Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4 review:

Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4

Sony's back-panel jack pack offers two HDMI inputs among other connections.

Connectivity: The KDL-46XBR2 has plenty of connections although we were somewhat surprised to find "only" three HDMI inputs--two around back and one on the side--as opposed to the 2007 number du jour, four. Sony also includes a pair of component video inputs; one AV input with composite and S-Video; another with only composite; and a VGA-style PC input that can handle resolutions up to 1,920x1,080 pixels. The side panel also includes another AV input with composite, along with a headphone output. Other audio outputs include one stereo analog and one optical digital audio, the latter for passing surround soundtracks from the over-the-air digital/HD tuner to an audio system. Finally, this set includes a connection for Sony's Bravia Internet Link module.

A third HDMI input can be found on the side of the television.

Considering the many aspects of picture quality, the Sony KDL-46XBR4 is the best-performing flat-panel LCD we've tested, outperforming the former king of the hill, Samsung's LN-T4665F, by a few thick hairs. We awarded that set an "8" in performance and the Sony gets the same score since it still falls short of the "9" we awarded to the Pioneer PDP-5080HD. Contributing to the KDL-46XBR's impressive picture quality are deep black levels, accurate color and solid video processing, although its standard-def performance could use some improvement.

Setup: Prior to evaluation we set up the Sony for optimum viewing in our darkened theater, and aside from reducing maximum light output a bit (from about 60 to 40 ftl), we didn't have to do much to adjust the most-accurate Cinema preset. That's because our review sample's picture in both Custom and Cinema modes came uncannily close to the D6500 standard for color temperature. We speculated during the Panasonic TH-58PZ700U review that perhaps the sample we'd received wasn't quite representative of samples in the field, and in the case of the KDL-46XBR4 we received from Sony, we again suspect that judicious engineers may have something to do with our sample's accuracy. Regardless, the out-of-the-box color temperature on this Sony is among the best we've measured, and after a just few tweaks to the white balance controls and other settings, namely gamma, power saving and standard picture controls, it was ready for evaluation. For our complete user-menu adjustments, click here or check out the Tips & Tricks section above.

For our formal evaluation of the Sony KDL-46XBR4 we set it up next to a few competing HDTVs, including the aforementioned Toshiba 52LX177 and Sharp LC-52D64U--both 52-inch LCDs--as well as a pair of 50-inch Pioneer plasmas, the PDP-5080HD and the PRO-FHD1, our current references for black-level and color respectively. We hooked up the Toshiba HD-XA2 via HDMI and watched Flags of our Fathers on HD DVD at 1080i resolution.

Black levels and color: First up was a look at the Sony's black-level performance, and it didn't disappoint. According to our measurements the KDL-46XBR4 produces a deeper shade of black than any LCD we've tested so far, edging out the former LCD champ, Sharp's LC-52D92U, by a hair, although blacks were still lighter than the overall champ, Pioneer's PDP-5080HD plasma. In Flags the Sony's black-level superiority over the other three sets was readily apparent in dark areas, such as the letterbox bars, Ryan Phillippe's black sailor suit, and the shadows of the apartment when he takes the drunk Adam Beach indoors. Details in shadows were as good as we've seen on any LCD, although again we felt the 5080HD had a slight advantage in showing the outline of Phillippe's face in the dark, for example.

As always the deep blacks lent punch to colors, and the Sony exhibited very good color accuracy overall, from its nearly spot-on grayscale to its primary and secondary colors. Skin tones, such as the massed faces of the reporters mobbing the military men, looked accurate and realistic, although we felt the FHD1 had a slight edge. The KDL-46XBR4 tended to get slightly bluish in the midtones, which washed out some of the reporters' faces a bit, for example, as well as very dark areas, but the Sony was again better overall than the other three sets (including the 5080HD).The greens of the shrubs inside the Drake hotel looked natural and lush, as did the bushes outside the apartment building.

Video processing: We spent a good deal of time looking at various scenes and how they were affected by the Sony's 120Hz processing, and in general the set did a better job smoothing things out and still keeping them looking natural than the Toshiba, and both 120Hz LCDs severely outclassed the Pioneer's Smooth mode. (Update 10/19/07) We originally wrote that the Sony did not offer a 120Hz mode without smoothing, but that's not the case. Turning off its smooth mode still keeps 120Hz engaged. Unlike the Toshiba, which can disengage 120Hz mode, the Sony cannot.

Engaging either of the Sony's two 120Hz modes, Standard or High, had a marked effect on nearly every scene in Flags, but shots with lots of camera movement were the most obvious. When the camera pans over the beach in the middle of Chapter 10, for example, the scene was nearly judder-free and uncannily smooth in Standard, and basically completely smooth, with almost no visible judder, in High. In both cases the camera seemed like it was on rails, the handheld shots moving past the injured soldiers appeared less jerky and much steadier. As with the Toshiba, we found the smoothing effect disconcerting in these scenes and in general throughout the film. Looking at other film-based sources, including the motorcycle chase from Chapter 9 of Ghost Rider (which looked so unnatural and video-game-like we couldn't help laughing) and the pan across the luncheonette at the beginning of The Departed, which again was looked too-smooth for its own good, we've come to the conclusion that for film, judder is mostly a good thing. Subjected to the Sony's processing, most scenes looked like TV instead of film, and we're so used to the latter look that we preferred to leave the Sony's motion enhancer set to Off when watching film-based material.

We also noticed a few artifacts produced by the Sony's processing, particularly in High mode. During Chapter 7 of Flags the camera follows a plane as it takes off quickly, and at a certain point in the pan the entire frame suddenly "locks in" to smooth mode, and a palm tree in the foreground unnaturally becomes solid where before it had evinced judder. We saw that effect in both modes, but in High the plane also evinced a faint, decidedly unnatural "ghost" that followed behind it. Sony's engineers told us they'd designed the set to function primarily in Standard mode, and that some artifacts might arise from the more aggressive smoothing action of High. In a scene from Digital Video Essentials on HD DVD, we also noticed (in both modes again) that the yellow fence behind a pair of frolicking youths suddenly scrambled and broke up, then resumed normal appearance the next instant. Again, the scrambling was more apparent in High mode.

While Hollywood films mostly suffer to our eye from Sony's smooth treatment, one area where we felt the processing was entirely welcome came in nature documentaries, specifically Planet Earth. This spectacular production includes numerous helicopter flyovers of mountains, caves, glaciers and the rest. In all of them judder was quite apparent and, when seen next to the smoother Sony and Toshiba, quite unwelcome. The smoothed-out camera movement and other motion throughout the series looked entirely more natural in 120Hz mode. We attribute this difference to the, ahem, natural setting of the content; we expect nature documentaries to look as realistic as possible, whereas films should look perhaps less so, and more like film. Of course, as we said with the Toshiba, you can disengage these modes at will according to preference, and merely having them is a great option.

The reduction of blur during motion is supposedly another strength of 120Hz processing, but as with the Toshiba we found it hard to find a real instance where the mode cleaned up blurring considerably compared to the 60Hz Sharp. The most obvious example we saw was during ESPNHD's ticker, where the moving white-on-black words appeared slightly less blurry when we engaged the mode. People highly sensitive to motion blur might see more obvious examples in program material, but we did not during our testing.

We didn't notice much difference, if any, feeding the Sony the 1080p/24 signal from our Toshiba while watching Flags, and the smooth processing produced similar results in all modes regardless of which 1,080-resolution source we chose. The Sony looked very sharp on all scenes, although not noticeably more- or less-so than any of the TVs we watched alongside--including the 1,366x768 resolution PDP-5080HD, which looked every bit as sharp as the 1080p Sony. Turning to test patterns, the Sony resolved every line of the 1080i and 1080p horizontal resolution charts from the Sencore VP403. Like most HDTVs we've tested, it properly de-interlaced 1080i video content and failed to do so with 1080i film-based content. We found it difficult to spot this failure in other program material; even the RV grille from Chapter 9 of Ghost Rider, which often reveals improper de-interlacing, didn't betray any artifacts. In case you're keeping track, the set failed the 1080i film de-interlacing test regardless of whether 120Hz was engaged or not, and choosing either of the two DRC modes actually made the pattern and the pan around Raymond James stadium look worse, with more artifacts, edge enhancement and moire. (Update 9/28/07) When this review first published, we mentioned a test involving the HQV Blu-ray disc that criticized the appearance of 1080p/24 sources. That test was incorrect, and as a result we see no reason to avoid using 1080p/24 mode with film-based sources on the Sony KDL-46XBR4.

Other performance considerations: One complaint leveled at last year's XBR2 models concerned uneven backlight uniformity, and while we didn't notice untoward backlight issues on any XBR2 we reviewed, we have no reason to doubt that many samples of those sets did suffer from uneven backlights. In short, while the backlight on the KDL-46XBR4 we reviewed was about as uniform as any LCD we've ever tested, we can't guarantee all the XBR4s in the field will fare as well. Our sample's screen remained even in all but the darkest fields, where we noticed that the left and right sides of the screen appeared slightly lighter than the middle. This effect wasn't noticeable on letterbox bars but only on the very darkest scenes, such as the black behind rolling credits or a scene from the Caves episode of Planet Earth where the screen was mostly black aside from a small pinpoint of helmet light. With an LCD this expensive, it's worth mentioning that the Pioneers, and indeed all plasmas we've tested, exhibited essentially perfect uniformity.

While the Sony's image stayed truer from off-angle than just about any LCD we've reviewed, compared to plasma it still washed out when seen from the sides and above or below,and from extreme angles darker areas gained a reddish tinge. The effect was again most noticeable during dark scenes; from our 7-foot seating distance, for example, the blacks in the aforementioned cave scene appeared quite a bit lighter when seen from just one seat on our couch to either side of dead center. Unless we sat directly in the sweet spot, we didn't experience those excellent black levels we mentioned above. Unlike the Samsung LN-T4665F, the KDL-46XBR4's screen material is mostly matte and does not reflect much ambient room lighting.

Although most cable and satellite boxes convert standard-def sources to HD resolutions (and many, when set to output HD at all, must perform this upconversion), which can make a TV's standard-def processing a moot issue, we still put the KDL-46XBR4 through our gamut of standard-def tests using the HQV disc on DVD connected via component video at 480i. It did an average job overall. In general, setting DRC to Mode 1--the only one available with 480i sources--or leaving it turned Off made little difference, although if we had to choose, we'd pick the slightly softer, more forgiving (with low-quality SD sources) look of Off. The Sony did resolve every detail of the DVD, and the shot of the stone bridge and grass looked as sharp as we'd expect. On the other hand, the set failed to remove jagged edges from the moving diagonal lines or the stripes of the waving American flag. The KDL-46XBR4's noise reduction was superb, removing progressively more moving motes and other interference from the low-quality shots of skies and sunsets as we increased the setting from Off to High. DRC did matter during the 2:3 pulldown test; the set passed when we turned DRC off but failed when we engaged it, leaving those telltale curved lines of moire in the grandstands behind the racecar.

As a PC monitor, the Sony KDL-46XBR4 performed like a champ. According to DisplayMate, it resolved every detail of 1,920x1,080 sources via both analog VGA and digital HDMI inputs, text looked crisp, and there was no overscan. The only difference we noticed between the analog and digital connections was some very faint interference in the highest-frequency areas of the horizontal resolution test pattern; we didn't notice it in any other areas or normal PC content.

Before color temp (20/80) 6434/6529 Good
After color temp 6442/6505 Good
Before grayscale variation +/- 111K Good
After grayscale variation +/- 127K Average
Color of red (x/y) 0.636/0.329 Good
Color of green 0.284/0.603

What you'll pay

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