Sony XEL-1 OLED TV review: Sony XEL-1 OLED TV

Performance
The short story on performance is that the Sony XEL-1, thanks to all those fancy diodes, displayed the deepest black levels we've ever seen from a shipping TV. Blacks produced by this TV are basically absolute and visually indistinguishable from the black frame around the screen in a dark environment. Its color accuracy could certainly use some improvement, but colors have more pop and vibrancy than any TV we've tested--we suspect the set's black-level performance was a big help in this regard--and it excelled in a few other categories typically dominated by plasma, such as screen uniformity and off-angle viewing.

Those black levels make a pretty good case for OLED's eventual supremacy in the picture quality arena. The only display we've seen that comes close to the XEL-1 is Pioneer's "Extreme Contrast Concept" plasma, demonstrated at CES 2008, and we expect OLED to battle that technology for flat-panel bragging rights in the years to come.

Sony XEL-1
The Sony XEL-1 is overshadowed by our current Editors' Choice 50-inch plasma, the Pioneer PDP-5080HD, which costs about the same.

Of course, actually watching this Lilliputian display next to our current Editors' Choice plasma, the 50-inch Pioneer PDP-5080HD, was an exercise in frustration. We simply couldn't sit close enough to the tiny 11-inch screen to experience the kind of HD impact we've come to expect, and we found our eyes straying to the Pioneer despite the Sony's phenomenal picture. But let's forget the XEL-1's uselessness as a practical home theater display and focus on its performance otherwise.

Back to black levels. When the XEL-1 showed completely dark screens, letterbox bars, titles with text on a black background, or portions of the menu on our PlayStation 3, for example, those black areas were pitch black. They blended into the black frame around the TV completely, so the brighter text, for instance, seemed to float in space in our completely dark room. The XEL-1's blacks, which are the main reason behind Sony's 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio spec, were significantly darker than on the Pioneer, and of course blew other displays away, such as our Sony KDS-55A3000 color reference.

Shadows, such as the dark hair of the actors in Sunshine as they watched the sun from up close, also looked superb, showing as much fine detail as the Pioneer. We do think this set's gamma could use some improvement, however, because the near-black of space, for example, still appeared overly bright, especially against the inky letterbox bars.

That high contrast revealed a few issues that are more limitations of human vision than the TV itself. In scenes with very bright areas on a dark background, such as the white names on the black screen during the credits, we saw faint brightness around the edge of the letters. This shouldn't be confused with the much more intense "blooming" we witnessed on the LED-backlit Samsung LN-T4681F, and it certainly wasn't very distracting. At times, however, it would even extend beyond the edge of the screen itself, "bleeding" seemingly into the frame--an optical illusion of sorts caused by those absolute blacks.

We found the Sony's image much more comfortable to watch at reduced light output. Even our standard 40ftl peak seemed too bright in many scenes in our dark room, an issue compounded by the small screen size. High contrast and a small screen is a sure recipe for eyestrain.

Primary and secondary colors on the XEL-1 measured nowhere near the HDTV standard, and green was so far off the charts that the plants in the ship's hydroponics farm actually looked neon. This issue also lent skin tones a more sickly tinge, and the set's grayscale did have a tendency to get extremely green in near-dark areas including, annoyingly, the void of space, which looked a lot more natural on the Pioneer. Yes, saturation and punch were superb, but the XEL-1's lack of accurate colors was quite apparent, especially in side-by-side comparisons. We assume these issues are the fault of Sony's implementation and not OLED technology in general, but there's no real way to tell since this is the only OLED TV we've tested.

The lower native resolution of the XEL-1's screen wasn't a big deal, especially because smaller screens always look sharper than bigger ones. No matter what we watched, the XEL-1 seemed sharper than the other two displays due to its size and, to some extent, its incredible contrast ratio. We did notice a few artifacts that we assume were caused by the lower pixel count, such as jaggies on a thin crossbar in the ship's mess hall, but they weren't apparent in most scenes and were subtle when they did appear. Naturally the set failed to resolve the finest details on both 1080i and 720p test patterns, which both exceeded its native resolution. For what it's worth, the XEL-1 failed to properly deinterlace video-based 1080i sources, but it handled the more important film-based sources well. It also accepted 1080p/24 sources, although we didn't see any benefit versus standard 1080p.

In many other important ways, OLED seems to behave much like plasma--which is a good thing. The Sony XEL-1 evinced no smearing or blurring in motion even with difficult test material, which helps back up Sony's claim regarding OLED's fast response times. Off-angle viewing on the XEL-1 was as good as we've seen from any display, and the image remained bright and non-washed-out from any seating position. Uniformity across the screen was also essentially perfect. Unfortunately, Sony decided to coat the XEL-1's screen with a finish that reflected a good deal of ambient light from the room--hopefully future OLED sets will have less-reflective screens.

Another advantage of OLED, according to Sony, is its energy efficiency. While we did test the XEL-1's power consumption as we do for every TV we review, the numbers from the Geek Box below do little to prove how efficient OLED can be. That is simply because we haven't tested any other TVs with screens this small, so we have nothing to compare it to. We'd also be loathe to take use this tiny, specialized, first-generation set as a referendum on OLED power consumption in general, although we have no cause to doubt Sony's claims. In short, we'll have to wait until shipping OLED sets of larger sizes reach CNET's lab before we can comment definitively on their efficiency.

We didn't test the Sony XEL-1 with standard-def or PC sources.

TEST RESULT SCORE
Before color temp (20/80) 5940/6848 Good
After color temp N/A  
Before grayscale variation +/- 443K Good
After grayscale variation N/A  
Color of red (x/y) 0.68/0.32 Poor
Color of green 0.271/0.679 Poor
Color of blue 0.133/0.069 Poor
Overscan 3.0% Average
Black-level retention All patterns stable Good
Defeatable edge enhancement Y Good
480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps Y Good
1080i video resolution Fail Poor
1080i film resolution Pass Good

Sony XEL-1 Picture settings
Default Calibrated Power Save
Picture on (watts) 23.99 21.87 22.62
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.46 0.42 0.44
Standby (watts) 1.71 1.71 1.71
Cost per year $8.32 $7.68 $7.91
Score (considering size) N/A*
Score (overall) N/A*

*We did not include scores for the Sony XEL-1 because its tiny screen size makes it effectively impossible to compare against other HDTVs we've tested.

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    Sony XEL-1 OLED TV

    Part Number: XEL-1

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    Quick Specifications See All

    • Display Format 576p
    • Diagonal Size 11 in
    • Type OLED TV
    About The Author

    Section Editor David Katzmaier has reviewed TVs at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com.