to the TV. And with Google Home, you can control the TV by voice with a Google Home device. Of course, there are many online streaming apps available on this TV.

In a particularly brilliant move, Sony eliminated speakers from the A1E altogether. Instead, a pair of actuators are mounted on the back of the screen, and the entire screen vibrates to reproduce stereo sound. Called Acoustic Surface, this is actually not a new idea—I wrote about it 20 years ago—but it’s the first time I’ve heard of a TV screen being used as the transducer.

I would think you might be able to see the vibrations in the image, but not so. It could be a problem at lower frequencies, but a woofer in the stand takes care of that.

Ergonomics

Speaking of the stand, it’s integrated into the back of the TV; it cannot be removed. It folds out to form an easel-like leg, which causes the screen to lean back. The manual shows how you can bring the screen into a vertical orientation with cables attached to the wall, but I see no way to do it safely if the TV is completely freestanding; it would be far too easy for the screen to fall on its face. Without tying it to the wall, you must watch the TV while it’s tilted away from youl. Alternatively, the stand folds into the back of the TV so you can mount it on the wall, in which case, it will be perfectly vertical.

Sony A1E
The integrated stand folds out to form a rear “easel” leg; it can also be folded into the back for wall mounting.

Either way, the stand obviates the super-thinness of OLED. Sure, the panel itself is super thin, but with the stand folded into the back of the TV, the total depth is 3.5″!

The A1E was freestanding in my home theater, so it was tilted back slightly. I thought this would bug me, but I was surprised to find that it didn’t. In fact, once I started watching content, it never really entered my consciousness.

In addition to the woofer, the stand also houses all the connections, which include four HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 inputs (one with ARC [Audio Return Channel]), one composite-video/2-channel audio input on a single connector, three USB ports (one Super Speed USB 3.0, two USB 2.0), one optical digital-audio output (2-channel only), one headphone output (a rarity on TVs these days), one RF cable/antenna input, one RS-232C port, one Ethernet port, one IR blaster port, and one remote-control input. Wireless-connection options include 802.11ac/a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.1.

Sony A1E
The connections are found at the bottom of the stand. With the outer cover removed, you can also see the woofer at the top of the stand and one of the Acoustic Surface actuators on the table.

Interestingly, not all HDMI inputs are created equal, even on advanced HDR TVs. On the Sony A1E, HDMI inputs 1 and 4 operate at 10.2 Gbps, while inputs 2 and 3 can operate at 10.2 or 18 Gbps. (At 10.2 Gbps, the inputs can still accept 4K/UHD HDR signals, but only at 24 or 30 frames per second; at 50 or 60 fps, they are limited to 8 bits and YCbCr 4:2:0 color.)

HDMI inputs 2 and 3 default to 10.2 Gbps in order to maximize compatibility with older HDMI devices, which could have sync problems when connected to an 18 Gbps input. In fact, the audio from my older DirecTV satellite receiver didn’t work via HDMI 3 when it was set to 18 Gbps, but it did work when the input was set to 10.2 Gbps.

To enable 18 Gbps for HDMI inputs 2 and 3, you enter the Home menu, scroll down to Settings, select External Inputs, select HDMI Signal Format, and select Enhanced. Apparently, virtually all HDR-capable TVs have such a setting, but in this case, accessing it seems needlessly complicated.

This is especially vexing if you have all your source components—some of which might be older—connected to an AV receiver and only one HDMI cable from the AVR’s output to the TV. That’s how I had my system configured, because only HDMI 3 implements ARC (Audio Return Channel), which is the best way to get audio from the onboard apps to the AVR. When I wanted to watch the older DirecTV satellite receiver, I had to go through the menu rigmarole to change the HDMI Signal Format back to Standard so I could hear the audio.

Speaking of the menu system, I wish it was better-organized overall. You access the complete Settings menu by pressing the Home button on the remote, but you must scroll down past recommended content, online apps, games, and inputs to get to it. This is very non-intuitive. Some of the submenus, such as picture and sound adjustments, are also available by pressing the Action Menu button on the remote—but not the HDMI Signal Format control. I would much prefer the entire menu system to be immediately accessible from one place—say, a Menu button on the remote—without having to scroll through apps and such to get to it.

Once you’re in the Picture Adjustment menu, the controls are well organized into groups, so none of the submenus are longer than the height of the screen. Once you’ve selected a control to adjust, you can scroll up and down to get to the other controls in the group. However, you must back out of each submenu to get to another one, which is pretty cumbersome.

The remote is quite good. It’s not illuminated, but the buttons are all fairly large, well organized, and easy to find by feel. Dedicated buttons for Netflix and Google Play are welcome. It also includes a microphone for voice searching.

Calibration & Measurements

David Abrams calibrated the set in my home theater using a Colorimetry Research CR-100 colorimeter (profiled with a CR-250 spectroradiometer) and SpectraCal’s CalMan calibration software. Before he made any adjustments, he measured the A1E’s grayscale and colorimetry in both SDR and HDR modes in the Cinema Pro picture mode, which he determined is the best picture mode out of the box.


Pre-calibration, the average grayscale deltaE was 2.29, with a maximum of 4.57. Peak brightness was 203.2 nits, and black level was 0 nits. The grayscale had a bit too much blue from about 20% upward. Colorimetry average deltaE was 2.01, with a maximum of 3.48. Gamma was slightly higher than 2.4 across nearly the entire brightness range.


Pre-calibration, the SDR ColorChecker function revealed an average deltaE of 1.77 with a maximum of 4.48.


In HDR mode, the pre-cal grayscale average deltaE was 1.98, with a maximum of 5.95. The RGB balance takes a serious nosedive from about 20% to 70%, rising sharply to full strength at 80%, no doubt due to tone mapping. The EOTF tracked the target very closely. The peak brightness was 588.9 nits, and the black level was 0 nits. Colorimetry didn’t fare as well, with an average deltaE of 5.77 and a maximum of 10.1.


Pre-calibration, the HDR ColorChecker revealed an average deltaE of 4.34, with a maximum of 11.26.

In the process of performing a 2-point grayscale calibration, he did not adjust the Bias settings, which control the levels of red, green, and blue at the low end of the luminance range. Changing the Bias settings could raise the black level on this set, which negates one of the main strengths of OLED technology.

One important picture-menu parameter is called X-tended Dynamic Range, which has four settings: Off, Low, Medium, and High. Set to Off, David measured a peak brightness of 95 nits at all sizes of white window, from 10% to 100%. Obviously, that’s great for SDR, but with HDR content, it automatically switches to High, which behaves much differently.

Here are the best grayscale results David obtained:


With X-tended Dynamic Range set to Off in SDR mode, a 10% window measured exceedingly well post-calibration, with an average grayscale deltaE of 0.55 and a maximum deltaE of 1.19. Peak luminance was 95.45 nits, and black level was 0.0004 nits.


With X-tended Dynamic Range turned off in SDR mode, full-screen grayscale measured nearly the same as the 10% window, with an average deltaE of 0.75 and a maximum deltaE of 1.32. Peak luminance was 95.11 nits, and black level was 0.0001 nits.

With X-tended Dynamic Range set to Low, Medium, or High in SDR mode, the results for a 10% window and full-screen grayscale were quite different. In general, the 10% window measured very well, but full screen had much greater errors.


With X-tended Dynamic Range set to High in HDR mode, a 10% window had an average grayscale deltaE of 0.98 and a maximum deltaE of 4.29. Peak luminance was 614.8 nits, and black level was 0 nits. The dip in RGB Balance at the 70% stimulus level corresponds to the point at which tone mapping kicks in as well as the maximum deltaE. The EOTF is very close to its target, and so is luminance, except for some rolloff around the tone-mapping knee.

Turning to colorimetry, the Sony A1E does not provide a color-management system (CMS), so all David could do was measure different window sizes and settings of X-tended Dynamic Range. As with grayscale, the SDR colorimetry measurement results varied at different settings of X-tended Dynamic Range, and the best results were obtained with X-tended Dynamic Range set to Off.


With X-tended Dynamic Range turned off in SDR mode, a 10% window had an average colorimetry deltaE of 0.98 and a maximum deltaE of 2.07. At other settings of X-tended Dynamic Range, the results differed pretty dramatically between a 10% window and full screen.


With X-tended Dynamic Range set to High in HDR mode, a 10% window had an average colorimetry deltaE of 4.33 and a maximum deltaE of 9.05. All colors were somewhat deficient in luminance.


Measuring a wide range of colors in SDR, the average deltaE was 1.01 and the max was 2.35.


In HDR, CalMan’s ColorChecker function measured an average deltaE of 3.81 and a max of 10.61.

The Sony A1E automatically engages SDR or HDR mode depending on the input signal, but the grayscale-calibration settings are tied to the picture mode, which doesn’t change automatically. For example, if you calibrate the Expert 1 color-temperature preset in the Custom picture mode for SDR and then display HDR content, some settings—such as X-tended Dynamic Range—change appropriately, but the set remains in the Custom picture mode using the same calibration and other settings, such as Color, Contrast, and Sharpness. To have a different grayscale calibration and other settings for SDR and HDR, you need to calibrate them separately in two different picture modes (David used Custom for SDR and Cinema Pro for HDR) and manually select the appropriate picture mode for SDR and HDR.

To be fair, after calibrating the SDR mode, HDR performance is actually quite good, and anyone but a persnickety tweaker would be very happy with the results. Still, I wish the set stored different grayscale-calibration settings for SDR and HDR in the same picture mode and selected them automatically depending on the input signal—hey, I’m a persnickety tweaker!

Performance

In my first look, I started with Planet Earth II on UHD Blu-ray from a Samsung UBD-K8500 player. The image was very bright and colorful—almost too colorful, especially compared with Blu-ray. I was mesmerized by shots of a volcano in the “Islands” episode—the glowing lava was deeper red than anything in SDR and very bright against an inky black background. The greens of plant life were richer and more vibrant as well.

The title sequence by itself is a great demonstration of HDR. Within the same image, you can see the limb of the Earth, the bright sun, and the black of space. Taken together, they encompass a wider dynamic range than is possible with Blu-ray or any other SDR source.

Next, I played some clips from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on UHD Blu-ray. At 60 frames per second, the detail was amazing; for example, I could easily discern every freckle on the arms of Billy’s mom. There are several shots of Billy standing in his family’s house with an open door in the background, and I could see lots of detail inside the house and outside through the door in the same shot. That’s the power of HDR!

However, I was a bit disappointed in the shadow detail in certain shots. For example, in the early shots of Bravo lined up in front of their hotel waiting for the limo to take them to the Dallas Cowboys football game, the detail in their dark-green uniforms and in Chris Tucker’s face was somewhat obscure. I noticed the same thing in the shots inside the limo. Looking at the same scenes played from the Oppo UDP-203, the shadow detail was noticeably better. Therefore, I must conclude that the problem I saw before was in the Samsung player, not the TV.

In the A1E and Sony’s other premium TVs, the company claims to ignore HDR10’s metadata (MaxCLL and MaxFALL), which Sony says are often incorrect or even missing altogether. Instead, the TV measures the average and peak-highlight brightness of each frame. This is possible because the PQ EOTF (electro-optical transfer function) encodes absolute brightness values, and the X1 Extreme processor is powerful enough to do it in real time. In essence, the TV generates its own dynamic metadata and adjusts its tone mapping accordingly.

Some observers have disputed that Sony actually generates its own dynamic metadata, citing clipping in some scenes from movies mastered at a peak brightness of 4000 nits. For example, at 1:09:46 in Batman v Superman, the white creases in Ben Affleck’s shirt are clipped, as is the sun at 18:53 in Pan. In the case of the sun in the Pan clip, it’s only a tiny portion of the screen, but Ben Affleck’s shirt in the BvS clip occupies a much larger portion of the screen, and it goes in and out of clipping, which looks kinda weird.

When I asked Sony about this, I was told that, in order to display all the detail in these extreme highlights, the brightness of the rest of the image would have to be lowered significantly. Sony believes that maintaining the brightness and color volume of the majority of the scene is more important than preserving a bit of detail in super-bright highlights.

This is a conscious decision the company made when programming the X1 Extreme, and I agree with that decision in general. However, I would have made the other choice in the Batman v Superman example. (On the other hand, maybe not; everything around Affleck in that shot is very dark, and it would be much darker—perhaps to the point of invisibility—if the tone mapping didn’t clip the white shirt.) Of course, the processor is programmed to do it one way and not the other. The X1 Extreme is very powerful, but it cannot make judgement calls.

Turning to the onboard apps, I looked at Daredevil in HDR from Netflix. The image was noisier than UHD Blu-ray, but it was nice and bright with good shadow detail. In episode 1, a night scene in a shipping-container yard is a good example of HDR—headlights and city lights in the background were very bright, yet I could still see plenty of details in the shadows.

I also looked at Marco Polo in HDR from Netflix. It’s not the best HDR I’ve seen, but it looks much better than the SDR version I watched originally. There are lots of indoor scenes with bright light streaming in through windows, and the shadow detail is pretty good. In one night scene during episode 3 of season 1, Marco spies on a secret drop and pickup under a tree on the plains and then rides back to the city. Low-level details are clearly visible, even in the presence of bright lanterns in the city.

Regarding the Acoustic Surface audio system, it sounds remarkably good, far better than almost all other TVs available today. The LG W7’s soundbar also sounds better than most, but it’s a large, separate unit that might not be easy to accommodate. Acoustic Surface adds less baggage to the TV—namely, the permanently attached stand—and it really does sound very good, though still not up to the standard of a good surround-sound system.

Conclusion

Now that I’ve spent lots of time with the Sony A1E, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s among the finest TVs available today. With super-deep blacks, bright highlights, rich colors, razor-sharp detail, superb motion processing, mostly excellent shadow detail, good (though not perfect) off-axis performance, and no haloing, what’s not to love?

Well, a couple of minor things. First, I wish it automatically switched all settings to separate SDR and HDR calibrations depending on the input signal. Also, the menu system is fairly clunky. In particular, I especially wish the HDMI Signal Format setting was easier to access.

Of course, the Sony A1E doesn’t get nearly as bright as the best LCD TVs, so if that’s critical to you, look elsewhere. But I watch in a dark, neutral-colored room with excellent light control, so I’m perfectly fine with OLED. In fact, I much prefer it over any LCD I’ve seen. All in all, I’ve never had a better flat-panel experience in my home theater than with the Sony A1E.

Thanks to David Abrams of Avical for calibrating the Sony A1E in my home theater.