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.
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