Most LCD TVs either use a long string of LEDs around the edge of the panel or a thin sheet of LEDs across the back to light up their screens, meaning that large areas of the screen are lit by just a few LEDs -- and generally that's meant that LCDs have struggled to display bright whites alongside dark blacks. Sony's new Z9D TV, though, uses a full-array backlight with hundreds of individually-controlled LEDs, giving just about the most complex and powerful range of brightness across the display of any LCD TV you can buy today. And when you're watching the right movie, the difference is colossal.
What Is It?
The $6999 Sony Z9D is a 65-inch 4K TV with an innovative 'Backlight Master Drive' backlight, using a sheet of hundreds of LEDs to light up small zones of the screen while leaving others dark. On this metric, it's one of the most advanced LED-LCD TVs that you can buy -- where most LCD TVs with 'local dimming' LED backlights have anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen dimmable zones, the Z9D has hundreds. That translates into a larger range of brightness that can be displayed on screen at any one time. It helps, too, that the Z9D's backlight is immensely powerful -- it's one of the most powerful backlights ever put into a TV, with prototypes running at up to 4000 blinding nits although it's been dialed back to around a third of that for this real world retail unit.
While there's a ridiculous 100-inch model available internationally, you can only get the 65-inch Z9D in Australia. Being a 4K TV, the Z9D has a 3840x2160 pixel native resolution and has four HDMI 2.0b ports to input an appropriately high-res, high-frame rate signal from an Ultra HD Blu-ray player or a newer gaming PC, as well as integrated Wi-Fi and a bunch of legacy connectors available too. A new X1 Extreme imaging processor will upscale lower-resolution content to the Z9D's native resolution, and will also attempt to interpolate a higher dynamic range from standard dynamic range signals. It's a very powerful TV, doing a lot of calculations and checking a lot of algorithms in the background, all with the intention of making your movies look good.
What's It Good At?
The backlight in Sony's Z9D is the finest and most technically complex of any LCD TV that you can buy today. When you consider the spectrum from worst to best as having an old, fluoresent-tube-lit chunky LCD on one end and the self-lighting-pixels of an OLED at the other, Sony's latest screen gets almost all of the way to OLED in terms of the range of brightness that it can display on any one part of the screen, but it actually has a far higher maximum brightness than even the best OLED can muster. Where OLED tops out around 500 nits in current models, Sony's Z9D can muster 1600, and that makes for a far more versatile picture when you're watching content in a room that's not dim or dark.
Higher brightness also translates into better representation of colour at those higher brightness levels, as well as more gradation in brightness that helps along HDR content. All of this comes together when you're watching something like The Martian or Deadpool on a 4K HDR Blu-ray; The Martian's amazing colour range, especially across the red and orange end of the spectrum, looks utterly brilliant on the Z9D. I tested it against an otherwise comparable edge-lit 4K HDR TV, and the difference was stark: not only did colours just look better, but they did so with those lower minimum black levels and higher maximum white levels, which makes for a massive overall advantage.
It seems odd to praise the construction of a television, especially since it's the kind of thing that you (hopefully) have to set up once, but it's worth mentioning that the Sony Z9D is very well constructed for a TV. Its bezels are trimmed with golden aluminium strips, and the relatively skinny but solid central base is hewn from a single chunk of metal. The rear of the TV has a magnetic panel and a series of channels and clips to guide cables through, too, so all your HDMI connectors, power and networking are guided through the base of the screen at the back -- everything looks very well put together, even down to the smart rectangular tiled pattern on the back.
And the Z9D is the first Sony TV in Australia to ship with Android TV Marshmallow, the latest update to the television operating system. Android TV has always been pretty good, but especially in recent years it's taken a turn for the excellent -- voice controls and universal search that actually works very well, integration with popular apps like Netflix and Spotify, and of course the obvious tie-in with YouTube and built-in Google Cast support. We think that a Chromecast is just about the best media streamer that money can buy, and having all of those features and more crammed inside a TV is an excellent idea. I have precisely zero complaints with Android TV, and the Sony Z9D is better for its presence.
What's It Not Good At?
It's strange that Sony's Z9D doesn't support the higher-quality Dolby Vision mastering method for 4K HDR content, which is an advantage that its chief competitors -- LG's excellent EF950T and G6 OLED TVs -- have up their sleeves. The open HDR-10 standard that Sony supports does have 4K HDR titles that have been mastered up to a very high peak brightness level, but even some of them aren't able to match the Z9D's maximum nits; put simply the screen can handle even more than current HDR titles, so it would have been nice to see a wider range of HDR standards supported to allow future expansion.
Straight out of the box, the Z9D is too bluish and cool in its colour tone, and this took away from some of the visual grandeur of The Martian. You're much better served by immediately switching to Movie mode which warms things up and slightly flattens out contrast, but ends up looking better overall. Of course, we'd always recommend a proper calibration to make sure your screen is actually performing to the best of its potential in both bright and dark settings.
For the most part the Sony Z9D handles on-screen motion pretty well, but in our most torturous test -- an overhead, panning camera watching a Formula 1 car zip around the track at Singapore -- it did tend to show some motion blur with the fast-moving on-screen object against a slower-moving background. One way of solving this is to activate Sony's MotionFlow Clear setting, which strobes the backlight in between frames to clean things up significantly. Unfortunately, that comes at a cost to the screen's maximum brightness, so there's a minor compromise to be made here
And there is, of course, a final caveat that comes from the fact that while the Z9D's backlighting system is excellent at the job that it does, it's possible to trip it up under very specific circumstances. You can best see this with a scrolling title sequence from any Star Wars movie (go watch The Force Awakens on Netflix!), where a static star field and slowly moving text scrolls up the screen. Look around any pin-prick stars and you'll be able to see a small bloom of brightness -- unlike an OLED where every single pixel is its own self-contained illumination, the Z9D's full-array backlight has to devote a single LED to a few pixels at once, especially on such a pixel-dense 4K display.
Should You Buy It?
If you're looking in that very specific sphere of high-end, big-screened, 4K-ready and HDR-ready TVs, your choices are limited. You've only got half a dozen screens at best to make your choice between -- but the $6999 Sony Z9D should be very close to the top of that list. The key difference between it and its chief OLED competitor comes down to whether you spend more time watching TV and movies at night in a dark room or during the day in a bright room, where OLED gives you those (slightly) better blacks and the Z9D gives you a much higher peak brightness for cleaner whites.
It's strange to say that a display costing $7000 is good value, but against its chief big-screen competitors the Sony Z9D can actually be a couple of thousand dollars cheaper, although street prices tend to settle around the same point after a few months and in the new year you'll be able to get a better deal on any of the screens that you can buy right now. Nevertheless, if you have a big stash of cash burning a hole in your pocket then the Z9D sells itself extremely well on the credentials of its innovative backlighting, the amazingly detailed 4K picture that it can create and the excellent Android TV interface that it's based upon.