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23 October 2020

How to buy the best Sony TV

We see what's in store for Sony's latest range of OLED and LCD TVs, and demystify the marketing lingo so you know your X1 Ultimate processor from your X-Reality Pro.
MP
Martin Pratt

2020 is the year of 8K TVs, as all the leading manufacturers apart from Panasonic have announced numerous TVs capable of displaying all 33 million pixels of 8K content.

Sony is in the mix with its ZH8 8K TV announced at CES in January. It's a big TV at 75 or 85 inches, but Sony hasn't ignored anyone who wants a smaller TV or one that isn't 4K by unveiling a 48-inch OLED: the smallest yet.

In this page we'll cover the different ranges that make up Sony's 2020 line-up and go over the technology in them. 

To find out our verdict on all the models we've tested, go to Sony TV reviews

Best Sony TVs

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£1,779.99
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There’s no shortage of Best Buy TVs in the 55-inch bracket, so what makes this one so special? Its sleek design, smart approach to sound and superb picture quality put this model ahead of the pack.

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£2,695.00
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Sony's 65-inch marvel is a big, beautiful machine that does its best work at higher resolutions. Colours are dazzling and HDR is used expertly.

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£1,599.00
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The HD and 4K picture on this OLED is crisp and dazzlingly vibrant. We enjoyed the rich bass underscoring the sound making audio robust and powerful. It's a great option at 55 inches.

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We're delighted to say that this brand has crafted a fantastic 55-inch TV capable of stunning images, particularly at 4K resolutions.

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Sony TV technology explained

With so many different ranges at so many different prices, it will come as no surprise that not all Sony's TVs have the same technology. Here we run down the kind of tech and features you'll find in Sony sets.

X1 Ultimate and Extreme Processors

You'll find the Ultimate chip in Sony's top-of-the-range 4K sets and its 8K ones too. Its main job is upscaling, which is making SD and HD content look as close to 4K as possible. On an 8K TV of course the task is even tougher as the sharpness needs to reach 8K standard. This is even more vital since there's no actual 8K content to watch right now.

It uses a huge database of images to achieve the task. Every frame of content is analysed and the chip refers to the database to find the objects being displayed. It uses them as a reference to sharpen the image.

The X1 Extreme does the same, but not to 8K standards. It may have been superseded by the Ultimate, but it's still in some Sony TVs close to top of its 2020 range, and in the past it used to power the most high-end models. 

This tends to be how it goes. A new year brings a new chip that is supposedly better at upscaling and displaying high-resolution content, and the old chips filter down into the cheaper ranges.

Acoustic Surface Audio

This technology debuted with the A1 OLED from 2017 and Sony has adapted it gradually in the years since. The acoustic surface is actually the screen, which vibrates to create the sound. Most TVs have down-firing speakers, but by vibrating the screen Sony's speakers create more positional sound, which comes directly from the screen rather than below it.

In 2020, Sony has taken this tech one step further on its high-end models. Tweeters (high tone speakers) vibrate the frame and Sony says this gives even more control of where the sound is coming from. If a character is talking, the sound should come from their mouth; likewise, a bird squawking across the screen should be tracked the whole way by the vibrating audio.

You'll only find this technology in Sony's OLED and high-end LCD models.

Full-array backlights

All LCD TVs have backlights, but not all backlights are the same. Sony is making a lot of noise about its full array ones in 2020. Backlights illuminate the liquid crystals in LCD displays to create the picture; in a full-array one the bulbs sit directly behind the screen rather than around it. This means there are more dimming zones, which means more control over what parts of the screen are lit.

Full-array sets aren't automatically better than edgelit (where the LEDs sit around the screen or along one edge) ones however. We've tested poor full-array models and fantastic edgelit ones. 

It's still a positive sign, since a TV with a full-array backlight should have more control over contrast.

Android TV

Rather than make its own operating system, Sony opts to use Google's. Android TV uses the Google Play Store for apps and displays those you've installed in a list that you can customise. If you find yourself using the electronic programme guide or BBC iPlayer the most, you can shift them to the top of your list so you aren't scrolling and scrolling to find the features you want.

Many Sony TVs effectively have Google Chromecast built in, too, so you can easily play the content saved on your phone on your TV screen by pressing the cast icon found on many smartphone and tablet apps.

Voice control

Sony's partnership with Google goes deeper still as Google Assistant is built in to Sony sets. Using the microphone in the remote, you can issue a range of commands, which include searching for content, adjusting volume and changing channel.

You can also connect a Google Home or Amazon Echo to give voice commands via those devices.  

Sony's 2020 TVs overview

With 8K sets, OLEDs and cheaper LCD ranges, there's plenty to unpack in Sony's 2020 line-up. Click through to the range you want to know more about to see what kind of features you can expect.

Sony ZH8 8K LCD

Every year there's a TV that gets top billing at CES (the world's biggest tech tradeshow) and for Sony this year that was the ZH8, its flagship 8K set which is packed with the best tech and features.

The X1 Ultimate Processor is designed with upscaling to 8K in mind - and it's essential it does a good job since the only 8K content you'll be watching for a few years won't be 8K at all. Instead it will be SD, HD and 4K footage sharpened and optimised to appear as close to actual 8K content as possible.

Sony's screen-vibrating technology for sound has been updated and now even the frame vibrates. It's supposed to create more positional sound so that audio comes from the correct part of the screen, such as a character's mouth or car's engine. This will likely work best on bigger-screen TVs, so it's handy that the smallest ZH8 is 75 inches. 

Sony A9 and A8 OLED

 

It’s not just 8K TVs that benefit from the X1 Ultimate processor: the OLEDs get it too. SD and HD footage should be close to 4K once the advanced chip has finished tweaking, sharpening and polishing every object on screen.

Screen vibration for sound - the technology Sony calls Acoustic Surface Audio - is the order of the day again. We’ve tested many TVs with this feature and have always been impressed by the unconventional technology.

It’s not exactly the same technology we’ve seen in Sony’s OLEDs before, though. The speakers are smarter and capable of detecting sound-absorbing materials in the room, such as curtains and sofas. The speakers will adjust so the sound isn’t negatively impacted by your room layout or its contents.

The most exciting thing about Sony's 2020 OLEDs isn't the technology in them, but the sizes they will be available in. For the first time we'll see a 48-inch OLED TV - previously they haven't been any smaller than 55 inches.

Sony XH95

 

An 8K TV may rule the roost, but the majority of Sony's TVs are still 4K and this should be the best 4K LCD it puts out in 2020.

The XH95 TV appears on paper to be a mirror of the 8K ZH8, but without the extra resolution capabilities (it’s 4K rather than 8K). That means it retains the X1 Ultimate processor, as well as full-array backlight for improved contrast control, Dolby Vision HDR (an advanced format capable of adjusting contrast on the fly) and Dolby Atmos, which boosts the surround-sound effect of speakers by simulating sound coming from above. 

An array of speakers behind the screen simulate sound coming from the screen. The speakers themselves have been redesigned to improve the low bass tones. Better yet, the tweeters and subwoofers each get a dedicated amp for individual control and better balance of the high, mid and low frequencies.

The XH95s will be available in 49, 55, 65, 75 and 85 inches.

Sony XH85 and XH81

The speakers are the key difference between the mid-range and high-end Sony TVs. 

The Acoustic Multi-Audio setup found in the XH95 doesn’t carry over. Neither does the processor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the picture will suffer too much. We test TVs every year that belie the quality of their components and impress us anyway, so these TVs could be as good to watch as the pricier models above. 

Dolby Vision advanced HDR and Dolby Atmos sound processing are supported by both ranges. 

The XH85s are available in 43 and 49 inches, and the XH81s come in 43, 49, 55 and 65-inch sizes.

Sony's 2019 TVs overview

Find out about the TV ranges Sony launched in 2019 and which are still available to buy.

Sony ZG9 8K TV

While LG chose OLED for its first 8K TV, Sony has decided that LCD displays are the best way to begin its expansion into 8K TVs. It seems that a huge screen is important to the 8K experience. Only Samsung has released a 65-inch model and the ZG9 starts at 85 inches. 

The price will likely be sky high, but the X1 Ultimate processor should at least give the ZG9 a reason to exist in a world with precious little 8K content. It analyses every object on screen and upscales each individually to simulate the extreme clarity of 8K content.

Both Samsung and LG's cutting-edge processors do the same thing in an effort to overcome the lack of 8K content, and we're curious to see which brand's chip does it best.

Sony AG9 OLED

Sony puts its most advanced TVs into its bravely named Master Series range and the AG9 is the OLED that's hoping to be worthy of that title in 2019. Unlike the ZG9 LCD in the same range, the AG9 is only 4K and is likely to be somewhat affordable as a result.

It uses the X1 Ultimate processor, which is Sony's most advanced chip. Each processor update should bring with it sharper detail, more natural and vibrant colours, and smoother motion. 

Sony's TVs should be best for watching Netflix originals, such as Bird Box and Stranger Things, because they have Netflix calibrated mode - although it's difficult to say exactly how much of a difference this sort of tech makes. A Best Buy TV should be terrific at displaying content whether it's being streamed from Netflix or played from a disc. The AG9 supports a new standard, too, known as IMAX enhanced, which helps bigger displays capture some of the impact and immersion you get from huge IMAX cinema screens.

Sony AG8 OLED

The other OLED in Sony's line-up is similar to the AG9, but there are a few key differences that justify the AG9's higher price. The AG8 doesn't have Sony's most advanced X1 Ultimate processor, it has the X1 Extreme instead. Though still very advanced, the X1 Extreme likely won't be as good at upscaling content to 4K quality as the X1 Ultimate.

It lacks Dolby Atmos sound processing, too. This audio technology simulates a more expansive soundscape by making noise appear to come from more areas of your room, particularly above your head.

It's a shame that the AG8 lacks both these features, but they could turn out to be inconsequential. The X1 Extreme is still a high-end processor and when it comes to sound we care more about balanced treble, mid-range and bass.

Sony XG9505BU

The ultra-expensive 8K ZG9 aside, the XG95 is Sony's flagship LCD range. It uses the same X1 Ultimate processor as Sony's OLEDs, which is capable of detecting hundreds of distinct objects on screen in every frame and improve their colour, accuracy and brightness where needed. 

This sort of dynamic upscaling is on the tip of every manufacturer's tongue and we're keen to see which brands' high-end sets does the best job.

Sony has created something called Sound-from-Picture reality to make the audio sound more positional. Two tweeters have been added to the back of the TV with the goal of making the sound come from the centre of the screen. 

Sony is still using Android for its smart TV platform and Google Assistant is built in for voice control. Microphones in the TV mean you can control certain features even if the remote has gone walkies. Speaking of remotes, the XG95 will see the debut of a new sleek, simplified remote. We haven't seen it yet, but Samsung has its own smart remote that's light on buttons and a little fiddly as a result. We hope Sony's simplified remote doesn't strip quite so many buttons away.

The XG95 range will be available in 55, 65, 75 and 85 inches.

Sony XG8305BU and XG8396BU

Sony has taken an unusual approach with this mid-range series of TVs. The features aren't a million miles away from the XG95 LCD TVs, but the XG83s only come in two sizes: 43 and 49-inch.

It's odd for a 4K TV to come in relatively small sizes. 55-inch has become the norm and every 4K range released by any brand for the past few years has included one. It's an odd but not unwelcome move. It demonstrates that Sony is considering people who don't want a huge TV, or whose living room isn't big enough to take one.

The X1 processor powers the TV and while it's not as advanced as the X1 Ultimate in Sony's high-end TVs, it will still improve brightness and make colours look more natural according to Sony.

It uses Android for its smart TV platform and Google Assistant is built in. Opening apps, searching for content and changing the channel can all be done with voice commands, but unlike the XG95 you'll need to press a button on the remote first.

Sony XG8196BU

The XG81 range, which comes in 49, 55 and 65 inches, is a more traditional 4K LCD range - when it comes to screen size, anyway.

It's not quite as advanced as the XG83s though. There's no X1 processor, but the X-Reality PRO software is Sony's name for its upscaling tech and it's on all Sony's 4K TVs.

Like the XG83, you can control the TV with your voice using Google Assistant and the microphone built into the remote.

Sony XG8096BU

There doesn't seem to be much difference between the XG80 and the XG81, but the former is available in more sizes. It comes in 43, 49, 55, 65 and 75 inches, which makes it one of the broadest ranges in terms of screen size.

When the features look to be identical, the differences between ranges usually come down to tuning: how much time has been spent tweaking and honing to make the picture and sound as good as possible.

We'll be testing all the TVs in the 8 series, which includes the XG83, XG81 and XG80, so we'll uncover the differences in our lab.

Sony XG7002BU, XG7003BU, XG7073SU and XG7093BU

These are Sony's entry-level 4K sets, which means they don't have the Google Android operating system. We weren't impressed with the alternative Linux-based system that was put into this range's equivalent from 2018, so hopefully it's either been overhauled or rebuilt for 2019.

The operating system doesn't have any bearing on picture or sound quality, of course, so even if the smart features are lacking, the XG70 TVs could still be a pleasure to look at.

We've been impressed by entry-level 4K TVs in the past, so there's no reason to count out the XG70s just yet.

43, 49, 55 and 65-inch XG70 TVs will be available.

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