Sony BRAVIA KDS-50A3000 SXRD Rear Projection Television

With the growing popularity of flat panel TVs, rear projection sets aren't getting as much attention as they did even as recently as a year ago. They aren't sexy. You can't hang them on the wall. If you buy one, your friends, the Joneses, won't have to worry about you keeping up with them and their 103" plasma.

But the little secret of the display business is that you can get impressive performance in a rear projection set—performance that can come close to or even match, size-for-size, most flat panels on the market. And for a lot less money.

Sony's new BRAVIA KDS-50A3000 is a prime example. At $1,799, it's easier on your wallet than most 50" LCD or plasma sets. It's also less expensive than Sony's own, higher-end XBR rear projection sets, which employ the same SXRD technology.

SXRD, an acronym for Silicon X-tal Reflective Display, is Sony's version of LCoS (Liquid Crystal on Silicon) technology. Both are variations on LCD. Conventional LCDs are referred to as transmissive. The light source originates behind the LCD panel, passes through it where the light is modified to reproduce the image on the source, and continues on to the projection lens and screen. SXRD (and LCoS), on the other hand, is reflective. The light still passes through and is modified by the current image on the panel. But instead of passing directly on to the rest of the optical path, the light then bounces off a reflective surface behind the panel and passes back through it before proceeding on to the lens.

SXRD and LCoS designs offer a number of advantages over plain LCD. Their panels are much thinner and thus less prone to generating motion lag, even though the light passes through the panel twice. And in LCoS and SXRD all the electronic circuits are located behind the reflective surface, where they don't interfere with the layout of the pixels. In LCD panels the control wires must pass through the spaces between the pixels, which makes for wider gaps and a more obvious screen door effect in the image.

If SXRD and LCoS are superior realizations of LCD technology, why has LCD become dominant? Two reasons. First, reflective technologies like LCoS and SXRD can't be used in flat panel designs. Second, LCoS and SXRD panels are far more complex than basic LCDs. It took years before manufacturers learned to produce them economically, reliably, and in quantity.

As with all SXRD displays, the KDS-50A3000 uses three separate SXRD panels, one each for red, green, and blue. So unlike single-chip DLP designs there is no rotating color wheel to generate rainbow artifacts.

A Festival of Features
Even the largest of the three sets in the A3000 series, the 60-inch KDS-60A3000, tips the scales at just over 90 lbs. Compare that with the 300-plus pound behemoth big screen CRT sets of the recent past. The smaller KDS-50A3000, at 75 lbs., is also a lightweight. And while it may not be hang-on-the-wall flat, it's relatively shallow at just under 14.5" deep.

All of the inputs are easily accessible on an angled side panel. There are three composite video inputs, each with L/R audio, a single S-Video jack that's shared with one of the composite jacks (you can use one or the other, but not both), two component inputs with L/R audio, a 15-pin D-sub analog RGB computer jack with audio on a stereo mini-jack, and three HDMI A/V connections. One of the HDMI jacks has L/R audio inputs for use with an HDMI plug that is not carrying audio (most likely from a DVI source connected to the set with a DVI-to-HDMI adapter cable).

There is also a single RF input for an antenna or cable, digital TosLink and L/R analog outputs to route the audio from the set's onboard ATSC and NTSC tuners to an external sound system, and a USB port for either service or for use with the optional external BRAVIA DMex {JON: the x here should be superscripted} module, which can be used to capture and play on-line video content. The set is not equipped for CableCARD.

The light source is a 120W, UHP projection lamp. Sony does not specify the life of its lamps, but most manufactures rate UHP lamps for around 2000 hours (to half brightness). That's about a year of heavy use. We have found that UHP lamps often lose a significant amount of brightness (up to 30%) after just a few hundred hours. This can be significant in a front projector, but less so in a rear projection set, most of which (including this one) are exceptionally (even excessively) bright to begin with. A replacement lamp for the KDS-50A3000, at current prices, costs $249.99 and is user replaceable.

The set is equipped with BRAVIA Theatre Sync, Sony's name for CEC, or Consumer Electronics Control, a new industry standard that allows mutual control of components connected together through an HDMI link. Sony states that it only guarantees proper operation of this feature if all of the equipment is Sony and Theatre Sync compatible. I did not test it for this review.

The KDS-50A3000's on-screen menus feature Sony's award-winning XMB (XrossMediaBar) interface. It's an elegant way to access the set's various features, and while I found it took a bit of practice to use efficiently, it works well. For those who prefer an old-fashioned laundry list of control and setup features, however, those are available also—though some less often used features can be accessed only through the XMB. The only issue I have with the way Sony organizes its controls (on this and its other sets) is that some related controls are split into several different menus. For example, the Picture, Screen, Video Options, and General menus all provide features that can affect the image. It can be a bit of a hunt to find the feature you want, at least until you become familiar with the XMB layout and what features are located where.

These features start with the Picture Modes: Vivid, Standard, Cinema, Photo, and Custom, all of which may be adjusted by the user if you prefer to deviate from the factory defaults (which, in most cases, are not optimum if you want the best picture possible). The picture controls in each of these modes include the usual suspects: Picture (Sony's long-established name for contrast, except in its front projectors, where Contrast is the term, like virtually everyone else), Brightness, Color, Hue, Sharpness, and Noise Reduction (two kinds). There are four color temperature settings.

The set offers the usual aspect ratio options plus Auto (which may or may not work correctly, depending on the source). There are also adjustments to slightly alter the Overscan (called Display Area) and the image position and size (only for certain aspect settings). There are no PIP or POP options for displaying more than one source on the screen at the same time.

Beyond that things get more interesting. For starters, the KDS-50A3000 includes Sony's Advanced Iris feature. This provides five fixed settings of the iris, from Min to Max, plus two automatic (dynamic) iris settings, Auto1 and Auto2.