Editors' note: We have received reader complaints, both in the user opinions and in e-mails, regarding uneven backlighting in XBR2 and XBR3 series flat-panel LCDs from Sony's 2006 line. Since we didn't notice abnormal backlight behavior in any of our review samples, including this one, we can't comment firsthand one way or the other. Sony did, however, issue a statement, which you can read here, addressing the complaints. If you notice uneven backlighting, especially in dark scenes, we recommend you contact Sony's customer service (1-800-222-7669). And as always, feel free to post your own user opinion.
LCD has come a long way, but judging from the best LCDs we've tested, which currently belong to the KDL-XBR2 series from Sony, those liquid crystals still have some catching up to do. The 52-inch KDL-52XBR2 offers the same characteristics that we liked about its smaller brethren (the KDL-40XBR2 and the KDL-46XBR2). It has a larger screen size, but otherwise there isn't much difference. We loved the big set's style, including that unique interchangeable bezel color, and we were equally impressed by its comprehensive feature set, anchored by three HDMI inputs and more picture controls than any other competing HDTV. But the KDL-52XBR2 still can't compete against the best plasmas in a dark room with the lights turned low--its black levels are still noticeably lighter. Other than that, the Sony KDL-52XBR2 is one of the better HDTVs available, plasma, LCD, or otherwise.
Overall we really liked the looks of Sony's high-end LCD, although it doesn't have the same economy of form as many other HDTVs, such as the competing Sharp LC-52D92U. In other words, there's a lot of room devoted to nonscreen real estate. Specifically, the screen is ringed by a thick bezel of silver, wider on the sides than above and below. That bezel is surrounded by about an inch of glass that's in turn ringed by a strip of silver. Cool touches include an illuminated Sony logo (it can be turned off) and indicator lights suspended within the glass. Including the matching silver stand, the KDL-52XBR2 measures 55.7x35x15.1 inches; without the stand attached it measures 55.7x32.6x4.9 inches.
The XBR2 series of LCDs is unique among HDTVs in its ability to change color. For $350, Sony will sell you a kit consisting of a new bezel and a new matching cover for the stand, changing the predominant color of the set to red, white, brown, black, or blue. You can also order a wall-mount kit--Sony's official model is the $300 SU-WL51--if you'd like to hang the panel on a wall.
Sony's longish remote stands out as a model of ergonomics, although we would have appreciated glow-in-the-dark keys or other illumination. It can operate three other devices, such as DVD players, satellite or cable boxes, and VCRs, and the company behind Blu-ray took care to equip its clicker with device controls for "BD/DVD" gear. The big, central cursor control falls naturally under the thumb, and just enough shortcut keys are available to quickly cycle through picture, sound, and wide (a.k.a. four aspect ratio) settings. A convenient Tools key calls up a couple oft-used submenus, including picture and sound modes, wide-screen controls, and closed captions.
The Tools menu is even more welcome because the main menu key summons a seemingly unnecessary interstitial menu that's too focused on tuner controls; three of its five options pertain to cable and antenna channels, which cable and satellite box owners will almost never use. Otherwise, Sony's menu design is characteristically clean and thoughtful throughout, offering text explanations of various functions and logical progression from basic to advanced functions. We also liked the input menu, complete with options to name used connections (including custom names up to 10 characters) and skip unused connections.
A high pixel count is one of the Sony KDL-52XBR2's major claims to fame. The panel has 1920x1080 pixels, otherwise known as 1080p native resolution, which enables it to resolve every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources--the highest available today. All other sources, whether HDTV, DVD, standard-def TV, or computer, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The Sony KDL-52XBR2 offers more ways to adjust the picture than any LCD on the market. Settings for the standard brightness, contrast, and other controls can be saved individually to each of the three adjustable presets, labeled Standard, Vivid, and Custom. In addition, each of these presets is independent per input, so your contrast setting in Custom for Input 7, for example, can be different from Contrast in Custom for Input 6. (In case you're wondering, Sony likes to use the term "picture" to denote contrast.) This provides a huge amount of flexibility in adjusting the picture for different sources, lighting conditions, and user preferences.
There are four color temperature presets.The default for Custom, Warm 2, comes closest to the standard, but only the two least-accurate are available in Vivid and Standard. Other basic picture adjustments include a 10-step backlight control, which adjusts the intensity of the light behind the screen (unlike the backlight settings of many TVs, Sony's are also independent per picture mode and input); five noise reduction settings; two DRC modes (only one is available with non-HDMI sources) and a DRC palette control (which is disabled in certain circumstances). DRC stands for Digital Reality Creation, and we cover its effects in the Performance section of this review.
There's an additional menu section labeled "advanced settings" that appears only when you're in the custom picture preset. In general, your best bet is to leave all of these set to Off. The options include a four-step Black Corrector, which is best left to Off to preserve shadow detail; a four-step Advanced Contrast Enhancer, which changed the overall brightness and seemed to dim areas near black as the image got brighter (and that's again best left off to preserve shadow detail); a five-step gamma control, which should be set to Off in dim environments for the most-linear rise from black to white; a three-step Clear White control that belongs in Off since the other settings just make whites look bluer; a four-step Live Color setting that seemed to make reds more intense, although Off provided the best color balance; and a Live Color control that we preferred to leave in Normal for the most-accurate primary color reproduction. Next up is a white balance setup screen that includes 20 steps each for Red, Green, and Blue gain and bias, in case the out-of-the-box color temperature doesn't come close enough for your liking. The four-step Detail Enhancer should be left to Off with already-sharp sources like HDTV and even DVD since it introduces unnatural edge enhancement and there's another four-step control entitled Edge Enhancer, which had no effect we could discern.
The Screen menu offers a solid selection of four aspect ratio controls for both standard-def and high-def sources. Many of the aspect ratio choices, especially the Zooms, allow you to adjust the horizontal and vertical position, as well as the vertical size, of the on-screen image. We appreciated the unique option to specify how the set deals with 4:3 programs, as well as the option to automatically detect wide-screen shows and properly size the picture. A Display Area control adjusts overscan; we loved its Full Pixel option because it showed the extreme edges of the image, and didn't subject 1080p-resolution sources to scaling. We recommend choosing this setting unless you see interference along the edges.
In the setup menu, there's a room lighting sensor that changes the picture's brightness according to how much ambient light it detects. For this reason, we left it off for critical viewing. The setup section of the menu also houses a "game mode." Unlike Samsung's similarly named mode, the Sony's does not wreak havoc on picture settings; Sony's engineers claim that it skips most of the set's video processing to eliminate the possibility of delay between the controller and what happens on-screen (we didn't test this mode). You can also choose between standard-def (ITU601) and high-def (ITU709) colorspace for each resolution--a nice option, but usually you'll want to leave these at default settings.
In addition to the obvious effect of saving a few pennies on power consumption, the Sony's three-position Power Saver setting has a significant effect on picture quality. For optimal image quality we liked the "Low" position because it was still bright enough for viewing in a darkened room, but also resulted in deeper black levels than the default "Off" position. The third choice, "High" power saving, limited light output just a bit too much for our tastes.
Conveniences abound on the KDL-52XBR2, but one surprising omission was picture-in-picture, which isn't available on any Sony flat-panel LCDs this year. The company did include a freeze function, however, as well as extensive tuner extras like a favorite channel list. There's a built-in ATSC tuner but no CableCard--not a huge omission in our book, but still notable given the XBR2's price.
The KDL-40XBR2 has more connections than most other HDTVs, starting with three HDMI inputs: two around back and one on the side. There's also a pair of component-video inputs; one A/V input with composite- and S-Video; another with only composite; and a VGA-style PC input that can handle resolutions up to 1920-by-1080 pixels at 60Hz (a big improvement on the VGA input of Sony's KDS-60A2000 rear-projection set). The side panel also includes another A/V input with composite, along with a headphone output. Other audio outputs include one stereo analog and one optical digital audio, the latter for passing surround soundtracks from the over-the-air digital/HD tuner to an audio system.
As we mentioned at the top, the KDL-52XBR2 offers very good all-around picture quality, although its black-level performance just doesn't measure up to the best plasmas. We especially appreciated its extremely accurate color and clean image. We noticed a few video processing issues, including an inability to properly de-interlace 1080i signals, but we don't consider those deal-breakers. All things considered, the KDL-52XBR2 is the best-performing LCD at its size that we've tested.
As always, we began by adjusting the Sony's picture for optimal performance in our darkened home theater which meant, among other things, reducing its blindingly bright light output to a more-comfortable 40 ftl or so. Once we had that under control, we turned to the myriad other adjustments. The set's grayscale in the default Warm 2 mode was accurate out of the box, and after we used the fine controls it was much better up and down the scale. We could have wished for more linear progression, however; the color of gray would spike slightly toward warm (red) or cool (blue) at different level of brightness, which caused its "After" geek box number to be less-than perfect (see below). For our full user-menu settings, click here or see the Tips & Tricks section above.
After adjustment we set up the Sony next to some other high-end 50-something flat-panel HDTVs we had on-hand, including the aforementioned Sharp LC-52D92U--a 52-inch LCD and the Sony's most direct competitor at the moment--the Panasonic TH-50PX77U plasma, and our reference plasma, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1. We slipped the Eragon Blu-ray disc into our Samsung BD-P1000, slid the resolution selector to 1080p, and we settled back to see how the KDL-52XBR2's picture compared.
The first thing we noticed in our darkened environment was the KDL-52XBR2's mediocre black-level performance. During dark scenes, like the beginning of Chapter 9 showing the enemy stronghold and the shadowed forge, the set clearly didn't deliver as deep a level of black as the others; the black letterbox bars looked brighter, as did the darkest shadows and the overcast sky. Black-level performance was definitely better than some of the sets we've tested recently, including almost all LCDs, but against the inky-looking Sharp and the two plasmas it simply wasn't as deep.
The Sony did evince plenty of detail in shadows, however, an area where it clearly beat the Sharp and matched the plasmas. The clothing of the evil blacksmiths came across well, for example, with the hairy decorations and patterned hides easily discernable. The smoky forge areas also brought out a bit of false contouring in the fading light of a torch, and later in the white sky, that was visible on the Panasonic but not the Sony or other sets. The foggy mountains also looked a bit cleaner on the Sony than the Panasonic, with fewer motes of video noise.
Accurate color is one of the KDL-52XBR2's strengths; indeed, its primary color scores are as accurate as that of the excellent Pioneer PRO-FHD1. The green of the forested hillsides looked nice and natural as a result, as did the blue sky and river as the heroes ride through on horseback. Grayscale accuracy was likewise visible in skin tones, which remained neutral and natural regardless of lighting. Arya's face as she sneered up at her captor was flush in the firelight but not overly red, while Eragon's face in the morning light in the barn appeared equally natural and not too pale. Unfortunately, despite spot-on color, the Sony's simply did not look as rich or saturated as the other displays. That's because its lighter black levels washed out the image a bit, robbing the picture of that extra impact in a dark room.
We've received a lot of reader e-mail regarding complaints about Sony LCD TVs' exhibiting "clouding" or what's been called a "Mura effect." The issue appears as amorphous, brighter areas in scenes that should be a uniform darkness across the screen. From reports via e-mail and in forums like AVS we gather that many models of Sony LCDs are affected, but for the record the Sony KDL-52XBR2 we reviewed did not exhibit this issue.
In other words, the Sony's uniformity across the screen was solid for a flat-panel LCD. In the darkest test patterns we detected that the sides of the screen appeared somewhat brighter than the middle, but it was imperceptible in real-world program material. Likewise the upper-right corner was very slightly brighter, which was visible in letterbox bars if we looked hard for it. Of course the set evinced none of the "banding" issues we noted on the 52-inch rival from Sharp, and we didn't detect any "clouding" regardless of brightness level. That's not to say that we discount the reports we've seen elsewhere, but only that this particular model, which was (as are all review samples CNET receives) hand-picked by the manufacturer.
Off-angle viewing was very good for an LCD, although we'd give the slight nod to the Sharp if we had to choose. Its image didn't seem to wash out quite as quickly as we moved from dead center toward the edge of the viewing area. Of course, both of the plasmas stayed equally true from all angles.
We expected the KDL-52XBR2, as a 1080p big-screen HDTV, to deliver plenty of detail, and it didn't disappoint. In scenes with the mature dragon, his gray-blue scales looked sharp down to the finest detail, and we could see the tiny points of the spines below his jawline. We saw similar sharpness in the mane of Brom's horse and the blonde of Eragon's hair. As always we looked out for differences in detail between the Sony and the lower-resolution Panasonic, and if anything the Panasonic appeared a bit sharper. We attribute that subjective difference to--once again--black-level performance; the superior contrast of the Panasonic made the fine details "pop" ever-so-slightly more.
Objectively speaking, with a still frame the Sony KDL-52XBR2 was able to resolve every line of a 1080i source, but the moving tests on the HQV HD DVD gave it problems. It failed both the video resolution and film resolution tests, which other displays, such as the Pioneer, passed. We noticed that the bleachers during the pan over Raymond James Stadium looked a bit softer, but the difference was subtle during program material. We adjusted all of the DRC controls to no avail, although we got the best results from using DRC Mode 1 with Reality at 1 and Clarity at 100. We recommend using 1080p sources when possible with this set, although if your choice is between 720p and 1080i you should still choose 1080i.
With standard-def sources, the Sony KDL-52XBR2 turned in a below-average performance. Using the HQV test DVD, we saw some jagged edges in moving diagonal lines, and the waving American flag evinced more jaggies in the stripes than with many other televisions. With DRC Mode 1 engaged, we saw some flicker in the still resolution/color bars pattern, so we left DRC turned to Off. Also, the set failed the 2:3 pull-down test, displaying moire in the stands behind the cars in all of the available DRC modes. The Sony's noise reduction modes performed very well, however, cleaning up the nastiest snowy noise in the sky and sunset scenes without hampering detail too much--although the highest setting did soften the image noticeably.
As a PC monitor the Sony KDL-52XBR performed extremely well. According to DisplayMate it resolved every line of a 1920x1080 source via VGA, and text looked clear and sharp all the way down to 10-point font.
|Before color temp (20/80)||7091/6544K||Good|
|After color temp||6582/6488K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 222K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 103K||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.648/0.326||Good|
|Color of green||0.285/0.602||Good|
|Color of blue||0.149/0.061||Good|
|Black-level retention||All patterns stable||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||No||Poor|
|1080i video resolution||Fail||Poor|
|1080i film resolution||Fail||Poor|