Sony aims to reinvent its LCD TVs to match OLED rivals

Sony believes its next-gen LCD TVs will closely rival OLED TVs.

CES has a lot of TVs. So many TVs. Huge ones. 8K ones. HDR-capable ones (and not). In the midst of all that confusion, one thing has been constant: the increasing presence of OLED. LG is making more OLED TVs, Samsung is using quantum dot LED displays (while also tinkering with the same tech as its Korean rival). Sony? Well, it's sticking to LCD for now. But it's planning to rival (if not best) the more advanced OLED technology with its Backlight Master Drive (BMD). Sounds like a sci-fi MacGuffin, but it might be the company's biggest TV gambit in a while. To hear what it was all about, I was bundled into a very dark room with one very bright prototype TV.

Sony is looking to launch TVs with its Backlight Master Drive over the next few years. BMD is a new backlighting system for LCD TVs that tries to fix the color and brightness shortcomings of LCD when compared to OLED. Sony also wants to ensure that its future LCD TVs are ready for the incoming wave of HDR content (video that has its dynamic range increased even further: blacker blacks, brighter whites).

The company's new LCD prototype can crank out 4,000 nits of brightness, while most high-end sets hover around 1,000. A layer of high-density LED backlights is paired with software algorithms and intelligent local dimming to keep any contrasting dark areas looking how they should. The sheer brightness caught my attention immediately. To compare, Sony's spokesman and assembled engineers started running HDR content through last year's LG OLED TV, Sony's pro-level RGB OLED display and its new prototype (an 85-inch 4K LCD TV with the Backlight Master Drive). The glare coming off the river surfaces and neon lighting was occasionally borderline blinding from the LCD -- courtesy of that high-nit rating.

And while I know this was Sony's prototype TV, the crazy part was that demo clips from Vegas, Annie and The Amazing Spiderman all looked richer and better on the BMD set. To these fatigued CES eyes, Sony's test LCD screen more closely approximated its pro-level RGB OLED than the rival (model not mentioned) LG OLED TV. The severe increase in dimming zones helped to get the darker regions comparable to OLED tech. The prototype had "more than a thousand" dimming zones. Sony's engineers showed me its existing models' dark zones -- a handful of huge rough squares on top of the screen -- and then they switched to the new zones. This time the highlights and lowlights formed a severely pixellated version of the image itself (imagine YouTube on its lower setting). You can see on the left side here:

The spokesman told me that it gives the perceptual pixel-to-pixel contrast that wows people with OLED. "Perceptual" is an important part of that sentence. LCD can't match OLED, where each individual pixel lights itself up. The younger tech doesn't reach the 4,000 nits of brightness of Sony's test set, however. Sony added that the halo effect for local-area dimming on LCD TVs is no longer a problem, because it has increased the density of LED backlights, allowing greater precision when it comes to bright spots.

"We haven't reached the full potential of LCD."

--Sony spokesman

The presentation involved waves of color gamut charts and science, but the most important part is how this turns into a for-real, on-sale TV. "The work on this [Backlight Master Drive] is done by production engineers," a spokesman told me. "We can almost achieve something that is close to OLED with LCD, so now we're looking at several different problems: power consumption, the cooling system, as well as cost and size. We're investigating these now." Sony isn't the only one: LG, Samsung and Panasonic are all trying to bridge the gap and improve LCD TVs. LCDs are still far easier and cheaper to make.

Another Sony spokesman added, "We want to show [while we're still looking at and working on OLEDS] that we haven't reached the full potential of LCD."

[Image credit: Will Lipman]