Sony has made a great deal of noise about their new 2021 Bravia XR OLEDs, which makes sense. The TVs are the first to feature Sony’s new Cognitive Processor XR, which sounds an awful lot like a proto-supervillain brain. The company says the processor will recreate how humans actually see things in real life.
After spending the last several weeks with the Sony Bravia XR A80J, I’m going to be very sad when I have to go back to my normal TV, because this Sony is the best-looking TV I’ve ever laid eyes on.
A Sleek TV With Plenty of Ports
Setting the TV up is a challenge if you’re doing it on your own—the smallest of the three Bravia XR OLEDs is 55 inches, and at 42 pounds, it’s just unwieldy enough that you’ll ideally want help to attach the feet and stand it up. Speaking of the feet, they’re delightfully over-engineered, letting you choose a wide or narrow low-profile stance or a higher wide stance to accommodate, say, a soundbar. No screws are required, which is very nice—you just slide them into the bottom with a surprisingly satisfying clunk.
The low profile options help with (my lack of) cable management, rendering wires all but invisible, and from the side, the panel nearly disappears, while the chunk containing the TV guts is a nice, flat slab. Cables connect from the bottom, in a cavity in the back, save for a set of ports on the side. Connecting things to those rear ports is as difficult as you’d imagine if you’re not actually looking at the back of the thing, but if you have it wall-mounted or you have space to turn it where it sits, the ports are clearly labeled.
The TV has three HDMI ports on the back and one on the side. The HDMI ports aren’t all created equal: two of them are HDMI 2.1, which means they can output 4K video at 120 Hz, one of those two is eARC/ARC, and the other two are regular HDMI 2.0, and can take a 4K signal at 60 Hz. On the back, you’ll also find ports for ethernet, optical audio, and USB, along with an RS-232C remote port. On the left side, in addition to HDMI, you’ll also find two more USB ports, a 1/8-inch headphone jack, and a mini jack for Video/Audio RCA signals, so you’ll need an adapter to hook up your Nintendo 64.
Life With Google TV
Turning the TV on, you’ll go through a series of privacy agreements and feature activation screens, and here you can either let the TV walk you through everything or go back and set things up piecemeal. The firmware seems to be a bit of a work in progress, however, and I experienced issues after setup related to my proclivity for running a TV with as few smarts as possible at the outset and activating features piecemeal later on. A couple of the bugs I encountered were smoothed over in the first firmware update the TV received, however, and I would expect others to be, also. In the end, none of them affected the movie-watching experience, so I figure no harm, no foul.
When you finish setup, there is a very cool, showy transition clip that signifies completion of setup, and you’re in the menu. If you choose not to set up Google TV, there is a clean, basic interface with four streaming apps automatically installed: Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube, and Disney+. You can also access USB media here, or watch live TV, among other features. Setting up Google TV is where you really get the most out of the TV’s interface. While I still prefer many elements of the Apple TV interface, Google’s OS has a great deal going for it. The system is swift and responsive, and Google does an excellent job surfacing content that I actually want to watch. That said, it’s not perfect, and lacks certain basic sorting features I’d rather see, particularly in the Library section, where browsing is limited by a side-scrolling-only layout, with no category breakdown or alternate viewing option.
In addition to all the normal streaming services, this TV also comes with Sony’s own streaming service, Bravia Core. Available only on their TVs, this is their way of ensuring they get to show off the best the TV can do, with a section of what they call “Pure Stream” movies: movies that you can stream at up to 80 Mbps, which begins nipping at the heels of the maximum bitrate of UHD Blu Ray. The TV comes with credits for five free movies on the service, and generally these use IMAX Enhanced with DTS rather than Dolby Vision/Atmos.
OK, let’s get down to the most important feature: picture quality. The XR A80J has a plainly phenomenal picture. From one edge to the other, its 55-inch OLED panel provides an evenly-lit, crisp, clear picture with a slight, barely noticeable off-color tint when viewed at extreme angles (some color shifting is very normal for any OLED). I personally found that the IMAX Enhanced picture mode was almost indistinguishable from my post-calibration settings, and I preferred it to the slightly-too-dark cinema mode when watching non-Dolby Vision content. For some reason, I still have a large, frozen-in-time collection of DVDs and when I watched one, the TV did a very good job upscaling and smoothing out artifacts. With features like “Reality Creation” (who names this stuff?) turned on, if you tilt your head and squint, certain scenes almost look like real HD content.
The panel shines most—quite literally—when watching recently-made, big ticket Dolby Vision-compatible movies. Any TV that can push that content is going to look good, but so broad was the dynamic range of the video output that when I watched the opening sequence of Thor: Ragnarok on my second night of having the A80J, I was startled by how bright the light from Thor’s hammer is relative to the darkness of Surtur’s cave. The effect is frankly dramatic and thrilling.
Color and contrast in every Dolby Vision movie I watched was superb. Color separation was great and and gradation was smooth, while light split from dark without haloing, and the only movie I tested where coloring lost any detail was the extremely high-saturation color version of Mad Max: Fury Road, and as far as I can tell, that’s just baked into the film anyhow (the Black and Chrome Edition looked fantastic, by the way). Throughout my time with the TV, I found myself noticing small visual details I’d missed on previous viewings of movies I’ve seen tens of times, and was delighted all over again by the look of movies like Atomic Blonde, which uses color sparingly, and to great affect. If I had to criticize anything about the picture, it’s that the movie transitions to black a bit too aggressively, obscuring details in the black that may have been intended to be seen by the creators. But that criticism, frankly, feels like trying to find ways Mr. Rogers could have been nicer.
On the other hand, though I can only speak for the Nintendo Switch, gaming was fine, not revelatory. One can’t expect much from that system, granted, but I found the default calibration to be too muted, and I needed to tweak the highlights, overall brightness, and color settings to get the image to the right place. I didn’t notice any real input lag, which was good, but I don’t think this TV is made to excel in this arena. Only having two HDMI 2.1 ports and lacking variable refresh rate will turn off serious gamers, so if this is you, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
Surprisingly Good Sound for a TV
If you’re spending $1,800 on a TV, it’s likely that you have a sound system you’d prefer to use, but for those who may not, don’t worry: This TV actually has surprisingly good sound all by itself. A few years ago, Sony did away with conventional down-firing speakers and started sticking the actuators behind the screen, essentially allowing the screen itself to become the speaker. The benefit of this, they say, is that it allows the TV to better simulate sound coming from particular points on the screen. In practice, I honestly can’t tell you whether this works or not, but I can tell you the sound is rich and balanced, and though you’ll definitely still want at least a decent soundbar, if you have to go without, the TV offers fine sound.
Digging into the menu, you’ll find a somewhat intimidating array of features, but for the most part, the marketing terms applied to each option suffices to explain it. Much of the menu is comprised of sliders that adjust the intensity of video processing, and each setting is unique only to the video mode you’re currently in. Two motion-smoothing features that Sony calls Motionflow and Cinemotion seem to not just be toggled based on video mode, but also input, and I found that I kept having to readjust them until I’d gone through all the permutations of input/video mode. Of the two, I thought the Cinemotion option was more useful. That particular feature can be set to high or low, and primarily impacted judder, which is the tendency for 24 fps content to have jerky motion during panning sequences. I kept that feature on, but for Motionflow, I found that I wanted it off when watching movies, and it was maddening every time I started a movie and realized it looked like a soap opera.
Also noteworthy is the TV’s ambient optimization, which not only refers to ambient light, but also ambient sound. The TV uses its ambient light sensor to adjust not just brightness, but also the tone curve of the image, raising the brightness of darker parts of the screen where a bright room might otherwise make that difficult. Additionally, the ambient sound features of the TV use your remote to calibrate the audio relative to the acoustic environment of your room and your positioning while watching TV. The effect of this calibration is subtle, but effective.
The remote (for those who care) is long, and though I never use live TV anymore, it would still be nice if the numbered buttons were placed with a bit more ergonomic consideration. As it stands, you have to readjust how you hold the remote to reach them. More priority is given to the four buttons for YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, and Prime Video, which is great if you use them, but I wouldn’t mind the option to remap them to different services.
Overall, this is a fantastic TV for film enthusiasts. The picture preserves so much detail, gives such good contrast, and provides for so many different types of calibration/video format, that if you’re looking for something to be the centerpiece of your primary movie-viewing room, the Sony Bravia XR A80J would seem to be the conclusion, for now, of your search. If money is of little concern, of course, you could bump up to the higher-brightness A90J, but I don’t know that getting a touch more detail at higher brightness is really worth the extra $1,000. I will say, though, if you have $1,500 to blow on a TV, save just a little longer. It’s worth it.