Sony XBR-A1E series review: Unique style and incredible OLED picture, but there's a 'Sony tax'
Sony's OLED TV costs a lot more than its LG rivals, but does its picture quality justify the price? We compare the two best TVs ever side-by-side.
"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 XBR-X930D and XBR-Z9D. For 2017 the storied Japanese brand goes a step further with the XBR-A1E, its first consumer OLED-based TV since the 11-inch, $2,500 XEL-1 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 C7.
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.
Features and connections
Key TV features
|HDR10 and Dolby Vision
OLED's basic tech is closer to late, lamented plasma than to the LED LCD (QLED or otherwise) technology used in the vast majority of today's TVs. Where LCD relies on a backlight shining through a liquid crystal panel to create the picture, with OLED and plasma, each individual sub-pixel is responsible for creating illumination. That's why OLED and plasma are known as "emissive" and LED LCD are called "transmissive" displays, and a big reason why OLED's picture quality is so good.
Unlike Samsung TVs, high-end Sony sets like the A1E will support both major current types of HDR video: Dolby Vision and HDR10. It handles HDR10 today, and a software update coming later this year will enable Dolby Vision.
- 4x HDMI inputs with HDMI 2.0b, HDCP 2.2
- 3x USB ports
- 1x composite video input
- Ethernet (LAN) port
- Optical digital audio output
- 1x RF (antenna) input
- RS-232 port (minijack)
The selection of connections, all located on the kickstand, is top-notch. Unlike many of Samsung's sets, the Sony actually has an analog video input for legacy (non-HDMI) devices, although it no longer supports analog component video. All of the inputs will work with 4K and HDR devices, but for best results Sony recommends using input 2 or 3 (which have higher bandwidth than the others) with 4K Blu-ray players and making sure to engage "HDMI enhanced" mode. Click here for details.
The three 2017 OLED TVs I've tested -- the Sony A1E, the LG C7 and the LG E7 -- are essentially tied for picture quality. And it's the best I've ever tested. If I personally had to pick one and money wasn't a consideration, I'd base my choice on other considerations (style or features). That's how close they are.
Sony claims better video processing in its demos, but in my tests any advantage is minor, and LG actually handled sone processing tests better than Sony. The color on my Sony review sample was a bit more accurate, but the LGs were so close it again doesn't amount to a real advantage. Black and white levels, the building blocks of picture quality, are essentially the same. And it should come as no surprise that all three OLED TVs outperform any of the LCD-based TVs I've tested.
Click here to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.
Dim lighting: Anybody serious about image quality should dim the lights to appreciate the best quality sources, and when they do, they'll find that OLED is king. Watching "The Revenant" Blu-ray, the perfect black levels and unparalleled contrast of OLED made the Sony's image pop in a way that easily outclassed the LCD-based Samsung and Vizio.
Compared to the two LG OLED TVs, however, the Sony didn't show any advantage in a dim room, and the three looked almost identical. In Chapter 15 for example, as the fire plays over the faces and clothing of John and Bridger, the highlights, shadows and colors all looked superb. There was very little difference between the three in one of my favorite dark room torture tests, the assault on Hogwarts from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2."
Bright lighting: The A1E measured somewhat dimmer than the LG OLEDs in its brightest picture settings for standard material, although with HDR sources brightness was comparable. As usual with OLED, overall peak light output was lower than LCD according to test patterns.
Watching TV shows and movies, I found all three OLEDs plenty bright for just about any lighting environment. They're not the blinding light cannons that newer LCD-based displays can be however, especially when bright content occupies a majority of the screen. That said, even in the most snowbound scenes from "The Revenant," the OLEDs' full-field white disadvantage was tough to spot.
Light output comparison
|Light output in nits
|10% window (SDR)
|Full screen (SDR)
|10% window (HDR)
The Sony was essentially identical to the LG OLEDs at preserving black levels and reducing reflections -- a bit better than the Vizio and a bit worse than the Samsung, whose handling of reflections is among the best I've ever seen. Both 2017 OLEDs showed less of a purplish tinge to reflections than did the 2016 B6.
Color accuracy: Prior to calibration, the Sony was superb in the best picture mode, Cinema Pro, and afterward it was nearly perfect. "The Revenant" is resplendent with beautiful, natural color -- lots of green forests, blue skies and spectacular mountain vistas -- and the Sony reproduced them all faithfully. As I saw with black levels, however, its advantage in my measurements over the other TVs was tough to spot. All of them can get exceedingly accurate.
Video processing: With my motion tests the A1E didn't fare quite as well as the LG OLED sets. It had no issues delivering proper 1080p/24 material in its TruCinema MotionFlow setting, which is the (proper) default in the Cinema Pro picture mode, but can't deliver the TV's full motion resolution without introducing some smoothness, or soap opera effect. The Samsung and LG sets in my comparison can.
I tried tinkering with the Custom MotionFlow setting but its adjustments were quite coarse, and as soon as a setting registered the Sony's full motion resolution, at a Smoothness of 2 or higher, it looked too smooth and lost proper 1080p/24 cadence. Sticklers for blurring will note that the Samsung beat the Sony (and the LGs) with a score of 1,200 lines of motion resolution.
Input lag was measured 47 milliseconds in Game mode -- decent, but worse than either the LGs or the Samsung Q7. I didn't measure 4K or HDR lag this time around, but I plan to soon, and I'll update this review when it happens.
Sony touts its video processing, especially for lower-quality sources, but as usual I didn't find the effects all that impressive. Its Reality Creation settings added artificial-looking sharpness to my Fios TV feed, and while some viewers might like the effect, I didn't. The Sony's processing couldn't help the poor look of the YouTube videos I watched either. As usual, cruddy source material will look bad bad no matter how good the TV's processing is.
Off-angle and uniformity: One big OLED advantage over LCD is its superb image when viewed from off-angle, in positions other than the sweet spot directly in front of the screen. The OLEDs maintained black level fidelity and color accuracy much better than any of the LED LCDs I've tested, all of which (including the Vizio and Samsung in this lineup) wash out in comparison. The LGs and the Sony performed the same from off-angle.
Screen uniformity on the Sony sets was solid but not perfect, with dark, full-field patterns showing faint vertical banding, very similar to the LG E7. It wasn't visible in program material I watched however, for example the dark "Harry Potter" scene. The LCDs, in particular the Samsung, showed much more noticeable uniformity issues, for example brightness variations across the screen.
HDR and 4K video:The Sony is a superb performer with HDR material too, but from what I saw it's not substantially better, or worse, than the LG sets.
I compared the TVs side-by-side using their best default HDR modes -- Cinema Pro for the Sony -- beginning with "The Revenant" 4K Blu-ray. The gloriously HDR-ified parts, like the brilliant sun and skies of the first Indian attack in Chapter 3, looked great on all three OLED sets, and markedly better than the two LCDs in my comparison.
Watching the scene unfold, the LGs did appear slightly brighter than the Sony in many areas. Spot measurements of highlights, for example of the sun peaking through the shack at 10:12, confirmed that impression. The difference wasn't massive (73 versus 93 nits between the two 65-inch OLEDs in that example) but it was visible side-by-side, and contributed to a slightly more impactful look on the LGs.
I kept an eye out for other differences between the OLEDs, in particular details in the clouds that some HDR TVs can cut off, but didn't see any in "The Revenant." So I popped in the "Mad Max: Fury Road" disc and hunted some more. The OLEDs all looked very similar with this film, and highlights measured closer to one another than on "The Revenant," although to my eye the LG E7 still has a slight brightness and impact advantage over the Sony. Highlight details in the clouds also looked identical, as did the brilliant reds during the storm chase in Chapter 3.
The Sony did show one minor advantage over the LG and the other sets in its reduction of the minor false contouring seen on some material. The skies in "The Martian" 4K Blu-ray, for example, occasionally showed exceedingly faint bands of color (at 46:37 for example) on the other sets, while the Sony with its Smooth gradation setting at Low or higher did not. I had to hunt for awhile to find an example, however, because the effect was so subtle.
HDR and 4K streaming worked as expected, and all of the differences were similar to what I saw on 4K Blu-ray. I didn't compare the LG's Dolby Vision to the Sony's HDR10 since the Sony is getting DV itself this year. I'll update this section with further testing when that happens.
|Black luminance (0%)
|Peak white luminance (100%)
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)
|Dark gray error (20%)
|Bright gray error (70%)
|Avg. color error
|Avg. saturations error
|Avg. luminance error
|Avg. color checker error
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)
|Motion resolution (max)
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)
|Input lag (Game mode)
|Peak white luminance (10% win)
|Gamut % DCI/P3 (CIE 1976)
|Avg. saturations error
|Avg. color checker error