Sony XBR-X900F series review: Excellent picture in a midrange alternative to Vizio and TCL
New TVs get introduced in spring, and it's not unusual for a mid- to high-end set to fall $1,000 or more in price throughout the year. That's exactly what happened to the Sony XBR-X900E last year; the 65-incher started at $2,500 and fell to $1,500 in the middle of November. And I expect the same thing to happen to the X900F reviewed here.
Don't get me wrong: the X900F is a superb television right now. Its picture quality is excellent, anchored by deep black levels, bright highlights, rich, accurate color and great video processing. Style is minimalist and sleek, and then there's the fact that "it's a Sony." Sure, its Android TV system is a mixed bag -- great features on one hand, slow responses on the other -- but you can always just connect a good, cheap streamer if you want.
There are two problems for LCD TVs at this Sony's price and higher. One is that OLED TVs from LG offer an even better picture for not that much more money, especially if you buy last year's version. The other is that TCL's 6 series has similarly excellent picture quality as the Sony for a lot less money. And right now that makes the 6 series a hands-down better value than the X900F.
Yes, the X900F is available in a larger range of sizes than the TCL. And if you value the Sony name or the X900F's superior style, it might make sense to pay the premium now. But I'll like the X900F even more when its price inevitably falls later this year.
Minimalist frame, substantial legs
Sony's TVs are often more businesslike with less flair than the competition, and the sleek, modern-looking X900F fits the mold. The frame around the screen is nice and thin, with a very slightly thicker bottom edge that bears the only accent, a thin line of sorta-transparent, sorta-reflective reflective material. There's barely enough room to fit the Sony logo.
Last year's X900E has a single central pedestal stand but the X900F bows to the recent trend of a pair of legs for support. They're thick enough to make Samsung and TCL's look a bit spindly, and they sit relatively close to the center but are otherwise pretty standard. On the back they incorporate token cable management, although more than a couple HDMI cables will be too much.
Sony's Android TV: Capable but slow
Sony's sets run Google's smart TV system, and it beats the homebrew solutions from Samsung and LG (if not Roku TV) in one important area: app coverage. It's also better, pretty much every way, than Vizio's SmartCast system.
As I saw on the X900E last year, however the responsiveness of Sony's Android TV system wasn't as quick as many of its competitors, including LG, Samsung and Roku. At times the home page would take forever to load. Within apps like Netflix and YouTube, moving around, loading thumbnails and other actions wasn't quite as zippy. And the system lagged when I hit the "Action Menu" key during streaming to call up a picture adjustments. Methinks Sony could invest more in processor speed on this TV.
That said, it was still tolerable to use for the most part, and app coverage and features are top-notch. The X900F's Amazon , Netflix and Vudu apps all support both 4K and HDR, as does Sony's own Ultra app, exclusive to Sony TVs, which carries Sony Pictures movies only on a purchase-only basis (typically $18-$20 each). Apps that support 4K but not HDR include YouTube and Google Play Movies and TV -- both a bit surprising since they're Google properties and YouTube supports HDR on Roku.
With the notable exception of Hulu, which still has the old interface (and which may actually be preferable to some viewers) and doesn't support live TV, Sony's Android TV system has nicely updated apps and broad support. It offers YouTube TV, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, MLB AtBat, PlutoTV, Facebook video, Twitch and numerous other apps along with games are available via the Google Play Store (don't get too excited; it's specific to Android TV and much less extensive than the one on your phone). Speaking of phones , many more apps can be cast to the Sony via its built-in Google Cast functionality, which works just like a Chromecast.
Ready to listen, remote or hands-free
As you'd expect from a device controlled by Android, the Sony TV's voice features are a cut above most competitors.
New for 2018, the remote button at the top is a full-fledged Google Assistant icon, which invokes the full version of Google's ubiquitous voice assistant -- it's just like a Google Home , complete with a voice that talks to you through the TV speakers. Since pressing the button replaces invoking the "OK Google" catchphrase, it's arguably even easier to use, and there are fewer privacy concerns since Google is only "listening" when the remote mic is hot (as indicated by a convenient orange LED).
I got a weather report, scouted nearby pizza joints, and played music from a linked Spotify account (complete with playlists) with no issues, although again responsiveness could be spotty. At times the onscreen prompt took a second or more to appear, especially when watching something on an app rather than via an input. At one point during an HBO stream, the whole system seemed to crash for about 20 seconds when I hit the Assistant button. Basic voice commands also occasionally failed, for example switching inputs and launching apps. Overall I found Sony's Assistant a tad slower and therefore less satisfying than Nvidia Shield's incarnation, and neither are quite as capable as Alexa on Amazon Fire TV Edition.
Sony's TV also accepts voice commands hands-free (no remote required) when linked with actual Alexa speakers -- which I tested last year and won't revisit here -- as well as Google Home speakers. Using a Mini, I found that YouTube worked best, although the phrasing can be long and awkward. I said "OK Google, play Long Long Honeymoon videos on Lab TV" and my favorite RVing couple appeared. Afterward I could just say "OK Google, play cat videos" and it knew to play them on the Lab TV (the Sony) without having to specify.
Unfortunately, only a handful of other sources beyond YouTube are supported -- among them HBO Now and CBS All Access, but not Netflix, Hulu or Amazon. I love that I could just say "Play Westworld" -- without having to specify the app or the TV itself, and it would start up, so hopefully Google adds more apps soon. Strangely, on the other hand, an Alexa speaker can power on the Sony TV, but a Google Home cannot.
Fully featured and connected
The best picture-enhancing extra on the X900F is full-array local dimming (FALD). It improved black levels and contrast by illuminating different areas of the screen separately as needed. Unlike Vizio or TCL, Sony doesn't disclose the number of dimming zones.
|Display technology||LED LCD|
|LED backlight||Full array with local dimming|
|Smart TV||Android TV|
Other picture-centric extras include a native 120Hz refresh rate, a notable improvement on paper over the fake 120Hz refresh rates (they're actually 60Hz native) found on the Vizio M and TCL P series. New for 2018 Sony says it has improved video processing as well, courtesy of the same X1 Extreme processor found in models such as the A1E OLED. And there's a new Precision Clarity mode that boosts motion resolution by applying black frame insertion only where it's needed on the screen, which is said to eliminate the flicker and dimness evinced by similar modes in past sets. See the picture quality section for more.
Sony added the Dolby Vision HDR format to some of its 2017 TVs last year via a firmware upgrade, and says a similar update will be available in 2018 for the X900F. In the meantime, it supports the HDR10 format.
- 4x HDMI inputs with HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2
- 3x USB ports
- Composite video input
- Ethernet (LAN) port
- Optical digital audio output
- 1x headphone/subwoofer audio output
- 1x RF (antenna) input
- RS-232 port (minijack)
The X900E has a very healthy selection of jacks. Unlike many of Samsung's sets, the Sony actually has an analog video input, albeit composite-only, and I also appreciate having a headphone jack.
All of the HDMI inputs will work with 4K and HDR devices, but for best results Sony recommends using input 2 or 3 (which have higher bandwidth than the others) with 4K Blu-ray players and making sure to engage "HDMI enhanced" mode. Unlike LG and Samsung TVs, the X900F will not detect and automatically change that setting for you, which is a shame.
2018 is turning out to be an excellent year for LCD picture quality, and the prevalence of full-array local dimming is the biggest reason. I compared the Sony directly to other FALD-equipped TVs, including a significantly less-expensive TCL and the more-expensive Samsung Q8, and all performed extremely well and earn the same "8" in image quality overall.
If you're choosing between the three for pure picture, the Samsung is the brightest and best in bright rooms while the TCL can achieve the best black levels. The Sony's black levels were lighter than the other two overall but still very good, and it showed an advantage in video processing and color, with the most accurate overall image of the bunch. None of them can touch OLED sets like the LG C8, but they also cost a lot less.
Click the image at the above-right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.
Dim lighting: With the exception of the Q7, which lagged behind, all of the LCDs in my lineup looked excellent when calibrated for home theater viewing in a dark room. Watching the 1080p Blu-ray of Black Panther, the three 2018 LCDs -- the Sony, the Samsung Q8 and the TCL -- looked so close to one another that I didn't really prefer one over another.
Sure, I was able to tease out some difference in my side-by-side comparison. The Sony did show slightly lighter (worse) black levels than the TCL in most dark areas, for example the black behind the titles or the jungle flyover in the beginning of Chapter 2, which did rob its image of some contrast. But in some other dark scenes,like the fight right afterward, the two were neck and neck, especially in tough areas like the letterbox bars. The Sony also showed a very faint advantage in shadow detail over the TCL, but it would be tough to spot outside of a side-by-side comparison.
Compared to the more-expensive Samsung, the Sony was even closer, matching its black level and contrast in most scenes. In darker ones like the flyover, its letterbox bars did appear a hair lighter, but on the other hand the Samsung's highlights in titles were a bit dimmer at times. Let me stress again, however, that the differences were extremely subtle and might be more due to differences in calibration rather than the TVs' inherent capabilities.
Bright lighting: Among my comparison TVs the Sony fell short of only the blazing Samsung Q8 in terms of sheer light output with both HDR and SDR material. It also outshone the X900E from 2017 by a couple hundred nits.
The brightest mode, Vivid, has terrible color so I wouldn't recommend using it if you value accuracy. My choice instead for bright rooms would be Cinema Home, which is only about half as bright (567 nits) but delivers a much more accurate image.
Light output in nits
|TV||Mode (SDR)||10% window (SDR)||Full screen (SDR)||Mode (HDR)||10% window (HDR)|
|TCL 65R617||Brighter/Vivid||653||480||Brighter/Dark HDR||824|
|LG OLED65C8P||Vivid||419||141||Cinema Home||792|
The Sony's screen didn't preserve black levels quite as well as the Samsungs, or reduce reflections as well as the Vizios, but it still handled ambient light well. Overall it's an excellent performer for very bright rooms or if you crave a bright picture, falling short of only the Samsung Q8 in this category.
Color accuracy: The Sony aced this category, both according to my measurements and observations of program material. The lush colors of Black Panther came through beautifully, from the warm sun shining on the faces of Black Panther and Nakia as they ride home (12:19) to the browns and greens of the Wakanda countryside. Saturation was excellent and the only TV in my lineup that looked consistently better with color was the LG OLED. That said, they were all extremely close, and as usual differences would be tough to discern beyond a side-by-side comparison.
Video processing: Here's where Sony made some of its biggest improvements over last year, evidently thanks to its new X-Motion Clarity feature. Only the Samsung sets could match the Sony's video processing.
Just like its predecessor, the X900F had no issues delivering proper 1080p/24 cadence in its TruCinema MotionFlow setting, which is the default in the Cinema Pro picture mode, and probably still the best for film purists. But for people who crave more motion resolution (minimal blurring) without introducing overwhelming smoothness, or soap opera effect, there are better options.
Flipping back and forth between the various modes, I found the best balance with the Custom setting, with Smoothness at 2 and Clearness at 1. That setting did show some minor smoothing in my standard I Am Legend aircraft carrier flyover scene, but it's certainly not as bad as full SOE. It also served up the TV's maximum motion resolution of 1,200 lines, without dimming the image too much or causing flicker -- an improvement over last year in all areas.
A good alternative is to back Smoothness down to 1, which hurts motion resolution quite a bit but eliminates almost all traces of SOE. Settings of zero in either Smoothness of Clearness turn off X-Motion Clarity, which brings motion resolution back down to the minimum (300 lines) for this TV.
I didn't see much improvement when using the Reality Creation setting, even with lower-quality sources, and I didn't bother looking at the Xtended Dynamic Range setting, which is designed to mimic HDR for non-HDR sources. I did appreciate Smooth Gradation however, which reduced some of the transitions in fields of color, for example in the backgrounds of the Hulu app.
Uniformity: As I'd expect from a TV with full-array dimming, the X900F maintained a very uniform image across the screen, with no overt brighter areas, banding or spotting. In a few full-raster test patterns, the middle did appear slightly brighter than the edges, but the difference was invisible in program material. The other full-array sets performed similarly.
From off-angle it lost black level and color fidelity about as quickly as the Samsungs. The TCL maintained black levels better but color shift was worse, while the OLED, as expected, trounced the LCDs from off angle.
HDR and 4K video: With its prodigious light output, local dimming and accurate color, the X900F is an HDR powerhouse, but so are other 2018 sets. None of the three 2018 LCDs in my comparison could begin to match the LG OLED overall, but each has its strengths. The Samsung won for contrast overall, with the brightest highlights and deeper blacks than the Sony, while the TCL achieved even deeper black levels at the expense of color accuracy and shadow detail. The Sony was the most balanced and color-accurate of the three, but its HDR image sometimes left me wanting more, well, dynamic-ness.
Watching the excellent Black Panther 4K HDR Blu-ray, the Sony delivered lighter black levels and lower contrast overall than any set in my lineup aside from the Q7. The Sony outclassed the Q7 and the duller-looking Vizio M, but against the Q8 and the TCL it looked a bit less punchy.
When Black Panther's ship ascends from the jungle in Chapter 2, for example, it didn't show the same depth in the shadows and letterbox bars, and the Q8 showed brighter, more impressive highlights. Later, the sun over Wakanda (12:54) measured dimmer on the Sony (280 nits) then the Q8 (383), the C8 OLED (430) and the TCL (302), although it did outshine the Q7 and the Vizio.
The bright flyover scenes of the Wakanda countryside looked very good, but again lacked a bit of brilliance and dynamism compared to those three. The Sony did appear to have the most accurate color, however; for example in the skin tones of the crew as they gaze over the landscape, or the welcoming party as they disembark the ship (14:01). That said, the Sony's red guard uniforms looked a bit less brilliant, perhaps a symptom of its narrower color gamut.
Occasional instances of blooming and stray illumination were usually more noticeable on the Sony than on the other sets. In Chapter 1, for example, the letterbox bars near brighter areas, such as the light on the ceiling (5:58) brightened more than on the TCL and especially the Samsung Q8, and the issue got even worse when menu elements appeared on the screen. That said, the TCL showed more blooming than the Sony in other scenes, like the portions of the jungle in Chapter 2, while the Samsung controlled blooming best.
Switching to streaming, I fired up Lost in Space from Netflix, delivered to the TVs from a Roku Ultra. The cave scene in Episode 9 makes a great HDR demo, with the bright flashlights illuminating the darkness. The Sony again fell short of the TCL's overall contrast with its brighter black levels, but I liked the Sony's image better by a hair in this scene. It preserved details in shadows very well while the TCL crushed them a bit. The red light of the flare (13:35) also looked more realistic than on the Samsung and especially the TCL, and closer to the look of the LG OLED, the closest I have to an HDR color reference.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.0007||Good|
|Peak white luminance (SDR)||1,183||Good|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.36||Good|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||0.63||Good|
|Dark gray error (30%)||0.75||Good|
|Bright gray error (80%)||0.58||Good|
|Avg. color checker error||0.90||Good|
|Avg. color error||1.26||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1,200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||1,100||Good|
|Input lag (Game mode)||41.00||Average|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.006||Good|
|Peak white luminance (10% win)||1,203||Good|
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)||94.92||Average|
|Avg. color checker error||1.63||Good|
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||23.40||Good|