At a glitzy event near Times Square yesterday, Sony unveiled its new lineup of Bravia flagship TVs. (The company literally pulled a veil off of them, according to an eyewitness account from this blogger.) The new TVs are collectively called the Master Series, and the screens are designed to offer image quality that’s comparable to Sony’s high-end professional reference monitors, the same kind that Hollywood people use when making feature films. Also, somewhat confusingly, Netflix is involved.
The Netflix partnership is an industry first. The new Sony Master Series TVs come with a feature called Netflix Calibrated Mode. According to Sony and Netflix, this special setting ensures that Netflix content will look as close as possible to what the creator intended. That means if you’re watching Lost in Space, the stark landscapes and strange space creatures on screen will match what showrunner Zack Estrin wanted them to look like. Estrin was actually at the Sony event and told the audience that he couldn’t tell the difference between images on the reference monitor and what he saw on the Master Series TVs. He told The Hollywood Reporter the same thing. It’s unclear if Sony or Netflix paid Estrin to say this, but he was wearing brand new shoes at the event, so you can connect the dots.
As someone who spends a lot of time researching and testing TVs, this sort of statement struck me as bullshit. Sony’s professional-grade reference monitors are coveted for good reason. They have the very best OLED panels that excel at producing accurate colours, the blackest blacks, and realistic movement. If Sony could make consumer TVs this good, the company would probably sell them for the price of a luxury automobile. After all, the laudable 30-inch Sony BVM-X300 costs about $US30,000. That’s a dollar an inch! There’s no way what the Lost in Space dude saw on a consumer TV managed to replicate that image quality for a fraction of the price.
This begs the question: So what? The vast majority of people have never seen the marvel that is a Sony BVM-X300 reference monitor, so how would they know whether the new TVs are comparable. The BVM reference monitor is often seen used by Hollywood filmmakers for postproduction. And again, it also costs about $US30,000, so it’s not really gracing many suburban living rooms. This thing is not for the casual TV-watcher. So by comparing the new Master Series to a professional-grade monitor, Sony’s effort is surely lost on the average consumer. What’s more interesting, however, is the idea that Sony suddenly cares more about calibration—namely making calibration simpler and better for everyone. With the new Netflix feature and improved image settings, it would appear that Sony is finally taking steps to make sure its customers get the most out of their top-of-the-line TVs. Like it really cares about image quality.
I’m not trying to imply that Sony never cared about picture quality. The company has a long history of innovation in the TV space, and at this week’s event, it bragged about several key products dating back to the first Trinitron colour TV, introduced in 1968. Sony said the new Master Series was another such milestone. It makes some sense. The series includes the A9F OLED TV and the Z9F LED TV. Both feature 4K HDR displays as well as Sony’s new X1 Ultimate processor. The A9F also comes with an improved Acoustic Surface Audio speaker system—this is Sony’s speaker system that’s hidden behind the display. It’s called Acoustic Surface Audio+ and can make your TV speakers part of a surround sound system. Honestly, there’s a whole laundry list of extra proprietary features on these new TVs that’s best browsed on the Sony website.
The key takeaway here is that Sony’s new flagship line of TVs is aimed at the mainstream but also tailored to the nerdiest of TV nerds—the folks who probably own the Spears and Munsil HD Benchmark DVD or a colorimeter and spend hours making sure their TVs are perfectly calibrated for every room in the house. Sony includes two custom modes with the Master Series, so that you can create one profile for daytime TV-watching and one for nighttime TV-watching. The custom mode, by the way, is the one that should enable you to calibrate the Master Series TV to look similar to a Sony professional reference monitor. However, Sony has not said whether it will help the average TV-owner actually discover these settings, because it’s aware that a lot of people just want to take their expensive new TV out of the box and fire up Netflix.
If this is what you did when you got your TV, by the way, you still have time to fix it. Most of these preset picture modes suck! The standard picture mode is simply a starting point, and it’s usually too blue. The vivid picture mode is designed to make the TV look colourful on the showroom floor and not in the softer lighting of a home. The eco mode cuts the brightness and ruins the image. You should be using a cinema or custom mode to get the best picture quality. But at least with the new Sony offering, people will have a Netflix-specific picture mode that’s actually endorsed by Netflix. I can’t say that it looks better than a well calibrated TV, though. I’ll have to spend some more time with the new Master Series to know for sure.
What I can say is that the new Master Series TVs look pretty good at first glance. They look really good. Do they look as good as Sony’s pro-quality reference monitor? I don’t think so, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve actually seen Sony do this demo before. At a meeting a few months ago, the company showed off its latest TV lineup alongside a competitor and the pro-grade reference monitor to show how they were getting close to top quality. It’s worth pointing out that even then the reference monitor was the only display that could handle shadow gradations. On the other TVs, shadows looks weird and blocky, while the monitor stayed smooth like a photograph. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do this side-by-side test with the Master Series, because Sony didn’t have any of the professional displays on the floor at the event near Times Square. One company executive said that the image quality was “approaching a pro-grade monitor.” There wasn’t much more discussion about exactly how the new TVs measure up to the $US30,000 ($40,376) displays.
Sony did talk a lot about the new Netflix partnership, which makes sense for two big companies that undoubtedly invested a lot of money towards working together. I’m just not sure how many Netflix users are going to get their eyes melted by a new Netflix-specific picture mode. It’s actually pretty hard to find, based on the demo I saw at the event. The new Netflix Calibrated Mode only works with the Netflix app on the Sony Master Series TV. (Set-top boxes don’t get the privilege.) Once you’re in the app, you have to navigate to the TV’s settings and then toggle on the new picture mode, which is also just a baseline setting for all Netflix content. That means if you’re watching a Netflix original Altered Carbon, the picture mode isn’t tuned specifically for that specific content. Netflix Calibrated Mode is a baseline for all Netflix content.
That’s assuming you can find the new setting. Even before you get to that stage, you have to be able to afford these new Sony TVs, which are bound to cost thousands of dollars. The current flagship Sony TVs start at around $US3,000 ($4,038). Sony hasn’t named a specific price for the Master Series, but that information should come out sometime this fall, when the TVs will start shipping. At the announcement event, a Sony employee couldn’t confirm whether or not the new Master Series would come with some sort of tutorial on how to calibrate the TVs to take advantage of all the cool new features, but he didn’t seem optimistic. It seems like a lot of rich people just want the most expensive TV, and they’re fine with the standard mode that comes as the default when the sets ship.
Inevitably, all of this seems strange. Most TV companies fail to help consumers calibrate TVs properly, even though that’s the best way to showcase how good the displays look. Now, it seems like Sony had the chance to make itself useful in helping customers fine-tune their most expensive TVs, but instead, the company just created this weird Netflix Calibrated Mode, furthering the myth that a good picture setting is only a setting switch away. I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
I’m also eager to try the new Sony Master Series for myself. They seem like nice TVs! And I can’t wait to calibrate the shit out of one.