Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Sony and Samsung have established themselves as the leaders in LCD picture quality over the last couple of years, so we expected a great-looking picture out of the KDL-46Z4100, the highest-end Sony LCD aside from the premium XBR models. While its performance is still solidly in the realm of "very good," this set can't beat the picture quality of the current 2008 LCD champ from Samsung. The Sony Z4100's black levels lose the depth we loved on the company's less-expensive sibling while keeping the unfortunate tendency to occasionally fluctuate the backlight in dark areas. There are still plenty of things to like about the KDL-46Z4100, however, and those looking for a stylish upper-middle-class LCD could do a lot worse.
Sony's "Z series" comes in two styling varieties: the gloss-black version (KDL-46Z4100/B), which we reviewed, and one with a "brushed metal" finish (KDL-46Z4100/S). The black set's handsome styling is a step up in our opinion from that of the KDL-46W4100. The frame around the screen is about half as thick, and there's less frame used below the screen too, leading to a much more compact-looking panel overall. A narrow window in the bottom section reveals your wallpaper or whatever else is behind the TV, but it's a lot more discreet than that of the W4100.
Including the nonswiveling, glossy black pedestal stand, the KDL-46Z4100 measures 42.5 inches wide by 29 inches tall by 12.1 inches deep. Without the stand, it shrinks the dimensions to 42.5 inches wide by 27.1 tall by 3 inches deep. All told, the KDL-46Z4100 is the most compact LCD of its size Sony has ever produced, although it's still bigger than some models, such as the Mitsubishi LT-46148.
The remote control included with the Z series is also different from other models, although, ergonomically we liked it less than the simpler wand that comes with the W models. Yes, the Z remote is bigger, backlit with blue lighting, and festooned with more buttons, but most of the controls are for other gear (the Z remote is universal, unlike the W remote) and the extra controls that actually pertain to the TV aren't arranged as well. It's also difficult to differentiate between the buttons that ring the main cursor control, and the larger size makes the stretch for the volume and channel controls a bit much. It's still not a bad remote; it's just not up to Sony's usual standards.
Sony tweaked its menu system for this year, although we still find its PS3-like "Cross Media Bar" (XMB) arrangement a bit cumbersome to use on a TV. Unlike with the W4100, which only has three horizontal selections among myriad vertical ones, the Z4100's menu adds two more selections, "photo" and "music," for use with the USB port or a networked media server (see below). 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, obviating 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, as well as a weird screensaver 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. Despite the Sony's sophistication, we prefer a more straightforward arrangement such as that found on the Samsung LN52A650.
Among the more loaded LCDs on the market, the KDL-46Z4100 improves on the W4100's feature set by adding networking functionality, albeit disappointingly basic. 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 and display play them on the TV's screen (Update 08-18-08: This review originally indicated that the TV could access music over a home network as well, but that is not the case). 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. However, unlike those products, the Z4100 can't stream video or music via DLNA or play videos from an attached USB flash drive, just photos and music, so it's much less useful. Perhaps Sony excluded video streaming to encourage people to purchase a Bravia Internet Video Link instead. For a complete look at the Sony's DLNA capabilities, check out this blog post.
Additional features of the Z4100 begin with 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, the KDL-46Z4100 has 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 entirely 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 onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG). 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-46Z4100 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.
Connectivity on the KDL-46Z4100 matches that of most higher-end HDTVs available today. On its back, we counted three HDMI inputs. On its side, Sony stashed four inputs: two component-video jacks, a VGA-style PC input (1920x1080-pixel 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 of the set, while another AV input with composite video joins the HDMI port on the side panel. There's also a USB port, missing from the W4100 series, that lets the TV to handle photos and music stored on USB thumbdrives.
A pair of proprietary ports is also available around back. Sony includes a port labeled DMex for its Bravia Internet Video Link, and also throws in a DMPort (not available on the W4100) to allow connection to some of its proprietary accessories, such as a Bluetooth wireless audio adapter or an iPod dock.