Sony XEL-1

Sure, the Sony XEL-1 OLED is ludicrously expensive, but it is also hands-down the most impressive television we have ever seen. Read our Australian-first review.


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CNET Editor

Ty is a journalist with 15 years experience in writing for IT and entertainment publications. He is in charge of the home theatre category for CNET Australia and is also a PC enthusiast. He likes indie music and plays several instruments. Twitter: @tpendlebury


It's taken 12 months for one of last year's CES darlings, the all-singing, all-dancing XEL-1 OLED panel to reach Australia, and it's not going to be cheap — going for the price of a 55-inch plasma. But was it worth the wait? Is this, indeed, the future of television?

Design

While the Koreans think they've got a handle on design with televisions like LG's Scarlet and Samsung's 9 series, this has only been a recent development. In comparison, Sony knows about design. As proof, the Japanese company brings us the XEL-1. While it may look like a trumped-up itty bitty booklight in the thumbnail, in the flesh it is simply exquisite.

The highlight of the design is the chrome arm that connects the 3mm thick display to the main media box, which is complemented by a piano-black powder coating and further chrome accents. The base is reassuringly heavy and the entire unit feels solid. The display is tiltable by almost 90 degrees, which is handy because the screen itself is quite vulnerable to ambient light.

We really liked the controls on the base as they change depending on whether you're inside the menu system to up, down etc, or to Ch/Vol/Input. It's really cool, and intuitive.

We were also a little amused to see that the display (which can only be comfortably watched at arm's length, at the very most) comes with a remote. It's a credit-card style unit, and comes with all of the functions you'll need. It's actually pretty nifty, and fun to use.

Features

For what appears to be a barebones unit, the XEL-1 is actually quite well featured. While it looks almost identical to the overseas model, there are some important differences. Namely it now comes with a USB port instead of the much-maligned MemoryStick slot, and it boasts a local HD tuner. And while it does away with most input choices, it does have two HDMI ports.

As this is only an 11-inch screen, the resolution isn't so hot — it's not even quite standard definition (PAL) at 960x540, but the screen is so tiny that it's hard to notice. It will accept inputs of 1080p and scale them down to the natural resolution without a problem, however.

Though it lacks 100Hz, it does come with a similar feature called Fine Motion, which seemed to ease motion artefacts like judder somewhat. Of course, as OLED response time is instantaneous, unlike LCD, there is little need for these motion compensation features.

The TV is one of the first to receive an Energy Star rating and we were a little surprised to see it receive only 3.5 out of six — especially considering that Sony repeatedly tells us that OLED uses a lot less power than LCD. In contrast, the recently released Sony WE5 42-inch got an impressive 4.5 stars.

Performance

We've seen the XEL-1 on display at previous events before, but usually at an arm's length. It's only when you get a hands-on that you realise the depth of this product. Having attended the Panasonic event last week we saw some "nice" plasmas, but it's only when using a product like the XEL-1 that you realise that plasma technology still can't get near the "lifelike" blacks of OLED. In comparison, plasma's blacks looked over-punchy, and not especially "true". In some way, blacks in video are akin to bass in hi-fi: you need it for a complete experience, but a balanced sound is preferable to an overly boomy one.

Since the Aussie version comes with a tuner, that's where we started. And the experience was fantastic. Sport, in the form of IPL cricket, looked superb and there was no blur or lag in motion, and neither were there any MPEG artefacts nor "jaggies" on edges. Of course, like a high-end hi-fi, the XEL-1 was able to expose a poor quality SBS feed. Yet it still wasn't unpleasant, and could be made less so by tweaking noise reduction settings.

We switched to DVD, and given the SD-like proportions of the screen, 576i content is actually a good fit. And was it ever! We were almost literally blown away by the screen's performance in King Kong. We have never seen this movie look as natural and seamless as we did on the Sony. Blacks were deep yet effortless. Colour effervescent. We only wish this technology would hurry up so we can buy a larger one of these. It puts every other technology to shame!

Surprisingly, and yet not, the OLED screen also performed well on Blu-ray material. With MI3 in the tray we were gobsmacked. This movie had come into its own! The tricky rooftop sequence is a little like watching bats in a mine at midnight on most screens, but here we could discern details we hadn't seen before. There was real depth to the black levels.

Switching to synthetic HD tests and the Sony performed really well, only failing in the Film Resolution test — due, we think, to the screen's apparent lack of support for 24p.

Sound quality was quite good for such a diminutive device. And while you won't get huge "booms" there was a reasonable representation from the latter part of the spectrum. You can also use the optical or headphone output if you want to beef up the sound a bit.

So, yes, we think this screen is amazing, but there is one small caveat: it's best watched in the dark. And not because the screen bleaches out in the light as plasma does, because it doesn't. No, the screen's surface is unfortunately quite reflective — despite the appearance of an anti-reflective coating &mdash and light glancing off the TV can be distracting during the day.

Initially, there were problems with getting the blue pixels to behave in early versions of this screen, but we have heard that this is less of an issue now. And we know that we have the freshest batch currently available because the bottom had April 2009 stamped on it under "manufacture date".

Conclusion

So it's not cheap. In fact, it's terrifyingly expensive. But the XEL-1 is still the best display technology we have ever seen. If you can afford it, we envy you mightily. But you'd still probably have to explain to people what it is and how expensive it is. This screen is the very essence of an early adopter's product.

Now, to answer our question in the opening paragraph. Yes, this is the future of television. Unfortunately, you're not likely to see it hit the mainstream for another five years. You see, it's still really hard to make them and while you could shave a few dollars off the price of this one by giving it a plastic, instead of chrome, suit it would still cost you a mint. Plasma may well be the king for the moment in the price/performance equation, but it won't always be the way. Sony is quietly biding its time until it can jettison LCD and wholeheartedly embrace OLED. We look forward to this day.

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Richo posted a comment   

The Good:picture quality

The Bad:australian price

the Australian price is a rip off. In the US, you can buy one for around US$1800 which equates to about the same in AUS$. It's still a lot of $$$ for an 11" but significantly less than $7000!
It's a shame that Sony Australia decide to set such a high price for the product here.

 

kilosubtorra posted a comment   

reading all these reviews (plasma, lcd and now oled) have convinced me to hang on to my Sony 27" Wega (without a doubt the pinnacle in CRT technology to this day) for another couple of years instead of doughing out for all these compromised new visual imaging technologies. mind you, I am talking about using a TV set I probably couldn't give away at the moment.

I actually went back and peruse all the movies like King Hong, MI3, Batman Begins and come to appreciate I have none of the technology problems plasma and lcd buyers have apparently to put up with. Enjoy!!!

gaba gaba baba
10
Rating
 

gaba gaba baba posted a review   

The Good:yeah

The Bad:ow

dmn

nanorazor
8
Rating
 

nanorazor posted a review   
Australia

The Good:looks ok

The Bad:PRICE!

wow how can you release a prototype. you know it expensive because it the only kind in the market right now when i write this review

Marcus 2
10
Rating
 

Marcus 2 posted a review   

The Good:im going to buy it in 2011

The Bad:why the high price

I think this a big step for Sony In TV HMMMMM bad price make it a negetive than a positive... I still like th idea 10/10 for the idea not the price.....

 

tech mad posted a comment   

The Good:Prototypes

The Bad:Takes time to get cheaper

In case i notice people keep giving low rating for things that came out too too too too early and should not have been. Exellent only for the invention not for the product

martinng
7
Rating
 

martinng posted a review   
Australia

The Good:for the future

The Bad:made for 2012 when it get bigger

LED and LCD was that price when it first came out the other reviews are so unintelligent everyone hated the price of LED when it first came out now every is buying one. price of Technology drops dramatically every year people

 

martinng posted a comment   
Australia

The Good:thin and new technology

The Bad:meant for only rich people

What do you expect from the latest technology it is purpose to be expensive and will be come cheaper dramatically over 5year. basically its like buying an lcd in 1999


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User Reviews / Comments  Sony XEL-1

  • Richo

    Richo

    "the Australian price is a rip off. In the US, you can buy one for around US$1800 which equates to about the same in AUS$. It's still a lot of $$$ for an 11" but significantly less than $7000!
    ..."

  • kilosubtorra

    kilosubtorra

    "reading all these reviews (plasma, lcd and now oled) have convinced me to hang on to my Sony 27" Wega (without a doubt the pinnacle in CRT technology to this day) for another couple of years instea..."

  • gaba gaba baba

    gaba gaba baba

    Rating10

    "dmn"

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