Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs LCD HDTVs
Written by Jeremy R. Kipnis   
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly technology marches forward. Take the 40-inch television, for example. Five years ago, in 2001, Sony introduced the first 40-inch Direct View HDTV CRT Television featuring flat-screen WEGA (pronounced “Vega”) tube technology. At the time, this model, the 40XBR700, was the largest and most expensive consumer direct-view CRT ever created, retailing for a cool $4,000. Aside from its enormous size and weight at 385 pounds, the picture tube was designed to offer the best color fidelity and resolution for an NTSC consumer television up to that point, save for the Sony 32XBR100 squared (available from 1994 through about 1997), which remains the only consumer direct-view CRT monitor to have achieved the full NTSC color gamut in a commercially produced television, not counting, of course, the new Qualia 005, which is a Tri-Luminous LCD television capable of 105 percent of the 1953 NTSC color gamut and a real stunner of an HDTV.

The improvements that the 40XBR700 offered over any earlier efforts were quite astonishing, and (after a full NTSC calibration) the set was (and is) capable of coming quite close to the exactingly rigorous standards of reproduction set forth in the original 1953 North American Television Standards Committee (NTSC) documents, except for a slightly weak red and green primary saturation.

The joy that I derived from watching this television with tried and true DVDs like James Bond’s “Thunderball,” with its complex and beautiful cinematography, including many gorgeous long shots of Nassau and the Caribbean, was only exceeded by certain presentations on Sony, NEC, Runco and Vidikron three-gun front and rear CRT projectors costing ten to twenty times this 40 inch direct view Sony HDTV set. Both color fidelity and picture details were surprisingly transparent, and it was difficult at times to imagine that a direct-view television could really get any better.

Now, five years later, with HDTV in full swing, comes a surprising improvement in LCD technology, yielding the Sony KDL-V40XBR1, a 1366 by 768 active matrix HDTV, utilizing the newest Sony LCD technology and featuring a remarkable picture, reminiscent of my earlier experience with the Sony 40-inch XBR CRT, yet subjectively leagues better with respect to absolute performance when compared to both film and an open window. The $3,299 MSRP 40-inch Bravia (Sony’s new monogram for their elite video division after the conclusion of Qualia – but still, this is an XBR set, which is important by comparison to the “S” or “V” series televisions) can be table-mounted using its included 90-degree swivel stand (a nice touch, whereas the $15,000 Qualia 005 has this only as an option) or wall-mounted like a traditional plasma on a bracket that is sold separately. Yet where François Truffaut’s film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” with its forward-looking appearance of large, flat-panel displays in the home, and recent improvements in Plasma display technology have left off, Sony’s new Bravia LCD offering is indeed as exciting and impressive a release to an HDTV-hungry public as any to have come along in recent years.

Although I was heavily overextended calibrating and preparing for the arrival of my new Sony Ciné Alta SRX-R110 pro-theater projector, a 4k front projector behemoth that uses 3 by 4096 by 2160p SXRD chip technology similar to that featured in the Qualia 004 SXRD Projector, Qualia 006 Rear Projection, and the recent KDS-60XBR100 Rear Projection (all reviewed here on, my delight over the new Sony KDL-V40XBR1 was no less palpable. While the 4K Ciné Alta projector sets the benchmark for the entire film and video industry, demonstrating visual accuracy and transparency that has many of the better qualities of 35mm motion picture film, along with the control and adjustability of a video projector, the new Bravia 40-inch LCD sets the standard for flat panel displays in very much the same way.

I was quite flabbergasted at just how easy it was to take this piece out of its well-designed carton (with the aid of a second person) and install it into a working system with great speed, using the supplied IEC power cord. The total unpacking and set-up time did not exceed five minutes, faster by far than the 40-inch tube CRT of five years earlier, which required four very strong men and a difficult ascension up half a flight of stairs, and a standard 38-inch wide hallway and 30-inch doorjambs. That installation took an hour and a half and there were a number of shaky moments. The new 40-inch Bravia was comparatively a cakewalk. The wall-mounting bracket (again optional) can easily be attached to wall studs with all wiring to the set neatly hidden on the back (except input 2 on the left side, which features Y-Pr-Pb inputs, a USB connector, a 3.5mm headphone jack and, finally, a six-pin IEEE 1394 Firewire input, suitable for connecting a D-VHS, HD or DVR camcorder, as well as a USB 2.0 jack suitable for a digital camera, a computer or laptop.

The television has seven inputs besides the cable/antenna connection on F-connectors, each of them nameable and addressable in the “External Inputs” dialogue of the system menu, now called “Wega Gate,” as in gateway. Three of these include Y-Pr-Pb inputs alongside S-Video and composite and left/right audio on RCA jacks, but strangely, there is only one HMDI input. Only one HDCP-compliant digital input to connect a whole bevy of new HDMI and DVI-capable sources is not enough; what is a person to do? Thankfully, I was also reviewing the new and easy to integrate PureLink 4x1 HDMI switcher by DtroVision (reviewed last month) and this device so perfectly solved my digital switching issues that I have been able to almost completely ignore the lack of more HDMI inputs on the Bravia itself – almost. Still, this adds another $549 or so to the price of operating the television, which could very well have been deferred by adding another HDMI input to the television in the first place, and not all that much more expensive from Sony’s perspective. Of equal interest is the RGBHV input on a DB-15 connector found on Input 7. It includes a 3.5mm stereo audio input, but I am surprised that there is no DVI input that could be used with many of today’s laptops to create an even better picture. But the ability to use this television as a widescreen desktop can neither be overrated nor underestimated, as will be seen shortly.

Without a doubt, this television is capable of assuming a window-like transparency when given a steady diet of high-quality HD programming. I was repeatedly amazed by just how much light and range of color could be reproduced by this television. Because this is an LCD engine utilizing a fluorescent backlight, light output is largely a function of total bulb brightness and, in this case, the calibrated peak white output (full field or window pattern) was 134 ft/Lamberts in the custom mode with Warm 1 color temperature. This is outstanding for any television or monitor and it makes the images displayed really, really pop out at you in a very three-dimensional way. I am a great advocate of reproducing light levels of recreated images as closely as possible to reality. While this is rarely possible (because creating equally bright red, green and blue light-emitting devices or substances that track from black to full-on color evenly is a tricky art at best), realistic light levels greatly enhance the perception that one is looking through a window with something on the other side, instead of just an artificial recreation of the same. With the Bravia V40XBR1, I always felt that the images were exceptionally bright, clear and colorful – almost touchable.

This sense of palpability, that objects, people and landscapes are actually on the other side of the screen, is further augmented by an extremely wide color gamut, only exceeded by the Qualia 005.

The coordinates Sony has chosen for the red, green and blue primaries for this television, in combination with their proprietary WCG-CCFL (Wide Color Gamut – Color Corrected Fluorescent Backlight) are quite a bit more deeply saturated (farther towards the edge of the chart) than the currently accepted standard called Rec. 701 HDTV color primaries, but they are surprisingly close to the original NTSC color space established in 1953 before anyone had actually tried to build a practical color television. Prior to Joe Kane and Joel Silver’s creation of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) in 1994, only television and video engineers used these tools to make absolutely certain that their broadcasts were accurately portrayed. But television manufacturers have cheated for years in recreating accurate color saturation and hue of the primaries in favor of better and brighter light output, correcting saturation deficiencies with a number of electronic bypasses.

This continues into today’s displays, where we now have both SDTV color standards (Rec. 601) and HDTV (Rec. 701) coinciding on the same screen all the time. These represent a noticeably different color gamut (the triangular area that defines the colors available to the broadcast system), with Rec. 701 occupying a larger area with its corners farther toward the edge of the chart. “Chihuly Over Venice” (PBS HD) offers a superb opportunity to evaluate the color and hue of any display. Dale Chihuly’s glassblowing abilities are among the finest in history and his choice of glass color, shape and texture can easily be seen to change from scene to scene as he travels the world of glassblowing in this finely produced and directed HDTV program. The Sony V40XBR1 Bravia was extremely adept at bringing out the full range of colors available from every program source, including this one, while the very awkward-to-access user menu allows for a very wide variety of adjustments that include four different color temperatures, several detail and texture enhancers, both normal Rec.601 and wide Rec.701 color gamut settings and numerous other less important but sometimes necessary visual enhancers.

The effect of all these controls and the wide color gamut is to create an extremely refined image with great color saturation and accuracy of hue, combined with a very prodigious light output for a commercial television. It is also easily possible to see a whole new range of subtle tints and hues when using the DB-15 connector on Input 7 to display still images from a laptop, camera or other image source. The sheer power of these pictures presented an extremely compelling slide show being reminiscent of a similar 35mm family event seen on a small screen. In fact, the color fidelity of the Sony 40-inch Bravia was so good that still images popped even more than most HDTV images, save HD DVD and Blu-ray, which looked simply fabulous. This hails a true revolution for flat panel image quality.

I want to mention that video and computer games, thanks to all this color fidelity, resolution and light output, were absolutely fantastic. XBOX 360 driving games such as “Burnout Revenge 360,” which is a much more compelling game with the added graphics available in the 360 version than the original, alongside such old favorites as “PacMan” and “Galaxian” from several reissues of 1980s favorites, are more enjoyable than they ever were in the arcade. The Bravia fully captures and enhances (at the user’s adjustments) every jot and tittle of detail and color ever revealed on any display device, short of the most ideal laboratory monitor I have seen thus far.

The Downside
While the great light output and huge range of displayable colors produced fantastic picture quality compared to televisions costing three times as much, several features are less than well implemented. To begin with, the user-adjustable video controls are buried deep in the WEGA menu system. It takes a whopping eight button clicks to find your way even to the Contrast control, and even more clicks to get to the Brightness, Color, Tint, Sharpness, Noise Reduction, Color Temperature and other critical adjustments. Furthermore, there is a whole additional WEGA submenu which offers many, many other critical image controls that are simply too hard to access to be useful by most consumers. I went into and out of these menus several thousand times during my 12-week Video Calibration Labs mandatory testing and evaluation period and it was a total chore, only exceeded by working with the service menu for this set to calibrate color temperature accurately.

There are no usable service modes (only the factory mode) to achieve calibration with the user controls at their default (reset) positions, allowing for changes in the user controls for a particular program, which can then be returned to the calibrated reset position at the push of a single reset button. Right now, end users can make some adjustments to color temperature and gamma using the sub-picture menu, but these are rather coarse in comparison to what can be achieved with this and other televisions when a true service or factory mode can be easily accessed. Consequently, I was able to calibrate this honey of a set only so close to our HDTV and SDTV broadcast standards, unlike the entire series of Qualia display products, which offer a much more refined service mode of adjustment. The picture was stellar for the money, but could be twice as good at least through simply calibrating the service modes using instrumentation. Either more accurate controls need to be made available in the User Menu or a service mode must be made available to qualified and certified calibrators. Customers have a right to expect their A/V purchases to operate at full power, and this can only be adjusted properly at the end user’s home with its own sources.

Black levels are better than most plasma screens but still, as with the Qualia 005, they are not those of a good SXRD or DLP front projector. Light-transmitting technology (like LCD, SXRD, Plasma and DLP) can only filter light down to so much black. This is certainly true of 35mm and IMAX film in their respective theatrical versions, but they are the source that we are trying to duplicate with these technologies. Consequently, until light output improves to include a dark, neutral density filter that increases the contrast ratio while darkening the blacks, some kind of 10 percent bias light solution behind the set will greatly improve the contrast ratio and impression of rich and dark blacks. This engine does provide better low-level detail than the Qualia 006 SXRD rear projector, which can become splotchy in the blacks.

The front bezel is literally littered with gray and white text logos for WEGA and Bravia, alongside SRS True Surround, the Sony logo, etc. These stand out from the set’s black frame, which surrounds the image, offering occasional distraction which could have been deferred had these been removable stickers. If there was any light on in the viewing room, I found the logos to clutter the border of the image. Needless frame clutter is visually wasteful to an otherwise beautiful design, and since the Qualia products along with earlier XBR efforts have never had this much of a problem, I feel Sony must make these removable as they have in the past.

The sound was quite lovely, with clean highs and reasonable bass. But my Bose Wave Radio, as it has done in the past, dwarfed the sound of the TV’s amplifier and speakers, creating a wide and deep soundstage with much more pleasing and accurate timbres throughout the presentation. Clearly, the sound of the Sony TV is better than some efforts in the past, but remains somewhat disappointing in comparison to many inexpensive surround audio breakout solutions for less than $400.

XBR sets have always (as a rule) offered a more or less accurate picture mode, so that consumers can simply choose the NTSC or Professional Mode and all images are displayed without adding or subtracting any actual picture information. Usually the color temperature and gamma are considerably closer to the 1953 NTSC television standard, which are used in the production of nearly every broadcast, cable, satellite, LaserDisc, DVD, HD DVD and now Blu-ray Disc program ever available. Each of these sources will be reproduced inaccurately, except when viewed using the correct picture mode. And while the Custom mode does come set up out of the box to look quite good, it would take only another few dozen lines of code in the operating system to allow end users the choice of an accurate mode for sources that merit it – straight out of the box.

Neither the Text nor Video mode for the PC input number 7 ever came close to being accurate vs. the Sony GDM-FW900 HDTV computer monitor, which has been an industry reference for the last five years. The text mode was always slightly dull and flat with a 1.0 gamma that only a tech could love, while the video mode was exaggerated and overblown with too wide a color gamut and crushed blacks. A computer input must have one accurate, adjustable mode so that anyone can make a computer image that actually looks like the source. Deep red should not suddenly appear as dark magenta, nor should skin tones be either washed out or blotchy with out of the box settings. I encourage Sony to test all inputs on these new television designs to make certain adjustment modes are available, which truly allow for calibrating the image to the most accurate capability of the set. If a customer wants an exaggerated image, they can go to the “Vivid” mode, where everything is as bright and popping-out at you as it is likely to ever get.

I really felt a need for at least two HDMI inputs on the set itself, despite the presence of both DtroVision and Geffen HDMI switchers. Certainly anyone purchasing this set will likely have or be adding additional HDMI-equipped sources. It would be really nice not to have to use an external HDMI-equipped receiver or switcher in order to address these other sources, particularly with digital here to stay. In other words, manufacturers like Sony should anticipate the needs of the customer, particularly ease of set-up and use, instead of just guessing or including features without actual testing in the marketplace.

The Sony Bravia KDL-V40XBR1 is indeed a formidable contender in the 40-inch television market, easily displacing the picture quality available from similar-sized plasma and LCD displays costing between one-half and four times its price. The television has a small, fairly thin case, which is light enough in weight that two people can easily set up the display on its supplied Lazy Susan 120-degree swivel base in under five minutes or slightly longer if mounting to the optional wall bracket.

Picture quality sets a new benchmark for active matrix (AM) thin film transistor (TFT) liquid crystal display (LCD), offering a considerably wider range of colors, combined with outstanding brightness and resolution for a 40-inch television or any display short of the Qualia 005, also an AM-TFT-LCD television. The set’s 1366 x 768 resolution clearly demonstrates the improved depth of field seen on 1080i movies (up-converted onboard to 1080p by the internal Sony WEGA engine) vs. the same program viewed at 720p. At the same time, 720p sources were displayed with precise details and virtually no additional image artifacts, certainly none that were not also found with the 1080i sources.

Of possible concern to black-level aficionados is a typical grayish quality to the blacks (found in most LCD and Plasma displays) unless a 10 percent bias light is used behind the set while viewing. Even here, this 40-inch XBR Bravia offered slightly better black levels than the Qualia 005 Tri-Luminous LCD television, certainly much better than most plasma or other LCD displays available today.

Lastly, it is clear that Sony is positioning itself at the pinnacle of picture display technology, both professionally and residentially. In continuing their 50-plus year trek through improving our daily lives through technology, such as the first commercially available transistor radio, video cassette recorder (Betamax), in-home large-screen projection television, 3.7-inch flat Trinitron TV, CD, DVD, SXRD, etc., I trust that the company who started the miniature home electronics revolution with quality in mind for all customers will continue their quest for the best possible picture and sound in each of its products, alongside both great attention to design and aesthetic details, as it has in all of its creations.
Manufacturer Sony
Reviewer Jeremy Kipnis
Diagonal Screen Size 37 to 42-inches

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