The KDE-55XBR950 offers a new 55-inch screen size to the Sony faithful, and while it's not the largest plasma on the market, it comes pretty close. Wrapped in a distinctive glass frame, this huge panel will impress anybody who sees it hanging on the wall--and anybody who asks how much it cost. While certainly one of the most aesthetically attractive plasma panels we've seen to date, the KDE-55XBR950 ($12,999 list) suffers from some serious performance issues that make its hefty price tag tough to swallow.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.The 55XBR950 is yet another design tour de force from Sony. The huge screen is surrounded by a thick black border that enhances both the look of the panel and the perceived contrast ratio of the image. In turn, surrounding the black border on all four sides of the screen is an inch or so of glass. Large stereo speakers flank the left and right sides of the screen.
Those speakers contribute even further to the panel's formidable width. It measures just a little more than 67 by 34 by 4 inches (W, H, D) and weighs 132 pounds, so you'll likely want to hire an installer to hang it on the wall. The two stand options include a pedestal ($549 list) or a high-end floating floor stand ($4,999) that sets the panel on a pane of glass for a gravity-defying look.
Sony's remote, a universal model that can control a wide variety of A/V components, is a new sleek design that's also packaged with XBR-series sets such as the . Its weighty metal construction feels good in the hand, but many of the keys are too small, making normal operation a little awkward, and none are backlit, making in-the-dark operation even more awkward.
The KDE-55XBR950 comes with a media receiver unit--a component-size silver-finished box--that houses all of the set's connectivity, as well as its standard TV and HDTV tuners. The box feeds the signals to the panel via a proprietary DVI cable. Sony includes a 10-foot cable, so you may need another cable if you have a longer run between the panel and the receiver. As a member of Sony's flagship XBR line, the KDE-55XBR950 is packed with features. The panel's native resolution of 1,365x768 and its built-in HDTV tuner qualify it as a bona fide HDTV, and its resolution nearly matches that of the 720p HDTV broadcast format. You can plug an antenna directly into the media receiver to get over-the-air HD, but there's no CableCard slot, so you'll need a separate box to receive digital cable signals.
In terms of convenience, the set provides dual-tuner PIP (picture-in-picture), allowing you to place two sources--standard and/or high-def--next to one another on the big screen. We also counted four aspect-ratio choices: Wide, Normal (with gray bars to either side of 4:3 images), Zoom, and Wide Zoom. Unfortunately, none of these work with HDTV sources.
Numerous picture adjustments greet intrepid tweakers, including a choice of video-processing modes--although only the CineMotion selection engages 2:3 pull-down, so that's the one we recommend you use. The XBR950's three selectable picture modes (Vivid, Standard, and Pro) act like independent input memories, so you can set picture controls separately for three different sources. Three color temperature presets are onboard, and an advanced menu opens up all sorts of picture tweaks, including an adjustable video-processing palette; block noise reduction; a detail enhancer; a corrector each for color, black, and gamma; and an adjustable color-temperature control. Most of these are available only in the Pro picture mode, and if you have the set calibrated, we recommend you leave them all off.
On the back of the media receiver, you'll find a healthy selection of inputs, including two component-video, two A/V with S-Video, and one DVI input with HDCP copy protection. A pair of FireWire, or iLink, ports is available for hookup to so-equipped camcorders and D-VHS decks (such as JVC's ). There's no HDMI connection, and people looking for a convenient front- or side-panel A/V connection on the panel itself will be disappointed. The media receiver has 'em though, along with a third iLink port and a Memory Stick slot for all you Sony digital camera owners. Given the price of this panel and the improvement in plasma performance over the last year or so, we were acutely disappointed in the KDE-55XBR950's image quality. Its biggest weakness is the prevalence of false-contouring artifacts--dancing pixels or crawling motes of indistinct color--that were highly noticeable no matter what adjustments we tried. These artifacts make dark material nearly unwatchable and were even visible even in some bright scenes such as shots of the sky. We watched a lot of Alien, a black-level torture test, from our component-video output running progressive scan, and in nearly every scene, we saw unnatural pools of solid color, crawling shadows, and abrupt contour lines where there should have been smooth gradations. When we switched to the via its DVI output at 720p to see if the digital connection would clean any of this up, we saw little or no improvement.
The image also appeared a bit soft, which is probably a result of the screen-size-to-pixel-count ratio. A 50-inch panel at the same resolution will look sharper because the pixels are smaller.
Initial color performance was mediocre at best, with relatively poor color decoding, and a disappointingly blue grayscale even in the warm color temperature (see the geek box for details). Professional calibration fixed both of these issues to a high degree of accuracy.
After a separate calibration for HDTV sources, we sat back and watched some of our favorite HD channels, such as Discovery and HDNet, on our DirecTV HD satellite feed. Really bright scenes looked quite good, but scenes with any dark material revealed visible artifacts that were extremely distracting. For example, HDNet True Music: Extended Play had both close-up stage shots of the musicians--which were quite bright and looked relatively good--and scenes shot from the audience with the stage lit up and the surrounding areas quite dark. The darker areas surrounding the stage were swimming with artifacts.
The KDE-55XBR950 is definitely not a home-theater-quality display, due to the severity of the low-level noise and false-contouring artifacts. Bright material can look good, particularly after calibration, but dark material is downright painful to watch. We blame Sony's video processing here, as we have seen and calibrated several Fujitsu P55XHA30WS 55-inch panels in the field that don't exhibit this problem to nearly this degree.
|Before color temp (20/80)||8,600/10,700K||Poor|
|After color temp (20/80)||6,500/6,550K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation 20 to 100 IRE||+/- 3,569K||Poor|
|After grayscale variation 20 to 100 IRE||+/- 94K||Good|
|Color decoder error: red||-10% (0%)||Average|
|Color decoder error: green||0% (0%)||Good|
|DC restoration||Gray patterns stable||Average|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Y||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|