Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR4 LCD Digital Color TV

Last year when I reviewed the 1080p Sony Bravia KDL-46XBR2, I concluded that it "really knocked me out." Now we have the new Bravia KDL-46XBR4. It's similar in many respects to the 46XBR2, but offers significant improvements. These include better black levels, a new, slick on-screen menu system, and 120Hz operation—a feature that's showing up in more and more high-end LCD sets. Depending on its implementation, a 120Hz refresh rate can reduce image smear with moving images—one of the lingering problems of LCD display technology.

At $3,599 the KDL-46XBR4 is also considerably less expensive than the 46XBR2—a reflection on the continuing downward trend in flat panel prices. But the Sony is still a premium priced product in an increasingly competitive market. We're here to see if it delivers the goods.

Cosmetically there's little change here from the XBR2. A perforated, matte-finished dark gray bezel surrounds 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. One of the HDMI connections, plus a headphone jack and a composite video jack with L/R audio, is mounted on the side. S-Video is served by a single input that shares space with one of the two back panel composite jacks.

The onboard NTSC and ATSC tuners are linked to a single RF antenna/cable input. But if you want high-definition reception from cable, other than unscrambled cable, or from satellite, you must use an HDMI or component connection from a set-top box. 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. Still, its wide range of controls, it is still no substitute for a good outboard home theater sound system. But I haven't yet heard a television audio system that is.

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.

The XMB is harder to describe than to use. You call it up via the remote's Home button. It consists of three main submenus: Settings for the various controls and features, TV for channel selection from the onboard tuners, and External Inputs for, as you might guess, selecting external inputs. These three major categories are arrayed horizontally; select any one of them and a vertical menu appears to show your options. Select one of these additional options (for example, Picture for the picture controls), and you're led deeper into the menu system.

In addition to the XMB, you can also access these features and controls in the traditional manner by using the Options, Input, or channel number buttons on the remote.