Sony KP-57XBR10W rear-projection television

The slow march toward that new digital broadcast standard has brought us a small but rapidly swelling flow of new DTV widescreen televisions—far better sets than anything the average consumer has ever seen before. These TVs are still very much high-end products, but despite their cost, sales are increasing at a steady rate.

Sony has been more conservative than most manufacturers in producing such sets, and has taken flak for it from some quarters. But several issues—relating to hi-def broadcasting, reception, copy protection, and cable standards—have caused Sony to cool its heels. While these issues have not yet been cleared out of the way (see "ViewPoint" in this issue), they're closer to resolution than they were last year.

More serious is the lack of HD programming, but it's there if you seek it out—even in smaller markets where satellite might be your only option. And even without a flood of hi-def broadcasts, there are those thousands of DVDs that cry out for a good widescreen set to look their best. With its new KP-57XBR10W (and its larger sibling, the KP-65XBR10W), Sony has clearly recognized that reality and thrown its hat in the center of the hi-def ring.

A trip around the block
The KP-57XBR10W (henceforth referred to here as the 57XBR to reduce reader eye-fatigue) is a full-featured set, though, like all hi-def-ready sets, it requires an outboard, optional tuner to receive HD programming. But, unlike most such sets, the Sony's DTV input will accept either Y-Pr-Pb component or RGB/HV signals. According to the specs, however, the RGB/HV DTV input is not compatible with a computer video output. It functions with 480i, 480p, or 1080i inputs, which are not typical computer scan rates. But it seems likely that the 57XBR will operate with home-theater PCs providing RGB/HV at any of the compatible scan rates, though I was not equipped to verify this. (Pat Megenity discusses scalers for HTPCs in this month's "PCinema.") The 57XBR will also accept a 720p input, but will convert it to 480p. But many, if not most, hi-def tuners convert 720p to 1080i before it even gets to the set, so that should not be a major concern for most buyers.

One limitation of the 57XBR is that 480p can be received only through its DTV input. There is a second component input, but it cannot accept a progressive signal. This means that if you wish to use a DTV tuner and a progressive-scan DVD player, you must provide some sort of external switching (there is a second component input on the set, but for 480i only). Apart from this limitation, the 57XBR provides all the inputs most owners will ever need, particularly those who use a surround receiver or processor for their video switching.

The 57XBR displays both 1080i and 480p in native form. For standard-definition 480i sources the set incorporates the latest refinement of Sony's Digital Reality Creation circuitry, or DRC. This enhances the subjective picture detail and largely eliminates scan lines, but operates very differently from a conventional scaler. DRC breaks down source images into pixels, which are then compared to a file of high-definition patterns stored in a look-up table. The sampled element is replaced with the closest hi-def equivalent, and the images are reassembled and displayed at 960i. Sony claims that this process increases not only the number of scan lines but the subjective horizontal resolution as well. The result is said to quadruple the resolution of 480i sources, producing a near-hi-def image. While I wouldn't go that far—true hi-def still looked unmistakably better on the 57XBR than upconverted 480i—DRC still works very well.

The 57XBR incorporates virtually all the features of the KV-36XBR400, which we reviewed in December 2000. MID, or Multi Image Driver, is used for a number of picture-in-picture (PIP) type features (though the DTV input can't be used as an MID source). TwinView sets two source images side by side (at 480p resolution); they can be displayed equal in size, or either one can be enlarged while the other is simultaneously reduced. There is also a more conventional PIP function in which the inset image can be moved virtually anywhere onscreen. Channel Index places images from 12 channels around the perimeter of a larger, central image from a 13th channel. Control S connections allow the set to interface with other Sony products using the same sort of link. And a 3D digital comb filter makes the most of S-video and composite sources.

There are so many other features built into the 57XBR that any attempt to describe them all would risk mass reader hypnosis, so I'll expand further here on only three: the onboard audio system, the widescreen modes, and Flash Focus—Sony's auto-convergence system.

The 57XBR has speaker-level outputs for surround speakers (not included). I listened only to the speakers in the set itself, which consist of a 6-inch woofer and coaxial 4-inch midrange/tweeter left and right, plus a pair of 4-inch drivers for the center channel. There is a provision to use the center speakers as a center-channel speaker system, driven by an outboard amplifier, but I can't recommend this as an alternative to a serious center-channel speaker. The onboard amplifiers are rated at 80W total power—though whether this is with all channels driven at once is not specified. The distortion at this level, however, is specified at 10%. The latter figure is listed in an early brochure, not the specs in the owner's manual, but based on my auditions, this car-audio-type THD rating did not appear to be a limiting factor.

Our reviews dismiss the audio systems in most televisions in cursory asides. Home theater means a killer outboard sound system, and the wimpy amp and speakers in most sets just don't cut it. I'm not about to tell you that the 57XBR will replace a rack full of expensive audio gear in your home theater. But I was shocked when I fed it a Dolby Surround analog signal from a DVD player and watched a few films in the modest-sized den I used for the evaluation (roughly 17 x 13 x 8 feet). The sound was well-balanced, neither thumpy nor overly bright. Dialogue was relatively low in coloration. I never found any aspect of the sound distracting in a negative way, even at relatively high levels—a first in my experience of one-piece televisions. The left and right woofers appeared to be mounted in sealed subenclosures. (I couldn't access the rear of the L/R coaxial drivers to determine if they were similarly enclosed, but the center speakers are not.) The enclosed woofers might explain why the set produced something resembling genuine bass—not subwoofer-quality, shake-the-walls bass, but nevertheless a nicely extended low end. This might not be sound enough for the serious home-theater enthusiast, but it will sure pin back Uncle Bill and Aunt Alma's ears after 20 years of listening to the 1W amp and 4-inch speaker in that old Philco console.