From the moment Sony revealed that it was finally going to introduce a sequel to what is arguably one of the most important TVs of all time, the ZD9 series, we’ve been counting down the days waiting for the first ZF9 model to arrive.
Now, finally, the Sony Z9F Master Series LCD-LED is here, and it’s turned up packing an all-new, ultra-powerful video processor, the latest (improved) version of Android TV, and an effective viewing angle so wide you’d almost think you were watching an OLED TV.
And while all these features are enticing on their own, it's really the price of the TV that has us most impressed - a mere $3,499 for the 65-inch XBR-65Z9F, and a pricey-but-still-reasonable $5,999 (AU$7,999) for the 75-inch XBR-75Z9F.
It all sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? As it turns out, maybe it is.
Available in 65- and 75-inch screen sizes, called the XBR-65Z9F and XBR-75Z9F respectively, the Z9F uses Sony’s new X1 Ultimate imaging processing engine, which was also found in the Sony X900F earlier this year.
As for its exterior, set design is predictably minimal, with just a thin aluminum bezel and two widely space feet which contain cable management. Yes, its slightly textured finish is quite smart, and the way channeling in the TV’s feet and a selection of detachable rear panel covers keep all your cabling tucked neatly away is pretty neat, but there’s anything particularly glamorous about its dark grey frame and slightly chunky rear.
Connections are pretty much exactly as we would expect of a high-end TV: four HDMIs, three USB ports, plus Ethernet and wireless network options.
That said, the HDMIs are ‘only’ built to the v2.0 standard rather than the upcoming v2.1 standard. This is true, though, of every other TV on the market right now (and probably right through until the latter part of next year).
And actually, Sony has managed to get one key feature supposedly associated with HDMI 2.1 onto the 65ZF9in the form of eARC support that allows you to pass lossless Dolby Atmos and DTS:X soundtracks through the TV from a 4K Blu-ray player to a separate audio system.
Design TL;DR: Although it’s not the most stylish TV in 2018, the Z9F is well built, and its finish is promisingly ‘serious’.
Smart TV (Android)
There’s good news and bad news here: The bad news is that the 65Z9F relies on Android TV for most of its smart functionality. This has consistently underwhelmed from the moment it first arrived on TVs back in 2015, thanks to its clunky, full screen presentation, over-crowded ‘shelf’ layout, bugs, crashes, sluggishness, endless updates, app overload and lack of focus on the sort of content TV users (rather than smartphone users) tend to want.
The good news is that the 65Z9F is one of the first TVs we’ve seen to use the very latest 8.0 version of Android TV, and this does, thankfully, introduce some significant improvements. Its presentation looks crisper; it does a more intuitive job of implementing core TV functionality such as settings, input selection and live TV features; and there’s more focus on prioritizing the video streaming content that most TV users care about.
The system ran much more slickly and quickly than the previous Android implementation too. It's hard to know if the extra processing power comes by was of Sony’s new X1 Ultimate chipset or Android 8.0’s improvements, but whatever the reason, we’ll take it.
Smart TV Features TL;DR: It’s a relief to see Android TV finally evolving for the better, but it's still far from our favorite smart TV platform.
The 65Z9F’s handling of HD sources is outstanding. Its new X1 Ultimate processor does an unprecedentedly good job of adding the millions of extra pixels needed to convert HD to 4K, introducing more color nuance and depth as well as the more predictable pixel density and detail enhancements.
Source noise is removed pretty much completely in the upscaling process too, without leaving the resulting picture looking softened or ‘plasticky’. This outstanding noise management makes X1 Ultimate exceptionally flexible when it comes to working with different qualities of sub-4K content. On a par with the upscaling prowess of Samsung’s recently reviewed 8K debutante, the 85Q900R.
The 65ZF9 applies an automatic and undefeatable HDR conversion to standard dynamic range images with all of its picture presets bar the Custom and Cinema options. This converter works great in most ways, opening up the color palette without making it look forced or uneven, and doing an intelligent job of extending the image’s light range in only the right places and to just the right degree. Unlike many rival HDR conversion systems, it doesn’t try too hard.
The only issue with the HDR upconversion is that its extra brightness introduces more potentially distracting backlight clouding issues than you get with the much lower light levels associated with ‘native’ SDR playback. That being said, you're better off sticking with a preset that doesn’t apply HDR conversion when viewing SDR content - at least if you’re watching TV in a fairly dark setting.
HD/SDR Performance TL;DR: Fantastic upscaling makes every sub-4K source look much better, and makes good quality HD sources actually look almost 4K. SDR playback looks good at fairly ‘native’ light levels, but backlight issues creep in if you use the SDR to HDR converter modes.
4K HDR content should be where the 65Z9F really comes into its own. Unfortunately, though, if anything things go slightly downhill for one simple but persistent reason: an unexpectedly underwhelming backlight performance.
For instance, dark scenes, especially with HDR images, tend to look rather grey thanks to the screen’s difficulties with hitting a really deep black color. This comes as quite a shock given that Sony’s 65Z9D delivered some of the best black levels ever seen from an LCD TV.
The unwanted surprises continue when what you’re watching has bright HDR elements appearing against relatively dark backgrounds. Really noticeable clouds of light ‘leakage’ can appear around the bright objects - and these can extend a good few centimeters across the dark backdrops, too. Again, this happens much more often and more noticeably than it did on the Z9D.
This ‘blooming’ effect can even extend quite routinely into the black bars you get above and below images with wider-than-16:9 aspect ratios, at which point it can become very distracting indeed. Especially if what you’re watching has lots of movement in it, so that the blooming artefacts keep moving around the image and within the black bars.
You don’t even need to be watching high-contrast content for the blooming to be noticeable. Very bright objects such as wall lights can cast strange circles of greyness onto the non-black walls behind them, for instance, subtly adjusting the color of those parts of the wall in the process.
All of this is totally unexpected given our experience of the Sony Z9D. Because the 65ZF9 joins the ZD9 in using a direct lighting system (where the LEDs sit right behind the screen), it should put out a similar performance. But, as we found out, Sony might've cut some corners in terms of overall zones.
To that end, while the 65Z9D used more local dimming zones than we could easily count (seemingly more than 600), the 65Z9F only deploys around 100. This immediately makes it much harder for the 65Z9F to ensure that light only appears where it’s supposed to appear in a picture.
Sony states that the X1 Ultimate processor includes new algorithms that improve how cleverly the dimming zones apply themselves to the 65Z9F’s pictures. But it’s pretty clear that this isn’t enough to compensate fully for the loss of so many dimming zones.
Another possible factor that contributes to the 65Z9F’s black level and blooming issues is actually one of its most ground-breaking strengths: its exceptional viewing angle support. You can watch the 65Z9F from almost right angles without it losing color or contrast in the way you see with any other LCD TV.
This is a fantastic innovation that tallies perfectly with Sony’s stated intention with the 65Z9F of trying to make an LCD screen behave/perform like Sony’s own, professional BVM-X300 OLED mastering monitor (a favorite of film and TV mastering studios). Seeing the various black level issues, however, you have to wonder if the mysterious ‘optical processes’ deployed to achieve this viewing angle breakthrough have had a negative impact on contrast.
It’s worth adding, too, that while the 65Z9F solves the color and contrast issues associated with wide LCD viewing angles, watching from an angle can cause the light blooming issues noted before to become more aggressive.
Thankfully, there's good news: Sony’s X1 Ultimate processing engine is a piece of work, in all the very best senses of that phrase.
We’ve already noted what a fantastic job X1 Ultimate does of upscaling lower resolution sources to 4K. But it also makes native 4K sources look exquisite. Its ability to define and render a huge range of colors with exceptional finesse and accuracy joins with the processing’s ruthless suppression of noise and processing artefacts to deliver an emphatic 4K experience painted in much more than mere pixel numbers.
The sense of depth and clarity is stunningly lifelike, enticing you into whatever bright scenes you’re watching arguably more than any other TV picture before (barring the native 8K images we saw on Samsung’s monumental Q900R).
This prowess is present, too, in the 65Z9F’s handling of action scenes which, even in their default settings, Sony’s motion options do a superb job of reducing judder without making the image look processed or causing nasty side effects such as edge haloing or flickering.
This is due in no small part to the 65ZF9’s X-Motion Clarity system: a combination of black frame insertion technology and clever manipulation of the direct backlighting and local dimming system that makes motion look remarkably cinematic and clean without the loss of brightness usually associated with black frame insertion.
Color saturations are extreme, meanwhile, without looking unnatural or short of detail, and the image is beautifully bright in just the sort of way it needs to be to unlock impressive amounts of HDR’s potential ‘drama’ - and the wider color range/volumes that go with it.
In terms of overall brightness, measurements reveal that the 65Z9F can output around 1570 nits of brightness in its Cinema mode (on a 10% white HDR window), 1650 nits in its Vivid mode and, strangely, only around 1250 nits in its Standard mode. These are high figures bettered only by a handful of rivals - and our best guess is that the lower brightness of the Standard mode reflects the fact that Sony is trying to strike a good balance there between brightness and limiting the screen’s backlight issues.
4K/HDR TL;DR: Sony’s new X1 Ultimate processing is a real step forward but, unfortunately, the Z9F’s backlighting flaws are sometimes so distracting that they’re all you can see.
The 65Z9F’s audio is good enough that you can survive without adding an external audio solution. Its speakers have enough power to produce fairly extreme volume levels without sounding forced, and even at nearly top volume there’s no cabinet rattling or speaker buzzing to spoil the show.
Detail levels are high with both movie and music sources, and high pitched effects sound well rounded rather than harsh and exposed. There’s a decent amount of depth and presence to the 65Z9F’s bass as well, and the sound is projected an impressive distance from the screen, boosting its immersive qualities and clarity.
There are, though, a couple of issues: First, dialogue sometimes - especially with male voices - seems to emerge from the bottom edge of the TV, so that it sounds slightly dislocated from the onscreen action. Second, while the soundstage is large, it doesn’t project forward into your room much.
Sound TL;DR: The 65Z9F’s sound isn’t particularly direct and dialogue can seem dislocated from onscreen lip movements from time to time. It can go loud without crumbling, though, and delivers lots of detail and dynamics.
Other panels to ponder
The closest direct rival for the 65Z9F is the Samsung Q9FN QLED(65Q9FN). The Samsung gets even brighter, thanks to sporting far more dimming zones, delivers deeper black levels and suffers less with blooming backlight artefacts. Its color range is colossal too. This all adds up to a superior dark room/movie viewing experience. That said, however, the Sony delivers marginally sharper 4K images, slightly better upscaling, and more shadow detail.
Another option if you are willing to sacrifice a chunk of HDR brightness in return for immaculate black levels would be an OLED model such as the LG C8 OLED or the Sony Z9F's twin brother, the Sony A9F OLED.
Sony has a serious winner on its hands with the new X1 Ultimate processor. There’s scarcely any aspect of TV picture quality that it doesn’t touch and improve. Sadly, though, this major step forward in video processing has been accompanied by an unexpected step backwards with the 65Z9F’s backlighting system that can sometimes make the processing’s efforts hard to appreciate.