Editors' Note 04/29/2008: The rating on this review has been modified from 8.3 to 8.0, and its Editors' Choice award removed, due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
A couple of years ago Sony abandoned plasma and bet the farm on LCD, and since then the company has consistently produced the best-performing flat-panel LCDs available, at least according to our tests. Of course, we've always seen better picture quality in plasma sets, and this year is no exception, as the Pioneer PDP-5080HD, with its jaw-dropping black-level performance, earned our Editors' Choice award. Sony's 2007 high-end LCDs, the KDL-XBR4 series--represented by the 46-inch KDL-46XBR4 reviewed here--come mighty close, but again fall short of the best plasma. This HDTV delivers the deepest, most realistic black levels we've measured on any LCD (with the exception of Samsung's LN-T4681F), and its color accuracy is also excellent, but its real claim to fame is 120Hz processing. We found the effects of Sony's 120Hz mode difficult to discern at reducing motion blur, but remarkable at smoothing out judder--that telltale stutter largely responsible for making film look more filmlike. If you really want that kind of smoothness, which we found strange for film but welcome for some other content, then plasma simply isn't an option right now, and the expensive Sony KDL-46XBR4 makes an excellent choice.
While we liked the looks of the KDL-46XBR4, we're not ranking it among the most attractive LCDs we've seen this year, an honor that currently belongs to the svelte Sharp LC-52D64U. Unlike the Sharp and many other flat-panel sets, Sony's XBR4 series has a lot of front-panel real estate that's not devoted to the screen. Specifically, the rectangular viewing area is ringed by a thick bezel of black, 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. Remarkable touches include an illuminated Sony logo (it can be turned off) and indicator lights suspended within the glass. Including the matching black stand, the KDL-46XBR4 measures 49.8 inches by 31.4 inches by 12.8 inches, while without the stand attached it measures 49.8 inches by 29 inches by 4.9 inches.
As could last year's XBR2 series, to which it bears an uncanny resemblance, the XBR4 series can change color. For $300, 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 from matte black to velvet black, scarlet red, Arctic white, sienna brown, Pacific blue, or adjective-free silver. You can also order a wall-mount kit--the official model is the $300 SU-WL500--if you'd like to hang the panel on a wall.
The longish remote stands out as a model of ergonomics, and new for 2007 Sony added blue backlighting behind nearly every key. The clicker 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" 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 (aka aspect ratio) settings. A convenient Options key calls up a couple oft-used submenus, including picture and sound modes, picture-in-picture, and video processing.
The Options menu is even more welcome because, like the KDL-46S3000 we reviewed earlier this year, the KDL-46XBR4 is saddled with the company's XMB (for Xross Media Bar) menus. Another attempt to provide people who shelled out that extra few hundred for a Sony with some sense of return on investment, the menu design is common to the company's AV receivers and game consoles, but on TVs it's not implemented nearly as well. We like the clean look of the menus, their speed moving between selections and the text explanations that appear when you move over a selection (cryptic though many may be), but we had plenty of complaints too. First off, we didn't appreciate having to scroll seemingly forever on the Settings menu to find the items we wanted. Second, when we landed on the correct selection, we would often mistakenly attempt to access it by hitting the right cursor key--a natural tendency given the menu's orientation--instead of the central cursor key. Third, we didn't like having to access a submenu to explore the items inside; on many TV menus, simply landing on the name of a submenu also displays the items therein. This design flaw becomes particularly bothersome because--as you'll find out if you actually have the patience to slog through the Features section in its entirety--the KDL-46XBR4 has more adjustments than just about any HDTV we've tested, and many are spread out illogically across many different submenus. Finally, we were annoyed that hitting the Home key, which calls up the XMB in the first place, always defaults to the input selection menu; we'd prefer it to return to the last item we'd adjusted.
Like most other high-end HDTVs on the market, the KDL-46XBR4 has a 1080p native resolution, which translates to 1920x1080 pixels and 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.
Much like the Toshiba 52LX177 we reviewed earlier, the Sony KDL-46XBR4 incorporates a 120Hz refresh rate, meaning it updates the picture twice as fast as standard 60Hz LCDs, which is said to eliminate motion blur (see Performance for more). The set also offers a 10-bit panel, which supposedly helps cut down on false contouring and enables the set to take advantage of Deep Color content, should any become available. In addition to Deep Color, the set is compatible with another HDMI 1.3 feature, xvYCC (Sony calls it xvColor), which provides a wider range of colors than the standard HDTV color gamut, providing you use xvYCC content. No xvYCC films are currently available, and we expect the first such xvYCC-enabled content to come in the form of video games.
Picture adjustments: Sony's 2007 XBR models take the cake for sheer number of picture adjustments, spreading them inconveniently over numerous submenus. In the main picture menu, settings for the standard brightness, contrast, and other controls can be saved individually to each of the four adjustable presets, labeled Standard, Vivid, Custom, and Cinema. 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 setting for Custom and Cinema, called Warm 2, comes closest to the standard of D6500, but only the two least accurate are available in Vivid. We appreciated the ability to adjust the color temperature via the user-menu RGB gain and cut controls in the White Balance menu. 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); three 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's available in all modes except, once again, Vivid. In general, your best bet is to leave most of these 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 four-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 red and magenta more intense, although Off provided the best color balance; and a two-option Color Space setting we left in Standard for the most-accurate primary color reproduction. 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.
As if that weren't enough, Sony has added another menu for the 2007 models that's called Video Options, and contains still more settings mostly related to video processing. The most important, ostensibly, is Motion Enhancer, which affects the set's 120Hz refresh rate; the CineMotion setting affects video processing of film-based content; a Game/Text mode is said to optimize the picture for areas with fine lines (this mode, which we did not test, also disables video processing to eliminate any delays between a gamer's fingers and the onscreen action); a Photo/Video mode said to optimize the image for still or moving images; an xv color space mode that engages xvYCC color (choosing the xvColor option doesn't have any effect on standard, non-xvColor material); a photo color space that allows you to choose between sYCC, sRGB, and Adobe RGB for digital photo display (again, we measured no effect on standard HDTV colors in any of these modes, and didn't test them with photos); a Color Matrix setting to choose between standard and high-def color spaces for the standard-def inputs; and finally an RGB dynamic range setting said to change the "luminance tone reproduction of the HDMI input color signals." We left most of these settings in their default modes, and we'll cover the effects of the first two in the Performance section.
Perhaps in anticipation of confusion regarding all of these picture settings, Sony installed a "Theater" mode that's accessible from one button on the remote. It's designed to conjure the best video settings, according to the manual, and in practice pressing the button simply changes the picture mode to Cinema. Also, when the TV is connected to a compatible Sony audio gear like the STR-DA5300ES receiver, they can communicate via HDMI to turn on the receiver, switch off the TV's speakers and turn on the receiver's, and adjust volume using the TV's remote.
Other adjustments & conveniences: 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 onscreen 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 appreciated its Full Pixel option because it showed the extreme edges of the image, and didn't subject 1,080-resolution sources to scaling. We recommend choosing this setting unless you see interference along the edges.
In the General 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. In addition to the obvious effect of saving money 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 most power-miserly "High" position because it was still bright enough for viewing in a darkened room, and it resulted in deeper black levels than the "Off" or "Low" positions. See the Juice Box below for our power consumption measurements.
Conveniences abound on the KDL-46XBR4, starting with a picture-in-picture (PIP) mode that has a side-by-side option Sony calls "P&P." Both are rather limited in that you can never watch two HDMI sources simultaneously, and in PIP mode the secondary smaller window can only display sources from the antenna/cable input. The company also includes freeze function 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 XBR4's high price.