There was a lot of anticipation surrounding the release of Sony’s high-end XBR8 TV series, the company’s first series to feature LED-backlighting. So what’s all the excitement about? With the exception of Samsung’s Series 9 TVs, all LCD TVs on the market today use fluorescent lighting to illuminate the screen. Standard fluorescent backlighting has always presented a challenge for LCD TVs because it prevents them from displaying deep blacks, a crucial building block for a realistic TV picture. Without the ability to display a deep black, LCD TVs generally can’t match the contrast ratios and overall colour reproduction of current plasma TVs. Backlighting the screen with LEDs finally offers the ability for LCD TVs to display deep blacks, as opposed to just dark grays. What effect does it have on the overall picture quality? Keep reading.
Sony’s XBR8 series consists of two models: the 46-inch KDL46XBR8 priced at $4,999 and the 55-inch KDL55XBR8 priced at $6,999. Yes, seven grand will also buy you a used car. But let’s face it – new, revolutionary technology never comes cheap. In fact based on screen size, these TVs are more expensive than Pioneer’s Elite plasma TVs, the top performing TVs in the world. Sony was nice enough to send us the 55-inch KDL55XBR8 for evaluation, which we received with grins on our faces.
Let’s start with the specs: The KDL55XBR8 offers a rated on-screen contrast ratio of 3,000:1 and a dynamic contrast of 1,000,000:1. This ultra high dynamic contrast is achieved thanks to what Sony calls Triluminos RGB LED backlight technology which consists of 128 LED modules behind the screen, each having red, green, and blue LEDs. Since the backlight is divided into smaller modules, the TV can adjust the brightness of the backlight in specific portions of the screen. LED backlighting also allows for a much greater range of on-screen colours. As expected from a TV of this size, the KDL55XBR8 has a native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels, or 1080p if you prefer. It is capable of displaying 24 frames per second material from Blu-ray players and has a Motionflow 120 Hz PRO feature which helps with the reproduction of fast motion scenes. Sony’s most advanced video processor, the BRAVIA Engine 2 PRO, tops out the feature list.
The KDL55XBR8 allows you to view photos and listen to music from a flash drive connected to its USB port and from computers connected to your home network.
To evaluate the KDL55XBR8’s performance, I used our reference Pioneer Elite BDP-95FD Blu-ray player and the PlayStation 3 as the sources, both connected using Furutech HDMI cables. Sitting on top of my flat panel TV stand, the KDL55XBR8 looked very clean and sophisticated. Its giant 55-inch screen has a glossy black frame and is flanked by speakers on both sides that appear to float in midair. The floating speaker effect is achieved thanks to the plexiglass that surrounds the TV panel and holds the speakers in place. The KDL55XBR8 has a static, non-swiveling stand and hence is not the best option for rooms in which you may want to tilt the TV from time to time.
A quick look at the menu system revealed that the KDL55XBR8 offers a large variety of picture settings to play with, which video enthusiasts will find to be a treat. Five picture presets are present, four of which can be adjusted independently for each input. In addition to the basic picture controls, you will find controls for colour temperature (three settings), noise reduction, gamma, white balance and Digital Reality Creation (DRC) which adjusts apparent resolution and noise reduction.
The menu system, which is shared by other Sony TVs, looks and functions like the PS3 Cross Media Bar (XMB). Personally, I find this menu system very cumbersome to navigate compared to all other TV menus that I’ve used. The poor layout means that getting to certain areas of the menu, like the picture settings, requires many more button presses than it should. The supplied remote is backlit, which is great, although I found its buttons to be rather crowded.
I calibrated the KDL55XBR8 using a DVE: HD Basics discs, using the Cinema picture mode as a starting point – the disc instructed me to perform only minor adjustments. Although this TV offers a wealth of picture enhancements, I left most of these turned off in order to achieve the most natural picture. Next I tested the TV’s video processing with the 480i and 1080i Silicon Optix test discs. The KDL55XBR8 scored rather poorly with the various tests on the 480i disc. Turning on Sony’s Digital Reality Creation (DRC) from the menu slightly improved the scores on these tests. With the 1080i disc, the KDL55XBR8 passed the video resolution test (i.e. properly de-interlaced 1080i), failed the film resolution test (3:2 pulldown) and showed that it was capable of effective noise reduction without much resolution loss.
I started real world tests by feeding the KDL55XBR8 a regular 480i TV cable. As expected from such a big screen TV, the picture was very soft and somewhat artificial blown up to fit this 55-inch screen. Most viewers will not enjoy watching such low quality signals on a TV of this size, not just this particular TV. Watching a 480p picture from standard DVDs produced significantly improved results. The progressive picture displayed a substantially higher resolution with far better detail. While watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on DVD, I noticed some ringing (ghostly white halos) around static objects and moving characters at times – this is attributed to the scaling of the 480p to the TV’s native 1080p resolution. I played around with the various picture settings but couldn’t get the ghosting to go away. But the KDL55XBR8 had much better things in store.
There’s no question that this TV’s forte was with high definition sources. During the week that the KDL55XBR8 spent at my house, I caught a couple of hockey games on CBC HD, courtesy of my Nippon UDF80 outdoor antenna. This over-the-air signal was perfectly free of the compression that you’d get from satellite or digital cable and looked super sharp. The details were just phenomenal – player names on the back of the jerseys were easily readable and the faces of the fans in the background were clearly visible. Mind you these are just the advantages of a clean 1080p picture, not specifically this TV. What made this picture distinguished from the rest of the crowd were the killer black levels. In the past, we had to be content with dark grays from LCD TVs but evidently those may soon be the days of the past.
From the very first glance at dark scenes, it was clear that the KDL55XBR8 produced the deepest blacks that we’ve seen from any LCD TV that we’ve tested in the past. It would be misleading to call this an improvement in blacks – this is a giant leap! The KDL55XBR8 was able to produce black levels similar to that of the best of plasma, our reference Pioneer PDP-6020FD KURO TV. The black bars on the top and bottom of 2.35:1 movies actually looked black, almost as black as the TV frame. With dark movies such as Underworld: Evolution, the results were astonishing – not only were the blacks really black but the shadow details were also excellent. Actors’ faces filmed in the dark, displayed many fine details that other LCD TVs would obscure. Character outfits appeared truly black and revealed every fold and crease. Further tests revealed that unlike on our reference TV, the level of the black on the KDL55XBR8 was dependent on other parts of the picture displayed on the screen at the same time – a function of the local dimming of the LED modules behind the screen. As a result, dark picture areas right next to bright areas were not as black as on our reference Pioneer.
When watching Planet Earth on Blu-ray, the KDL-55XBR8 showed off its terrific colour reproduction. It quickly became obvious that this TV offered the best colour that we’ve witnessed from any LCD TV. All of the breathtaking landscapes that I watched from this series looked convincingly real. The greens of the forests looked organically green as did the blues of the skies. Exotic salt-water fish had well-saturated, vibrant colours. Flesh tones in Casino Royale on Blu-ray were also accurately reproduced. In addition to all of this, the KDL-55XBR8’s picture had an exceptional depth for an LCD TV.
Although I did most of my watching in the evening, the KDL-55XBR8 also performed very well under bright lighting conditions. Reflections in the screen, though not completely absent, were minimal.
The one area in which the KDL-55XBR8 didn’t score too well was off-axis performance. When I moved just one seat off centre in my couch, the picture started becoming washed out. This put the KDL-55XBR8 at a disadvantage, at least in my open-concept space, where the TV is viewable at various angles from the living room, dining room and kitchen. Its non-swiveling stand meant that I couldn’t angle the TV toward my viewing position.
Given that the Sony KDL-55XBR8’s price is $1000 higher than that of our reference 60-inch Pioneer PDP-6020FD KURO plasma TV, it’s fair to ask – how did the performance compare between the two sets? Although the Sony produced black levels that nearly matched the Pioneer, its overall picture didn’t have the same pop as the Pioneer – the Sony’s colours were slightly washed out and its picture didn’t have the same three dimensional depth that we love so much about our Pioneer. The Sony’s video processing also fell short compared to the Pioneer.
There is no question that the KDL-55XBR8 is by far the best performing LCD TV to make its stop at the CANADA HiFi lab. This TV represents not just a step forward, but a great leap for LCD TV technology as a whole. Its steep $6,999 price tag gives it one of the worst dollar-per-inch ratios in the market, aside from Sony’s own XEL-1 OLED TV. Although most consumers won’t be able to justify spending this kind of money on a 55-inch TV, it is just a matter of time before this technology trickles down to more reasonably priced models. The message is clear though – LED backlighting allows LCD TVs to reach a whole new level of performance. All that Sony has to do now is make the technology more affordable.
Price: $6999 CDN