It’s no secret that OLED TVs seemed to have hit a wall during the last couple of years compared to LED/LCD ones: the former still offered top picture quality but were not getting any better overall, while the latter improved in certain areas while retaining their advantages. Ever since CES 2021 and LG’s announcement of new OLED displays, there have been expectations of brighter, better OLED TVs — but those, unfortunately, seem to not have been met by most traditional implementations. So how can a new 2021 OLED TV make its case compared to a number of already excellent — and now heavily discounted — 2020 models?
Sony has an answer to that question: a 2021 model can make its case by combining a better OLED screen, a powerful processor and years of image enhancement experience. The Japanese really do offer that combination with the A90J, their best OLED TV for 2021, a Master Series entry and arguably one of the best products to ever feature the Sony Bravia logo. The hype leading to this television’s release has been insane, to the point that doubt had started to creep in the hearts of reviewers expecting to see what it’s all about: it cannot possibly be that good a TV, even for a Sony OLED, can it?
I got to work with the 65-inch model of the Sony A90J for the last three weeks or so and… yeah. Believe the hype. This is the real deal. Here’s why.
Amazing looks, premium built, solid connectivity
It’s fair to say that almost any OLED TV can look good due to its inherently thin profile, yes, but Sony has done something truly special with A90J’s design: by incorporating the sound system into the screen (more on that later) and going for the slimmest bezels possible — just enough room for microphones, a Sony logo under the screen and… that’s basically it — looking at this TV face-on can’t help but be astounded by the classy minimalism expressed here. This is one of the most beautiful TVs currently available and even one that Sony itself will not be able to easily surpass in the future.
The Japanese have also arranged all electronics at the back in such a way that the TV can be placed almost flush against a wall when mounted on one — which was not easy from a manufacturing standpoint, as there’s additional cooling for the screen (more on that later too). The most impressive way to set this particular TV, though, is on a wide enough piece of furniture with its feet placed flat on it on either end of the screen: that way the picture literally seems to float in mid-air in the dark. For people planning to buy a soundbar for the A90J there’s always the option of using the same feet in order to elevate the TV and make room for that (although this particular model does not necessarily need a soundbar to begin with).
Handling the A90J while setting it up makes the built quality of this TV readily apparent: it is flawless. Premium materials, perfect construction, amazing attention to detail are all evident and in line with the position (and price) of this product. The difference between this TV and e.g. the Sony X90J is immediately obvious, of course, but the A90J puts even similar models from Sony’s past (like the A1 or the AG9) to shame. The Japanese have gone a long way with their OLED TVs — and it shows.
Some thought has been put into cable management and the arrangement of the available ports at the back. While not all ports face sideways, channeling cables attached to them cleanly away from the TV is easy and the accompanying cover only leaves a part of those visible. The four HDMI ports are strangely split between three facing down and one facing sideways — they are also split by version numbers: there are two 2.0 ports and two 2.1 ports, the latter capable of delivering game-centric features such as VRR and ALLM when Sony offers the necessary firmware update… at some point.
Every other port one expects of a premium Smart TV is there: an Ethernet port for wired connectivity (of the Fast Ethernet variety), a couple of USB 2.0 ports (for multimedia file playback from external storage devices), a USB 3.0 port (useful for faster external storage or for attaching a Gigabit Ethernet adapter to it) plus some legacy ports (such as composite video in or optical audio out). There are also two analog speaker connection terminals that allow the TV itself to work as the center (dialogue) speaker in a multi-channel home theatre configuration. The A90J offers fast wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi AC) plus Bluetooth 4.2 for a variety of uses. Chromecast functions come as standard and Apple device owners will be pleased to know that AirPlay2 and HomeKit work as intended. Amazon Alexa is also supported by the A90J for consumers who prefer it to Google Assistant.
High-quality sound, Google OS goodness, just OK gaming
The A90J is an OLED TV and those — generally speaking — tend to offer acceptable but not exciting sound because of the slim profile they go for. Sony has always strived to deliver great sound with its flagship models, though, and this one is no exception: it’s one of only a handful of TVs that can do modern movies or TV shows justice without a soundbar. Yes, really. The Japanese had implemented their Acoustic Surface Audio tech — which uses actuators to transform the screen itself into a speaker — in past OLED models, but this year’s results are more impressive than ever thanks to the more potent supplementary rear-firing speakers at the back and the XR processor.
The difference is immediately noticeable. Not only does the A90J offer fuller, more open, more nuanced, more detailed sound in every kind of content — be it films, shows, music, you name it — but it really does give the impression of coming from different parts of the screen because the XR chip (which does the processing necessary for enhancing the picture so it already has data it can use) “puts” the effects there depending on where their source is displayed. It really has to be seen to be believed, this. Dialogue is not just clear as a result, but more believable too. Extra demanding consumers may ask for more bass in movies that make the most of low frequencies — a scenario where a proper subwoofer is a must after all — but other than that, the sound offered by the A90J is nothing short of astounding.
This TV is one of the first Bravias to sport Google TV, the new operating system poised to replace Android TV in 2022. There’s already a detailed write-up about it (along with hands-on impressions) published here on Medium but, in essence, Google created a new “skin”, a prettier user interface, which runs “on top of” Android TV 10 and works quite differently. Its approach is content-centric, collecting films and TV shows from various streaming services in order to make new recommendations based on certain criteria. Google TV is sharp and nimble on the A90J, taking advantage of its 4K resolution, its black levels and powerful chipset in order to offer an all-around improved, modern, more aesthetically pleasing user experience. It’s still Android TV under the hood, of course, which means that Google Play and all its Android TV apps work as expected.
There’s just one use case where the A90J is found wanting at the moment compared to some other competing TVs and that’s gaming. Sony’s top OLED for 2021 does offer those two aforementioned HDMI 2.1 ports but they do not support the two most important gaming functions, VRR and ALLM. Partly making up for the absence of the latter is the A90J’s “autosensing” when a PS5 is turned on and switching to that HDMI port/picture mode automatically, but it’s not the same thing as it only works with Sony’s system. VRR’s absence is much more important regardless of a gaming system’s manufacturer, of course. Sony has repeatedly stated that it will add these functions via a future firmware update — rumors making the rounds put its release date in October or November — but there’s still no official confirmation from the company, so it’s all up in the air at this point.
The A90J is perfectly capable of displaying 4K/60 and 4K/120 games amazingly well, of course, but PS5, Xbox Series S|X and PC owners playing a lot of modern fast-paced games — where smooth motion and accurate control are important — should keep all this in mind.
Superior processing, cinematic picture to die for
The Bravia A90J is one of the five series of 2021 TVs that take advantage of Sony’s new XR “cognitive” processor — which may be a fancy marketing term but, as it turns out, really does deliver when it comes to image enhancement and overall picture quality. It greatly helped the Bravia X90J — which is a mid-range LED/LCD TV with a small number of dimming zones, so there was a limit to what the XR could accomplish there. But on a display where each individual pixel is controllable…? Expectations were unbelievably high.
The A90J surpassed them with little to no effort.
Yes, Sony’s new TV offers everything people have come to expect from an OLED set in the last few years: blacks are perfect no matter what the content, contrast is spectacular in every kind of movie or TV show, motion is extra smooth without ever interfering with the cinematic feeling purists need or the sharp detail sports fans ask for. These are all present and accounted for, but then again Sony’s more affordable OLED TV, the A80J, as well other OLED sets from other manufacturers, offer the same advantages. The A90J goes the extra mile, though, as it strictly uses LG’s new, brighter “Evo” OLED panels and matches each one with a custom-designed heatsink in order to push brightness further for longer periods of time.
Results are breathtaking. A handful of reviewers managed to push the A90J’s brightness up to 1300 nits (!), which is unheard of for an OLED TV, but that only lasts for short bursts and only applies to the TV’s Vivid picture mode, which is not color-accurate at all. The modes that purists are interested in though, Cinema and Custom, can still “break” the 850-nit barrier, which is noticeably higher than what almost any other OLED TV could achieve in color-accurate modes up until now. The extra brightness does not affect the perfect blacks, so contrast is even higher than usual and the picture displayed is more impressive than what one expects from an OLED — especially in HDR content where the extra “punch” can be clearly seen in highlights, metal sheen, fire and the like.
And then… then the XR processor comes in.
What Sony’s “cognitive” image processing does with the A90J is miles ahead of what was possible with the X90J. Because of the high contrast and those perfect OLED blacks, the XR can “bring out” more from the parts of the picture that get the viewer’s attention the most — regardless of whether they happen to be in darker or extra bright areas of the displayed image. There’s more texture, livelier color and considerably more detail to be found in every frame. The picture becomes almost three-dimensional at times because the sense of “depth” is much more pronounced than on other TVs, no matter what resolution they may offer. All manufacturers tend to exaggerate with their marketing talk but, regarding the XR, Sony really wasn’t: the “selective enhancement” approach really works.
The best thing about the XR processor, though, which was also apparent on the X90J, is that its commanding algorithms always seem to “know” how to enhance the overall picture without overdoing it. Purists hate aggressive processing because it makes any weaknesses in a displayed image even more apparent while lending it an “artificiality” of sorts. The XR processor never does that. It makes all the right calls with tone mapping, color saturation and sharpening so as to deliver a picture that does not stray from the creator’s intent. Everything it’s just… more “there” for lack of a better word.
Proof of the fact that the A90J is just a cut above anything else on the market right now is how hard it was to not just sit and watch the films and TV episodes I use for testing in their entirety. The picture is just so good that makes one wonder things like “But oh, how will that scene from that film look on the A90J?” which can… prove problematic when one’s working with deadlines. As was the case with the X90J too, the XR processor seemed to like high bit-rate, quality content more on the A90J — Ultra HD Blu-ray movies, Disney Plus episodes and Sony’s own new Bravia CORE streaming service films, on which I’ll be publishing a write-up soon — but it does an excellent job with material of lesser quality too.
In all other areas of picture processing Sony is known to excel at the A90J performed as expected. Upscaling from lower resolutions to 4K is excellent (there seems to be some improvement in clarity when displaying overly-compressed material from e.g. YouTube or Netflix), motion handling is very good (one does need to be a bit careful with the settings offered), de-interlacing and noise reduction from legacy sources are highly effective. This is arguably the signature Sony picture people have come to expect at its very best: the natural, pleasing overall image that mainstream consumers like combined with the level of detail and respect to the creator’s intent that purists demand. There’s just no other way to put it: for modern films and TV shows, this TV is untouchable.
The best is never cheap, but this one is worth every penny
So let’s get the obvious issue out of the way: the Bravia A90J is not an affordable TV by any means. In fact, it is one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, OLED TVs of 2021. Some would probably say that it is disproportionally costly, even compared to Sony’s own A80J, an amazing OLED TV that will get most people, say, 80% of what the A90J offers for a lot less money (while sporting the XR processor too).
But, well, that’s just it: the Sony Bravia A90J is not supposed to appeal to “most people”. It’s built for those picture quality aficionados who demand that remaining 20% and are prepared to pay for it in order to enjoy the absolute best in today’s OLED TV displays. The A90J is a Master Series Bravia TV (meaning that it delivers accurate color in several picture modes out of the box), it sports the brighter Neo OLED panels (those are hand-picked by Sony over the ones used by e.g. the A80J) and it is accompanied by noteworthy bonus content through the Bravia CORE streaming service. Its design is brilliant, its built quality is very high, its sound quality even higher. It is what a flagship TV should always strive to be: something special.
It’s no surprise, then, that it is so easy to not just recommend this television to anyone who can afford it, but also name it the best “cinematic” display of 2021 by some margin. For people who are primarily interested in watching movies and shows — no matter what the source — the A90J is simply the best TV in the market right now. It’s an investment, yes, but one that will stand the test of time — and that is a sentence hardly ever written about TV sets nowadays. If you can, get it. Simple as that.
Update 02-03-2022: The Sony Bravia A90J received a firmware update that enabled VRR on its HDMI 2.1 ports, score adjusted accordingly to reflect the change.