Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Among higher-end LCD TVs, a 120Hz refresh rate is fast becoming a standard feature. Typical HDTVs refresh at 60Hz, so doubling the refresh rate allows TV makers to add dejudder video processing that smooths out the picture, reduce blurring in motion, and match the frame rate of 1080p/24 sources like Blu-ray movies. Never mind that dejudder can make film look like video and introduce artifacts, or that the benefits of reduced blurring and 1080p/24 compatibility are difficult for average viewers to spot--like most differentiating, complex-sounding features that enable manufacturers to charge more for higher-end models (1080p anyone?), 120Hz is here to stay. Or maybe it's just a stepping stone to even higher Hz.
The 52-inch Sony KDL-52XBR7 is the first to offer a 240Hz refresh rate. We're sure other manufacturers will come out with 240Hz TVs next year, but for now Sony stands alone. Aside from the higher refresh rate and much, much higher price, this set is identical to the company's KDL-52XBR6, and we even gave them both the same score. In our tests the main benefit of 240Hz turned out to be further-reduced blurring in motion, which, as we mentioned above, is difficult for just about everyone to discern. Don't get us wrong, the Sony KDL-52XBR7 is still a very capable HDTV, with solid color and black level performance and plenty of features. We simply find it hard to justify that much extra cash for such a small increase in performance, especially when better-performing LED-based LCDs and high-end plasmas are available for around the same price.
[Editors' Note: Many of the Design and Features elements are identical between the KDL-52XBR7 and the KDL-52XBR6 we reviewed earlier, so readers of the earlier review may experience some déjàvu when reading the same sections below.]
The 52-inch XBR7 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 hangs a thin sheet of transparent plastic that holds up a 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 XBR7 series and the company's non-XBR Z series is the ability to customize the silver speaker bar with a different-colored grille. Optional grilles, priced at $99 a pop, come in black, black, brown, red, or gold. (Attentive readers may remember that we had originally said the grille was silver, as was the one on the TV shipped to us. Then we indicated it was black as "corrected" by Sony. Turns out it's silver after all and the correction was wrong, last we heard from the company).
All told, the Sony KDL-52XBR7 measures 49.5 wide by 34.5 inches high by 13.6 inches deep and weighs 94 pounds including the nonswiveling stand; sans stand the panel measures 49.5 by 32.8 by 4.9 inches and weighs 79 pounds.
The clicker 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 actually 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 where 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 XBR7'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 over 2007's menu is that all of the picture-affecting items are now grouped under the picture menu (duh), 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 leftmost of three horizontal XMB items and a dedicated "input" menu), which consists of a new "favorites" screen that includes last-used inputs, favorite channels you manually add, and a weird screen saver that can be programmed with images grabbed from a composite or TV input only. 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.
The major difference between the KDL-52XBR7 and every other TV on the market today is its refresh rate. Unlike most high-end LCD HDTVs that have refresh rates of 120Hz, including the more-expensive, LED-based KDL-55XBR8, the XBR7 refreshes its screen twice as fast, at 240Hz, interpolating three extra frames for every original frame instead of one. Naturally, Sony includes its MotionFlow dejudder processing, available in two strengths of smoothness. We'll cover the benefits of dejudder and 240Hz as we saw them in the Performance section below.
Few items are missing from the Sony KDL-52XBR7's list of options. The TV has very basic networking functionality; the Ethernet port on the rear of the set allows it to 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 PlayStation 3, and from certain TVs, including Samsung's LN46A750 and Pioneer's PDP-5020FD. Unlike those products, however, the XBR7 can't stream music or video via the network, just photos and music, so it's much less useful. To stream video you'll need to purchase a Bravia Internet Video Link (BIVL) instead. Check out this blog post for hands-on testing of Sony's photo streaming, which we performed on a Z-series model.
Picture controls are as comprehensive as you'd expect on a high-end HDTV. Sony offers four picture presets, each of which can be adjusted independently per input. 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 pulldown performance; a Game Mode that removes video processing entirely to eliminate any delay between a game controller and the onscreen action; and a photo/video optimizer designed to do exactly that (don't ask us, we didn't test it). Although Sony claims that the XBR7 has better video processing than the XBR6, the XBR7 lacks Sony's DRC settings, which are found on the company's XBR8 models.
Sony includes four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, and a "Full Pixel" setting in the Display Area section of the Wide menu allows you to 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 onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG). TVG allows the Sony to 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-52XBR7 owners, and we didn't test it for this review. The TV's picture-in-picture mode, which takes the form of a larger and a smaller image side-by-side, is limited to showing just the TV input in the secondary window, or the PC input in the main window in combination with other video inputs in the smaller window.
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 below). The XBR7 does use a bit more juice, according to our tests, than the XBR6, but it's still quite efficient for a big-screen LCD.