Having a small or medium-sized living room shouldn’t prohibit you from owning a genuinely brilliant TV, which is why it’s a shame that for the last few years, true flagship models have gone no smaller than 55in. For many, that’s simply too big.
But this year, that has changed. Predictably, the first 48-inch OLED TV was launched by LG, the company behind all of the OLED TV panels currently used by every manufacturer, and excellent it is, too.
Hot on its heels comes Sony’s XBR-48A9S, which is even better. In fact, it may well be the best sub-55-inch TV ever made. It’s certainly the best you can buy right now, although that sort of quality does come at a price.
Clearly looking to capitalize on the compact nature of the new, smaller OLED panel, Sony appears to have made the 48A9S as small as possible, at least in terms of height and width. The flush, black bezel along the top and sides is less than 1cm thick, while the stylishly glossy bottom edge – which features a Sony logo so subtle that in most light is invisible – is only slightly thicker.
The pedestal stand, which gives the set a narrow footprint of just under 47cm, has such a low profile that there’s barely a 5mm gap between the bottom edge of the TV and the surface upon which it’s placed.
The downside to that discrete stand is that any soundbar placed in front of the set will block a fair amount of screen. Sony hopes you won’t consider purchasing a soundbar necessary, thanks to the screen-vibrating audio tech built into the TV.
While OLED panels are extremely thin, all OLED TVs need an enclosure for the speakers, processing hardware and connections. The enclosure on the rear of the XBR-48A9S is bigger than most, both in terms of how much of the panel it covers and the overall depth that it adds. While LG’s own 48-inch OLED (the OLED48CX) measures 4.7cm at its thickest point, the Sony is 6cm. Ultimately, though, it just looks a little less impressive in profile.
The set’s connections, many of which can be hidden by plastic panels included in the box, include aerial and satellite (full Freesat functionality is coming soon), ethernet, three USBs, optical and headphone outputs, and four HDMIs. HDMI 3 supports both ARC and the more advanced eARC, but that’s the only advanced HDMI feature that the set has.
There’s no support for 4K@120Hz (HFR), VRR (Variable Refresh Rate) or even ALLM, and that will come as a disappointment to gamers, particularly those planning to buy a PS5 or Xbox Series X. The set does at least boast a competitive input lag of under 19ms when the Game mode is (manually) selected.
Sony’s X1 Ultimate processor, which debuted in 2019 but remains the company’s top TV chip, is nestled at the core of the XBR-48A9S’s chassis. This means it gets advanced features such as Object-Based Super Resolution, which is designed to intelligently analyse and enhance the definition of individual objects in an image, and an improved version of Object-Based HDR Remaster, which applies a similar approach to contrast. The set also gets Sony’s Pixel Contrast Booster, which is designed to enhance color and contrast in bright areas of the image.
Screen type OLED
Operating system Android 9
HDR formats HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision
While this A9S carries ‘Master Series’ designation, which Sony uses for its flagship models, a couple of its features are at the same level as the A8H, which isn’t a Master Series model, rather than the A9G, which is. It has X-Motion Clarity instead of Motionflow XR, and Acoustic Surface Audio rather than Acoustic Surface Audio+. Those minor downgrades don’t hold the A9S back from excellence, but they do highlight some inconsistencies in Sony’s marketing.
Sony has kept the faith with Google’s Android TV operating system, and it’s beginning to pay off. While it may never be the equal of Samsung and LG’s bespoke systems – it often feels like having a media streamer built into the TV rather than the true heart of its software – it is steadily becoming slicker, more intuitive and more fully-featured.
There are no significant gaps in the Sony A9S’s app offering. So, you get Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Google Play Movies & TV and Rakuten, all in 4K and HDR (Dolby Vision in the cases of Netflix and Disney+); Hulu, HBO Now and Showtime Anytime are all present and correct; Plex is on board for local streaming of your own media files; and music is covered by Spotify and Tidal. Sony promises that Apple TV is on the way, too.
If any service you use isn’t covered – Amazon Music or Apple Music, for example – the set also features both Apple AirPlay 2 and Google Chromecast. The only slight disappointment is that content in the Disney+ app that should be available in Dolby Atmos appears to only work in 5.1 via the Sony. This has been the case on all of the Sony (and Philips) models we've recently reviewed.
Straight out of the box, the A9S is cautious in its delivery, seemingly reluctant to deliver the sort of dazzling contrast we’ve come to expect from great HDR signals. After a bit of tweaking, that issue is solved, and as we fire up Blade Runner 2049 we’re delighted to see the film’s bright red and white text appear on the perfectly black screen with serious punch and purity. In fact, it has the measure of the LG CX in this regard.
It also trumps the CX at the opposite end of the spectrum: while both sets deliver pure, pitch black, the Sony digs up more dark detail, reproducing the interior of Sapper Morton’s dingy farmhouse with more scene-setting insight.
Less of a surprise is that the A9S handles motion better than the CX. Sony has long been the master of motion processing and, while other manufacturers have made improvements this year, the way the A9S (and many of its siblings, for that matter) smooth and sharpen motion without introducing fizz or artificiality is superb. Everything looks as it should, only better, and the fact that Sony has been so far ahead of its rivals for so long proves what a tricky feat that is.
Sony’s Master Series models are sold on their dedication to delivering the picture as intended, and the A9S also delivers here. There’s a slight warmth and richness to the colors that may not be entirely true to life, but it is true to cinema. We’re not talking about the horrible sepia-tinted blandness that you’re confronted by when you select most TVs’ Cinema mode: this is a subtle rosiness that enhances the sense of life in skin tones. Again, everything looks as it should, only better.
For sharpness and detail, there’s never been a better TV at this size, and the way the set combines ultra-deep blacks and bright, pure whites works with these qualities to create an unrivalled sense of depth and solidity in the image. Whether it’s the close-up of K’s hand at the start of Blade Runner 2049 or the eerily beautiful shots of the decimated town in 1917, everything has palpable three-dimensionality.
Dropping down to 1080p with the Blu-ray of Children Of Men, the Sony does a superb job of maintaining control of the shaky, handheld action, keeping everything blur- and judder-free without adding an unpleasant soap opera effect. Colors are again superb and the image is sharp, detailed and clean.
That cleanliness continues as we stream old, standard-def episodes of Spaced via Netflix. Given the low resolution of the signal, the image is both smooth and sharp, surprisingly detailed, and with colors that are vibrant but controlled.
The Sony A9S is a significant step-up on its closest rival for sound, too. The uncomfortably bass-heavy beginning to the second chapter of Blade Runner 2049 makes the LG CX’s drivers flap badly, but the Sony is composed and clean.
It’s punchy and dynamic, too, building the drama just as it should as K approaches the foreboding LAPD building. We opt for the Cinema preset, which adds openness and spaciousness, and this generates a good sense of atmosphere as our protagonist takes his bewildering baseline test, the disembodied voice of his commanding officer echoing off the bare walls of the boxy room. K’s own voice, by comparison, is clear and direct and, thanks to the A9S’s screen-vibrating tech, the audio and video are more spatially connected than from other TVs.
But while the A9S sounds good for a TV, particularly one this size, it can be pushed to hardness by high volumes. If you want audio quality that’s equal to the picture, a dedicated sound system is still the way to go, particularly if you like your films loud and bombastic.
The Sony XBR-48A9S is a stunning TV. The quality of TVs below 55 inches in size has been limited for years, but LG has blown the doors off those limitations by making a 48-inch OLED panel available. Sony has taken LG’s panel and, with its own picture processing and audio wizardry, raised the benchmark previously (and briefly) held by LG’s own OLED48CX.
This is, without doubt, the best sub-55-inch TV you can buy – and possibly the best ever made. It’s expensive for a TV this size, but if you have the budget and aren’t phased by a lack of HDMI 2.1 features, you should consider it well worth the money.
- Picture 5
- Sound 5
- Features 4
Read our LG OLED48CX review