Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified..
Sony has always reserved its XBR moniker for its most-expensive HDTVs, and the 2009 KDL-XBR9 lineup is no exception. These sets cost a bundle, and while they deliver plenty of features, including a lot of built-in interactive add-ons, they can't match the video quality of the best plasma and LED backlit LCDs on the market, nor the ultrathin style of Samsung's edge-lit LED models. The Sony KDL-XBR9 series exhibited respectable enough performance, to be sure, and we're sure gadget freaks will find a lot to like about its streaming capabilities and its Yahoo Widgets, but if you don't care about those extras, it's hard to justify the high price tag.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 52-inch Sony KDL-52XBR9 ($3,600 street price), but this review also applies to the 46-inch KDL-46XBR9 ($3,100) and the 40-inch KDL-40XBR9 ($2,800). These three sizes in the XBR9 series share identical specifications, and we expect them to exhibit very similar picture quality. This review does not apply to the 32-inch KDL-32XBR9 ($1,100), which has a lower contrast ratio and refresh rate, among other differences.
Sony has gone in a different design direction with this iteration of its XBR models, and we heartily applaud. Previous XBR sets incorporated too much nonscreen real estate for our tastes. From last year, the bottom-suspended speaker and thick-looking frame of the KDL-52XBR6 and KDL-52XBR7, or the side-mounted speakers and even thicker frame of the Sony KDL-55XBR8, are good examples.
The XBR9 models, which replace the XBR6s in the company's lineup, do away with visible speakers and edge the screen with a thinner frame that's the same size on all four sides. A subtly protruding lip of see-through plastic around the edge covers a dark silver border, which contrasts nicely with the glossy black of the main frame. The only accents are a Sony logo, whose white glow can be disabled, and a pair of indicators, one for power and one that lights up when the display receives an HD signal. A gloss-black, nonswiveling stand completes the package, which may not be as distinctive as previous Sony XBR efforts, but in our opinion is definitely better looking.
The remote control included with the XBR is the same as last year, but we think Sony can do better. On the plus side, it's backlit with blue lighting, but it has too many small keys crowded onto the top and they are difficult to tell apart. Numerous buttons also ring the main cursor control, and the remote's larger size requires a stretch to reach the volume and channel controls.
Sony's higher-end TVs this year again use the PS3-like "Cross Media Bar" (XMB) menu arrangement. The XBR9 has seven horizontal selections, four of which are devoted to non-TV functions called "photo," "music," "video," and "networking." Given the XBR9's accent on streaming features (see below), the prominence of the "video" option is more justified than before, but we still believe most users will spend the most time in the Settings menu.
The company did make some improvements in the Settings menu over last year, ditching the input-specific submenus for picture settings and grouping numerous miscellaneous controls together into a Preferences menu. We also laud the expanded explanations, which describe the main functions of various menu topics so you don't have to expand each one to find what you're looking for. There still seems to be too much going on in the main menu, and we rarely used the a secondary menu option, called "Favorites," which offers direct input access along with a few extras like screensavers and sample music. However, we did like the context-sensitive Options menu, which offered shortcuts to setup items during regular TV watching, and switched sorting options when we browsed the online video selections.
As befits a Sony TV branded with the "XBR" label, the KDL-XBR9 series is rich in features. One thing it lacks, however, is LED backlighting--unlike the Sony XBR8 models from last year, the XBR9's have a standard cold-cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFL) backlight. Aside from slightly wider color gamut on that backlight--which should have no effect on color accuracy--and styling, the XBR9 models are identical to the less-expensive Z5100 series.
Much like the Sony KDL-52XBR7 we reviewed last year, the XBR9 series features a 240Hz refresh rate, which is twice as fast as the 120Hz refresh rate found on many other high-end sets. Sony's processing interpolates three extra frames for every original frame instead of one. Naturally Sony includes its MotionFlow dejudder processing, which is available in two strengths of smoothness. See the Performance section for more information.
The XBR9 offers extensive interactive capability. As we mentioned, these TVs are equipped with Yahoo Widgets--Internet-powered content and information modules that can be downloaded and activated right on the TV screen. Unfortunately, our review sample didn't have widgets active yet, so we can't comment on how they performed--specifically, whether they were any more responsive than what we experienced with the Widget-equipped Samsung UN46B7000. We'll update this review when widgets are enabled, but in the meantime, you can check out our full review of Yahoo Widgets review for more information.
In addition to widgets, the XBR9 basically offers all of the functionality of the Bravia Internet Video Link built-in--there is no need to buy the actual $199 box. The most compelling such functionality so far is access to Amazon Video On Demand, including high-definition videos. Amazon VOD worked well in our tests, once we waited the 20 or so seconds for the store to load (on more than one occasion, the load screen actually gave us a "timed-out" message before it finally appeared), although we missed being able to watch previews--the service on Panasonic's VieraCast TVs and Roku enables previews, while on BIVL and TiVo, for example, it does not. Videophiles will appreciate that picture settings can be modified for the Sony's online video content, just like for other inputs. On the other hand, we did encounter more than a few bugs with the system, such as when a screen full of thumbnails failed to load.
The free, non-Amazon content includes YouTube (where nearly full functionality is provided), Sports Illustrated (no sports highlights--just swimsuit model clips when we checked), and a bunch of less-compelling online video sources, including the minisode network, blip.tv, style.com, howcast.com, and numerous video podcasts. In most cases, the video quality was generally bad, especially on the big screen--it was designed for the Web, after all. On the plus side it's free, and in many cases it's still better than what's actually on TV.
The free videos from CBS offer generally better video quality in most cases, but despite the "Watch full episodes free" tagline next to the CBS logo in the menu, don't expect anything close to TV.com, the network's official Web portal for full TV episodes. Instead there's a confusing hodgepodge of clips and the rare full episode, such as the last "CSI: NY"--but no earlier ones. The worst experience came when we selected "Harper's Island" and found 23 separate 2-minute clips that together may have composed the whole episode--but we didn't have the patience to find out since as each clip ended with a CBS promo. We wish there was an option to sort by full episode, but the system seemed designed to stymie that sort of satisfaction. For more information, check out the complete review of the Bravia Internet Video Link. It mostly mirrors the experience we had with the XBR9, although the TV itself was less sluggish and does away with the My Yahoo page described in the BIVL review--presumably to avoid duplication with widgets. (Note: CNET is a division of CBS Interactive.)
The final piece of the interactive puzzle, and one we didn't test for this review, is the Sony's capability to stream photos, music, and video from networked PCs that are running compatible DLNA-compliant software, such as Windows Media Player 11. All of these interactive features require running an Ethernet connection to your TV or installing a third-party wireless bridge--Sony doesn't sell its own TV-specific wireless network solution.
The XBR9 series offers a host of picture-affecting features beginning with three picture preset modes in the main menu, each of which can be adjusted independently per input. Confusingly there's an additional Scene Select menu that adds a few more presets like Cinema, Game, PC, and Sports, which are also adjustable and independent per input yet not available from the standard picture menu. We'd prefer to have access to all modes from one menu to make keeping track of adjustments easier. Finally there's a Theater button on the remote that instantly engages the Cinema preset.
Among the basic settings, available on all presets, is a pair of noise reduction settings and four color temperature presets. The scads of more advanced settings, which can't be adjusted while in the Vivid preset but can be adjusted on many of the other presets, 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 CineMotion option affects the TV's 2:3 pull-down performance, while the Game picture preset removes most video processing, disabling MotionFlow, for example, to eliminate delay between a game controller and the onscreen action.
Sony includes four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, and a "Full Pixel" that displays 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 TV Guide onscreen electronic programming guide (EPG) is a rarity among late-model TVs, but the XBR9 has it. TV Guide 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 XBR9 series owners, and we didn't test it for this review. We did appreciate that TV Guide is powered by the Sony's Ethernet connection, which also lets the TV receive any firmware or software updates the company may send out.