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Sony A8F TV review: high-end headaches

Sony A8F TV review: high-end headaches


Mo money, mo problems

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If you’re shopping for a new TV, you probably fall into one of two camps: someone who wants to spend less than $1,000 or someone who wants the best picture quality they can get, price be damned. If you’re in the first camp, you should buy TCL’s 6 Series TV, which costs around $650 for a 55-inch model and is the best TV you can get for less than a grand.

On the other end of the spectrum, LG’s line of OLED TVs has long been the way to go for the best picture quality you can get. They typically sell for between $2,000 and $3,000, depending on what size you want.

But LG isn’t the only TV maker out there with OLED TVs, and if you look around, you can find OLED TVs with much higher price tags. So, what do you get from a multi-thousand-dollar TV in 2018 that LG’s superlative OLED options don’t give you? I’ve been testing Sony’s $3,800 65-inch A8F to find out.

The A8F is an update to the A1E from 2017, and it’s an OLED TV in either 55 or 65 inches with a sleek design. It has 4K resolution and supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR. Unlike the A1E’s unique design with a kickstand in the back, the A8F is more traditional, with a base at the bottom that supports the TV. This design makes it much easier to mount on a wall than before. But like the A1E, there are no speakers on the sides or below the display — all of the sound comes from Sony’s Acoustic Surface technology, which uses the panel itself to project sound forward. The front-firing system is augmented by a rear-firing subwoofer for added bass.

This design gives the A8F a stunning presentation of just a giant display with the trimmest of bezels surrounding it. Even the stand puts the TV flush against your credenza or whatever surface it’s on — there’s no gap or legs under the screen. This can make it hard to put a soundbar in front of the TV, however, as it will likely block part of the visible screen.

The Acoustic Surface system works very well. It mimics the experience you get from a movie theater where sound is cast from behind the display. It’s tuned for dialogue, so the music and sound effects don’t drown out the stuff you actually want to hear in a movie. It also gets impressively loud on its own.

But most people shelling out nearly $4,000 for a TV aren’t doing so for its sound, and they are likely going to use an external sound system alongside the TV anyways. No, they are paying that price for the picture, and the A8F’s image quality is impressive. Colors are rich, blacks are as dark as they can be, and viewing angles are tremendous. The HDR capabilities show off the panel’s range, and Sony has employed its own tricks to make HDR10 content look similar to Dolby Vision content. It’s a stunning viewing experience, even in the boring room where I tested the TV.

The A8F provides a stunning viewing experience

Here’s the rub, though: there are only a handful of companies that make OLED panels, and Sony isn’t one of them. That means that the A8F is using the same OLED panels as LG’s TVs, which cost hundreds of dollars less for the same screen size. Sony claims that its processing technology is what separates its TVs from other OLEDs and that the A8F’s proprietary X1 Extreme 4K HDR processor is the key to even better image quality.

The new processor, which Sony claims is 40 percent more powerful than its predecessor, is capable of a whole litany of buzzwordy types of features, such as “Object-based HDR Remastering,” “Dual Database Processing,” and “Super Bit Mapping.” All of these are meant to contribute to better image quality, even if the content you’re watching isn’t the highest resolution or quality.

I’m sure Sony’s technology provides some difference in lab tests and Sony has plenty of examples to prove it out, but if it’s any better than an LG OLED for regular viewing, it’s only incrementally so. At the end of the day, OLED is still OLED, and when the panels are the same, processing can only make so much of a difference.

There are other reasons I’d probably save my money and go with LG’s TV over the A8F, as well. The A8F runs Android TV with Google’s Assistant, but it’s still using a dated version based on Android 7.1 Nougat. Sony says an update to Android 8.0 Oreo is coming this year, but it hasn’t arrived in the months I’ve been testing the TV.  

I’m not sure if it’s the old version of Android TV or something else, but basic performance of navigating the home screen, opening apps, scrolling through menus, and so on is downright terrible on the A8F. It’s slow, sluggish, frustrating to use, and not something that I want to deal with on a nearly $4,000 TV. A $500 Roku TV will run circles around the Sony from a usability standpoint, and that’s ridiculous.

Basic usability and navigation is abysmal

In addition, the A8F struggles when streaming content through the various apps, whether it’s Netflix, Google Play Movies, Vudu, or something else. Regardless of whether I used Wi-Fi or a hardwired Ethernet line, content buffers a lot, bitrates fall, and quality quickly turns to crap. It makes it hard to appreciate the A8F’s stunning picture quality when Vudu can only muster a few frames per second of The Last Jedi at a time.

Granted, if you’re using an external source for your content, such as a 4K Blu-ray player, none of this will be an issue. But with more and more casual TV watching happening over streaming services, it’s a big black eye on the A8F’s experience. Sony told me that the minimum bandwidth needed to stream 4K HDR content is 15 to 20Mbps, which while certainly a high-speed connection, isn’t out of reach for most internet services. For what it’s worth, the streaming issues I’ve experienced here are limited to the A8F — other TVs and set-top boxes we’ve tested have had no such problems maintaining a stream on the same internet connection.

Unfortunately, despite the A8F’s excellent picture quality and stunning design, it’s not justifiably better than LG’s offerings, and in many ways, it’s worse. When it comes to this TV, spending more doesn’t necessarily get you more.

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