LAS VEGAS – OLED's incredibly high levels of contrast are matched only by its incredibly high price. Sony wants to provide OLED-quality screens for consumer-level TVS, but hopes to sidestep the difficult manufacturing processes and prohibitive price tags endemic to the medium. As such, the company is experimenting with a technology known as Backlight Master Drive, which, when perfected, could provide OLED levels of contrast and color quality on much cheaper LED/LCD screens.
Sony gave me a private demonstration of the technology at CES 2016, and the early results look extremely promising. To test the Backlight Master Drive, Sony brought me into an impromptu black box theater on the show floor and sat me in front of three TVs: a competitor's OLED TV, a Sony BVM-X300 reference monitor (an OLED professional monitor used for mastering feature films) and an early prototype Sony TV with a Backlight Master Drive installed.
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To evaluate the quality on the three TVs, we watched three clips: a collection of short videos highlighting Las Vegas landmarks, a helicopter ride over New York City from the 2015 version of Annie and the confrontation between Spider-Man and Electro from The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In each case, the Backlight Master Drive looked much more vivid and detailed than the OLED screen, and almost as refined as the reference monitor.
In simple terms, the Backlight Master Drive works by controlling the amount of light that bleeds from LED displays in very fine degrees. By localizing portions of the screen that need to be bright or dark and adjusting them accordingly, the whole picture appears more colorful and full of contrast as a result. Many UHD TVs on the market already do something like this via localized dimming, but the Backlight Master Drive could theoretically exercise much more nuanced control over Sony screens.
For right now, the Backlight Master Drive is only a proof-of-concept experiment. Sony has no immediate plans to incorporate the technology into its TVs, or take a stab at how much doing so might cost. Company representatives explained that it's investigating the technology as one possible way to offer consumers something on the level of OLED screens, and push the boundaries of what LCD screens can accomplish. If Sony can make affordable OLED ideas, it's still open to that; if another LCD technology supersedes the Backlight Master Drive, Sony is open to that, as well.
For now, if you want the very best in black and color balance, you'll probably have to dish out the extra money for an OLED TV. If you can wait a few years, though, the landscape could change.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.