Sony KD-55AF9 (AF9/A9F) OLED TV Review
Is this the new picture quality master?
What is the Sony KD-55AF9?This is Sony’s latest OLED TV and falls under their new Master Series branding and in other territories, it is also called the A9F. The idea of the Masters Series is to denote Sony products, which try to show content as the creators intended and in absolute accuracy. They openly state that the aim is to get image quality that gets incredibly close to that of their studio OLED monitor. Obviously, this is music to the ears of AVForums readers and members who strive for nothing but the best image fidelity from their TVs and projectors.
The AF9 is an OLED TV using the latest 2018 LG Display sourced panel and adding in the brand new next-generation X1 Ultimate chipset that adds improved video processing and scaling, along with other technologies such as Object-based Super Resolution, Object-based HDR remaster, Super Bit Mapping, 4K HDR and Dual database processing.
There is full support for High Dynamic Range HDR10, Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) and Dolby Vision. This is also a TRILUMINOS panel that boasts wide colour gamut (WCG) coverage and a new feature for the Master Series models is a calibrated Netflix mode.
The sound is delivered once again via the panel’s surface thanks to the new Acoustic Surface Audio+ which uses three actuators on the back of the screen and two subwoofers in the stand to create audio that actually comes from the screen surface. There is also a new feature that allows you to set up the Acoustic Surface to act as a centre speaker in a 5.1 sound system.
This review sample was provided by Crampton and Moore and is a brand new, sealed retail model from their stock. This review wouldn't have been possible without the loan of this TV. If you would like to support our reviews, you can give Richard a call on 01302 365760 or email him on [email protected] - and mention AVForums.
Finally, there are also brand new calibration controls including Autocal with CalMAN for professionals, and a full Colour Management System for the first time on a Sony consumer TV. So, with all the hype concerning image quality as the creators intended, can it deliver? Let’s find out.
DesignTV design is very much a personal thing and the AF9 does have an unusual stand, which may divide opinion. For those familiar with the A1 OLED model the AF9 uses a very similar lean back pedestal stand which houses the connections, woofers and cable management system. There are two provided covers with a triangle pattern finish which helps cover up the connections area, leaving an interesting 360-degree design statement. Picture purists will immediately be drawn to that lean back on the screen surface and how it will affect image quality from the seating position. I was one of those concerned parties when I saw this TV unveiled for the first time, but I have to say that once you are sitting down looking at the screen, you forget that it has a very slight lean back.
I have to say that as a whole the design is stunning and shows off the unique merits of a super slim display like OLED and how it can be designed into your surroundings. The bezel-free panel sits on the TV cabinet surface and there are two provided rubber stops to protect the screen ends. There is a very small, 10mm thick, dark brushed metal edge to the bottom of the panel. On the far left of this panel is an almost indistinguishable Sony logo, with a power light in the bottom centre that, as default, shows when you power on and power off the TV. Around the panel on three sides is a 2mm gunmetal brushed strip that finishes off a truly minimalist design to the front of the TV.
Around the back, we have the pedestal stand that is tucked into the rear of the panel. This contains the connections for the inputs and VESA slots for wall mounting. Inside the packaging, you will find a separate heavy section for the stand that screws into position at the bottom and then allows the stand to move out and lock into position. The panel then leans back with the stand.
There are three actuators on the back of the screen which vibrate to produce the higher frequencies of the audio range and two subwoofers at each end of the stand to create the midrange and lower bass tones. As already mentioned, the connections are all positioned on the stand and on the added bottom section are the cable management clips and runs. The way the rear has been designed allows for neat cable runs to all inputs and outputs and these are then covered by the provided triangle shaped overlays. Overall the look is extremely modern and sleek, but probably not to everyone’s taste.
The design is sleek and contemporary and the lean back stand doesn't affect image quality
ConnectivityAs mentioned, the connections on the AF9 are to the rear of the panel on the pedestal stand. They are positioned on the main, permanently fixed area of the stand that folds in for wall mounting or sits out with a secondary fixed bottom attached to act as the pedestal. In either configuration, the connections remain in the same position, which makes sense.
Almost all the connections on the Sony AF9 are downwards facing except for one HDMI on the left side and a USB slot on the right side of the stand. We get four HDMI 2.0b HDCP 2.3 full bandwidth slots with eARC/ARC compatibility on HDMI 3, which is nice to see when so many of the 2018 TVs are only providing two full bandwidth slots on average. Within the menu set up, you can also select enhanced for all four HDMI slots so they are full bandwidth. We also get a further two USB ports bringing the total to three, along with headphone out, a digital optical out, IR Blaster, composite AV slot, a LAN and an RF terrestrial and two Satellite connections. Finally, there are binding posts, which allow banana plugs, for the centre speaker functionality and a power socket.
As we mentioned in the design section of the review, there is excellent cable management for all the inputs and outputs, which are then hidden by the two triangle shaped covers. This keeps everything neat and tidy at the rear of the AF9.
Four full bandwidth HDMI slots are available
ControlWhere Panasonic, with their FZ952, provides the user with two sleek metal remotes and LG have their fantastic, if plastic, Magic Remote with their OLED TVs, Sony see fit to give you a piece of plastic with rubberised, slightly raised buttons that screams cost cutting. When you’re spending this much on a state of the art OLED TV you should rightfully expect that the remote control supplied would fit with the rest of the build quality and materials used. Sadly, the remote really does let the side down here, but at least it is functional.
What I personally don’t like are the slightly raised rubberised buttons where you’re never quite sure if the button press was given enough effort as there is no click or satisfying feel to interaction with the buttons. Once you get used to the feel, and we have had an AF8 on long-term testing for some time with the same remote, it does the job with logically placed keys and some useful direct access buttons. However, we can’t help feeling disappointed at the cheap feel when the rest of the package is so elegant with its use of materials and design language.
The remote control remains the weakest link
FunctionalityFinally, with the Sony AF9, I am using the Android TV system and everything works incredibly fast and is ultra reliable. The use of Android (8.0) Oreo and the X1 Ultimate chipset has given us what Android should always have been on the Sony TVs, where sadly, in previous models, we suffered clunky, slow and crash-ridden experiences.
The fact that the UI now works as it should, and incredibly quickly at that, means the AF9 is a joy to use for everyday tasks that most normal users will expect from their TV. As AV enthusiasts we tend to forget that most normal members of the general public don’t tend to use external media boxes to get their apps and Smart TV functionality, so the system on the TV must do everything that is expected of it. With the AF9 I can genuinely say I am impressed with the system; the logical and user-friendly layout of the screens makes perfect sense and it is the speed of use that impresses me the most. Using the AF8 OLED and the review sample of the XF90 LCD earlier in the year had me lamenting the use of Android TV and, rightfully, marking the scores down for the crashing and clunky interfaces those TVs presented; it makes the fact that everything now works as it should, so much more pleasing. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to state that it feels like going from dial-up internet to a full on fibre experience, the differences are that noticeable.
With Oreo, you also get full Google Assistant support and can use the mic on the remote to take full advantage of what’s on offer. I have to say that voice command systems have never really worked that well for me, maybe it’s the Scottish accent, but the implementation here was slick and assured and something I would probably use on a daily basis. There are also full-on tutorial videos covering every aspect of using your BRAVIA AF9 OLED TV, which really is a nice touch from Sony.
The TV section is a full-on YouView based tuner with excellent EPG use and full catch-up services from BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5. This is a big step up on the Philips OLED803 we have just reviewed which only featured iPlayer in its Android system. We also get Netflix and Amazon Prime Video apps that feature 4K UHD and HDR including Dolby Vision support and 4K YouTube is also here, but it will not display HDR content. Interestingly with Netflix, you get the usual large white button on the remote for direct access, but also a new Netflix Calibrated picture mode, which we will explore later in the review.
Finally, Android TV is fast, responsive and stable in operation
The Sony AF9 is a 4K UHD OLED TV that uses a 2018 LG Display supplied panel. It supports HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision high dynamic range formats and also features Sony TRILUMINOS technology for a wider colour gamut. The major item on the list of features for the AF9 is the new X1 Ultimate picture processor that boasts technology such as Object-based Super Resolution, Object-based HDR remaster, Super Bit Mapping 4K HDR, Dual database processing, Dynamic Contrast Enhancer and Precision Colour Mapping.
The AF9 supports Dolby Vision out of the box and this works with the Netflix apps and some stand-alone devices that have had the appropriate updates via firmware to work with the Sony version of DV. Our LG 970 4K Blu-ray player hasn’t been updated so that didn’t work, but our Apple TV 4K did work correctly, so you will need to check on a source by source basis to see if your source is supported. Also within the Netflix app is the new Netflix Calibrated mode that becomes a preset within the picture menu when you are in the app.
With HDR content there are the various Sony technologies to take advantage of including the Object-based HDR remaster and Pixel Contrast Booster, which is on all the time in all picture modes, including the game and cinema presets. This is Sony’s version of dynamic tone mapping for static metadata HDR working on each scene to dynamically change the contrast and luminance performance, not only of the PQ EOTF but also colour information, to give as balanced and nuanced an HDR image as possible. Thankfully, this is not detrimental to the HDR image quality or brightness on HDR10 material, and it isn’t used on Dolby Vision content, for obvious reasons. We would have liked a way to disable this, even if it was just for comparative reasons, it is always good to give some consumer choice over picture quality.
Android TV is running Oreo, which is the latest version of the software and is now super fast and easy to use, with no crashing at all. You get YouView and all the catch-up TV apps as well as 4K HDR content from Netflix and Amazon and 4K from YouTube. There is also Google assistant and Alexa integration which will allow you to control not just the AF9 but other smart devices in your home without using the remote control.
Sound on flat-panel TVs, especially ones as thin as an OLED, has never been great as you need to move plenty of air for good quality audio, and you have no room for large drivers on a TV to do that. You can employ the use of a soundbar, much like the Philips OLED903 does with the B&W designed unit or the Technics tuned blade speaker on the Panasonic FZ952, but Sony does things differently. The entire screen is turned into the speaker with a technology called Acoustic Surface. This is not new technology and Sony certainly didn’t invent or develop it in any major way, it’s been around decades, but finally, with thin displays like OLED it is now possible to use the technique to create your sound solution.
The AF9 uses three actuators on the back of the screen and two subwoofers in the stand to create audio. This creates the real sensation of sound actually coming from the centre of the screen where it should be coming from, and not below it. If you already have an external sound system but want to take advantage of dialogue and audio coming directly from the screen, you can use the binding posts to connect the AF9 to your AV receiver or amplifier and turn it into a centre speaker. Obviously, you need to consider voicing and tonal differences between the AF9 and your speaker package, but it is an option for those who might think it’ll work for them.
Netflix Calibrated mode will get consumers into using the best accurate picture settings - and we approve!
Out of the Box MeasurementsThere have been a few changes within the Sony menus and picture presets on the AF9. The main one that affects out of the box performance is the renaming of Cinema Pro to Custom in the picture modes. Cinema is also now the same as the old Cinema Home selection and a touch brighter than Custom for daytime viewing. The TV defaults to the Standard preset out of the box when you first power it on from new, so if you want accuracy, it is important to switch to Custom mode. We used our Klein K10-A meter, Murideo Fresco Six-G Generator and CalMAN Ultimate software to take the measurements.
Looking at the greyscale (top left) and we can see that in Custom mode with white balance set to Expert 1, we get an incredibly accurate result out of the box. This is a brand new retail set from Crampton and Moore and it matches similar results we get with manufacturer review samples from Sony, so you should expect very similar results given panel variance for most AF9 TVs sold in the UK. It also puts to bed the suggestions of golden or hand-picked samples; you can get accuracy out of the box with what you buy. There is a rise of blue in the lighter reaches of the greyscale, but they are slight, and DeltaE errors are under three, which is under the visible threshold, so we don’t see any errors or colour tint to grey with actual viewing materials on screen. Gamma also tracks well to the BT.1886 standard for dim room viewing. We are impressed with the results.
Moving to the Rec.709 colour gamut (top right) we can see that there is a slight white push to the blue end of things, as we saw in the greyscale, which does slightly move targets off slightly. But again, apart from things looking off in the graph, our DeltaE errors are 2.3 which is well under the visible threshold for hue, saturation and luminance, so to the eye, with on screen material, everything looks accurate with no visible errors. Of course, we can tidy up the graph and get things looking better with the new calibration tools on board the Sony AF9.
Calibrated MeasurementsIt is refreshing to see Sony finally giving us the calibration controls we have been asking them to add for years now, with the addition of a full 3D Colour Management System (CMS) on the AF9. Usually the Sony consumer TVs are accurate enough out of the box that with a white balance correction you would normally find things fell in to place as a result. But because of panel variances it is important to have the ability to fine-tune and calibrate the display on every level. The only item missing now from the front panel controls is a gamma editor.
It should be stressed that even though there is now a full CMS present, we don’t want to be making too many large adjustments within it, as this will result in posterisation artefacts being introduced as the processing struggles to add the corrections. We see this with quite a few systems in consumer TVs and the best approach is to make small adjustments only where absolutely necessary with the aim of getting DeltaE errors under the visible threshold, not fancy looking graphs.
As we can see the greyscale tracking graph (top left) now looks dead flat with DeltaE errors now well under 1 across the range and gamma also doing a decent job of tracking the BT.1886 curve. We already had an error-free, out of the box result with the AF9, but this calibrated setting and result means we can guarantee no visible colour tint or other issues with the colour of grey. Gamma also gives us the correct luminance curve for viewing in dim surroundings with no clipping present. Overall, this is a reference result.
Making those changes to the greyscale also changes the results in the colour gamut (top right) where things are now better aligned on the graph, even though we had no visible errors out of the box. We used some very fine inputs in the CMS to just make sure the graph results were bang on and this didn’t introduce any issues to the image, such as posterisation. Again it’s a really good result.
We should just mention a few little bugs we did find with the new CMS system. When you calibrate the white balance and CMS in the Custom mode, this should mean that whenever you change inputs, using the Custom preset copies these settings over to that input. This is something that always happens with Sony TVs and when switching to HDR it does the same thing in copying the white balance, and CMS inputs, if you use the same picture mode, like Custom. It would be better to have separate settings for SDR and HDR, but as the white point is the same for both HDR and SDR, we can see why Sony did this is the past, but with the CMS now part of that system, it is copying the CMS inputs over to HDR which is not desired at all. This means that, for HDR use, you need to set up the Cinema picture preset. This carries over the white balance settings when using the Expert 1 custom white balance selection, but doesn’t have any CMS inputs, which is what you want.
We also noticed a bug where most of the time moving inputs with SDR content worked fine and as expected, but every now and again changing inputs but keeping Custom picture mode would not copy over the settings in the CMS. A flick back and forth was enough to correct this bug, but just be aware that it sometimes does happen.
The other bug is similar but happens when using the CMS to make changes and in some cases, it copies settings from one colour input and applies them to all colours. Exiting and entering the CMS again was enough to correct this issue, but again we mention it to be complete and hopefully, Sony will iron out these little annoying bugs with the new CMS.
If you hire a professional calibrator to set up your AF9 in the near future then they will be able to use the new CalMAN AutoCal, which is currently in beta testing at the moment. This is not a feature any consumers will be able to take advantage of as you need high-end meters, pattern generators and software to work the system and it doesn’t automatically calibrate the display, rather it helps to automate the process for the calibrator, but it still requires skill and knowledge about what you are doing. We didn’t test the system for the purposes of this review as it is still in beta and is only a professional process that calibrators will provide, so wouldn’t be relevant to the majority of readers, but we will test the system in the future to see just what a difference it can make, compared to our manual calibrations.
Finally, we have a fully specified Colour Management System on a Sony consumer TV
HDR ResultsAs we mentioned above, you need to create an HDR picture preset that is different from the Custom preset mode we use for SDR content. This is because any inputs you make in the CMS for SDR content in Custom mode are copied and applied to HDR sources, which is not desired at all. Sony really needs to create a system where HDR is detected and the Custom mode opens up a separate set of settings for HDR content only.
We used the Cinema preset mode for our HDR content and using the Expert 1 white balance setting copied over the greyscale settings, which are the same for HDR and SDR (D65). The CMS had no data applied to it in the Cinema preset, which is what we want.
Looking at the PQ EOTF chart (top left) we can see that the AF9 follows the curve as expected until it needs to roll off within the native capabilities of the TV. This is the same curve for both 1000 and 4000 nit metadata and the greyscale track well until the set rolls off in the brighter end of the scale. The way that the AF9 rolls off and the dynamic nature of its tone mapping means that detail is retained in the brighter reaches of the image and at peak levels.
The DCI-P3 colour gamut tracking (top right) is also excellent on the AF9 with exceptionally good out of the box accuracy, which should translate to excellent colour performance with HDR material.
The Sony AF9 applies a process similar to LG’s dynamic tone mapping which is switched on all the time and doesn’t have an option in the menu system to adjust or switch off. This, we believe, is the Pixel Contrast Booster and HDR remaster processing analysing the HDR static metadata source scene by scene and applying tone mapping on the fly to suit the content and provide the most consistent brightness to the whole image, but also bringing out the dynamics of the scene in question. This is important when the display in question cannot fully resolve the 1000 nit brightness usually implemented in mastering HDR content. The few titles also mastered within the 4000 nits envelope will also be tone mapped to retain as much of the peak brightness highlights, as well as shadow detail information due to the tone mapping working dynamically scene to scene. We were able to check this by switching between 1000 and 4000 nit patterns generated by our Murideo Fresco Six-G generator, but also by switching between HDMI black points where the image could be seen mapping to show detail correctly within a 4000 nit HDR signal. This will obviously only work with static metadata signals as dynamic metadata sources like Dolby Vision do not require this.
Using the most accurate Cinema HDR picture mode and the white point at D65, we measured the peak brightness to be 547 nits with a 10% window and 630 nits with a 2% window to better represent actual specular highlight areas. Full frame brightness was 140 nits. As we keep mentioning within our reviews of HDR TVs, the Internet obsession with peak brightness figures is only one very small part of what actually makes up dynamic range and an HDR image. Effective tone mapping like that implemented here with the AF9 and OLEDs excellent pixel level blacks and specular highlight capabilities give the AF9 a superb high dynamic range image that is perceivably bright and intense in comparison with all other HDR OLEDs we have tested and had side by side with the AF9, including the excellent Philips 803. Colour performance was also excellent for a WRGB OLED panel with tracking close to DCI-P3 for HDR content. We measured BT.2020 coverage at 72% (xy) and 76% (UV) with P3 coverage at 96% (xy) and 99% (UV).
Panel Uniformity, Viewing Angles and Image RetentionThe use of a 2018 LG Display supplied panel means that the Sony AF9 has no issues when it comes to panel uniformity. There are no dark edges, vignetting and dirty screen effect (DSE) issues with this panel, which is super clean with grey slides from 30% upwards and no signs of colour tint in the Custom picture preset. As with all manufactured consumer OLED panels, we get some very slight banding at 2% and 5% stimulus levels which are barely seen in a dim room and certainly not visible with day to day use of the TV, even with some demanding and challenging dark content. Sports viewing is also a pleasure with no obvious banding issues, especially with football and other fast moving sports.
Moving to viewing angles and, once again, we have no issues at all with the Sony AF9. You can view the panel from extreme angles with no obvious drop off in contrast or colour shifting even at close to the maximum angle of view. This is an obvious strength of OLED panels and why they are suited to rooms where the seating is not always dead centre with the screen surface. LCD screens usually struggle from just around 30 degrees with contrast and colour shifts becoming very apparent.
I am also running out of ways to change the wording of all my OLED reviews when it comes to image retention, as I always have to say the same things here. Image retention can be an issue with OLED screens due to their organic and self-emissive nature. You need to take care when it comes to bright viewing modes and displaying static images, like photos or gaming HUDs and news channel logos over a period of time. Doing so continuously without changing the type of material you are watching can result in image retention. We have seen it when using bright test patterns over the course of a calibration and like all retention it normally goes away after a few minutes or hours watching other types of content that don’t have static elements. There are also built-in features that help mitigate the issue either by moving the image around the screen by the odd pixel or performing a cleanup process when you put the TV in to standby at the end of the day. As long as you are aware of the potential of having issues and work out if an OLED is the right type of screen for you, there shouldn’t be any issues that you will encounter that is any more than light retention that soon disappears. Burn-in is something different entirely and very rare to encounter through normal everyday use of an OLED TV but again is possible in certain circumstances where the right care is not taken to prevent issues from arising in the first place.
Black Levels and Contrast PerformanceBlack levels on an OLED TV are superb and that certainly is the case here with the Sony AF9 with stunning blacks and excellent just above black shadow detail retrieval with SDR and HDR content. Measuring on/off and ANSI contrast when calibrated to 120 nits SDR is infinity, as you would imagine. Per-pixel self-emissive technology like OLED just lends itself to stunning black level performance and superb dynamic range with pure whites sitting right next to a perfect black, with no blooming or haloing as seen with LCD technology and FALD backlights. It truly is a massive advantage that helps provide that stunning level of dynamic range and contrast performance.
With HDR, the performance is also strong on the AF9, easily matching the Philips 803 that was in for review at the same time and our resident LG C8, with the Sony looking slightly dim in side-by-side comparisons, but also having the more consistent image brightness of the three sets. Shadows are strong, with excellent detailing and texture present, and no signs of crush or clipping at either end. It might be the duller image in a comparison but at the same time there are no sudden image brightness changes, everything is balanced and nuanced. Because of this, there is a perception of more image depth and detail within the AF9 image as our eyes are designed to hunt out shadows the darkest parts of the picture, you can blame evolution for that one. We see more subtle changes in the lower reaches of the image than in brighter areas, so a jump from 70% brightness to 90% is not as noticeable within a scene to us than the same jump in black levels or shadows.
Overall, we are not disappointed at all with the AF9 black levels or contrast performance.
Motion handling and video processing performanceSony is rightly renowned for its image processing and motion on its TVs and there are no major shocks here with the AF9 OLED. There are, however, some changes over the AF8 we had for long-term testing recently with MotionFlow going on a diet.
Scaling, de-interlacing and general 50i content testing didn’t turn up any significant issues, with the new X1 Ultimate chip doing a superb job scaling content so it looks sharp and detailed with no obvious edge enhancement or ringing artefacts.
Almost all our tests passed with flying colours, although we did catch some issues with text scrolling on video content in test scenes and with new channel ticker tapes. This is due to the fact that the Film mode setting is auto or off in the menu, doing away with the low, medium and high stages seen on the AF8. This is what causes some slight issues while the processing decides what it is going to do. Switching Film mode off will get around the issue with text on video, but you may then see issues with interlaced material as a result, so you will need to decide which is the lesser evil of two, not perfect, choices. We are not sure why Sony would change the Film mode settings when they worked well in previous X1 chips.
MotionFlow has also changed in terms of the options available to users with True Cinema, Standard, and Smooth being dropped in favour of Custom and Off. So once again we get two choices to make and within custom you can change the smoothness which changes the intensity of the interpolation being added to the image, although the amount you can add or subtract feels less than with previous X1 chips. Clearness has two choices of Low and High, with Black Frame Insertion (BFI) being added in the High setting. As with other OLED TVs where this technology is employed, we found that using it with 50Hz and 24fps material introduces flicker that is very noticeable against the high contrast images produced by the TV and, as such, it can become distracting and tiring to watch very quickly. We would recommend leaving it switched off. In the lowest smooth setting in custom, we found 24fps material was very good without any noticeable Soap Opera Effect (SOE) being added. There were no issues with 24fps or 50i content skipping or stuttering and there was no induced judder with film material. Overall, the motion on the AF9 is one of the strongest amongst current OLED TVs.
Input LagGaming on the Sony AF9 is easily a strong point with excellent input lag in both SDR and HDR. We measured the same 27.5ms in both which is excellent for a modern TV and gamers shouldn’t notice any lag in actual gameplay with a result like that. We also found the dynamic tone mapping was also at work with games making them look dynamic and consistent for brightness, with no crush blacks or shadows to spoil the fun. We wouldn’t really expect anything else from a company with such a rich heritage of console-based gaming.
Sound QualitySony might not have invented the technology used to add the Acoustic Surface to the AF9, but it needs to be applauded for adding it to their OLED TVs. It really is effective in presenting voices and sounds from the centre of the screen, where they should be emanating from, and the effect is superb. The introduction of the centre speaker option where you make the TV the centre speaker of your home cinema system also seems, obvious, but there will be issues with voicing between different types of speakers. Perhaps Sony has something lined up to take full advantage of this technology?
In terms of sound quality, it certainly competes well with its peers, even those with dedicated soundbar designs. There is a nice wide soundstage with excellent high-frequency detail without any sibilance from being too bright and at the same time, it doesn’t sound muffled or distorted. Voices and dialogue are clean and precise coming from the screen, with a rich midrange and a decent, full bottom end. We are talking audiophile levels of precision and dynamic range, but for a TV sound system, the AF9 is impressive with everyday TV shows and movies alike. It won’t compete with a dedicated soundbar or external surround system, but for most tasks, the sound quality on offer is amongst the best of the built-in systems on current similarly priced OLED TVs.
Sony AF9 Picture Performance
Out of the Box Performance – SDRThere are additional picture presets available with the HDMI inputs for Graphics and Photos, which we haven’t included in the assessment below as these are designed for a specific use we are not covering within this review. We have covered the main picture presets for TV and movie viewing.
Vivid Mode: This picture setting is simply too bright with very blue looking whites and skin tones that are too yellow and sunburnt. Whites are clipped with detail missing throughout, making faces look overly smooth, as there are no lines or wrinkles seen due to excessive brightness. Motion is also displaying obvious SOE with some content displaying artefacts with fast moving items, or the processing just gets it wrong and we see obvious artefacts. Sharpness also defines lines with ringing which is ultimately covering over genuine detail on the original image. If you want accuracy, go straight to the Custom mode.
Standard Mode: The text explaining this selection describes it as the best place to start for basic home viewing, but we are not really sure what that means. What we do have is motion yet again displaying obvious SOE, but it is not as high as in the Vivid mode, so we noticed fewer artefacts with fast moving scenes and sports viewing. Image brightness is also slightly reduced compared to Vivid and colours are also slightly tamed, but still oversaturated. Whites are also blue but again this is not are obvious as the Vivid settings, so what we ultimately get is a reduced brightness, reduced SOE mode that tries to be a happy medium, but it is still far from accurate.
Game Mode: As you would imagine this is a picture preset that is set up for gaming and as such most processing is switched off (and the controls greyed out) to achieve the input lag time of 27.5ms for both SDR and HDR games. Brightness is set to maximum out of the box but the white balance is set correctly to Expert 1 to get a nicely balanced warm look and overall we found this picture preset to offer a very good base to game from.
Cinema Mode: This preset, until the AF9, was always referred to as Cinema Home on the Sony OLED TVs, but this has changed going forward with Cinema Pro also changing to Custom. The Cinema and Custom presets are more or less identical apart from a little more out of the box brightness in the Cinema mode for use in normal daytime viewing environments.
Custom Mode: This is the closest preset out of the box to the industry standards for viewing TV and Movies as they are intended to be seen. This is the main reason the Masters Series of TVs exist in the Sony line-up and, as such, they are designed to try and replicate the image quality of the company’s BVM-X300 professional monitor, which is used to master TV and film content for viewing at home. In doing so you should be able to see TV and Film as it was intended and created. It’s a big claim to make but this retail sample was spot on out of the box in this preset when we measured it in the test area of the review above.
The only part of this preset you will need to change is the brightness setting, which is 100% out of the box; you will have to reduce this for dim viewing environments. MotionFlow is also on by default in the custom setting with smoothing at the lowest setting. This doesn’t introduce SOE and may be an ideal setting for all your viewing material, but you will need to check this with your own content. We were happy to leave it at default for the majority of what we watched. Only occasionally did we see news ticker bars stutter slightly with film mode at auto, but we were happy to leave this, you can, of course, switch it off if you watch this kind of content on a regular basis.
For SDR film material we found the AF9 to be an excellent and accurate performer with super black levels, excellent and visible just above black shadow detail and strong colours that looked natural and vivid, without feeling overblown. Skin tones were also spot on with superb facial detailing and pores being incredibly sharp and realistic, with no signs of ringing or edge enhancement. The white spacesuits in the opening of Gravity set against the pitch black star fields behind, remind you just what a breathtaking dynamic range SDR material can have on an OLED display. There are more stars than you can count and when the earth comes in to view, the way the filmmakers have recreated the wafer-thin atmosphere around the planet is sublimely reproduced here. It creates an amazing three-dimensional feel to the proceedings.
Out of the box HDR 4KMoving to HDR and we have to switch from the Custom mode to Cinema as we can’t change the image settings applied in SDR mode separately from the HDR mode in the same preset. This is something Sony really need to fix as quickly as they can. Once in Cinema mode the out of the box HDR performance is also sublime with stunning dynamic range and the ability to show 1000 and 4000 nit content with no loss of peak highlight details thanks to superb dynamic tone mapping that allows the Sony to show us everything possible, within the limitations of the AF9’s native image brightness and capabilities.
When compared side by side with the Philips 803 and LG C8 (which we were able to do having both sets available), the Sony at first glance is the dimmest HDR image of the three in terms of overall APL. But watch for a little longer and while it is overall dimmer, the AF9 image is also the most consistent in terms of brightness and actual detail being shown. The LG dynamic tone mapping is brighter overall in the choices it makes scene to scene, which can give a feeling of more pop and dynamics, but the Sony is also creating pop and dynamics, but just not as intensely as the LG, or the Philips, which is more of a light cannon when they are all together. In isolation, you will probably not be aware of the Sony’s dimmer HDR output and you are getting a consistent image with no obvious jumps from scene to scene and you are able to pick out details in the peak highlights that are harder to see on the LG and Philips because they are brighter. There is no right and wrong here as each manufacturer is applying their best guesses at what their TVs should be doing and the differences are subtle enough when it comes to brightness and detail visible. Colours, on the other hand, are harder to pick apart as the Sony is incredibly accurate and this is obvious with Blade Runner 2049 and the new Vegas scenes. The orangey yellow mist is fantastically rendered with no signs of posterisation at all and a lovely smooth gradation of the colour from the light source of the sun, which can’t be seen through the mist, but you can tell where it is within the scene.
We also felt that the AF9 is the closest of all the OLEDs we have seen this year to the cinematic look of the Panasonic FZ952. You can tell that Sony manufacture studio reference monitors for a living as they have managed to give the AF9 an extremely appealing and accurate image that oozes quality. Skin tones are fantastic, colours accurate and detail drips from the frame, especially in the shadows where we get that fantastic feeling of depth. The film grain in The Matrix even takes on an important role, as we expect, in the real world, giving us that gritty intensity of just how bleak things are. It’s the filmmaker telling the story visually and the AF9 being able to replicate that almost perfectly back to you. That is what we mean by cinematic and accurate. You just don’t get that watching a TV in Standard or Vivid mode.
And all of this is in the best out of the box settings, not calibrated. This is also from a sealed box, brand new retail sample TV provided for review by Crampton and Moore, so no hand-picked golden sample here (they don’t exist anyway; something I think we have managed to prove over the last few months of reviews. That has been a retailed purchased AF8 and a retail AF9 that have been accurate out of the box).
Obviously, we are not getting carried away here and there are no perfect consumer TVs, all have their strengths and weaknesses and, certainly, our excitement at the results so far have come with SDR and HDR10 content. Dolby Vision is a little bit of a mixed bag here and varies between content we viewed.
Within Netflix, we found that unfortunately, like the issues we highlighted with the AF8, there are still compression and shadow detail posterisation artefacts present in some viewing material, such as Lost in Space, which are not present via Netflix from our Apple TV 4K or in the HDR10 version. The other issue that stands out as soon as you start comparing them is that Dolby Vision Dark in the built-in Netflix app is a lot darker than the same setting with the external Netflix app in Dolby Vision. It is quite obvious and crushes blacks and some mid tone details are not as obvious as they are with the external source. The underwater sequence in Lost in Space is a perfect example of this. Not only does it highlight the posterisation issues, but also the fact it is darker in comparison. This is something else Sony should look at fixing as soon as they can as it does impact on performance. Given how great the AF9 is elsewhere it would a shame if Sony ignores this issue.
Netflix Calibrated Mode: There are a couple of reasons why we have decided to put this in a section for presets, because once in the Netflix app on the TV it does become available as an image preset choice. You might be asking what the Netflix Calibrated mode is and we can tell you that after some experimentation, in SDR and HDR10 it defaults to the exact same settings as Custom mode. There is no difference at all between the two. With Dolby Vision content it defaults to the exact same settings as Dolby Vision Dark when you select Netflix Calibrated mode. So, in essence, the purpose of the Netflix Calibrated mode is to get users into the most accurate picture presets to watch content as it is intended to be seen, and after some initial head scratching, we happen to think this is an excellent strategy.
It basically gets end users and consumers to choose picture settings that are ideal for the content, that already exists on the TV, but are probably ignored by consumers because they look dull. However, give them the fancy Netflix Calibrated Mode name and these consumers can finally find out what the correct settings actually give them. This is brilliant thinking on both Netflix and Sony’s part here, well done. I hope it does encourage consumers to put the TV in the most accurate settings and then stay there and get the whole picture they normally miss out on. The only downside we can see, and it is slight, is that when you switch Netflix Calibrated Mode off the TV jumps to the Standard mode in SDR and HDR10 and Dolby Vision Bright when watching DV content. I guess that is to show there is a difference as staying in Custom mode would look odd, but it puts users back to an inaccurate picture mode. It would be better to leave users within accurate settings. We would like Sony to consider that option, especially given their marketing push for image accuracy with the Master Series TVs.
Calibrated Picture PerformanceWe have gone into the picture quality in quite some detail already and have yet to get to what the AF9 actually looks like when it is calibrated. That’s is primarily because it is so accurate out of the box in the Custom preset mode, that calibrated performance is a smidge better to a trained eye. Normal users would never notice a difference between calibrated and the Custom out of the box mode. That’s quite the compliment to Sony and it is also true of the last few OLED TVs we have reviewed from Philips and LG too. Given two of these are also retail samples and it gives you the idea that OLEDs are getting very accurate to the industry standards out of the box (in the most accurate mode, not in any other picture setting).
The good thing about calibration is that you can apply that to all your sources and inputs, so you know that everything you are viewing is as intended. With the AF9 it is a bit fiddly because, as mentioned, there are no separate settings available between SDR and HDR in the same image presets, and the white balance only has one custom setting that can be applied to all inputs and presets if selected. Some more flexibility here would be very welcome and it is the final thing Sony needs to do to start matching their competition when it comes to image accuracy and calibration.
Image performance is just as breathtakingly good in SDR as it is in Custom mode and we really like HDR10 content with the dynamic tone mapping, even if the overall APL is a little dim. Overall, we have very few complaints in terms of calibrated image quality, it is more a lack of flexibility that holds the AF9 back slightly.
The AF9 is the best Sony TV we have seen in a while
- Superb accuracy out of the box
- Excellent out of the box greyscale
- Excellent out of the box colour
- SDR image quality is stunning
- HDR image quality is very good
- Android is finally usable as a smart TV system
- Dolby Vision
- Netflix Calibrated mode gets consumers into the correct picture settings
- Excellent sound quality from the Acoustic Surface technology
- You can use the TV as a centre speaker
- Introduction of a full CMS
- Excellent dynamic tone mapping type feature for HDR10 content
- Expensive compared to direct competition at launch
- HDR10 can appear dim compared to competition
- Dolby Vision on Netflix still has issues with blacks, posterisation in shadows and in dark mode, it is too dark compared to DV from external Netflix source and HDR10 versions
- Only some external source players work with Dolby Vision on the AF9
- No HDR on YouTube
- CMS can be buggy to use
Sony KD-55AF9 (AF9/A9F) OLED TV ReviewWhen I reviewed the AF8 OLED earlier this year I pointed out that if Sony added better calibration controls and a faster more reliable Android TV system they would be on to a winner. Not only have they done exactly that with the AF9 but they have also improved the HDR picture performance with a type of dynamic tone mapping which evens out the image to provide superb HDR images with no clipping. There have also been some further nice touches with future compatibility with CalMAN Autocal for professionals to calibrate the TV further, but the Netflix Calibrated mode is the perfect tool to get normal consumers to watch films and dramas as they are intended to be seen in the best picture settings.
The Masters Series is designed to try and replicate the image fidelity of the Sony X300 OLED professional monitor, which is used by many studios to master the content we watch at home. By getting as accurate as possible to the standards and the image quality of this monitor, they provide the end user with an image that displays content as it was supposed to be seen. Now, who wouldn’t want to be able to do that? The AF9 manages to be very accurate out of the box to those standards in the custom picture preset and also allows excellent motion without adding in SOE or other image artefacts. Remember, we are also testing a retail sample here, which is just the same, as you will buy from your retailer.
The slight issues we have found centre around the implementation of Dolby Vision in the Netflix app where it is slightly dimmer than the same Dolby Vision image from a standalone Apple TV 4K, with missing shadows, posterisation in the darker reaches of the image and mid tones are not as pronounced. These are the same issues we identified with the AF8 with DV. The AF9 is also still using the Sony version of DV, which means that our LG DV 4K Blu-ray player still doesn’t work with the TV, as it hasn’t been updated. HDR10 content is also dimmer when viewed in the most accurate picture mode and compared to the Philips 803 and LG C8 side-by-side. I gave you a rundown of this in the picture section of the review, but in isolation, I didn’t feel I was missing out on image detail, there was no clipping of highlights and, given this is an OLED, it was still high dynamic range.
Gaming performance was also very good from the AF9 with no issues with HDR games content and forced ABL dimming, in fact, the experience was a step up on the AF8 and better than gaming on the Philips. The LG just pips it with better lag time and dynamic tone mapping being brighter, but the Sony is no slouch and a great all-rounder.
The design of the AF9 is a little more controversial for some, with the slight lean back of the pedestal stand, but in actual use, from a normal viewing position, I personally didn’t mind this at all. It is not noticeable from direct on viewing and is slight enough that it doesn’t cause any image geometry issues. The design is again a personal thing, but I really like the minimal front, simple cable management system, and covers to the rear. The fact that the screen is also the speaker is a very nice touch and it is surprising just how effective this is with sound actually coming from the screen and not above or below it. If you use it as a centre speaker will depend entirely on your system and speakers, but it is a nice idea. Whether this works in practice will be interesting given issues in matching the tonality and timbre of the speakers and the screen. It’s not a feature to base your entire purchase on, but it is clever thinking from Sony. Perhaps they have a home cinema system coming to market that is voice-matched and takes advantage of this screen? It would be a cool feature if they did and they do have form for doing similar with the XF soundbar fitting the stand of the XF TVs this year.
Finally, we now have an Android TV that I feel I can recommend. The new Android Oreo operating system update along with more memory within the AF9 has certainly given it the needed shot in the arm to make it lightning fast and responsive when compared to the AF8 we tested long term. Add in YouView with most of the catch-up services for terrestrial channels along with Netflix and Amazon providing 4k HDR content and you have a very nice Smart TV line-up that is only missing a few apps and HDR compatibility with YouTube.
Given the outstanding image accuracy for SDR material, mixed with very good, consistent HDR image quality with the new tone mapping working dynamically to further improve the image; no ABL issues dimming the image with sports and gaming content, along with better Android and full calibration controls, we are mightily impressed with the Sony AF9 and it comes Highly Recommended. We would suggest, however, to wait to add it to your demo list while the price has a chance to drop, as at launch, it is too expensive when compared to the competition.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £2,999.00
Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level10
SDR Picture Quality10
HDR Picture Quality9
Picture Quality Out-of-the-Box9
Picture Quality Calibrated10
Ease of Use9
Value for Money8
Our Review Ethos
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