Sony KDL-40Z4100 LCD HDTV 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs LCD HDTVs
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Saturday, 01 November 2008

Since the arrival of 120Hz TVs, the technology has generally been treated as a premium performance feature, reserved for use in a manufacturer’s highest-end lines.  As with any popular feature, 120Hz is now slowly starting to trickle down into less-expensive models, like Sony’s Z Series.  The Z Series, which includes screen sizes of 40 and 46 inches, is the step-down line from the company’s XBR Series.  These TVs don’t employ all of Sony’s most advanced imaging technologies, but they still offer a higher level of a performance and an excellent complement of features. all for a few hundred dollars less than similarly sized XBR models. The KDL-40Z4100 is a 40-inch 1080p model, priced at $2,199.99.

Features and Set-up
In the design department, the Z Series follows the current trend of offering thinner, more discreet bezels.  The KDL-40Z4100 sports a simple gloss-black cabinet (also available in brushed metal) that puts only about an inch of bezel around the screen’s top and sides.  The beefier bottom bezel houses a horizontally aligned speaker bar.  The TV comes with a detachable stand; in fact, it arrives in the box with the stand detached, which isn’t surprising. Given this model’s smaller screen size and lighter form (it measures just 2.88 inches deep and weighs 40 pounds), it’s easier to hang on the wall.  Attaching the stand takes just seconds, should you choose to do so.

Along the KDL-40Z4100’s right side panel are buttons for power, channel, volume, input and home (to pull up the onscreen interface).  Along the left side, you’ll find a USB port for JPEG/MP3 playback, one HDMI input and a single set of A/V inputs.  The back panel sports three more HDMI inputs, as well as two component video, one RGB, one S-video, two composite video and one RF input.  All of the HDMI inputs accept a 1080p/60 or 1080p/24 signal.  The TV includes internal ATSC, NTSC and Clear-QAM tuners.  It also features the TV Guide on Screen program guide and limited picture-in-picture functionality.  Additionally, an optical digital audio and a stereo analog audio output are available.

To call this TV “digital media friendly” would be something of an understatement.  In addition to the USB port mentioned above, the KDL-40Z4100 features a DMPort to connect digital media devices, an Ethernet port to add the TV to your home network and stream photos (but not music or videos) from a DLNA-compliant server and, finally, Sony’s proprietary DMeX port, which allows you to attach one of the company’s many Bravia Link devices.  The optional Internet Video Link ($299.99) lets you stream online content directly to the TV without a PC.  Sony recently announced a partnership with Amazon to make its Unbox service, through which you can rent or purchase popular movies and TV shows, available directly via the Internet Video Link.

The supplied remote is long and skinny, with a clean button layout and helpful blue backlighting.  It lacks dedicated input and aspect ratio buttons, but otherwise includes the major buttons you would want.  The KDL-40Z4100 uses the XrossMediaBar (XMB) onscreen interface, which you can access via the remote or the TV’s Home button.  The XMB system is cleanly laid out and easy to navigate, although its many layers can make it somewhat cumbersome to move through, especially when you want to go directly into the audio and video set-up menus.  Thankfully, Sony has also included a handy Options menu; a quick press of the remote’s Options button opens a menu along the right side of the screen, through which you can quickly access picture and sound adjustments, open PIP, change the 120Hz settings and more.  The only navigation button that I really wish was on the remote is an exit button to quickly close any onscreen menu.

The XMB menu includes five main categories: Settings, Photo, Music, TV and External Inputs.  The latter four help you to navigate the various types of media and input signals, while the Settings menu is where you’ll make your initial adjustments.  There’s no shortage of picture adjustments, as Sony has kindly included many of the advanced options you find in its higher-end lines.  For starters, you can choose between four picture modes: vivid, standard, cinema and custom.  Sony TVs always default to the vivid mode, and you’ll definitely want to choose a less exaggerated option – possibly the standard mode, but preferably the more accurate cinema mode.  Naturally, you get basic controls for brightness, contrast, color, hue and sharpness, and you can fine-tune each picture mode separately for each input.  Edge enhancement is a concern if you set the sharpness too high, while the picture gets a little soft if you set it at its minimum.  I found a setting between 5 and 7 strikes a good balance.

In the color realm, the KDL-40Z4100 has four color temperature options (cool, neutral, warm 1 and warm 2), as well as precise RGB gain and bias controls to dial in a more accurate white balance.  You also get basic gamma adjustment and two color-space options, a standard mode for more natural color and a wide mode for more vibrant color.  The cinema picture mode defaults to the warm 2 color temperature and standard color mode; these settings appear to produce the most accurate results.  With test patterns, black detail looks solid with the gamma feature turned off, so I left it there.

The KDL-40Z4100 features a 10-step adjustable backlight, as well as a light sensor that automatically adjusts the TV’s light output based on room conditions, and a power-saving mode that reduces the screen brightness to cut down on energy consumption.  (The latter two options are located in the General Setup menu, not the Picture menu.)  As I usually do, I turned down the backlight to its minimum setting to get the best possible black level and found that the TV still had ample light output at this setting.  If you set up the KDL-40Z4100 using test patterns from a disc like Video Essentials (DVD International), you may notice that the TV drives the black level based on the signal content.  If you put an all-black pattern on the screen, you can see the black level visibly drop after about four seconds.  If I were measuring the TV with a luminance meter, that drop would improve its black level and consequently its overall contrast ratio, but it’s not an accurate assessment of how deep blacks will really look.  Thankfully, I never noticed the black-level shift with real-world content, so it didn’t prove to be a distraction.  Before the drop occurs, the KDL-40Z4100’s level of black is solid but not as good as the better high-end Sony TVs I’ve seen and definitely not as good as the best plasmas and LCDs I’ve tested.  Employing the power-saving function doesn’t appear to improve black level, but it does reduce overall light output with brighter content.  The advanced picture menu also includes common Sony features like Black Corrector and Advanced Contrast Enhancer, which dynamically adjust black levels and contrast.  These modes produce visible shifts in that I find distracting, so as always, I kept them turned off.

The Motion Enhancer function controls Sony’s Motionflow 120Hz technology.  The setup options are standard, high and off.  You can select a different option for each input, with standard as the default option across the board.  When you choose the off mode, the KDL-40Z4100 still outputs a 120Hz frame rate; however, it simply duplicates frames to get to 120 and does not add any type of frame interpolation.  The standard mode uses some frame interpolation to produce smoother movement, while the high mode uses even more advanced interpolation to create very smooth movement.  The set-up menu also includes a CineMotion feature that lets you select the type of processing to employ with film sources; the options are off, auto 1 and auto 2.  According to the manual, the auto 1 mode applies inverse 3:2 pulldown and adds a type of motion estimation to produce a smoother picture, while the auto 2 mode just applies the traditional inverse 3:2 pulldown.  The different Motion Enhancer/CineMotion permutations affect motion in different ways, with varying degrees of success, which we’ll explore in the next section.

Other picture parameters include noise reduction, MPEG noise reduction, a game mode to improve the TV’s response time with gaming consoles and a video/photo optimizer that lets you designate still or moving images for each input.  The KDL-40Z4100 offers four aspect ratios for SD content and four for HD.  The Screen set-up menu allows you to select a default aspect ratio, turn on automatic aspect-ratio detection, designate a default shape for 4:3 sources and set the desired level of overscan: normal, -1, or -2, plus a full pixel mode for 1080i/1080p sources that lets you view content with no overscan.

In the audio department, the set-up menu includes three preset modes (standard, dynamic, and clear voice), as well as treble, bass and balance controls.  Advanced features include the option to enable Sony’s S-FORCE Front surround feature, a Voice Zoom function that lets you adjust the clarity of voices, a Sound Booster to enhance bass and treble and Steady Sound to minimize volume discrepancies.  You can set the TV’s audio output for fixed or variable and turn off the speakers altogether if you’re using an outboard audio system.

Should you opt to make use of the KDL-40Z4100’s back-panel Ethernet port, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Network Settings menu to review your network set-up.  The default set-up option allows the TV to automatically configure your network settings, but there’s also a custom mode for those who wish to handle set-up manually.  If you wish to access a DLNA-compliant photo server, you can add, subtract and view information about connected servers via the Show/Hide Servers menu.  The network connection also allows you to perform firmware updates; for that, you must go into the sub-menu labeled “Product Support.”

Television and Movies
I began by evaluating the fundamentals: detail, color and contrast.  With my Pioneer Blu-ray player set up to output 1080p/24, I fed the KDL-40Z4100 some Blu-ray demo scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), Kingdom of Heaven (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment), Ghost Rider (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) and Enchanted (Buena Vista Home Entertainment).  The results were impressive.  The Sony’s level of detail was excellent and its great light output gave brighter HD content a lot of pop, which made for an engaging experience.  The warm 2 color temperature appeared quite close to the D6500 standard, so I didn’t feel the need to adjust the white balance controls any further.  My reference Samsung LN-T4681F’s pre-calibration color temperature was a tad cool.  When comparing the two TVs, the Sony’s skin tones consistently looked richer and more natural.  The Samsung’s red, green and blue color points appeared to be more accurate, but not by much.  The Enchanted and Ghost Rider discs were filled with bright colors, and the Sony did a nice job of bringing those colors to life without taking them over the top.  Add in the pleasing flesh tones, and the result was a naturally inviting high-def picture.

Next up was a look at the effectiveness of Sony’s 120Hz technology – first with motion blur, then with film judder.  I popped in my reference FPD Benchmark Software Blu-ray disc and checked out the various resolution patterns.  With Motion Enhancer turned off, the TV exhibited blur with moving patterns.  It wasn’t as pronounced as I’ve seen with other LCDs, but I saw definite improvement when I turned on the Motion Enhancer feature, especially with the map pattern, when a camera quickly panned across a map filled with city names.  The names were crystal clear at the standard ME setting.  I should point out that, with darker test patterns, turning on Motion Enhancer feature added an obvious red trail to moving letters and characters.  However, I didn’t notice this issue with real-world content.

To analyze the technology’s effects with film judder, I used scenes featuring long camera pans from the Gladiator DVD (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) and the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Blu-ray disc, among others.  With Motion Enhancer turned off, the TV simply repeated frames to get to 120.  With DVD sources, judder was still evident.  However, with native 1080p/24 Blu-ray content, the TV repeated each frame five times in a phenomenon called 5:5 pulldown, which resulted in slightly less judder than the traditional 3:2 process without creating unnaturally smooth motion.  The tradeoff is potential motion blur when you turn off Motion Enhancer.  The standard Motion Enhancer mode clearly reduced judder and produced smoother motion, but the result was fairly tame.  Meanwhile, the high mode created super-smooth movement that made film look more like video.  I’m not really a fan of the super-smooth look; it was just too artificial.  Also, the high mode sometimes introduced digital artifacts and created traces around moving objects that I found even more distracting than judder.  Ultimately, I liked the standard mode’s more subtle effect and the fact that it did its job with more consistency and fewer artifacts.

Interestingly, the choice of CineMotion modes also affected the quality of motion with film sources.  As I mentioned above, the auto 1 mode added “motion estimation,” which seemed to work in tandem with the Motion Enhancer feature to produce smoother movement.  The auto 2 mode did not use motion estimation, which would make it the better choice for film purists.  Both modes performed quite well in the de-interlacing department, through both the HDMI and component video inputs.  My 480i de-interlacing tests from the Gladiator and Bourne Identity (Universal Home Video) DVDs looked clean.  The TV passed the film test on the HQV Benchmark DVD (Silicon Optix).  It struggled with the jaggies and text-crawl test patterns on this disc, and it didn’t do as good a job cleaning up a poorly encoded scene from the Into the Wild DVD (Paramount Home Video) as my Pioneer Blu-ray player did.  But, overall, its de-interlacing performance was consistently sound with 480i film sources.  In the scaling department, with demo scenes from Lost: The Complete Second Season, Signs, Ladder 49, and The Prestige (all Buena Vista Home Entertainment), this TV produced a solid level of detail when up-converting the signal to its native 1080p resolution.  Images weren’t the most detailed I’ve seen, but they certainly didn’t look soft, and fine details were evident.  The smoke that hung over the rescue sequence in chapter 12 of Ladder 49 looked clean and natural, not noisy and pixilated.  In general, digital noise was sometimes present in darker scenes and I saw some uneven steps in light-to-dark transitions, but neither was a huge distraction.  The noise-reduction feature did a very good job minimizing the appearance of noise without overly softening the picture.

The KDL-40Z4100 also proved that it properly de-interlaces 1080i film sources.  With my Blu-ray player set for 1080i output, the TV passed all of the processing tests on the HQV Benchmark Blu-ray disc (Silicon Optix) and cleanly rendered the staircase in chapter eight of the Mission: Impossible III Blu-ray (Paramount Home Video).  When I switched over to TV sources using my DirecTV HD DVR, I did not see digital artifacts with 1080i film sources.  What I did see was a great-looking image.  Both 720p and 1080i sources had excellent detail.  Color and skin tones were rich but natural and the picture had plenty of pop.
The Downside
As I mentioned in the set-up section, the KDL-40Z4100’s black level was only average. With darker Blu-ray and DVD scenes, blacks tended to look gray, especially when compared with my reference Samsung LED-based LCD – which, admittedly, produces some of the best blacks you’re going to find. (By the way, Sony just released its own line of LED-based LCDs, but they do not offer one at the 40-inch screen size.)  On a positive note, the KDL-40Z4100 did a solid job of rendering fine black details, and its overall black level was still good enough to produce a pleasing image in a completely dark room.  It just didn’t have that extra level of depth and dimension that you see with the finest high-end panels.

The KDL-40Z4100’s viewing angle also fell in the average category – better than many LCDs I’ve seen, but still not as good as a plasma panel.  It produced a watchable image at fairly wide angles, but black levels will rise and color saturation will fall if you sit too far to one side or the other.

The TV also exhibited some processing issues with TV content.  Its handling of video-based content isn’t as good as its film performance.  When watching a tennis match from the U.S. Open in 1080i, I saw jaggies in the diagonals created by the court’s white boundary lines.  Also, during SportsCenter on ESPN HD (which was 720p), I noticed that the TV again struggled with text crawls in the sports ticker that ran along the bottom of the screen.  Motion Enhancer sometimes slipped out of sync with 480i movies on TV.  In general, the Sony didn’t go as good a job cleaning up lesser-quality SDTV signals as the best panels I’ve reviewed.

Although the KDL-40Z4100 costs less than Sony’s XBR models, its $2,199.99 asking price still puts it at the higher end of the price spectrum for a 40-inch 1080p panel.  However, this TV delivers the goods in performance, connectivity and features.  While its black level could be better, it still offers a very attractive HD image and a nice-looking SD image, with only minimal setup effort required.  Sony builds a lot of flexibility into its Motionflow 120Hz technology, which is one of the better examples of the form.  Overall, the KDL-40Z4100 is a fine choice for someone who wants an excellent all-purpose display at the 40-inch screen size.
Manufacturer Sony
Model KDL-40Z4100 LCD HDTV
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Diagonal Screen Size 37 to 42-inches
# of HDMI Inputs 4
# of Component Video Inputs 2
HDMI Version 1.3
Native Resolution 1080p
Refresh Rate 120Hz

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