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Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4 review: Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4

Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4

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David Katzmaier
David_Katzmaier.jpg

David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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18 min read

Editors' Note 04/29/2008: The rating on this review has been modified from 8.3 to 8.0, and its Editors' Choice award removed, due to changes in the competitive marketplace.

8.0

Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4

The Good

Excellent black-level performance for an LCD; accurate color; 120Hz processing smooths judder in motion; fine screen uniformity and off-angle viewing for an LCD; numerous picture controls; solid connectivity with three HDMI inputs and one PC input; distinctive "floating glass" design; interchangeable bezel color option.

The Bad

Expensive; benefits of 120Hz blur-reduction hard to discern; smooth motion seems unnatural for film-based material and introduces some artifacts; main menu system kludgy to operate; many picture adjustments seem unnecessary and/or harmful.

The Bottom Line

Although not quite as impressive as the best plasmas, the 46-inch Sony KDL-46XBR4 outperforms any flat-panel LCD we've tested so far.

A couple of years ago Sony abandoned plasma and bet the farm on LCD, and since then the company has consistently produced the best-performing flat-panel LCDs available, at least according to our tests. Of course, we've always seen better picture quality in plasma sets, and this year is no exception, as the Pioneer PDP-5080HD, with its jaw-dropping black-level performance, earned our Editors' Choice award. Sony's 2007 high-end LCDs, the KDL-XBR4 series--represented by the 46-inch KDL-46XBR4 reviewed here--come mighty close, but again fall short of the best plasma. This HDTV delivers the deepest, most realistic black levels we've measured on any LCD (with the exception of Samsung's LN-T4681F), and its color accuracy is also excellent, but its real claim to fame is 120Hz processing. We found the effects of Sony's 120Hz mode difficult to discern at reducing motion blur, but remarkable at smoothing out judder--that telltale stutter largely responsible for making film look more filmlike. If you really want that kind of smoothness, which we found strange for film but welcome for some other content, then plasma simply isn't an option right now, and the expensive Sony KDL-46XBR4 makes an excellent choice.

Design
While we liked the looks of the KDL-46XBR4, we're not ranking it among the most attractive LCDs we've seen this year, an honor that currently belongs to the svelte Sharp LC-52D64U. Unlike the Sharp and many other flat-panel sets, Sony's XBR4 series has a lot of front-panel real estate that's not devoted to the screen. Specifically, the rectangular viewing area is ringed by a thick bezel of black, wider on the sides than above and below. That bezel is surrounded by about an inch of glass that's in turn ringed by a strip of silver. Remarkable touches include an illuminated Sony logo (it can be turned off) and indicator lights suspended within the glass. Including the matching black stand, the KDL-46XBR4 measures 49.8 inches by 31.4 inches by 12.8 inches, while without the stand attached it measures 49.8 inches by 29 inches by 4.9 inches.


Sony's XBR models again incorporate the trademark border of glass around the edge of the frame.

As could last year's XBR2 series, to which it bears an uncanny resemblance, the XBR4 series can change color. For $300, Sony will sell you a kit consisting of a new bezel and a new matching cover for the stand, changing the predominant color of the set from matte black to velvet black, scarlet red, Arctic white, sienna brown, Pacific blue, or adjective-free silver. You can also order a wall-mount kit--the official model is the $300 SU-WL500--if you'd like to hang the panel on a wall.

The longish remote stands out as a model of ergonomics, and new for 2007 Sony added blue backlighting behind nearly every key. The clicker can operate three other devices, such as DVD players, satellite or cable boxes, and VCRs, and the company behind Blu-ray took care to equip its clicker with device controls for "BD" gear. The big, central cursor control falls naturally under the thumb, and just enough shortcut keys are available to quickly cycle through picture, sound, and wide (aka aspect ratio) settings. A convenient Options key calls up a couple oft-used submenus, including picture and sound modes, picture-in-picture, and video processing.


We found the many options of the main "Xross Media Bar" menu unwieldy to use.

The Options menu is even more welcome because, like the KDL-46S3000 we reviewed earlier this year, the KDL-46XBR4 is saddled with the company's XMB (for Xross Media Bar) menus. Another attempt to provide people who shelled out that extra few hundred for a Sony with some sense of return on investment, the menu design is common to the company's AV receivers and game consoles, but on TVs it's not implemented nearly as well. We like the clean look of the menus, their speed moving between selections and the text explanations that appear when you move over a selection (cryptic though many may be), but we had plenty of complaints too. First off, we didn't appreciate having to scroll seemingly forever on the Settings menu to find the items we wanted. Second, when we landed on the correct selection, we would often mistakenly attempt to access it by hitting the right cursor key--a natural tendency given the menu's orientation--instead of the central cursor key. Third, we didn't like having to access a submenu to explore the items inside; on many TV menus, simply landing on the name of a submenu also displays the items therein. This design flaw becomes particularly bothersome because--as you'll find out if you actually have the patience to slog through the Features section in its entirety--the KDL-46XBR4 has more adjustments than just about any HDTV we've tested, and many are spread out illogically across many different submenus. Finally, we were annoyed that hitting the Home key, which calls up the XMB in the first place, always defaults to the input selection menu; we'd prefer it to return to the last item we'd adjusted.

Features
Like most other high-end HDTVs on the market, the KDL-46XBR4 has a 1080p native resolution, which translates to 1920x1080 pixels and enables it to resolve every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources--the highest available today. All other sources, whether HDTV, DVD, standard-def TV, or computer, are scaled to fit the pixels.

Much like the Toshiba 52LX177 we reviewed earlier, the Sony KDL-46XBR4 incorporates a 120Hz refresh rate, meaning it updates the picture twice as fast as standard 60Hz LCDs, which is said to eliminate motion blur (see Performance for more). The set also offers a 10-bit panel, which supposedly helps cut down on false contouring and enables the set to take advantage of Deep Color content, should any become available. In addition to Deep Color, the set is compatible with another HDMI 1.3 feature, xvYCC (Sony calls it xvColor), which provides a wider range of colors than the standard HDTV color gamut, providing you use xvYCC content. No xvYCC films are currently available, and we expect the first such xvYCC-enabled content to come in the form of video games.


The Options menu provides easy access to picture controls and other major adjustments.

Picture adjustments: Sony's 2007 XBR models take the cake for sheer number of picture adjustments, spreading them inconveniently over numerous submenus. In the main picture menu, settings for the standard brightness, contrast, and other controls can be saved individually to each of the four adjustable presets, labeled Standard, Vivid, Custom, and Cinema. In addition, each of these presets is independent per input, so your contrast setting in Custom for Input 7, for example, can be different from Contrast in Custom for Input 6. (In case you're wondering, Sony likes to use the term "picture" to denote contrast.) This provides a huge amount of flexibility in adjusting the picture for different sources, lighting conditions, and user preferences.

There are four color temperature presets. The default setting for Custom and Cinema, called Warm 2, comes closest to the standard of D6500, but only the two least accurate are available in Vivid. We appreciated the ability to adjust the color temperature via the user-menu RGB gain and cut controls in the White Balance menu. Other basic picture adjustments include a 10-step backlight control, which adjusts the intensity of the light behind the screen (unlike the backlight settings of many TVs, Sony's are also independent per picture mode and input); three noise reduction settings; two DRC modes (only one is available with non-HDMI sources); and a DRC palette control (which is disabled in certain circumstances). DRC stands for Digital Reality Creation, and we cover its effects in the Performance section of this review.


Among numerous superfluous picture options, we appreciated the few useful ones such as full white balance (aka color temperature) controls.

There's an additional menu section labeled "advanced settings" that's available in all modes except, once again, Vivid. In general, your best bet is to leave most of these off. The options include a four-step Black Corrector, which is best left to Off to preserve shadow detail; a four-step Advanced Contrast Enhancer, which changed the overall brightness and seemed to dim areas near black as the image got brighter (and that's again best left off to preserve shadow detail); a four-step gamma control, which should be set to Off in dim environments for the most-linear rise from black to white; a three-step Clear White control that belongs in Off since the other settings just make whites look bluer; a four-step Live Color setting that seemed to make red and magenta more intense, although Off provided the best color balance; and a two-option Color Space setting we left in Standard for the most-accurate primary color reproduction. The four-step Detail Enhancer should be left to Off with already-sharp sources like HDTV and even DVD since it introduces unnatural edge enhancement, and there's another four-step control entitled Edge Enhancer, which had no effect we could discern.

As if that weren't enough, Sony has added another menu for the 2007 models that's called Video Options, and contains still more settings mostly related to video processing. The most important, ostensibly, is Motion Enhancer, which affects the set's 120Hz refresh rate; the CineMotion setting affects video processing of film-based content; a Game/Text mode is said to optimize the picture for areas with fine lines (this mode, which we did not test, also disables video processing to eliminate any delays between a gamer's fingers and the onscreen action); a Photo/Video mode said to optimize the image for still or moving images; an xv color space mode that engages xvYCC color (choosing the xvColor option doesn't have any effect on standard, non-xvColor material); a photo color space that allows you to choose between sYCC, sRGB, and Adobe RGB for digital photo display (again, we measured no effect on standard HDTV colors in any of these modes, and didn't test them with photos); a Color Matrix setting to choose between standard and high-def color spaces for the standard-def inputs; and finally an RGB dynamic range setting said to change the "luminance tone reproduction of the HDMI input color signals." We left most of these settings in their default modes, and we'll cover the effects of the first two in the Performance section.

Perhaps in anticipation of confusion regarding all of these picture settings, Sony installed a "Theater" mode that's accessible from one button on the remote. It's designed to conjure the best video settings, according to the manual, and in practice pressing the button simply changes the picture mode to Cinema. Also, when the TV is connected to a compatible Sony audio gear like the STR-DA5300ES receiver, they can communicate via HDMI to turn on the receiver, switch off the TV's speakers and turn on the receiver's, and adjust volume using the TV's remote.

Other adjustments & conveniences: The Screen menu offers a solid selection of four aspect ratio controls for both standard-def and high-def sources. Many of the aspect ratio choices, especially the Zooms, allow you to adjust the horizontal and vertical position, as well as the vertical size, of the onscreen image. 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; we appreciated its Full Pixel option because it showed the extreme edges of the image, and didn't subject 1,080-resolution sources to scaling. We recommend choosing this setting unless you see interference along the edges.

In the General menu, there's a room lighting sensor that changes the picture's brightness according to how much ambient light it detects. For this reason, we left it off for critical viewing. In addition to the obvious effect of saving money on power consumption, the Sony's three-position Power Saver setting has a significant effect on picture quality. For optimal image quality we liked the most power-miserly "High" position because it was still bright enough for viewing in a darkened room, and it resulted in deeper black levels than the "Off" or "Low" positions. See the Juice Box below for our power consumption measurements.

Conveniences abound on the KDL-46XBR4, starting with a picture-in-picture (PIP) mode that has a side-by-side option Sony calls "P&P." Both are rather limited in that you can never watch two HDMI sources simultaneously, and in PIP mode the secondary smaller window can only display sources from the antenna/cable input. The company also includes freeze function as well as extensive tuner extras like a favorite channel list. There's a built-in ATSC tuner but no CableCard--not a huge omission in our book, but still notable given the XBR4's high price.


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.

Performance
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.

TEST RESULT SCORE
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

8.0

Sony Bravia KDL-XBR4

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8
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