Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
Among LCD heavyweights, Sony and Samsung have been trading blows for the last couple of years at the top of the standings. This bout involves cutting-edge, top-of-the-line LED-backlit models most of us can't afford, but it's entertaining nonetheless. In this corner is the Sony KDL-55XBR8, the most-expensive flat-panel HDTV we've ever tested at CNET and possibly the worst deal per square inch since Sony's own XEL-1. In that corner is the Samsung LN46A950. In case you don't have time to read the complete blow-by-blow, we'll cut to the chase: the Sony XBR8 won. It delivered deeper black levels than the Samsung, along with less blooming and off-angle fade, two issues you'll have to read about below. But as good as the Sony is, it still couldn't knock out the champion of the superheavyweight plasma division, Pioneer's Elite Kuro, which still reigns supreme as the best HDTV overall and it costs less, even at 60 inches, than the 55-inch KDL-55XBR8. That said, if you have a room full of light, a penchant for video processing modes, and a bank account bursting with cash, you'll find the flagship Sony mighty appealing.
Ever since the "Dumbo Ears" of Sony's KDS-60XBR2, the company has given its highest-end HDTVs a wider cabinet design than the rest of its lineup. The trend continues with the XBR8 series which also includes a 46-inch version. Compared with the less-expensive KDS-52XBR6, which mounts its speakers along the bottom, the XBR8 has side-mounted speakers that add a solid 3 inches to each side of the panel.
If you don't mind the protruding speakers, there's a lot to love about the rest of the XBR8's design. The black, vertical speakers appear suspended in space to either side of the TV by virtue of transparent panels, the right one bearing a few indicator lights. In case you don't like black speakers, Sony sells alternate-color grilles--silver, red, brown, or gold--at $129 per pair. A glossy black frame surrounds the big screen and a low-profile stand adds to the wide look. The only item interrupting the black frame is an illuminated Sony logo--and yes, you can turn off the blue light.
Including that nonswiveling stand, the Sony KDL-55XBR8 measures 58.6 inches wide by 33.8 inches high by 14.1 inches deep and weighs 120 pounds. Stripped of the stand, it measures 58.6 inches wide by 31.6 inches wide by 5.9 inches deep and weighs 105 pounds.
The remote control and menu system of the XBR8 are identical to that of step-down models like the XBR6. The remote was less-impressive than we expected. On the plus side, the remote is backlit with blue lighting, but most of the controls are for other gear. 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 how we mention that we find the PS3-like "Cross Media Bar" (XMB) arrangement a bit cumbersome to use on a TV. Unlike some less-expensive 2008 Sony TVs, which only have three horizontal selections among myriad vertical ones, the XBR8'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 most 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 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. However, despite the Sony's sophistication, we prefer a more straightforward arrangement like that found on the Samsung LN52A650.
The big story here, naturally, is LED backlighting. The XBR8 series represents Sony's first mass-market attempt at using LEDs, as opposed to standard fluorescents, to provide the illumination that powers the picture. Samsung got there first with last year's LN-T81F series and provides Sony's principal LED-backlit competition this year with the LNA950 series. Both companies' LED models offer "local dimming," which really improves the TVs' capability to produce a deep shade of black, but there's also a major difference between Sony and Samsung's LED technology.
Sony uses three colors of LEDs--two green, one each red and blue--for each of the 128 LED modules behind the screen of the 55-inch XBR8. Samsung, on the other hand, uses white LEDs and would not disclose how many modules it uses. Check out this blog post for more details on the different technologies, and the Performance section of this review for information on how the two compare.
Aside from those LEDs, the XBR8's list of features is very similar to that of the less-expensive XBR6 series. The KDL-55XBR8 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. Unlike the XBR6 series, the XBR8 has three Motion Enhancer settings instead of two; we'll go into their effects below. Naturally this flagship set also has a native resolution of 1080p, the highest available today.
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.
The wave of funky proprietary video processing names continues. Sony touts the Bravia Engine Pro processor on the XBR8 series as an improvement over lesser models, such as the XBR6 that gets only Bravia Engine 2 instead. In the TV's menu, the Engine consists of a choice between two different DRC--Digital Reality Creation--modes, along with an adjustable Reality versus Clarity matrix, BE Pro's most apparent and confusing step-up over BE2. A Sony engineer told us that, in simple terms, increasing the Reality indicator creates more apparent resolution, while increasing the Clarity indicator increases noise reduction. Choosing the "Off" position for DRC bypasses the processing completely, preserving as much of the source's original quality as possible.
Other video processing options include CineMotion that, 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.
Like other higher-end Sony sets, the XBR8 ships with a rudimentary networking feature. 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 XBR8 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 BIVL. Check out this blog post for hands-on testing of Sony's photo streaming, which we performed on a Z-series model.
Conveniences continue with an option we haven't seen on many HDTVs recently: the TV Guide onscreen 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-55XBR8 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.
The XBR8 is one of the first Sony HDTVs to offer the Home/Store option as part of its Energy Star 3.0 compliance. We were also pleased to see a two-step power-saving option that limited peak brightness and really cut down on energy consumption. As expected from an LED-backlit display, the KDL-55XBR8 is quite efficient, delivering one of the best watts per square inch results after calibration (0.11) that we've ever tested. Check out the Juice Box for details.
Connectivity on the KDL-55XBR8 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-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 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.