High expectations. That’s what greets this TV in my lab. The local-dimming LED TV, the rarest of all TV breeds, has the potential for amazing picture quality. Earlier this month I reviewed the ELITE PRO-60X5FD, an incredible TV with an incredible price tag.
I didn’t review the HX929, the predecessor to this TV, but several of my TV reviewing friends did, and loved it.
So at $3k, how does the XBR-55HX950 stack up against its other high-end TV competition?
I hate the stand. I mean I really hate it. It’s literally a mirror. Depending where the lights are in your room, you’re going to get a direct reflection in your eyeballs. I did. I wanted to go at it (or them) violently with a Sharpie. I’m one that generally does all my TV watching in a dark room (I’m a projector guy), but with a mirrored stand you’re almost forced to. This was a poor design decision.
Otherwise, setup went fairly smoothly. There’s lots of menu settings to sort though. There’s a feeling like Sony wasn’t satisfied with one control to adjust something, so they put in three. Generally, I feel the more things to adjust the better, but there was something about how the menus were laid out that made it more cumbersome than is really needed. Perhaps it’s partly due to the fact that the real meaty controls are at the bottom of the menu, and you can’t go “up” at the top to cycle to the bottom (most menus do this). You have to scroooooooll down to what you want. On the bright side, the menus don’t cancel out with any rapidity, so you can make adjustments without feeling like you’re on a millisecond countdown timer to them disappearing.
The worst offender in the menu is the apparent inability to turn off overscan. The TV defaults to 20+ pixels of overscan on all sides. The Wide Mode adjustments (either by direct button on the remote or through the Options menu) don’t give you a 1:1 pixel option. There is nothing in the Picture Adjustments menus. There is nothing in the manual. I only found it doing a search in the index of the built-in i-Manual. Here’s how you turn off overscan (I’m not making this up): Home Menu (not the Options > Picture Adjustments menu I assume most people would use) > Settings > Picture and Display > Screen > Auto Display Area “Off” > (yep, still not done) Display Area “Full Pixel.” I lost count how many button pushes it took navigating this convoluted maze, but I think it was 12,000. Possibly less.
Out of the box, color temperature is a little too warm in the warmest setting (Warm 2), but a little too cool in the next coolest setting (Warm 1). This calibrates out and it tracks well across most of the grayscale range. Dark grays and the brightest whites drift a little further from D6500 than the rest of the range, but it’s slight.
Color is quite accurate. All the color primaries and secondaries are pretty much spot on with the recommended values. It’s a good thing, too, as this the 55HX950 doesn’t have a color management system (CMS). This is odd for such an expensive TV, but as long as Sony keeps shipping them with such accurate colors, the lack of a CMS is largely irrelevant.
With most TVs I review, after the initial settings adjustment and calibration, the TV looks pretty much as good as it’s going to. My methodical modus is to turn off all the picture “enhancing” features on every TV, as I’ve found that with few exceptions, these do nasty things to the image. I want to see what the panel and minimum processing do first, and then add back in any features that seem like they might help (noise reduction is often a good one, color enhancement is not).
So set up and calibrated the 55HX950 looked… oddly poor. More so than with other TVs, this one required lots of trial and error to get the image to look good. And I think this is mostly due to the local dimming.
Too Much Muchness
Local dimming LED LCDs work by dimming their light output behind areas of the screen that are dark. The bright areas of the screen remain bright. This improves the otherwise mediocre native contrast inherent in all liquid crystal flat panels. In a magical ideal world, there’d be one tiny LED for every pixel. This isn’t possible for many reasons (price being one), so a decision is made early in the design process as to how many LED “zones” will be dimmable. A zone might be more than one LED, or it might not. The fewer the LED zones, the cheaper the TV becomes. However, fewer zones also means larger areas for dimming, so smaller, darker areas can’t get dark, because the average picture level for that zone is higher.
A more visible but less common example of this is “halos.” I think a better description of this artifact would be “auras.” Picture white text on a black background, like the credits at the end of a movie. You want the white lettering to be bright, and the black to be black. With large zones, the TV isn’t able to make just the white lettering bright, it also has to make the area around the white lettering bright. The effect looks like a sort of halo or bright aura around the lettering.
The uber-expensive ELITE had very little issue with this, indicating it had enough zones (or clever enough processing) to avoid the problem.
The Sony, however, does not. At least, not at the stock settings. With the LED Dynamic Control set to Standard, there are all sorts of problems. It’s like it’s trying too hard. The screen washes out constantly, and the scrolling credit test I mentioned before often results in flashing halos.
For example, picture the front of a house, during the day, with the door open. The front of the house is brightly lit. The open door, revealing the dark interior of the house, should be dark. With a plasma or the ELITE, it would be. With the 55HX950, it’s gray.
Part of the issue is the poor native contrast of the LCD panel itself. Turning off the LED Dynamic Control, we’re able to tell what the glass does on its own. So enabled, I measured an average native contrast ratio of 1,498:1. Compare this to the 3,483:1 I measured with the ELITE, or the 13,900:1 I measured with a Panasonic TC-P55VT50.
Without a doubt, in terms of raw numbers, the 55XH950 is impressive, with a maximum light output of a staggering 134.7 foot-Lamberts. With the LED DC in Standard and the backlight control at max, I measured 128.6 ftL with a full-field white, and 0.00029 ftL (converted from cd/m2) with a full-field black. So in theory, the 55HX950 is capable of a contrast ratio of 443,448:1 when the local dimming is fully enabled. The problem is, it never ends up looking like that.
This is an odd case where restricting what the TV is capable of actually makes it look better. The first step is to select Low in the LED Dynamic Control setting. This limits the range between the brightest the LEDs can be, and the dimmest. On paper, this reduces the contrast ratio by several orders of magnitude. On screen, though, it actually looks better. There’s less washing out of the image. The other control is the Auto Light Limiter, which limits how bright the bright parts of the image can get.
If you’re an audio person, reducing LED DC to Low is like narrowing a bandpass filter, while the Auto Light Limiter is like adding a low pass filter.
The result is a far more even picture that still has incredible contrast (as measured: 8,487:1). There are still some mild halos visible occasionally, but they’re less intense. The image doesn’t seem to wash out as much as it did when everything was full-Gonzo. While the potential performance of this TV is extreme, and will no doubt look good on a salesfloor and in demos, once at home that same extreme nature of its local dimming (plus the large-ish zones) make for too bizarre of a picture. Tamping it down to reality reveals a contrasty, accurate image hidden behind the bluster.
However, there are a few little things still holding it back. Off-axis performance, never an LCD strength, is something of an issue. Unlike the ELITE, where you really couldn’t sit more than a seat away from center, the 55HX950 only loses a little bit of color one seat over. More than that (or above and below) and color saturation drops off noticeably. Worse though is that the local dimming halos are much more noticeable even slightly off axis, and they get more noticeable the further to the side you move.
Brightness uniformity isn’t bad, with a slight brightness drop off near the edges with a white test pattern (not really noticeable with actual video), and a mottled look to full black images (rarely noticeable).
Motion blur isn’t too bad. Using the FPD Blu-ray, I measured a base motion resolution of around 600-650. With any of the Motion Flow settings active, it measured the full 1080. Interestingly, the Impluse setting, which pulses the backlight, is nearly unwatchable due to obvious flicker. It also cuts light output by over 70%. Clear and Clear Plus also drop the light output, but to far less an extent. The other settings use varying amounts of motion interpolation (soap opera effect), which personally I can’t stand.
With Hugo on 3D Blu-ray, the 55HX950 created a stereoscopic image with decent depth, and thanks to the excellent light output, a bright one too. However, there was some crosstalk visible.
Let me be clear, beyond all the above nit-picks, this is a fantastic looking television. Even the second-best local-dimming LED LCD is still better than the vast majority of non-local dimming LCDs. Especially with Blu-ray, the XBR-55HX950 creates a detailed, accurate, punchy image. Click Sony 55HX950 Cal for the”Calibration Report”
$3,000 is a lot of money for a 55-inch TV these days, but if picture quality is your goal, you still need to spend more for it. If LED LCD is your thing, there’s no question the more expensive ELITE looks better. Sure it has its own issues (no TV is perfect… yet), but the image on the ELITE is markedly better and more engaging. It’s probably unfair to compare a $3k TV to a $4,500 TV, but that’s where the LED competition is. Edge-lit LED LCDs just can’t compete on the contrast ratio stage with local dimming backlit models. What does? Well I know I’m going to get groans from the audience, but the Panasonic TC-P55VT50 is $500 cheaper, and has one of the best native contrast ratios I’ve ever measured in a flat panel. It is not nearly as bright as the 55HX950, so if you have a bright room or no shades, it’s probably not your best bet. All are good TVs, but personally, I’d pick the ELITE and the 55VT50 before the 55HX950.
The XBR-55HX950 is bright, in certain settings has a good contrast ratio, and accurate colors. It needs careful setup, but only it’s average off-axis picture quality and noticeable haloing issues really hold it back from being great. Right now it is $2,998 at Amazon.com. HDGuru.com rewards the Sony 55HX950 a ♥♥♥.5 out of 5 hearts.
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