Sony Bravia A1 OLED TV: Australian Review

Sony Bravia A1 OLED TV: Australian Review
Image: Sony

Sony’s not the first to the party with a big-screen OLED. That honour goes to LG, which has cornered the market for a few years with its excellent panels. But, after those were joined a few weeks ago by Panasonic’s Master OLEDs, it’s time for Sony’s Bravias to turn up: and boy, has Sony turned up.

I think, I think, that this just might be the best TV you can buy.

What Is It?

Sony’s Bravia A1 OLED TV comes in two sizes and two prices in Australia. You can pick yourself up a more affordable — ha — 55-inch panel for $4999, or step up to that 65-inch panel, the one you’re really craving, for $7499. That’s a lot of money for a TV! And a massive 77-inch screen should be on the way — POA — later in the year. But this is a top-of-the-line TV, and it justifies that price tag with Sony’s well-chiseled pillars of design, picture quality, and that typically Sony quirkiness.

The Bravia A1 is an OLED TV, of course, and that means each of its 3840×2160 pixels are individually self-lighting. Switching from entirely powered off and entirely black up to a maximum luminance of 700 nits gives the A1 a massive contrast ratio, and that typically OLED look of inky black pixels next to perfectly bright white ones — with none of the backlight bloom that most LED TVs, with the notable exception of top-end quantum dot screens, exhibit.

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Sony uses its tried and tested, not tired, Android TV interface on the Bravia A1 OLED. Try before you buy, since it’s not for everyone, but there’s no denying that it’s powerful: you basically get a Chromecast Ultra built in, any Google service your could want, and high quality Android apps for Netflix and YouTube and just about any other streaming service you could want. Sure, it’s not especially customisable like LG’s webOS or Samsung’s Smart Hub, but at least it commits to what it is.

Unless you’re in Cinema Pro mode, the Bravia A1 applies some image correction to any non-HDR content it’s displaying, unlike just about any other TV on the market. Image processing working non-stop in the back-end stretches contrast ratios for whatever you’re watching so you always get black blacks and white whites, as well as well saturated colour and the crispest possible detail. That gives the Bravia A1 a distinctive look even amongst other OLEDs. I happen to like it, just because it’s a subtle improvement rather than a heavy handed approach — that’s what makes it an improvement.

What’s It Good At?

Image: Sony

Load up the Sony Bravia A1 with some top-of-the-line, 4K HDR Blu-ray video piped through a high quality source like the Oppo UDP-203, and god. It’s TV like you haven’t watched it before. I’m not joking. You see things on this TV that you can’t see on any LED; you see things that you can’t see on other OLEDs, in the endless amounts of shadow detail and the pixel-perfect highlights without a hint of haloing. If you want the best TV on the market in terms of raw pixel-pushing power, this is it. Viewing angles? As good as perfect. Bravia Dolby Vision support, too, means the A1 handles the best HDR format that money can buy right now — so that’s not a reason to buy a LG panel over this one.

And god, it’s a good looking screen from the front. Sony’s been pursuing this monolithic TV idea for the last couple of years, and that pesky stand’s constantly been getting in the way… So Sony just pushed it to the back. Quite literally. From the front, all you see is picture, picture, picture, with an appropriately thin but not uncomfortably invisible piano black bezel and a tiny Sony power light in the lower centre. Its stand isn’t perfect — more on that later — but full credit to the boffins for making a TV that, to the viewer sitting on a couch in front of it, is just TV, and nothing else.

Image: Sony

Special credit, too, for Sony’s handling of fast motion on the Bravia A1. Even with the Motionflow image-smoothing gubbins turned off, there’s barely a hint of judder even on fast-moving content on screen in even imperfect video sources. Turn Motionflow on into its True Cinema mode and you’ll get an even smoother image, although I’d really recommend you just leave it off and enjoy the screen without additional processing added — it really doesn’t need it.

For the content that normal people watch, too, Sony has done something special with the built-in upscaling and remastering inside the Bravia A1 I had so much praise for the picture quality of Panasonic’s Master OLED EZ1000 and EZ950 panels, but the Bravia A1 has just that slight edge on them in processing standard-def content. For the Netflix streamers and YouTube watchers and Foxtel subscribers of this world, the A1 does 1080p and lesser video very slightly better than the Panasonic. It enhances the saturation and detail in streaming video in ways that other TVs just don’t out of the box, and against cheaper competition the A1 just looks that little bit better. The proof of the pudding, and all of that.

What’s It Not Good At?

Image: Sony

The stand of the Sony Bravia A1 certainly is innovative, and it allows for some impressive features like those funky firing-through-the-screen speakers, but it isn’t without its compromises. You’ll need an entertainment unit or table that’s at least 350mm deep to safely stand up the A1. And it also introduces a sometimes imperceptible, sometimes annoying, five degree rearward tilt that can catch ceiling light reflections under the wrong circumstances. If you want a vertically perfect screen, you’ll need to wall mount the A1, and even then there are other OLEDs that mount closer to the wall.

I have almost nothing but praise for the Bravia A1 OLED’s sound quality. The speakers built into the screen do an incredibly, surprisingly good job of creating a wide and immersive soundstage, and then you realise you can’t even see them. It’s uncanny. But for one caveat — the subwoofer built into the tentlike stand of the Bravia A1 isn’t up to the challenge of the low bass that Sony thinks it is, producing low frequencies that are a bit boomy and muffled and — if pushed to movie-viewing (and listening) volumes, a little bit crackly under the wrong circumstances. I’d turn it down in the A1’s software equaliser if I bought one and be content with OK bass, rather than bass that’s too mighty for its own good.

If you’re going to be watching a lot of content in a room that you can’t control the light level in, or that you don’t want to control the light in, you might be a little bit disappointed in the A1’s maximum brightness. At 700 nits of brightness in its Standard picture mode, and noticeably lower in Cinema and Cinema Pro, there are brighter OLEDs and much brighter LED TVs out there. I found Standard the best compromise between brightness and contrast/shadow/highlight detail, while generally Cinema is a safe bet on other TVs. I should measure this by saying that the Bravia A1 is significantly brighter than even the best OLEDs, and some LEDs, of a few years ago; it’s just mediocre in a relative sense.

Should You Buy It?

Image: Sony

You’re paying just about as much for the Bravia A1 series as you would for Panasonic’s Masters or LG’s own top-of-the-line OLEDs, so I can’t fault it on price relative to other OLEDs. And OLED sits in a class of its own when it comes to black levels and therefore contrast, which is the most important thing for a TV to do well. Sure, there are brighter LED TVs, and there are cheaper OLEDs, and both of these have their own unique attractions over the Bravia A1, but this is a Bravia, and hot damn does it do everything it says it can.

One potential stumbling block of the A1 is that there are brighter OLEDs out there, too, which are more versatile. And when you’re both starting from absolute black with those self-lighting pixels, any increase in brightness is an increase in versatility for HDR content. OLEDs need less overall brightness to display HDR content beautifully than LED-LCDs, but LEDs are just brighter overall, and that makes them better for daylight use. If you’re going to be watching a lot of daytime TV, go for an LED, or find yourself a brighter OLED. Or, y’know, buy some blackout curtains and the Bravia A1 and thank me later.

Image: Sony

The speakers built into and behind and throughout the screen of the Bravia A1 OLED aren’t perfect. They do deliver impressive sound for a TV as thin as the A1 is, and they do sound a fair bit better than any of Sony’s top-end competitors that don’t include a standalone soundbar setup, but they do have a little bit of a bass issue. Here’s me wishing you could pair the A1 OLED with a proper standalone sub, and only a sub, to fix that issue in the cleanest possible setup.

The Bravia A1 is such a Sony TV. It has a silly stand that looks like someone’s turned a 2-in-1 laptop upside down into ‘tent’ mode to pretend they have a good reason for buying a 2-in-1 laptop. It just looks prototypically Sony in the same way my mid-2000s portable hard drive Walkman did. It’s not the best TV for wall mounting, sure. But switch it on, and watch some video — through that incredibly convenient Android TV interface that Sony has committed to and refined over the last few years — and you’ll be forgiving of any just-a-little-bit-too-Sony contrivances that come with the Bravia A1. It’s so worth it.