Sony first introduced its flagship Z Series of UHD TVs with much fanfare at a special event in July of last year. The Z Series represents the pinnacle of what Sony can deliver in UHD TV performance, and the company still considers it to be the flagship TV line, even as the new Sony OLED TVs arrive.
That last line might surprise some people. OLED has definitely taken over the seat vacated by plasma as the videophile's choice in TV technology, winning multiple Best of Awards over the past couple years. Even though Sony is now courting OLED lovers with the A1E Series, the company still has tremendous confidence in the Z Series. And indeed, I've heard a lot of good things about these TVs, from owners and industry colleagues alike. But I couldn't answer any comparison questions myself because I hadn't seen the Z Series in action. So, when Sony recently offered me a sample of the 65-inch XBR-65Z9D, I was excited to see for myself if the hype is merited.
When the Z Series was first announced, its pricing was quite high--even higher than many OLED options and on par with VIZIO's Reference Series Dolby Vision TV. The 65-incher was originally listed at $6,999 (in comparison, the new 65-inch XBR-65A1E OLED has a starting MSRP of $6,499). Now, the XBR-65Z9D sells for about $5,500, which is still a premium for a 65-inch UHD TV.
So, what does the Z Series deliver? Well, the XBR-65Z9D supports High Dynamic Range and Wide Color Gamut technologies. It currently only supports HDR10, but Sony intends to add Dolby Vision and Hybrid Log Gamma HDR support via firmware update later this year. This is a 120-Hz TV that uses Sony's X1 Extreme processor and 4K X-Reality Pro technology. Its Master Backlight Drive panel is a full-array panel with local dimming, with the company's X-tended Dynamic Range Pro and Triluminos technologies for contrast and color, respectively.
The XBR-65Z9D is an Android smart TV, loaded with a variety of streaming services and Chrome Cast to easily transmit content from mobile devices. It's also an active 3D TV, with two pairs of glasses included in the package. (For the record, Sony's new 2017 OLED and LED/LCD TVs will not support 3D playback.)
We've scratched the surface with talk of features and pricing, but there's so much more to cover with the Z Series.
From an aesthetic standpoint, there's nothing particularly striking about the XBR-65Z9D. There's a half inch of matte-black bezel around the screen, with a brushed gold trim around the outer edge. Sony has moved away from the dual V-shaped feet used with previous TVs, which were spaced far apart and required a long base upon which to sit. The company has returned to a brushed-black pedestal stand, in which the TV feels stable and secure. With a full-array LED backlight, the XBR-65Z9D is thicker and heavier than other LCD and OLED options--measuring 3.13 inches deep and weighing 70.5 pounds without the stand.
The connection panel is recessed into the TV's backside, and it includes four HDMI 2.0a inputs with HDCP 2.2 copy protection. However, only inputs 2 and 3 support the full 18-Gbps transmission rate to ensure passage of 4K/60p 4:4:4 at higher bit depths. The other two inputs support the 10.2-Gbps rate and can pass 4K/24p without issue. A small but nice design element is that three of the HDMI inputs face in toward the center of the TV, making it easier to route cables toward the center.
Other inputs include an RF input, one shared component/composite input with stereo audio, one standard composite video in, one optical digital audio output, and one headphone/mini-jack/subwoofer output. Three USB ports are available for media playback and connection of peripheral devices like a keyboard; built-in Bluetooth 4.1 also allows for the wireless connection of headphones, speakers, keyboards, and gaming controllers. A LAN port is available for a wired Internet connection, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi is also built-in. Finally, there's RS-232 for integration into an advanced control system, and IP control is also an option.
The supplied remote is a basic IR handheld model that lacks backlighting. I'm not crazy about the button layout--in the middle is a circle of buttons labeled Action Menu, Guide, TV, Back, Discover, and Home (I'll tell you what they do in a second), with directional/navigation arrows and an enter/ok button inside the circle. You can differentiate the small arrow buttons by feel, but they are just too close to the circle buttons. I was constantly hitting "Discover" when I meant to hit the down arrow, and vice versa. The remote includes direct buttons to launch Google Play and Netflix.
As you'd expect from a flagship TV, the XBR-65Z9D has most of the advanced picture adjustments needed to fine-tune/calibrate the image--with one notable exception. You get two-point and 10-point white balance adjustment, plus R/G/B gamma color adjustment and a seven-step gamma adjustment. There are noise reduction and smooth gradation tools, multiple Motionflow options to deal with motion blur and film judder, and Sony's Reality Creation tool to enhance the sense of detail. You can adjust the aggressiveness of the local dimming function and the X-tended Dynamic Range function (which brightens the image when you enable it).
The one thing you don't get is a color management system to fine-tune the hue, saturation, and brightness of the six color points. Sony used to omit this feature from its projectors (although it doesn't anymore), and the reason was always, "Our color points are accurate enough that we don't need to include it." Oftentimes that proved to be true; we'll see down in the Performance section if it's true here or not.
All of the HDR/Wide Color Gamut functions are set to Auto by default, so the TV will automatically switch into HDR mode, enable the full HDMI dynamic range, and engage the wider color gamut when it detects a UHD/HDR signal. The one thing you do need to do, if you want to pass a full 4K/60p 4:2:0 10-bit signal (or higher), is properly configure HDMI inputs 2 and 3. In the Settings menu, you have to go to External Inputs, then to HDMI Signal Format, then switch it from Standard to Enhanced.
The TV has two down-firing 10-watt speakers that provide decent but not spectacular sound quality. There are lots of sound adjustment options: three sound modes, a ClearAudio+ tool, simulated surround, voice zoom, and more.
Throughout the review process, I mated the XBR-65Z9D with several different UHD Blu-ray players: the Samsung UBD-K8500, the Oppo UDP-203, and Sony's new UBP-X800 (review to come). For TV watching, I used my Dish Hopper 3 UHD DVR.
User Interface and Android TV
With the XBR-65Z9D, there are multiple ways to view/navigate menus and perform desired tasks. For instance, the remote's Action Menu brings up a toolbar along the top of the screen through which you can quickly access the menus for picture adjustments, sound adjustments, external speaker connection, headphone adjustments, etc. And, if you set up the TV to control your cable/satellite box, the Action Menu is where you'll find onscreen controls for DVR and other set-top-box functions. The remote's Guide button will bring up content from your provider, and the TV button will always take you back to that input. Unfortunately, if you want the XBR-65Z9D to control your set-top box (or AV receiver), you have to connect the supplied IR blaster cable. Samsung and LG have long since moved past the need for IR cables in their set-top-box control platforms.
The remote's Home button brings up a full-screen interface that contains a little bit of everything. The first row is filled with suggested content and setup tutorials. Below that is a list of Featured Apps, and Sony's Android TV platform sports most of the marquee apps--including Netflix, Amazon Video, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, VUDU, Sling TV, Playstation Vue, Fandango NOW, HBO Go/Now, Showtime Anytime, and many more. On the music side, you get Google Play Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, Vevo, and Spotify.
UHD content is available through Netflix, Amazon Video, Google Play, YouTube, and Sony's own Ultra 4K Movies & TV service--where you can buy and rent UHD/HDR movies produced by Sony Pictures. The VUDU and Fandango NOW apps are not currently the UHD versions. Interestingly, when I searched the term "UHD" in Fandango NOW, I saw a list of the many movies offered in UHD; I just couldn't play any of them.
Below the apps is a Games area, with the option to browse Sony's Games Shop to add content. Then there's a list of inputs, and finally the Settings area, where you can access all of the picture, sound, and other adjustments I discussed above.
Another navigation option on the remote is the Discover button, which brings up a different toolbar along the bottom of the screen. You can configure this toolbar to contain all sorts of quick links to Netflix, YouTube, other apps, favorite channels, etc.
Last but not least, there's voice search. Just hit the remote's microphone button and name a show, movie, actor, director, etc., to get a list of content options and related YouTube videos. Of course, since this is a Sony Android TV, the search results skew heavily toward Google Play and Playstation Video. However, when I searched for Netflix titles like House of Cards, Stranger Things, and Arrested Development, the results did include Netflix. On the other hand, when I searched for Amazon original programming like Transparent or Mozart in the Jungle, I did not get Amazon Video in my search results.
As an Android TV, the XBR-65Z9D also supports Chrome Cast, and I had no issue sending video and music content from my iPhone 6, through Cast-compatible apps like YouTube, Google Play, and Pandora.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
As always, I began my official evaluation by measuring the Sony's different picture modes as they come out of the box to see which is the closest to reference HD standards. The XBR-65Z9D has a lot of picture modes, and I confess I did not measure all the ones aimed at photos, graphics, animation, and sports. Instead, I focused on the Vivid, Standard, Custom, and Cinema modes. Sony describes the XBR-65Z9D as a "prosumer" display, meaning it's designed for use as both a professional studio monitor and a consumer TV. Sony recommends the Custom mode for professional use and the Cinema Home and Cinema Pro modes for consumer use. I obtained similar white balance and color measurements in all three of these modes, so I followed Sony's recommendation and chose the Cinema Pro mode for nighttime movie watching and Cinema Home for daytime TV.
I performed my official calibration in the Cinema Pro mode. Its pre-calibration numbers were good but not excellent. Its light output was a very high 139 foot-lamberts, which I think is much too bright for nighttime movie watching. I had to dial the backlight brightness way, way down to a setting of 6 (out of 50) to get to more comfortable 45 ft-L. The maximum grayscale Delta Error was 6.3: the white balance was a bit too cool (or blue) at the brighter end of the spectrum, and the gamma average was 2.5. The calibration process yielded excellent results: a maximum Delta Error of 1.3 and a gamma average of 2.26.
In terms of color accuracy, the least accurate colors before calibration were blue and cyan, which had Delta Errors of 3.43 and 4.01, respectively. Those are very good out-of-the-box numbers. As I mentioned above, there's no color management system to fine-tune the color points, but the act of adjusting all the other image parameters (white balance, gamma, and light output) actually improved the accuracy of almost all the color points when I was finished. In the end, red was the least accurate, with a DE of just 1.9. So, Sony was right--I didn't miss the CMS because I didn't need it. (See the Measurements section below for more information on our measurement process.)
The main differences between the Cinema Home and Cinema Pro modes are in the areas of light output and gamma. The Cinema Home mode measured a very bright 151 ft-L, yet its gamma still tracked right along the 2.2 gamma curve. Combine that with its fairly neutral color temp and accurate color points, and it's pretty much good to go right out of the box as a great daytime TV-watching mode (although I did choose to turn off a lot of features--like Motionflow, Live Color, and Contrast Enhancer--that are turned on by default). The XBR-65Z9D's screen is reflective and does a great job of rejecting ambient light to keep the image contrast high in a bright room. Its reflective nature means that you will see room reflections, so you'll need to be mindful of where you place lamps and other light sources in relation to the screen. The TV's viewing angle is better than average for an LCD.
Overall, the XBR-65Z9D is the brightest TV I've ever measured; its brightest picture mode is the Vivid mode, which measured 210 ft-L with a full white field. Compare that with Samsung's current flagship UN65KS9800, which maxed out at 182 ft-L in Dynamic mode. Light output is an important parameter for HDR content; in HDR mode, the XBR-65Z9D measured roughly 1,800 nits with a 100-IRE pattern in a 10 percent window, while my reference LG 65EF9500 OLED measured only 428 nits with the same pattern. Newer LG OLEDs are brighter than my 2015 model, but they still can't rival LCD in this area.
In my book, all that brightness means very little if the TV underperforms in the black-level department. And it's in this department where the Sony really struts its stuff, besting every LED/LCD TV I've tested. As I ran through black-level demos from The Bourne Supremacy (DVD), Flags of Our Fathers (BD), Gravity (BD), The Revenant (UHD), and Batman vs. Superman (UHD), the Sony TV absolutely kept pace with the LG OLED in its depth of black, and its shadow detail was a little better. At times the Sony's deepest blacks looked just a little bluish, even after calibration. Brightness uniformity around the screen was excellent, and the halo effect (or the glow you see around bright objects in a local-dimming-equipped LED/LCD) was a non-issue. Sure, there were instances, especially with white text on a black background, where I could see a hint of glow, but it was so minor as to be inconsequential--unlike the Samsung KS9800, which really struggled in the halo department.
As I moved from one UHD disc to another--including Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Batman vs. Superman, Sicario, The Revenant, and The Magnificent Seven--I was simply enthralled with the XBR-65Z9D's picture quality. It was gorgeous in every respect: the level of detail was exceptional, the color was wonderfully rich, and the picture was very clean. There are two areas, in particular, where it distinguished itself from my reference LG 65EF9500 OLED. The first, and most obvious, is in its brightness with HDR content. The fire and moonlight glow in The Revenant, the explosions and eye lasers in Batman vs. Superman, the fireworks of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk--all those elements popped in a way that the OLED couldn't match.
A more subtle but just-as-meaningful difference is in the processing. My one knock on the LG TV when I reviewed it was that its processing wasn't as good as it should be for a higher-end TV, and I saw this play out in comparison with the Sony. For instance, at the 1:27:36 mark in Sicario, an agent enters a dark tunnel, silhouetted against the dark blue sky. On the Sony, everything looked clean, and the black areas were perfectly black. On the LG, the black areas were filled with noise and banding issues. I saw something similar starting at the 24:18 mark in the Gravity BD, as the light from the sun transitions to the dark of space. The Sony produced a mostly smooth transition, while the LG produced obvious rainbow-shaped steps from light to dark.
I also saw color shifting issues. In chapter five of the Flags of Our Fathers BD, the men sit on the boat's deck on a foggy evening. With the LG, I could see reds and greens in the grey fog, whereas the Sony was clean. At the 2:43:18 mark in Batman vs Superman, we see a simple shot of the empty Daily Planet office: in the white ceiling surrounding the long overhead fluorescent light, the LG again showed a lot of red and green bands, while the Sony had a cleaner white.
Don't misunderstand: Much of the time, both of these TVs look fantastic. But there were definitely a few instances where the Sony had a real advantage, beyond just its higher light output. Hopefully I'll get my hands on a newer 2017 OLED and see where it stands in the brightness and processing departments.
A few more quick observations about the XBR-65Z9D. The Motionflow menu includes a variety of ways to address motion blur and judder: I preferred the Clear mode, which does a great job preserving motion resolution without adding the smoothing function--but there's also a custom mode in which you can independently adjust the blur and judder controls. The TV passed most 480i and 1080i deinterlacing tests; it was a little slow to detect the 3:2 film cadence in 480i DVDs, so I occasionally saw some moire and jaggies at the start of scenes. Overall, the Sony and Oppo Ultra HD players did a slightly better job with both the deinterlacing and upconversion of DVDs. Finally, 3D content looked good. The TV has ample brightness for 3D, and I didn't see any obvious ghosting issues--although I did notice a lot of flicker in the supplied glasses.
Here are the measurement charts for the Sony XBR-65Z9D, created using Portrait Displays' Spectracal CalMAN software. These measurements show how close the display gets to our current HDTV standards. For both gray scale and color, a Delta Error under 10 is considered tolerable, under five is considered good, and under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye. Click on each photo to view the graph in a larger window.
The top charts show the projector's color balance, gamma, and total gray-scale Delta Error, below and after calibration in the Cinema Pro mode. Ideally, the red, green, and blue lines will be as close together as possible to reflect a neutral color/white balance. We currently use a gamma target of 2.2 for HDTVs and 2.4 for projectors. The bottom charts show where the six color points fall on the Rec 709 triangle, as well as the luminance (brightness) error and total Delta Error for each color point.
We also measured the TV in HDR mode. The XBR-65Z9D's most accurate picture mode for HDR was the Custom mode. It measures a maximum brightness of 1,846 nits at 100 IRE in a 10 percent window. To the right, the top chart shows the Custom mode's EOTF (aka the "new gamma") tracking; the yellow line is the target, and the Sony (gray line) measures very close to it, but just a little over-luminance in the 50- to 80-IRE range.
The bottom chart shows the full Rec 2020 color triangle, with the target points being set for DCI-P3 color (currently, no TVs can do full Rec 2020 color). Each white square is the target at a certain saturation level for each color. This TV falls slightly short of the full P3 color space, although similar to other UHD TVs we've measured.
For a flagship display, there's nothing especially noteworthy about the aesthetics or sound system of the XBR-65Z9D. LG's new OLEDs have a cool picture-on-glass design and, of course, are thinner and lighter; they also come with soundbars (with Atmos support in some). VIZIO's 65-inch Reference Series TV comes with soundbar, sub, and dedicated surrounds. Granted, most people shopping in this price range will (hopefully) also have a good multichannel speaker system in place.
The Android TV platform has become as fully featured as its rivals, and the convenience of Chrome Cast is great. However, because there are so many different ways to navigate this TV and browse content, the overall user experience doesn't feel as intuitive and well integrated as other smart TV platforms I've auditioned. Samsung and LG have really put a lot of design effort into minimizing the number of steps, layers, and button pushes you need to move from one screen or service to another, whereas Sony's interface fells a lot more cluttered and step-heavy.
My last comment falls firmly in the nitpick category, but I just have to mention something about the picture controls. Sony has changed the names of two standard picture adjustments. In pretty much every LCD TV, the adjustable backlight control is called Backlight, while the Brightness control adjusts the level of black in the signal. In this TV, the Brightness control adjusts the backlight, and the Black Level control adjusts the level of black. Now, those names may very well be a more accurate reflection of what's being adjusted, but it's just going trip up calibrators and videophiles who are used to the existing nomenclature.
Comparison & Competition
One competitor, pricewise, is VIZIO's Reference Series RS65-B2. It's also a full-array LED/LCD TV with 384 dimmable zones but only rated at 800 nits of light output. It supports both Dolby Vision and HDR10 and costs $5,999.99.
LG's new 2017 OLED lineup is reportedly brighter than past models, and the performance should be similar across the whole line. All of them support Dolby Vision and HDR10. The different series offer different design and feature options. The top-shelf Signature OLED65W7P has an MSRP of $7,999, the OLED65G7P is $6,999, the OLED65E7P is $5,999, and the OLED65C7P is $4,999. (Those are early MSRPs; we'll see if the prices drop when the TVs actually ship.)
Samsung's 2016 flagship is the full-array UN65KS9800 (which is curved, see my review here), and it now sells for $3,000. It's a very good performer, but really not to the same level as the Sony. The new 2017 flagship QN65Q9F will use edge LED lighting and Samsung's newly enhanced quantum dot technology to supposedly improve light efficiency, stability, and viewing angle. It has a starting MSRP of $5,999.99.
Obviously, Sony's own XBR-65A1E OLED, at $6,499, will also be a competitor.
If I may quote Neil Diamond (or The Monkees), I'm a believer. Sony's XBR-65Z9D is simply a fantastic Ultra HD TV that excels in every performance category. Now that I've seen it in action myself, I understand why Sony intends to keep it at the top of the line. Whether you're watching HDTV, DVD, or UHD, in a sun-drenched room or a completely light-controlled theater, this TV will deliver. Yes, it's expensive, and yes there are more affordable, well-performing choices out there that will suffice for a vast majority of people. But if you want the absolute best and brightest available on the market today to bring your new Ultra HD collection to life, the Sony Z9 is it.