Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs LCD HDTVs
Written by Kevin Miller   
Monday, 01 January 2007

Both Plasma and LCD flat panel TVs have been plummeting in price in recent months, and the two different display technologies are locked in a heated battle for your hard-earned dollars. The one obvious advantage that LCD technology has over plasma, at least in the short term, is the resolution. Enter Sony’s latest technological tour de force, the KDL-46XBR2 flat panel LCD HDTV. LCD flat panels have been available with their highly-touted 1080p resolution for some time now, and the Sony KDL-46XBR2 delivers this resolution and more for your viewing pleasure. Plasma panels are only now just arriving with 1920 x 1080 resolution, and definitely carry a major premium in price over their LCD competitors. This new Sony has many things to recommend it in terms of picture quality and performance but, like everything else in video, it also has its shortcomings.

The panel is quite unique in its design and, as with many Sony TV products, it is extremely attractive. Stereo speakers flank the left and right side of the screen and a silver frame encompasses the screen with a glass outer casing that surrounds it. Finally, a thin silver bezel surrounds the glass, producing a high-tech yet extremely elegant package. The silver bezel can be changed out for one of the five optional colors available, red, blue, black, white or brown. Sony’s ego light (Logo) sits directly in the center of the lower portion of the frame below the screen area. Thankfully, this light can be shut off in the menu system, as it is quite distracting.

Sony remote control designs have long been among my favorites for the comfortable feel in the hand, ease of use and intuitive layout of the keys. The KDL-46XBR2’s remote mostly lives up to that reputation, although it takes a little getting used to some slight design changes that have been made here. The internal menu system is not quite as intuitive as it used to be. For example, after hitting the menu button, you have to select the settings menu to access the audio and video menus and set-up features, whereas with previous designs, once you hit the menu button, the audio and video menus were immediately visible. Most of the more commonly used buttons are within easy thumb reach. While I would’ve liked some backlighting or at least illuminated keys, I was not surprised to discover that it lacked backlighting, considering most LCD flat panel TVs tend to reside in high ambient light environments, and tweaking in the dark is not as likely a scenario as might be with an RPTV micro display.

The KDL-46XBR2 is virtually packed with features, some for convenience and others designed to enhance picture quality. For black level performance improvement, Sony has employed a backlight feature, which will give you richer deeper blacks by controlling the amplitude of the lamps driving the panel, at the expense of some light output. See the Performance section for more details on this. Sony’s DRC (Digital Reality Creation) video processing modes are not very impressive, and the important Cinemotion feature that engages 2:3 pull-down for film-based video sources like DVD movies is buried in a completely separate area of the menu. I find it odd that Sony has isolated this important feature, which used to be in the DRC menu. It is almost as if they don’t want you to find it. And, as you have probably come to expect from most high-end HDTVs today, there are the obligatory selectable color temps (four in all), and three picture modes, although Sony’s excellent Pro mode is mysteriously absent.

As with all HDTVs, there are a number of features located in the advanced menu. These features should be turned off for the best picture performance. They include Black Corrector, Advanced C.E. (Contrast Enhancer) and Gamma, to name just a few. A Color Matrix feature offers a custom setting that allows you to actually choose the color decoding scheme for each source. This is an important feature that will allow you to achieve the correct color decoding for all your sources. A Color Space feature is included and should be set to normal for SD sources and wide for HD sources. This corresponds to the difference in the actual reference for the colors of red, green and blue between standard-definition NTSC sources like cable, satellite TV, DVDs and HDTV sources. For some inexplicable reason, this model does not have grayscale controls in the service menu. Instead, Sony has put white balance controls in the Advanced menu. However, the good news is that now grayscale calibration can be done separately for each input.

The Sony KDL-46XBR2 sports a number of other consumer-oriented features like a built-in ATSC tuner for receiving off-air HD broadcasts, and a sound-leveling feature that will appeal to many. However, considering how many picture-enhancing features Sony has included on this model , I was surprised to find it lacks even single tuner PIP (Picture-in-Picture), which is a convenience feature many people will demand in a set like this. Finally, the Input Label feature is convenient, as it not only allows you to label each input appropriately, but also gives you the ability to Skip the input if you are not using it, reducing the time it takes to switch back and forth between inputs.

Connectivity options are very generous indeed. A total of three HDMI inputs and one included on the side A/V input are unusually plentiful, considering that you are usually lucky to get two HDMI inputs on most flat panel sets today. There are also two component video inputs, one S-Video input and three composite video inputs (one also on the side panel A/V input) to accommodate most other sources. Finally, two RF inputs one for cable and one for antenna, and a 15-pin VGA input complete the video connections. A set of stereo audio outputs and a digital optical audio output are also on board. The headphone jack, a nice convenience for late-night viewers, is situated on the side A/V input.

Not being a big fan of LCD display technology in general, mainly because of black-level performance issues, I must say that the performance of the KDL-46XBR2 impressed me. Blacks are markedly better than on other LCD panels I have tested in recent months, which is mainly attributable to the backlight feature. By turning down the amplitude of the lamps driving the LCD panels, internal light scatter is reduced, and blacks become deeper and richer as a result. However, this does come at the expense of some light output, and the lower you set the backlight, the less light output you will get from the TV.

Overall, color accuracy is also more impressive than on most of its competition. While the primary and secondary colors of red, green, blue, magenta, yellow and cyan are not spot on, they are much closer, especially red and green, than any comparable LCD panel I have tested to date. I would like Sony to add a Color Management System (CMS), a feature that some competitive plasma products offer. This is a color feature system that individually addresses the primary and secondary colors, and gives a technician the ability to correct these colors to the system specifications as part of an in-field calibration. Color decoding on the KDL-46XBR2 is also very accurate, which yields impressive color saturation with no “red push,” leaving skin tones looking very natural and accurate.

After some experimentation and grayscale tracking measurements, I set gamma to “off” in the Advanced menu. It was still not quite as flat as I would have liked, which resulted in slightly rocky or choppy grayscale tracking. I have never been impressed with Sony’s DRC (Digital Reality Creation) video processing, and the KDL-46XBR2 revealed that it remains noisy and more prone to artifacts than many other TV manufacturers’ internal video processing schemes. 2:3 pull-down, although present when Cinemotion is engaged, is also a bit slower than some mainstream video processing from Panasonic and other companies. This was clearly evident in the film sequence on the Silicon Optix HQV test DVD. With that said, it did pass the test of the opening sequence of Star Trek: Insurrection (Paramount Home Entertainment) with flying colors, rendering the scene cleanly and smoothly.

I watched quite a few DVD movies over the weeks I had the panel in my system, and richly saturated movies like Seabiscuit (Dreamworks/Universal Studios Home Video) and Moulin Rouge (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) were quite impressive, with excellent color saturation and very natural-looking skin tones. The grass on the inside of the race track in various scenes of Seabiscuit looked particularly natural, thanks to the reasonably accurate color of green. For black level testing I used the Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (Lucasfilm Ltd./20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) DVD. Blacks in space shots were convincing and star fields looked solid, with very few visible artifacts. Training Day (Warner Home Video), arguably one of the sharpest transfers ever done on DVD, looked as sharp as a razor. Chapter four, where Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke chase the kids down in the VW bug looked as clear and crisp as I have ever seen it rendered.

I was happy to observe that both the HDMI and component video inputs delivered all the resolution in a 1080i HD signal. This is something that many supposed 1080p resolution displays today cannot do. Although I couldn’t get it to display 1080p test patterns via the component video output of my Sencore HDTV signal generator, it did display 1080p from a Samsung Blu-ray player, so it is safe to say that it does display 1080p. It also does de-interlace 1080i HD material correctly, preserving all the resolution in the process, which, surprisingly, most consumer HDTVs still do not do correctly.

In any case, HD material looked exceptionally sharp on this panel. The Discovery HD channel, as it almost always does, looked just great. Monster Garage, a program on the Discovery HD channel looked mostly awesome, but there was some visible noise in darker scenes. INHD 1 and 2, two other reference-quality HD channels on my Time Warner HD cable system, also looked exceptionally sharp, with excellent color saturation and very natural-looking skin tones.

The Downside
Although black level performance is certainly better than on most LCD panels I have tested, it still remains an issue of performance, as it is definitely not as good as the best plasmas in this regard. I also discovered that it floats black slightly, which means that the black level actually changes depending on the brightness of the content of the picture. So, in extremely bright scenes, for example, from Ice Age (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment), blacks will get crushed instead of remaining where they should. As stated earlier, the video processing leaves a little bit to be desired, but this can mostly be gotten around with HD sources, from satellite and cable TV and also with one of the two or both HD DVD formats.

Having lived with the Sony KDL-46XBR2 for several weeks before taking pen to paper, I must say that for an LCD, its performance is impressive indeed. The one area where I still have problems with its performance is the blacks. Although better than just about any LCD panel I have ever seen in this regard, really dark material both on SD DVD and HD sources suffers from some visible noise and a slight lack of depth and richness. Color accuracy and clarity are undoubtedly the XBR2’s main strengths. In fact, I would venture to say that it is more accurate in terms of color fidelity than any LCD flat panel I have tested so far to date. If you are in the market for a big-screen LCD flat panel and getting the absolute best picture performance is a priority for you, then this Sony should be on your shopping list. You’ll be happy to know that, since the introduction of the XBR2 late last summer, the price has also dropped over $500 to a more palatable $3,799.
Manufacturer Sony
Reviewer Kevin Miller
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches

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