Sony's best LED ever has the best non-plasma picture of 2012, but it's very expensive.
If you forget, for a joyless, mercifully brief moment, the existence of Sharp's Elite and a few 75-inch, 80-inch, and 84-inch LCDs, the Sony XBR-HX950 is the most expensive major-label TV of the year. It costs more than any 2012 TV set in its size class, and offers fewer gimmicky extras -- no voice and gesture recognition, no "invisible" bezel, no touch-pad remote -- than any other top-of-the-line 2012 TV.
What it does offer is local dimming from its full-array LED backlight at a price that still undercuts the Elite dramatically. That backlight enables the HX950 to outperform all other LED-based LCD TVs we've reviewed this year, upsetting the previous champ, Sony's own HX850. Unfortunately for Sony, the picture quality difference between the two isn't worth the $1,000 price difference at 55 inches. I'd only recommend the HX950 to well-heeled TV buyers who don't want plasma, can't quite afford the Elite, and want to buy the 65-inch size. That's a select group, but at least they can console themselves in owning the best, and maybe the last, local-dimming LED TV to bear the Sony name.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch Sony XBR-HX950 series, but this review also applies to the 65-inch size in the series. The two models have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
|Sony XBR-55HX950 (reviewed)||55 inches|
|Sony XBR-65HX950||65 inches|
The Monolithic Design style used by the sleekest Sony TVs of the last few years is one of my favorites. Yes, the microthin bezels of Samsung and now LG look arguably more impressive in person, but if you want a flat panel distilled down to its understated, no-nonsense essence, then Sony's XBR-HX950 wins. The screen disappears into the black slab when turned off, and when it's turned on, the black border doesn't detract from the image like some metallic frames do. Along the edge of the black is a thin silver strip, but that's it for adornment.
Until, that is, you look below the TV. The HX950's mirrored, circular-base stand is the main external feature differentiating it from the HX850, and it's a big improvement. Like LG's awesome "U" stand, the "O" of Sony's 2012 XBR suspends the panel so it seems to hover over the table, an illusion enhanced by the open space encircled by the base. I also appreciated the improved stability compared with the XBR-HX929 from last year, although I'm not a fan of the slight tilt the stand is designed to introduce.
Sony's remote seems pretty cheap for a flagship TV. It's the same clicker found on downstream linemates, and while it's good enough, I didn't like it as much as the XBR-HX929's remote. It lacks illumination and can't be used to control other gear. The dedicated Netflix button is a plus, however, and as usual I really appreciate Sony's remote ergonomics, shown in its discrete button groups, different shapes and sizes, and logical arrangement.
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Full-array with local dimming|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||240Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
Sony's kitchen sink isn't as full as Samsung's, but I'll take full-array local dimming over voice and gesture control any day. The HX950 is the only second 2012 TV to offer an LED backlight with a full array that dims different areas of the screen independently. The first, LG's LM9600, was a disappointing performer, but the HX950 lives up to the extremely high potential of this technology. Unfortunately Sony wouldn't tell us how many independent "zones" the backlight has, although diligent owners at enthusiast site AVS Forum claim it has slightly more than its predecessor. Click here for more background on the different LED backlight varieties.
Sony's MotionFlow 960 video processing might superficially seem better than the 240 and 480 versions found on the company's less expensive models, but Sony's explanation of why amounts to a bunch of mumbo jumbo (see HD Guru's explanation if you're interested). The main things to know are that the TV has native 240Hz refresh rate and, par for the course, a few different settings that can introduce smoothing (dejudder). The TV also offers the new Impulse mode, which "reproduces the original picture quality" to provide a "cinemalike picture, which may flicker." It does flicker, and as on the HX850, I don't recommend anyone use it. Sony does tout improved video processing compared with the HX850 series, but I didn't see any obvious benefits in my testing.
Unlike Samsung and Panasonic, Sony's 2012 3D TVs like the HX950 don't support the Full HD 3D standard, so this set is incompatible with other makers' 2012 active glasses that do, such as the Panasonic TY-ER3D4MU ($55) and Samsung SSG-4100GB ($20). To watch 3D you'll need to buy Sony's own specs, like the $50 TDG-BR250 from last year (above) or the new, slimmer TDG-BR750 for twice the price. Neither will work with non-Sony TVs.
Sony didn't include the three innovative, if esoteric, features found on last year's HX929 that involved a sensor and low-resolution camera that could respond to viewers in the room. The Presence Sensor automatically turned the TV off when it failed to detect a viewer (see the KDL-EX720 review for details); the Position Control was said to automatically optimize picture and sound by detecting viewer position; and the Distance Alert disabled the picture and emitted a warning sound if a child approached the screen. Again, none of these are included on the HX950.
Smart TV: The good news is that Sony offers a great selection of content, including Amazon Instant -- missing from LG TVs -- and a pair of Sony Entertainment Network exclusives: Video and Music Unlimited. There's also the cool, Shazam-like TrackID system by Sony-owned Gracenote.
Unfortunately, that content isn't always easy to find. The XBR-HX950 scatters it over so many menus and submenus that you'll probably never see most of the apps. There's the main Home menu with direct access to major apps; a separate "SEN" menu with similar apps but a different look and feel (and longer load times); the "Internet video" section with a massive array of smaller niche video services from Billabong (yes, the sportswear company) and Biinkx to the Sony Cinema Concert Series and 3Net (the last is disappointing though, deploying a paltry selection of 3- to 4-minute 3D clips); and, yes, the full panoply of Yahoo widgets complete with yet another "app store."
For more, check out our in-depth write-up of Sony's 2012 Smart TV system.
Picture settings: Sony divides its picture presets into two groups: General (with three choices) and Scene Select (with eight plus two Auto modes). Two of the Scenes, Cinema and Game, have two separate modes of their own as well. The total number of adjustable modes crests the double digits, which should be enough for just about everybody. It will probably also confuse everybody; I wish Sony had consolidated the picture presets into one menu tree.
The available adjustments themselves are somewhat sparse by today's standards. The company didn't add the option to adjust dejudder processing beyond the four presets, and unlike some competitors it doesn't offer a 10-point white-balance control or color management system. Sony does offer more adjustment of video processing than other makers, however, found in the Reality Creation section. There are also a couple of local-dimming settings, Standard and Low.
Connectivity: There are no connectivity surprises, with four HDMI ports and two USB ports being almost a prerequisite currently. Analog inputs come in the form of composite, component, and PC. If you'd like to connect to the Internet, the TV comes with a choice of onboard wireless, in addition to the aforementioned Direct Mode and an Ethernet port.
Unlike the HX929 from last year, the HX950 doesn't have an RS-232 port bulging from its back. In fact, it doesn't have an RS-232 port, period, nor does it support the Control 4 remote interface. The HX950 is a bit less custom-installer-friendly than its predecessor.
Producing a deep shade of black is the most important ingredient in picture quality, and the Sony HX950 can deliver black levels as deep as or deeper than any TV available today, including the significantly more expensive Sharp Elite LCD. That capability alone places it in the upper echelon of TV performance, and color accuracy, video processing, and screen uniformity are also among its strengths.
Its two main weaknesses, especially compared with the Elite and the best plasmas available today, are a propensity for blooming (stray light in areas that should be dark) and for washing out when seen from off-angle. Even with those problems the HX950 is the best-performing LED TV released this year, edging out (no pun intended) Sony's own HX850, but not by much, or even enough to score higher in Performance -- both TVs, alone among 2012 LED TVs, earned an "8" in this category.
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.
|Sony XBR-55HX929||55-inch full-array local-dimming LED|
|Sony XBR-55HX850||55-inch edge-lit local-dimming LED|
|Samsung UN55ES8000||55-inch edge-lit LED|
|Vizio M3D550KD||55-inch edge-lit local-dimming LED|
|Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD||60-inch full-array local-dimming LED|
|Panasonic TC-P65VT50 (reference)||65-inch plasma|
Black level: The HX950 excelled at creating a deep shade of black. In very dark scenes from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2," like the massing of Voldemort's army atop the hillside or the close-up of his wand hand in chapter 12, its letterbox bars and other black and near-black areas looked slightly deeper than on the Panasonic and the Sony HX850, and significantly deeper than on the Vizio and Samsung. Black levels appeared basically identical to those of the HX929; any black-level difference between the two full-array local dimming Sonys was extremely difficult to discern.
The comparison with the Elite was more interesting. In this and other scenes from "Harry Potter," both Sonys actually looked slightly darker in their letterbox bars than the Elite. In my original review of the Elite I said it delivered deeper blacks than the HX929, but this time around, on this material, the Sonys showed the slightest edge. I can't really explain the discrepancy, but it's worth noting that the difference would be impossible to discern beyond a side-by-side dark-room comparison, and that all three produced black levels darker than what my highly sensitive light meter is specced to reliably measure.
One reason the Elite is a better performer overall then either Sony, however, is because it shows significantly less blooming. That artifact, in which what should be "inky" blackness gets brightened by adjacent lighter areas because the backlight zones aren't small or numerous enough, was more noticeable on the HX950 than on either the HX850 or the Elite, although it wasn't as obvious as on the Vizio. One big reason, we're guessing, is because the Sony is so black to begin with, but regardless, it's still one of the HX950's most visible picture quality issues. And yes, the HX929 and HX950 again looked basically the same in this area, despite the differences (if any) in the number of backlight zones between the two.
The worst instances of blooming were easy to conjure up: pressing "Select" on the PS3 remote causes the information overlay to interrupt the inky blackness of the letterbox bars, and the "clouds" around the white lettering were brighter and more obvious on the HX950/929 than on the other local-dimmers. I also noticed brightening in the letterbox bars at times, for example 52:45 in the lower-right corner as the shield around Hogwarts deteriorates, or the flames in front of Voldemort on the bottom bar at 53:19. I also noticed an instance in the main picture area at 57:25, where shadows in the Room of Requirement's junk pile appeared brighter than they should. Unlike on the Vizio, however, the effects of blooming during the vast majority of program material were relatively subtle. They were certainly well worth the improvement in black-level performance afforded by local dimming.
Shadow detail was very good, although a notch worse than on the Elite and VT50, and even a bit worse than on the HX850 and HX929 (which may be more due to a slight difference in calibration than anything else). A particularly revealing sequence begins at 5:42, when the camera tracks up over the recesses of a shadowy room to find Potter and friends whispering in an alcove above. As the scene progressively darkens the details in the wood and stone walls appeared a bit more obscured on the HX950 than on those four; again the Samsung and Vizio trailed behind, for what it's worth.
Color accuracy: The HX950 deserves serious credit in this area as well. In bright and dark scenes colors looked natural and very well-saturated, from the green of the grass and the red of young Lily's hair in Snape's memory to the inky black (not blue-tinted) blacks.
In comparison with the Elite and especially the reference VT50, Lily's pale face did look just a bit bluer and less saturated, but on the other hand the HX950 outdid the HX850 by a similarly slight margin. Again it was tough to tell the difference between the 950 and the 929, but the 950 did look a touch more accurate in most scenes. Again, however, this difference might easily be accounted for by different calibrations.
Near-black scenes also looked true, without the wash of blue seen on the Vizio, and of course the Sony didn't show the same issue with undersaturated cyan as the Elite.
Video processing: With Motion Flow set to the Off position, the HX950 correctly handled 1080p/24 film cadence. All of the other settings introduced some degree of smoothing (dejudder), although Clear and Clear Plus came closest to Off, preserving a good deal of judder and keeping smoothness to a relatively low, albeit still discernible, level. As usual I wished for a Custom implementation similar to what Samsung provides, as opposed to having to select from presets.
Clear and Clear Plus both use backlight scanning for maximum motion resolution. So does Impulse, a mode new for 2012 that introduces unwatchable flicker. The other two modes, Standard and Smooth, lack backlight scanning and and come in at around 900 lines. As usual I couldn't tell the difference in blurring in normal program material between any of these settings, including Off.
The HX950 was able to pass our deinterlacing test as long as it was set to CineMotion's Auto 2 mode; the other modes, including the default Off, failed the test and so might produce some artifacts with certain 1080i film-based material.
Sony touts its Reality Creation suite, also found on the step-down HX850, as a way to improve standard-definition programming. It offers sliders for Resolution and Noise Filtering as well as Video Area Detection. I tuned to a cruddy-looking channel on DirecTV and played around with the settings a bit, but they didn't help much, if at all. The main result was some sharpening of the soft, standard-definition image, but as usual the tradeoff was artificial-looking enhanced edges and a crunchier look, so to speak. Some viewers might like it and some might not (like me), but Sony, to its credit, provides more adjustment range than its competitors, whose processing is typically binary On/Off, without gradations.
Uniformity: The screen on my HX950 review sample was quite uniform overall, with no obvious hot spots and similar brightness in the middle and near the edges. I said the same thing about the HX929, but in the case of that TV followed up with two observations: one of slight banding visible during pans, and the other of the "crease," an apparent defect in the LCD screen itself. For what it's worth, the HX950 sample I reviewed showed neither banding nor the crease.
From off-angle the HX950 fared poorly, as I expect in general from LCDs and in particular from local dimmers. Dark areas and colors washed out worse the others in our comparison (aside from the 929), and the difference in contrast -- for example the lightening of letterbox bars on the far edge and slight rise in shadows -- was visible from as little as one couch cushion to either side of the sweet spot at a viewing distance of 8 feet. Areas of blooming became, as usual, more apparent the farther I moved off-angle. This is another area where the Elite very much outperformed the HX950.
Bright lighting: It doesn't appear Sony has changed anything about the screen's ability to deal with ambient light. Like that of the HX929, the HX950's glossy screen was a liability when bright lights and objects reflected therein; those reflections appeared brighter than on any other non-Sony set in our lineup. The Sony did preserve black levels as well or better than any of the other sets in our lineup, however.
3D: I won't spend too long on 3D with the HX950 because I found its performance identical in pretty much every way to that of the HX929 -- warts and all. Yes, the 2012 Sony still suffers from flicker in 3D unless you engage one of the two available smoothing/dejudder modes (I recommend Standard), and it was still unable to maintain the 3D illusion as soon as I tilted my head slightly to one side or the other so that my eyes were no longer perfectly aligned to the horizontal plane of the TV. Its crosstalk was slightly worse than that of the UNES8000 and the Elite, but still very good overall, and superior to that of the Panasonic plasma. In the default settings contrast was great, as was color, but the HX950's 3D quality is still hamstrung overall by the flicker and head tilt issues.
As I mentioned Sony didn't update its base 3D glasses this year, so I used the same TDGBR250 specs for my HX950 test as I did for the HX929. They're bulkier than most newer active glasses, although not too uncomfortable, and I liked the enclosed feel. A more expensive version is available now, the "Titanium" TDG-BR750, but I didn't test them for this review.
For a more in-depth (ha!) look, check out the 3D section of the HX929 review.
|Geek Box: Test||Result||Score|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.0001||Good|
|Near-black x/y (5%)||0.3126/0.3297||Good|
|Dark gray x/y (20%)||0.3133/0.3292||Good|
|Bright gray x/y (70%)||0.3128/0.328||Good|
|Before avg. color temp.||6495||Good|
|After avg. color temp.||6480||Good|
|Red lum. error (de94_L)||1.8008||Average|
|Green lum. error (de94_L)||1.5559||Average|
|Blue lum. error (de94_L)||3.9808||Poor|
|Cyan hue x/y||0.2293/0.327||Good|
|Magenta hue x/y||0.3211/0.1452||Good|
|Yellow hue x/y||0.4236/0.512||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|1080i Deinterlacing (film)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||400||Poor|
Sony XBR-55HX950 CNET review calibration results