Sony XBR-X950G series review: Long on Google-powered smart TV goodness, shorter on value
Sony's 2019 TVs have more Google smarts than any TVs since, well, Sony's original Google TV nine years ago. The XBR-X950G boasts the latest version of the Android TV smart TV system and, unlike past iterations, it works quickly and allows plenty of customizations. And Sony is the only TV maker so far to offer Google Assistant voice control hands-free, without having to touch the remote. Saying, "Hey Google, turn on the TV" is sweet indeed.
But since you can get great streaming and app features, and even voice control, from any number of cheap external devices, the real question remains: "Hey Google, how good is the picture quality for the price?" I may not have access to Google Assistant's algorithms and scads of user data, but I can tell you the answer myself: not great. The XBR-X950G costs more than rivals like the Samsung Q70R, Vizio M8 and TCL 6 series, yet it didn't perform as well as any of them in my side-by-side comparisons. The Sony has its strengths, including a bright HDR picture and accurate color, but less impressive contrast and local dimming spoil the deal.
Minimal silver and black metallic
The X950G is sleek and modern-looking, and typical of Sony it doesn't try too hard to stand out. The dark metallic frame around the screen is nice and thin, with a very slightly thicker bottom edge and a line of silver at the bottom, matching the stand legs.
Those legs, thick enough to make Samsung and Vizio's look a bit spindly, are otherwise pretty standard. On the back they incorporate token cable management, although more than a couple HDMI cables will be too much.
Speaking of the back, Sony touts a pair of tweeters mounted behind the TV that fire outward, saying it increases sonic immersion compared to standard down-firing speakers (which the TV also has). I don't test audio quality for CNET TV reviews, but don't expect miracles here -- any decent sound bar will likely outperform the X950G's built-in audio by a long shot.
Sony's 2019 remote underwent a facelift and now has metallic silver finish on top. It's still an old-school multibutton flyswatter however, and I prefer the sleeker, simpler clickers of Samsung and Roku, as well as the motion-infused wands of LG.
Android TV is faster, Assistant is hands-free
After years of buffering, slow load times and crashes, Google's Android TV system on Sony TVs finally nailed it in 2019. The X950G's revamped system loaded and ran faster than its predecessor the XBR-X900F, and it wasn't even close. Apps launched in a trice, I zipped around thumbnails and navigation screens with ease, and it all worked as quickly as competitors from Roku, Samsung and LG.
Now that it's fast, Android TV is one of the best. Only Roku has as many apps as Android TV, and it lacks the joy of Google Assistant. Roku's search is better, however. LG has Assistant, as well as Alexa, but its app selection falls short. Android TV's new menus are an improvement too. The home page is clean and simple, with favorite apps grouped at the top for easy access and clear routes to get more apps, search and more. Yes that "more" includes ads, but that's par for the course on TV menus these days.
Assistant on TVs has a nicely evolved interface: Commands are transcribed on-screen, along with suggestions for follow-up commands. New for 2019, thanks to a far-field mic on the TV, is the ability to summon Assistant hands-free by saying, "OK, Google" or, "Hey, Google," just like on a Google Home speaker, without having to touch the remote. (Yes, privacy nerds, you can turn this feature off and just speak into the remote's mic as usual too.) It worked great in my testing, and was especially useful for turning the TV on and off. You can do all the usual voice stuff hands-free too -- launch apps, perform searches, mute/change volume, "Play cat videos on YouTube," get the weather, set timers and so on -- but for other operations like browsing menus, selecting settings and pause/fast-forward, the remote works best.
The one hands-free hitch happened when I had the TV volume up relatively high and had to practically yell "OK GOOGLE!!!!" to get it to respond. As usual the volume then dipped so the TV could "hear" my command, but the dip was too brief in some cases.
You can also link the Sony TV with Google Home or Amazon Alexa speakers for more hands-free action. The TV lets you use your phone to cast apps via its built-in Google Cast functionality, which works just like a Chromecast. And coming later this year is Apple's AirPlay 2 and HomeKit compatibility. AirPlay 2 basically works just like the same feature on an Apple TV box, letting the TV function as a display for TV shows, movies, music, photos and web pages with an iPhone, iPad or Mac as the controller. It's not the full Apple TV app found on Samsung's 2019 Apple integration, however -- there's no on-screen functionality and all the control happens via your iOS device or Mac.
The best picture-enhancing extra on the X950G is full-array local dimming (FALD). It improved black levels and contrast by illuminating different areas of the screen separately as needed. Unlike Vizio or TCL, Sony doesn't disclose the number of dimming zones.
Key TV features
|Full-array local dimming
|HDR10 and Dolby Vision
Other picture-centric extras include a native 120Hz refresh rate, a notable improvement on paper over the fake 120Hz refresh rates (they're actually 60Hz native) found on the Vizio M and TCL P series. New for 2019, Sony says it has improved video processing yet again, courtesy of the same X1 Ultimate processor found in its Master Series models. The X-Motion Clarity mode that debuted in 2018 is also on board. It boosts motion resolution by applying black frame insertion only where it's needed on the screen, which is said to eliminate the flicker and dimness evinced by similar modes in past sets. See the picture quality section for more.
- 4x HDMI inputs with HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2
- 3x USB ports
- Composite video input
- Ethernet (LAN) port
- Optical digital audio output
- 1x headphone/subwoofer audio output
- 1x RF (antenna) input
- RS-232 port (minijack)
The X950G has a healthy selection of jacks. Unlike many of Samsung's sets, the Sony actually has an analog video input, albeit composite-only, and I also appreciate having a headphone jack.
All of the HDMI inputs will work with 4K and HDR devices, but for best results Sony recommends using "HDMI enhanced" mode with 4K Blu-ray players (Settings > Watching TV > External inputs > HDMI signal format). Unlike LG and Samsung TVs, the X950G will not detect and automatically change that setting for you, which is a shame, but unlike last year, the setting is available on every input.
The X950H supports enhanced audio return channel (eARC). Support for the other two major HDMI 2.1 features -- variable refresh rate (VRR) and automatic low latency mode (ALLM, or auto game mode) -- isn't final yet. A Sony representative says that once the HDMI 2.1 evaluation period is over, the company will be able to provide more information.
Picture quality comparisons
One of the most important ingredients in picture quality is contrast ratio, which is dependent in large part on black level: how dark or bright "black" is on a TV screen. OLED TVs can produce a perfect black, the main reason they win our picture quality comparisons on a regular basis, and some LCD TVs can come pretty close thanks to full-array local dimming. The XBR-X950G is not one of those TVs.
In pretty much everything I watched its weaker black levels and propensity for blooming -- or stray illumination caused by imprecise local dimming -- came through, leading to a worse image in many scenes compared to rivals. The Sony can get quite bright, which is an asset in HDR and bright rooms, and many other aspects of its picture are solid, but overall it fell short of the others.
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.
Dim lighting: In memory of Rutger Hauer, I began my viewing tests with Blade Runner: The Final Cut, and immediately this dark film revealed the Sony's main weakness. Dark areas like the initial ride through the citiscape or Deckard's interview of Rachel showed up lighter on the Sony than any of the others, making the picture look less impactful by comparison.
I also noticed more blooming in the X950G's letterbox bars and elsewhere. In the intense contrast of the Rachel scene, for example, areas of the bars would glow lighter or darker as the adjacent screen areas fluctuated, an effect that wasn't nearly as visible (if I saw it at all) on the other TVs. In its favor the Sony handled shadow detail well, but often its lighter black levels and blooming made its shadows appear less realistic.
Bright lighting: Of the TVs in my lineup, only the 2018 Vizio P-Series Quantum measured brighter than the Sony, which can really help its image in bright rooms.
Light output in nits
|Accurate color (SDR)
|Accurate color (HDR)
|Vizio PQ65-F1 (2018)
|Sony XBR-65X950G (2019)
|Samsung Q70R (2019)
|TCL 65R617 (2018)
|Vizio M658-G1 (2019)
|LG C9 (2019)
As usual the brightest setting, Vivid, was woefully inaccurate. For the Accurate measurements in SDR I used Custom picture mode, which was about half as bright. I prefer Vizio's approach of a dedicated, accurate bright-room picture mode. The disparity between the two modes was much less in HDR, with Custom measuring only a couple hundred nits dimmer.
The Sony's semimatte screen finish reduced reflections as well as any TV in my lineup, with the exception of the Samsung and the LG OLED, and beat the TCL in this area. It preserved black levels about as well as the Vizios and TCL, but worse than the others.
Color accuracy: Before calibration the Sony's color was quite accurate in its Custom picture mode, and afterward nearly perfect according to my measurements. That accuracy came through in Blade Runner, for example, in Hauer's introductory scene where he instructs Brion James -- his skin tones were realistic without being too ruddy. The white of Hauer's hair and the icy walls of the body parts shop were neutral, while the neon reds and blues of the city looked appropriately garish. The differences between the Sony and the others were slight, however, and would only be visible in a side-by-side comparison -- all were quite accurate.
Video processing: The X950G was fine in this category and behaved like a typical 120Hz TV, but it wasn't as impressive as the X900F from 2018 and also fell short of the Samsung Q70R.
The X950G had no issues delivering proper 1080p/24 cadence in its Off setting, which is probably still the best for film purists. Meanwhile the Auto setting introduced the buttery smoothness of the soap opera effect (SOE). Then there's the Custom setting, which has adjustable Smoothness and Clearness.
A Smoothness setting above 1 introduces significant SOE, while 0 turns it off. I actually didn't mind the slight smoothing that the 1 setting introduces (some purists might), but its effect on motion resolution was really slight, so I'd probably stick with 0. Meanwhile the Clearness setting ramps up black frame insertion to improve motion resolution, but it doesn't have any effect, aside from dimming unless you've got Smoothness at 2 or higher. In other words, unlike last year's X900F (and Samsung TVs), there's no way to get the best of both worlds -- high motion resolution and no SOE -- with one setting.
I played around with the Manual slider on the Reality Creation setting with lower-quality shows like Hot Bench and cranking it to the max did make the image look sharper, but the effect was a bit artificial to my eye, and the Auto setting too subtle. I didn't bother looking at the Xtended Dynamic Range setting, which is designed to mimic HDR for non-HDR sources. I did appreciate Smooth Gradation, however, which reduced some of the transitions in fields of color, for example in the backgrounds of the Hulu app.
The X950G handily beat the gaming input lag performance of the X900F, however, delivering good results with both 1080p sources (19.13 milliseconds) and 4K HDR sources (18.97 ms).
Uniformity: With full-field test patterns the Sony performed well, with a relatively uniform image across the screen and little or no variation at different light levels. From off-angle, however, it lost black-level fidelity, saturation and contrast (it became washed-out) faster than any of the others as I moved away from the sweet spot directly in front of the screen.
HDR and 4K video: The X950G's bright image served it well with high dynamic range material, but ultimately its weaker black levels caused it to look less impressive than the other TVs in the lineup.
I began with the video montage from the Spears & Munsil test disc, where the Sony's accent on light output at the expense of contrast was evident. The opening shots of snowy mountains, bright clouds and horses amid snowfall were superb: rendered brighter and more impactful than any of the other sets in the lineup, including the Vizio PQ (which measured brighter on test patterns). The Sony also rendered bright details better than the Samsung or Vizio M8 (for example in the pen at 4:11), didn't accentuate middle-brightness areas like the Samsung, and lacked the banding in skies I saw on the Vizio.
Where the Sony fell short was in the challenging darker sequences of objects against black backgrounds, and the nighttime ferris wheel and cityscape shots -- again the Sony's black areas were grayish and washed out, blooming was rampant and the scenes lacked contrast and punch as a result, despite their brighter highlights. Although it wasn't as obvious, brighter scenes like the canyon at 2:32 also at times looked less contrasty as well.
The intense colors of the flowers and butterflies also looked a bit duller and less rich on the Sony than most of the others. Perhaps some of this is due to its narrower color gamut compared to the others (aside from the TCL, whose HDR image was oversaturated).
I checked out the 4K HDR disc of Blade Runner and saw similar issues to the standard Blu-ray, albeit even more prevalent: brighter black levels, rampant blooming and an inferior image overall. I tried playing around with the various local dimming settings and the default Medium made the best of the Sony's image -- Low washed out the image too much while High introduced even more blooming.
For 4K HDR streaming I watched Another Life on the Sony's Netflix app in Dolby Vision, complete with the Netflix Calibrated Mode, and compared it against the 4K HDR10 rendition from a Roku Ultra on the other sets. In brighter scenes once again the Sony looked very good, with plenty of punch and pleasing highlights, although again its contrast lagged the other slightly. That lack became more obvious when the image darkened to show the space station and its dark interiors, however, and again I noticed blooming and bright spots, particularly when the protagonist awakens (7:59). Toggling back and forth it was tough to see any benefit for the Netflix mode versus the two Dolby Vision presets.
|Black luminance (0%)
|Peak white luminance (SDR)
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)
|Dark gray error (30%)
|Bright gray error (80%)
|Avg. color checker error
|Avg. saturation sweeps error
|Avg. color error
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)
|Motion resolution (max)
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)
|Input lag (Game mode)
|Black luminance (0%)
|Peak white luminance (10% win)
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)
|ColorMatch HDR error
|Avg. color checker error
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)