Sony’s new 4K TVs have launched and pose a threat to LG’s OLED technology with their High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology and relatively-low price.
LG’s OLED TVs have stunned everyone who’s seen them... when they’re operating at their best. But they’ve been expensive and hampered by only appearing (until recently) with curved screens which have put some people off. What’s more, the price of the top models hasn’t been plummeting as we’ve seen with other TV technologies (LG is in competition with itself in the OLED space) and the price of a top, 65-inch unit (65EF950T) is still $8,999 despite its predecessor being $9,999 two years ago.
Now here’s Sony with its new X9300D and X8500D range. Both offer HDR – which is basically better colour performance thanks to better light-sensor-capturing (in technical terms the colour gamut has moved from 8-bit to 10-bit). As Digital Trends puts it, “HDR allows a television to display a wider range of luminosity levels, including deeper blacks and brighter whites. The technology benefits colour as well by increasing the intensity with which colour is displayed.” The X9300D offers slightly-superior backlighting over the X8500D but that's the main difference. (Rumour has it that the X8500D is essentially the same TV as last year's flagship but Sony wouldn't confirm).
Backlighting technology is now fantastically complicated with most lighting coming from LEDs at the side of the screen (rather than behind it) which change dynamically thanks to hard-working filters. This means the display can be even slimmer and the back doesn't need as much cooling, and yet somehow blacks can be even blacker when watching content.
The technology differs from OLED (which in many ways is an evolution of plasma TV) which only lights up areas the of the screen which have images on them – blacks end up totally black because there is literally no light appearing on screen. This differs with the LCD technology used by Sony and other manufacturers where light shines through a colour-changing layer of Liquid Crystal to produce the image. But how Sony has managed to keep the screen black at the edges and light in the middle using light-sources that come from the edges seems to defy the laws of physics.
Ultimately, not much has changed with Sony’s new TVs in terms of video. The hardware is the same (the X1 processor). The main difference this year is the HDR. But that has also been made available to its high-end 2015 4K TVs (X940C, X930C, X850C, X900C and X910C) via a firmware update.
Despite the complexity of the lighting technology, the LCD technology is still mature enough to undercut the price of OLED – a lot. The 65-inch X9300D model costs ‘just’ $5,999. Three grand cheaper? That’s quite a disparity! But is this the TV to buy? Or should you hold back?
Best picture quality
When both flagships are displaying demonstration videos which use 4K and HDR, the degree of difference is minimal: both flagship TVs are capable of stunning colours and true blacks (the slightly-lesser X8500D series offers just that bit less contrast and not-quite-true-blacks – but then it ‘only’ costs $4,499 for a 65-inch unit). You’ll probably watch the 4K demos on YouTube many times and show your friends but this is not representative of real-world content. How does Standard Definition TV and low-quality YouTube appear? What about the Grand Prix on free-to-air TV? What about E! Entertainment channel’s low-res, trashy programmes on cable? Programs broadcast in low quality are watched most of the time. So we’ll work down to that.
Watching the latest Blu-ray movies on all three models is stunning. Especially space scenes where the difference between dark and bright is exemplified. Pockmarked skin and individual hairs are very clear and crisp on all models. However, while letterbox bars on the LG are always true black, we did notice significant light bleeding into all of Sony's bars when they were next to bright areas on the screen – slightly more so on the X8500D models. This picture illustrates the difference – it’s more-perceptible in a dark room. In terms of performance the LG still wins here with its true blacks but not by much. It’s better (and only sometimes - depending on the scene) than the X9300D to the same degree that the X9300D beats the X8500D.
A big problem is that Blu-ray discs do not have the capacity to store a 4K movie. All the talk of 4K and now 4K HDR comes from Netflix where its own shows like House of Cards, Narcos and Daredevil have recently all started using it.
The detail in these dramas can be amazing. However, quality consistency in different scenes changes dramatically in all instances. Well-lit, slow-moving scenes can offer incredible detail, whether it’s pores on someone’s skin, floral details on curtains behind a character or intricate floor tiling. The next moment, it’s a gritty dark scene with added-in, excessive grain and far less clarity. The differences really show up on these top TVs now – the quality that gets displayed varies dramatically depending on what gets put in to a higher degree than ever.
However, while raw image quality from Netflix (and streaming video in general) can be exceptionally good, motion smoothing issues can be rife. Bit-rates on Blu-rays can dynamically vary during playback to a massive degree depending on how detailed (or how much motion) there is in a scene but this doesn’t seem to be happening with streaming video... yet. On all these TVs we saw some horribly juddery panning shots when image smoothing processes were caught off guard. And this brings us to another issue – you’ll frequently be playing with picture mode to get the best picture when watching different types of content.
Image optimisation and vivid mode
When a Blu-ray movie was playing on the Sonys, you couldn’t change anything and for good reason: the TV knew you were in Full HD/24 frames per second movie mode and there was nothing that could be done by an amateur to improve picture quality. With Netflix and streaming video, the TV doesn’t know what it’s playing and colour performance and motion smoothing vary a lot.
If you put the LG in Vivid mode, all colours go extremely bright but motion smoothing and colour gradient quality can fall off a cliff. However, using other picture modes still allows the OLED TV’s natural bright colours and true-black blacks to perform well. But, with the Sonys, to really make the most of HDR you need to be in Vivid mode all the time. This isn’t the train-wreck it is for LG although image smoothing and other processing still seems to decline as colour performance increases. However, when you need to get the smoothing performance back, you lose the great, bright colours that Sony’s Vivid mode offered: in short the Sony TVs struggle to engage all of their image optimisations at once when displaying streaming 4K video from Netflix.
As such, the more-naturally bright OLED TV can wins for 4K Streaming Video on Demand - in some scenarios, even though it’s not by much. As before, the main difference here between the X9300 and X8500 is slightly better backlighting and not much else.
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