New display technologies don’t often come along. In the late 1980s Sharp introduced the first LCD flat panel TV. It was standard def, 4:3 and had a screen of just 14”. To boot, the image did not look nearly as good as the direct view tube type TVs it was a going to eventually replace.

Nevertheless, the LCD TV captured the imagination and desire of the press and public because, compared to a CRT TV, it was almost as flat as a pancake. In 1997 Pioneer and Fujitsu premiered the first plasmas. Now, in 2008, Sony has introduced the XEL-1, the world’s first organic light emitting diode (O.L.E.D.) TV.

The new Sony’s screen is but 3 millimeters thick. It is made up of a matrix of red, blue and green light-generating diodes, the resolution of which is 960 x 540, or exactly ¼ of full 1080p HD.

The screen, specified at 11” (though it measures about 11.3”—nice to see it bigger than rated; usually it is the other way around), mounts to a pivoting support that allows it to tilt backwards or forwards.

The base contains an ATSC/QAM tuner with an “F” type screw-on antenna/cable jack, as well as two HDMI inputs. Power is via an external 16 volt supply.

The O.L.E.D. panel produces very well-saturated, vivid, colorful images with black levels that are lower than currently available from the two competing, not as flat plasma and LCD screen technologies. In other words, blacks are really, really black.

A series of tests, measurements and observations produced useful information about where this breakthrough product shines and where it has issues—issues you probably didn’t know existed if you’ve read any of the uniformly glowing reviews, which were the only kind I could find. Based on these less than critical reviews, it’s understandable why some consumers appear to be HDTV holdouts that are waiting for large screen, full resolution O.L.E.D. sets to appear. Is that a winning strategy?

Let’s Go to the Video Tests.

Using a Silver Sensor indoor antenna, the built-in ATSC tuner pulled in 4 of the 6 major New York networks broadcasting from 25 miles away ; however, when connected instead to the Verizon FIOS cable line, the set’s built-in tuner’s QAM cable tuning circuitry was unable to lock onto the local channels—something other QAM digital tuner equipped sets easily manage using the channel information (called PSIP) to display the networks as they appear over the air (i.e. 2-1 for WCBS digital). I suspect a bug within the tuner’s firmware as I was able to receive unscrambled digital stations that didn’t contain the PSIP data. If you use either an antenna or a set top box to receive cable or satellite, this is a non-issue.

As for picture quality, unlike a prototype I saw in Japan last year, this production sample had superb motion resolution. Measurements using my FPD test disc indicated that the set could resolve all 540 lines (per picture height) in the moving Monoscope Pattern test.

This set’s ability to reproduce motion without resolution loss (albeit currently at ¼ full HD with the XEL-1) creates the potential for (hopefully) future large screen versions to jump to the head of the class in this important performance benchmark. Currently plasmas have the best motion resolution, (generally) followed by 120 Hz LCD, with normal 60 Hz LCD HDTVs creating the most motion blur.

The XEL-1 provided good color reproduction (in the normal position) though green was more saturated than the HDTV standard. There is a wide position which made green even more saturated, but had a nominal effect on blue and red. In its warm 2 position the color temperature was close to the industry standard of d6500, down to 30 IRE.

Viewed straight on, the XEL-1 produced an outstanding contrast ratio. However, moving off axis (either vertically or horizontally) I was quite surprised to notice a significant fall off in brightness. This called for a series of 45 degree off-axis brightness measurements using a Photo Research PR 650 spectroradiometer (used for all subsequent measurements as well). Taking these readings became a challenge as I discovered the XEL-1 automatically dims as you watch it (more on the dimming phenomenon later).

At a distance of 19.25” I measured 51 ft lamberts brightness (vivid mode). Moving 45 degrees off axis horizontally, the image brightness diminished by a significant 33%—a phenomenon noticed by all who sampled the XEL-1. Needless to say, as image intensity decreased, so did the contrast ratio. The off–axis dimming condition occurs in all picture modes.

An undocumented “feature” Sony calls “Auto Brightness,” which is more precisely called “Auto Dimming,” made producing accurate measurements difficult.

The “Auto Dimming” circuit, which makes the screen image grow increasingly darker (as if you were continuously slowly cranking down the contrast control while viewing), kicks in within one minute of powering on the XEL-1. Many timed readings taken in the various “picture modes” produced similar results.

Sony claims this circuit reduces the possibility of “burn in”—an uneven wear of the organic light emitting diodes that would be particularly noticeable if you were to mix viewing 4:3 and 16:9 content. However, the HD Guru™ believes this “feature” also serves to extend the O.L.E.D. panel’s lifespan.

While Sony rates the panel’s lifespan at 30,000 hours (the point where the panel reaches 50% brightness from new condition), the industry research firm Display Search just announced a one-half brightness point for it of about 17,000 hours, or just 56.66% of Sony’s rating. This compares unfavorably to current flat technologies, with LCD rated up to 60,000 hours half-brightness and plasma rated up to 100,000 hours to half-brightness.

If you’re considering using the XEL-1 for casual television viewing (which is how the HD Guru ™ imagines most purchasers of an 11” set will be using it), the overall brightness becomes a significant issue.

Further measurements taken at the on-axis position after user control calibration produced an optimum image (using the Custom Picture mode at the 6500K warm-2 setting), produced an acceptable 16.4 ft. Lamberts of maximum image brightness at power up.

While this reading is above the SMPTE minimum standard, it is not particularly bright compared to the best plasma and LCD flat panels available today, which under optimized conditions range from the high 30s-lower 40s ft. Lamberts or two to three times brighter than the XEL-1.

More problematic is that the XEL-1’s brightness level dropped significantly, though gradually, within four minutes of being powered up, reading less than half of initial brightness or just 7.8 foot-lamberts. This is a significantly darker image compared to any calibrated plasma or LCD HDTV and comparable to the now discontinued Sony 34” XBR 960 CRT direct view HDTV.

In a bright environment, many potential purchasers will find the image too dark. Testing other picture modes produced similar results. For example, the “Vivid” mode (after calibration of the user controls) reduced the set’s maximum on-axis image brightness by over 50% down to just 10.7 foot Lamberts.

Putting It All In Perspective

Nothing reported here is going to stop the early adopter, the “gotta be the first on the block to have the latest technology” kind of consumer from buying an XEL-1—not even its breathtakingly high price of $2500 for 11” of picture.

That’s because despite its many measured shortcomings, as anyone who’s seen one will tell you, the picture quality is even more breathtaking than the price. It’s difficult to take one’s eyes off the XEL-1 when viewed under ideal conditions.

So, kudos to Sony for developing and putting into regular production, the first O.L.E.D. television. The pitch-black blacks, fine color and superb motion resolution within its wafer thin panel produce an eye popping picture and a form factor to match.

The XEL-1 heralds a huge potential market awaiting the first company that can lick this set’s technical shortcomings, specifically: off-axis viewing angle contrast/ brightness, lifespan, overall image brightness (after four minutes) and of course, the price.

Meanwhile, you can be sure that for those who can drop $2500 with impunity, the XEL-1 will be an easy purchase and the sets will find their way onto the nightstands, vanities and kitchen counters of the rich and famous across America and the world. The rest of us will have to wait.

While some have forecasted 42” and larger O.L.E.D. HDTVs next year, the HD Guru™ believes 2011 is a more realistic arrival date. Many companies are at work on this technology but quite a bit of R&D remains to be done before large-screen O.L.E.D HDTVs that will equal or surpass the overall price/performance/longevity of current flat screen displays become a reality.

Copyright ©2008 Gary Merson/HD Guru™. All rights reserved. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.