Technology moves pretty fast. Just a few short months ago I reviewed Sony’s A8F, which was at the time the company’s flagship-adjacent OLED Ultra HD display. Between the time the review was written and published, though, Sony announced its new flagship displays, the MASTER Series (yes, Sony insists upon such capitalization). This announcement of course meant that my review of the A8F was now shockingly out of date, and all my findings and opinions within now considered yesterday’s news (at least according to some of our commentariat). This is the plight of an AV journalist: it’s difficult, if not impossible, to move at the speed of innovation these days. Thankfully, the good people at Sony didn’t want you (or me) left out in the cold, and they sent me a 65-inch MASTER Series OLED for review shortly after CEDIA.
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The Sony XBR-65A9F OLED Ultra HD display (A9F) is Sony’s new best-of-the-best-with-honors display. The new moniker it carries--MASTER Series--is reserved for only its finest displays, which at the moment stands at two. Inspired by the reference displays used in many post production facilities the world over, the A9F is touted as having the most accurate picture of any Sony consumer TV ever made.
In truth the Sony A9F isn’t that radically different from the A8F it surpasses. It’s not so much a huge leap forward as it is a refinement of what was already great. Sony has been known to do this throughout their product lines for years. The company makes a wonderful mirrorless camera in the A7, which like the A8F is enough for 95 percent of users, but that a didn’t stop its engineers from developing the A7R camera, which looks and feels the same as the A7, but is juiced for that user that needs that last five percent. The same could be said of the A9F MASTER Series.
The A9F comes in two variants, 55- and 65-inch models, the former of which sells for $3,499.99, with the 65-inch model reviewed here coming in at $4,499.99. The XBR-65A9F measures roughly 57 inches wide by 33 inches tall and a little over three inches deep at its thickest point. It tips the scales at an even 60 pounds, which makes it substantial but not ungodly. The A9F can be table or wall mounted, though instead of using a traditional platform or foot-based stand, the A9F comes equipped with a rear kickstand. Not unlike the back of a traditional picture frame, the kickstand juts out and holds the display at a near vertical angle. It’s pretty cool and does help to disguise the bottom girth of the display and its other party trick: built-in subwoofers. If you choose to use the included kickstand, the total depth you’ll need for it to rest safely grows from roughly three inches to nearly 13 inches. Admittedly, as cool as I thought the kickstand to be, I still opted to mount the A9F to my wall.
With the display turned off, there is little to distinguish the A9F from a single pane of tinted glass. Even sitting off-axis doesn’t really give you any clues that you’re looking at a traditional, flat panel display--especially when wall mounted. Only when viewing the display in profile do you see that it is not wafer thin and more than just a single sheet of glass. Around back you’ll find an oddly shaped molding of plastic, one designed to house the A9F’s IO ports as well as internal speakers (more on that later) and kickstand support.
As far as inputs and outputs go, the A9F has a good compliment of options lead by its four HDMI 2.1 ports, all of which are HDCP 2.3 and one of which supports eARC. Other inputs include an RS-232 port, three USB inputs, a composite video in, RF antenna, and Ethernet input as well. There is a digital audio output, as well as a single pair of five-way speaker binding posts--a bit of an oddity that I’ll discuss later.
That is pretty much it for the A9F’s physical input and output options. Non-hardwired connection options include built-in WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac), Bluetooth (version 4.2) and Google Assistant/Chromecast as well. The latter allows for other functionality like screen mirroring and Video & TV SideView courtesy of iOS/Android. And yes, like the A8F I reviewed earlier in the year, the A9F does still rely on the Android TV operating system, though in this case it’s Android Oreo instead of Nougat.
Internally, the A9F utilizes an Ultra HD OLED panel with a native resolution of 3,840 x 2,160. It is compatible with all three commonly available HDR formats: HDR10, HLG, and Dolby Vision. The A9F is also IMAX Enhanced, which is to say as the fledgling standard (?) begins to take shape, the Sony won’t find itself on the outside looking in, though as of this writing there really isn’t much more to say about IMAX Enhanced other than that its picture quality meets IMAX certification, whereas other TVs currently do not.
The A9F uses an X1 Ultimate processor opposed to the A8F’s X1 Extreme. Two other improvements over the A8F include Object-based Super Resolution and Pixel Contrast Booster, two items that help to enhance the image’s fidelity by utilizing real time contrast and object-based edge enhancements. For more on the ins and outs of the Sony A9F’s myriad other features please visit its product page.
A carryover from the A8F is Sony’s unique Acoustic Surface Audio, though the A9F now ups the ante with Acoustic Surface Audio Plus. The A9F possesses three unique drivers that Sony calls actuators, along with two small subwoofers. The actuators basically turn the entire front facia of the A9F into a large speaker, which in small- to medium-sized rooms has proven sufficient for a more realistic home theater-like performance. In my tests with the A8F, albeit in my bedroom setup, the Acoustic Surface Audio’s performance was more than enough to negate the need for a third-party soundbar. The A9F’s Acoustic Surface Audio Plus takes things a step further by allowing those same internal speakers to be wired as a center speaker in an existing multi-channel audio setup via your receiver or AV processor. That’s cool as shit.
Which brings me to the remote. It’s the same remote that comes with the A8F OLED, as well as the X900F LED UltraHD display. It’s Sony’s remote. It’s long, black, and plastic fantastic. I don’t mind it when paired with a thousand-dollar display, but for a reference product carrying with it the moniker “MASTER Series,” the remote simply doesn’t do it for me. There is nothing MASTERful about it.
I took delivery of the A9F right after CEDIA 2018, where the coverage surrounding the MASTER Series was at a fever pitch. I had already begun writing an end-of-year TV buyers guide, in which the A8F was my best-of pick--that is how much I liked it. To be honest, as great as the A9F’s press coverage was at launch and during CEDIA, I was skeptical, for the A8F was so good I honestly didn’t see that much room for improvement.
I installed the A9F on my wall, replacing the Vizio P-Series Quantum as my main living room display. The A9F, like the A8F, is thin, and must be handled delicately and preferably by two people when taking it out of the box and installing it, whether you choose to install it on a wall or using the included kickstand. I didn’t have help on the day the A9F arrived so I did it myself, which went better than expected, although I still recommend enlisting the help of a friend or family member if possible.
Once on the wall I connected the A9F to my Marantz NR1509 AV receiver via a single HDMI cable from the Marantz’s monitor out to the A9F’s sARC enabled HDMI input. I also connected the Marantz’s center channel output to the A9F’s single pair of five-way binding posts, for I wanted to utilize the display’s internal speakers as my center speaker for the duration of the review. The rest of my equipment was pretty basic--a Roku Ultra and a pair of Davone Audio Studio loudspeakers--giving me a minimal but effective 3.0-channel home theater setup.
The A9F has an auto calibration feature courtesy of CalMan, which is the software I use to calibrate all of my displays, both personally and professionally. I had to download an app from the Google Play store via the Sony’s built-in Android TV OS first, which wasn’t difficult. Once it was installed, I was able to connect CalMan to the A9F via my home WiFi network, which allowed the software to take control of the display and adjust its professional CMS controls without me ever having to reach for the remote.
Out of the box, the Sony A9F measured surprisingly well: not LG good, but very close. In fact, one could buy the A9F and put it into the Cinema or Custom picture profile and leave well enough alone. While not 100 percent calibrated, the A9F’s grey scale measured an average DeltaE (error) of 1.8, with color coming in at 4.8 out of the box. A DeltaE under three in either category is considered “calibrated,” so while the A9F’s greyscale and white balance may have been within the margin of error, its color wasn’t--though it wasn’t far off the mark. Post calibration the A9F had an average DeltaE of 0.8 for its grey scale, and 2.2 for its color. I reset the display twice and ran the calibration procedure twice more to ensure that the results were accurate and repeatable, which they were on both accounts. Satisfied, I pressed on.
I began my evaluation of the A9F with the latest Dwayne Johnson action flick, Skyscraper (Universal), in Ultra HD with Dolby Vision via Vudu. Straight away, the image was one of the more three-dimensional I’ve ever seen. There is no getting around the film’s digital cinema DNA, and that’s okay, for every frame looks like an HDR still taken straight from a high-end mirrorless camera with all the megapixels in the world. The colors were bang on and popped straight off the screen despite the A9F not being as bright overall as say a Vizio P-Series Quantum. OLED proves that, while important, brightness isn’t everything, and that contrast--real, perceivable contrast--will do more to make colors and light pop off the screen than sheer luminance alone.
Even in the dark scenes, of which the film has many, I was able to discern detail and visual information far more easily than I was via the last two Quantum Dot displays I had for review. While I did find the HDX (1080p) transfer of Skyscraper to be brighter than that of its Dolby Vision counterpart, both renditions were equally pleasing to watch. Detail, especially the battle-torn wardrobe and bloodied face of Johnson, was rendered so vividly that one could probably hit pause and determine the thread count of his oxford shirt and just what type of blade caused which perfectly placed cut.
Motion was smooth and artifact-free. Even the film’s many wide shots of Hong Kong produced nary a hint of moiré or other digital artifacts. Also missing was any hint of light bloom in the areas of extreme contrast, something that can trouble LED-backlit LCD displays, but not OLED.
Next, I cued up Deepwater Horizon (Lionsgate) in HDX (1080p) on Vudu. I love this little underrated film from 2016, and via the A9F it felt as if I was watching it anew. First, the way with which the A9F renders the subtlest of contrasts in skin tones beggars belief. The O in OLED stands for Organic, and that is exactly how I would classify the A9F’s rendering of human flesh.
The micro contrast, color dilatation, and sheer dimensionality I witnessed across all of the characters in the film was just astounding. No waxiness, artificial smoothening, or anything else of the like was present. Even when covered in thick, black oil, the naturalness and raw quality of real human skin shown through. It actually made me yell at the TV, “look at that!”
While Deepwater Horizon may be a decidedly grungy film, as opposed to the slick studio fare that was Skyscraper, it was nevertheless equally impressive to behold--even upscaled to 4K. Besides the color accuracy and textural quality of the A9F’s image, the thing that continues to blow me away about OLED is the presence of absolute black. I know I made a big deal about the presence of absolute black in my A8F review, but it deserves mentioning again. It is the magic sauce that makes everything else just look oh so sweet. Everything, even black oil shooting into the night sky, is all the richer and more defined among its surroundings thanks to the presence of absolute black. On every other non-OLED display, the billowing oil doesn’t stand out as strongly against the night sky as it does via the A9F.
Switching gears away from feature films, I tuned my YouTube TV subscription to local sports and watched the Texas Longhorns narrowly defeat Kansas State. OLED has been plagued with (largely) false concerns among enthusiasts that while its image quality is great, it suffers from burn in or is not good for sports. To both claims I call BS. Perhaps early OLED displays suffered this fate after extreme cases where someone was trying to cause burn in to see if it could, in fact, be done, but after weeks of watching the news and live sports I have yet to encounter it.
As for sports, the A9F is positively brilliant--especially games broadcast on FOX-owned networks, as their cameras and/or feed just seems more refined compared to the likes of CBS or NBC. Colors were rich, well saturated, and wholly natural. Contrast was sublime and motion was smooth, though not entirely artifact free, as some broadcast compression was still visible in quick whip pans. Still, the field looked less pixelated when compared to LED backlit LCD displays of any persuasion and motion (minus super quick pans) was very organic and mostly free from digital compression artifacts. The lower third of the image where game time info and the like is displayed looked positively three dimensional and was so naturally sharp you could cut yourself on the edges.
I want to end my subjective evaluation of the A9F by talking about its sound. In my A8F review I said that in small to medium rooms Sony’s Acoustic Surface technology Sony could replace a soundbar for some users--It did for me. In that review I had the A8F resting on its table mount and not flush-mounted on my wall. With the A9F mounted and its internal speaker settings adjusted appropriately, I found the sound to be not as pleasing. That is to say that with less air behind the display itself the sound didn’t benefit from boundary reinforcement; it was hindered by it.
Bass didn’t seem as full and the midrange and treble, while clear and intelligible, were biased towards the upper registers. Using the A9F as a dedicated center speaker worked as advertised, and was even welcomed, but only in certain situations. First, you need to be sure to set your AV receiver or processor’s center speaker setting to small and set the crossover point to something higher like 100 or even 120Hz, since there is no way this thing is reaching even close to 80 Hz, which is customary for many components. Doing so does improve things a bit, but honestly, if your mains have deeper bass extension, the center speaker will likely always sound a little pinched by comparison. If your surround sound system consists of satellite speakers, ones without much bass of their own, you will likely have a much better time and find the A9F’s internal speakers to blend better. But even my Davone Audio Studio bookshelf speakers shined light upon the A9F’s sonic deficiencies.
Strangely, I think Sony’s AcousticSurface technology works best when the display is mounted using its table stand, which I simply wasn’t expecting. I still maintain that, on its own, the Acoustic Surface technology is effective and pleasing in its own right, and enough for small to medium sized rooms for those who want an all-in-one solution.
There’s no two ways about it: I love the A9F and find it difficult to fault, so brace yourself, as what is about to follow is so nitpicky it will border on unreasonable.
First, the Android TV home screen and interface is still stupid and nowhere near as cool looking or as refined as Roku or Apple TV’s home screens. Furthermore, the Google Play Store may work great on your phone, but it wasn’t designed with TV use in mind, and it shows. Neither of these things have anything to do with Sony, except for Sony’s decision to use Android TV as its UI. That being said, it is a little bit snappier in its implementation on the A9F versus the A8F, but it is not night and day better.
Next, the remote control is still cheap and plastic and has no business being associated with a refined product such as the flagship A9F.
Third, for all the hyperbole surrounding the A9F’s Netflix calibrated picture profile and how the MASTER Series displays bring you closer to the director’s intent, it only works if you utilize Netflix via the display’s built-in app, and not one residing elsewhere--like on your Roku. Launch the A9F’s native Netflix app and you can select the Netflix Calibrated picture profile. Tune your input to your Roku or Apple TV and launch Netflix, and no such profile can be found.
Fourth, as detailed above, the Acoustic Surface technology works and works well, though using the A9F’s speakers as a center channel for your existing surround sound setup isn’t going to work in all situations or with every system. Those of you with small satellite speakers will likely be okay, but if you’re using larger speakers, say ones with woofers larger than five inches in diameter, you’re likely not going to find the A9F’s center speaker implementation up to snuff.
Lastly, the A9F doesn’t come in any size larger than 65 inches diagonally, which I think is a travesty. We know Sony offers a 77-inch diagonal size with the A1E OLED. The Z9F LED MASTER Series is offered in a 75-inch variant. But not the A9F? C’mon man.
Competition and Comparisons
The number one reason for this review, truthfully, was to suss out all the hype surrounding Sony’s MASTER Series claims and combat all the vitriol that stemmed from my reviewing the A8F when consumers just knew a better OLED was right around the corner. Well, let’s just get to it then. Is the A9F better than the A8F? Yes.
If you already own an A8F should you upgrade? No. If you have yet to purchase your next Ultra HD display and know you want an OLED, should you buy the A9F over the A8F? Yes. If money is tight, should you be ashamed of only being able to afford the A8F? No.
Just how much better is the A9F over the A8F? Maybe 10 percent? The A9F isn’t a whole new beast. As I said earlier in my review, it takes what was already great about the A8F (and A1E) and tweaks things a bit. It’s a little faster, a little snappier, a little brighter, a little more accurate, and just a little bit better overall. If I owned the A8F already I wouldn’t fear the A9F, but if I wanted the best there was from Sony right now, the A9F is the display I would be setting my sights on.
How does the A9F compare to other OLEDs, say those from LG? I don’t know if this is common knowledge or not, but LG manufacturers all of Sony’s OLED panels. That isn’t to say that LG and Sony OLED displays are interchangeable, but they are similar. I have found LG displays--both OLED and LED--to be a little more accurate out of the box when compared to Sony, but post calibration, both brands produce top-notch imagery that is worthy of your hard-earned money.
As for how the A9F compares to the recent crop of Quantum Dot based LED displays from Samsung or Vizio? Well, Quantum Dot displays are interesting, because when compared against other LED backlit LCDs, QD displays certainly look like they could go toe-to-toe with OLED displays. Then you lay eyes on an actual OLED and realize nothing is further from the truth. While QD displays are amazing, they just don’t compare to OLED in my humble opinion. QD displays look like really refined LED-backlit LCDs, and if you’re one that prefers that look then you should definitely take a good look at Vizio’s new P-Series Quantum or Samsung’s Q9FN. But for me, the extra brightness you get from Quantum Dots is no match for the richness of contrasts you get from an OLED.
The Sony XBR-65A9F MASTER Series OLED Ultra HD display is a phenomenal achievement, one that is no doubt worth the premium you’ll pay for it. Then again, at a hair under $4,500, the A9F is almost a $1,000 more expensive than the Sony A8F, which is already a phenomenal display. The A9F forces you to ask the question: how much is the Nth degree of performance worth? For me, the few small changes made to the A9F add up to a lot, and do make a difference when comparing the two. For one, I do like that the A9F’s internal menus and Android TV UI are a little snappier. I love the inclusion of auto calibration from CalMan. The Netflix calibrated mode, while limited to the internal App, is still a welcomed addition and a feature I can see other manufacturers including down the road.
The ability to connect the A9F’s internal speakers to your existing home theater setup via its five-way binding posts also borders on inspired, despite the limitations of its implementation, and the small refinements to what was an already stellar image cannot be overlooked. For those who want the very best in video performance look no further than an OLED display, and among the small sampling of OLEDs on the market today, the Sony A9F MASTER Series may just be the best there currently is.
• Visit the Sony website for more product information.
•Sony X900F Ultra HD LED Smart TV Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Check out our TV Reviews category page to read similar reviews.