Sony BRAVIA KDL-46XBR2 LCD Digital Color TV Page 2
But the on-screen menu system, while thorough, is ergonomically challenged—or else I am. Entering the various menus is sometimes confusing, it often takes too many button pushes to get where you want to go (seven to access the Brightness setting, for example), and I often found myself exiting the menu completely by pushing the Menu button at the wrong time when I didn't want to. There is also no way to switch inputs directly; you must enter an input menu to do so.
A Rambling REC
You may be aware that the standard for color for SDTV is somewhat different than HDTV. SDTV color is specified by the REC601 standard, HDTV by REC709. But program providers do not always adhere to these standards. In particular, a lot of HD editing and color correction is still done on monitors that adhere to REC601. So the setting that provides the most accurate color on the user's end may vary with the program material. The XBR2 provides a control in the Setup menu called Color Matrix, which offers the option to set either REC709 or REC601 separately for any source resolution (Sony calls these ITU709 and ITU601 for reasons we don't need to go into here). The defaults are 601 for 480i/p and 709 for all HD resolutions.
There are two aspects of most images on which we can immediately spot colors that are wrong: flesh tones and green foliage. We see them every day. While the XBR's flesh tones generally looked fine in either setting (assuming a good setup), the Sony produced the most natural looking foliage, on most of the material I sampled, including HD, in its 601 setting. In fact, while some program material still exhibited that lime green typical of too many digital displays, the XBR2 could be set up to produce more consistently natural greens, across a wider range of programming, than any other one-piece digital display I have yet reviewed.
I don't recommend messing with this Color Matrix control until the set has been fully calibrated (including a color temperature calibration) and the Color Space control is set to Normal. You should start with as accurate a setup as possible before experimenting with the Color Matrix.
Light Up My Life
LCDs have traditionally had a number of serious problems. Their blacks weren't very good. They tended to be prone to image posterization—that paint-by-numbers effect that turns smoothly graded shadows into stair steps. They responded so poorly to fast motion, with resulting image blur, that many LCD trade show demos in the past featured either still pictures or images of people and objects in narcoleptic motion. LCD's color—when it was even close to correct—was also often tainted by uneven, tinted swaths of various shades, most often magenta. (UAV's Steven Stone, who has the eye for color of a professional photographer, which in fact he is, has dubbed this the "Magenta Splotch.") And LCD's images tended to degrade noticeably at off-axis viewing angles.
At nearly 90-degrees off axis, and much further than you can make sense of the picture, the XBR2 exhibited no significant change in color, brightness, or contrast. I did occasionally spot some posterization, but it was rare and often appeared to originate in the source. As to image uniformity, I only saw near-subliminal traces of magenta on full white field test patterns—the most revealing test of color purity. And while there's some motion blur with moving video on any sort of display, I was never bothered by an excess of it on the XBR2. Note though that I'm not a video gamer so did not try the set with that type of source—gamers tend to avoid LCD computer monitors for this reason.
When I used an optimum combination of picture settings, the Sony's blacks were the best I've yet seen from an LCD. Yes, there were times when that gray haze that sometimes creeps into the images from digital displays of all types was visible. Some dark scenes looked a little lighter than they should. The best plasmas can do better in these respects- the Pioneer Elite PRO-1130HD's black level was less than half that of the XBR2's at approximately the same peak white output—and the best rear projection sets produce black levels that are significantly better than any type of flat panel display.
As with most video displays, the XBR2 does better on dark scenes accompanied by at least a few brighter highlights that can fool the eye into seeing darker blacks than are really there. Sleepy Hollow on HD DVD is a perfect example of this. It's a movie that is dark and gloomy in nearly every scene, but the cinematographer managed to include highlights that always allow the viewer to make out what's happening. Apart from a few scenes that don't add up to more than five minutes, including the dark opening sequence, it looked superb on the Sony. But The Towering Inferno (a perfect candidate for the Mystery Science Theater treatment if there ever was one), as seen on HDNet Movies, had many scenes that, while not inky black, combined darkness with low contrast. These scenes definitely didn't pop on the XBR2.
If you want the best blacks that Sony offers in a one-piece digital display, consider its SXRD rear projection sets. But while the designers of the KDL-46XBR2 didn't work miracles, they have managed to produce a flat panel LCD whose black levels don't detract significantly from its other very real strengths. For the most part I could live happily with the blacks and shadow detail on the XBR2. And that's coming from someone who is still mourning the rapid demise of CRT and hoping for a future flat panel technology (SED, anyone?) that can equal its video contrast, black levels, and dynamic range at an affordable cost.
Over the past year I've filled at least half of the PVR hard drive in my cable Set-Top-Box (which is limited to a component output) with a wide variety of video HD material—material as varied as football, film "clips," and some of the best recent programming from Discovery HD Theater, which is consistently the best looking HD on my cable system. The occasional dark, low contrast scene excepted, even the worst of these looks great on the Sony, and the best are often jaw-dropping. Check out the computer simulation of a large asteroid striking Earth on Discovery's Miracle Planet, for example, if you want to really worry about global warming. The XBR2 combines strikingly natural-looking color, including the superbly realistic greens noted earlier, with very low noise, and gobs of detail to produce a highly compelling viewing experience.
I couldn't make out quite as many details on the HD DVD of Phantom of the Opera on the Sony as I had on the $20,000 Marantz VP-11S1 projector on my 78-inch wide screen. But it was only the difference in screen size that kept the smaller XBR2 from looking every bit as crisp and involving.
It's true, as many have noted, that the eye can't really make out all the detail produced by a relatively small, 1920x1080 set from typical viewing distances. Up to a point, there's no substitute for size. But when you see true HD on this set there is never any confusion about what you're watching. The XBR2 definitely passes the "looking out a window" test. Despite its less than awesome contrast, images still pop off its screen with a convincing three-dimensionality. And with proper setup those pictures never looked edgy or overprocessed.
While high quality, standard definition DVDs look fine on the Sony, noisy, second-rate cable channels certainly don't do the set justice. But they remain watchable, a fact I can vouch for as a regular viewer of all things Battlestar Galactica and Stargate on the Sci-Fi channel. Despite the noise-riddled, flat-looking images my local cable enabler provides for these shows, they're tolerable on the XBR2, particularly with a little noise reduction dialed in (though too much of it clearly softens the picture). But this is a worst case scenario; most standard definition shows look considerably better, though any SD programming is a letdown after you've been spoiled by high definition.
The deinterlacing and scaling performance of the Sony, starting with a 480i input, was a mixed bag. It stumbled on some of the most difficult hurdles in my assortment of scaling torture tests. It also displayed more jagged edges on many of these tests than I usually see, even from a good upconverting DVD player. And it did not consistently lock on to an unflagged 3/2 field sequence on film-based material with the set's Cinemotion set to Auto. But I rarely saw similar problems on real program material, most of which, if film-based, includes the 3/2 pulldown flag that the Sony obviously needs to play back the material with minimum artifacts. And when I did see artifacts, they were usually subtle, and it was not always clear whether they originated in the set or in the sources themselves.
It isn't unusual for the video processing required in digital displays to delay the image enough to put it out of sync with the audio. This can sometimes be made even worse by problems at the source, particularly broadcast DTV. The set includes compensation for this when using its internal sound system, but on some programs the range wasn't sufficient.
Though I did most of my HDTV viewing of the XBR2 from cable, HD DVD, and Blu-ray, I did check out the set's Over-the-Air tuner. After running the ubiquitous auto setup mode for finding the channels, the set captured all of the important HD stations in my area except one (Channel 5, which carries the WB, or whatever they're calling themselves lately). That included a total of 36 DTV stations and substations in my very difficult reception area. The best of them looked superb, and all were received without any glitches.
I never thought I'd see an LCD panel that would satisfy me in nearly every respect. LCDs still can't quite match the blacks and contrast of the best sets using other digital technologies, much less the amazing but fast-disappearing CRT. And I saw a few flaws that affect test patterns much more than real program material. But apart from that this set really knocked me out, and I'm a video projector fan accustomed to much larger screens. Highly recommended.
Highs and Lows
Stunning 1080p resolution on HD programming
Good performance on standard definition programming
Impressive blacks for an LCD
Blacks still can't equal the best plasmas, or DLP and LCoS (SXRD) RPTVs
Uneven measured gamma progression from dark to bright
Scaling performance and menu ergonomics could be better
480i/p resolution compromised in HDMI