Sony has always reserved its XBR moniker for its most-expensive HDTVs, and the 2009 KDL-XBR9 lineup is no exception. These sets cost a bundle, and while they deliver plenty of features, including a lot of built-in interactive add-ons, they can't match the video quality of the best plasma and LED backlit LCDs on the market, nor the ultrathin style of Samsung's edge-lit LED models. The Sony KDL-XBR9 series exhibited respectable enough performance, to be sure, and we're sure gadget freaks will find a lot to like about its streaming capabilities and its Yahoo Widgets, but if you don't care about those extras, it's hard to justify the high price tag.
The XBR9 models do away with visible speakers and edge the screen with a thinner frame that's the same size on all four sides. A subtly protruding lip of see-through plastic around the edge covers a dark silver border, which contrasts nicely with the glossy black of the main frame.
The remote control included with the XBR is the same as last year, but we think Sony can do better. On the plus side, it's backlit with blue lighting, but it has too many small keys crowded onto the top and they are difficult to tell apart. Numerous buttons also ring the main cursor control, and the remote's larger size requires a stretch to reach the volume and channel controls.
The XBR9's connectivity is complete enough, but the company arranged the ports in an unusual way. Instead of mounting the majority of its HDMI inputs on the back panel, Sony stuck three of the four on the side-facing panel, leaving just one to the rear. The rear panel also gets two component-video inputs, an RF input for antenna or cable connections, the Ethernet port, and some analog audio connections.
The company did make some improvements in the Settings menu over last year, ditching the input-specific submenus for picture settings and grouping numerous miscellaneous controls together into a Preferences menu. We also laud the expanded explanations, which describe the main functions of various menu topics so you don't have to expand each one to find what you're looking for. There still seems to be too much going on in the main menu, however.
The XBR9 series offers a host of picture-affecting features beginning with three picture preset modes in the main menu, each of which can be adjusted independently per input. Confusingly there's an additional Scene Select menu that adds a few more presets like Cinema, Game, PC, and Sports, which are also adjustable and independent per input yet not available from the standard picture menu.
Among the basic settings, available on all presets, is a pair of noise reduction settings and four color temperature presets. The scads of more-advanced settings, which can't be adjusted while in the Vivid preset but can be adjusted on many of the other presets, include a white balance control to further tune color temperature, a gamma setting, and a few other adjustments that we generally left turned-off for best picture quality.
Much like the Sony KDL-52XBR7 we reviewed last year, the XBR9 series features a 240Hz refresh rate, which is twice as fast as the 120Hz refresh rate found on many other high-end sets. Sony's processing interpolates three extra frames for every original frame instead of one. Naturally, Sony includes its MotionFlow dejudder processing, which is available in two strengths of smoothness.
We were pleased to see a two-step power saving option in the Eco menu that limited peak brightness and really cut down on energy consumption. Sony also includes a room lighting sensor, a mode to turn off the screen but leave the sound on, and another mode that automatically turns off the TV after a set period of inactivity.
Overall, the Sony KDL-XBR9's picture can compete well against the best conventional LCDs we've tested, but its black level performance still couldn't match that of the best LED-based LCDs and plasmas. The 240Hz refresh rate did improve motion resolution, but we found it hard to tell the difference with normal program material.