Test Report: Sony KDL-55W900A 3D LCD HDTV

Sometimes, new isn't necessarily better. One example: MP3 downloads provided a convenient way for listeners to store and share music, but MP3 sound quality was a steep downgrade fromthat ofthe long-running CD format. And remember when Windows Vista OS was trotted out to replace Windows XP? Okay, some things are better left forgotten.

This may come as a surprise to many, but LCD HDTVs could easily rank on the list of new tech that isn't necessarily better than what it replaced. Tube-based TVs had their share of quirks, but the best ones produced strikingly uniform pictures with deep blacks and rich colors. And while plasma sets long ago proved capable of exceeding the performance of their tube counterparts, only a limited number of LCD TVs that Sound & Vision has tested - all recent models - can be said to approach the same standard. One of those sets was Sony's KDL-55HX850, a model with an edge-lit LED backlight - a technology that has proven to be a weak spot with many LCDs. The company's newest edge-lit LCD model is the KDL-55W900A. While the 55-incher Sony sent us lists for $3,299 - about $1,000 more than its direct predecessor - it's selling for $2,299 on SonyStyle.com, so the price is about the same as the older model.

One thing I'll say outright about the 55W900A is that I like its look. Backing off from the one-sheet Gorilla Glass design of other recent sets, the new Sony's screen is surrounded by a thin (0.5-inch-wide) graphite-toned bezel, while a Quartz-cut design adds a cool, blue-hued edge. The included stand is sturdy enough and has a minimal footprint; on the downside, a mirror-like finish reflects light to an objectionable degree. The screen itself is also fairly glossy and reflective, so you'll need to consider room lamp placement and make sure nearby windows are outfitted with sufficient drapesand/or blinds.

Sony seriously upped the connectivity quotient on the 55W900A. There are four HDMI inputs, one with Audio Return Channel (which routes digital audio signals back from the TV over HDMI to an ARC-equipped A/V receiver) and a second with Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), a relatively new connection standard that lets you send high-def video and audio to the TV from an MHL-compatible smartphone. Other connections on the 55W900A are of the wireless sort. There's onboard Wi-Fi, and you can use the set's Screen Mirroring function to display the output of devices supporting MiraCast (smartphones, tablets, etc.). A near field communication (NFC) feature also lets you instantly transfer pictures or photos for display on the TV by bumping an NFC-compatible device (Sony's Xperia Z smartphone, for example) up against the TV's One-touch remote control.

Sony didn't send along a One-touch remote with the 55W900A, but the standard remote that comes with the TV proved serviceable enough. The keypad isn't backlit, but buttons you'll use often - like the Home and Option keys (to access setup menus) and the Netflix and SEN buttons (to access Sony's full suite of streaming/entertainment apps, including Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video) - are clustered near the center, where they're easy to find.

Be they Standard or One-touch, dedicated hardware remotes are starting to seem like a thing of the past. Apps are where it's at, and Sony's new TV SideView (iOS/Android) provides a scrollable guide on your phone or tablet with 7 days worth of programming info from your TV service provider. On my iPad, it was a breeze to navigate Sony's guide: By swiping, I was able to rapidly skim channels and time blocks, and a Favorites option contained the grid to 50 preferred channels. Tap a box in the guide and you get a program synopsis (via the Gracenote database) along with cast-and-crew listings. As with everything else these days, there's a link that calls up Twitter feeds related to your selection.

Along with the guide info, Sony's app lets you control both the TV's functions and those of other networked devices, such as a Blu-ray player or a DVR. While I liked what I saw of TV SideView, I wasn't able to use it in my setup. Why? Because most cable-company-supplied DVRs lack wired or wireless LAN connectivity, so there's no way for the app to control the box. Recent DVRs from DirecTV, Dish, and TiVo do provide the requisite network connections, however, so they might prove more TV SideView-friendly.

Setup

Sony's GUI design gets an update with the 55W900A: The new look is more streamlined, and the options are easier to navigate. The picture-settings menu, however, is mostly a carryover from previous TVs. You select from a handful of "Scene" options optimized for specific content like cinema, sports, animation, or photos. The Cinema 1 mode apparently conveyed a picture "reproduced like it is directly from the cutting room," so I started my adjustments out there.

With Cinema 1 left at its default settings, the 55W900A displayed a slightly bluish grayscale, though its color points were mostly accurate - something I was initially concerned about. Here's why: A key selling point for the 55W900A is its Triluminous backlight tech, which differs from regular LED backlight in that it uses blue, as opposed to white, LEDs. These combine with an optical component containing red and green "Quantum Dots" that emit light when stimulated by the blue LEDs in the backlight. The claimed advantages are more efficient light transmission and an expanded color gamut. (Sony's 55W900A has an x.v.Color - also known as xvYCC - option that lets it display colors outside of the Rec.709 HDTV color space.) However, my measurements confirmed that, along with an expanded color gamut, the set can reproduce a standard HDTV color range - a necessary factor for getting accurate color with Blu-ray, etc.

Gamma was a bit on the dark side, but I was able to improve that by moving the slider from the default –2 to the 0 setting. With the set's LED Dynamic Control (local dimming) at its Standard setting, contrast ratio was 36,600:1. That result is outstanding for an edge-lit LCD. It even trounces the performance of Sony's 55HX950, a model with a full-array backlight that I tested for S&V's January 2013 issue.

The last edge-lit Sony LCD I reviewed, the KDL-55HX850 in September 2012, had similarly excellent contrast with its LED Dynamic Control set to Standard, but I also found that shadow detail suffered at that setting. Ultimately, I opted to instead leave it at Low, a setting that delivered about half the measured contrast of Standard. But there was no such problem on the 55W900A, which displayed consistently strong shadow detail in Standard mode.

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