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.
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. Along the edge of the black is a thin silver strip, but that's it for adornment.
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.
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.
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.
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. Here's the separate "SEN" menu with categorized apps but a different look and feel from the main menu (and longer load times).
The "Internet video" section has a massive array of smaller niche video services from Billabong and Biinkx to the Sony Cinema Concert Series and 3Net (that last is disappointing though, deploying a paltry selection of 3- to 4-minute 3D clips).
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.
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.