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Sony's brighter new Z series TVs will put you in debt, look great doing it

Starting at $7K for the 65-inch size and going up to an undisclosed sum for 100 inches, Sony's latest sets challenge OLED with unprecedented brightness and all kinds of cutting edge HDR goodness.

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For people who can afford it, Sony's latest high-end TVs could actually outperform the current kings of picture quality, LG's OLEDs. If nothing else, they're certainly brighter.

Unveiled at an event in Los Angeles today, the Sony Z series is available for preorder from Sony now and will ship by the end of summer. The price of entry for the 65-inch size is $7,000US, and it will also be available in the UK and Europe, where it's called the Bravia ZD9 and costs 5,000 EUR (about £4177). Australian pricing and availability was not announced. The Z series also includes a 75 inch size ($10,000US, about £6682) and a crazy 100-inch model (pricing not available).

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Sony's 100-inch Z series TV unveiled by company execs.

Lexy Savvides/CNET

By comparison, LG's 65-inch E6 OLED TV costs $6,000, and Samsung's best 65-inch set, the 65KS9800, is $4500. I wouldn't be surprised if the new Sonys performed better than the Samsung, but to justify their prices, the Sonys need to deliver a better picture than OLED.

Given Sony's excellent track record with picture quality, and the mouthwatering Z series specifications company reps shared with me, that might actually be possible.

LED backlight dimming goes even more local

So how could an LED backlit LCD TV like the Z series hope to beat an OLED-based TV? Its dimming is more local.

The best current LCD TVs use a technology called local dimming, where the groups of LEDs that comprise the TV's backlight can be brightened, dimmed or turned off independently of one another. Generally the more of these dimming zones a TV has, the better its image quality.

The Z series takes local dimming to its logical conclusion: every LED in its backlight can be dimmed individually, discrete from its neighbors. Doing so should further reduce the amount of blooming, or stray illumination, that plagues local dimming TVs that rely on groups.

Sony's rep declined to specify how many LEDs the Z series uses, beyond telling me that it's "a lot more than is normally utilized, so blooming on axis is minimal." The press release also talks up a "calibrated beam LED design" that focuses the light emitted by the LEDs more narrowly, to further combat blooming.

OLED is immune to blooming because every one of its 8 million-odd pixels (in its 4K screen) is basically its own zone that can be brightened or dimmed individually. The Z series certainly has much fewer LEDs than that--LEDs are not pixels, they're basically the light bulbs that illuminate the pixels--so it will likely still suffer some blooming compared to OLED. To see exactly how much, we'll have to wait to review one.

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A prototype TV demonstrates Sony's Backlight Master Drive local dimming technology at CES 2016.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At CES in January during a closed-door demo, I did get the chance to see an 85-inch prototype that uses the same so-called Backlight Master Drive as Z series. I remember being impressed by the black levels and color of the demo, but mostly I remember how blindingly bright the picture felt. Indeed, Sony claimed the prototype could reach 4,000 nits, between three or four times as bright as the brightest current LED LCDs, while the best OLEDs are significantly dimmer.

Sony again didn't specify how many nits the shipping Z series can achieve, beyond assuring me its brightness is "unprecedented." Raw light output is an important component in making next-generation high dynamic range (HDR) content look impactful, but in my tests comparing OLEDs to LCD TVs with HDR, OLED's superior contrast was more important than light output. On paper, the Z series' combination of precise dimming (deep black levels) and high light output seems like a stiff challenge for OLED, at least from on-angle.

Sony also discusses the Z series' improved processing, including noise reduction said to better differentiate between details and film grain, a system that makes standard dynamic range content look more like HDR with object-based remastering, and 14-bit mapping to combat banding with both high-def (8-bit) and 4K (10-bit) sources.

Sony's rep assured me most processing options can be turned off, in case you don't like the effects, and confirmed that like other Sony TVs, this one only handles HDR10, not Dolby Vision HDR content. I also asked what percentage of the DCI/P3 color gamut the Z series would cover, but the rep declined to specify. For reference, the superb Sony XBR-X930D I reviewed earlier measured 91 percent, a bit short of the Samsung SUHD set I measured.

Like the X930D and other recent Sony sets, the Z series uses the Android TV operating system, with 4K and HDR-compatible Netflix and Amazon apps. It also includes Sony's exclusive Ultra app with Sony Pictures films in 4K and HDR available for purchase.

We look forward to seeing how the Z series actually performs against today's best TVs in our full review.

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