Sony KDL-V40XBR1 LCD HDTV
Sony is arguably the most powerful brand name in television. The Trinitron is the premiere picture-tube technology known to two or three generations of TV buyers. But what has Sony done for us lately? In front and rear projection, the company has mustered SXRD, a visually credible version of silicon-based liquid-crystal technology. Only in flat panels, the subject of this review, has Sony yet to earn a commanding role.
The KDL-V40XBR1 is like a luxury ocean liner floating in a sea of little pirate ships, many of which are little more than rowboats. So many new companies have entered the flat-panel market, especially in the LCD category, that I can barely keep track of them. Every time I swing the periscope, another one glimmers on the horizon. The net effect of this new presence is cutthroat pricing. Major brands may command bigger boats—and quite often produce a better product—but some of them are drowning. Can the Good Ship Sony navigate these treacherous waters?
The look of the KDL-V40XBR1 LCD HDTV is just unusual enough to say Sony. A thin gray strip outlines the panel with round corners. The screen, of course, is framed in black, and the frame slopes backward at the sides. Stickers trumpeting various features such as Wide Color Gamut are located below the screen. Except for the time-honored Sony logo, they're all removable. Below that is a 1-inch gray strip with a lot more logos, unremovable but almost invisible unless you look closely. A wide black stripe at the bottom contains an upward-angled black fabric speaker grille.
This LCD's viewing angle immediately impressed me. Most liquid-crystal panels I've seen—both at home and at press events—look good only from front and center. All of the last three LCD HDTVs I reviewed before this Sony were marred by a massive purplish color shift at virtually any angle except directly on-axis. And this happened in spite of the fact that they existed within a wide range of prices. But, as I walked around the room, the Sony maintained a good degree of uniformity, by LCD standards, at all angles—as seen from left, right, and above. The black level fell off as I moved to the side but not enough to render the picture unwatchable.
News, Sports, and Docs
Performance with analog signals is an often overlooked aspect of digital television. Aside from indiscriminate surfing, the only program I watch consistently every day is the WB's local 10 o'clock newscast, usually followed by a rerun of Seinfeld. Unfortunately, Time Warner Cable of New York does not deliver the WB's digital channel (so I can't see Smallville in high def, sigh). Because of that, I still watch the news in analog.
The Sony walked a tightrope between detail and discretion. There was enough edge enhancement to keep the picture from becoming smeary. But it was subtle enough not to look artificial. I found myself looking at the texture in anchorman Peter Thorne's hair and his tie. A tiny amount of noise buzzed in large bright areas, but, having viewed this newscast for years on a variety of displays, I knew it was in the signal.
Switching to Fox's digital channel, I watched hours of Seinfeld in standard definition while I had the Sony. On sets I've reviewed in the recent past, this program has often made me vacillate between the analog channel (usually too blurry) and the digital one (usually too noisy). With the Sony, the digital channel looked so clean that it was consistently watchable for the first time, and the analog channel looked better than usual.
High-def programming narrowed the performance gap between the Sony and what I've seen before—from considerably better to somewhat better. NASCAR races and football games came through vividly. When a player approached the camera for an interview, I could see not only the glisten of sweat but every pore in his face. PBS documentaries pulled me in as usual. A program about the Alaska gold rush put me on a narrow-gauge railway with a hardy band of tourists. The rugged countryside—mountains, waters, scrub brush—was detailed and breathtaking.
The sound was excellent for TV speakers and was very adjustable. I turned on the TruSurround feature and liked it enough to leave it on all the time. It's not true surround, in my opinion, but it gives TV soundtracks a touch more presence.
See Me, Feel Me
The channel scan was painless, but, if you like tweaking the picture controls, a rough road lies ahead. To get to the video settings, you have to start with the WEGA GATE button. (Insert your choice of pro- or anti-Nixon reference here.) It takes you out of the menus, and, because it's so near the nav-down button, it often performs this function accidentally.
Scroll to Settings at the bottom, hit Enter, then hit Enter again—the video menu, fortunately, is at the top. Then you can access three picture modes, adjustments for brightness, color intensity, hue, color temperature, and sharpness, five noise-reduction modes, and more.
I kept the noise reduction off and also switched off the black-level and contrast enhancers during my initial setup with Digital Video Essentials feeding the component input. With the enhancers switched on, it was impossible to use the test disc's PLUGE pattern to set correct brightness, although I got what I wanted after I switched them off. Color was hard to dial in at first—while I nailed blue using the filter test, red was a bit off, and green was way off. Color accuracy got worse when I switched the color space from normal (evidently synonymous with "insanely subjective") to wide, although the color decoding got better. Adjustments completed, I switched the black and contrast enhancers to their lower settings, where the effects were subtle but usually helpful.
One surprise was the sharpness control. In most DTVs, it's best to dial this control all or almost all the way down. But the Sony's edge enhancement was good enough to warrant a 50-percent setting on QAM-tuner material, along with a more normal 10 percent on component-in DVD. Some settings were different or unavailable on different inputs. With composite and S-video, for instance, color temperature shrank to two options: cool and neutral. (I chose the latter.)
The Trouble with Interlacing
Despite the set's sterling performance with HD, SD, and analog cable signals, the Good Ship Sony did spring some leaks that only a progressive-scan DVD player could plug. The set's ability to handle standard-definition interlaced signals was not especially sophisticated. Viewed via interlaced component output with the Sage/
Faroudja test disc, the set showed shimmering rainbows in the cross-color test, jaggies in the American flag, and a moving crosshatch pattern that never achieved horizontal lock. Most of these problems disappeared when I changed to my Integra player's progressive output. Changing again to Sony's less expensive but far newer DVP-NS70H brought further improvements—including both HDMI out and upconversion from SD to HD, which does make a visible difference.
If you like making fine adjustments, the DRC (Digital Reality Creation) palette might be of interest. It allows two-coordinate control of "reality" (detail) along one axis and "clarity" (smoothness) along the other axis. A dot moves around the chart, controlled by the navigation up/down and left/right commands. It provided some control over jaggies but didn't eliminate them completely.
Mitigating these flaws were the wide viewing angle and consistently pleasing results with QAM cable signals—HD, SD, and analog. And the amount of motion smear was on the low side of average. Altogether, I enjoyed the KDL-V40XBR1 to the hilt. The next time I review a set, I'll see SD and analog channels in a new way. And I'll be less tolerant of bad off-axis response, having seen Sony do it right.
• Wide viewing angle provides good uniformity to viewers seated at the sides
• Edge correction is done right, enhancing analog, SD channels
• User interface and deinterlacing aren't all they could be