"It's a Sony."
That memorable ad tagline from the company's heyday in the 80's and 90's still resonates today. In the last few years Sony has reburnished its reputation with high-performance, high-cost LCD TVs like the excellent and . For 2017 the storied Japanese brand goes a step further with the XBR-A1E, its first consumer since the 11-inch, $2,500 from 2008.
Organic Light Emitting Diode-based TVs produce the best picture quality we've ever tested. These days only LG Display can manufacture them, and it supplies the OLED panels used in Sony's A1E. Of course, LG Electronics sells a slew of OLED models itself, all of which compete against this Sony for the attention of well-heeled buyers. Regardless of their price differences, all of the LG OLED TVs have the same spectacular picture quality, so naturally the one I like best is the least-expensive, the.
The C7 currently costs about $1,000 less than the Sony XBR-A1E. And after comparing Sony's OLED TV to LG's 2017 E7 OLED side-by-side, I can tell you they have basically the same image quality. I noticed some differences in video processing, color and light output, but they're all very minor in the scheme of things. In other words, the Sony isn't worth $1,000 more than the C7 -- or even a couple hundred more, in my book -- based on image quality alone.
But it IS a Sony. And for big fans of that brand with money to burn, who might not have as warm a place in their hearts for LG, that might be enough. Other buyers may be swayed by the A1E's beautiful all-picture styling, its hidden speakers or even its highly capable Android TV system.
For everyone else in the high-end OLED TV price range, however, that extra money simply amounts to a Sony tax, and one they don't need to pay. The A1E is an excellent TV, but the C7 is a much better value.
Pumped up kickstand
Nobody better accuse Sony of conventional TV design with the A1E.
Most TVs employ a pedestal stand or little legs to keep their flat panels upright on a table or credenza, but Sony's bad boy brings a big-ass kickstand. Seen from the side, the ultra-thin OLED panel actually leans back a few degrees, supported by a hunk of plastic leaning in the opposite direction. It houses the inputs, power supply, a subwoofer and other guts. A locking hinge joins it to the panel, and a hefty weight at the bottom prevents the TV from tipping forward.
Seen from the front, the effect is striking: since the stand is basically invisible the Sony looks like all picture, even more-so than other TVs. The bottom edge rests directly on your furniture, and there's no speakers visible. It's just a minimalist black rectangle, all business.
The screen IS the speaker. Mind blown.
So where are the speakers, you might ask? In a first for any TV, they're actually incorporated into the screen with a technology Sony calls Acoustic Surface. Little transducers behind the screen actually cause it to vibrate to produce the higher frequencies, while that subwoofer in the kickstand takes care of the bass. You can't actually see the vibration, and it has no effect on image quality, but the concept is still pretty cool. Here's a demo from LG Display's booth at CES where it's branded "crystal sound technology."
I asked CNET's resident audio expert Ty Pendlebury to compare the A1E's sound to that of the LG E7 (which has a built-in sound bar) and the Samsung QN65Q7F (which has a more typical speaker arrangement). Here's his take:
Sony's main claim is that its centralized speaker design means that dialogue actually sounds like it's coming out of the actor's mouths. That was the case in our listening tests, but it's not a big deal because the same thing happens with any speaker placed near enough to the screen. When you're just watching, your brain compensates for the minor placement difference. Compared to the LG with its bottom-mounted speaker, I had to really concentrate to tell.
For a TV, the Sony was a good performer with music. On Nick Cave's doomy gothic masterpiece "Red Right Hand," it provided a pleasing delineation between the bass and Nick Cave's tenor vocals. The added sub really gave this rock track some weight, and also added gravitas to Sylvan Esso's "A Glow," which sounded bright and unpleasant on the other two TVs.
The LG sounded better with movies, however. While its lack of deep bass meant that the Thanator Chase scene from "Avatar" was robbed of some excitement, voices sounded clearer and more natural than the Sony. Through the Sony's speaker, Sigourney Weaver's voice sounded particularly strange -- she sounds a lot more deep and nasally than her voice should -- although explosions sounded more dynamic than the LG. The Samsung was OK with dialog, but otherwise sounded mid-range heavy and lacked punch in comparison to the other two.
Overall the LG E7 beats the Sony by a small margin, and both sound better than typical flat panel audio systems like that of the Samsung Q7. But if you care about sound then you should at least invest in a decent sound bar, which will sound better in every way than any TV.
Google is Sony's smart TV secret weapon
Sony's sets run Google's smart TV system, and it beats the homebrew solutions from Samsung and LG (if not Roku TV) in the most important area: app coverage.
The A1E's Amazon and Netflix apps support both 4K and HDR. Google Play Movies and TV has 4K support, there's an UltraFlix app with some niche 4K content and, of course, 4K support on the YouTube app. Sony's own Ultra app, exclusive to Sony TVs, also has 4K and HDR movies by Sony Pictures on a purchase-only basis (typically $26-$30 each). On the other hand the Sony TV's Vudu app offers neither 4K nor HDR support.
Other apps abound including PlayStation Vue, CNNGo, HBO Now, Plex, PBS Kids, Sling TV and of course numerous lesser apps along with games are available via the Google Play Store (don't get too excited, it's specific to Android TV, and much less extensive than the one on your phone). Speaking of phones, many more apps can be cast to the Sony via its built-in Google Cast functionality, which works just like a Chromecast. And speaking of speaking, voice search using the remote works very well to find stuff.
Android TV also means the Sony will work with the Google Home speaker. Right now video functionality is restricted to the YouTube app: "OK Google, play cat videos on Media Room TV," worked exactly as I expected. I could even ask it to pause, resume play or change volume. That's cool, but it's worth noting that a $35 Chromecast (and Chromecast built-in TVs, namely from Vizio) offer better integration, including Netflix support with Google Home speakers.
Later this year Android TV (and Sony TVs like the A1E) will get Google Assistant, enabling a lot more functionality like smart home device control and more, using the Sony remote. At the same time Google Home speaker integration will improve, allowing you to control the TV itself (power on/off, switch inputs, change channels, etc) and additional apps beyond YouTube with a Google Home.