Sony Europe is heavily promoting its latest and greatest Bravia televisions – particularly its flagship A95L model, which has been making headlines everywhere over the past month or so – in preparation for the commercially important last six weeks of the year and, in the context of such an event, yours truly had the chance of an interview with Gavin McCarron. He is the company’s technical marketing and product planning manager, a long-time Sony executive with extensive experience in television development and just an all-around pleasant fellow to chat with about all things TV.
The following are the most important parts of this interview. Text has been edited for length and clarity.
The Point: A Sony TV set recently won the “King of TVs” Award in the 2023 Value Electronics TV Shootout event – congratulations for that, by the way – for the third year in a row, but it was a close call between the A95L and its two main competitors. What’s likely to be, in your opinion, the deciding factor during these kinds of shootouts between different manufacturers’ flagship TVs going forward?
Gavin McCarron: I think that there’s a number of factors that all come into play. One has to be picture accuracy: how close the best possible picture of these consumer TVs can get to the reference picture displayed by industry-standard equipment – such as the very popular Sony BVM-HX310 mastering monitor, for instance, which is consistently used in these kinds of TV shootouts – on the same material.
Another important factor is obviously image processing, which is constantly evolving and adapting to new display technologies and customer needs. It’s an area where Sony has always focused on and we believe it will be even more of a differentiator in the future. Last but not least, honoring the creator’s intent – how faithfully each of these flagship TV strives to display the intended picture of any modern film or show – is also something I imagine experts will be taking into account going forward.
TP: So how decisive of a factor do you deem “out of the box” color accuracy to be when choosing a flagship TV such as the A95L or even any Sony TV for that matter? Some believe that manufacturers should always provide at least one industry-standard factory-calibrated picture mode, others seem to believe that discerning consumers will professionally calibrate their flagship TVs anyway, while many think that “out of the box” accuracy is so important that it should be taken into account by the press when evaluating any TV, not just flagship models. What do you think?
GMC: Based on what we’ve been doing for a number of years now – not just with the A95L or just with our flagship models – one can easily see that we believe color accuracy to be extremely important. We’ve provided the closest thing to an “out of the box” factory-calibrated color-accurate mode in the form of the Custom mode for a long time, and the Professional mode now with our best 2023 models, because we understand that our customers expect it. The most demanding among them probably consider it a given and rightly so.
We strive to provide a good level of color accuracy even in Standard mode, though, because we know that many people just use that. We’ve even added a feature that takes advantage of the light sensors in certain 2023 Bravia models in order to compensate for color environmental lighting, which is something mainstream consumers would not be able to achieve without the necessary knowledge and equipment.
The idea is to always try to be faithful to the creator’s intent, as much as any given display technology and any individual’s viewing environment allows. It is a notion that’s really important to Sony because of its place in the movie industry and its ties to film creatives and professionals. As to whether the press should be taking “out of the box” color accuracy into account when evaluating any modern TV: I don’t see why not! We’d be happy about that, actually, as we do try to provide that with all Bravia models anyway, so…
TV sound, big-screen TVs and raising the bar of picture quality
TP: With the Sony A95L hitting 1350 nits in a color accurate mode we seem to have addressed the last remaining issue anybody could have from OLED/QD-OLED TV sets, the “not bright enough for bright rooms” one. So where do we go from here in terms of OLED picture quality overall?
GMC: Well, other than constantly improving the image processing system of any OLED/QD-OLED TV, I’d say that we’ll be looking at what the film industry is doing – what creative choices movie professionals are making during production and post production – and we’ll be adapting to that as needed. Right now, for instance, the great majority of movies or shows are mastered at 1000 nits of brightness, so flagship consumer TVs like the A95L are able to display them in a really, really impressive manner. But there’s a number of productions mastered at 4000 nits already and more creators will be raising the bar to that in the future, maybe sooner than people think.
Sony will be releasing its new BVM-HX3110 mastering monitor very soon and that goes up to 4000 nits (from the 1000-nit level the HX310 hits), so we know first-hand that “the next frontier”, so to speak, is in sight already. A point of transition is way, way off, obviously – it’s not something the consumer TV market is concerned about – but, as a future target, it’s there. What we will always be offering is consumer televisions that respect the creator’s intent. So, in terms of OLED/QD-OLED, even higher brightness and market-leading tone mapping will be the obvious areas to focus on as more films or shows start being mastered at 4000 nits.
It’s best to include MiniLED TVs in this conversation too, though, because they are far more likely to hit or surpass 4000 nits of peak brightness much sooner than OLED/QD-OLED will. Those models will be a great option for many consumers too.
TP: Talking about LED/LCD TVs, 98-inch models have come way down in price in 2023, making the purchase of such a TV set more affordable than ever. Sony itself offers one as part of the X90L range, but it also offers some of the best movie projectors around (at prices comparable to the 98X90L or lower). There’s a lot of talk about these TVs “killing” living room projectors long-term or even short-term (if Chinese manufacturers offer cheaper models in 2024). What’s Sony’s take on this? Does the company treat these giant TVs and projectors as products catering to different audiences? Would it consider going after this market segment aggressively, even if it means that it would have to lower the price point of its own TV models in response?
GMC: In terms of Sony’s overall product strategy I cannot give you a full answer because I am not involved in the projector side of the business at all. But regarding very big TVs, yes, it’s a trend we’ve been following as well for some time: there have been a couple of top-end Bravia models we offered in the past above 85 inches, for instance, and this year we’ve released the Bravia 98X90L you just mentioned. We believe there’s a point in offering that option to consumers regardless of what the competition is doing and our focus will always be on offering quality TVs at any diagonal, not competing on price necessarily.
To be honest, though, in my mind what a movie projector does best and what a very big TV does best are different things. A movie projector in a dedicated space, for instance, is more about the cinematic experience than anything else. Not just because of the 100-inch plus diagonal, but because of the more potent surround sound system probably used, the low-light or dark viewing conditions that movie fans love… it’s about the feeling of watching a film in its natural environment.
In a living room, yes, I get it why consumers love that flexibility, the option to just fire up a big TV and watch e.g. a football match at any time of day, even with the sun coming in from the windows. That’s a great option to have too and enjoy with family and friends. But I still think that these are fundamentally different experiences and, obviously, there’s no reason why one can’t have both if the necessary space is no issue!
TP: Talking about emerging trends in the TV market like this one of affordable giant televisions, which of the current ones would you deem as more important for the future of the TV set category as a whole?
GMC: There are quite a few such trends but I’d say that a couple of those do stand out. Most TV manufacturers not being tied to any one display technology in particular and offering different TV sets built around different kinds of panels for different viewing tastes is one trend that proved beneficial to the market as a whole. I can’t speak for other manufacturers, obviously, but it worked very well for us and we plan to keep making the most out of a variety of different display technologies in the future.
A strong focus on the premium market segment, and very strong competition among manufacturers because of that, is another trend I expect it will continue to shape the TV market – also beneficial for everyone long-term, since that’s where most of the innovation in this space seems to be happening.
Something I would not call an “emerging trend”, but something we’ve definitely noticed during the last couple of years, is how consumers seem to finally care more about TV sound quality. This is an aspect of modern televisions we always felt it was rather overlooked, as sound is such a big part of the overall experience of watching any modern film or TV show. So we’re happy to see that consumers now either get soundbars of various sizes for their TVs or choose TV models that offer decidedly better sound than what’s typically expected of most televisions. Since we’ve invested so much over the years in developing advanced technologies that deliver high-quality TV sound (like Acoustic Surface Audio Plus or Acoustic Multi-Audio Plus), it’s nice to see that they are properly appreciated by more people than ever.
EU TV power consumption limitations, 8K and Matter
TP: What is your personal opinion regarding the new power consumption limitations set for TVs by the European Union? Do you feel that it can be a factor that’s holding back modern TV development?
GMC: We had already been looking into ways to improve the energy efficiency of our various Bravia models anyway, long before it became widely known that the EU would revise its directive regarding maximum “out of the box” TV power consumption. But having to take these limitations into account after March 2023 motivated us to further experiment with the local dimming algorithms of MiniLED models – which tend to be the ones needing more power – in order to see how reducing energy consumption would affect picture quality.
What we found out was that by carefully tuning these algorithms we can work within those limitations to deliver the kind of impactful picture we are known for. The same is true for HDR performance. So I think that what most people were concerned about before this directive came into effect – that 8K TVs would not be able to work with these power limitations in place – is not considered to be an issue anymore. We continue to offer the Bravia Z9K in the European Union all through 2023 without problems, so…
TP: That would actually lead into the next question – Sony did not release a new 8K TV model this year and chose to continue offering the Z9K from 2022. Reasons… and maybe your comments on those reasons?
GMC: Well, 8K TVs have been sort of a limited market to begin with and they only really make sense at 75 inches or more, so we made the decision to remain focused on 4K simply because that’s what most people are interested in. Whether the benefits of 8K resolution at 75 and 85 inches are of interest to consumers is something they can decide for themselves.
To be honest, I believe that most people don’t pick specific TV models based on their screen’s resolution anyway. I think that they start looking for a specific size in mind, then they look for specific features, then they take into account the price point of each model and make a decision based on those factors. So, at this point in time, we do offer an 8K option in the marketplace for those interested in it, but focus on delivering more 4K options for everyone else.
TP: The much-discussed Matter standard is being adopted by several manufacturers in order to transform TV screens into smart home hubs. What are Sony’s future plans regarding Matter or smart home connectivity for TV sets in general?
GMC: At this stage there’s nothing official to announce or even comment on, to be honest. I am not aware of any relevant decision made at Sony’s headquarters so far. I could tell you that what you describe – the living room TV being an advanced hub for a smart home – can already be done through Google’s ecosystem, but that’s obviously not the broader problem Matter is trying to solve.
Since all new mid-range and hi-end Bravia TVs are now based on the Google TV OS, though, I think it mostly depends on how Google decides to implement Matter support on a system level going forward. Sony will be happy to offer its Bravia customers Matter compatibility and functionality if Google TV natively supports this standard by default in the future.