Sony BRAVIA KDS-50A3000 SXRD Rear Projection Television

Rear projection sets aren't getting as much attention as they did even a year ago. They aren't sexy. You can't hang them on the wall. But the secret is that you can get performance that can come close to or even match, size-for-size, most flat panels on the market 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.

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
The KDS-50A3000, at 75 lbs., is 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 two component inputs, and three HDMI connections. 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 downloaded 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. 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, which 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. 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). There are no PIP or POP options for displaying more than one source on the screen at the same time.

Beyond that is where 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.

Just in case you've been gathering ice core samples at a south pole research station for the past few years, an auto—or dynamic—iris is a technique used to improve the black level and peak contrast ratio in a projection set (front or rear). As the average brightness level of the source decreases, the iris closes down to further darken the picture. As the picture gets brighter, the iris opens up. The trick is designing the auto iris to operate in a way that makes its operation imperceptible to the human eye.

The set's Advanced settings menu includes Black Corrector (I prefferred Low or Off), Gamma (I usually preferred Off), Clear White (leave it Off), Color Space (Standard is very accurate—see "Measurements"), Live Color (don't bother), both Detail and Edge Enhancer controls (for me, these offered no real advantages), and White Balance, which provides red, green, and blue color temperature calibration controls at both the top and bottom of the brightness range.

DRC (Digital Reality Creation) Mode is Sony's proprietary video processing feature. It offers two active options, called High Density and Progressive for no particular reason I could discern, plus Off. In any event, DRC only operates on 480i sources actually degraded some measurable aspects of the set's performance. I left it Off.

Cinemotion offers two Auto settings for recognizing and properly handling film- or video-based sources, plus Off. There is also a Video Color Space adjustment (for x.v.Color—currently useful only with a few high-definition camcorders), a Color Matrix control which allows custom settings for ITU (REC) 709 (for HD programming) or ITU (REC) 601 (for standard definition NTSC) color standards. The Color Matrix control can correct for mismatches in the source material, but is best left in its default (Auto) setting. The same is true of the RGB Dynamic Range control.

Many of these controls, including the most common video adjustments, may be set separately for each input and each Picture Mode. One significant exception: White Balance is global for all Picture Modes and resolutions at a given input, but may be set separately for different inputs and for each color temperature menu option.

Whew! For what is essentially a budget big-screen set in today's market, Sony offers a lot of adjustments here. It took me days to settle on what for me were optimum settings. And even at the end of the review period, when I had settled on setups that worked very well, I was still experimenting. But don't be intimidated. If you choose this set, you might start out by starting with the final settings I used and work from there if necessary (see "Adjustments and Settings").

Video Processing
Overall, the Sony's 480i-to-1080p video processing was marginal at best. It turned in a poor performance with video-based material, and while it did lock onto 3/2 pulldown, it showed noticeable artifacts on both the 2/2 and 3/2 cadence tests. On my standard scaling tests on the Gladiator DVD (particularly the Coliseum flyover in chapter 12) it performed reasonably well, though no better than average.

Real program material upconverted by the set from a 480i input was also noticeably soft looking, with either HDMI or component. If you choose this set, I recommend performing upconversion externally, such as in a DVD player or cable/satellite box. The result will, of course, depend on the quality of those outboard devices, but it's definitely worth trying. I obtained a far more detailed image from DVDs by using a good upconverting DVD player (the Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi).

The situation improved significantly with 1080i-to-1080p high-definition deinterlacing. Not the best I've seen, but satisfactory. I still spotted a few very subtle deinterlacing artifacts, but they were never distracting. Although the Sony did not recognize 3/2 pulldown, it sailed through the Vatican wall and steps tests in chapters 7 and 8 of Mission Impossible 3 with only a slight bit of sparkly noise on the steps and no moiré or flicker.

Motion Processing
Though motion blur is not as significant with SXRD (or LCoS) as it is in many flat panel LCDs, the Sony KDS-50A3000 is a 120Hz set that offers two features designed to minimize motion blur: Motion Enhancer and Motion Naturalizer.