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Sony recently underwent a(nother) major restructuring, spinning its TV business off into a wholly owned subsidiary. The impact of the move, we were told in a recent meeting with Sony's reps where we got a thorough introduction to the KDL-W850B series under review here, was to allow the company to concentrate more fully on the high-end market and make primarily premium TVs.
The W850B, available in 60 and 70 inches, is the least-expensive of those 2014 premium models, and the cheapest to incorporate the company's new "iconic wedge" design. But, true to Sony's heritage and the words of its reps, this TV is still pretty expensive.
On the other hand, it delivers a darn good picture, characterized by deep black levels and great bright-room performance. Its sound, augmented by the wedge, is also good for a TV, albeit not quite as impressive as we expected. Add an array of doo-dads and sleek styling, and you have plenty of reasons to spend more for a TV like this. If you're in this price and size range to begin with, the Sony KDL-W850B is a compelling choice with few flaws.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 60-inch Sony KDL-60W850B, but this review also applies to the 70-inch size in the series. Both have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
Sony's high-end TVs for 2014 incorporate what the company calls its "Iconic Wedge," perhaps because plain old "wedge"didn't sound classy enough -- although I'm sure a certain Red Leader would beg to differ. Seen from the front, the wedge isn't obvious, but when approaching the W850 in profile its vertical doorstop shape prevails. In addition to bottom-weighting the large panel, better to prevent tip-overs, the shape angles the screen slightly backward. I'd prefer it to be perfectly vertical, but the slight rake is barely discernible from the front and has little impact on picture quality.
More obvious from the front is are the widely-spaced legs of the stand. Like many TV makers in 2014, Sony implemented this type of stand to help improve stability -- and indeed, the W850B feels as solid as any TV on a tabletop. One downside, beyond an inability to swivel, is the requirement for a full-width piece of furniture in this configuration.
Happily, Sony also provides the option of moving the little feet closer to the center of the TV (above), to accommodate narrower tabletops or if you just prefer that look.
The remote is essentially unchanged from last year's, which is a good thing. The button arrays are colorful and clearly differentiated by shape and location, and I liked the medium size and concave face. New for 2014 is the prominent Discover key, which calls up thumbnails of TV shows and videos from YouTube, Crackle, and a few other sources. Dedicated buttons labeled "Football" and "Social View" push relatively useless Smart TV extras (see below), but I did like the "Pic Off" key to mute the picture, leaving just the audio, and of course the dedicated "Netflix" key is always welcome.
Sony also offers an optional touch-pad clicker ($49).
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Edge-lit|
|Screen finish||Matte||Refresh rate(s)||120Hz|
|Cable box control||Yes||IR blaster||External|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||2 pair|
|Miracast||Yes||Control via app||Yes|
|Other: Optional touch-pad remote (RMF-YD003, $49), optional subwoofer, available in black or white (SWF-BR100, $299), extra 3D glasses (TDG-BT400A, $50 list)|
Sony reserves its step-up picture-quality options, such as local dimming and 4K resolution, for more-expensive models in the lineup. The W850B's "Dynamic Edge LED" frame dimming is just another terms for global (non-local) dimming common to nearly every decent LED LCD TV. Despite the number implied by its MotionFlow 480 XR processing, this panel has a 120Hz refresh rate -- although black frame insertion and other augmentations are on board to help justify the larger number.
As a 3D TV, the 850W includes two pair of active 3D glasses. Additional pairs list $50 each for Sony's specs, but since the TV adheres to the full HD 3D standard, you can use third-party glasses like Samsung's cheap SSG-5150GBs.
Speaking of accessories, intrepid buyers can also invest in the company's new optional touch-pad clicker (RMF-YD003, $49). I tested it briefly, and it worked well, easing navigation to a certain extent, but it certainly doesn't seem worth the extra money. One exception could be if you're a heavy user of Sony's Web browser, which, like all of its kind, is inferior to what you'll find on a smartphone or tablet: sluggish, difficult to navigate, and capable of only the most basic functions. It's easier to use with the touch pad than with the standard remote, but still a pain.
One of the W850B's claims to fame is its sound. Sony touts the ducts wending their way through the TVs base, along with stealthy speakers along the bottom. If that's not enough, the company also markets an optional subwoofer (SWF-BR100, $299), that connects wirelessly to the TV and adds some extra oomph. We didn't test it for this review, and it's worth noting that full sound bar systems, for example Sony's own excellent HT-CT260 , can be had for a similar price.
Smart TV: Sony has redesigned its interface so it's less-cluttered at times and definitely sleeker than before, but response times still seemed somewhat sluggish. The main aim of the layout seems to be placing the company's own services front and center.
Hitting the Home button brings up the Movies tab by default, where movie thumbnails from -- you guessed it -- Sony Video Unlimited take up the entire middle of the screen. Much more popular services like Amazon Instant, Netflix, and Hulu Plus are relegated to small icons along the bottom (for some reason Amazon isn't available yet; Sony couldn't provide me an ETA by press time). Sony-owned Crackle gets a prominent spot, too. Other tabs from the Home menu, with the exception of Channel (which leads to "TV selections," described below) also point toward Sony services, namely Album goes to the Play Memories photo service, and Music to the Music Unlimited and Vevo services.
Finding apps Sony decided not to surface can be tedious. The main "Apps" screen has a few "featured" apps, but beyond that you'll have to dive into "All apps," a firehose of what I counted as 279 separate icons (give or take), from "Vimeo" to "Internet Browser," to "EarthCamTV," to "Captain Philips." They're arranged in three rows that just scroll endlessly, with no categories, alphabetization, search, or apparent logic to organize them. On the plus side, no major video apps go missing (aside from HBO Go), and you can customize the My Apps screens with your actual (i.e. non-Sony) favorites, once you manage to find them.
A few extras of questionable usefulness include a Football button that's sure to confuse red-blooded Americans, since it calls up videos and Sony's dedicated Web site...for soccer. You can also enable a picture mode said to optimize for football and soccer. Much cooler is the Social View function that allows you to watch tweets stream by along the bottom of the screen, keyed to trending topics or a custom search. Unfortunately, despite the ability to link Social View to your Twitter account, there's no way to view your own feed.
Sony also offers a second screen app called TV Side View with remote control and a program guide. You can mirror a phone or tablet on the big screen via Miracast, or use a new Photo Share function to show photos from such a device on the Sony. The TV can also pair with compatible devices via NFC.
Cable and satellite box control: Samsung and LG's TVs have had the ability to control cable and satellite boxes using infrared blasters for a couple of years, but this is the first time Sony has implemented the scheme via its own included blaster (above). The idea is to replace your box's interface and remote control with one built into the TV. As with those others, the Sony doesn't do as good a job as simply using your box's interface -- preferably with a good universal remote.
One problem is that frequent DVR users are left in the cold. There's no dedicated "DVR" button on the remote, so to access recorded programs you have to -- you guessed it -- call up a "virtual remote." (There's a "DVR" option under the Home > TV screen, but it didn't work when I tried it.) Sony's version, found under the "Key Pad," is worse than those of its rivals, with an endless horizontal scroll to find the "button" you need. The physical remote's navigation (menu control) and transport (play, fast-forward, and so forth) controls worked, but only with an annoying half-second delay as the TV passed the commands along to the box. And for some reason, hitting forward and reverse skip (available on my Fios DVR and very frequently used) only caused a "feature not available" message.
For live programming, you get a grid-style guide that, again, was inferior to the one on my cable box, with inadequate navigation, pokey load times, and the annoying tendency to start at channel 001 (standard-def!) rather than the current or last-tuned channel. Beyond the guide, there's a "TV selections" menu -- essentially a bunch of thumbnails from what appear to be randomly selected channels -- and the Discover tab, said to learn your preferences and suggest shows to watch.
Picture settings: Sony hasn't changed much from previous years, continuing to offer plenty of picture presets under its Scene Select menu. Diving deeper allows you to adjust the company's Reality Creation video processing; choose from six dejudder (smoothing) modes including an Impulse mode that engages black frame insertion; play with a two-point grayscale system, and pick from a few gamma settings. Unlike many TVs at this level, the W850B lacks a 10-point grayscale and color-management system.
Connectivity: The selection of four HDMI inputs is perfectly ample, and one supports MHL and another ARC. You also get two analog video inputs, one of which can handle component-video, as well as a pair of USB ports, an Ethernet port, and a digital audio output that can pass surround sound.
Compared with the "8" series Sony TV we reviewed last year, the KDL-W850B is better by far. Its black levels are on par with the better local dimming-equipped LCDs from last year, including the Sony KDL-55W900A and Samsung F8000 series, although it can't match those sets in overall contrast or some other areas. One of its major strengths, however, is picture quality in a bright room, thanks to one of the most matte screen finishes on the market.
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.
Black level: The W850B delivered a satisfyingly deep shade of black, competing well against the best TVs in our lineup and handily outdoing the less-expensive Sharp, Vizio, and Sony R520A. During the darkest sequences of "Gravity," for example Chapter 2 (16:25) when Ryan Stone is tumbling through deep space, the letterbox bars and black of the void were darker than that of any TV in our lineup, with the exception of the Sony W900A and Samsung F8000--and it was very close to those two.
On the other hand, the W850B didn't do quite as good a job of preserving highlights in those dark scenes. The swath of Milky Way, for example, appeared dimmer, fewer stars were visible and the ones that did appear lacked the contrast and pop of the stars on most of the other sets. As a result the W850B's overall contrast lagged behind the F8000 and the W900A, but still managed to outdo the others in our lineup thanks to its deep blacks.
In brighter scenes, the differences between the better sets were less stark, and the W850B more than held its own. As Stone and Kowalski approach the derelict shuttle in Chapter 3 (22:11) there was no difference in the brightness of highlights and the sets' black levels evened out as well, with the Vizio matching the better three and only the Sony R520A and the Sharp LE650 lagging. Shadow detail among the dark instrumentation and the spacesuits looked very good on the W850B, outdoing the Vizio and pacing the F8000 and W900A impressively. Of course, I appreciated the lack of blooming artifacts, something the Vizio had issues with.
Color accuracy: According to my measurements the W850B had few issues in this category, scoring well below the threshold for error levels in grayscale, and at or near the threshold for every color aside from red.
In program material it looked very good. As Stone pulls herself from the lake in Chapter 9 (1:22:30), her skin tone, as well as the brownish red of the sand and the green of the grass and trees, appeared natural and realistic, if a bit undersaturated compared to the reference Samsung. Part of that was intentional as I had slightly reduced the color control during calibration to help deal with the red error.
The differences in this material wouldn't be visible outside of a side-by-side comparison, and when I looked specifically for issues in red, for example in Stone's parachute stripes or the flames around her ship during reentry, differences were likewise extremely tough to spot..
One reason is because the error in red is mostly due to errant hue -- it skewed toward orange -- as opposed to the more-visible (in a primary color) saturation or luminance error. In highly saturated areas, like the opening logo or Buzz's own re-entry (1:43) from the beginning of "Toy Story 2," the orangish skew was a bit more visible, but it was still subtle.
Video processing: Sony has increased the number of smoothing/Soap Opera Effect modes this year, but unlike Samsung and some other TV makers, it still has yet to offer one that combines full motion resolution with proper 1080p/24 cadence. For viewers who demand the proper look of film with 1080p/24 sources, the MotionFlow settings of True Cinema, Off, and Impulse are the only ones that qualify. The former two, between which I couldn't find any difference, are also the ones with the lowest motion resolution; just 300 lines.
But I'd still recommend them over Impulse. That mode, said to incorporate both black frame insertion and blinking, is significantly dimmer than the others and evinced visible flicker, particularly in brighter scenes and flat fields like an overcast sky or ice hockey rink.
Inpulse looked the best in our motion resolution test however, delivering the full 1,200 lines extremely cleanly. Two other modes, Clear and Clear Plus, also hit the 1,200 line threshold but weren't quite as clean as Impulse on the test pattern. Both introduce a minor ampunt of smoothing, and neither dims the image as much as Impulse--although neither gets as bright as the others. Finally there's Standard and Smooth, which introduce significant and massive smoothing respectively, preserve maximum light output, and registered 600 lines of motion resolution.
For one reason or another the W850B failed our 1080i de-interlacing test, despite setting CineMotion to Auto. We were surprised because most TVs, including Sony's own W900A and R520A, pass. Failure isn't a huge deal, but attentive watchers may notice some artifacts, for example moving lines or moire patterns, at times with film-based material delivered to the TV in 1080i, for example via a cable TV connection.
Sony also offers its full-fledged Digital Reality Creation circuit on this TV, complete with sliders for Resolution and Noise Filtering, designed to improve standard-definition and low-quality HD sources. I didn't test it for this review, and left it turned off for Blu-ray sources.
Uniformity: The screen of our W805B review sample was quite evenly-lit for an edge-lit LED-based LCD, showing none of the brighter blotches of the Sharp or the R520A, and of course none of the Vizio's blooming. Compared to the F8000 and W900A, its edges appeared a bit brighter than its middle, and in bright field test patterns very faint brightness variations were visible, but I didn't notice either issue in program material.
From off-angle, the W850B was about average, washing out at a similar rate as the other sets aside from the Vizio -- which lost black-level fidelity even more quickly. Color shift was also typical, and as expected the Vizio (with its IPS screen) preserved colors better than the others.
Bright lighting: No complaints in this area. The W805B's screen is even more matte than that of the Sharp, controlling reflections better than any of the TVs in our lineup. Black levels were also preserved admirably, for a bright room image that's overall among the best we've tested.
Sound quality: Given that audio is one of the W850B's big selling points, I found the sound somewhat disappointing, even though at its best it outperforms that of most TVs. My music listening test revealed a surprisingly echoey, thin sound in the default Music setting at the midrange and high end; the F8000 and the other two Sonys sounded better. I played around with the EQ and disabled simulated surround and things improved, exceeding the other sets by a bit. Bass response was also better than any of the other sets, but it was still relatively muddy and could be overwhelming unless I resorted to the EQ again.
The story was similar with our movie sound test. The explosions and breaking glass of the bridge scene from "Mission: Impossible 2" weren't conveyed with more oomph on the other three compared to the W850B's Cinema setting. Again, I got decent results with the EQ, but nothing spectacular. In sum, you can get the W805B to outperform most TVs' sound, especially with bass, but it's not leaps and bounds better, and any decent sound bar will clobber this TV's audio.
3D: I'm not sure what the issue is, but the 3D performance of the W850B I tested was particularly bad. It suffered from some of the most-visible crosstalk I've ever seen, causing noticeable and distracting double images pretty much everywhere during "Hugo." Worse, fringing and discoloration marred many images, in particular transitions from dark to light. When Hugo lights a match to examine the automaton, for example (17:22), his hands and coat suffered green and red banding in the transitions, in addition to rampant crosstalk in his fingertips.
I tried every solution I could think of to solve the issue, but no dice. I'm guessing there's some flaw in Sony's software that can be fixed by an update, and I have a query in to the company to see what's what. When I hear back, I'll update this section.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.002||Good|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.39||Good|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||0.795||Good|
|Dark gray error (20%)||0.93||Good|
|Bright gray error (70%)||0.667||Good|
|Avg. color error||3.090||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|1080i De-interlacing (film)||Fail||Poor|
|Motion resolution (max)||1200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||300||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode)||24||Good|