The pricy but feature-packed KDS-R60XBR2, Sony's step-up to the KDS-60A2000, has some big shoes to fill as the company's flagship rear-projection HDTV for 2006. This 60-inch big screen costs substantially more than its non-XBR brother, yet a thorough read of the spec sheet reveals very few differences. The televisions share the same SXRD light engine, which provides full 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p) native resolution, and offer the same sets of picture controls, among the most extensive we've ever seen. This combination adds up to picture quality that's almost identical. The only differences that affect the sets' respective images are a brighter bulb and supposedly improved standard-def video processing in the XBR model.
Well, we can tell you right now that the picture on the XBR is brighter, but the A2000 was bright enough for anyone, and the differences in standard-def processing are negligible. In other words, unless you truly crave the XBR's extra features--including CableCard with TV Guide on-screen; an additional HDMI input on the front panel; picture-in-picture; an extra bulb and side-mounted speakers--you'll be perfectly happy with the A2000 model. That said, the Sony KDS-R60XBR2 still scored higher on account of its extra features, and if you want to splurge, it's still one of the best-performing HDTVs available today.
Known to some by the pejorative "Dumbo ears," the speakers on the Sony KDS-R60XBR2 are its defining design characteristic. They extend beyond the already massive television's frame by a good 5 inches each, bringing its total dimensions to 66x40x20.3 inches WHD--roughly 10 inches wider than the KDS-60A2000 and, at 121 pounds, about 27 pounds heavier. You'll need something to get the television up to eye level; Sony sells a special stand for the XBR2 series, model SU-RS51U.
The speakers and the outside of the KDS-R60XBR2 are silver, while the screen itself is framed by a glossy black border. A gray pedestal base supports the silver cabinet, and a small panel opens up to reveal an A/V input with composite video as well as an HDMI input. Overall, we found the set uncommonly attractive for a big-screen HDTV, and the three-tone exterior helps it appear slightly smaller than if it was all one color. Speaking of big, there's also a 70-inch version, the KDS-R70XBR2, which features removable speakers.
Sony steered away from the all-metal remote included with last-year's XBRs, and we like the new one much better. Dominated by a big, thumb-friendly directional keypad that's surrounded by buttons correctly sized and shaped, the remote has plenty of differentiation between button groups and a perfectly manageable overall size. Our only complaint with the clicker, aside from the all-too-common observation that it lacks any sort of illumination, is that the channel and volume rockers are placed way down at the bottom, too far away for easy access. We liked the shortcut keys that let us quickly cycle through picture, sound, and wide (aka aspect ratio) settings. A convenient tools key calls up a couple often-used submenus, including picture and sound modes, wide-screen controls, picture-in-picture and closed-captions.
The tools menu is even more welcome, because the main menu key summons an unnecessary interstitial screen that seems too focused on tuner controls: four of its six options pertain to cable and antenna channels, which cable and satellite box owners will rarely, if ever, utilize. Otherwise, Sony's menu design is characteristically clean and thoughtful throughout, with text explanations of various functions and a generally logical progression from basic to advanced functions. We also like the input menu, complete with options to label (with custom names as long as 10 characters) used connections and skip unused ones.
The KDS-R60XBR2 incorporates the TV Guide EPG, which allows you to browse a grid of upcoming programs when you use the CableCard and/or an over-the-air antenna. Sony has nothing to do with the design of TV Guide, which might explain why we found its interface clunkier than most cable and satellite box EPGs.
The Sony KDS-R60XBR2 is one of the most loaded HDTVs we've ever reviewed. It uses the same LCoS-derived, SXRD-branded chips as both the older KDS-R60XBR1 and the step-down KDS-60A2000. There are a total of three chips, one each for red, green, and blue, each with 1,920x1,080 discrete pixels. This arrangement differs from that of DLP-based 1080p displays, which generally use a single chip and a color wheel to produce red, green, and blue. The Sony's 1,920x1,080 pixels exactly match the resolution of 1080i and 1080p HDTV sources, and according to our tests, they delivered every detail (see Performance for more). Other sources, including 720p HDTV, DVD, and standard-def television, are scaled to fit the pixels.
XBR2 vs. A2000 features: As we've mentioned, the main differences between Sony's two SXRD lines can be found in the features section. The KDS-60XBR2 includes Twin View, which is Sony's brand of picture-in-picture that lets you watch two inputs or channels simultaneously. Although you can change the relative sizes of the windows, you can't have a smaller one inset inside a larger one, and you can't display images from any of the component video or HDMI inputs in the secondary window.
The KDS-R60XBR2 also adds a CableCard slot to the back panel, which allows you to watch digital and high-def cable channels without the box. It incorporates the TV Guide on-screen EPG, which replaces the EPG you lose when you ditch the cable box. We tested neither CableCard nor TV Guide during this review, but in past TV Guide-equipped products we have occasionally experienced issues loading program information. Since the Guide depends on your local cable and antenna broadcasters for data, your mileage may vary by location; and to its favor, TV Guide has improved over the last couple of years. As do almost all other HDTVs, the Sony KDS-R60XBR2 includes an over-the-air ATSC tuner.
The A2000 and XBR2 have different DRC processing (see Performance for more details). Other differences include an extra HDMI input and a more powerful bulb--180 watts vs. 120 watts. The picture on the XBR2 is brighter, but we found the A2000 bright enough--so we don't really view this as a major bonus. We did like the fact that Sony throws in an extra bulb with the XBR2 models, a $299 value. (Update 12/6/06) When we asked Sony for the rated bulb life the company's rep could only say that "bulb lifespan will differ according to the conditions used," although the XBR2 manual recommends that the bulb should be replaced after 4,000 hours of use. Sony rates the bulb on the A2000 models as 8,000 hours for the "recommended bulb exchange period."
Picture controls: The KDS-R60XBR2 offers more ways to adjust the picture than just about any TV we've tested, but no more or less than the A2000. Settings for standard brightness, contrast, and so forth can be saved individually to each of the three adjustable presets, labeled Standard, Vivid, and Custom. In addition, each of these presets is independent for each input, so your contrast setting in Custom for Input 7, for example, can be different from the contrast level in Custom for Input 6 (Sony likes to call contrast "picture," by the way). This provides a huge amount of flexibility in adjusting the picture for different sources, lighting conditions, and user preferences.
We appreciate the four color-temperature presets--the default for Custom, Warm 2, comes closest to the standard. Other picture adjustments include: iris, which affects the light output and contrast, with five fixed modes and two that adjust according to picture content; five noise reduction settings; three DRC settings; and a DRC palette control. We'll cover the effects of DRC in the section on Performance.
There's also an additional menu section labeled Advanced Settings that appears only when you're in the custom-picture preset. The options include: a four-step Black Corrector, which is best left to Off to preserve shadow detail; a five-step gamma control, which we set to Low to boost shadow detail a bit; a three-step Clear White control that belongs in Off, since the other settings just make whites look bluer; and a four-step Live Color setting that seemed to make reds more intense, although Off provided the best color balance. A four-step Detail Enhancer should be left Off with already sharp sources such as HDTV and even DVD, since it introduces unnatural edge enhancement; there's another four-step control called Edge Enhancer that should also be left off. Finally, the Advanced Settings menu has a white-balance setup screen that includes 20 steps each for Red, Green, and Blue gain and bias, in case the out-of-the-box color temperature doesn't come close enough for your liking.
We tracked down a few more picture-affecting options in other menus. The Screen menu offers a solid selection of four aspect-ratio controls for both standard-def and high-def sources. The zoom modes allow you to adjust the horizontal and vertical position--as well as the vertical size--of the on-screen image, but won't work with all sources. We appreciated the unique option to specify how the set deals with 4:3 programs, as well as the option to automatically detect wide-screen shows and properly size the picture. A Display Area control adjusts overscan; the default normal setting that exposes the most picture area to your eyes.
The setup section of the menu seems the fashionable place to stash a Game mode. Sony's engineers claim that it skips most of the set's video processing to eliminate the possibility of delay between the controller and what happens on-screen. We did not test this mode on the XBR2, but we assume it performs the same as the Game Mode on the A2000; please see that review for details. The setup menu is also where you'll find CineMotion, Sony's name for 2:3 pulldown detection. A power-saver mode is available to limit light output. We left it turned to Low and, unlike with the A2000, this setting did improve black levels slightly. You can also choose between standard def (ITU601) and high-def (ITU709) colorspace for each resolution--a nice option, but usually you'll want to leave these at default settings.
Connectivity: The Sony KDS-R60XBR2's jack pack leaves little to be desired. As we mentioned, it includes an HDMI input on its front panel, in addition to a composite A/V input--you lose the A2000's front component-video input, however. Around back you'll find two more HDMI inputs, and all three have the ability to accept 1080p sources (they'll accept the more common 1080p/60fps sources, but not 1080p/24fps). Other inputs include: two A/V inputs with component video; one A/V input with composite video and S-video; one A/V input with composite video only; one VGA-style PC input; and one each antenna and cable RF inputs. There are also an analog audio output and a digital optical audio output for use with the Sony's ATSC tuner, along with the aforementioned CableCard slot.