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Sony Bravia XBR-55HX929 3D LED LCD HDTV
By Thomas J. Norton
At A Glance: Exceptional black levels • Outstanding detail and color • Head-tilt 3D ghosting
With the growing popularity of LED backlighting for LCD HDTVs, it’s easy to forget that not all such backlighting is created equal. LEDs can be configured to provide either backlighting or edge lighting. In either case, the lighting can be steady, with image brightness dependent only on the pixels of the LCD imaging panel, which darkens the picture as the source requires. Or the lighting can be dynamic, in which the set can dim the backlighting or edge lighting from instant to instant, as needed, assisting the LCD pixels in adjusting for the optimum light output.
At the top level of LED lighting technology is full-array LED backlighting with local dimming. In this method, the clusters of LEDs arranged behind the screen dim selectively according to the demands of the image in their specific areas. The LEDs behind the dark areas darken, while the LEDs behind brighter areas stay bright. Sony was an early pioneer of such sets. Its newest LED local dimmers, the XBR-HX929 series (available in 46-, 55-, and 65-inch sizes), represent the company’s flagship range.
The Main Features
Once mounted on its tilt-and-swivel stand, our XBR-55HX929 was surprisingly wobbly. It also listed a few degrees to starboard. But Sony had alerted us up front that this sample had been on the demo circuit before it came to us. Fortunately, the only obvious sign of this was the dubious condition of the stand.
The Corning Gorilla Glass that covers the front of the screen extends to the edges. Its reflectivity is average; like most of today’s sets, the Sony does not have a matte finish.
The printed setup manual offers straightforward though limited guidance. There’s more detail in an onscreen i-manual. While this information was largely satisfactory, its entries were sometimes skimpy and not always correct, possibly because the i-manual appears to have been designed to cover more than one series of sets. For example, while there are a mind-numbing 14 picture modes, just three (custom, vivid, and standard) are in the picture mode menu. The others are in the more obscure Preferences/Scenes menu. I used custom for all of my tests and viewing, adjusted as needed for an optimum setup—I recommend that you do the same. You can also have different menu settings for 2D and 3D, and for different inputs as well.
I preferred to leave most of the set’s gee-whiz features off. These included noise reduction, Reality Creation, Black Corrector, Auto Light Limiter (adjusts the brightness according to the room lighting), Clear White, Live Color, Detail Enhancer, Edge Enhancer, and Skin Naturalizer (the latter wasn’t available in HDMI).
Used with discretion, the advanced contrast enhancer adds a little punch to the image. But its high setting produced ugly results on some material. A super bit mapping (SBM) enhancement control didn’t appear to do any harm, but its effect was subtle at best. The same for a related feature, called Smooth Gradation, which is said to use SBM to smooth out color transitions in parts of the image that have gradual transitions in color. I left all of these features off.
The gamma control, which offers selections from –3 to +3, was useful. The +2 setting I chose for 2D was different from my –1 preference for 3D (in both cases, a step up or down better suited some source material).
Motionflow XR 960, which is selectable for either 2D or 3D, is Sony’s most advanced take on frame interpolation. It offers several settings, one of which (Clear Plus) uses dark-frame insertion. The panel operates at a refresh rate of 240 hertz. For 24-fps material in 2D, Motionflow XR 960 adds nine interpolated frames for each real frame (for a toal of 10); for 24-fps 3D, it adds four interpolated frames for each real frame per eye (a total of five). With Motionflow off, the added frames are simply repeated, not interpolated.
Motionflow XR 960 is said to produce its maximum smoothing when the separate CineMotion control is set to Auto 1, but I noticed little difference when I switched from Auto 1 to Auto 2.
For me, frame interpolation, no matter how sophisticated, kills the look of movies by giving them a soap-opera-like smoothness that film (or video shot at 24 fps) doesn’t have. Apart from checking this feature out (it does work, if that’s your thing), I didn’t use Motionflow or CineMotion in this review. With these features turned off, the set merely repeats the required additional frames needed to match the source to the set’s 240-hertz refresh rate, rather than interpolating them.
The set also has white balance controls with both high (gain) and low (bias) calibration adjustments for red, green, and blue. There’s no color management system (CMS) for adjusting the color gamut. Fortunately, with a slight reduction of the color control and Live Color turned off, the Sony’s out-of-the-box color gamut closely matches the Rec. 709 HD standard.
The set’s 3D features include a 2D-to-3D conversion mode, automatic sensing of the Blu-ray 3D format, manual switching to other 3D formats, and controls to tweak both native 3D and converted 3D. There’s also a 3D glasses brightness adjustment, which I left in its default auto setting.
One downer is that the Sony’s 3D glasses (rechargeable via a USB connection to the set) are an extra-cost option for the HX929 series. They will set you back $70 a pop. But the transmitter to energize the glasses is built in.
The XBR-55HX929’s onscreen menus are a modification of Sony’s well-established XMB (Xross Media Bar) layout. But as in all past Sony menus, you can’t jump directly from the top of a given menu to the bottom by going around the horn. It’s tedious to access menu items that are located well down in the hierarchy.
The backlit remote doesn’t offer direct access to specific inputs. Apart from a bit too much crowding around the navigation controls, it’s reasonably intuitive. There’s also a downloadable Media Remote app (not tested) that lets you use your iPhone or Android phone as a remote.
The XBR-55HX929 has a ton of Internet features, accessible via a wired or wireless broadband connection. The set’s wireless LAN receiver is built in. Track ID and music/video search features can identify the music you hear in a program or provide additional information on the music or video using an Internet database run by Gracenote. The set also includes Skype, which can make video and voice calls to another Skype-enabled user via your broadband Web service and Sony’s optional CMU-BR100 camera and microphone unit ($150).
You can also play back videos, photos, or music either directly from a USB storage device or from your home network, or search for music using Sony’s Qriocity subscription music service.
2D Star Power
It should be clear that like most modern HDTVs, this Sony is rife with technological goodies, most of them named to generate the maximum PR buzz. In addition to those we’ve already mentioned, there are also the OptiContrast front panel, the Intelligent Presence Sensor (we know you’re out there!), and the distance alert (how near!). But none of these would be more than names on a page if, at this price, the XBR-55HX929 weren’t a performance standout.
Fortunately, it is. The Sony’s video processing was impeccable, easily navigating all of our standard HD tests (see the Video Test Bench chart). It also cleanly handled standard-definition upconversion (from 480i to 1080p in 3:2, 2:2, and MA—motion adaptive), which isn’t shown in the chart.
The set’s color, even out of the box, will likely satisfy most buyers, although only the warm 2 color temperature setting is close to accurate. After a good calibration, the color was impossible to fault. Fleshtones were as natural as the source would permit. Greens looked right. Spilling more ink to describe the Sony’s calibrated color performance would be as productive as looking out the window and commenting on the colors in a backyard pool party.
The same goes for clarity and detail. Some day, we may see another leap similar to the jump from DVD to Blu-ray (4K, anyone?), but until that day comes, the Sony is anything but a stopgap. The XBR-55HX929’s resoution is simply superb.
Off-axis performance and motion blur have been enduring issues with LCD sets. These are two areas in which plasmas have had it all over LCDs. That’s still true, but the Sony was very watchable at reasonable off-axis angles. Only the fussiest videophile will object to viewing angles beyond 20 degrees, and the average viewer won’t be put off at even 45 degrees, or perhaps even more. The image lightens noticeably as you move off center, but the colors remain relatively stable, if a bit less saturated. Nor did motion blur bother me with most program sources, even without Motionflow.
There are three settings in Sony’s Intelligent Peak LED backlight feature (oddly called LED dynamic control in the onscreen menu): standard, low, and off. Forget about anything but standard, unless you pine for the black levels in your 2006 LCD set. If so, the off position can return you to those thrilling days of yesteryear. With the other controls set up properly and standard engaged, the screen fades to total black (or at worst nearly so) when the source calls for it. Unlike some earlier local-dimming sets we’ve tested, the XBR55HX929 drops to black immediately, without pausing (annoyingly) at intermediate levels.
There’s more to contrast than absolute blacks, of course. The Sony also has exceptional shadow detail. In fact, I found only two shortcomings to the set’s local dimming. The first was an occasional tendency for very dark scenes to look a little crushed as the set pulled some of the very darkest grays into black. The second was a visible halo around bright spots of light against an otherwise black background. This haloing effect was relatively rare, and for me, at least, it subtracted little from the Sony’s otherwise outstanding performance on dark scenes.
3D: Into the Deep
The XBR-55HX929 is astonishingly bright as 3D sets go—in fact, I actually had to turn down the 3D picture (contrast) setting (the default is maximum, or 100). Even at a picture setting of 70, I measured a peak white level of 14 foot-lamberts. That may not sound like much, but it brings out a level of 3D detail that’s lost in most (dimmer) 3D sets, and in most theatrical 3D presentations as well. It also transforms 3D from simply a fun novelty into a compelling, immersive experience. The Sony also had far less 3D crosstalk (ghosting) than I’ve noted in many other LCD 3D sets. Scenes from Avatar and A Christmas Carol that have produced annoying ghosts in the past were now essentially free of them. That’s not to say that you’ll never see 3D crosstalk on the Sony. In one circumstance, you definitely will. If you tilt your head (and the 3D glasses, of course) by even a small degree, you’ll see obvious ghosting.
A head tilt also produces obvious color shifts (red in one direction, green in the other). At press time, Sony told us that viewers who are bothered by this can order free polarizer lenses that mount on the glasses. Be aware that any benefits are said to come at the expense of a darker image and the appearance of flickering in room lights. We were unable to test these in time for our deadline. But based on the ghosting evident with the unadorned glasses, I couldn’t attempt a 3D color calibration on this set. Still, with the 3D white balance controls set to the 2D calibration values (you must insert them manually, as the controls for 3D and 2D are separate) and the Warm 2 color temperature selected, I had no issues with the Sony’s 3D color performance.
I did see some ghosting in the Sony’s 2D-to-3D conversion mode, which otherwise was neither more nor less effective than this feature has been on other 3D HDTVs. One other 3D issue I experienced was visible flicker in large, bright areas of white or a uniform color. But this was rare on most normal program material.
With the 55-inch Panasonic TC-P55VT30 3D plasma (Home Theater, September 2011) still in house, a direct comparison between that and the Sony XBR55HX929 proved irresistible. I matched the setup of the two sets as closely as possible, which required me to further lower the Sony’s backlight control to match the inherently dimmer Panasonic plasma. I was running the Panasonic as hot in its cinema mode as I reasonably could, while the Sony had gobs of brightness yet to spare (this will be true of any properly conducted plasma-versus-LCD comparison).
I did this comparison only in 2D for several reasons. Primarily, the different 3D glasses that the two sets use would make a direct, side-by-side comparison impossible. But the 3D differences between the sets were obvious even without a direct comparison. The Sony is considerably brighter, while the Panasonic is free of ghosting under any circumstances we’ve been able to generate.
In this 2D comparison, there was almost nothing to say about the two sets concerning their relative color or resolution. While there were subtle differences, I doubt if anyone could see them short of this sort of side-by-side comparison. And even here,
they were elusive. The Panasonic does have superior off-axis performance—no surprise there. There were also differences in the Panasonic’s favor with some specialized motion blur tests (with the Sony’s Motionflow turned off), but these didn’t seem to matter nearly as much on real-world material.
The Sony’s total black easily trumped the Panasonic’s very good but not invisible full-screen blacks. Five key scenes from Stargate: Continuum vividly demonstrated the black level/shadow detail differences between the two sets. On the opening star field, the black background was less black on the Panasonic, but it showed more visible stars. The Sony put obvious halos around the brightest stars, while the Panasonic did not. In chapter 3, as a tramp steamer cruises across the Atlantic at night, both sets virtually tied with excellent shadow detail. But as the chief opens the door to the cargo hold later in the same chapter, the unlit space looked decidedly darker on the Sony. In the split-screen montage in chapter 10, the empty blocks were also a little darker on the Sony, although the difference was small. And in the Russian stargate installation (chapter 21), the Sony looked inkier, although the Panasonic avoided the slight black crush the Sony added to a few shots.
The biggest difference between the two sets, however, is the $1,000 premium in list price that the Sony commands. Of course, that gap will differ depending on the actual sale prices. Both are superb performers.
At $3,800 plus extra for 3D glasses, the Sony XBR-55HX929 is hardly a blue-light special. But you definitely get what you’re paying for. There are several other new local-dimming sets in our review pipeline, and it will be interesting to see how they compare. I’m always open to surprises, but they will have to cook up some very special sauce to perform better than the XBR-55HX929. This may not be the best 3D HDTV to pass through our studio, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a better one.