Sony’s second-generation OLED flagship, the AF9, is chock-full of wonder. This TV doesn’t only raise the image quality bar, courtesy of Sony’s new X1 Ultimate chipset, it sounds great too, thanks to an upgraded Acoustic Surface audio system.
The AF9 is a poster boy for Sony’s new Master Series TVs, an appellation to signify premium performance, and is joined by the ZF9, a high performance LED-LCD model, which is basically an update on the much-lauded Sony Bravia ZD9.
At Sony’s recent global Master Series launch in New York, we had a chance to spend some quality time with the AF9, comparing various aspects of its feature spec, and benchmarking it against competitors and comparable Sony screens.
As with all such industry previews, we were limited to a curated choice of content and viewing modes, but what we saw was enough to get us salivating for a review sample all our own.
Price and release date
The AF9 is available in two screen sizes, 55- (KD-55AF9) and 65-inches (KD-65AF9) – however we spent time with the latter. Prices have yet to be announced for either model, but we’re pretty confident both will land with hefty price tags.
The AF9 adopts the same lean back design as its predecessor, the Sony Bravia A1 OLED, although there are changes to the kickback stand. As a consequence it doesn’t seem to lean quite so far back and the set can also be wall-mounted, if preferred.
In terms of design, the biggest improvement comes in the implementation of Sony’s vibrating sound tech, Acoustic Surface Audio+, that adds a third on-screen actuator to create a centre channel between the previous stereo configuration. Also included is a second bass driver, effectively creating a 3.2 sound system. All three actuators are incorporated into the lean back stand, along with the twin bass drivers.
The upgrade sounds remarkable. Dialogue is clear and locked to the screen, and the additional bass driver adds weight. There was also clear channel steerage around our 65-inch screen.
The sound system also has a line input, which allows you to use the screen as a centre channel in a multichannel sound system. The execution is odd, as all the drivers are aggregated as one, and have to be reamplified by the set’s own amplifier modules. To demo this, we were treated to clips from The Greatest Showman, with the screen acting as centre, and then compared with a standard centre speaker located below the screen.
This arrangement is rather cute, particularly as a compromise solution when you can’t accommodate a physical centre speaker. However there are obvious tonal differences across the L/C/R. The set’s own amplification, optimistically quoted at 98W, also makes it impossible to use if the rest of a home cinema is running at reference level. Still, as a tweak on a living room surround layout, it’s rather useful.
Picture quality often had us gasping. The X1 Ultimate chipset introduces some new processing wrinkles which amplify existing picture detail without adding any unwanted edge enhancement. Object-based Super Resolution and Object-based HDR Remaster work on individual elements in the picture, without amplifying the entire frame. The end result is an picture that pops with detail and nuance.
There’s also a new Pixel booster at play, designed to lift colour and contrast.
The set supports HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision and its HDR performance looks to be on par with the older A1.
Operationally, the new AF9 would seem to be a slightly different beast to its predecessor and Sony has done well to rework some of its image presets. Cinema Pro mode has been replaced with a new version of Custom, for example, which features Reference settings, but allows for customisation.
Sony always played its ‘lens to living room’ card, rightly extolling the fact that its hardware is involved at every level when it comes to movie making. But this year it’s taken a leaf from the Panasonic playbook, and is really going to town on the ‘creators intent’ angle. The phrase was dropped at every opportunity.
It also staged multiple demonstrations of the set running alongside a Sony BVM-X300 pro-OLED monitor, in order to prove just how close it could get to studio grade images.
The AF9’s ability to resolve near black detail was hammered home by a shadowy scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Given that many of our AF9 demos were staged in near total darkness, the panel often appeared to vanish completely; such was its inky authenticity.
Also new, and exclusive (for the time being) to Sony’s Master Series, is a Netflix Calibrated Mode. This custom preset can only be supplied to the set’s internal Netflix app and supposedly optimises the screen for the best possible Netflix image, by mimicking the settings on Netflix mastering monitors.
Lost in Space Executive Producer Zack Estrin was on hand to endorse the initiative. But as far as we could make out, the setting isn’t driven by metadata and is basically just a generic recipe – so our expectations, at this point, are low.
Interestingly, Sony made very little of the fact that the screen will also land with the new Android Oreo TV OS. Given how inelegant Android has been to date, this is actually a rather exciting prospect. Certainly the new UI looks far cleaner and more manageable than what we’ve experienced so far. It’s a definite step forward.
There are several genuine reason to get very excited by the AF9: The debut of the X1 Ultimate processor appears to herald a significant evolution in picture processing, which not only makes 4K shine but also makes lesser sources diamond sharp. And, on top of that, the arrival of Acoustic Surface Audio+ lends this Sony a sonic edge that no one can match. Could that make the AF9 the new king of OLED? We won’t have long to wait to find out.
- Will the Sony AF9 join our list of the best 4K TVs? Only time will tell...