Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4 LCD Digital Color TV

Last year when I reviewed the 1080p Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR2 at our sister publication, it "really knocked me out." Now we have the new $3,599 Bravia KDL-46XBR4. It's spec'd for better black levels, a new, slick on-screen menu system, and 120Hz operation, a feature that can reduce image smear with moving images, which is one of the lingering problems of LCD display technology.

Cosmetically there's a dark gray bezel around the screen. This is surrounded by an aluminum-trimmed clear glass frame, which gives the image a suspended-in-space look. Optional bezels are available in a variety of contemporary, décor matching colors for an additional $300 each.

But all this framing results in a set that takes up more room than many models from other manufacturers with larger screens. If you have the room for it, however, and like the design (I find it distinctive in today's sea of anonymous, glossy black frames), the Sony's size won't matter.

The XBR4 offers a generous array of connections, including three HDMI inputs, two component connections, and an RGB input for a computer. The Sony does not have a CableCARD slot.

The Sony offers all the usual features of a fully equipped set, including multiple aspect ratios, a (code) programmable multi-component remote, Parental Lock, and standard video adjustments. PIP and P&P allow you to watch two sources either via the usual small image overlay (PIP) or side-by-side (P&P).

BRAVIA Theatre Sync enables communication and control of multiple components via HDMI. The other components must have Sony HDMI Control capability—which essentially means that this feature will be fully useful only through a system consisting entirely of new Sony components—apart from the speakers.

Sony's Digital Media Extender feature, or DMeX, offers a digital connection for adding such new but not yet available features as Sony's Bravia Internet Video Link, which is scheduled to offer, among other things, accessing of HDTV programming from the Internet. Once a DMeX accessory is installed it integrates seamlessly into the set's menus.

The XBR4's onboard audio system sounds better than I recall in last year's XBR2. Considering the physical limitations imposed by a thin, flat panel enclosure, it was surprisingly listenable for non-critical use.

Major Tom to Video Control
While the XBR4's controls are located on the side (as with many flat panel sets) you'll rarely use them. The remote can do the job better, and in addition to the set itself can control three other components. It's well laid out, has a positive feel, and most of its important functions are adjacent to a central joystick. Its buttons are also backlit, though the functions of many of them are not labeled on the buttons themselves, so the backlighting isn't always helpful.

The first thing you'll notice about the XBR4's setup and control operations is Sony's new XMB (Xross Media Bar) on-screen menus, similar what's used in the PlayStation3. I've encountered this system once before, but didn't fully appreciate it until now. It's a real improvement from past Sony sets, which often had me prematurely exiting the menu system.

Apart from the usual video adjustments (Brightness, Color, Contrast—or Picture, in Sonyese—etc.), the XBR4 offers a blizzard of additional bells and whistles, some useful in moderation, others best left off or in their default modes. If you want to learn more about them, either now or later, go to "Controls and Settings," near the end of this report, just prior to the Measurements section.

Puttin' on the Hz
One of the weaknesses of LCDs has been motion blur; the LCD elements simply do not respond to fast changes in the image as quickly as do other display technologies.

Operating at 120Hz as the XBR4 does rather than the more usual 60Hz can improve an LCD's motion performance. In the XBR4 the upconversion is controlled by the setting of the Motion Enhancer control, and Motionflow is Sony's moniker for the technology activated by the Motion Enhancer.

Converting a 1080p/60 or 1080p/24 source to 1080p/120 requires simulating the additional frames in some way, since they are not in the source. There are three ways to do this: interpolation of new frames, repeating the original frame multiple times, or making every other repeated frame a black frame. Motionflow creates these addition frames by the first method—temporal interpolation.

Motionflow adds either one interpolated frame for1080p/60 sources or four interpolated frames for 1080p/24 sources to each source frame to reach the 120Hz refresh rate required by the set's 120Hz operation. If you turn the Motion Enhancer off, each source frame is simply repeated as many times as needed to get to 120Hz, with no interpolation.

If the source contains 3/2 pulldown, such as 1080p/60 video from a film-based source, the 3/2 pulldown is not removed. Motionflow converts the 1080p/60 source directly to 1080p/120 by adding one interpolated frame to each source frame. If you turn the Motion Enhancer off, each source frame of a 1080p/60 signal is merely repeated once to reach a 120Hz refresh rate, but there is no frame interpolation.

I was a skeptic at first about all this 120Hz hullabaloo. But as implemented in Sony's Motion Enhancer, it really works.

While it didn't make a difference on all programming, when it did the effect could be dramatic. Chapter s 1 and 7 of Star Trek: Insurrection (a 480i, standard definition, DVD) are notorious torture tests with camera pans and difficult vertical edges prone to flicker. Without the Motion Enhancer flicker visibly mars these scenes, but the Motion Enhancer cleaned up both with aplomb.

Even with the opening title sequence of Invincible at 1080p/24 on Blu-ray the effect of the Motion Enhancer was also noticeable. In the pan over the stadium, the yardage lines run horizontally across the screen, and as the camera moves up past them they flicker badly as well. The Motion Enhancer eliminated these artifacts, demonstrating that it works on both horizontal and vertical motion, and that it can even eliminate some artifacts with 1080p/24 material.

The XBR4 exhibited no significant change in color, brightness, or contrast at angles up to about 45-degrees off center. There were subtle changes beyond that point, but the image remained highly watchable as far off axis as anyone is likely to sit and still be able to comfortably view the picture.

I did see some occasional posterization- that paint-by-numbers effect that turns smoothly graded shadows into stair steps- but mostly in cable sources where it was not possible to specifically blame the Sony. And I saw no obvious color shifts on black and white film—the source most revealing tests of color uniformity impurities.

But the Sony's deinterlacing and scaling performance, with a 480i input, was disappointing. It performed poorly on many of the difficult video processing torture tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD (with the set's CineMotion set to either Auto1 or Auto2). But it did pass the Coliseum flyover test in chapter 12 of Gladiator. Overall, however, the video processing in Sony's own VPL-AW15 LCD projector, reviewed here recently, performed far better. So do many upconverting DVD players.

Sony's processing performed much better, however, when converting 1080i sources to the set's 1080p resolution. It still did not recognize and deal with 3/2 pulldown, but it did perform the deinterlacing properly and only rarely showed video processing artifacts with a 1080i or 720p source.

This is an important point, as I did most of my watching of the XBR4 as you are likely to: either with native 720p, 1080i, or 1080p sources or with standard definition sources upconverted to those resolutions by a cable box or DVD, HD DVD, or Blu-ray player. I never had a serious need to input 480i or 480p.

Back on the upside, the Sony's black level and shadow detail were impressive—the best I've yet seen from an LCD. The occasional gray haze I noted on dark scenes in last year's XBR2s was rare, and then only on the darkest, lowest contrast scenes. Of the commercially available flat panel sets I've seen—LCD or plasma—only the new Pioneer plasmas, and to a lesser extent the latest Panasonic plasmas, excel this set.

I could live happily with the XBR4 over the long haul. It won me over in its balance of strengths: fine resolution with a canny juggling of smoothness and natural detail, outstanding color, a great assortment of useful (and yes, some not so useful) controls, and blacks that approach the best I've seen in a flat panel display.

The best looking BDs and HD DVDs were totally convincing, even in high contrast scenes with a mixture of light and dark. The Sony did a fine job with all of this, showing a wealth of shadow detail that's rare on flat panel displays. On exceptionally detailed discs like The Wild on Blu-ray, the detail brought out by the Sony—particularly in the animal fur—is amazing. The colors are also vivid and bright, but never over-the-top.

I didn't sit that close normally, of course, nor could I sit that close with standard definition material. Good DVDs looked fine on the Sony, however, at a more practical viewing distance. You could easily see the soft edges on Gladiator, from any distance, but from eight feet or so it produced a solidly enjoyable image. In fact, even the recent, standard definition documentary series The Universe, upconverted to 1080i by my cable box, was highly watchable.

I was also able to compare the Sony side-by-side with the Samsung LN-T5265F, recently reviewed. The Samsung's larger 52" screen was a little more immersive, and its resolution was, subjectively, just as impressive as the Sony's. But the XBR4's deeper, richer blacks gave its picture greater depth and punch.

You won't necessarily get the same results I did from the Sony by just plugging it in and turning it on. That's always been true of consumer video displays. But in this case it's definitely well worth the effort to get it right. I was impressed by last year's XBR2. I'm even more impressed by the XBR4. The only things I'd like to see are even deeper blacks and a bigger screen. Yes, the blacks here are very good, but I'll continue to want more until we have the blacks that once were available in the very best CRTs!

As for more screen area, if you need it there's always the 52" KDL-52XBR4. We haven't tested that one, but 46" isn't exactly tiny. And if you're moving up from a CRT set the KDL-46XBR4 will look positively huge. It will also look great. Highly recommended.

This new Sony has outstanding resolution, and solves a lot of issues of LCDs past. Motion blur isn't an issue and the XBR4 has the best blacks I've yet seen on an LCD. On top of that, although performance with 480i/p sources is mediocre, processing with other sources is superlative. This is an excellent flat panel TV.

Sony Electronics
(858) 942 2200
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