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.
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.
Let's begin with a discussion of the XBR-55X900A's core performance attributes like color, black level, brightness, and gamma; then we will look specifically at issues related to its Ultra HD resolution. As is my new method, I began by measuring several of the TV's picture modes as they are out of the box. The "right out of the box" Standard picture mode measures fairly cool (9,464 Kelvin), with inaccurate colors, a very light gamma, and a grayscale Delta Error over 20. The Custom, Cinema 1, and Cinema 2 picture modes were the closest to accurate, offering solid but not great numbers. All three modes had a grayscale Delta Error between 9 and 9.75 (under 10 is tolerable, under five is good, under three is ideal) and an average color temperature around 5,800 to 5,900 K, which is a good bit warmer than the target 6,500 K. All three modes have a strong red emphasis in terms of overall color balance. Switching the color temperature from Warm2 to Warm1 over-corrected the problem and created an image that was too cool, so a calibration of the TV's white balance is recommended. The Cinema 1 picture mode had the most accurate color points out of the box, with every color but yellow coming in under the DE3 target, so that's the mode I ultimately used. Light output wasn't that high in the Cinema 1 mode, coming in at about 25 ftL with a dark gamma of 2.41.
The good news is that the XBR-55X900A calibrates extremely well. I was able to get the grayscale DE down to just 1.56, with nearly perfect color balance across the board and a gamma of 2.23. Even though the TV lacks a color management system (CMS), the adjustment of other parameters brought all six color points under a DE of two. This is where we could have a philosophical debate over just how accurate a TV needs to be. The Panasonic TC-P60VT60 that I used as a reference has an advanced CMS that allows for even more accurate color points, but if the human eye can't perceive any difference under a Delta Error of three, does it matter if the number is 2.0 or 0.2? Some purists think it does. I confess, the perfectionist in me wishes I could eke the Sony's color points even closer to a DE of zero, but the realist in me acknowledges that it's not really a necessary pursuit. At the end of the day, in real-world comparisons between the Sony and Panasonic TVs, the color points were so similar that I couldn't see a difference.
The bigger difference between the two TVs came in the areas of black level and image brightness, as is usually the case when comparing plasma and LCD TVs. Thanks to the Dynamic Edge local dimming, the XBR-55X900A has surprisingly good uniformity for an edge-lit LED, with no blatant light leakage in the corners of the screen and no bright patches elsewhere to detract from performance in darker scenes. The screen turns itself off during all-black scene transitions. I went with the most aggressive local-dimming option to get the best blacks; while a little bit of glow was evident around bright objects (specifically, white text on black backgrounds), it wasn't excessive. The Sony was able to produce an even deeper black level than the VT60, but only when I turned its backlight way down, which resulted in a picture that was much too dim. The Sony required a backlight setting of six or seven to get close to the THX-recommended 35 ftL and better match the plasma's light output; at that backlight setting, the Sony's black level was still quite good, resulting in an image with very good depth and contrast. Its black level and black detail were comparable to the VT60's in the dark opening scene from The Bourne Supremacy (DVD, Universal). However, when I switched to chapter two of Flags of Our Fathers (BD, Sony), the Panasonic was the clear victor in both black level and black detail. That's because this scene contains more elements that force the LED lights to stay on, so the local-dimming LCD couldn't compete with the precision and inherently better contrast of the plasma. Still, in all but the most challengingly dark scenes, I was impressed with the Sony's ability to render deep blacks and great black detail.
When I moved to bright-room evaluations, the XBR-55X900A excelled. This TV isn't capable of as much light output as other LCDs I've tested, but it had better overall brightness than the plasma. With the room lights on and/or the window blinds opened, the Sony did a much better job than the VT60 of rejecting ambient light to produce a more saturated image. HDTV looked rich, vibrant, and engaging during the day. The Sony has a solid viewing angle for an LCD; black levels do rise when you move off-axis, but the angle is wider than other recent LCDs I've tested, and brighter images hold up quite well.
Now, on to Ultra HD. When Sony offered me the XBR-55X900A, they offered to send along a server with some content. I had hoped I'd get the FMP-X1 server (more on this in a moment), but what I got was the server used in retail stores to show a five-minute demo loop of UHD content. I suppose five minutes of native UHD content is better than no content at all. I'm guessing that five minutes of video on a server doesn't require much if any compression, so I was looking at a very pristine, high-quality image that may or may not be indicative of what we actually get in a UHD format. Not surprisingly, the picture looked gorgeous: very fine detail, rich color, and a great sense of depth and dimension. I would've liked to see a few fast-motion scenes, but beggars can't be choosers. About one minute of the demo loop is a scene from The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony), so I tried an experiment: I cued up the same scene on Blu-ray (Chapter 12, about the 1:26:25 mark) on two 1080p TVs (the Panasonic VT60 and the Samsung UN55F8000), and I viewed the TVs side by side to observe the difference. I sat about six feet from the TVs, which is a good four feet closer than I normally sit. I was feeling generous. Could I see an improvement in detail on the 55-inch UHD TV at this distance? Yes, the UHD image looked crisper and more defined, especially compared with the 60-inch plasma. I could more clearly see the individual blades of grass in the dirt clumps around the sewer, the background wall texture was more defined, and the strings of Spider-Man's web and the stitching of his outfit looked sharp and precise. My husband commented that the UHD version looked a bit more lifelike, that you could reach in and grab the handful of dirt. But the key phrase is "a bit." It certainly wasn't a jaw-dropping difference. It required close examination and, when we moved back to our normal seating distance over 10 feet from the screen, the differences were harder to see. On a larger screen, I suspect the differences would be more obvious at the greater viewing distance, but they were awfully tough to see on a 55-inch screen.
Right now, the majority of content that you could watch on this TV is upconverted SD and HD, so my next step was to test the XBR-55X900A's scaling and other video-processing skills. I compared the TV's internal upconversion with that of the OPPO BDP-103; since the OPPO has a source direct mode, I could easily switch between the TV's UHD scaler and the OPPO's UHD scaler. The Sony processor did only an average job with SD DVDs; the detail level was good, but the Sony failed many of the assorted cadence tests on my HQV Benchmark DVD, and it was a little slow to detect the 3:2 cadence in real-world DVD scenes from The Bourne Identity (Universal) and Gladiator (DreamWorks), resulting in some moiré and jaggies. The OPPO scaler did a better job with all of these tests. I will add, though, that the Sony TV did a better job than the Panasonic VT60 in the deinterlacing and upscaling of SD DVDs. With HD sources, the Sony and OPPO were closer in performance. They both passed the video and film tests on the HD HQV Blu-ray disc. When I switched to the Spears & Munsil 1080p scaling pattern, at first the Sony TV did not reproduce the finest diamond pattern, showing just a blank box. I discovered that I had to turn on Sony's Reality Creation and turn on the "Mastered in 4K" sub-option in order for the TV to resolve all of the finest details in the 1080p pattern. As long as the Reality Creation's "Resolution" setting was kept below about 30, the Sony TV produced the 1080p pattern cleanly without ringing and edge enhancement. The OPPO did a better job on a few of the other Spears & Munsil HD tests (like the Luma Zone Plate and Chroma Wedges and Multiburt patterns). When comparing the aforementioned Blu-ray scene from The Amazing Spider-Man, I couldn't see any blatant difference in detail between the OPPO and Sony when upconverting to 4K. When I added the native UHD version of the same scene into the comparison, of course it looked sharper and clearer when I moved closer to the screen. From farther back, though, the difference between the upscaled image and the native image was more challenging to see.
In one final processing note, the Sony TV has a number of options for dealing with motion blur and film judder. The Standard and Smooth modes in the Motionflow menu use frame interpolation, which reduces motion blur but produces a super-smooth effect with film sources that I don't like. The Impulse mode produced the best motion resolution in my test pattern from the FPD Benchmark Blu-ray disc, but it severely limits light output and creates unwatchable flicker. I found the Clear mode to offer the best compromise between light output and motion resolution, without creating unnaturally smooth motion in film sources.
Next, I moved to 3D content, an area where the XBR-55X900A's Ultra HD resolution can make an immediate difference. In passive 3D displays, half of the TV's resolution goes to the left-eye image and half goes to the right-eye image. In a 1080p display, that means you're getting half the resolution (540 lines) to each eye, and I've always found passive 3D displays to look softer than active ones. Additionally, the effect produces a visible line structure that's most obvious in large patches of solid white or color. With an Ultra HD display, you're still getting half the resolution to each eye, but now that "half" is a full 1,080 lines. As a result, 3D images (especially DirecTV 3D) looked crisper and more detailed, and the line structure was far less noticeable. Add to that the already-established benefits of passive 3D - the brighter picture, the reduced crosstalk, and the lack of flicker that results in a more comfortable viewing experience - and the XBR-55X900A proved to be a great performer in the 3D realm. This 3D TV also supports SimulView gaming, which lets players view a full-screen image when playing certain split-screen games. The extra resolution should pay dividends there, too.
Finally, a word about the XBR-55X900A's sound quality. The inclusion of real speakers does make a difference. The TV's thin panel means there's still not enough cabinet space to generate the kind of performance you can get from separate bookshelf speakers; however, I watched several action movies through the TV's speakers (including Mission: Impossible 4, Thor, and Captain America), and I was pretty impressed with the speakers' dynamic ability and generally full sound. The Cinema sound mode actually created some sense of a soundstage out to the sides, and the Voice Zoom did a decent job of helping vocals remain intelligible. Of course, it doesn't rival dedicated speakers and a subwoofer, but it's a big step up from your average TV speakers.
Needless to say, it's hard to do a comprehensive review of an Ultra HD TV when you have little to no Ultra HD content. Then again, consumers have little to no Ultra HD content to watch now, so we're all in the same boat. We're still waiting for a UHD Blu-ray and/or broadcast standard to be finalized, and it will take a while for products to arrive after the standard is set. Red has announced a 4K player for $1,750, but it's not available yet. In this respect, Sony is actually ahead of the game; the company's $700 FMP-X1 player hit retail stores on July 15. The player is preloaded with 10 UHD movies and some other UHD clips, and you will be able to access the upcoming Video Unlimited 4K service that Sony says is on track to launch in the fall. The company says that UHD feature films will be available to rent for prices starting at $7.99 and to purchase for prices starting at $29.99. In addition to the higher resolution, these films will purportedly be offered with a wider color gamut that the Triluminos technology can accommodate. The FMP-X1 is currently only compatible with Sony's UHD TVs, which gives owners of the XBR-55X900A and its big brother a much faster, easier path to native UHD content.
As I discussed in the performance section, it is difficult to see the step up in resolution from 1080p to Ultra HD on a 55-inch screen, at a realistic viewing distance. According to this chart, you'd have to sit about three feet from a 55-inch display to see the full benefits of UHD resolution. At a viewing distance of six feet, I could see some improvement in detail in native Ultra HD content, but I could see virtually no difference in detail when viewing 1080p Blu-ray sources on both the Sony UHD TV and the Samsung/Panasonic 1080p TVs.
As is so often the case with the introduction of new technology, there will likely be compatibility issues between some of the first UHD TVs and future UHD playback devices, given that the HDMI 2.0 spec will support UHD at higher frame rates and will likely support 10- or 12-bit color, as well. (You can read more about that here.) Sony has assured us that the company has an upcoming solution that will allow consumers to get both higher frame rates and deeper-color content on their XBR-55X900A and XBR-65X900A TVs, but some people may still prefer to wait to take the UHD plunge until all of the standards have been finalized.
Competition and Comparison
At this moment, the XBR-55X900A doesn't have many competitors in the Ultra HD space around the 55-inch screen size. The only other option is the 50-inch Seiki SE50UY04 that costs just $1,400, although early reviews suggest that you pretty much get what you pay for with that display. Toshiba, Samsung, and LG have announced 55- and 65-inch UHD sets that are expected to arrive on the market very soon, with similar if not higher price points than the Sony models.
Given the XBR-55X900A's price point, its major competitors right now would be the top-shelf 55-inch 1080p offerings - including Samsung's UN55F8000 ($2,500), LG's 55LA8600 ($2,700), and Panasonic's TC-P55VT60 ($2,600; the ZT Series is not offered at the 55-inch screen size).
It's 4,000 words later, and I'm still having a hard time reaching a final verdict on the XBR-55X900A. On the one hand, the TV offers excellent all-around performance, producing a very attractive image in both dark and bright room settings. It doesn't quite match up with the best plasmas in terms of black level and overall contrast, but this TV calibrates very well and has better bright room, 3D, and audio performance than the VT60. On the other hand, it costs twice as much as similarly featured 1080p TVs, which obviously hurts its rating in the value department. Its distinguishing feature - Ultra HD - is the one feature I couldn't thoroughly evaluate. The fact that the Sony TV excels in the fundamentals means its performance should only get better as the quality of the source content gets better. Furthermore, Sony is offering a clear and immediate path to Ultra HD content in the form of the FMP-X1, but that adds up to $700 to the final bill (Sony is offering an introductory $200 discount on the FMP-X1 to consumers who purchase one of its UHD TVs).
Then we come back to the whole debate over screen size and Ultra HD. I just don't know that this 55-inch TV clearly accentuates the strengths of Ultra HD enough to merit its price tag - unless you strongly crave a better passive 3D experience or you're a gamer who will sometimes sit closer to the TV for gameplay. If you love the idea of Ultra HD and are prepared to pay more to be an early adopter, then I strongly encourage you to consider moving up to the 65-inch XBR-65X900A, where Ultra HD's benefits may be easier to see.
There is another option worth considering: Sony's KDL-55W900A. This is the top-shelf 1080p TV in Sony's line, and it includes the same technologies as the XBR-55X900A, except for the Ultra HD resolution and higher-quality speakers. You still get the Dynamic Edge LED panel, the Triluminos technology, the Motionflow XR 960, the X-Reality PRO processing, and all the Web/network goodies ... for a current street price around $2,300. If you really want the best that Sony has to offer but are reluctant to embrace Ultra HD this early in its life cycle, then the KDL-55W900A may be a better place to look.