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Editors' note, March 1, 2010: Updated review to correct features and overall ratings.
As the first official 2010 HDTV reviewed by CNET, and the first mainstream edge-lit LED-based LCD produced by Sony we've tested, the KDL-NX800 series arrives with plenty of anticipation. However, before you equate "LED" with "awesome picture quality," it's worth reiterating that the backlight technology comes in a bunch of varieties--and not all are created equal. The Sony NX800 performs on a par with other like-equipped LCDs that we've tested, such as the UNB7000 series from Samsung, so people seeking a premium home theater picture might be disappointed.
In other areas, the NX800 shines. Sony completely redesigned the exterior of its higher-end 2010 models in what it calls a monolithic style--and this TV would be at home near the Tycho crater or orbiting Jupiter. Sony also kept the superb selection of Internet services found on 2009 models, but adds built-in Wi-Fi to make them easier to use. All told, this svelte Sony feels more thoughtfully put-together than any TV we've tested in awhile, and it will easily find a niche in design-conscious living rooms.
We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 52-inch Sony KDL-52NX800, but this review also applies to the other sizes in the series, the 46-inch KDL-46NX800 and the 60-inch KDL-60NX800. The three sizes share identical specifications and should exhibit similar picture quality.
The ultrasleek KDL-NX800 looks like a featureless black slab when turned off, dominated by a single pane of glass that extends almost to the edge of the panel on all sides. A sliver of black metal edges the glass panel, and when seen from the side or top, the brushed black metal complements the subtle brushed silver of the low-profile stand. Behind the glass, the relatively thick border around the screen nearly matches the black of the turned-off screen, furthering the illusion that the TV is one piece. The logos and indicators are extremely subtle, at least until the word Sony lights up when the TV is turned on--the light can be turned off, furthering the display's integrated look.
Sony also paid attention to how the back and sides of the monolith appear. The TV's notched profile measures 2.5 inches deep at its thickest point on the bottom, narrowing to an inch on the thinner section toward the top. The company glossed the black backside, and hid the back-panel input connectors behind a removable plate. You can channel cables from there down into the base, along with the power cord--although space is a little tight for thick cabling. Speaking of the base of the stand, Sony finally added a swivel, something the company has never added to an LCD TV. In addition to the swivel, the TV, oddly, can be angled back slightly--in case you want to mount your NX800 on the floor, perhaps?
Sony also gave the TV's remote control a significant makeover. It's one of the best remotes we've ever used, aside from the weird duplicate power button on its backside that caused us to shut off the TV once. The company kept the excellent button arrangement from last year's remote control, preserving the logical size and placement differentiation. However, this year's keys are more flush and sleek, improving the pressing action--now they emit a satisfying low-pitched click. The remote has a concave shape along its length that seems to send the thumb to the Home key and the middle of the big cursor control naturally. Completing the package, Sony added blue backlighting as well as the cap ability to control other devices via infrared or HDMI.
We've spent a lot of virtual ink complaining about Sony's game-console-inspired XMB interface when applied to TVs, but we're starting to change our tune as more features are added to these sets, making a more sophisticated navigation system increasingly necessary. The interface does a good job of surfacing the TV's many Internet services, widgets, settings, inputs, and miscellaneous doo-dads in a logical fashion. While we'd love to see more customization and less clutter (how about the capability to "hide" unwanted interactive services or even entire verticals, such as the TV channels section, which is useless for cable box users), the interface's snappy navigation--the best we've seen on any TV and reminiscent of the PS3--makes up for a lot.
We appreciate that Sony included ways to avoid having to navigate the big XMB, from direct-access remote keys to a Favorites section that remembers oft-accessed inputs (you can also manually add items, like Netflix) to the context-sensitive Options section with quick access to scene modes, MotionFlow settings, and Netflix options.
Sony uses an edge-lit LED technology to illuminate the NX800's screen. Besides keeping the TV panel thin, another major advantage of not using CCFL backlights is LED's improved energy efficiency. However, the choice of an edge-lit scheme as opposed to true local dimming technology, as found in Sony's XBR-NX800 series, generally results in some picture quality trade-offs. See Performance for details.
Internet features: In 2009, Sony offered more Internet-connected services than any other TV manufacturer, once its compatible TVs were upgraded to include Netflix. However, it hasn't added any new features so far in 2010, such as the Skype service announced by Panasonic , LG and Samsung, or the "Apps" platforms touted by Samsung and Vizio. That will change in the upcoming weeks as the company launches "QRIOCITY" (pronounced "curiosity"), an online movie service.
Netflix is the main draw on the NX800; however, according to our tests, it fell significantly behind on image quality compared with what we've seen from other Netflix devices. We compared scenes from "Lost," one of the best-looking streaming titles in the Netflix library, as well as "The Muppets Take Manhattan," another HD title. With both shows, the Sony looked soft, evincing more pixilation and artifacts than the Roku player or the LG 47LH50 we compared it with. It was as if the Sony TV was streaming at a lower bit rate, although we couldn't confirm that since, unlike most Netflix devices, the Sony gives no indication of what streaming quality you can expect.
The results were similar when connected via wired and wireless on the same network; however, the LH50 doesn't have wireless, so we only tested its wired connection. We showed the issues to Sony representatives who visited our lab. If the company issues an update, we'll test it and report it here.
None of the other video services we tested, namely YouTube and Amazon Video on Demand, evinced unusual video quality issues. Minor video services abound on the NX800, including Sports Illustrated (no sports highlights--just swimsuit model clips when we checked), the minisode network, blip.tv, style.com, howcast.com, and numerous video podcasts. Aside from Amazon VOD, the image quality for other video services is generally bad, think non-HD YouTube content. This is probably because most of their content was designed for the Web. The free videos from CBS offer generally better quality, but don't expect anything close to the quality of 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. (Note: CNET Networks is a division of CBS Interactive). We appreciate that Sony added a keyword search across the various minor services, but it would be much more useful if the search encompassed all of the video services, including YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, and--while we're at it--even information from the TV Guide EPG.
Speaking of hodgepodge, Sony also throws in Yahoo Widgets for local weather, news, finance, Yahoo video, Yahoo sports, Sudoku, Quizzmaster, USA Today Sports, TV Guide, FrameChannel and the Dallas Mavericks. We haven't seen the last two on any other Yahoo Widget-equipped TV. While we didn't test the Mavericks widget (sorry Mark), our five minutes with FrameChannel revealed it as a marginally cool RSS client offering content from various outlets. It pulls photo feeds from Facebook, Picasa, and other major photo sharing sites, as well as feeds from People magazine, the New York Times, the BBC, even CNET's own Crave blog. Content can be selected on the company's Web site and cycled through the TV widget continuously or selected directly.
Otherwise, Sony didn't update Yahoo Widgets much, and it's still painfully slow to use (albeit faster than on the Samsung). We expect the sluggishness will frustrate most viewers used to relatively quick load times and menus. Sony improves the default interface significantly by incorporating the "options" menu that makes things clearer, and we liked that you can move widgets around the screen easily, although tend to obscure the screen when expanded. The selection of widgets on the Sony is somewhat limited compared with Samsung; however, it still has more than LG does. See our review of Yahoo Widgets for more information.
In terms of music, Sony lacks Pandora, which found on Vudu-app-equipped sets like the Mitsubishi LT-249 series, but has Slacker Radio as well as select content from NPR--no live radio streaming though.
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 have compatible DLNA-compliant software, such as Windows Media Player 11.
New for 2010, Sony (along with Vizio) is one of the only companies to include built-in Wi-Fi (and Ethernet) on its TVs to access all of these interactive options. In our tests, the Sony's wireless connection as well as the Ethernet connection was a breeze to setup. Most other TV makers either require a wired connection or make you buy a proprietary USB dongle--usually about $80--or set up your own wireless solution, such as a third-party Wi-Fi bridge. Since most people don't have Ethernet connections running to their TVs, having built-in Wi-Fi is great.
Picture-affecting features: Like most higher-end LCDs released this year, the NX800 has a 240Hz refresh rate. However, unlike Samsung and Toshiba's implementation, you can't get the benefits of reduced blurring (which is admittedly extremely difficult to discern) without also engaging dejudder processing. The latter, which Sony calls MotionFlow, is available in two strengths, and, happily, you can turn it off.
Sony did tweak its picture setting memory scheme a bit, giving you the welcome capability to apply your settings to just the current input, or globally to all inputs. The choice works with any of the three basic picture modes, Custom, Vivid, or Standard, so you could conceivably have three different sets of picture settings for each of the inputs. There are also seven separate Scene modes--including Game, Cinema, and PC--that, annoyingly, aren't accessible via the main picture menu. You can also apply settings from each mode to either the current input or all inputs. The result is a relatively confusing, albeit staggeringly customizable, array of settings. We're willing to bet that folks who care deeply about having different settings for every input/situation will be OK with the complexity. To make things simpler, pressing the Theater button on the remote engages the Cinema scene.
More advanced picture settings are available, and Sony thoughtfully provides separate "Reset" options for the standard and advanced picture settings menus. They include four color temperature presets and full white balance controls for further tweaking, two kinds of noise reduction with three strengths each, a CineMotion option that affects the TV's 2:3 pull-down, a seven-step gamma control, and quite a few additional options--most of which should be left off for optimum picture quality. Thankfully, Sony's text explanations help demystify what the settings do.
Sony includes four aspect ratio modes for HD sources, and a "Full Pixel" option 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. You can also apply your aspect ratio settings to all inputs or just the current one.
Other features: We were pleased to see a two-step power saving option in the Eco menu that limited peak brightness and really cut down on energy consumption. Sony also includes a room lighting sensor, a mode to turn off the screen but leave the sound on, and another mode that automatically turns off the TV after a set period of inactivity. New for 2010 you can elect to switch the TV off completely using a power switch on the side that eliminates its standby power draw--which is negligible anyway, so the switch is sort of pointless--and also choose whether the TV remains "awake" to download automatic updates.
The NX800 incorporates the TV Guide onscreen EPG electronic programming guide, which can display a grid of information for antenna and cable channels However, people who tune primarily with an external cable or satellite box will probably use their box's guide instead; therefore, the TV Guide won't be useful for most NX800 series owners and we didn't test it for this review.
We'd also like to mention that the 2010 Sony offers an excellent onscreen user manual that makes exploring the TV's features a breeze. Its chapters and sections are easily accessible and provide illustrations when necessary. There's also a prominent product support information section with Web site and phone numbers along with the set's serial number and software version to aid communication with customer service reps. We also appreciate the option to enable automatic updates when the TV is turned off.
The NX800's connectivity is complete enough, but the company arranged the ports in an unusual way. It split the four HDMI inputs evenly, mounting two on the back panel and two on the side, an arrangement we feel provides a good balance of more and less temporary connection options. The side panel also gets the VGA-style analog input for PCs; a USB port for music, photos, and video; and an AV input with component or composite video. The rear panel gets a composite video input, an RF input for antenna or cable connections, the Ethernet port, and some analog audio connections.
This year's set is Sony's first foray into the world of edge-lit LED-based LCD since the underwhelming KLV-40ZX1M. The KDL-NX800 certainly improves upon that model, but still won't be counted among the best-performing HDTVs of 2010. Its black level performance fall short of most other TVs in its price range, and its trade-offs in uniformity are typical with other edge-lit displays we've tested, although its overall color accuracy is solid. Aside from its capability to make backlight fluctuations an option rather than a necessity, the KDL-NX800's picture is roughly equal to that of Samsung's edge-lit LED sets from last year, complete with the glossy screen.
We found the Sony's most-accurate out-of-the-box setting to be Cinema, despite coming in at a somewhat bright 55 footlamberts. After calibration, the display tracked the target 2.2 gamma well (averaging 2.21), and maintained a smooth grayscale with one major exception: it dove into severe blue in very dark areas (10 percent and lower), and no adjustment we made could help.
For our comparison and image quality tests, we lined the Sony NX800 up alongside a few other flat panel models from 2009. From the edge-lit LED-based LCD camp, we included the Samsung UN46B7000 and the LG 42SL90, while the local dimming LED-based models were the Samsung UN55B8500 and the LG 47LH90. We also included Sony's standard-backlit KDL-52XBR9, along with our reference plasma, the Pioneer PRO-111FD. We chose to watch "The Informant!" on Blu-ray this time around.
Black level: Compared with the other sets in our lineup, the Sony NX800 delivered a somewhat lighter shade of black after calibration, with the exception of the LG SL90, which was significantly worse overall. In dark scenes such as when Mark Whitacre calls Shepard from the Econo Lodge parking lot in Chapter 10, or the night sky at the beginning of Chapter 17, black areas and shadows on the XBR9 and B7000 were just a bit darker than on the NX800. Also, as expected, the local dimming sets and the Pioneer plasma had even darker black levels. The Sony looked slightly more natural when looking at details in than details on the XBR9 did; however, it was not markedly better (and in some cases worse) than on any of the other sets.
Our calibration of the NX800 involved disabling the Auto Contrast Enhancer feature, which when engaged can improve the set's black level performance quite a bit. Like the Samsung B7000, the NX800 in Auto Contrast mode dimmed its entire backlight in darker scenes and raised it in brighter ones in a way that was distracting and ultimately detrimental. In dark scenes, the bright areas, such as the white exterior and lights of Mark's house in Chapter 1, looked duller and had less impact while shadow details, such as trees and shrubs, appeared less distinct. For these reasons we left the Sony's Auto Contrast setting off.
Color accuracy: Overall, the Sony turned in a solid performance in this area, with the major exception noted above: bluish black areas. The issue was common to all LCDs in our lineup to some extent, but the NX800 fared the worst with blue tinge creeping further into shadows and areas slightly brighter than true black. On the plus side, skin tones and other colors looked natural in scenes that weren't extremely dark. In Chapter 3 when Mark looks out over his stables in the morning light, for instance, his face appeared quite close in color to what we saw on our reference, without the slight yellowish tinge of the XBR9. The Sony's primary and secondary colors were solid, and saturation looked as rich as we expected, albeit not quite as impressive as on sets with deeper black levels.
Video processing: The Sony KDL-NX800 doesn't allow for much tweaking of dejudder processing, supplying only Off, Standard, and High options for its MotionFlow control. As expected, we preferred to turn off the Sony's processing with film-based sources like most Blu-ray movies, which looked too smooth and video-like in the other two settings. We did prefer Sony's lowest-dejudder mode, Standard, to the equivalent modes from Samsung and LG because it didn't introduce as much smoothing and thus delivered a less videolike look. One good example of why came during Chapter 5, as the camera tracks Mark striding across the office; the LG and Samsung sets looked as if the camera was gliding by on rails, while the Sony preserved some judder. Of course, the Samsung sets let you tweak that smoothness as much as you'd like, which in our book is the best way to handle such video processing.
We did notice artifacts in all of the Sony's dejudder modes, as usual; as Mark removes his jacket in front of the blinds, for example, we could see a slight disturbance around his profile, sort of like a subtle halo, which became less subtle (along with much smoother and less film-like) when we watched the same scene in High. Artifacts in Standard weren't overly objectionable, however.
Motion resolution tests on the NX800 revealed performance on par with other 240Hz sets, such as Sony's XBR9. With MotionFlow processing engaged in either mode, the NX800 registered between 900 lines and 1,000 lines. When we turned it off, that number fell to between 300 lines and 400 lines. Its 1080i deinterlacing was also par for the course; the NX800 handled both film and video-based sources properly, although passing the film test required engaging the CineMotion Auto 1 setting. As usual, seeing any of these effects in program material, as opposed to test patterns, was difficult.
Uniformity: The Sony was somewhat worse at maintaining an even picture across the screen than many of the other sets in our comparison. The NX800's most obvious issue was slight brightness variations in pans across lighter fields, like an overcast sky for example, which appeared more prominent along the edges but was also visible in the middle. We also noticed that on the black screen behind the credits, the edges, especially along the bottom, appeared a bit brighter than the rest. When seen from off-angle, the Sony's blacks became brighter and more washed out, to about the same extent as with other LCDs, and reddish/bluish discoloration also set in.
Bright lighting: Sony opted to use a glossy instead of a matte screen throughout most of its 2010 lineup, including on the NX800. As a result, the Sony's bright-room performance fell short of matte sets like the XBR9 and the LG LH90. Bright objects in the room, such as windows facing the screen, appeared brighter and more distinct on the Sony's screen, although they less so than on the Samsung and LG SL90s' screens. The NX800 preserved black levels slightly better than the LG SL90, but not as well as the Samsung or the XBR9.
Standard-definition: With standard-definition sources, the NX800 turned in a mediocre performance. It delivered every line of the DVD format, although details were a bit softer than we saw on the Samsung UNB7000. However, it didn't reduce jaggies from diagonal lines as well as either Samsung or LG SL90. Noise reduction worked well to remove noise and other artifacts from low-quality material, and the Sony did engage 2:3 pull-down correctly, albeit a bit more slowly than the other sets.
PC: Via analog RGB, the Sony looked excellent with only some very slight flicker in the highest frequency test patterns to differentiate it from HDMI, which was as perfect as we'd expect from any 1080p LCD displaying a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution signal.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6369/6453||Good|
|After color temp||6196/6484||Average|
|Before grayscale variation||65||Good|
|After grayscale variation||109||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.635/0.338||Good|
|Color of green||0.305/0.599||Good|
|Color of blue||0.163/0.066||Average|