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Sony XBR-HX950 series review:

Top LED picture of 2012, tough to love

Picture quality

Producing a deep shade of black is the most important ingredient in picture quality, and the Sony HX950 can deliver black levels as deep as or deeper than any TV available today, including the significantly more expensive Sharp Elite LCD. That capability alone places it in the upper echelon of TV performance, and color accuracy, video processing, and screen uniformity are also among its strengths.

Its two main weaknesses, especially compared with the Elite and the best plasmas available today, are a propensity for blooming (stray light in areas that should be dark) and for washing out when seen from off-angle. Even with those problems the HX950 is the best-performing LED TV released this year, edging out (no pun intended) Sony's own HX850, but not by much, or even enough to score higher in Performance -- both TVs, alone among 2012 LED TVs, earned an "8" in this category.

Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Comparison models (details)
Sony XBR-55HX929 55-inch full-array local-dimming LED
Sony XBR-55HX850 55-inch edge-lit local-dimming LED
Samsung UN55ES8000 55-inch edge-lit LED
Vizio M3D550KD 55-inch edge-lit local-dimming LED
Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD 60-inch full-array local-dimming LED
Panasonic TC-P65VT50 (reference) 65-inch plasma

Black level: The HX950 excelled at creating a deep shade of black. In very dark scenes from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," like the massing of Voldemort's army atop the hillside or the close-up of his wand hand in chapter 12, its letterbox bars and other black and near-black areas looked slightly deeper than on the Panasonic and the Sony HX850, and significantly deeper than on the Vizio and Samsung. Black levels appeared basically identical to those of the HX929; any black-level difference between the two full-array local dimming Sonys was extremely difficult to discern.

The comparison with the Elite was more interesting. In this and other scenes from "Harry Potter," both Sonys actually looked slightly darker in their letterbox bars than the Elite. In my original review of the Elite I said it delivered deeper blacks than the HX929, but this time around, on this material, the Sonys showed the slightest edge. I can't really explain the discrepancy, but it's worth noting that the difference would be impossible to discern beyond a side-by-side dark-room comparison, and that all three produced black levels darker than what my highly sensitive light meter is specced to reliably measure.

One reason the Elite is a better performer overall then either Sony, however, is because it shows significantly less blooming. That artifact, in which what should be "inky" blackness gets brightened by adjacent lighter areas because the backlight zones aren't small or numerous enough, was more noticeable on the HX950 than on either the HX850 or the Elite, although it wasn't as obvious as on the Vizio. One big reason, we're guessing, is because the Sony is so black to begin with, but regardless, it's still one of the HX950's most visible picture quality issues. And yes, the HX929 and HX950 again looked basically the same in this area, despite the differences (if any) in the number of backlight zones between the two.

The worst instances of blooming were easy to conjure up: pressing "Select" on the PS3 remote causes the information overlay to interrupt the inky blackness of the letterbox bars, and the "clouds" around the white lettering were brighter and more obvious on the HX950/929 than on the other local-dimmers. I also noticed brightening in the letterbox bars at times, for example 52:45 in the lower-right corner as the shield around Hogwarts deteriorates, or the flames in front of Voldemort on the bottom bar at 53:19. I also noticed an instance in the main picture area at 57:25, where shadows in the Room of Requirement's junk pile appeared brighter than they should. Unlike on the Vizio, however, the effects of blooming during the vast majority of program material were relatively subtle. They were certainly well worth the improvement in black-level performance afforded by local dimming.

Shadow detail was very good, although a notch worse than on the Elite and VT50, and even a bit worse than on the HX850 and HX929 (which may be more due to a slight difference in calibration than anything else). A particularly revealing sequence begins at 5:42, when the camera tracks up over the recesses of a shadowy room to find Potter and friends whispering in an alcove above. As the scene progressively darkens the details in the wood and stone walls appeared a bit more obscured on the HX950 than on those four; again the Samsung and Vizio trailed behind, for what it's worth.

Color accuracy: The HX950 deserves serious credit in this area as well. In bright and dark scenes colors looked natural and very well-saturated, from the green of the grass and the red of young Lily's hair in Snape's memory to the inky black (not blue-tinted) blacks.

In comparison with the Elite and especially the reference VT50, Lily's pale face did look just a bit bluer and less saturated, but on the other hand the HX950 outdid the HX850 by a similarly slight margin. Again it was tough to tell the difference between the 950 and the 929, but the 950 did look a touch more accurate in most scenes. Again, however, this difference might easily be accounted for by different calibrations.

Near-black scenes also looked true, without the wash of blue seen on the Vizio, and of course the Sony didn't show the same issue with undersaturated cyan as the Elite.

Video processing: With Motion Flow set to the Off position, the HX950 correctly handled 1080p/24 film cadence. All of the other settings introduced some degree of smoothing (dejudder), although Clear and Clear Plus came closest to Off, preserving a good deal of judder and keeping smoothness to a relatively low, albeit still discernible, level. As usual I wished for a Custom implementation similar to what Samsung provides, as opposed to having to select from presets.

Clear and Clear Plus both use backlight scanning for maximum motion resolution. So does Impulse, a mode new for 2012 that introduces unwatchable flicker. The other two modes, Standard and Smooth, lack backlight scanning and and come in at around 900 lines. As usual I couldn't tell the difference in blurring in normal program material between any of these settings, including Off.

The HX950 was able to pass our deinterlacing test as long as it was set to CineMotion's Auto 2 mode; the other modes, including the default Off, failed the test and so might produce some artifacts with certain 1080i film-based material.

Sony touts its Reality Creation suite, also found on the step-down HX850, as a way to improve standard-definition programming. It offers sliders for Resolution and Noise Filtering as well as Video Area Detection. I tuned to a cruddy-looking channel on DirecTV and played around with the settings a bit, but they didn't help much, if at all. The main result was some sharpening of the soft, standard-definition image, but as usual the tradeoff was artificial-looking enhanced edges and a crunchier look, so to speak. Some viewers might like it and some might not (like me), but Sony, to its credit, provides more adjustment range than its competitors, whose processing is typically binary On/Off, without gradations.

Uniformity: The screen on my HX950 review sample was quite uniform overall, with no obvious hot spots and similar brightness in the middle and near the edges. I said the same thing about the HX929, but in the case of that TV followed up with two observations: one of slight banding visible during pans, and the other of the "crease," an apparent defect in the LCD screen itself. For what it's worth, the HX950 sample I reviewed showed neither banding nor the crease.

From off-angle the HX950 fared poorly, as I expect in general from LCDs and in particular from local dimmers. Dark areas and colors washed out worse the others in our comparison (aside from the 929), and the difference in contrast -- for example the lightening of letterbox bars on the far edge and slight rise in shadows -- was visible from as little as one couch cushion to either side of the sweet spot at a viewing distance of 8 feet. Areas of blooming became, as usual, more apparent the farther I moved off-angle. This is another area where the Elite very much outperformed the HX950.

Bright lighting: It doesn't appear Sony has changed anything about the screen's ability to deal with ambient light. Like that of the HX929, the HX950's glossy screen was a liability when bright lights and objects reflected therein; those reflections appeared brighter than on any other non-Sony set in our lineup. The Sony did preserve black levels as well or better than any of the other sets in our lineup, however.

3D: I won't spend too long on 3D with the HX950 because I found its performance identical in pretty much every way to that of the HX929 -- warts and all. Yes, the 2012 Sony still suffers from flicker in 3D unless you engage one of the two available smoothing/dejudder modes (I recommend Standard), and it was still unable to maintain the 3D illusion as soon as I tilted my head slightly to one side or the other so that my eyes were no longer perfectly aligned to the horizontal plane of the TV. Its crosstalk was slightly worse than that of the UNES8000 and the Elite, but still very good overall, and superior to that of the Panasonic plasma. In the default settings contrast was great, as was color, but the HX950's 3D quality is still hamstrung overall by the flicker and head tilt issues.

As I mentioned Sony didn't update its base 3D glasses this year, so I used the same TDGBR250 specs for my HX950 test as I did for the HX929. They're bulkier than most newer active glasses, although not too uncomfortable, and I liked the enclosed feel. A more expensive version is available now, the "Titanium" TDG-BR750, but I didn't test them for this review.

For a more in-depth (ha!) look, check out the 3D section of the HX929 review.

Geek Box: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.0001 Good
Avg. gamma 2.2 Good
Near-black x/y (5%) 0.3126/0.3297 Good
Dark gray x/y (20%) 0.3133/0.3292 Good
Bright gray x/y (70%) 0.3128/0.328 Good
Before avg. color temp. 6495 Good
After avg. color temp. 6480 Good
Red lum. error (de94_L) 1.8008 Average
Green lum. error (de94_L) 1.5559 Average
Blue lum. error (de94_L) 3.9808 Poor
Cyan hue x/y 0.2293/0.327 Good
Magenta hue x/y 0.3211/0.1452 Good
Yellow hue x/y 0.4236/0.512 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i Deinterlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 1200 Good
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 400 Poor

Sony XBR-55HX950 CNET review calibration results

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