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Sony Bravia KDL-55W955 review: Picture quality issues make Sony's flagship Full HD TV poor value

The KDL-55W955 may be Sony's top of the range Full HD set, but picture quality issues make it the thin end of the wedge.

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Niall Magennis
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Niall Magennis

Reviewer

Niall has been writing about technology for over 10 years, working for the UK's most prestigious newspapers, magazines and websites in the process. What he doesn't know about TVs and laptops isn't worth worrying about. It's a little known fact that if you stacked all the TVs and laptops he has ever reviewed on top of each other, the pile would reach all the way to the moon and back four times.

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8 min read

Sony's latest plan to return to the glory days when it ruled the world of TVs is to concentrate on higher-end, more expensive models, leaving other manufacturers to duke it out at the cheaper end of the market. The KDL-55W955 is a pretty important TV for Sony this year then, because it's the range-topper in the company's Full HD lineup.

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6.2

Sony Bravia KDL-55W955

The Good

The Sony KDL-55W955 has good picture processing, wide viewing angles and more potent sound than many of its rivals. Its colours are also warm and inviting, while its passive 3D performance is relatively good.

The Bad

Lacking the contrast and black level performance to justify its high price tag, the W955 is also lacking in other areas. Its smart TV system could do with more apps, the design looks chunky and its trackpad remote isn’t as good as LG's motion zapper.

The Bottom Line

Despite good sound quality and an improved menu system, the KDL-55W955 remains a letdown in the picture department compared to other high-end TVs, as its black levels and contrast performance just aren't anywhere near good enough to justify its substantial asking price.

Priced at £1,600, it's cheaper than the likes of Samsung's bendy UE55H8000. The question is, are its picture quality and range of features good enough to make it worth a look over much cheaper mid-range options, such as Sony's own impressive KDL-50W829?

User interface and TV guide

Once again Sony has made some major chances to the menu system that its TVs use. On this model, as with the other 2014 TVs from the brand, the new approach centres on a home screen from which you can access pretty much all the TV's key features, from picture controls to smart apps.

For a high-end TV it's slightly weird that the set lacks a full colour management system. Instead you have to make do with a single colour slider, although you can set colour temperature and white point and it does, naturally, includes the usual brightness and contrast controls. The layout of the controls is mercifully well thought-out, so there isn't much jumping around between different menus when you're trying to tweak the picture.

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The TV guide lacks a video window, but at least audio keeps running in the background while you have it open. Niall Magennis/CNET

As with last year's models, Sony offers two TV guides on this set. There's a standard Freeview one and a secondary Web-enabled guide that's able to drag down more information on shows and movies, such as the names of actors and directors.

Although it looks good, the web-enabled guide is slow to start up and a tad sluggish to use. I found it was better to stick with the standard Freeview guide instead. It's fast and easy to use, despite the fact it's a tad annoying that it doesn't include a video thumbnail window like most of the guides on rival manufacturers' sets, such as those from Panasonic and Samsung. Still, it does keep the audio running in the background while you're viewing the guide, so it's not as intrusive to use as the guide on LG's TVs, which also lack a video window.

Design and connections

Sony is swimming against the tide somewhat with the design of the W955. When viewed side-on, this set has a wedge-shaped profile with a thick bottom end that rises into a slim peak. Instead of trying to hide this, Sony has actually accented the wedge shape by finishing the side panels in chrome.

Sony says there are two benefits to this new shape. Firstly, it lowers the set's centre of gravity, which has allowed it to perch on smaller feet and secondly, it has allowed the company to squeeze in larger speakers for better sound. Personally, I think the wedge design looks quite ugly -- it's very chunky at the bottom and not all that slim at the top.

One advantage of the design, though, is that there are secondary slots on the base for the feet, so you can mount them near the centre of the TV. This means you don't have to have a very wide AV unit to accommodate it, although I do think they look a little odd when they're locked in this position.

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The touchpad on the remote isn't as responsive as we'd have liked. Niall Magennis/CNET

No high-end TV is complete these days unless it comes with two remote controls. In the case of this TV you get Sony's new touch zapper as well as its traditional, box-shaped remote. The touch zapper has a new, more futuristic look compared to the ones shipped with Sony's TVs last year, but I still found it lacking. My main frustrations with it were that it lacked a dedicated TV guide button and that the trackpad was sometimes a bit temperamental as to whether it registered swipes or not, which are key to how the remote works with the new menu system.

I've got no complaints about the lineup of ports and connections, though. The four side-mounted HDMI ports are joined by three USB ports, as well as a set of component inputs and a full-sized Scart socket. As you'd expect, Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port are included, while the set also supports Miracast so you can mirror the screens of compatible Android smartphones to the TV.

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The lineup of connections on the rear is good, with four HDMI and three USB ports. Niall Magennis/CNET

This model does also have a satellite tuner alongside its Freeview HD tuner, but the satellite tuner isn't Freesat-compatible. The result is that it's not really much use for UK channels, as the EPG doesn't work with them. Also, unlike Samsung's H8000, this model only has a single tuner for terrestrial and satellite. This means that while you can record TV to a USB hard drive, you can't watch one channel while recording another.

Digital media

Sony's smart TV system has a fresh new design for this year. It's now properly integrated into the company's home screen menu system, so as with Samsung's system, you swipe back and forth across different pages to access functions such as media streaming, video on demand and smart apps.

There are other additional elements, including a new Discovery feature that overlays a bar at the bottom of the screen suggesting content you might want to watch from a range of sources, including the onboard digital TV tuner, YouTube, iPlayer and Sony's Video Unlimited service. It even lets you add your own keywords. So, for example, if you add Formula One, there'll be an additional column added to the bar to show content related to F1.

Also new is a football mode button on the remote. This selects audio and video settings best suited to watching the beautiful game, and also gives you quick access to video on demand content from YouTube and FIFA.

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The smart TV system is better than last year's effort, but it's still missing some key apps. Niall Magennis/CNET

These are all welcome additions, but Sony's system still can't compete with Samsung's smart TV platform in terms over overall speed and the range of apps on offer. It does have apps for iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Demand 5 and YouTube, but it still lacks ITV Player and 4oD, for example.

Audio quality

Sony justifies the chunky wedge shape of this TV by saying that it has allowed it to add in much beefier speakers than usual, and help combat one of the key weaknesses of today's LED TVs: tinny sound. Does it work? Yes, actually it does, as the W955 is noticeably better in this department than even fairly decent performers like the Samsung H8000.

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The wedge shape may not be pretty, but it helps the set produce good quality audio. Niall Magennis/CNET

Its mid-range is less brittle and there's significantly more bass on offer than almost every other LED set on the market. This helps its audio to sound warmer and more solid, something that's especially noticeable when it's dealing with music channels or just delivering soundtracks from your more outrageous action movies.

It's nowhere near as good sonically as Sony's X9, with its gargantuan speakers, nor would it give a decent sound bar a run for its money, but if you want better than usual audio quality from a TV without going to the X9's extremes or adding extra audio kit, the W955 certainly delivers.

2D picture quality

When it comes to picture quality, which is what really counts on any high-end TV, the W955 turns out to be a disappointment. Its big failings are its less than admirable black levels and its tendency to crush shadow detail.

The result is that its pictures just aren't good enough to justify its £1,600 asking price. In fact, this model is comfortably outperformed in the picture department by Sony's own cheaper 50W829 that I tested recently. On this set images tend to look drabber and less contrasty than its cheaper sibling, especially when dealing with trickier, darker scenes.

It's a shame, because in many other areas it actually puts in a pretty pleasing performance. Sony's X-Reality Pro picture processing is just as good as ever. It's one of the better processing engines for upscaling standard definition broadcasts and its motion-handling chops are impressive too.

As with all LED screens, the panels produces around 300 lines of motion with all processing turned off, but with the motion processing set at Clear it's able to deliver a full 1,080 lines of motion without making things look unnaturally smooth, and manages to avoid flickering on the edges of moving objects in the picture too.

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For a range-topping TV, this model's performance in terms of black levels and contrast is poor. Niall Magennis/CNET

Unlike most Sony TVs, this model has pretty wide viewing angles too, so colours don't shift in hue as you move off centre from the display. In fact, colours look very vibrant and have a nice warm natural feel, especially on the better presets, such as the Cinema option. The backlighting on my review sample wasn't outrageously patchy either, but there was some cloudiness in the top right and bottom left corners of the screen.

It's when you dim the lights and view this TV in a more cinema-like environment that its weaknesses reveal themselves. Its native black levels just aren't that deep, with the result that noir-ish scenes tend to look a tad grey, and although the backlight dimming improves things a touch, the deeper black levels it achieves come at the expense of shadow detail. The result is that subtle shades of grey tend to get crushed into great swathes of black, leaving the W955's images looking hollow and muddy compared to similarly priced rivals.

3D picture quality

The W955 is a passive rather than active 3D set and it comes with two pairs of passive glasses in the box, but extra passive specs are very cheap to buy if you need more.

As with all passive TVs, it achieves its 3D effect by halving the horizontal resolution of the image -- each eye sees every second line in the display. Here the results actually look quite good and you'll only really notice the loss in resolution on sharp horizontal lines or circles where you can spot some jagged edges.

Its reliance on passive 3D also means that it benefits from using lighter and more comfortable 3D glasses that don't suffer from flicker, so are less fatiguing on your eyes, especially when watching longer movies.

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Sony includes two pairs of its light and comfortable passive 3D glasses in the box. Niall Magennis/CNET

Although the W955's 3D pictures are quite bright, I could still see some backlight clouding while viewing darker scenes in "Hugo". The TV's tendency to crush shadow detail is also just as apparent here as when watching standard 2D movies.

Conclusion

The KDL-55W955 has its plus points, such as its wide viewing angles, good sound and improved menu system. However, its picture quality just isn't as good as I'd expect at this price point due to its poor black levels and iffy handling of shadow detail. The fact that I'd prefer to watch movies on its cheaper sibling, the KDL-50W829, says it all.

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6.2

Sony Bravia KDL-55W955

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 6Value 6
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