The last Sony TV we reviewed with superb picture quality was the ultra-expensive KDL-55XBR8 from 2008, which also and not coincidentally featured the company’s last example of a full-array local dimming LED backlight. That TV’s spiritual successor, equipped with a similar backlight, is the ultra-expensive XBR-HX909 series, but all told, its picture quality fares less favorably against the competition. It does deliver deliciously deep black levels but they come with too many compromises, including issues with blooming and color accuracy, for a TV at this price level.
If you extend your investment to include a pair or more of 3D glasses, an IR emitter, 3D content, and a device to play it, the Sony XBR-HX909 will deliver that third dimension to your brain. Many other 2010 TVs at this level are also 3D-compatible, and compared to the two we’ve tested, the HX909′s 3D image quality falls squarely in the middle. Its other notable attributes, including best-in-class design and oodles of streaming video, will appeal to many of the buyers able to afford it, but those seeking the best-available home theater picture quality will probably want to look elsewhere.
Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 52-inch Sony XBR-52HX909, but this review also applies to the 46-inch XBR-46HX909. Both sizes have identical specs and, according to the manufacturer, should provide very similar picture quality.
The XBR-HX909 series looks almost exactly like the company’s KDL-NX800 series we reviewed earlier. Both use Sony’s “Monolithic” design scheme, and we really like the effect.
The TV is featureless black slab when turned off, dominated by a single pane of glass that extends almost to the edge of the panel on all sides. A sliver of black metal edges the glass and wraps around the edges, so when seen from the side or top it complements the subtle brushed silver of the low-profile stand. The logos and indicators are nearly invisible, at least until the word “Sony” lights up after power-on (the light can be turned off). The stand can both swivel and tilt back slightly–we’re not sure why you’d want to tilt it however, since TVs are rarely mounted lower than the seating position.
Sony includes one of the best remotes we’ve ever used. The logically sized and placed, flush-yet-still-tactile keys emit a satisfying low-pitched click. The concave shape along the clicker’s length seems to send the thumb to the Home key and the middle of the big cursor control. We like the ability to control other devices via infrared or HDMI, but we wish the blue backlight also illuminated button labels other than “Home.”
The game-console-inspired XMB interface arranges the TV’s many Internet services, settings, inputs and miscellaneous doodads in an intuitive fashion, and while we’d love to see more customization and less clutter (how about the ability to “hide” unwanted interactive services or even entire verticals, such as the TV channels section, which is useless for cable-box users), the snappy navigation makes up for a lot. Shortcuts include a Favorites section that remembers oft-accessed inputs (you can also manually add items, like Netflix) and a context-sensitive Options section with quick access to scene modes, MotionFlow settings and Netflix options. In all, Sony’s interface is the most polished of any TV maker.
Although certainly well-equipped, the Sony XBR-HX909 lacks 3D glasses and an emitter, as well as built-in Wi-Fi, all of which are standard on the similarly-priced, flagship Sony XBR-LX900 series. On the other hand, the HX909 has our favorite type of LED backlight, known as full-array with local dimming (it uses standard white LEDs, not the Triluminous scheme found on 2008′s XBR8 series), while the LX900 is stuck with a traditional edge-lit LED backlight. That’s probably why the 52-inchers from each series cost the same–although at the HX909′s price, it’s still annoying to have to buy a separate IR emitter to sync the TV to the glasses. Every other non-Sony 3D TV we’ve seen, regardless of price, has the emitter built-in.
Sony offers a 2D-to-3D conversion system that can convert any video to 2D, while Panasonic’s 3D plasma does not. And unlike Samsung’s system, the one on the XBR-HX909 will also convert streaming 2D video, such as Netflix, YouTube, and yes, “Ford Models” et al, to 3D.
The array of mainstream (pun intended) video-streaming services is more comprehensive than most makers’, and while we’d like to see Vudu, with its high-quality streams, added to the list, Sony’s Qriocity service and Amazon, which also offers HD streams on demand, help make up for the lack. Sony has also fixed the video quality of Netflix streaming on the XBR-HX909, so now it performs as well as we expect for that service.
If mainstream isn’t your bag, Sony’s plethora of lesser-known video services, most of which are not found on other Internet-connected TVs, might appeal. The list includes names like the Minisode network, blip.tv, style.com, howcast.com, Dr. Oz, Michael Jackson, Dailymotion, Golflink.com and numerous video podcasts like Attack of the Show, Gadget Pron, CNN Daily and NASACast–and yes, “Ford Models.” Most are simply portals to the same videos found on the parent Web sites, and general video quality is poor. Sony offers a keyword search that covers most of the niche services, which reflect a similar zeitgeist to the web at large; there were 142 video results for an “iphone” search, for example. Unfortunately the search doesn’t cover YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and other major services.
Audio is extensive as well, aside from the lack of Rhapsody, and NPR fans will appreciate the up-to-date service offering hundreds of audio snippets. There’s also a pay-per-listen classical music audio/video service from the Berlin Philharmonic.
3D picture quality: We compared the 3D picture quality of the HX909 directly to the two other 3D TVs we have in-house, the Panasonic TC-P50VT25 and the Samsung UN55C8000, and the Sony fell about in the middle. Our side-by-side comparison was helped by Panasonic’s DMP-BDT350, which can output two full-HD 3D signals simultaneously via HDMI, and hampered by the fact that we had to switch between the three companies’ glasses.
There were differences caused by picture settings (we again preferred the Panasonic’s Cinema, which seems to have better shadow detail and color balance than the Sony’s default Cinema, although of course both can be adjusted significantly) and screen size (bigger is better for 3D), and many of the 2D characteristics detailed below spill over into 3D, too. Sony does disallow more adjustments than Samsung and Panasonic; in all 3D picture modes local dimming, MotionFlow, and CineMotion are all disabled and impossible to adjust, while Backlight is pegged to Max.
As before, the basic 3D experience was very similar across the three TVs. The 3D effect was immediate and undeniable, and when watching “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” the sense of detail and depth was very impressive. The rain of burgers seemed to pop off the screen, and fine details like Clint’s spiky hair were rendered beautifully. The computer-animated presentation wasn’t as impressive to our eye as the stop-motion action of “Coraline,” but in any case the Sony’s 3D effect was as good as that of the other sets. That said, as before we still preferred to watch in 2D as opposed to 3D.
One main reason is the presence of an artifact known as “crosstalk,” which appears as ghostly doubled images along the edges of the main image. Crosstalk was less noticeable on the HX909 than on the Samsung; but it was still visible, and to a significantly larger extent than on the Panasonic. One example came during the sequence beginning at 12:06 in “Cloudy” the microphones of the mayor showed the ghostly doubles on the microphone and teal top of Sam Sparks; the ghosts on the Sony were less obvious than the Samsung, but more-so than the Panasonic. In “Coraline” the differences were similar in areas like the bedpost in Chapter 4 or the letters on the Spink & Forcible sign. In the spiraling mice from Chapter 3 the Sony actually evinced less crosstalk than the Panasonic, with none of the amber ghost images seen on that plasma, but in most areas the plasma won.
On the Sony we also noticed some minor flicker in bright fields, like the overcast sky behind Bobinsky from Chapter 5. We felt the same occasional disorientation with the Sony as with the others, including some minor queasiness, especially when putting on the glasses initially–although never as bad as when we watched simulated 3D. We did find Sony’s glasses the most comfortable of the three, and their wraparound style was effective at shutting out our peripheral vision–which can be a distraction itself with 3D.
Sony also offers a 2D-to-3D mode that, as mentioned above, can add a 3D effect to all 2D material, including streaming video like Netflix. We compared it directly that of the Samsung’s system, and while the Sony’s was a bit better in our view, both had enough issues, despite introducing more of a visible 3D effect than we expected, to prevent us wanting to ever engage the system. Watching “Avatar,” for example, the effect of simulated depth was more pronounced on the Samsung at the midpoint of its Depth control than it was even on the Sony’s High setting, but more depth tended to introduce more visible crosstalk and, worse, more nausea as we watched, especially with camera movement. As with true 3D, crosstalk was lessened on the Sony but still clearly visible in many scenes. In short, while simulated 3D may appeal to some viewers, we’ll leave it turned off, thank you.
2D picture quality: In its favor, the XBR-HX909 delivered some of the deepest shades of back we’ve seen on any display, darker than the other local dimming sets and nearly as dark overall as our reference Pioneer plasma. It also handled 1080p/24 sources well. Its other issues however, namely excessive blooming, color drift over time, and a bluish cast to the image, spoiled its chance to unseat the best LCD and plasmas available.
Compared to other high-end TVs we’ve tested recently, the default picture settings available on the Sony XBR-HX909 were relatively inaccurate. Specifically, its grayscale in the most advantageous setting (Cinema, Warm 2 color temperature) was quite red overall. After our user-menu calibration, grayscale measured quite close to the standard and we recorded solid (2.18) average gamma. Linearity still suffered a bit however, with the bluish dark areas typical of LED, along with a tendency toward bluer highlights.
Our biggest issue setting up the HX909 was that its grayscale characteristics drifted quite a bit as the TV warmed up. The above measurements were taken after more than an hour of warmup time; prior to that time the TV measured redder, and steadily got noticeably bluer as time progressed (the 80IRE window, while maintaining the same light output, went from 6,251K to 6,713K over the course of 90 minutes of normal viewing). We did not perform more extensive testing of the grayscale drift, but suffice to say color is significantly more of a moving target than we’ve noticed on other TVs. We contacted Sony’s reps for an explanation and will update this section when they get back to us.
We used the Custom mode for our calibration, as opposed to Cinema, because you have to manually select the latter (or any other Scene memory) when you turn the TV on. For some reason, however, Custom disables LED local dimming by default, so obviously we turned it on (under LED Dynamic Control) for our calibration.