There's a reason no TV maker focuses on sound quality. For speakers to sound good, they need to be big, and they should face the listener. What sells in TV land is the "all-picture" look, with as little bezel as possible, leaving no room for hefty, forward-facing woofers and tweeters. Speakers are perceived as ugly and unnecessary, better kept hidden and facing down or to the rear than shown off.
At the high end, where TVs like Sony's XBR-X900B compete, there's the added fact that many people have a dedicated home-theater system, with big separate speakers and amplification that render moot (mute?) any audio built into the TV.
Frankly, the massive front-facing speakers of the X900B don't give a damn. They define this hulking TV, for better or for worse, as something beyond just another slim-bezel skinny set. Part of me wishes Sony offered the exact same TV without the speakers, or at least with the option to detach them, but the X900B offers no such compromise. To get its great picture and its class-leading sound quality, you'll have to swallow those cones.
If you're a big spender who can do that, the X900B is an awesome choice. Its picture is superb, its features well-thought-out, and its access to 4K content unrivaled compared to other brands. It also demands a serious chunk of change, and like all 4K sets we've tested doesn't offer a major jump in picture quality as a direct result of all those extra pixels. But if you're looking for a statement TV, it doesn't get any louder than this.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch XBR-65X900B, but this review also applies to the 55-inch screen size in the series. The 55- and 65-inch sizes have identical specs, and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
A 79-inch version, model XBR-79X900B, will ship in July. It has similar specifications, but instead of the active 3D system used by the other two, it has passive 3D. This difference might also lead to some differences in 2D picture quality, but we can't say for sure. For that reason, the 79-inch version won't be included in this review.
In case you didn't notice, them's some biiiig speakers for a TV. They face the listener like good speakers should, and are unlike pretty much all TV speakers these days -- which are typically invisible and face down or to the rear. Sony's speakers increase the width of the TV substantially, don't detach, and don't even have detachable covers. They just declare, "I'm here, deal with it. Now blast something out of me."
Personally, I'm not a fan of the speaker-dominated look, but I liked the X900B's other luxury touches. Most of the set is glossy black, and I especially appreciated that the screen blends seamlessly into the edges where the speakers are mounted. The built-in camera is well hidden in the upper-left corner (below), and unlike many other TV cameras, it doesn't pop out of the frame. Sony provides a little magnetic cover for the panopticon-averse.
Seen from the side the X900B exemplifies the "wedge" design found on 2014 high-end Sony sets. The bottom is wider than the top, angling the screen back slightly. It's noticeable but doesn't affect the picture and is a much less steep rake than that of the crazy Panasonic TC-65AX800U. The sides of the Sony comprise a big chunk of chrome, invisible from the front, that matches the flashy chrome legs of the stand.
As with the wedge-shaped X850B, you can choose to place the legs to either the extreme sides or the middle. I used the middle position for photography and testing, mainly because we ran out of stands wide enough to accommodate the wide position, and the TVs that needed them (I'm looking at you, Panasonic and LG) weren't as flexible as the Sony.
The X900B ships with two remotes: the same standard multibutton clicker I lauded in the X850B review, (which now seems too cheap for this TV; I'd at least like to see some backlighting), and a smaller version with just a couple of buttons and a touchpad. Navigation isn't made any easier by swiping around as opposed to pressing keys, but some button-phobic users might appreciate the simplicity. For everybody else the only real advantage is for frequent users of the TV's built-in browser, where the touchpad eases navigation significantly.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology:||LCD||LED backlight:||Edge-lit with local dimming|
|Screen shape:||Flat||Resolution:||4K (UHD)|
|Smart TV:||Yes||Remote:||Standard & Touch Pad|
|Cable box control:||Yes||IR blaster:||External|
|3D technology:||Active||3D glasses included:||2 pair|
|Screen finish:||Glossy||Refresh rate:||120Hz|
|Screen mirroring:||Yes||Control via app||Yes|
|Other: Optional subwoofer, available in black or white (SWF-BR100, $299), extra 3D glasses (TDG-BT400A, $50 list); optional 4K media players (see below); PlayStation Now streaming game compatibility|
Aside from its 4K resolution, which, like all 4K LED LCDs these days, amounts to 3,840x2,160 pixels, the X900A's most prominent picture-centric feature is local dimming on its edge-lit LED backlight. The step-down XBR-X850B series, Sony's least-expensive 4K TV for 2014, loses local dimming, while the crazy-expensive flagship XBR-X950B models feature full-array local dimming backlights.
Sony also touts the Triluminos color on this and its other 4K TVs. Unlike last year's Triluminos Sonys, however, the 2014 version of this feature no longer uses the Quantum Dot technology supplied by QD Vision, Inc. Sony says it now has an in-house version that uses the same branding, but beyond the marketing line of "more colors to produce a more-vibrant picture," Sony wouldn't tell us how the "new" Triluminos technology differs from standard white LED display tech.
Keeping with the theme of fun names, Sony also touts its "4K X-Reality Pro picture engine," which is said to improve the necessary scaling from standard-def and high-def sources to the TV's 4K resolution, as well as "X-tended Dynamic Range" which, translated from Sony-speak, just means the TV has local dimming.
LIke nearly all current 4K TVs, the X900B uses a panel with a 120Hz refresh rate. Sony's specifications don't mention this number, instead going with "Motionflow XR 960," the kind of impressive-sounding albeit fake number common to many TV makers these days. In Sony's case, it incorporates a scanning backlight and optional black frame insertion.
Beyond its picture, the X900B's main claim to fame is sound. Those honkin' three-way speakers to either side are augmented by the additional cabinet room of Sony's bottom-heavy wedge shape, improving bass response according to the company. It talks up the "magnetic fluid" speaker design, said to deliver more powerful sound with a smaller footprint. And if that's not powerful enough, you can throw in Sony's optional wireless sub ($300).
In this era of sparse 4K content, of which Sony offers more than anybody, for now the company is keeping it proprietary. For $700 today, you can grab an FMP-X1, the company's first-gen player, but due in part to its spotty reliability I'd definitely recommend waiting a few more weeks until its successor, the FMP-X10, comes out ($700 list, $500 pre-order). Both offer access to more than 200 titles in 4K, including recent films like "American Hustle" and "The Amazing Spider-Man 2." Notable TV series like "The Blacklist" and "Breaking Bad" are also on tap. Pricing for movies is typically $7.99 to rent for 24 hours or $29.99 to buy.
The 55- and 65-inch X900Bs are also equipped with 3D compatibility that uses active-shutter technology -- a contrast to the passive 3D of the 79-inch version and of some 2013 Sony 4K sets. That's too bad, since passive 3D on a 4K TV is a killer combination. Sony includes two pair of active shutter glasses in the box.
If you're a gamer, you may appreciate the addition of PlayStation Now, a feature that allows you to play streaming games on the TV itself by simply pairing it with a PS3 controller. I didn't test this feature for this review; the Pilot begins June 30. It's available on all "W" and "X" series models for 2014.
Finally, yes, the X900B has a built-in camera and microphone which, at the moment, is used only for Skype. At least, that's what they tell us...
Smart TV: Sony has redesigned its interface for 2014 so it's less cluttered and sleeker than before. Its responsiveness was marginally speedier than on the X850B I tested earlier, but the interface still often took awhile to populate thumbnail art. The main aim of the new layout seems to be placing the company's own services front and center.
Hitting the Home button brings up the Movies tab by default, where movie thumbnails from -- you guessed it -- Sony Video Unlimited take up the entire middle of the screen. Much more popular services like Amazon Instant, Netflix, and Hulu Plus are relegated to small icons along the bottom. Sony-owned Crackle gets a prominent spot, too. Other tabs from the Home menu, with the exception of Channel (which leads to "TV selections," described below) also point toward Sony services, namely Album goes to the Play Memories photo service, and Music to the Music Unlimited and Vevo services.
When I connected Sony's 4K FMP-X1 video player the default first screen on the Home page changed to "4K Movies" (above), showing featured titles (as in four, count 'em, 4 Spider-Mans), "My 4K videos," which leads to a list of videos currently downloaded onto the player, and a link to "Video Unlimited 4K," where I was able to browse and purchase videos to rent, and to initiate new downloads. The array of content was frankly very impressive, especially compared to the 4K available on other TVs (which is zilch, aside from a few Netflix titles). Unfortunately, the box wasn't very reliable (see below).
Finding apps Sony decided not to surface can be tedious. The main "Apps" screen has a few "featured" apps, but beyond that you'll have to dive into "All apps," a firehose of 280 separate icons (give or take), from "Vimeo" to "Internet Browser," to "EarthCamTV," to "Captain Philips." They're arranged in three rows that just scroll endlessly, with no categories, search, or apparent logic to organize them beyond sporadic alphabetization. On the plus side, no major video apps go missing (aside from HBO Go, which remains exclusive to Samsung among TVs), and you can customize the My Apps screens with your actual (i.e., non-Sony) favorites, once you manage to find them.
A few extras of questionable usefulness include a Football button that's sure to confuse some red-blooded Americans, since it calls up videos and Sony's dedicated website...for soccer. You can also enable a picture mode said to optimize for football and soccer. Somewhat cooler is the Social View function that allows you to watch tweets stream by along the bottom of the screen, keyed to trending topics or a custom search. Unfortunately, despite the ability to link Social View to your Twitter account, there's no way to view your own feed. On the X900B you can also make Skype calls from within Social View; the idea being to "watch TV with friends while being connected to them through Skype."
I played with the Web browser, which seemed a step down from the offerings of Samsung and LG, with slower response times and difficult scrolling, even when I used the touchpad remote. Of course that's not a big deal in my book since TV browsers in general are much worse than tablet, phone, or PC browsers. Sony's is OK for occasional, emergency use, and that's about it.
Sony also offers a second screen app called TV Side View with remote control and a program guide. You can mirror a phone or tablet on the big screen via Miracast, or use a new Photo Share function to show photos from such a device on the Sony. The TV can also pair with compatible devices via NFC.
Cable and satellite box control: [Editors' note: I originally tested cable box control for the X850B review. Except where noted below, I did not re-test them for this review]
Samsung and LG's TVs have had the ability to control cable and satellite boxes using infrared blasters for a couple of years, but 2014 is the first time Sony has implemented the scheme via its own included blaster (below). The idea is to replace your box's interface and remote control with one built into the TV. As with those others, the Sony doesn't do as good a job as simply using your box's interface -- preferably with a good universal remote.
One problem is that frequent DVR users are left in the cold. There's no dedicated "DVR" button on the remote, so to access recorded programs you have to -- you guessed it -- call up a "virtual remote." (There's a "DVR" option under the Home > TV screen, but it didn't work when I tried it.) Sony's version, found under the "Key Pad," is worse than those of its rivals, with an endless horizontal scroll to find the "button" you need. The physical remote's navigation (menu control) and transport (play, fast-forward, and so forth) controls worked, but only with an annoying half-second delay as the TV passed the commands along to the box. And for some reason, hitting forward and reverse skip (available on my Fios DVR and very frequently used) only caused a "feature not available" message.
For live programming, you get a grid-style guide that, again, was inferior to the one on my cable box, with inadequate navigation, pokey load times, and the annoying tendency to start at channel 001 (standard-def!) rather than the current or last-tuned channel. Beyond the guide, there's a "TV selections" menu -- essentially a bunch of thumbnails from what appear to be randomly selected channels -- and the Discover tab, said to learn your preferences and suggest shows to watch.
Picture settings: Sony hasn't changed much from previous years, continuing to offer plenty of picture presets under its Scene Select menu. Diving deeper allows you to choose from six dejudder (smoothing) modes including an Impulse mode that engages black frame insertion, play with a two-point grayscale system, and pick from a few gamma settings. Unlike many TVs at this level, the W900B lacks a 10-point grayscale and color-management system.
The main change between the X900B and the step-down X850B in this category is an additional on/off toggle under the "Reality Creation" video processing section, entitled "Mastered in 4K." When engaged, Sony says it "Provides image quality suitable for Blu-ray Disc 'Mastered in 4K' releasing from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment." I did not test this feature.
Connectivity: The X900B gets four HDMI inputs to go with a combination composite/component-video input, three USB ports, and a headphone jack.
According to my DVDo 4K Test Pattern Generator, all of the HDMI inputs accepted 4K resolution at 24Hz and 30Hz, and HDMI 1, 2, and 3 all accepted it at 60 as well (HDMI 4 did not). I tried connecting a PC and those resolutions all worked as well, but 1080p and 720p at 120Hz did not at first blush. (I received an "unsupported signal" message when I tried setting it as a Custom Resolution via the nVidia software, but didn't try any of the other methods listed here.)
In place of the old multipin RS-232 port for custom installations there is a "serial control" port that does the same thing. There's also an included "port replicator" box that lets you connect three HDMI, one USB, and the RF cable to it, then run a single umbilical to the TV itself, for a cleaner installation.
I've broken my testing down into separate sections, first dealing with only 4K sources and using a smaller comparison lineup. The second section involves a wider comparison group, with which I performed the same suite of high-definition tests I put every TV through. In both cases, the Sony was an outstanding performer.