Movies Over Games, James

Sony Bravia 85ZH8 Review

Is one of the best 8K TVs in the market right now ideal for video games too?

Sony’s second-gen 8K television, the ZH8, claims to be a good fit for PlayStation5 gaming apart from being a top all-around TV set. Do such claims hold after extensive testing? (Image credit: Sony)

While televisions sporting 33 million-pixel screens have not yet convinced everyone that they are worth the premium prices they still command over “normal” televisions — yes, that would be 4K TVs now — manufacturers will be releasing many more such models in 2021 regardless of that fact. The 8K TV category is here to stay, even if it’s practically forced on consumers at the moment: most manufacturers reserve advanced panel technologies (the ones capable of offering the best possible picture) for the 8K models, while 4K TVs get the “last-gen” treatment or inferior quality screens to work with. This leaves no choice to demanding consumers but to “go 8K” earlier than they probably would otherwise.

Sony was not the first one to hop on the 8K bandwagon, but when it did it was in typical Sony style with the super-impressive, super-expensive Bravia ZG9. That television was not going to help the Japanese gain any market share, though, so a year later the more affordable Bravia ZH8 was introduced. That was also the year the PlayStation5 launched worldwide and the ZH8 was one of only two TV models in Sony’s lineup that the company deemed to be “PS5-ready” — the other one was the much more affordable Bravia XH90, reviewed here — based on certain features that second 8K TV offers.

An 8K Sony TV “more affordable” than its predecessor is still a high-end proposition that does not come exactly cheap. (Image credit: Sony)

The 85-inch version of this TV I’ve lived with for more than 90 days now. From a gamer’s perspective, as well as from the perspective of a consumer looking for the best all-around TV for general use, does the ZH8 deliver? If not, why? What’s it like to game in 8K with a TV as expensive as this — it went for $9000/€10000 at the time of writing — and do all those 33 million pixels make a difference?

Deluxe design, sound on another level

First things first: this is Sony’s flagship LED/LCD TV for 2020 and it shows. Its premium design immediately impresses — despite the fact that this is not a thin television — being modern, spartan but extremely elegant and classy. There’s something wonderfully elusive about the vibe of Sony’s AAA TVs that just can’t be found anywhere else and the ZH8 is a perfect example of that. At the same time this design effectively “fades away” when the TV is on, never distracting from what’s on the screen at any given time, which is rather important in the 75- or 85-inch diagonal. As far as aesthetics are concerned, this is a beautiful, deluxe TV that deserves its top place in Sony’s line-up.

Large TVs beg to be wall-mounted but this one looks very, very nice on a piece of furniture: its elegant feet draw minimal attention to themselves. (Image credit: Sony)

It’s also a TV that’s as well-built as it is well-designed, with premium materials used and great attention to detail. Since televisions that large are very often wall-mounted, Sony has provided several ways to cable-manage all connections at the back inside “channels” that keep everything flush and tidy — consumers will have to take advantage of those before mounting the TV, though, as it’s nigh-on impossible after the fact. This is especially true for the single HDMI port that supports 8K/60 and 4K/120 content, as it’s separated from the other three and impossible to get to without unmounting.

Speaking of those ports it’s hard not to grumble about the single HDMI 2.1 port, which will practically force consumers to use an 8K-capable receiver in order to connect more than one 8K source in the future. The other three HDMI ports are of the 2.0 standard (thankfully the eARC sound function is taken care of by one of those) while present are also three USB ports for media playback and even the quite unnecessary video-in and optical-out ports. The Ethernet port for wired connectivity is of the Fast and not the Gigabit variety — wireless connectivity is fast (AC) but cannot fully compensate. Unusually there are also two analog speaker connection terminals that allow for the TV itself to work as the center (dialogue) channel in a 5.1/7.1/Atmos home theatre speaker configuration.

Yes, there’s only one HDMI 2.1 port at the back, in practice leaving consumers with no choice but to go for an 8K-capable receiver at some point in the future. (Image credit: Sony)

A TV like this one does deserve a home theatre setup for watching movies, of course, but consumers who pick it up will find out that the ZH8 does not need one for everyday use or even a soundbar for that matter: yes, the sound quality this television offers is that high. Sony’s approach of using the frame of the TV as a tweeter is not a marketing gimmick: it works wonders, actually helping the sound give the impression of coming from different places of the image on-screen convincingly. Bass is very satisfying, dialogue is clear, everything is perfectly balanced and the overall sound can be raised to almost uncomfortable volume levels with practically no distortion. Sony promised that it would match the audio side of this TV with its visuals and it delivered in spades.

About that gaming thing, though…

The Bravia ZH8 was chosen by Sony to be promoted as “PS5-ready” alongside the much more affordable XH90 for a few specific reasons. They are valid, but that doesn’t mean the Japanese were necessarily right with that choice: for a modern TV set to be called a “gaming TV” and really meet the needs of gamers it has to offer certain features of which some the ZH8, sadly, lacks. This does not make it a bad TV for video games, but it does make it a TV that is not ideal for hardcore, demanding gamers.

“Gaming TVs” in the 2021 sense should be offering VRR and the ZH8 does not — 4K/120Hz is welcome but not of the same importance. (Image credit: Sony)

The first reason Sony chose to promote the ZH8 as “PS5-ready” is the fact that it’s based on a panel capable of refreshing at 120 Hz in 4K (since it works at 60 Hz in 8K). In practice, this means that the PlayStation5, the Xbox Series S|X and PCs equipped with the most recent graphics cards from nVidia and AMD can display their games at 4K at 120 Hz with this TV (provided they are connected to that single HDMI 2.1 port of course). Experience with all three systems so far, though, has shown that the new PlayStation and Xbox can’t do 4K/120 Hz in AAA productions unless they seriously compromise on image quality, while PCs will eventually get there, but not in 2021.

Most importantly: all games offering 4K/120 as an option for compatible TVs to use, prove that it’s hard to maintain “locked” — i.e. not fewer, not more, but just — 120 frames per second in 4K. If the framerate is not “locked”, which is most of the time right now, movement becomes juddery and control less accurate. This is where, normally, VRR would step in: the technology which adjusts the frames displayed to the exact number of frames produced by a gaming system, so as to eliminate stutter and make on-screen movement smooth. The Bravia ZH8 not does offer this invaluable function, though, just as the Bravia XH90 doesn’t. The difference is that Sony promised to bring VRR to the XH90 via a future firmware update, while there’s no such prospect for the ZH8. This is an omission few dedicated gamers will be OK with.

Cinematic games such as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla are not a problem for the ZH8 since they do not require VRR to be enjoyed, but even they could make some use of it. (Image credit: Sony)

Another reason why the ZH8 carried the “PS5-ready” tag is because of its low input lag: the time it takes a TV to display an in-game action on-screen having received the relevant command from a games system. This is hovering around the 21ms mark in 1080p/4K/8K at 60 Hz in Game Mode — which is very good by any standards — and less than half that (9.8ms) in 4K at 120 Hz, which is even better. When game systems catch up with the processing power demands of modern video games, in other words, the ZH8 will be able to display AAA titles with smooth motion and fast response times. But not yet.

This being an 8K TV of course (and an 85-incher at that) one must wonder what it’s like to game on such a high resolution since the ZH8 automatically upscales any kind of content to fill the screen anyway. In a word? It’s amazing. Games that would not reach 120 frames in any case, because they choose to go for a high level of graphical detail or be cinematic, look phenomenal on the ZH8: those 33 million pixels make the picture look much denser, and therefore believable if gamers sit close enough (an explainer of why that is and how close that can be is included in this review). Players will routinely notice new details in environments, characters and backgrounds that were not there before, while the deep blacks and punchy colors this TV is capable of can present an image far more impressive than that of any PC monitor, no matter how expensive.

Games that already run at 4K look absolutely amazing on the ZH8 thanks to the upscaling this TV does to 8K resolution with no input lag cost. (Image credit: Sony)

What’s more, the upscaling the ZH8 does in Game Mode is essentially “free”: it is done by just quadrupling the number of pixels from 4K but without introducing any delay in control response or any artifacts in the picture. Yes, 1080p graphics are not displayed in the same impressive manner — the TV has to calculate 30 of the 33 million pixels all by itself in real-time after all — but even those are better handled by the ZH8 than by almost any other 4K TV. While an 8K TV of this caliber will also reveal flaws in graphics because of the more detailed representation — unavoidable, as there is not as much visual information in 1080p games for the upscaler to work with — older games are still a joy to play on the Bravia ZH8. It’s just that it’s an unlikely pair.

All in all, then, the ZH8 is not a “gaming TV” (because it would have to offer VRR in order to be branded as one) but it can be great for gaming (in the eyes of players who prefer e.g. adventure games or role-playing games to racing games or first-person shooters). It was not necessarily wise on Sony’s part to handpick this TV for promoting the PlayStation5 during launch, but it’s early days yet: who knows how soon we’ll get to see the first PS5 title running at 8K/30 or 8K/60 that will make gaming on the ZH8 an absolute blast?

Cinematic picture to die for

A top “gaming TV” it might not be, but the Bravia ZH8 is a killer television for any other kind of content. It is, in fact, one of the best Sony has produced in terms of detail, color, motion and other aspects of the picture it offers to movie lovers, sports fans or casual viewers of over-the-air programming. It’s an LED/LCD TV that plays to its strengths and addresses as many weaknesses as possible. It’s the anti-OLED: where TVs of that technology excel, the ZH8 is good enough — where those struggle, the ZH8 triumphs.

No, the ZH8 cannot offer the perfect blacks of an OLED TV but it comes close while being much, much brighter in every type of content imaginable. (Image credit: Sony)

It has to do more with the brightness levels this TV is capable of reaching, the control of its individual dimming zones and the image processing Sony is famous for, rather than the 8K resolution itself. That helps bring out more detail when the content displayed comes from high-quality sources, yes, but it’s not what makes this television such a great all-rounder. It’s, first of all, the backlighting, as the 85-inch ZH8 offers 320 dimming zones. They are not the most implemented in an 8K TV, but are definitely the best-handled: Sony’s peerless controlling algorithm knows exactly where to turn them off and where to boost their brightness in order to keep the displayed image natural but mightily impressive. No dark details are “lost”, no bright highlights are “burned”: exemplary visual balance in every way.

Sony’s TV can reach 2500 nits of brightness in Vivid Mode — around 2100 when calibrated to more accurate “movie” colors — which is more than enough to not only present a wonderfully vibrant image but literally dazzle when expressing HDR content from UHD BD discs or streaming services such as Netflix. The ZH8 makes the most of the high peak brightness OLED TVs can only dream of in order to offer images of “punch” and “pop” only surpassable by Sony’s other, ultra-expensive 8K TV, the ZG9 (which can reach 4000 nits of brightness). The ZH8 cannot handle blacks in the incomparable way OLEDs do, of course, but Sony’s dimming zone algorithm is sharp enough so as to largely address issues such as clouding, haloing or blooming. These can still occur from time to time on extremely challenging cases — so not often at all — but resulting problems in picture accuracy are kept to a minimum.

Movies and TV shows with a colorful, vivid palette are displayed exquisitely by the ZH8 while the 8K resolution upscaling is bringing out amazing amounts of detail overall. (Image credit: Sony)

The ZH8’s resolution upscaling system is based on Sony’s most powerful processor to date, the X1 Ultimate, specially tuned for 8K operation and optimization. This is extremely effective as, let’s face it, it would have to be given the dearth of true 8K content at the moment. How well the ZH8 displays material of 720p, 1080p or 4K resolution still depends on the original quality of the material being upscaled, of course, but there is not a single television in the market right now that could do a better job of it. It goes without saying that consumers who watch an awful lot of over-the-air programming should not be expecting miracles, as the ZH8 will be practically calculating 32 of the 33 million pixels displayed all by itself — but, then again, a TV like this one is actually aimed at people demanding top picture quality and probably know which content sources offer that.

If one were to complain about something regarding this TV’s display capabilities, it would have to do with — of all things! — handling of true 8K material. The ZH8 cannot play YouTube videos in 8K because it does not support the encoding algorithm they are based on. It cannot play 8K videos off USB storage either for the same reason. There are even indications that when a true 8K source is connected to its single HDMI 2.1 port — at the time of writing that can only be a PC with a recent graphics card — not all visual information of 8K content is resolved on-screen. These shortcomings may not be important in the here and now, when true 8K material is rather scarce, but they do limit what the ZH8 can offer in the future unless Sony steps in with firmware updates to address these issues.

An absolute marvel of a TV for most — but not all — use cases

It’s really no coincidence that many technical reviewers have picked the Bravia ZH8 as their choice for the best LED/LCD television of 2020 (which extends to Spring 2021 as better models do not traditionally arrive at retail before April or May). It is Sony’s most expertly balanced television since the legendary ZD9 of 2016: a product that manages to overcome the weaknesses its panel technology dictates through exceedingly smart backlight control and unparalleled image processing.

The perfectly balanced picture the ZH8 offers makes for absolutely top-quality movie and TV show viewing, especially when the material in question is of high enough quality to begin with. (Image credit: Sony)

Going a step further, it manages to leverage its high peak brightness as an impressively effective way of demonstrating why LED/LCD TVs will always be a better choice for many consumers than OLED TVs: because there will always be people who prefer a vibrant, punchy picture to a contrasty, more color-accurate one.

It’s a shame that as an 8K TV per se the ZH8 isn’t more flexible in terms of the content sources it can make use of, as it really deserves the kind of quality material consumers interested in this TV want to enjoy in all its glory. Sony would do well to improve this TV in that respect via firmware updates — it is its current “flagship for most people” model after all. The company should at least strive to provide that because, by the look of things, it does not plan to provide an upgrade path to the new Google TV operating system from the Android 9.0 it ships with. The latter works well enough on the ZH8 but bad timing and just modest hardware rarely ever surprise consumers in a positive way these days.

It’s hard to imagine how an 8K LED/LCD TV could top the ZH8 in 2021 in terms of sheer picture quality but Samsung, LG and Sony themselves may have something to say about that. (Image credit: Sony)

What these factors do not affect is the picture quality this TV is capable of offering to consumers that demand it: the latest Netflix shows, movies on Ultra HD Blu-ray discs and cinematic 4K games look absolutely spectacular on a ZH8 screen, better than on any other LED/LCD’s screen at this point in time. A “gaming TV” this particular Bravia might not be in the true sense of the word, and certain OLED TVs offer more accurate picture for movies under the right circumstances, but for the kind of picture that dazzles with its lifelike detail and brightness, one need look no further: the ZH8 provides that kind of picture and it does it in signature Sony style. For a great number of consumers, that is more than enough.

Veteran journalist, project kickstarter, tech nut, cynical gamer, music addict, movie maniac. Will work for money, fame and bandwidth. More on farkonas.com.

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