TV enthusiasts love OLED TVs for their remarkable picture quality. But until now their high prices restricted them to the home-theater systems of well-heeled videophiles. Sony's announcement at CES 2017 that it will join LG in the OLED market later this year could potentially lead to lower prices for this very appealing technology.
Sony has anointed its new 4K OLED, the XBR-A1E Bravia, its flagship model for 2017. We think that Sony is sourcing the OLED panel from LG—companies don't usually disclose where they get their different components—because they have few alternatives. And LG has provided panels to some overseas manufacturers. But Sony will be adding its own video-processing and display technologies to its new flagship. It will be interesting to see how the set differs from LG OLEDs.
At CES 2017, the company didn't give an exact time frame for the TV's availability and didn't say how much it would cost, although you can bet it will be expensive.
A vast majority of televisions are based on LCD technology, but our testing has consistently shown that OLEDs offer superior video performance in some respects, including deeper blacks and better off-angle viewing. That performance comes at a price. Even though prices fell considerably in 2016, the least expensive 4K LG OLED TVs still cost about $2,000. Comparably sized LCD sets can cost well under $1,000.
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One reason for that may be a lack of competition. Until Sony's announcement, LG had the OLED market all to itself—Samsung briefly introduced an OLED set in 2013 but found it too difficult to manufacture—and that has restricted the technology to prices that are out of the reach of most viewers. With Sony's announcement, people shopping for OLED performance in 2017 will finally have a choice in brands, and eventually consumers could see lower prices because of this.
Sony's Sound From the Screen
The XBR-A1E Bravia also boasts a unique audio system, which Sony is calling "the world's first Acoustic Surface" sound system. The technology will apparently generate sound from the screen itself, eliminating the need for conventional speakers.
Like Sony's LCD-based line, the new OLEDs will use the Android TV smart TV platform.
“Sony continues to make consumer choice a priority, especially for those seeking the very best viewing experience, and we are proud to introduce our new XBR series,” said Mike Fasulo, Sony Electronics president. “Sony delivers incredible innovation and excitement to customers with all of our premium 4K HDR TVs through a powerful mix of technology and our exclusive image processing.”
Although most consumers won't remember it, for Sony, the announcement marks a return to the company's OLED past. It was actually the first TV brand to offer an OLED TV to consumers, way back in 2008. The set, the XEL-1, had a tiny 11-inch screen, and at $2,500 was prohibitively expensive at the time. We tested the set, and in fact had to buy a new meter to measure its black levels, the deepest we'd ever encountered then.
LG's 'Picture-on-Wall' OLED
At the Consumer Electronics Show, LG showed off its own new OLED TV lineup, including a new "Signature" flagship W7 series, which sports an elegant, super-thin profile the company calls "picture-on-wall" design. For example, the 65-inch model is just 2.57mm deep—about 1/10th of an inch. A magnetic wall mount keeps the TV almost flush against the wall, almost eliminating any gap.
The new OLEDs are loaded with features, including several types of high dynamic range (HDR) technology, including Dolby Vision, plus Dolby Atmos immersive sound.
“With Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos integrated into our newest OLED products, viewers can recapture the magic of the cinema and experience their favorite movies with their original clarity, depth, and imagination intact," says Tim Alessi, head of product marketing at LG Electronics USA.
The LG 2017 OLED TV lineup will consist of 10 models, including 77- and 65-inch TVs in the W7 sets and G7-series sets, and 65- and 55-inch models in the E7, C7, and B7 series.
This year's OLEDs will have 25 percent higher peak brightness than last year’s, LG says, which should improve HDR performance. Like LG’s new Super UHD lineup, the new OLEDs will support HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR, plus HLG, a new format for live broadcast, and Technicolor’s Advanced HDR.
A feature we’re going to check out in our labs this year is called “Active HDR,” which LG says will enable OLED TVs to process the picture frame-by-frame, inserting dynamic data where needed, even if the original content has static metadata or no metadata at all. We’ll explain this feature in greater detail once we have the TVs in our labs.
The sets will also have a feature called HDR Effect, which attempts to provide an HDR-like experience with standard dynamic range content.
For the past few years, we've only been able to compare LG's top OLED TVs with other sets in that company's lineup. In 2017 we're looking forward to seeing how Sony's 4K OLED stacks up, and whether a new competitor will help make OLED TVs a more affordable option.
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