By Thomas J. Norton
SONY’S NEW XR-65A80J OLED TV isn’t a member of the company’s Master Series—that designation belongs to its XR-A90J OLED models, which are spec’d to deliver higher brightness than the XR-A80J sets. And while we haven’t yet tested those pricier Sony OLEDs, the XR-65A80J is far from being a second-class citizen. Read on to find out why.
The A80J’s physical design is solid and well-executed. If you opt for a conventional installation instead of a wall-mount, its feet can be installed either 40 inches or 27.3 inches apart to accommodate a wide range of TV stands or cabinets, and they can also be slightly elevated to make space for a soundbar.
Sony’s OLED supports the Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HLG high dynamic range formats, but not HDR10+. Two of its four HDMI inputs are version 2.0, which is sufficient for most current Ultra HD sources, and the other two are HDMI 2.1. One of the latter supports eARC, and both are compatible with the 120Hz output of next-gen gaming consoles and offer ALLM (Auto Low Latency Mode). But the A80J doesn’t yet offer one other game-centric feature: VRR (Variable Refresh Rate). According to Sony, VRR will be added in a future firmware update.
The A80J includes the new Cognitive Processor XR, which provides a significant advance even over recent high-achieving Sony TV processors in handling all the set’s important traffic-cop chores. These include motion, noise reduction, dynamic contrast enhancement, XR Contrast Booster, upscaling, HDR tone mapping, and more.
Cognitive Processor XR also adds a major new wrinkle: Instead of the same-old, same-old AI (Artificial Intelligence—so 2020 in Sony’s world), it is said to reproduce the depth, texture, and vividness of the real world by analyzing hundreds of thousands of picture elements almost instantaneously, detecting the most important focal points in each frame and enhancing them in a manner that complements how our brains work.
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Well, perhaps not how everyone’s brain works. (To be honest, this sort of undefeatable processing makes me a bit uncomfortable.) But for those who may wonder if the result will somehow compromise what the movie director and/or transfer artist intended, Cognitive Processor XR’s main intent is to match, as closely as possible, the quality of images displayed on Sony’s BVM professional monitor, an industry standard in video post-production studios.
Sony uses Android TV for its Smart TV platform, though it’s now been redubbed Google TV. The A80J can respond to voice commands via Hey Google and Amazon Alexa, and can also play back music, videos, and photos from your home network and wirelessly mirror material on your tablet, phone, or computer screen—features now nearly universal on most TVs. It further supports AirPlay 2 for streaming content from an Apple device.
Many of the Google TV features require you to sign up for a Google account, either on initial setup or later—something I prefer not to do. If you decline as well and then spend time surfing on YouTube (or presumably any other sites Google owns or influences), you’ll receive frequent prompts (at least one every 30 minutes) to join the Google family. If you select “Not Now” (there is no “Not Ever” option) you’ll still be allowed to continue as a guest, but the intermittent prompts will continue forever, or until you relent and create an account.
A maximum of eight Picture Modes are available on the A80J. I chose Cinema for most of my setup and viewing. Both 2- and 10-point white balance calibration controls are provided in the Adv. color temperature menu, though I found the 10-point controls to be ineffective. There are also full color management system adjustments located in the set’s Per color menu.
Sony’s Reality Creation processing has been around forever in various forms, but I’ve rarely used it in the past and didn’t here. Motionflow offers several controls to reduce motion blur, but I’m sensitive to even a hint of the “soap opera” look, a typical side-effect of motion compensation that makes filmed images look like video. For those who aren’t bothered by this, Motionflow is effective in reducing image blur, particularly in its Auto setting. Motion adjustments also include dark frame insertion, which is accessible through the Motion/Clearness control. This setting can reduce motion blur without adding the soap opera nonsense, but it sacrifices brightness in the process. A separate control, Cinemotion, functions only for 24p (film-based) sources.
While Sony appears to have revised its picture setup menus since last year, I still don’t care for them. The ergonomic issues I encountered here won’t necessarily bother all users, but the video perfectionist who might want to apply different settings for each input (and perhaps for each picture mode as well) will face a maze of limitations.
For example, the Brightness and Contrast controls can’t be set separately for SDR and HDR in the same picture mode and source input—Sony apparently assumes that users will stay with identical SDR and HDR default settings for both Brightness and Contrast. Since I preferred a Contrast setting of 70 for SDR and 95 for HDR10 (with Brightness at the default Maximum setting on both) I had to manually adjust the Contrast every time I switched between viewing SDR and HDR sources.
You also can’t manually enter different user color settings for SDR and HDR for the same input and picture mode, but in this case you don’t need to. Same as with other recent Sony Ultra HDTVs, once you’ve established and entered the color calibration settings for SDR, the A80J automatically readjusts those as needed for HDR (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision). However, settings for one input don’t automatically carry over to other inputs, including programs streamed via the set’s built-in Google TV platform. A “Copy all settings to other inputs” menu selection (which Sony doesn’t offer) would go a long way toward rectifying this issue.
Fortunately, the A80J’s out-of-box color was very good. But it’s possible that the accuracy of our review sample’s factory color adjustment was above-average. (Sony claims factory calibration consistency for the Master Series A90J OLEDs, but not the A80J models.)
As with other recent Sony OLEDs, the A80J employs the company’s Acoustic Surface technology using left and right audio actuators attached to the back of the screen. The vibration of the screen, together with a separate woofer built into the back of the set, produces sound. My impression was that the set’s overall audio performance was well-balanced, and certainly better than what you’ll get with most TVs or cheap soundbars.
After a few days of use, however, the set’s audio suddenly quit for all connected inputs, including streaming from Google TV apps. Turning the TV off and on again didn’t help but unplugging it from the wall and then plugging it back in did restore the sound.
Sony’s more upscale A90J models let you connect the TV to your AVR for use as a center-channel speaker, but this feature isn’t offered on the A80J. When I used the A80J’s HDMI eARC link, it routed both Dolby Atmos and multichannel DTS 5.1 Master Audio soundtracks back to a Denon AVR-X6700H for lossless (where available) playback. But I was unable to get it to reliably send anything higher than two-channel audio over an optical digital audio link to the Denon.
All SDR and HDR source material used in this review was from discs played on an Oppo UDP-203 player.
I saw no false contouring (posterization) on the Sony with either movies/TV programs or test patterns. Uniformity was also consistently excellent when viewing full-screen white or gray test patterns, with no streaking or dirty screen effect. As expected from an OLED display, off-center viewing produced no change in picture quality.
I can’t say exactly how much Sony’s new Cognitive Processor XR adds to the A80J’s stunning image quality, but I’d wager that its contribution is significant.
Watching the documentary Samsara, the scenes in Versailles, and the making of a mandala in a Hindu monastery looked even more strikingly vivid than usual. Costume dramas profited as well, with Victoria & Abdul offering a rich tapestry of Victorian decor, particularly in the banquet hall scene with its brilliant red highlights. Director David Lean’s magnificently photographed A Passage to India offers a flood of detail to work with, and the Sony delivered on that front.
Paddington 2 may seem like an odd duck…er…bear to demonstrate the A80J’s capabilities, but its excellent photography includes a nighttime carnival full of rich colors, a prison scene with very peculiar uniforms, an action-heavy train-chase finale, and a hilarious end-credit sequence (don’t stop watching too early!). Altogether, the Sony’s SDR performance was stellar.
ULTRA HD/HDR PERFORMANCE
You may have noticed that I made only a passing reference in the above section to the A80J’s black level and overall contrast. That’s because OLED TVs in general offer the best blacks available, with other display technologies still racing to catch up (with limited success so far).
The Sony’s HDR black level performance was more complicated. When viewing very dark scenes or fades to total black in a fully darkened room, the A80J’s image sometimes dropped to a very dim, but still visible, dark gray. There’s an almost totally black scene at 34:19 in Prometheus that’s interrupted by a glimmer of flashlights in the far distance. Viewed in SDR, this scene appeared as a fully deep black for the most part, but in HDR the same black appeared as a dark gray. Similarly, at 1:33 in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, the same grayness briefly appeared as the scene faded to full black from a shot of Professor Snape.
At 26:32 during Deathly Hallows Part 2, Harry and his friends navigate a tunnel from Hogsmeade to Hogwarts. As the perspective shifts from a close-up of the group to a longer shot, with the characters encompassed by darkness, the surrounding gloom appeared as a dark gray in HDR as opposed to the full black I saw in the SDR version. Similar issues were also visible when watching Oblivion and Thor.
(This issue was also observed on the Samsung LCD TV reviewed on page 52, but only on the Prometheus scenes. The Harry Potter clips performed better in this regard on the LCD. This suggests that at least some—but not all—of the lightening effects seen in near-black scenes on the Sony might be inherent to some sources, or that the problem present on those sources isn’t triggered on all TVs.)
On the plus side, those fades to gray—rather than the black we usually expect from OLED—were visible only in a fully darkened room, and will be a distraction only if, like me, you prefer watching movies in an environment as free of stray light as can be managed. But with a little room lighting (or a bias lamp behind the screen), your pupils will compensate as they close down slightly in response to the added light. There’s nothing trickier in TV design than determining how the set will transition from the barest hint of darkest gray to full black. Come out of black too slowly and you will crush shadow detail, but come out too fast and you see what I’ve described here—the only reason I’ve rated the A80J’s overall performance as 4.5 rather than 5 stars.
The Sony’s overall shadow detail, however, was superb with both SDR and HDR sources. A dimly lit Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 scene of Aberforth Dumbledor’s hovel just before a tunnel-passage to Hogwarts looked consistently impressive, with every deep shade and shadow clearly visible.
Bright scenes also looked impressive. Toy Story 4 began conventionally enough, but once I got to the scenes at the carnival and in the antique shop, the results were dazzling. A brief shot of illuminated chandeliers in the shop was so startlingly vivid that I involuntarily gasped.
The Sony’s HDR peak white level measured 515 nits as calibrated in the Cinema picture mode on a 10 percent full white window. This was the lowest I’ve yet measured for an OLED, but you’d never know it from subjective viewing. HDR highlights also never looked less than crisp and punchy.
The A80J’s Dolby Vision HDR settings differ somewhat from its HDR10 ones. The set offers three modes: Dolby Vision Bright, Dolby Vision Dark, and Vivid. (The default HDR Tone Mapping option is Brightness, unlike my preferred Gradation option for HDR10.) I found that the default Dolby Vision settings worked best (apart from turning off a few of the extraneous adjustments such as Reality Creation, Smooth Gradation, and Cinemotion). And as noted elsewhere, the color calibration settings derived in SDR are automatically modified by Sony’s internal look-up tables to be correct for Dolby Vision HDR.
Dolby Vision looked every bit as superb as HDR10, and perhaps even better in some ways depending on the source. A shot of horses feeding in the snow from the Spears & Munsil UHD HDR Benchmark test disc showed a bit less clipping when the disc’s Dolby Vision option was selected than its HDR10 one. The new 4K/Dolby Vision disc release of My Fair Lady also looked stunning on the Sony, with crisp detail and outstanding color—vivid enough to make the film look like it was shot today instead of during the early 1960s.
OLED TVs continue to astonish viewers and Sony’s new XR-65A80J is no exception. I may have come down a bit hard on the A80J’s few short-comings, but these pale when you take into consideration the overall experience it offers. Will Sony’s A90J OLED perform better? Possibly by a bit, but at $ the A80J offers viewing thrills no other TV could achieve at its price, or even higher, just one or two years ago.
At a Glance
+ Crisp resolution from Cognitive Processor XR
+ Ultra-wide viewing angle
+ Impressive shadow detail
− Picture setup menu limitations
− Minor black level issues with HDR
Sony’s 65A80J delivers both top-shelf video performance and HDMI 2.1 connectivity, along with many of the same features found in the company’s flagshipA90J OLED models at a significantly lower price.