Sony also includes a port labeled DMex for BIVL and a few other proprietary accessories including a DVD player, a module with four extra HDMI inputs, and a wireless HDMI transmitter/receiver. If one proprietary jack isn't enough for you, the DMPort allows connection to even more add-ons, including a Bluetooth wireless audio adapter or an iPod dock.
The short story is that the Sony KDL-55XBR8 is the best-performing flat-panel LCD we've ever tested, earning the category's first-ever "9" we've awarded for performance. It delivers picture quality that's nearly as good as the Pioneer PDP-111FD, the best flat-panel performer period. Black level and color accuracy were superb, there's a cornucopia of video processing choices including the best dejudder mode we've tested, and bright-room picture quality was best-in-class. Our only gripe, and it's enough to cost the Sony the title, was its tendency to fade when seen from off angle.
Our standard calibration didn't end up too far from Sony's default Cinema picture settings. We reduced light output a hair, selected the Off position for Gamma, tweaked the white balance controls to bring the grayscale from its somewhat blue cast in Warm 2 to something much closer to the D65 standard. Afterward, the Sony tracked closer to D65 than any HDTV we've ever tested--as evinced partly by the miniscule 24K average variation from 6,500K--aside from the Pioneer PRO-111FD. We didn't miss having a color management system since the Sony's color points, providing we selected Standard instead of Wide color space, again came extremely close to the HD standard. For the gory details check out the Geek Box below, and for our full picture settings you can refer to the bottom of this blog post.
This review's image quality tests involved lined up a few other high-end HDTVs for our side-by-side comparison. To either side of the Sony KDL-55XBR8 were the Pioneer PRO-111FD and the Samsung LN46A950--the highest-rated plasma and LCD sets this year, respectively--and we also included the Sony KDL-52XBR6, the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U and the Samsung LN52A650 in the lineup. The Blu-ray Disc of choice this time around was Iron Man, delivered by our trusty PlayStation 3.
Black level: It quickly became apparent that the Sony was a serious challenger to the Pioneer as black-level champion. In dark areas of dimly lit scenes, such as the cave sequence in Chapter 3, it was almost impossible to tell which one came closer to the ideal of absolute black. The Sony displayed an inky depth in dark areas that lent superb punch and realism to the image, and easily outclassed the rest of the non-Pioneer sets in this regard, including the updated Samsung LN46A950.
Compared with the Pioneer, in very dark scenes the letterbox bars--those black areas above and below the image on 2.35:1 films like Iron Man--of the Sony appeared a hair darker, but in lighter scenes the Pioneer's bars were darker. That's because bright areas adjacent to the Sony's bars, such as day lit skies, bright desert ground or the white walls of Stark's house, caused the bars themselves to lighten a bit.
That's one reason we still give the overall black-level performance nod to the Pioneer. As a result of the Sony's dimming LEDs, which are also responsible for its superb black levels, dark areas right next to bright ones appeared brighter than on the Pioneer, an effect that has a very subtle negative impact on the overall "pop" of the image. We call the spillover of light into dark areas "blooming" in this case, and in Sony's favor, it wasn't nearly as obvious or as objectionable as we saw on the Samsung, but it was still apparent when comparing to the Pioneer. At the 28:44 mark, for example, a bright light in the upper left of the image made the letterbox bars appear a bit lighter near the light than on the other side of the screen. More obviously, the bright Iron Man icon during the disc's load screens also betrayed a bit of blooming in adjacent dark areas, as did the areas around onscreen cons like the small "play" indicator of our PlayStation 3. Again, the blooming is quite subtle, even vanishingly so, in the vast majority of scenes, and we never found ourselves distracted by it.
For what it's worth, we measured the black levels on a completely dark screen after calibration and found the Sony a hair darker: 0.001 cd/m2 versus the Pioneer's 0.002. Nobody watches a black screen, however. With regular program content, the two TVs came as close as we've seen to reproducing the ideal black.
The Sony's shadow detail was also superb, nearly as good as the Pioneer was and better than the rest of the displays in the room. Between the two, we felt that some shadowy areas on the Sony were just a tad brighter than we'd like to see, a feeling backed up by the Sony's slightly brighter gamma (2.07 after calibration vs. the ideal of 2.2). You'd be hard-pressed to notice any difference outside of a side-by-side comparison though.
Much like the Samsung A950, the Sony's black level performance and color saturation fell off noticeably when we moved off angle by just one seat cushion on our test couch, while the plasmas stayed consistent. Check out Uniformity for the full scoop.
Color accuracy: Color on the Sony KDL-55XBR8 is nothing short of superb. As we mentioned above, its grayscale variation and primary and secondary color points hewed as close to the standards as any display we've tested, including the Pioneer. Good examples of its color accuracy from the film include the healthy yet delicate tone of Pepper Potts' face as she greets Stark after his ordeal in Chapter 6, the lush green of the bushes outside headquarters, the vibrant red and yellow of the final Iron Man exoskeleton, and the dead-on blue and cyan of the skies as Stark flies into action. It was easy to want to over-saturate the image, and the XBR8 with its deep blacks is more-capable of that than many HDTVs, but after proper adjustment, colors were excellently balanced and still as saturated as on the Pioneer. Overall, between the two, color was pretty much a tie.
The greenish cast we noted on the XBR6 was not in evidence, and color accuracy in near-black areas on the XBR8 was also excellent. It did tend a bit toward blue according to our measurements, but it was actually more-accurate than the Pioneer, which tended a bit toward red (Sony was 6,886K versus Pioneer 6,068K at 5 percent above black, if you're counting).
Video processing: The XBR8 offers myriad options in this department, so we'll start with our favorite: turning everything off, especially the Motion Enhancer dejudder video processing, and setting our Blu-ray player to 1080p/24 output. In that setting, as we'd expect from a display with a 120Hz refresh rate, the XBR8 preserved the natural cadence of film without any smoothing or the slightly jerky quality imparted by the 2:3 pull-down necessary for 60Hz displays. Comparing the XBR8 against the Pioneer (set to its 24p-friendly Advance mode) and the Samsung A950 (again with dejudder video processing off) it was impossible for us to discern any difference between the three during tell-tale scenes, such as the pan over Stark's workbench at the 27:43 mark.
Next we checked out the XBR8's dejudder processing. As we mentioned above, the set adds a "Clear" choice to the Standard and Smooth (formerly called High) dejudder options found on other Sonys. Of the three we prefer Clear, which keeps the most film-like look and adds sequential backlight firing to improve motion resolution, according to test patterns (see below). We do wish Sony had separated out the sequential backlight option, as Samsung does with its LED Motion Plus setting, to allow a user to engage sequential backlighting without dejudder.
As it stands, we preferred Off to Clear because, while Clear's smoothing effect is definitely the least blatant and video-like of any such mode we've tested, it still introduced objectionable smoothness compared with Off. That said, we can see how many viewers might prefer the smooth, less-juddery look of Clear, especially during camera movement such as the pan over the tool bench or the pan down from the fighter jet at the beginning of Chapter 6. Standard and Smooth, for their parts, introduced even more smoothing, and the latter evinced the same sort of artifacts we complained about in the XBR6 review. In fact, according to Sony, those modes are identical on the XBR8 and the XBR6, so for details on those settings, check out the video processing section of that review.
Sony makes a big deal about its Bravia Engine/DRC video processing working with 1080p sources, but since we're interested in preserving the look of the original source as much as possible, we recommend simply turning DRC Off for high-quality sources like Blu-ray. For lower-quality high-definition sources (not an oxymoron, unfortunately) you may want to play around with the DRC's Reality/Clarity matrix, which in our experience worked as Sony described. The Clarity adjustment was most useful in toning down some noisier HD sources. We tended to avoid using Reality because it seemed to introduce a bit too much artificial detail, although for particularly soft shots it lent a slightly sharpening effect that was less-egregious than typical edge enhancement. As always, we appreciate having the option to use these extras, even if we end up mostly leaving them off.
The DRC2 mode is designed for use with HD channels that show upconverted standard-definition material, but we didn't test this function.
In our resolution tests, the Sony performed relatively well. It displayed every detail of 1080i and 1080p still sources, and although it de-interlaced 1080i video-based sources properly, it failed the test for film-based sources regardless of which picture mode we tried. In motion resolution tests we got the best results in the Motion Enhancer's Clear mode, which measured just more than 1,000 lines--the best we've seen from any LCD aside from the Samsung A950, which matched the Sony's performance. In the Smooth and Standard modes the Sony delivered between 600 and 700 lines, while turning off the Motion Enhancer dropped the score down to between 300 and 400 lines. As usual, it was extremely difficult for us to discern any differences in resolution--motion, film-based or otherwise--between the various displays when watching standard program material as opposed to test patterns.
One final video processing note: we noticed significant delay with the Sony XBR8 compared with other displays (including the XBR6) when connected to the same source. We recommend that gamers take advantage of the Game mode, which bypasses all processing and eliminated the delay in our tests, to avoid frustrating lag between the controller and the onscreen action.
Uniformity: Like the Samsung A950, the Sony XBR8 displayed superb uniformity across the screen surface, with equal apparent brightness in all areas of the screen and without the brighter sides or corners visible on so many other LCDs.
The Sony KDL-55XBR8 doesn't deliver the same reference-quality picture described above when seen from seats outside the sweet spot directly in front of the screen. Off-angle positions as common as one seat to either side of the sweet spot resulted in blacks that are more washed-out and more-visible blooming, along with discoloration that turned black areas greenish. Uniformity also became worse from off-angle; the far side of the screen washed out and became discolored while the near side stayed relatively true. From seats further than one away from the sweet spot, the discoloration and washout became progressively worse.
The Sony's fall-off wasn't as drastic as we saw on the Samsung A950, which washed out even more rapidly as we moved off-center, but that set also didn't discolor toward green as noticeably as did the Sony. As always, the plasma displays in our comparison delivered basically the same quality regardless of viewing angle, while the florescent-based LCDs didn't wash out as quickly as did the XBR8 and the A950.
Bright lighting: When we opened our test facility's blackout shades to let the windows shine directly upon the screens of the TVs in our lineup--a worst-case ambient light scenario--the Sony XBR8 came out the clear winner. It preserved its depth of black and thus its color saturation better than any of the other models, especially the plasmas, which washed out significantly in comparison. The Sony also attenuated reflections from in-room light sources better than either plasmas or the shiny-screened Samsung LCDs. We always recommend placing your TV where bright ambient light doesn't hit the screen, but if you don't have a choice, the XBR8 (or another matte-screened LCD) will outperform any glass-screen plasma or glossy-screen LCD.
Standard-definition: The Sony KDL-55XBR8 is an average standard-definition performer. On our standard HQV test disc, we immediately noticed that DRC had a major impact on performance, and not always in a good way. We selected the default DRC1 and the TV showed significant artifacts and interference in the highest-resolution parts of the pattern; turning DRC Off delivered every line of resolution without those artifacts. On the flipside, DRC1 removed jaggies from the edges of moving lines and a waving American flag better than DRC Off, although still not as well as some other displays in our test, such as the Samsung LCDs. DRC1 also made details in the stone bridge and grass more apparent than did Off, especially when we cranked the Reality side of the DRC matrix--the trade-off was that edges looked artificial and somewhat harsh at high Reality settings, and in general we preferred the softer, if somewhat less-detailed, look of the default Reality setting of 20. The Sony's noise reduction was superb, squelching noisy skies and sunsets as well as any display we've seen and offering plenty of options--and if you don't want to engage DRC's Clarity matrix, which acted as a sort of noise reducer, you can always use the standard NR controls. Unlike the XBR6, the XBR8 passed our 2:3 pull-down test, correctly engaging film mode in both Auto1 and Auto2 CineMotion modes.
PC: As expected from a 1080p flat-panel TV, the Sony performed perfectly as a big-screen computer monitor, resolving every line of a 1,920x1,080-pixel source with no overscan or edge enhancement and delivering crisp, clear text. We experienced the same quality via VGA and HDMI connections.