Given the impact Sony’s debut OLED TVs made on the TV world, AV fans have been impatient to see where the Japanese brand might take the technology next. It turns out, though, that for better or for worse, Sony’s second stab at making an OLED TV series hasn’t really taken taken things anywhere else at all.
Outstanding picture processing
Clever, effective audio system
Gorgeous black levels
Well-designed picture presets
Lacks brightness with HDR
Android TV is frustrating
Unpleasant remote control
Some odd pricing
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While many home cinema fans embraced the combination of Sony processing and OLED technology delivered by 2017’s A1 TVs, aspects of this range’s design proved divisive. Some people didn’t like the way its screen tilted slightly back, or the way the screen was supported by an angled leg that made the TV too deep to sit easily on a piece of furniture. Some were also frustrated that you couldn’t hang the A1s on a wall.
Cue the new Sony A8F OLED range (or AF8 in the UK). These more straightforwardly-designed OLED TVs - as represented here by the 55-inch KD-55AF8 - are a direct response to the A1’s demanding approach. Just don’t expect them to move Sony’s OLED conversation along in any other way…
The 55AF8 really is much easier to accommodate in a typical living room than the A1 series. The vertical screen will work better for most living room arrangements, and the removal of the leaning leg keeps the screen’s depth to just five centimetres or so. As a result, it’s no problem to wall-hang, and sits easily on any bit of furniture. Especially as the screen rests low on a simple, strikingly-small and centrally-mounted desktop stand.
The 55AF8 doesn’t deliver a complete aesthetic departure from the A1s, though. For instance, its ultra-narrow frame and neck-free stand again exemplify Sony’s desire to minimise the visual impact of their hardware, so that your attention is focused solely on the pictures you’re watching.
There’s also a bass port built into the set’s rear, as there was with the A1. Most importantly of all, there are no other visible speakers, because the 55AF8 joins the A1 in using its screen to make its sound.
In other words, its ‘Acoustic Surface’ technology uses exciters attached to the back of the screen to vibrate it into creating (stereo) sound.
Screen sizes available: 65-inch, 55-inch | Tuner: Freeview HD | 4K: Yes | HDR: Yes (HDR10, Dolby Vision (following a future update), HLG) | Panel technology: OLED | Smart TV: Yes/Android TV 7.0 | Curved: No | Dimensions: 1226(w) x 712(h) x 55(d) mm | 3D: No | Inputs: 4 HDMIs, three USBs, RF tuner
Design TL;DR: An ultra-minimalist front gives way to a much slimmer, more practical rear than you got with the A1 series. The end result is a bit less dramatic, though.
Smart TV Features
So far I haven’t been a fan of the Android TV platform Sony uses on its TVs - and that’s not going to change with the 55AF8. In fact, Android seems to be getting worse rather than better.
The biggest problem is the impact trying to run Android TV has on the rest of the TV’s operating system. There are crashes and failed commands galore, and the menus sometimes take an insane amount of time to respond to your choices. Especially for the first few moments after you’ve powered the TV up from cold. Even switching the TV on can take as long as booting up a computer.
The Android user interface has major problems, too. Its full-screen approach looks cluttered and confusing, its recommendation system doesn’t really seem to take into account your viewing preferences and history, and there are nowhere near enough options for customising the layout to suit your needs.
Sony claims that the AF8s will be upgraded to receive Android 8, which is expected to usher in a very different interface. Let’s hope that this finally solves at least some of Android TV’s long-running issues.
Fortunately the 55AF8’s smart features aren’t a complete bust. Among its frankly overwhelming list of available apps, for instant, are the 4K HDR versions of Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. Also, Sony has thankfully managed to sidestep Android TV’s usual shortcomings when it comes to the UK terrestrial broadcaster’s catch-up TV apps by getting YouView onboard.
YouView brings the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, My 5 and so on ‘under one roof’, and even lets you look for shows you’ve missed via an electronic programme guide that can scroll back as well as forward through time.
Perhaps the best thing to come from the integrated Android TV platform is built-in Chromecast support, for easier sharing of content on your mobile devices. There’s also support for Google Assistant and Alexa voice control.
Smart features TL;DR: As well as being cluttered and obtuse with its own interface, Android TV has a painfully-damaging impact on the usability of the TV’s basic operational menus.
The KD-55AF8 may just be the best TV with standard dynamic range, HD-resolution content that there’s ever been.
The key to the 55AF8’s phenomenal prowess with the sort of sub-4K stuff most of us still spend most of our time watching is its X1 Extreme processing engine. For instance, its use of two built-in databases (one focused on removing source noise, the other dedicated to calculating the look of each of the millions of extra pixels required to turn HD into 4K) yields remarkable results. All but the grubbiest HD sources are transformed into something that looks clean, polished and resembles 4K more than it resembles HD. Even messy HD sources look cleaner and more watchable than they tend to even on good native HD TVs.
The 55AF8 also applies SDR to HDR conversion as standard to the majority of its picture presets. And as with its resolution upscaling, this HDR upconversion is superb, opening up the SDR picture’s color and brightness to at least half-way HDR levels without leaving any aspect of the image looking strained or unnatural.
Rival sets can deliver more aggressive HDR conversions of SDR content, it should be said. For me, though, the Sony’s more measured approach is more consistently engaging.
If you choose a preset - such as the Cinema one - that lets you watch SDR in its native color and brightness values, the 55AF8 again excels. There’s a gorgeous refinement to the way it handles detail, color, light and shade that makes you realise why standard dynamic range content ruled the home AV roost for so long before HDR finally came along.
HD/SDR TL;DR: Sony’s excellent processing and the OLED technology’s pixel-level light controls help it to deliver truly gorgeous SDR and HD pictures.
In most ways, the processing prowess and exquisite light and color management that make Sony’s 55AF8 so good with HD/SDR content also make it a sublime 4K/HDR performer.
Compared with even LG’s much-improved new 8-series OLEDs, for instance, the 55AF8 does a gorgeous job of suppressing every sort of picture noise.
There’s hardly any color blocking or fizzing at all, even with aggressively saturated but also subtly toned content such as the heavily-filtered red Mars skies on The Martian 4K Blu-ray.
Dark scenes see practically none of the fizzing and low-level blocking noise that can still slightly infiltrate the very darkest shots on LG’s OLED TVs. This points to outstanding management of near-black light levels - one of the trickiest aspects of OLED picture performance.
There’s also no trace of striping noise in subtle 4K HDR color blends, and only the absolute tiniest evidence of the vertical brightness banding issue that typically troubles OLED TVs to some extent.
Successfully dodging these numerous OLED noise problems enables the 55AF8 to produce a wonderfully polished, immaculately immersive picture.
The 55AF8’s black levels are rich and deep beyond the capabilities of any current LCD TV. In fact, given the lack of noise in them, they’re arguably the deepest, purest black levels currently available on any TV. This is a fantastic achievement that home cinema fans will love - and which helps the TV deliver high contrast HDR images (where rich white tones and colors can sit just a pixel away from the deepest blacks) with a level of intensity that never ceases to impress.
The grey-free blacks provide a fantastic foundation for the 55AF8’s colours, giving them an instant richness and authenticity that’s built on superbly by Sony’s Triluminos colour processing platform. The refinement of the 55AF8’s color performance helps native 4K pictures look richly detailed, as well as giving you a decent sense of the extra color range associated with all of the current HDR sources.
Sony’s exemplary processing works wonders, too, with the 55AF8’s motion performance. Using the Standard or True Cinema settings of the MotionFlow system sees judder reduced without the picture becoming so fluid that it no longer looks natural. Even better, this impressively natural reduction in judder is achieved without generating shimmering side effects around the edges of moving objects; flickering over really fast movement; or the sudden stutters or ‘billowing’ issues seen with some rival OLED TVs.
As of June 2018, viewers in the US and Canda will also be able to download a Dolby Vision firmware update, in order to watch HDR video content compatible with the format, which is increasingly supported on streaming services such as Netflix, Youtube, and Amazon Prime Video.
While the 55AF8’s beautifully refined approach to HDR and wide color content is a thing of beauty in most ways, though, Sony’s latest OLED screen does have an Achilles Heel: Brightness. Or rather, its lack of brightness.
It’s immediately obvious that the 55AF8 doesn’t pump out HDR images with the sort of light levels achieved by this year’s new LG OLED TVs. And they’re not even in the same universe as the sort of brightness levels you get with the brightest LCD TVs.
I measured the 55AF8’s brightness when showing a 10% white HDR window to be around 700 nits (though this drops to 640 nits with some presets). This is only 120 nits or so less than the peak brightness of LG’s C8 and E8 OLED TVs, but watching them side by side makes the difference between the two look much greater than that. So long, anyway, as you have the LG’s Dynamic Tone Mapping feature activated.
This means that the LG delivers both a higher ‘average brightness level’ and more intense-looking brightness peaks with HDR sources.
To be fair to Sony, it may be that it’s holding back the 55AF8’s maximum brightness to retain tonal detail in the brightest parts of the picture, or to help it keep noise out of dark scenes or rich colors. But much as I love most things about the 55AF8’s pictures, their lack of brightness matters. HDR images just don’t look that HDR - especially if you’re watching them in anything but a blacked out room.
One last thing to note here is that since the promised Dolby Vision update for the 55AF8 is not yet ready, I wasn’t able to check if the addition of Dolby Vision’s dynamic metadata had a substantial impact on picture performance. Experience suggests, though, that it certainly won’t do any harm!
4K/HDR Performance TL;DR: The 55AF8’s amazing black level performance and beautifully refined color processing can make HDR 4K content look incredible. It’s a shame, however, that the 55AF8 only finds the same limited amount of brightness for its HDR playback that Sony’s A1 OLED debutantes did.
Sony’s innovative Acoustic Surface technology works almost as well on the 55AF8 as it did on last year’s A1 models.
I was again very impressed, for instance, with how open, well-rounded and detailed the sound is.
Also excellent is how accurately sound effects are placed on the screen. Voices seem to come directly from the speaker’s mouth, for instance, while the sound of vehicles crossing the screen tracks their motion with uncanny accuracy.
The sound can go pretty loud before the ‘screen exciter’ system starts to lose resolution and become a bit thin, and the sound is cast directly forward with plenty of impact.
The woofer speaker on the rear, finally, underpins the open sound of the stereo screen with a passable amount of bass, even if the 55AF8 doesn’t seem quite as assured in this department as the A1 series.
Sound performance TL;DR: The 55AF8’s Acoustic Surface technology delivers clean, room-filling and well-rounded sound.
Other panels to ponder
The 55AF8’s main rival is arguably Sony’s own A1 series, which currently continues to sell alongside its newer siblings. In Europe, the 55-inch A1 costs pretty much the same as the 55AF8 and delivers an essentially identical picture performance. So if you prefer and can accommodate the A1’s more distinctive design, that’s the one for you. Note, though, that the 65-inch A1 is actually around £300 more expensive than the 65AF8.
In the US, the A1s make life more difficult for the AF8s. Both A1 models are, at the time of writing, substantially cheaper than the equivalent AF8s. So given the extreme similarities in their performance, the A1s would seem the better option if you’re not desperate to avoid that model’s lean back design.
Other rivals of note would be LG’s C8 or E8 2018 OLED TVs, which deliver much brighter, punchier HDR pictures, but aren’t as good at suppressing video noise.
Finally, Samsung’s new Q9FN LCD TVs combine huge levels of peak brightness with class-leading black levels to provide a potent rival for OLEDs traditional contrast-rich charms. Especially for people with bright living rooms to contend with. On the other hand, they don’t hold on to shadow detail in dark scenes as well as OLEDs.
Sony’s superlative picture processing helps the 55AF8 deliver wonderfully pure, clean images that leave home cinema fans free to bathe in OLED’s sensational black levels and intense contrast and colors.
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John has been writing about home entertainment technology for more than two decades - an especially impressive feat considering he still claims to only be 35 years old (yeah, right). In that time he’s reviewed hundreds if not thousands of TVs, projectors and speakers, and spent frankly far too long sitting by himself in a dark room.