Sony Bids To Bring Creative Intent To New 4K Master Series TVs
Sony upped the stakes in the high-performance 4K Ultra HD and high dynamic range flat-panel market Tuesday by formally unveiling its 2018/19 flagship “Master Series” televisions.
Both TV technologies in the series have been engineered around Sony’s powerful new X1 Ultimate processing chip to deliver images that are closely tuned to Sony’s BVM-X300 4K RGB OLED mastering monitor in wide use in Hollywood grading suites. The X1 Ultimate is able to drive new object-based HDR Remaster and object-based Super Resolution systems that draw out depth, texture and fine detail in an image for a more lifelike picture.
The Master Series will feature four models in total, all set to ship in the fall. These include 55- and 65-inch models in the 4K Ultra HD OLED technology and 65- and 75-inch models in the 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD technology class. Both OLEDs and LED-LCD TVs in the series will support HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR profiles, Sony said. Pricing was not announced.
Sony has taken extra steps in providing new picture calibration procedures and settings, both at the panel level in the factory, and in the settings menus, where consumers and calibrators can tweak images to the variables of the viewing environment, like room light levels. More on that later.
Mike Fasulo, Sony Electronics U.S. president, said the Master Series is being established to represent “the best of the best” in Sony’s television assortment. Importantly, the new flagship Master Series models were engineered to provide images that reflect the artistic intent of content creators.
To underscore that point, Sony brought to its flashy New York City press conference, Scott Mirer, Netflix device partnerships VP, Bill Baggelaar, senior VP Sony Pictures and Zack Estrin, the executive producer of Netflix’s Lost In Space OTT television series.
Also on hand was Joel Silver, founder of the Imaging Science Foundation, and Martin Fishman, co-CEO of Portrait Displays/SpectraCal, which develops CalMan display calibration tools. Each of the experts testified to the advanced picture quality capabilities of the new A9F and Z9F Master Series OLED and LED-LCD displays and how they better presented content to achieve the look that was originally intended.
Sony put great emphasis on delivering televisions that would be properly calibrated to the content creator’s vision, and Sony historically has delivered televisions with some of the best image processing and upconversion software in the industry.
The X1 Ultimate processor, which was first announced at CES 2018 in January, gives all of those algorithms more power to do things faster and better. This is also expected to help the televisions achieve higher points of peak brightness, by taking power from dark parts of an image and applying it to the bright points, where it is needed.
On the calibration side, Sony revealed a couple of firsts, both for Sony and for the industry. First, the company announced that the Sony Master Series will launch exclusively with a new “Netflix Calibrated Mode.” This was described as essentially a new best picture mode that will automatically shift many of the individual picture settings to make images look the way Sony engineers and Netflix producers feel best match the monitors used to grade the content in the first place. (Not coincidentally, those are often Sony BVM-X300 32-inch 4K RGB OLED mastering monitors).
Netflix Calibrated Mode will adjust key parameters for most common home viewing environments, to ensure the peak brightness and dark detail is retained in HDR-enhanced content. It also adjusts (basically turns off) the television’s motion processing circuitry (X-Motion-Clarity in Sony’s case) that is used to reduce motion blurring in sports and live video sequences, but can sometimes produce the Soap Opera Effect in cinematic material. Various blur-reduction systems through the years have generated controversy from Hollywood directors who feel the Soap Opera Effect ruins the qualities they are trying to bring out in the look of the image by making everything look like fake video.
Until now, television manufacturers have mostly refrained from addressing Hollywood’s requests to leave motion de-blurring features off in out-of-box settings since live video and sports often make up the majority of content viewed by customers.
For purists, Sony worked with Portrait Displays/SpectraCal to develop the new CalMan AutoCal system for the Master Series televisions. This is not a do-it-yourself calibration, but rather a new tool for professional and advanced amatures who have the training and equipment to measure and adjust the higher-level picture settings of the television.
AutoCal reduces a professional calibration down to about a 10 to 15 minute process after setup, and is said to deliver highly accurate results.
As for specs and stats of the new televisions, Sony was predictably stingy on providing details. No data was supplied for peak luminance levels, color gamut, black level, bit depth, etc. Stay tuned for our in depth model reviews.
A9F 4K Ultra HD OLEDs
The Master Series 55- and 65-inch 4K OLEDs add a number of enhancements to both picture and sound quality that weren’t addressed in the design-styling-centric A8F, introduced at CES 2018.
In this new class is new Pixel Contrast Booster circuitry and Sony-original panel controller technology to enhance black level, detail and color at the pixel level.
The on-board sound system, which is now called Acoustic Surface Audio Plus, produces a 3.2-channel surround system in a technology that vibrates the ultra-thin screen to serve dual-duty as the speaker system. A third actuator was added to enhance the center channel effect along with another subwoofer to enhance bass tones.
This is intended to make dialog appear to be coming directly out of the screen, although in a demonstration the additional bass dynamics from the added subwoofer made deeper voices appear to be coming more from behind the television.
In addition, the sound system can now be switched into center-channel mode to let the television’s Acoustic Surface system serve as a center-channel speaker in a multi-speaker home theater surround sound setup. The television’s speakers can be adjusted by popular auto EQ systems found in top-level AV receivers to match volume, timbre etc., a Sony product specialist told us.
Z9F 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD TVs
But with the LED-LCD products, the Z9F LED-LCD flat panel television was said to offer improvements over last year’s popular Z9D versions. Once again, the Sony Z9F models include a full-array LED backlighting system with Sony’s zone dimming technology. This produces bright peak highlights and nice dark black levels with visible fine detail. The system also contributes to wider viewing angles.
At their release two years ago, the Z9D models produced some of the deepest blacks and brightest highlights of any LED LCD TV to that time. The Z9F models appear to improve upon that.
One of the new enhancements is called X-Wide-Angle. This works with the X-Motion-Clarity system in the television to enhance viewing angles for better sustained color and contrast performance from wider angles of view off of dead center. This still is well short of OLED quality, but off-angle viewing was excellent for an LCD television. The technology was said to use a new lensing system with the panel and the results appeared very similar to the wide viewing angle technology introduced in Samsung QLED models two years ago.
Like the older Samsung QLEDs, the Z9F model demonstrated for us had some light bleed-through issues in letterbox frames from adjacent bright objects in the picture. We were told this could not be corrected by dialing down the brightness settings without throwing off the creative intent for the image.
More On Calibration Enhancements
For those who perform their own picture calibrations or pay for a professional calibration service, the new AutoCal system should greatly speed up the process, while locking in very accurate settings.
New for calibration in the Sony sets this year is the addition of a 20-point white balance setting (10-point last year) and for the first time on a Sony 4K UHD TV, a Color Management System (CMS) has been added.
The new CalMan AutoCal implementation, which to start will only be found on the A9F and Z9F series TVs, is quite different from the AutoCal systems previously developed for Samsung and LG televisions, a SpectraCal representative told us. To start, there is an app in the TV that the CalMan AutoCal system talks to.
In addition, we were told that there is a way to combine the Netflix setting with an AutoCal calibration.
“Because the calibrations selected are based on which white balance setting is selected (Expert 1 or 2), if you do an AutoCal in Expert 1 and then take the Netflix Mode and switch it to Expert 1, the AutoCal calibration will take over the Netflix Mode,” Tyler Pruitt, CalMan calibration evangelist for SpectraCal told us.
Sony offered reviewers at the press conference an opportunity to see side by side comparisons (we were told in out-of-box settings) of the Z9F against Samsung’s flagship Q9FN QLED 4K LED-LCD TV and a Sony X300 4K OLED master monitor, which is one of the most used tools in Hollywood mastering suites today.
Neither consumer set quite seemed to us to capture the nuanced skin tone shading or deep black levels of the X300, but the Z9F came very close in a number of areas, including fine detail reproduction in shadows and more visible detail and color in bright specular highlights.
Similarly, Sony compared a new A9F model with one of LG’s 2018 E8 Series 4K OLED sets. With the Sony model, images were generally closer to the look of the image on the Sony X300 RGB OLED grading monitor, especially in the areas of visible fine dark detail, where LG’s images were slightly more crushed, and in skin tone shading, where shadowed areas under a subject’s eye, looked like a black eye on the LG set.
By Greg Tarr
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