The Good: Excellent black detail, good color reproduction, direct Internet access for Web video viewing
The Bad: Pricey, average standard-definition picture, Internet connection must be plugged into a router
The Bottom Line: Sony's high-end line sets the standard for many rivals to follow
Late to the flat-panel game, Sony decided a couple of years ago to focus its efforts entirely on building the best liquid-crystal display, or LCD, TVs on the market. The resulting troika of Sony (SNE), Samsung, and Sharp now battle with each succeeding model for the honor of best LCD TV.
This year, Sony wins that crown with the KDL-46XBR4, a 46-inch set I tested with Sony's new Bravia Internet Video Link, a $300 add-on that lets you grab content off the Web.
Picture Quality Rivals Plasma Sets
Sony's high-end XBR models, which use the best glass panels available, have consistently delivered stunning depths and accuracy of color in reds and greens—two colors consumers seem to respond to most. The KDL-46XBR4—which lists at $3,300 but is available for hundreds less—ups the ante by offering black levels and contrast that begin to rival those offered by some of the best plasma televisions, giving Sony's set an edge over the latest LCDs we've reviewed from Sharp and Samsung.
Amid the sea of glossy, black-framed TVs on display at electronics stores, the XBR product line always stands out thanks to a "floating" glass bezel that surrounds the wide-screen, black frame. I'm not a big fan of this design, as I find this glass somewhat distracting when watching TV. But it does make a stunning statement in a room, the sleek factor amplified by the reliable allure of Sony's logo and indicator lights that seem to appear from nowhere when the set is turned on.
And if you're tired of the matte-black scheme so typical among wide-screen TVs, Sony is offering a wide palette of color options with the XBR4 for those willing to pay extra. For $300, you can get a bezel and a matching cover for the stand (which, disappointingly, doesn't swivel) in arctic white, velvet black, scarlet red, sienna brown, pacific blue, or adjective-free silver.
Almost All the Inputs You Need
On the back, Sony offers the requisite number of inputs for a set in this class: two high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) inputs, a pair of component video inputs for set-top boxes and standard-definition gaming consoles, one AV input with composite and S-video ports for connecting to older consumer electronics gear, a second composite-only connector, and a VGA-style input to use the TV as a computer display with resolutions of up to 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Audio options include stereo analog and optical digital outputs. Finally, there's a connection for Sony's add-on Bravia Internet Video Link.
Behind the bezel on the left side, there's another HDMI input, a headphone jack, and a third composite connector. As with other LCD sets that feature a side HDMI input, I understand the purported benefit of providing quick access to hook up another player. But if you're only offering three HDMI inputs (some manufacturers now offer four), many customers will have that many components they'd like to have connected at all times—in which case you'd be better off with all three on the back for the sake of organizing cords and keeping them out of sight.
Sony has also joined its rivals in adding 10-bit processing to its sets, boosting the number of color combinations the screen can create from a few millions into the billions. While there's currently no content that takes advantage of this so-called Deep Color technology, the industry is expecting some video game makers to begin introducing titles with this level of detail in 2008.
The XBR4's remote is neatly laid out, with a control pad almost dead-center that offers shortcut keys to cycle through the most-used settings—picture, sound, and aspect ratio (which switches between screen sizes such as wide-screen and letter box). An options key lets you dig deeper into picture and sound modes or operate the picture-in-picture feature.
Another button calls up the unique Bravia Internet Link mode, which I discuss more in a bit.
Good Blur Control and Navigation
To reduce motion blur on the screen, Sony refreshes the picture twice as fast as the typical 60-Hz rate. I frequently suggest that users turn off this increasingly common feature, as the extra processing can actually introduce artifacts when you're not watching movies or sports. But the Sony set does not give you that option. Instead, there are "standard" and "high" settings. While it would be nice to be able to turn off the 120-Hz refresh completely for typical TV viewing, the standard mode delivered a smooth picture without artifacts, while high did a good job of eliminating motion judder and blur in fast-action scenes.
Owners of other Sony products will be familiar with the on-screen navigation controls, which the company calls the XrossMediaBar. For others, it might take some getting used to, particularly if you like to constantly tinker with picture adjustments. I found that the menu icons and text explanations give you a solid hint of where you're going.
High-definition images on the native resolution of 1080p (full HD) look simply stunning. When I watched 300 on an HD-DVD player, the set replicated the gritty feel of a theater. The fashion designs on Bravo's Project Runway, fed by a DirecTV HD DVR, were displayed in all their glory or ugliness. I wasn't as impressed with the set's ability to convert non-HD programming as I have been with rival sets, though this is fast becoming a moot issue with the push to deliver more digital and HD content.
Bravia Gives This Set the Edge
To stand further apart in such a fiercely competitive market, Sony offers its unique Bravia device, a videotape-size box that attaches to the back of the set via USB or HDMI cable. (The box itself features an extra USB port and HDMI switcher to make up for that fact that Bravia hogs one of the set's precious few inputs.) Unfortunately, the box doesn't feature Wi-Fi connectivity, so you need to plug it directly into your modem or router with an Ethernet cable.
Bravia suffers one major drawback in that the connection delivers only Sony-authorized content from the Internet. This was a bit of a problem when the service first launched in August, since many of the short clips from AOL (TWX), Yahoo! (YHOO), and other Sony partners were not very interesting. Nor had some of them been modified to fit the TV's large screen. But within a few weeks, new content began appearing at a steady clip. I liked some of the cooking show and comedy programs, especially because commercials and other extraneous material had been edited out for faster viewing.
You can see where this technology is going, though it may not be worth the additional cost and setup hassles for mainstream consumers until it gets there. Still, Sony is only the second major LCD maker to introduce direct online connectivity without a computer (Hewlett-Packard's (HP) MediaSmart line being the other, with an even smaller selection of video content). So between Bravia and other cutting-edge features, Sony has succeeded in giving consumers more compelling reasons to choose its brand over others.