A couple of weeks ago, I found myself heading to Brooklands, site of the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit, except that the purpose of my visit was not to experience any form of motor sport, but to spend an evening with Sony, at their UK headquarters, taking a look at the consumer electronics products that the Japanese giant is bringing to market in 2014.
Working for another Japanese technology giant, as I do, it’s easy to forget just how big Sony is in the consumer electronics space. Happily, in the UK, we don’t really compete (except maybe around PCs – and even then we focus on different markets). As news since my visit suggests that Sony is looking to dispose of its Vaio PC business and transform the TV business into a wholly owned subsidiary (perhaps to resolve the issue of the innovators’ dilemma?), I’m happy that I could learn about the sound and vision, photography and computing devices that Sony is bringing to market this year without any conflict of interest. And Sony started the evening off by telling us how they are concentrating on the user experience – on the best picture and sound quality – be that for televisions, cameras, projectors or other digital devices.
TV – forget 3D – 4K is where it’s at
It has to be said that Sony’s 4K TVs are stunning. I first saw 4K Ultra HD images whilst visiting The Design Museum late last year and my trip to Brooklands re-enforced my view – whether it’s for watching films or sport. Quite how I’ll be able to receive a 4K signal at my house is another issue (I have “up to 8Mbps” ADSL2) and whilst I like the idea of a 65″ TV, our living room is not really large enough… but hey! (It should be noted that Sony’s X-Reality processing engine can upscale some content too).
Sony explained some of the technologies that their mid-high end 2014 TVs feature and it’s clear that it’s no longer just about being “super slim”. The quest for enhanced picture and sound quality includes a range of technologies such as:
- X-Reality PRO image enhancement for increased realism, texture and a more refined output
- Triluminos imaging (launched last year – but now with increased colour range and much improved viewing angle – as shown in this image from Sony with, from left to right, a 2013 Sony TV, a 2014 Sony TV and a Samsung TV)
- X-tended Dynamic Range – improved brightness, whilst retaining detail and colour.
- Long duct speakers with a new wedge shape to increase speaker capacity and sound quality – including software to adjust the settings depending on whether the panel is wall or table mounted (wall-mounted units use the wall for reverberation – I pity the neighbours!)
- Front mounted speakers on some models for better sound direction, a magnetic fluid system as coolant and conductor for efficient sound transfer – and an RF-connected subwoofer option for those who don’t want a 5.1 system.
- ClearAudio+ sound processing, to separate dialogue from sound effects, reduce/increase sports commentary volume, or provide virtual surround sound.
And, when one Sony representative was asked a question about the future of 3D TV:
“Our focus is 4K”
I think that says it all really (the 3D glasses for my TV have never come out of their box)!
I have a mid-range Samsung TV, which, on the whole I’ve been very pleased with but I do have to admit that the SmartHub is a little less smart than I would like at times. Clearly Sony seems Samsung as a leading competitor (their competitor comparison units are all Samsungs!) and, from what I saw of the developments in Sony’s Bravia software, it seems that they have a much better user interface – and an interesting approach to control with their “One-Flick”gesture-based remote (a standard remote is provided too). Whilst some of the apps seem a little gimmicky (e.g. “Football mode” for “less ghosting and more immersive viewing” because of Sony’s tie up with the 2014 World Cup), the usuals are there too (iPlayer, etc.) as well as Sony’s Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited services.
The features I found most interesting were Social Viewing (integrating social media use with television-watching, albeit with some issues around content filtering) and Photo share (using the TV as a hub to share images between devices, scanning a QR code or using NFC to connect, with no app required).
As for the full range of 2014 Sony TVs, rather than rely on my notes being correct, why not get it straight from the horses’ mouth, as it were.
I also had some time to spend in Sony’s “network room” and whilst I have to say I was pretty impressed with the range of Vaio laptops in touch and non-touch forms (including the lightest ultrabook in Europe), all with NFC and some featuring ClearAudio+ (which really made a difference using the PC speakers), the potential sale of Sony’s PC business and my own professional IT links made these no more than a “ooo – that’s nice” view…
There were Xperia phones and tablets too but the real items I found of interest were the wearables – a Smartband that pairs with an Android phone for “life logging” and the SmartWatch 2 which acts as a remote screen for an Android phone, but also runs some of its own apps. Wearables are big right now and I find this a particularly exciting market – it will be interesting to see how Sony’s devices take off…
Digital imaging (and a date for my diary)
A few years ago, Sony bought Konica-Minolta’s digital imaging business and they’ve clearly used it to good effect, expanding the Sony range to cover everything from digital compacts to high-end DSLRs (and of course expanding their own range of digital still and video cameras). As a Nikon DSLR-shooter, I found the range confusing, with seemingly competing models using two different lens mount systems:
- The A-mount is effectively the old Konica-Minolta system.
- The E-mount is used by the modern, small form factor cameras.
Thankfully there are converters available, which means
A-mount E-mount users can use adapters for Nikon and Canon lenses. I guess I’m a bit of a Luddite too – I like a solid full-frame DSLR with high quality (often heavy) glass up front and am unconvinced by the new ranges of small cameras with interchangeable lenses (possibly because I got burned by Minolta in the late-1990s with an interchangeable lens APS film camera!). Having said that, I increasingly find myself using the camera in my pocket (my phone) and it was interesting to see how Sony is enhancing the user experience with seamless integration between devices, including built-in NFC and Wi-Fi communications, together with iOS and Android PlayMemories apps for a range of photography uses). I was also impressed to see that Sony is really moving ahead with behind full-frame cameras – be that the DSC-RX1, the prosumer ?7/7R or the ?99. Indeed I’d be happy to have an RX1 as my carry-everywhere camera (albeit a rather pricey one!)
On the video front, Sony has always been a leader and I was impressed to see both the NEX-VG900 full-frame interchangeable lens camcorder and the AX100 – a 4K Handycam targeted at home film-makers, using a 1″ sensor and class 10 SD card storage (that reminds me, I really should find a way to stream all of the raw footage off my collection of DV tapes onto a disk somewhere!).
Oh yes, and that date for my diary? Sony sponsors the World Photography Awards, and the 2014 exhibition will take place at Somerset House in London from 1-18 May.
Wall of sound
The last demonstration of the evening was focused on audio. I didn’t check out the high resolution audio systems (although I heard others doing so, and they certainly sounded good) – I was interested in something portable – like the Bluetooth and NFC SRS-BTS50 or the higher-end SRS-X5 unit. After all, when all you’re playing is compressed MP3 files, or music streamed from Spotify, it’s amazing how good it can sound on a small speaker setup. Then there were earphones, modern Walkman digital music players (I didn’t know that brand still existed but it seems you can get everything from a USB stick to an iPod competitor and even an MP3 Walkman built into a set of headphones!), clock radios, docking stations, DAB radios, all in one Hi-Fi systems – the works.
I’m pretty impressed with Sony’s consumer electronics plans for 2014. Sure, what geek wouldn’t be interested in huge super-high definition TVs, some smart PCs and wearable tech, a selection of imaging devices that meet the needs of most, if not all, consumers and some seriously big sounds. But it’s more than that. Maybe I drank the Sony Kool-Aid but I really did leave with the distinct impression that Sony is out to create a user experience that transcends devices and simply delivers the best picture and sound quality. If I didn’t already have a Samsung Smart TV, Apple and Samsung phones, a Lenovo PC, Nikon cameras and an Xbox 360, I might well be persuaded to make my next consumer electronics purchase one from Sony…
[Update 19 Feb 2014: corrected statement re: adapters for third party lenses with Sony cameras]