As I sit down to write my first review of an Ultra HD TV, I can't help but think back to the early days of high-definition. I even asked a few colleagues to dust off the brain cobwebs and try to remember what it was like to review the very first HD displays - before Blu-ray, before HD DVD, before cable and satellite packages loaded with HD channels. We took a fun trip down memory lane as we remembered the quest to obtain HD content. There were some over-the-air HD broadcasts. I remember sitting in a room full of A/V techies in 1999 watching one of ABC's first Monday Night Football games in high-def. Most of those early displays were HD-ready and had no internal tuner, so you had to buy an external tuner. Anyone remember D-VHS and D-Theater movies? Being an early adopter sure wasn't cheap ... or easy. The truth is, reviewers relied heavily on DVD in those early days and had to extrapolate how they expected the TV would perform with true HD content. The more things change, the more ... well, you know the saying.
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After introducing an 84-inch $25,000 UHD TV last year, Sony has now added two smaller UHD models, at screen sizes of 65 and 55 inches. At $7,000 for the 65-inch XBR-65X900A and $5,000 for the 55-inch XBR-55X900A, these TVs are still much pricier than their similarly-featured 1080p counterparts, but at least they've entered a realm that enthusiasts might actually spend on a new television. Sony sent us a sample of the 55-inch UHD model.
A 3840 x 2160 resolution certainly isn't the only thing that the XBR-55X900A brings to the table. This TV is loaded with Sony's top-shelf technologies and features. It's an edge-lit LED/LCD that uses Sony's Dynamic Edge local dimming to help improve black level and screen uniformity. Sony's Triluminos technology replaces the traditional "white light" LED system with a combination of blue LEDs and quantum dots that emit red and green light. Sony says this RGB lighting approach allows for more efficient light transmission, an expanded color gamut, and purer, more realistic colors even within the confines of the current Rec. 709 standard. (Check out this story for more on quantum dots.) The XBR-55X900A is a passive 3D display, and four pairs of glasses are included in the package. The TV also offers the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) Web platform with access to a wide range of Web and network services.
Setup & Features
The XBR-55X900A isn't quite as thin and light as your average edge-lit LED/LCD, with a depth of about four inches and a weight of 73 pounds. The reason for this is that Sony decided to incorporate real speakers into the panel, instead of the tiny little speaker strips that run along the sides or underside of most flat-panel TVs these days. The 2.2-channel audio system features dual two-way speakers with an 18mm tweeter sandwiched between two 80mm magnetic fluid woofers, and the back panel houses dual 70mm subwoofers. The TV has a gloss-black finish with a round chrome stand. The speaker drivers are also black and completely integrated into the frame, with no option to cover them with material. This creates a unique aesthetic compared with everything else on the market, one that will likely draw mixed reactions.
The connection panel has most of the desired goods: four HDMI inputs (one supports ARC, another supports MHL), three USB 2.0 ports, one RF input, one dedicated component video input, one composite video input, optical digital and 3.5mm audio outs, an Ethernet port for wired network connectivity (built-in WiFi is also available), and IR/serial ports for advanced control. There's no dedicated PC input. One thing that's not expected but would've upped the convenience factor would be a pair of speaker-level inputs that would let you incorporate the built-in speakers into a true surround sound setup with external surrounds, center, and sub.
This year, Sony has redesigned its menu and user interface. I know a lot of people loved the XrossMediaBar, but frankly I always found it to be cluttered and a bit laborious to navigate. I think the new interface is an improvement, retaining elements of the old look with a more stylish flair that effectively uses icons. Hit the Home menu, and the six main menu options appear as text running vertically along the left side of the screen. Sub-menu options appear as colorful icons that extend horizontally across the screen. In particular, I always had an issue with the placement of Sony's various Web features in the old interface; it felt like they were haphazardly scattered all over. Now everything related to the Sony Entertainment Network can be found in the Applications menu. Marquee options like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Skype, the Web browser, and Sony's Video and Music Unlimited services have icons in the main menu for quick access, or you can hit the "All Applications" icon to see a grid of all the Web services that Sony offers (and they offer a lot). You can add or subtract favorites from the main Applications bar. Beyond that, Sony doesn't let you customize the experience, nor do they offer an Apps store to purchase new services, as you can with Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. The Applications menu also includes the Media Player app that allows you to stream content from a connected USB drive or DLNA server.
I experimented with DLNA playback using both a Samsung tablet and Plex software on my Mac; both worked fine, with no connectivity or playback issues. The XBR-55X900A also supports Screen Mirroring over WiFi, so you can view the screen from a compatible phone or tablet on the larger TV screen. There's also a built-in Web browser, but it doesn't support Flash and it sometimes gave me "page too large to load" error messages.
The XBR-55X900A comes with most of the advanced picture adjustments we like to see. As with previous Sony TVs, at first glance it seems like there are only three picture modes: Custom, Standard, and Vivid. However, if you hit the remote's Option button and access Scene Select, you'll find a wider variety of modes from which to choose, including the Cinema mode that I ultimately used. Advanced picture adjustments include an adjustable backlight, two-point white balance, gamma, and noise reduction. The TV doesn't have an advanced color management system, nor does it offer the 10-point white balance and 10-point gamma controls you can find in other high-end TVs. Sony would likely argue that none of these controls proves to be necessary and, as you'll soon see, they are right.
Sony's Reality Creation processing is available, with auto and manual options to fine-tune the picture's noise and resolution. I initially turned this off. Sony's Motionflow XR 960 includes six options to address the issues of motion blur and judder; I'll discuss their effectiveness in the next section. Finally, the LED Dynamic Control lets you tweak the aggressiveness of the Dynamic Edge local dimming; the Standard setting produces the deepest black level, but you might notice a bit more glow around bright objects. The Low setting produces less glow, but also lighter blacks. There's also an option to turn the feature off, but I don't recommend doing so, as it hurts both black level and screen uniformity.
On the audio side, the XBR-55X900A offers six sound modes, including a Compressed Audio mode to help improve the quality of streamed content and a Cinema mode that adds simulated surround to broaden the soundstage. A seven-band equalizer is available, as is a Voice Zoom function to help improve vocal clarity. Auto volume is available to help minimize volume differences between content types. You can set the 3.5mm output for headphones or audio out. Several times during my review session, the TV automatically switched the speaker output setting from the internal speakers to an "external sound system," even though one wasn't connected. I had to manually go in and return the setting to TV speakers to get sound.
The XBR-55X900A comes with two remotes: a standard IR remote with lots of buttons to control various functions and a smaller RF remote that offers just the primary controls. Sony has also introduced a new iOS/Android control app called TV SideView. The new layout makes it easy to pull up a virtual remote, access SEN, browse the i-Manual for tech support, and see what sources are available on your home network to play back on the TV. The Android app adds a voice command function. TV SideView also adds the ability to input your provider info and browse a program guide from the tablet or phone. If you're using an antenna through the RF input, you can change channels via the app when you find something you want to watch in the guide. For those of us with cable or satellite service, though, there's no IR dongle included to control an external set-top box. I found the guide a bit cluttered to view on a small iPhone, but it was better on a larger tablet screen. The control app also offers a virtual keyboard for text input but, as is the case with so many manufacturers' apps, the keyboard doesn't work within popular apps like Netflix and YouTube. The TV does offer built-in Bluetooth to add a wireless keyboard or headphones.
Read about the performance of the Sony XBR-55X900A UHD TV on Page 2.