Sony Surprises with No CES TVs and MiniLED LCD Move
One of the surprises in the days leading up to the annual CES tech extravaganza in Las Vegas was that there was news that Sony was not going to be highlighting its TVs at the event. It seems that the firm had decided instead to take a number of journalists to Japan to see the firm’s latest flagship TV technology in action rather than spending money on promotion at CES.
That might seem strange, but businesses often make this kind of decision on a straightforward cost-related basis. It’s very expensive to attend a major trade show and Sony’s marketing department is careful to try to recover money from the product businesses that attend. The corporate marketing team will, we’re sure, have wanted to charge the TV business for the space used and associated costs. (Our editor remembers some years ago, the head of a Sony business unit arranging a meeting at a big trade show, but wanting to do it in one of the event location restaurants. ‘It’s too expensive if I take a visitor into our own Sony lounge’, he explained!)
Flagship TVs Move Away from OLED
Anyway, the journalists were shown a new flagship prototype TV based not on OLED or QD-OLED technology, but based on an LCD TV with a miniLED backlight. That’s a shift for Sony which has had the emissive OLED technology as its main flagship technology for picture quality for several years. So why might this be?
First, there was for a long time only one supplier of large OLED panels and that was LG Display. In the last couple of years, Samsung Display has joined in with its QD-OLED panels. The challenge for Sony in this supply chain structure is that while Samsung and LG have vertical integration back into their panel supply, since Sony sold out its half of the S-LCD joint venture with Samsung, it does not have access to panels that it makes itself. The panels for its TVs all have to be bought from the two Koreans or other LCD suppliers – who are mainly in China.
This lack of vertical integration means that the degree to which Sony can ‘add value’ to the panels is limited. The company has very good video processing and industrial design as well as a good understanding of audio, but the difference in picture quality between a Sony TV and a Samsung or other TV with the same QD-OLED panel is relatively small. They are all very very good TVs.
However, by focusing on miniLED-based LCDs. Sony can capture more of the value as it will only be buying the ‘cell’ sandwich of liquid crystal and glass while adding its own backlights. Further, as the new TVs are exploiting new LED driver chips from its own semiconductor business, it can capture more value again. The same logic behind the captured value point applies to Samsung and is one of the reasons that Samsung’s TV business has led with its Neo QLED TVs rather than QD-OLED. Further, by developing better backlighting, Sony can differentiate its TVs to those from others buying the same LCD cells.
This is Good for 8K
The change is potentially good for the development of 8K, which is why we published this article. As we have reported, although 8K OLEDs can look spectacular (LG Display won an award at Display Week for its 77″ 8K OLED in 2023), they are extremely difficult to manufacture. That’s one of the reasons that Samsung has not made any commercial 8K QD-OLED panels yet and, as far as we know, has no plans to do so.
If the extra high brightness available in miniLED TVs succeeds in winning the position at the top of the tree for image quality, it is good for the companies that can make the premium LCD panels that will be needed. That’s in turn good for 8K because in the long run, display costs tend to be driven by the material costs of making them and the material costs of 8K LCDs are not that much more than for 4K LCDs. That dynamic led a display industry economist, David Barnes, to often say ‘for LCD makers, pixels are free’. It’s not strictly true, but there is an element of truth that many of the material costs of 4K and 8K panels are similar.
Sony’s new miniLED technology combination of LED chips and drivers also makes the sets more power efficient with up to 30% reduction in power in Eco mode. Any step in that direction is an advantage for 8K sets.