Sony KDL-55W900A review: Quantum Dots make compelling argument
The Sony W900A is a fine television, its Triluminos technology offers excellent color performance and black levels are amongst the best you can get on an LCD.
While many of Sony's marketing terms mean nothing in English (or sometimes even Japanese), there have been some memorable ones: Bravia, WEGA, XBR, et al. Here's another, less-catchy, less capitalized one to add to the list: Triluminos. It's Sony's term for a technology, also known as Quantum Dots, which theoretically enhances the number of colors an LCD can produce. CNET writer Geoffrey Morrison examines the dots in depth here, but in essence it's a film of microscopic crystals that glow green, red, or blue when stimulated by a light source.
The KDL-55W900A is the first production TV we know about to use Quantum Dots, and despite this tech's whiff of marketing gimmick, its color is superb. In addition, its overall picture quality is excellent for an LED-based LCD TV, thanks in part to deep black levels courtesy of Sony's local dimming technology.
Among 2013 LED LCDs, and a list price of only $1,999, the Sony W900 has no picture quality equal we've reviewed so far. Its closest rival is the Samsung UNF8000, and while the two are very evenly matched, the Sony has a slightly better picture overall -- although it can't compete with the Samsung in design or features.
After starting at a list price of $3,299, the Sony has lost a whole $1,300 and this has improved its value significantly. If you want a 55-inch LED LCD and care foremost about the picture quality, the W900A is probably your best option in 2013.Editors' note: In light of another price reduction -- after a $1,000 drop in July -- this review was modified on November 8, 2013, with a higher value rating (from 7 to 8) and a corresponding, manual increase in its overall rating to 4 stars (80).
If it weren't for the different colored bases, you'd swear that the W802 and W900A were the same TV, and since one is exactly twice the price of the other, this almost seems a lazy design choice. Both models feature a very slim black bezel with a "Quartz-cut" edge that glows blue-green when it catches the light.
The W900A trades the brushed-aluminum base of the W802 for a chrome finish, making this TV look even more like it should be propping up a hipster at your local speakeasy. So far, so elegant, but then it gets strange with a tacked-on, nondetachable "box" bulging with Sony's logo.
The television comes with two remotes: one standard, medium-size infrared and the other smaller Bluetooth. The standard remote is compact and yet easy to use with dedicated SEN and Netflix buttons. The Bluetooth remote, which doesn't require line of sight to the TV, is quirky yet surprisingly ergonomic, with most of the buttons you'll need.
After six years of the XMB (Xross Media Bar) interface, Sony has decided it's time for a change. Instead of stretching from left to right, as with the original PS3 interface, Sony has opted for a traditional vertical menu. The menu is animated, which can make it a little slower than your traditional list, though.
|Key TV features
|Edge-lit with local dimming
|Standard & Bluetooth remotes
|3D glasses included
|4 pair, No
|Dejudder (smooth) processing
|Other: Bluetooth remote
Along with the 4K XBR-X900 series, the W900A is Sony's "kitchen sink" television when it comes to picture enhancements. The standout, of course, is the "Triluminos" or "Color IQ" coating that enhances the picture's available colors by the application of a thin, multicolor-crystal film over the backlight. The company used the term a few years ago for its three-color LED system, but this is a different technology. The theory is that the TV is able to reproduce more of the colors that are in the source versus a standard LED, and Sony's representatives say it should be able to handle even wider color gamuts if -- big if -- they ever appear in the future. Interestingly, however, it still isn't wide enough to handle the color of Rec. 2020.
If you love your picture to be buttery-smooth, you'll be happy to hear this is a Motion Flow XR960 system, but be aware that this translates in reality to a 240Hz panel. Another major step-up over the W802A is the employment of local dimming from the edge-lit LED backlight.
Sony keeps things simple with a bunch of cell-phone-friendly features like Miracast mirroring and MHL, and the second Bluetooth remote is also NFC-enabled. Beyond these minor additions, the TV's non-picture-affecting features are mostly unchanged from last year.
The TV includes four pairs of 3D active glasses, the TDG-BT500A, which retail for $50 each. New for this year, Sony's active 3D TVs finally comply with the full HD 3D standard, so it will work with third-party glasses like the these Samsungs ($20).
Smart TV: The interface has improved a little since last year -- no more scrolling lists or separate, competing interfaces -- and the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) is now the default smart TV destination. It's available only from the SEN button on the remote control, though some apps are available under the Applications menu. All of the apps sit on one screen, and I found the layout preferable to scrolling through a seemingly endless vertical list via the XMB. Happily, the Home page allows for shortcuts to your most-used apps, which means you won't need to even load the slow SEN in most cases.
Unlike some competitors, Sony offers no app store, just a long list of preloaded apps which includes the inevitable litany of disposable games. There have so far been no new additions to last year's Smart TV content selection, and Yahoo Widgets and CinemaNow have both disappeared. Of course favorites like Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora are still available.
The Sony features a Web browser, but without a pointing device it becomes unbearably difficult to navigate. I don't anticipate many people will use this feature.
The company is currently offering 12 months of Hulu Plus and Netflix, and 30 days of Music Unlimited with the purchase of this TV. As usual, we recommend hooking the TV to a receiver or a decent sound bar to get the best out of Music Unlimited.
Picture settings: Despite being a more expensive TV, the W900A actually offers less tweaking than is available on the W802. There's no 10-point grayscale, although it does have a number of gamma selections and the usual array of picture presets. Unlike some competitors, Sony doesn't offer a color management system.
Connectivity: The standard physical connections include four HDMI (with one offering MHL), three USB ports, one component/composite, one standalone composite and Ethernet. MHL compatibility enables you to connect your smartphone via HDMI and stream content while you charge your phone, but for wireless convenience the onboard Wi-Fi direct is probably better. For a complete list of inputs and outputs, check out the Specs section of this review.
When you're paying over two grand grand for a 55-inch TV, you'd like to think you're getting close to the best picture quality available. In the case of the Sony W900A, you are. The Samsung F8000 is slightly worse in terms of black level and color, but the two are very close (see that review for a full side-by-side comparison; the comparison below was written before we reviewed the Samsung). Neither one beats the best plasmas' pictures, but if you prefer LED LCD for some reason, the W900A is a great alternative.
The Sony's Triluminos system helps boost color performance, with hues that were the equal of the ST60 plasma. Of the LCDs we compared the W900A had the best colors, and the most saturated blues and skin tones in particular.
Despite local dimming, however, it isn't quite as good as last year's HX850 in the most important area: black levels. The W900's black areas were slightly lighter in some scenes, and the edges were prone to light leakage. Though gamma levels were more consistent from light to dark than the cheaper W802, it was a little more hesitant to show up shadow detail. Unsurprisingly, the fantastic Panasonic ST60 plasma was better in all areas, and at half the price of the Sony, too. Sure you can pay a lot extra for a picture that's almost as good as a plasma, but why should you?
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV’s picture controls worked during calibration.
|Comparison models (details)
|55-inch LED-based LCD
|55-inch LED-based LCD
|60-inch LED-based LCD
|55-inch LED-based LCD
|55-inch LED-based LCD
Black level: Although very good for a LED LCD, the Sony W900A wasn't able to beat the HX850's superior black levels. It performed in the middle of the pack when replaying dark scenes, for example an 80's-era Manhattan skyline from "Watchmen." With its local dimming the Sony could dredge up solid levels of pure black depending on the scene, but both the Sony HX850 and Panasonic ST60 were able to beat it in terms of consistent black levels, while the ES8000 was very similar in depth of black overall.As the camera pulls out you can see west across the Empire State building, and the W900A was able to retrieve decent amounts of detail from the buildings, giving a sense of depth with very little crushing or overly green blacks. It was darker and less revealing than the ST60 and HX850, but looked noticeably better than the Sharp LE650 and trounced the Panasonic DT60, which looked flat and lifeless.
The final "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" movie is punishing for LCD TVs in particular, as most scenes are extremely dark with shades of black. At the start of Chapter 12, the camera swings about a cluster of dimly lit figures on a hill, and then zeroes in on Good King Noselessness. The W900A exhibited fairly good detail amid the gloom and didn't turn shadows green as we've seen with some other televisions. However, I found that once again, the older Sony and Panasonic were both darker and better at digging up unseen detail.
Color accuracy: The W900A had the most saturated colors of the collected LCDs -- especially blue-- and this is likely due to the work of the Triluminous crystals. The W900's color looked very close to that of the Panasonic ST60, particularly in its portrayals of Dr. Manhattan in "Watchmen." The character has brilliant blue skin and he casts a purple-blue light on others around him, and the only TVs that could convey this without resorting to banding or missing subtle variations in color were the W900A and the ST60. Given this excellent performance, perhaps there is some merit to Sony's claims of Quantum Dots' efficacy.
Switching to the languid "The Tree of Life" and its kaleidoscopic palette, the Sony W900A was able to convey just as much information as the ST60 with a well saturated image. At the beginning of Chapter 5 (37:18) Mother is lounging on the grass and the W900A is able to capture the scene well with well-saturated greens. The cyan of her clothing doesn't stray into blue territory as it does on the HX850, and her fair skin tone is portrayed naturally without too much ruddiness.
Video processing: Both the W802 and W900A passed the "I Am Legend" test of the fly-by of an aircraft carrier, showing correct film cadence. There was a bit of halting judder when I looked very closely, but not enough to be considered a "fail."
However, in the synthetic 1080i playback test there was significant strobing in the moving image -- you may lose some very fine detail when replaying film-based 1080i sources. On the motion resolution test, the TV displayed 330 lines when I disabled the smoothing dejudder mode, and as usual engaging Motion Flow enabled the TV to go to 1000 lines. Unusually, the pattern displayed heavy artifacts between 350 and 400 lines. Otherwise the performance is what I expect from a 240Hz TV.
Uniformity: Compared directly against last year's HX850, the W900A does suffer some uniformity issues -- particularly with light leakage at the sides leading to a blue-black haze on a dark scene. However, it does perform better than all of the other LCDs in the lineup; random splodges appeared on the Sharp, Sony, and Panasonic LED televisions.
Off-axis performance of the Sony was much more impressive than the W800, with retained contrast and colors. The correspondingly wider viewing angle meant there is less of a sweet spot, so two or more people could watch this TV comfortably.
Remember how dead pixels were a thing a few years ago? Monitor companies such as Asus had obtuse dead policies where you could return a screen if it had stuck pixels in a certain percentile of the the screen. That all went away as LCD yields improved, but as of this TV I have seen my first stuck pixel in a mainstream television. On the lower right, the W900A had a red/green pixel on all the time and it was particularly noticeable on a black screen. As rare as this is, if this should happen to you, contact Sony.
Bright lighting: Of the two 2013 Sony TVs in the lineup, the W900A was the least reflective but it also had clearer reflections -- I could make out more details of my own face and so on. But less reflective is still better, and both TVs were less distracting than the very shiny DT60. Moving on, in a lit room blacks were black rather than blue, and uniformity wasn't an issue.
Sound quality The W900A has a very warm sound which is suited to dialogue and the THWACK! of action movies. Our "Mission: Impossible III" sound test was delivered clearly, but without the high-end tinkle of some of the other sets we've heard. We'd still say that if you want to watch movies and expect serious sound, get a separate speaker system.
Furthermore, I don't think there has ever been a time when you could buy a TV for music though there are certainly models that have tried -- the Mark-Levinson-tuned Scarlet, most Bang and Olufsens, the Sony X900A -- but the Sony W900A is not the go-to here. While it has more of a midrange openness to it on our "Red Right Hand" test track, it is lacking in high-frequency presence compared with the HX850.
3D: Though the W802 and W900A come out of the same stable, they are the result of very different husbandry, and this is most evident when it comes to 3D playback. The W802 is a passive design, which in this case meant a brighter image overall at the expense of interlacing artifacts; meanwhile the W900A has an active design. It showed good 3D picture quality overall, but there were some issues.
Despite the added dimming effect of the shutter glasses, the opening scenes in "Hugo" were bright but still susceptible to blue blacks -- we don't calibrate these TVs specifically for 3D. Fast-forward to Hugo's hand against a darker back ground at 4 minutes, 44 seconds in and there were no traces of white-on-black crosstalk, but strangely Hugo's hand had become part of the desk, almost inverted. This artifact didn't occur on the ES8000 with his hand remaining solid, but there was a more significant amount of white crosstalk -- the Samsung's more solid images were preferable. Moving on, after the unsuccessful "heist," Hugo is chased through the train station and the W900's motion was relatively solid throughout -- some active 3D systems such as the ST60 can make action look blurry and inconsequential.
On the other hand, we did notice minor flicker when we turned off the MotionFlow processing; it disappeared when we engaged the processing, although as usual leaving it on also introduced smoothness. We preferred the Standard setting for 3D, which removed the flicker and kept smoothness relatively low.
Input lag: Unusually, the Sony would not display any signal from our lag tester, so we couldn't measure its input lag. Update: Subsequent attempts allowed us to finally take a measurement of input lag. It was excellent in Game mode (see below).
|GEEK BOX: Test
|Black luminance (0%)
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)
|Near-black error (5%)
|Dark gray error (20%)
|Bright gray error (70%)
|Avg. color error
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)
|1080i Deinterlacing (film)
|Motion resolution (max)
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)
|Input lag (Game mode)