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Sony KD-34XBR960 review: Sony KD-34XBR960

Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.


Sony KD-34XBR960

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Highest resolution of any consumer direct-view HDTV; independent memory per input; excellent color decoding.

The Bad

Bulky tube form factor.

The Bottom Line

This is the reference standard for picture quality among direct-view HDTVs and happens to be a great value.
Review summary
Sony's 34-inch wide-screen tube-based direct-view HDTV, the KD-34XBR960, is simply the best-performing television of its kind on the market. Its screen boasts an incredible 1,400 lines of horizontal resolution, which allows it to resolve more detail with high-def sources than any other direct-view tube. It can deliver deeper blacks than any non-tube TV, and it offers two key improvements over last year's excellent KV-34XBR910: accurate color decoding and independent picture memory per input. In the smaller-than-40-inch category, the KD-34XBR960 earns its place as CNET's reference HDTV. Add to all that a list price of $2,200--another improvement compared to last year--and you also have a compelling value. The design of the 960 series is quite attractive. The perfectly flat screen is surrounded by a dark gray, almost black border, which is in turn trimmed with a thin vertical line of silver on the sides of the set. A Memory Stick slot and a full set of A/V inputs are housed beneath the flip-down door on the front.

This TV's one Achilles' heel is size. Compared to flat-panel plasmas and LCDs of similar screen size, the KV-34XBR960 is both deep (24 inches) and heavy (196 pounds). The optional matching stand or some other sturdy riser will be necessary to get the TV to eye level, and lifting it there will require at least two strong people.

The remote uses the same design as Sony's previous XBR direct-views from the past several years and remains among our favorites. It is a universal model with some of the key buttons illuminated for use in the dark and secondary controls stashed behind a flip-up lid.

On the other hand, the internal menu system has been completely redesigned. We found it cleaner and more intuitive than previous iterations, with all the functions highlighted in orange. The menu bar is now vertically oriented, which makes navigation even easier.

Aside from the standard features such as three selectable color temperatures, four preset picture modes, and two-tuner PIP (picture-in-picture), the XBR960 adds two key performance features. Finally, Sony has seen fit to implement true independent memory per input, which allows you to optimize all inputs separately without having to change modes for each input. Secondly, the user menu contains a setting for accurate color decoding (see Performance for more).

The KD-34XBR960's aspect-ratio control also deserves kudos. The set offers four choices for both standard- and high-definition sources; many wide-screen HDTVs can't control high-def aspect ratios at all.

Like most 2004 HDTVs above a certain screen size, the KD-34XBR960 comes equipped with both a built-in HDTV tuner and a CableCard slot, which allows for digital and HDTV cable reception without a cable TV set-top box. (As with other so-equipped TVS, this digital-cable-ready feature isn't as valuable as it should be, since the card does not allow essential conveniences such as an EPG or video-on-demand.) On the audio side, there are True Surround and Simulated Surround modes to enhance the stereo audio, as well as a built-in subwoofer.

Connectivity options are extensive. The set's back panel offers one HDMI port, two component-video inputs, two iLink (a.k.a. IEEE 1394/FireWire) ports, two S-Video inputs, and two composite-video inputs. All A/V inputs have their own stereo audio inputs. I also counted one RF input for antenna hookup, another for cable TV connections, and an optical digital audio output for use with an outboard surround-sound processor or A/V receiver. The front panel has the standard A/V input with S-Video plus one iLink port and a Memory Stick slot, which is convenient for viewing JPEG pictures if you happen to own a Sony camera.

Out-of-the-box performance on the KD-34XBR960 was certainly better than average overall. The grayscale was reasonably close to the industry standard in the Warm color temperature setting but still benefited from our ISF-style calibration.

At the factory preset of Default, the color decoder pushes red severely, so you should change it to the Monitor setting, which is almost perfectly accurate for all sources. Sony deserves kudos for making this a user menu item rather than a service menu-only item (although, for perfectionists, a slight service-menu tweak to the green portion of the decoder was necessary for the best results). After calibration, the 960's picture was superb, with extremely accurate color decoding and grayscale tracking, great color saturation, and natural-looking skin tones.

After tweaking the picture for both standard- and high-definition sources, we sat back and watched some of our favorite material. Chapter 25 of the Seabiscuit DVD looked exceptional with great detail in the horse's face and excellent color saturation. We also looked at some scenes from the The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers DVD, which were rendered beautifully.

As the high-def Olympics were being shown on the Dish Network DVR 921, you can imagine we watched more high-def than DVD. HDTV material really brought out the strength of this TV--the Games looked extremely sharp with even the tiniest lines visible. Detail was truly awesome for a direct-view HDTV, and the richness of the color combined with the natural-looking skin tones for an extremely impressive display. In short, we'd recommend this TV to anyone who cares first about picture quality.

Test Result Score
Before color temp (20/80) 5,100/7,050K Average
After color temp (20/80) 6,400/6,500K Good
Before grayscale variation 20 to 100 IRE +/- 489K Good
After grayscale variation 20 to 100 IRE +/- 34K Good
Overscan 4% Average
Color decoder error: red +10% (0%) Poor
Color decoder error: green -10 % (-5%) Poor
DC restoration All patterns stable Good
2:3 pull-down, 24fps Y Good
Edge enhancement Y Good

Sony KD-34XBR960

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 9