Remember the kid at school that was just good at stuff? Sailed through their exams without worry, made every sports team starting line-up and was annoyingly likeable with it? That kid is the Sony KD-55A1.
While many of its peers have been getting to grips with 4K OLED for a couple of years, this is Sony’s first punt at the technology.
But if you were expecting its debut to come with some first-time nerves, think again. This set makes 4K OLED look easy.
Sony KD-55A1 design: Super-slim but no stand
Sony’s never been one to shy away from bold design, and for its first 4K OLED, it’s really gone to town on the wow factor.
With the KD55-A1 though, its boldness lies in its minimalism. There’s no stand here – the screen plonks straight down on top of your TV rack, so all there is facing you is the picture and its barely there bezel.
The trickery here lies around the back. The A1 uses a kickstand to prop it up, almost like a picture frame. This does mean it sits on a bit of a lean – about 5 degrees if you’re measuring – but from the front, it’s not noticeable unless you’re looking for it.
That stand acts as more than just support for the TV too. Most of the brains of the set are built into the stand in order to keep the OLED screen as slim as it can be (which, for the record, is really, really slim). It’s an optical illusion of sorts, and it works.
There are some things to bear in mind with this design though. With no stand to hold up such a big screen (our test sample is 55in, but it’s also available in 65in), you’re going to need a pretty large TV rack for it to sit neatly.
It stands sturdily enough that it would happily hang over the edges of something smaller, but we can’t help but feel such a stunning design deserves better.
There’s also wall mounting, of course, which the A1 is well equipped for too. Fold the kickstand down flat and use a standard VESA mount to get it on your wall – it’ll stand a little proud compared to the likes of LG’s Wallpaper W7, but it gives a rather nice suggestion that it’s floating in mid-air.
Sony KD-55A1 picture: Stone cold stunner
If you’ve ever seen OLED, you’ll know why it’s the future of telly. And 2017 feels like the year it’s properly coming into its own. We've already seen some cracking sets this year, but for us the A1 sits at the top of the pile.
Sony, just like Panasonic’s EZ1000, is using a panel from LG in the A1. That’s a good start – LG knows a thing or two about putting together a good OLED. Combine that with Sony’s top-notch processing, and it’s on to a winner.
The picture is an absolute treat. I fired up The Life of Pi on 4K HDR Blu-ray and the opening scenes alone were enough to show me what this TV can do with colour, the rich reddy browns of the forest floor standing boldly alongside the punchy green hues of the trees. They'll look like this wherever you sit too, thanks to really wide viewing angles.
As vivid as colours are, they’re also masterfully balanced. The A1 laps up the subtler shading that lesser TVs would gloss over, for a realistic image that’s hard to fault.
The detail up for grabs is as good as it gets too. Landscapes have a real sense of depth and dimension to them and the textures in hair and clothing look as crisp and insightful as if they were there in front of you.
Long story short, every single pixel in an OLED emits its own light. When one isn’t needed, it can turn itself off completely for really deep blacks and excellent contrast that LCD can’t match.
Such precision is seen elsewhere too – colours are often punchier, viewing angles wider and refresh rates improved for fewer motion niggles. And because there’s no chunky backlight to worry about, OLEDs are slimmer too. The bad news? They’ve been pretty pricey.
But that’s changing. LCD is still your go-to on a budget, but as more OLED screens come to market, prices are starting to fall. £3500 for the A1 is no snip of course, but it’s cheaper than what we were faced with just a few years ago.
Motion is handled superbly as well. Sony has long been a dab hand in this respect, and MotionFlow is among the best processing out there. I set it to standard and found it really firms up the movement in camera pans and tracking shots, without adding in any unnatural smoothing.
Of course, the hero feature of an OLED is its contrast performance, and the A1 certainly doesn’t disappoint. When the ship carrying Pi and his family sinks, the stormy seas that swell against the night sky are intensely gloomy but deeply detailed at the same time.
The set’s HDR talents comes into play here too (the A1 currently supports HDR10, with support for broadcast-standard HLG and Dolby Vision coming later this year). As Pi plunges into the sea and catches sight of the ship’s lights shining through the murky depths, the precision and intensity with which they stand out against their shadowy surroundings is remarkable.
Switch it up to some HD TV and the upscaling on board here really proves its chops. While there’s an expected drop in detail, it’s still a hugely insightful picture, with sharp outlines, the same excellent colour balance and no discernible noise.
Motion remains unshakeable, contrast is still as good as it gets, and both the shadow and highlight detail here get the thumbs up. Your regular Blu-ray collection is in safe hands.
The only time the A1 feels unsteady is when watching standard definition. It’s soft on detail and pretty noisy – not unwatchable, but not hugely enjoyable either.
If you’re paying £3500 for a TV, I suspect you’ve probably moved on from the dark ages of SD. There are enough HD channels and stacks of content out there now to ensure you shouldn’t ever have to put yourself through it.
There are a few modes to play around with – I opted for the standard for the best balance and brightest picture.
It’s not a bad starting point, but I would recommend digging deeper into the settings and using something like the THX app (Android and iOS) to get the most out of it.
Don’t be afraid to play around with some of the processing either. I tend to turn it all off to start with and introduce it little by little to see the effects. After toggling aplenty, I chose to keep Live Colour to low, and go for medium with things like X-Tended Dynamic Range and Black Adjust.
I also turned off the Light Sensor, which adjusts the screen’s brightness depending on your room and can affect the contrast performance.
Sony KD-55A1 sound: Good vibrations
While design and picture quality have come on leaps and bounds in recent years, sound in flatscreen TVs has always felt like a bit of an afterthought.
Sony has tried to change that this year. In fact, it’s made sound very much part of the central design.
That’s because instead of using traditional speakers, Sony’s Acoustic Surface tech turns the screen into the speaker.
It does this by placing twin actuators behind the panel on the left and right. These cause the screen to vibrate and make sound, supported by an 8cm woofer placed in the stand.
It actually works. The biggest plus is that the sound comes directly at you from the screen, tying together picture and audio seamlessly. But it’s also weighty and spacious, with the ability to go really loud without sounding particularly pushed.
Big action scenes can sound a little congested, and there’s not much to write home about by way of dynamics and fine detail. That’s territory best saved for a decent soundbar, but for TV sound, this is as good as I've heard – particularly for a speaker you can’t even see.
As for longevity, if you’ve got visions of a warped, distorted panel after years of punishing it with loud movies – worry not. Sony’s tests show the A1 should be just as hardy as any other set.
Sony KD-55A1 interface: A mixed bag
Sony has turned to Android TV for its smart TV system again this year. It used to be something of an Achilles’ heel but it is getting better.
For a start, the app selection has played catch up. Not only do you have the likes of Netflix and Amazon in all their 4K HDR glory, but also the full complement of the UK’s catch up services alongside the likes of Mubi, Spotify and Google’s own movie and music offerings.
This is bolstered by the inclusion of YouView as the set’s built-in TV offering. This allows you to watch, pause and rewind live TV, plus go back in the planner by up to seven days to watch missed content on demand. If you don’t have a set-top box for your regular telly watching, it’s a great addition.
With Sony, Google and YouView all in charge of little bits of the interface though, navigating around it all isn’t the most homogenous of experiences. It’s not as slick as its competitors for usability either, clunky in its navigation and limited in its customisation and recommendations.
It’s also not the smoothest in use. I found it to be quite sluggish responding to remote commands and jumping between menus, particularly, it seems, when you first turn the TV on.
This does seem to be a problem within Android TV itself, because I didn't experience the same issues in apps like Netflix or Amazon. And after an hour or so of use, things seem to speed up.
In my experience, Android TV has been more prone to firmware updates than other platforms, so here’s hoping that there’s something coming to sort this out soon. At the moment, it appears to be the A1’s only misstep.
Sony KD-55A1 verdict
We haven’t tested every 2017 TV yet, but right now the A1 is the set to beat.
That's quite remarkable really - this is Sony's first OLED, after all, whereas LG has spent several years honing its skills in the area.
We’ve seen LG’s W7 and E7 sets and loved them, and even Samsung’s rival QLED technology in the QE49Q7F looks pretty promising too, but the Sony A1 nails that balance of outstanding picture quality, stunning design and a rather clever take on TV sound, without costing the Earth. Alright, so £3500 isn't exactly pocket change, but it's a lot more affordable than the W7’s £8000 price tag.
Its Android TV interface needs a bit of attention to bring it up to the standards of its competitors, but it’s something we’re happy to take on the chin right now given everything else this TV offers. If 2017 is to be the year of the OLED, then the A1 looks like its champion.