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Sony KDL-32R400A review: Jack of all trades, master of none

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If you're looking for a small TV for a bedroom or game room, it can be tempting to simply buy the cheapest thing you can find, but it's worth shopping around a little. While some people would discount Sony for being unnecessarily expensive, the KDL-32R400A demonstrates the company can make an affordable TV that still performs well.

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7.0

Sony KDL-32R400A

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The <b>Sony KDL-32R400A</b> has solid black levels, shadow detail, and color saturation for a small, budget TV; it handles 1080p/24 properly; it has very good sound quality for a TV of this size; and its design is sleek and modern.

The Bad

Its so-called 120Hz refresh rate does almost nothing to improve picture quality; it has more blurring than competing sets; inaccurate colors and sparse features.

The Bottom Line

The Sony KDL-32R400A is the closest you'll get to a jack-of-all-trades performer in a 32-inch television.

Despite a couple of drawbacks, its picture quality, led by black levels and shadow detail, is quite good overall for a small, budget LED LCD. Moreover its sound is among the best we've heard at the price. It's not quite the value proposition of a set like the Vizio E320i-A0, since it lacks smart TV among other features. Still, the TV's benefits outweigh its negatives, making the R400A an excellent buy for small-screen TV seekers who prioritize performance and design.

Design
For a cheap TV, the R400A certainly doesn't look like one -- a little old-school, perhaps, with its mirrorlike touches and piano-black bezel, but not "cheap." Compared with last year's Toshiba 32C120U with its thick, thick bezel, the Sony looks positively svelte. It looks very similar to the Samsung EH4000, in fact, with the addition of a mirrored panel at the bottom and a bifurcated stand.

Sony's KDL-32R400A is a good small TV (pictures)

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The remote is compact with fairly high usability and even has a dedicated set of play controls for the onboard media player.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sarah Tew/CNET

With its lack of smart-TV features, the Sony menu system is fairly skeletal with a standard white-on-black look. Apart from the Scene functionality, which is only accessible with the Options button on the remote -- and is needed for Game mode -- most features are available from the Home menu.

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Key TV features "="">Other: 720p resolution
Display technology LCD LED backlight Full-array
Screen finish Glossy Remote Standard
Smart TV No Internet connection No
3D technology No 3D glasses included No
Refresh rate(s) 60Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing Yes, No
DLNA-compliant No USB Photo/Music/Video

Features
The Sony R400A is a 720p television with very few features to speak of, which is quite understandable for a model selling under $300 on the street. That 720p resolution is fine for a TV this size; 32 inches is too small to take advantage of 1080p.

The R400A uses a direct LED backlight that doesn't make for a better picture than standard LCD. "Direct" refers to the fact that the LEDs are placed behind the screen, as opposed to along the edge. Fewer LEDs are required, which is one reason why direct sets are cheaper than edge-lit ones.

Despite a supposed 120Hz refresh rate, the R400A behaves much like a 60Hz TV. Like the "120Hz" Vizio E01-A1 and Toshiba L2300U, the Sony also neglects to include smoothing/dejudder processing. You might not like the so-called Soap Opera Effect such smoothing induces, but with most other 120Hz TVs it's an option you can turn on or off. With the Sony, it's simply not available.

Since the R400A lacks the smoothing and motion resolution performance we expect from a 120Hz TV, we're sticking with the 60Hz specification in the table above, despite what Sony says.

The R400A includes a USB port for playback of MPEG movie files (though not MP4), MP3 audio files, and JPEG picture files.

Picture settings: You get the usual Standard, Vivid, and Custom picture settings with this TV, with the addition of the customary Scenes, but they are hard to find (you'll need to hit the Options button). Despite working well on most other Sony televisions, Cinema actually restricts some options here and isn't any more accurate than the General mode. There are no tweaking options beyond the standard Brightness, Contrast, Color, and so on.

Connectivity: The KDL-32R400A has "three HD inputs" according to the marketing blurb, which in practice means it has two HDMI ports (including one MHL for screen mirroring and charging a smartphone) and a component input. In addition to these you get a composite input, a USB port, and a digital optical output.

Picture quality
For a television of its size the Sony KDL-32R400A boasts very good black levels and shadow detail. It did very well in providing blacks equal to or deeper than those of last year's best 32-inchers, the Samsung EH4000 and Toshiba 32C120U.

Where it fell down, though, was in color fidelity; while greens and skin tones were natural, in yellow and cyan the picture noticeably suffered. Cyan was rendered as blue and yellow was more of an orange.

It wasn't even color that was the worst part, but movement. While Sony has tried to amend this with the LED motion feature, the TV looks appreciably soft when movement occurs onscreen, whether the feature is switched on or off.

Sound quality was a highlight, with one of the best sound systems I can recall in a 32-inch TV. No replacement for a two-channel system, of course, but plenty good enough for the panel's intended purpose as a bedroom or game room TV.

"="" bgcolor="#CCCCCC">Comparison models (details)
Toshiba 50l2300u 50-inch edge-lit LCD
Samsung UN32EH4000 32-inch full-array LCD
Toshiba 32C120U 32-inch LCD
Panasonic TC-P50S60 50-inch plasma
Vizio E420i-A1 42-inch direct LCD with local dimming
Panasonic TC-P65VT50 (reference) 65-inch plasma

Click the image at right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Black level: Black levels are definitely the Sony's shining (darkly gleaming?) feature, with pleasingly deep shades of black for a budget TV. True, it can't stand up to more expensive, larger models, but nothing else we've tested in this size can either.

Compared directly against the 32-inch Toshiba and Samsung, the Sony consistently provided better black in dark scenes, with punchier pictures, and was able to perform as well in terms of unearthing shadowy details. On the single most challenging scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," (45:55) an army amasses on a hill in almost total darkness. The Sony was one of the better performers, with black bars and enough detail to inform the viewer that there are figures on a hill overlooking Hogwarts. On the other end of the spectrum was the 50-inch Toshiba 50L2300U, where you have to guess what it is that you're looking at: broccoli? A moldy orange? The GEICO gecko in the dark?

Meanwhile, the Vizio E420i-A1 was able to perform better than the Sony here. Of course, the excellent Panasonic TC-P50S60 plasma was able to trump them all, but its shadows were a little green-tinged.

Further evidence of the Sony KDL-32R400A's ability to resolve shadow detail came at the 56-minute mark, when Neville Longbottom sports a sweater with fine detail. While on the neighboring Toshiba 50L2300U any detail is lost in shadow, on the Sony you can make out some of the individual threads. Of the group, the Vizio E420i-A1 was best at this test, with a clear pattern visible.

Color accuracy: Color is fairly problematic for this TV, for while it is a well-saturated set, secondary color accuracy is an issue. Primary tones are very good though, with natural flesh colors, blues, and greens. It's cyan where the problems lie, and this was evident at the start of Chapter 5 of "The Tree of Life" as the mother sits on the grass. While the grass behind her was the same color as on most of the televisions in the lineup and her hair and skin looked natural, it looked as though she were wearing a blue dress instead of a turquoise one.

Switching to the sumptuous visuals of "Samsara," with its gold-encrusted temples, the Sony's issue with yellow also manifested itself. While on the Vizio and Panasonic TVs gold actually looked yellow, in comparison the Sony made those areas look like American cheddar. Gold is supposed to be edible, but not like this.

Video processing: The television is supposedly a 120Hz set, but in most ways it behaved like a 60Hz model. The exception was with 1080p/24 material. In the aircraft carrier sequence we use as a test from "I Am Legend," the television correctly showed the cadence of film. On the other hand it did appear a bit smoother than on the Sony W900A, which also does correct 24p cadence.

Motion resolution was the same as that of a 60Hz set. Without its LED motion setting, the Sony was able to do 300 lines. With LED motion turned to on, I was able to squeeze about an extra 50 lines of resolution out of the R400A, and while it reduced some of the motion blur the pattern was still pretty blurry. You could see that up to about 600 lines on the test pattern the image was ghosting quite badly and only up to 350 was clear. Additionally, enabling LED motion (backlight scanning) also made the picture darker.

The softness that I saw on movement was also detectable during program material. During "The Tree of Life" (2:09:27) when the mother swings her child around at dusk, as her arm moved past the screen it blurred significantly. This level of blurring wasn't evident on any other screen in the lineup.

On the 1080i test the Sony R400A had a significant amount of artifacts in crosshatched pattern but was very good at the slow pan of the stadium.

Uniformity: Uniformity was mostly good, with a lack of big blobs of light leakage spoiling dark areas of the picture. There was one small area in the top right about the size of a quarter that was a little lighter than the rest, but it was usually undetectable.

Off-axis performance was good compared with the rest of the group, with only a slight drop in color and contrast. Last year's Toshiba 32C120U had the best performance of all the LCDs.

Bright lighting: The R400A's semimatte screen didn't present any problems with reflections or contrast; it displayed good pictures in a well-lit room. Only the S60, with its lack of louver filter, and the Toshiba 50L2300U's semiglossy screen had a problem under these conditions.

Sound quality: For a small, inexpensive TV, the Sony had surprisingly good sound quality. It outperformed every other TV in our testing lineup near its price (the Samsung and the Toshibas) and featured intelligible speech, explosions that didn't break up or compress, and decent music playback without distortion.

Geek box: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.012 Average
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.2 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 2.200 Good
Near-black error (5%) 0.974 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 2.281 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 2.251 Good
Avg. color error 4.109 Good
Red error 2.871 Good
Green error 2.21 Good
Blue error 3.995 Average
Cyan error 6.484 Poor
Magenta error 1.523 Good
Yellow error 7.569 Poor
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i Deinterlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 350 Poor
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300 Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 46.4 Average

Calibration report for Sony KDL-32R400A

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7.0

Sony KDL-32R400A

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 6Value 8