It may well be the most expensive TV set in a retail outlet in South Africa this holiday season, so don’t expect to see anyone lining up at the check-outs to buy the Sony Bravia 4K 84” KD84X9000 unit. Price tag: R279 000.
Do expect, however, to line up if you want to try it out on one of the select few shopfloors, such as Sony Centres, where it will be on display.
It is one of the first two 84” TV sets in the world to run on a display standard called 4K: representing 4 000 horizontal pixels across the screen. 4K offers exactly four times the resolution of Full HD, which uses a resolution of 1920 x1080p. 4K offers 3840x2160p.
LG was the first internationally to release a 4K unit, the 84” Ultra High Definition 3D 84LM9600, and unveiled it at the opening of the new DionWired store in the Nicolway shopping mall in Bryanston on Wednesday night.
Sony beat them to the South African market by mere hours, launching its unit at a media event that morning. While it wasn’t in store yet, the first 12 that had been brought into the country were already spoken for via pre-orders. The fact that the LG equivalent is available for two thirds the price didn’t seem to be a deterrent.
Of course, no one suggests the Bravia 4K will shift Sony’s share of the TV market. Globally, Sony is the number three player in TV sets, behind Samsung and LG. The ranking is similar in South Africa, although Sony and LG are in a close tussle for second place.
The real role of the 4K machine, in the short term, is to solidify Sony’s positioning as the technology leader in TV imaging. In the long term, the cost of 4K devices will come down. By pushing the envelope now, it reduces the time it takes to push the experience down the value chain, and to bring it to the mass market.
The most direct effect of that chain reaction is that lower-end TV sets, that would have been seen as high-end a few years ago, come down in price, and become accessible to an ever-broader segment of the mass-market.
“In general, if we launch a new high-end product, we will have complementary products within a year at a lower cost and across a bigger range,” says Andrew Fraser, senior manager for brand management at Sony South Africa.
“Our range starts with what we call CCFL – cold cathode, fluorescent, back-lit LCD units – or what people simply know as LCD, in 32”, 40”, and 46” sizes.”
When these units were first introduced, they cost from R16 000 upward. Today they are available from R3 600 for a 32” Bravia LCD set.
The next generation of screen technology, LED, comes in a wider range of screen sizes, from 24” to 55”. Different types of LED have an impact on price and complicate the buying decision: direct back-lit LED means the lighting comes from directly behind the screen, while Edge LED back-lighting allows for slimmer screens – and higher prices.
“The real differentiation is in the features, and in particular the picture processing engine,” says Fraser. “It starts with the Bravia engine, which you find in all lower-end models. From the mid-range upward it includes X Reality, which uses an additional computer chip to analyse videos and adjust them to appear more true to life.
“At the top-end, it includes X Reality PRO, which has a two-chip digital video processor and an additional contrast engine that optimises content.”
The more advanced the technology, the better big-screen TVs display its benefits.
When Sony unveiled X Reality PRO at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2011, it explained it like this:
“Utilising a vast database of ‘ideal’ signal patterns developed by analysing and indexing and enormous library of film and video, the X-Reality PRO Engine compares incoming signals pixel-by-pixel with ideal scenes to display vivid and detailed images. Additionally, the engine’s multi-frame analysis helps create missing resolution and Sony’s Super Bit Mapping technology incorporates 14 bit up-scaling, processing and pixel mapping to smooth gradation and improve the quality of low-tone pictures.”
Translated, this means even a YouTube video looks better on the big screen.
What else does the top-end deliver now that we can expect to see filter down?
For one thing, an ultra high definition TV is almost by default also a 3D TV. While LG includes “3D” in the name of its equivalent device, the Bravia 4K takes it for granted.
However, the Bravia also takes it a step further, allowing something called Simulview. This is a technology that leverages one of Sony’s great competitive advantages – the PlayStation gaming platform – and allows two players in a game to view different full 84” HD screen images from a single display.
It also gives the Blu-ray video format a new lease on life, taking advantage of the fact that Blu-ray records additional information that cannot be played back in standard HD. The source data includes greater colour contrast and additional gradations, all of which is accessed in 4K display through a process called upscaling.
The main drawback of 4K is that, aside from what it can do for Blu-ray, very little content has been produced specifically for the format. Fraser says Sony will be “exceptionally happy” if it sells a few hundred units over a year.
By the time more content is available, prices will also probably have come down. By then, we may also see the first TVs sporting the next generation of display technologies, namely OLED, for Organic LED. The quality is extraordinary, but so is the cost. After initial noises from Sony’s rivals earlier this year about units coming to market by July, all has suddenly gone very quiet – mainly because it is still too costly to produce the device for the consumer market.
“OLED is part of Sony’s R&D plans, but we haven’t announced large screen consumer models as yet, mainly because the technology is not mature,” says Fraser. “We do produce OLED broadcast monitors, and are using this experience to develop consumer models, but have not made any announcement on timing.”
At the lower end, prices keep falling, not because the cost of production keeps falling, as has been the case in the past, but because of tremendous oversupply of LCD panels on factory floors.
“There is massive depreciation, largely because of massive capital investment from 2000 to 2007 in terms of factories producing panels. With the global financial crisis, demand dropped off, so all of sudden there is an oversupply. In order to recover the cost of the capital investment, panels have been sold at very low prices, driving down prices internationally.”
But that trend, he says, seems to have ended, and prices are stabilising. The weakness of the Rand will affect the majority of TVs, but there are still too many TVs being pushed into market, and prices will still drop, but not as fast.
The glut is partly driven by low-cost 32” LCD models from the East, which make up 30% of the South African market. The good news for Sony and its main rivals is that these devices make up only 20% of the market by value.
The appetite for brand names continues to outweigh the appeal of low prices.
* Arthur Goldstuck is managing director of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter or Pinterest on @art2gee