Editor's note: This is an early look at the Sony A1 OLED TV, not the final review. I first wrote this piece after a brief demo on the show floor at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. Since then I've had a couple of in-depth demonstrations, behind closed doors and in more favourable conditions, and I've updated the article. I was initially quite intrigued about this TV but now I feel this is one of the most exciting TVs of 2017. I will be updating this piece as I get more information, and when I get the A1 in for a proper review.
Sony has finally made a 4K OLED TV, and it’s called the A1 (or A1E in the US). This isn’t Sony’s first dance with OLED tech – the company released an 11-inch model in 2008 and it cost around £3000 – but this is Sony entering the OLED game in earnest.
The A1 will be released in three sizes: 55 inches (full name, Sony KD-55A1), 65 inches (KD-65A1) and 77 inches (KD-77A1).
Watch: OLED vs QLED – which is better?
CES 2017 gave us some very shiny TVs, but Sony’s first OLED stole the show for me. You don’t get the soundbar base approach, which Panasonic went for with the Panasonic EZ1000 series. You don’t get the fancy metallic stands on the Samsung Q9F. Sony has also resisted the temptation to show off and make its OLED TV super thin, like LG has with its ‘wallpaper’ W7 OLED.
Instead, It Sony has gone for a minimalist design; from the front it looks like the A1 doesn’t bother with a stand at all. It has a glass front and back, plus a very thin metal frame for support. There are no feet, so the display sits directly on your AV rack or table, leaning slightly backwards at a five-degree angle. Sony likes naming its design choices, and this is the 'One Slate' concept.
The idea is that you have nothing visible outside of the picture. Even the 'Sony' and 'Bravia' logos have been hidden. There is a small light at the bottom of the screen, but you have the option to disable that.
You only notice the stand once you look to the back – Sony has gone for the kick-stand approach, which goes nicely with the whole understated vibe the A1 is going for. If you want a TV to blend in, this should do very nicely.
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The stand is serves a few purposes. Rip off the cloth cover panel and you’ll find the stand houses the TV’s subwoofer (8cm, ported) and connections (four HDMI). Collapse the stand (the bottom can be detached, the rest folds in) and it can also serve as the TV’s built-in wall mount, compatible with the common VESA system.
As for speakers, you won’t find any. The Sony A1 is unique in the way it produces sound. Sony’s ‘Acoustic Surface’ tech places actuators behind the display, and they vibrate the screen to make it pump out sound. Typical TVs have speakers below, behind or next to the screen, which creates a disconnect between the picture and sound – made worse by increasing screen sizes.
Sony wants to eliminate that disconnect with this screen-shaking approach, and that wasn't possible before the company started playing with (very thin) OLED panels. I'd be concerned about this impacting the longevity of the screen, but Sony says it has run extensive tests and they're confident it won't damage the panel.
On the smart TV front, the Sony A1 will continue to use the Android TV interface, which is compatible with Google Cast. I’m told that the TV will receive an update to make it run on Android 7.0 Nougat.
Sorry, 3D fans: there's none of that here. Sony says it's dead. More importantly, the Sony A1 supports the Dolby Vision variant of high dynamic range alongside the more common HDR10. Until now, LG was the only major manufacturer to do so – it's good to see Sony also offering consumers this choice. Sony also says the A1 will be upgraded to be compatible with HLG, or Hybrid Log-Gamma.
Sony wouldn’t say whether this panel was made in-house or manufactured by LG, but LG says it is and that's good enough for me. Sony also wouldn’t be drawn into giving out stats about brightness, but as we know this is one of LG's latest panels, I reckon we’re looking at about 800 nits. That’s what you get from the Panasonic EZ1000 series, which uses the same LG panel.
Sony is quick to point out that it’s not just the panel that matters, but the processing too. The Sony A1 features the X1 Extreme processor found in the excellent Sony KD-65ZD9BU, which was easily one of the most impressive TVs of 2016.
So how does it look? Well it’s an OLED, so you get the characteristic perfect blacks and pin-sharp definition. I can confirm the A1 is effortlessly brighter than any OLED TV I reviewed in 2016, including LG’s top-end Signature G6.
Peak brightness is typically a concern with OLED displays, but take one look at the Sony A1 and it’s hard to imagine it will struggle with high dynamic range. Its black levels are still indisputably better than anything from the LCD camp, and it manages convincing highlights without any obvious clipping.
What sticks out for me is the stability of the picture. Slow-motion pans and tracking shots are a challenge for even the best TVs, but the Sony A1 demonstrates remarkable composure, with no noticeable judder or stutter. This is a strength I’ve noticed in many of Sony’s TVs, and it’s evidence that the X1 Extreme processor is doing good work.
These were my first impressions from the Sony launch on a brightly lit, very crowded show floor, but TrustedReviews was granted a proper look, behind closed doors. The conditions were much more favourable, and I was allowed to watch clips from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, instead of just fancy stock footage. Note that this was a standard Blu-ray in Full HD and standard dynamic range, not a 4K Blu-ray in Ultra HD and HDR.
The Star Wars opening crawl is one of my TV testing favourites, so I was right at home when this bit loaded up on the screen. And it looked simply delicious. You get the deep black you'd expect from a galaxy far, far away, and the stars are expertly localised with no clouding or light bleed in sight. This demo also reinforced my comment above about motion stability – those scrolling yellow words drifted smoothly into space smoothly, with no hint of wobble.
Also hugely impressive was the sound. I'll admit that I rolled my eyes when Sony announced this screen-vibrating tech, but it totally works. I put my hand on the screen, and it shook the way a speaker cone would. How does it sound? Surprisingly good, and certainly no worse than you'd expect from a regular TV with speakers attached. The scene at the end where Poe and his X-Wing buddies blow things up sounded clear but not shrill, with a decent amount of weight.
The highlight here was the way the sound followed the action on-screen and off. You can track voices to people's mouths and explosions go where they should. The stereo image is good enough that the sound does a great job off-screen, both vertically and horizontally. Such precision in effects placement is something I'd only associate with surround sound systems, or Dolby Atmos, or really clever Yamaha soundbars – but not a TV.
I can't wait to see this TV again for a proper review – Sony tells me the A1 will ship in summer 2017. Prices are yet to be confirmed, and Sony is blaming Donald Trump for a volatile market. I couldn't tell if they were joking.
It’s a shame that it has taken so long for Sony to put out a 4K OLED TV, because the Sony A1 is really quite impressive. Even at this early stage, it’s clear that Sony has made something that’s a pleasure to behold. I've seen this TV three times now, and each time I'm blown away. Assuming the pricing isn’t overly ambitious, I reckon Sony could be onto a winner.