Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Sony has always reserved its best features and highest performance for its "XBR"-branded HDTVs, and this year there's an unprecedented three series of Sony sets bearing the moniker. The most-expensive is the XBR8 series, with LED backlighting, followed by the XBR7 series, with different styling and supposedly improved video processing. The least expensive series, dubbed XBR6, is represented here by the 52-inch Sony KDL-52XBR6. Its three largest models feature hot-swappable speaker grilles--perfect if you want your TV to match your Stephen Hawking clock--as well as the somewhat more-important capability to produce the deepest shade of black we've ever tested on a non-LED LCD TV. That's great, but the XBR6 didn't quite live up to the competition in other areas, including color accuracy and the capability to maintain that black level regardless of program content. Don't get us wrong; the Sony KDL-52XBR6 is still a very capable performer. However, to most buyers, it's not quite worth the stiff price over other high-quality 52-inch LCDs.
Bulkier than models in the compact Z-series, the 52-inch XBR6 is still relatively sleek for such a large HDTV. The glossy black frame is the same thickness on all four sides of the screen, and below the frame hangs a thin sheet of transparent plastic that holds up a silver, horizontal speaker bar stretching the width of the television. You can peer through the plastic to check out the silver pedestal of Sony's stand, along with whatever else you've stashed behind the TV.
One difference between the larger models in the XBR6 series and the Z series is the capability to customize that silver speaker bar with a different-colored grille. Optional grilles, priced at $99, come in black, brown, red, or gold.
All told, the Sony KDL-52XBR6 measures 49.5 inches wide by 34.5 inches tall by 13.6 inches deep and weighs 94 pounds including the nonswiveling stand. Without the stand, the panel measures 49.5 inches wide by 32.8 inches tall by 4.9 inches deep and weighs 79 pounds.
The remote control included with the XBR was less impressive than we expected. On the plus side, it's backlit with blue lighting, but most of the controls are for other gear and the extra controls that pertain to the TV are crowded into the top and difficult to tell apart. Too many buttons ring the main cursor control, and the remote's larger size requires a stretch to reach the volume and channel controls. It's still not a bad remote; it's just not up to Sony's usual standards.
Here's how we mention that we find the PS3-like "Cross Media Bar" (XMB) arrangement a bit cumbersome to use on a TV. Unlike less-expensive 2008 Sony TVs, which only have three horizontal selections among myriad vertical ones, the XBR6's menu adds two more selections, "photo" and "music," for use with the USB port, an optional Bravia Internet Video Link (which adds a "videos" choice) or a networked media server for photos. Of course, the majority of users probably won't access those functions, so we question the value of giving them so prominent a location in the menu.
One improvement is that all of the picture-affecting items are now grouped under the picture menu, and another is that the secondary "options" menu calls up a few more selections, reducing the need to visit the main menu much. Sony has also added a third way to access different inputs (in addition to the rightmost horizontal XMB item and a dedicated "input" menu). The new way consists of a new "favorites" screen that includes last-used inputs, favorite channels you manually add, as well as a weird screen saver that can be programmed with images grabbed from a composite or TV input only. All told this is one of the most varied and option-riddled menu systems we've seen, although despite the Sony's sophistication we prefer a more straightforward arrangement like that found on the Samsung LN52A650.
Few items are missing from the Sony KDL-52XBR6's list of options, although the list is nearly identical to that of the less expensive Z-series. One such item is very basic networking functionality. The Ethernet port on the rear of the set lets it work with DLNA-compatible media server software, such as Windows Media Player 11, to grab photos from a networked PC to display on the TV's screen. Similar functionality is available on numerous devices, including the company's own PlayStation3, and from certain TVs, including Samsung's LN46A750 and Pioneer's PDP-5020FD. Unlike those products, however, the XBR6 can't stream music or video via the network, just photos, so it's much less useful. To stream video you'll need to purchase a Bravia Internet Video Link instead. Check out this blog post for hands-on testing of Sony's photo streaming, which we performed on a Z-series model.
The KDL-52XBR6 has a 120Hz refresh rate, which helps clean up blurring in motion and works hand-in-hand with the company's dejudder video processing, dubbed "Motion Enhancer" in the menu and MotionFlow in Sony's literature (more in Performance on its effects). Naturally, there's also a native resolution of 1080p, the highest available today, and just as naturally it doesn't make much of a difference at this screen size.
Sony offers four picture presets, each of which can be adjusted independently per input, in addition to a Theater preset that can't be adjusted at all. Among the basic settings, available on all presets, is a pair of noise reduction settings and three color temperature presets. More-advanced settings, which can't be adjusted while in the Vivid preset but can on the other three, 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.
Video processing options aside from MotionFlow include CineMotion (notice the theme?) which, among other things, affects the TV's 2:3 pull-down performance; a Game Mode that removes video processing to eliminate any delay between a game controller and the onscreen action; and a photo/video optimizer designed to do exactly that.
Sony includes four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, and a "Full Pixel" setting Display Area section of the Wide menu lets you make one of those modes display 1080-resolution content without any scaling or overscan. We recommend using this setting unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which is the fault of the channel or service, not the TV. The menu has a cool graphical display that illustrates the differences between the various aspect ratio settings.
Conveniences start with an option we haven't seen on many HDTVs recently: the TV Guide on-screen electronic programming guide). TVG lets the Sony display a grid of information for antenna and cable channels, but people who tune primarily with an external cable or satellite box will probably use their box's EPG instead. In other words, TV Guide won't be useful for most KDL-52XBR6 owners, and we didn't test it for this review. The TV's picture-in-picture mode unfortunately restricts content in the secondary window to only the TV/antenna input.
We were pleased to see a two-step power-saving option that limited peak brightness and really cut down on energy consumption (see the Juice Box). In fact, this is one of the most energy-efficient HDTVs we've tested overall, especially on a watts-per-square-inch basis.
Connectivity on the KDL-52XBR6 matches that of most higher-end HDTVs available today. Around back, we counted three HDMI inputs and on the side the company stashed number four. Two component-video jacks, a VGA-style PC input (1,920x1,080 maximum resolution), an AV input with S-Video and composite video, another with only composite video, an RF-style antenna/cable input, an analog audio output and an optical digital audio output complete the back panel jack pack, while another AV input with composite video joins the HDMI port on the side panel. There's also a USB port that slows the TV to handle photos and music stored on USB thumbdrives.