Sony KDL-46Z4100 LCD HDTV 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs LCD HDTVs
Written by Tom Volotta   
Thursday, 30 April 2009

It’s Springtime, and along with the Birds & the Bees, pollen alerts and hearing about all the government bailout cash you’re not getting, the new crop of TVs which debuted at January’s 2009 CES are hitting the shelves or online reseller’s fulfillment warehouses.  So, a Sony 46Z4100, what’s with reviewing LAST year’s television technology?  Isn’t that a bit like reading yesterday’s newspaper - or perhaps more appropriate to our times, a Blog that’s an hour old, or an Instant Message or Tweet from thirty seconds ago?  All seemingly fruitless exercises.  But sometimes a glance back reveals a hidden gem that may have been overlooked in the midst of the dizzying array of technical specifications, product features and marketing among brands, all vying for your attention and dollars.  The Sony KDL-46Z4100 LCD TV is one of those.

It’s packed with advanced video features capable of delivering terrific pictures, has a classy appearance and especially now, with close-out deals at half its original MSRP of $2,800, the 46Z4100 is more than reasonably priced, and well worth the effort of hunting down.  Sure, it’s last year’s model, being replaced by the upgraded 5100-series.  But in these lousy economic times, the 46Z4100 is still an inviting prospect for those who might normally have settled for a lesser S, V or W model in Sony’s new 5100s while paying more of those scare dollars in the process.  

Sony threw everyone a curve ball in 2008 by offering 10-bit video processing and 10-bit LCD panel only in the Z-series among non-XBR models.  The 2007 model V3000 and W3000 did have 10-bit, but inexplicably that feature was eliminated from the V and W sets in 2008 resulting in confusion among customers accustomed to models carrying enhanced performance features forward.  Note:  The W4100-series has 120Hz Motionflow and a 10-bit LCD panel, but not 10-bit video processing.  Neither the S4100 nor V4100 models have 120Hz Motionflow or any 10-bit technology.  The new S, V and W5100 series still only have 8-bit processing, but do have 60, 120 and 120Hz refresh rates respectively.  The Z5100 cranks up the Motionflow spec to 240Hz.  More on special video processing and motion features later in the review.
 
Out of the Box

The first thing you notice unpacking the 46Z4100 is its lightweight.  At 49 pounds (the base is not attached) and the 42” x 27” x 3” size, it’s not difficult for one person to lift and carry.  Next is the striking appearance.  The narrow, 1” piano black bezel has a classy air of high tech sophistication.  It’s a departure from the wider bezels on S,V and W models, and is identical to slim bezel as the more expensive 46XBR6, giving the set an elegant yet business-like appearance.  The Z also has a variant with brushed metal, silver bezel.
 
The panel slips easily onto the sturdy aluminum and plastic base, requiring four screws to fasten securely.   There’s a bit more front to back play than you’d expect, but the base and connection to the panel are both solid, so the slight wobble is apparently a shock absorbing part of the design.  A simple, but effective partial raceway and tie-wrap in the base allows threading a few cables to help reduce clutter.  With all big screen TVs, it’s probably worth your peace of mind to either obtain Sony’s optional Support Belt Kit, or fashion a similar restraint for added stability of your new set.  The panel can of course also be attached to a bracket for wall or other mounting.  Overall build quality is good, typical of Sony, especially for A/V connectors, however, there’s is a hint of an inexpensive, plastic feel to the back’s external housing.

A/V, Media & Network I/O

The 46Z4100 continues the evolution of the high definition displays becoming the central media integration device in the home.  It’s gone way beyond just hooking up tape machines, DVDs and DVRs.  Today’s extensive assortment of A/V inputs and outputs, interfaces for digital media players, storage interfaces and Internet connections is now considered a standard expectation, not a luxury.  The 46Z4100 delivers all of those capabilities and more.  Four HDMI 1.3 (for 1080p24, 1080p60 and the new HD audio formats) inputs, component, S and composite video, optical audio out, personal computer I/O, USB 2.0 and T10/100 Ethernet connection to your LAN.  There’s also a special Digital Media Port that conforms to the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) interoperability standard so you can view photos via DLNA Certified equipment.  Not only can you watch high definition broadcast, cable or satellite television and Blu-ray discs, but also view photos from your digital camera or USB flash memory and listen to music through a variety of players.

Sony takes a step further in expansion and flexibility with its own Digital Module Extender (DMeX™) port.  DMeX (pronounced “Dim-X”) is essentially a plug and play interface for connecting BRAVIA® Link Modules to provide integration plus a consistent user interface for several categories of external devices including:  additional HDMI inputs, DVD upscaling, MP3 audio playback, JPEG viewing and connection to selected internet-based video on-demand programming services.  Current VOD offerings include:  Amazon, YouTube, Yahoo, CBS, Howcast, Crackle (Sony Pictures Entertainment) with others being added.  BRAVIA Link Modules run from $150 MSRP up to $800 for the special Wireless Link Module.  That one in particular, although pricy, would be wonderful step towards eliminating the rat’s nest of cables occupying the area behind my TV!

Sony RemoteRemote Control & GUI

Aside from the limited function of a few basic hard button controls for power, channel, volume, input and menu located on the lower right side of the panel, the remote control is your tool to access Sony’s XrossMediaBar™ (XMB) on-screen, graphical user interface.  Sony makes nice remotes, and this one is no exception.  It is a bit long, but has a good balance of button layout, especially the central circular set of buttons for the arrow keys, enter or select, Home, Favorites, Return, Options, Input and Guide.  The size of the remote, ample spacing and the soft, tactile feel of the buttons make for an effective device.

I found it easy to operate the core arrow, enter, Return and Home buttons to navigate the XMB quickly.  For a channel-hopper like me, the convenient placement of the small round “Jump” button (toggles between the two most recent channels) immediately to the right of the channel changer was a thoughtful touch.  Smart ergonomics.  A large variety of other home theater equipment from numerous manufacturers can be programmed to operate through the Sony remote.  Expectedly, it’s especially good at controlling other Sony gear, in particular when those are connected via HDMI so BRAVIA Sync® features can be engaged.  

I did find one aspect of the Power On/Off linking feature to be annoying.  Pairing the 46Z4100 with a Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray player, the S350 remote could simultaneously power up the BD player and the TV.  That’s fine.  But if the TV was already on, and you turned on the S350, the 46Z4100 would shift inputs to the Blu-ray player.  That’s OK too - if you want to watch to BDP menu screen and subsequent disc spin-up.  Personally, I’d rather switch to what input manually - when I want to.  Sometimes I’ll be watching regular television, and in anticipation of viewing a Blu-ray or DVD, will turn the player on, open the tray and get the start-up process going - all without needing or wanting to see the BD player GUI.  I also know that especially with Blu-ray titles, there can often be a time-consuming loading of Java code before the movie gets to a point where I even have the ability to jump to a menu and get on with the show.  Likewise, turning off the TV will power-down the Blu-ray player, which in the case of some BD titles authored in the BD-Java format, can be a problem if you want to do a “Resume” play.  There are “OFF” settings that allow overriding Device and TV Auto Power, but it still seemed quirky to me.

Originally developed for the Sony Playstation™ XMB has become the standard GUI for Sony TVs, Blu-ray players and its line of BRAVIA Link Modules.  This welcome consistency across product lines helps greatly when navigating the features for different kinds of Sony gear.  XMB isn’t without its faults though.  

The interface is designed so that a few many button pushes are required when first entering the interface to get to where you typically want to go, the “Settings” menu.  Click “HOME” on the remote control displays the main menu, placing you in “External Inputs” on the far right of the GUI.  To get to Settings you are forced to traverse the Media Category icons four clicks to the left.  A better design would be defaulting to Settings when pressing HOME because that’s the most likely place people want to go.  This is especially true since the remote does have so many convenient direct adjustment buttons, such as Guide, Favorites and Input.

Navigating within the Settings sub-menus (in what Sony calls the “Category Object Bar”) containing the numerous parameters for adjusting Picture, Sound, Screen, etc., is fairly intuitive.  With so many categories and the number of settings available for each, I’d hope for a software upgrade that could display a summary screen to provide users with a simple, comprehensive, control panel view of all the current settings.  

In large part, the on-screen GUI descriptions for features are either vague or completely lacking, requiring you to dig out the Operating Instructions.  With a beautiful high definition canvas at its disposal, Sony could do a much better job of more clearly communicating exactly what the array of settings do and how each condition effects the viewing experience. More on this later in the MOTION PROCESSING section.

Initial Setup

With every new performance improvement, convenience feature, media format input and network interface, setting up modern televisions has become a more involved process.  Gone are the days of simply plugging it in and turning it on to watch your favorite channel.  The KDL-46Z4100 is no different in that respect, containing a vast selection of picture, sound, motion, screen settings, input management performance adjustment and personal preference options to customize your viewing.

Fortunately, Sony does make threading through the maze of possibilities relatively straightforward so you can get the basics up and running quickly, even automating several coordinated settings to their optimum performance with a just a few clicks.

Getting the 46Z4100 ready for basic television viewing is almost foolproof, but can be a little tedious putting in the final touches.   Just connect your antenna or cable source, navigate to Initial Setup and active Auto Program.  This will load all the analog (as of this writing still hanging in there, extended through June 2009) and digital channels available.

Auto Program

 After scanning and loading the channels, you’ll probably want to go back and use the Show/Hide Channels to delete those that will never be watched so scrolling through channels will be more efficient.  This also enables you to delete the Standard Definition version of a local channel that is also available in (unscrambled) High Definition through the QAM tuner.  Unlike some TVs, the Sony 46Z4100 automatically switches from analog to digital tuner when changing channels.  What may be the biggest reason to go through the Show/Hide exercise is to sidestep the huge number of audio-only digital channels available on most cable systems. 

The 46Z4100 does not have a “Skip Radio” option which simply side-steps that clutter during Initial Setup.  There’s a built-in, free, TV Guide® channel guide (can take 24 hours to fully activate) which is an attractive, handy way to browse the programming schedules for several channels at once.  It worked well and even displayed a small window and sound of the channel you’re currently watching while scrolling through the listings.  I personally didn’t use it much, as using such a guide would indicate purposeful intent and direction - characteristics that impinge upon my erratic style of channel hopping.  Note:  the new 5100 series uses an updated, Internet-based version of the TV Guide feature. 

Once your viewing channels are programmed in, a feature I did like very much was Favorites.  

Channel Guide

It allows you to not only add selected TV channels and sources like your Blu-ray player, DVR to the list, but depicts them as graphics on a rotating carousel with the TV call sign, logo, channel number and even program title.  Sources you’ve selected in the current time you’ve been watching TV are stacked in a center file so you can easily navigate just those channels or sources viewed most recently.

Even though the 46Z4100 can be connected to your home network via Ethernet, a firmware upgrade I needed to do still had to be downloaded separately with a computer, then installed through the TV’s USB port.  Not a big deal, but different from upgrades of the Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray player.  Probably because the S350 is configured as a Profile 2.0, BD-Live machine so makes regular two-way use of the Internet.  The LCD can check through the Internet whether updates are available though.

Sound

Sony usually delivers good quality sound in their TVs, but would only score the 46Z4100 as average.  It has the standard assortment of audio inputs and outputs, along with sound quality adjustments through the XMB interface are available.  Sound settings in particular are sensitive to individual hearing limitations, sonic preferences and the effect of the listening environment.  You should be able to find a reasonably happy medium by adjusting bass and treble, applying different dynamic enhancement or boosters and surround options.  Singling out a couple of specific settings, Voice Zoom was effective in accentuating voices, but was a little on the harsh side.  Sony’s artificial surround sound, S-Force Surround, has a bit too much of an delay echo and tinny effect for my ears.  Steady Sound’s attempt to even out the overall volume to reduce the sometimes-jolting increase on many commercials doesn’t help much in that regard.

It’s too bad such TV that originally retailed for $2,800 didn’t have a subwoofer output.  Adding even a small, powered subwoofer would help boost what is only an average sound system.

One final point - concerning listed features and their actual functions.  As with many other HDTVs, Sony’s KDL-46Z4100 can send 5.1 surround sound out of its optical digital audio jack.  Regrettably, the natural assumption that this feature routes surround sound from whatever input sources to the optical digital output, then on to external surround gear for processing is a common misconception.  

Because of licensing restrictions imposed by content holders, the only intact 5.1 surround that can be looped back through the optical digital out is that coming into the TV’s tuner.  Since the new High Definition audio formats (Dolby Digital Plus & True HD; and DTS-HD High Resolution & Master Audio) can only be transported over HDMI anyway, and neither optical nor coaxial S/PDIF is capable of carrying those formats, the notion of connecting your Blu-ray player to the TV via HDMI, then looping either the full blown, new HD formats, or even 5.1 DD/DTS digital surround sound to an AV receiver isn’t going to happen.  The best you’ll get with that path is down-conversion of whatever HDMI surround content is present as Dolby Pro-Logic LCRS encoded in two channels.

So, unless you connect your Blu-ray player directly to an AV receiver via HDMI (then pass-through HDMI video to the 46Z4100 for 1080p24), or if the BD player can decode the new HD surround formats to analog outputs (and the receiver can properly handle those signals), you’re not going to hear the latest and greatest.   Assuming you don’t have a Blu-ray player that has two HDMI AV outputs, and connect the player directly to the TV via HDMI, you’ll be running an optical or coaxial digital line from the BD player to the receiver, which will only yield 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS, not any of the HD surround formats.

They’re getting close, but TVs aren’t quite there yet to being a complete multimedia switching devices.

Picture Settings

The KDL-46Z4100 really does make nice pictures.  There are two levels to accomplishing this, one simple, the other requiring a bit more effort.  Today’s television sets are a far cry from the limited Brightness, Contrast and Color control dials of the past.  The Sony 46Z4100 has a dizzying array of settings not only for those, but all kinds of sub-categories like separate Red, Green and Blue values, Gamma (relative whiteness), Backlight (internal fluorescent light that boosts overall brightness of all the pixels), Color temperature, and on and on.  Just trying to get a good picture can be a chore, especially if you’re attempting this by simply watching your favorite show or movie as the reference.

Sony, like all other manufacturers, provides several preset AV profiles already stored into their TVs.  What you’re typically seeing at a large store selling walls of TVs is (in the case of Sony) the “VIVID” profile.  Although it’s possible to melt your eyeballs at the length of a football field, the actual purpose of this extreme setting is to counteract the horrid overhead fluorescent or other stark lighting in most of these stores, and to help make the set stand out amongst the crowd of other displays competing for your attention.   The concept is that you will perceive the brightest, most color saturated, eye-popping TV as the best one.

From the factory, Sony’s are set to VIVID, so when you first fire it up, you are assaulted with virtually every video enhancement control pegged to the max.  Other presets include, Standard, Cinema and Custom.  Each is designed to deliver certain content in a way more closely matching the input source (TV or DVD/Blu-ray) and whether that material is the local news, night football game or a movie with subtle lighting and shadows.  The complete range of customized AV settings can also be saved for each input, so you’ll be able to fine-tune Blu-ray content, DVRs, Game machines and television sources.  Even separate Cinema settings could be saved for your Blu-ray HDMI input and another Cinema with slightly different values for a component input.   

Picture Adjust

I wish Sony and other manufacturers offered a way to both copy and paste settings with the unit and to at least save all those AV profiles to a simple text file so it could be easily captured through the USB port, then printed out for reference.

Short of calibrating the Z4100 through its DMeX service port (which Sony doesn’t readily provide the information on how to accomplish), it’s pretty much impossible to set up your TV just by tweaking this and that control while watching for favorite movie or TV show.  An established reference is required.   Not being a professional calibrator, nor having the light meters, signal generators and necessary Sony software, my tool of choice is Joe Kane’s Digital Video Essentials - HD Basis Blu-ray disc.  It’s a good way to bring out nearly the best your set has to offer in picture quality.

As a prerequisite to running the 46Z4100 through its paces, I played DVE Blu-ray through a Sony BDP-S350 connected directly via HDMI 1.3 to calibrate the TV.  If you don’t have Kane’s disc, an abbreviated version of the THX® Optimizer is available on PIXAR and several other feature film Blu-ray titles to help bring your TV into some semblance of calibration.  Without such references, our individual subjective perceptions of content sources and typically less than optimum viewing environments, makes it difficult at best to adjust even the most basic settings on the fly.

Even with a calibration disc, many consumers will find the task somewhat intricate due to the expanded capability of today’s televisions to save brightness, contrast (Sony calls this ‘Picture’), hue, color temperature, sharpness, noise reduction, backlight and other picture settings, all of which are interrelated, and can be applied to a multitude of input sources, formats and even types of content.  Pile on another layer of the 46Z4100’s Advanced Settings such as Black Corrector, Advanced Contrast Enhancer (ACE), Gamma and more, the process of properly setting up your TV to deliver its best pictures is daunting.   It’s better to have them then not, but because all these pieces interrelate, putting the puzzle together can be complicated.  What usually works best is turning nearly all the special features Off to better adjust controls to set the basic grayscale, then modify Sharpness, Gamma and others to suit your preferences.

In using Kane’s Blu-ray disc, I was able to set up in the Sony 46Z4100 pretty well, and viewing real-world content, especially Blu-ray, was really quite impressive.  A nice mix of rich, not overly saturated colors, sharpness without ringing and good blacks, shadows and subtle details.  1080p24 Blu-ray content like The Dark Knight and WALL-E were startling in their clarity and beauty.  Although noticeably better on Blu-ray, the regular DVD of Pixar’s CARS still looked sharp and clean when upconverted though the Sony BD player.  The night scenes driving to California from the opening race were filled with beautiful blacks and shading along with the subtle glow of lights and neon.

What I couldn’t quite do was dial in the grayscale to what the reference was calling for.  Setting the Backlight to its minimum, using the various PLUGE patterns on DVE - HD Basics, it wasn’t possible for me to reach the right balance in brightness and contrast adjustments in order to achieve the relationships between black and white being visible in the different test patterns.  
Black Levels

Switching over to the THX Optimizer from the PIXAR WALL-E Blu-ray disc, the 46Z4100 again balked at displaying the subtle shading variations in brightness and contrast for the grayscale test patterns.  Even going back and modifying the Backlight, then Brightness & Contrast again, and experimenting with Black Corrector, ACE and other advanced controls couldn’t reach the results I was looking for.

Other drawbacks on the panel included a distinct dimness, or darkening in all four corners of the screen when displaying white, light gray or very light color screens.  Brightness, color and general picture quality drops markedly when viewing even slightly off center.  Additionally, the geometry seemed unusually skewed.  Straight on, the 46Z4100 registered perfectly on Kane’s Geometry, Pixel Phase, Overscan and other measurement patterns designed to exhibit those flaws.  When viewed at about 15 degrees or more off center there was a noticeable vertical elongation of circles.

This is a nice set, but not being able to pull the blacks in to where they should be, and the poor off-center viewing was disappointing.  At it’s original $2,800 MSRP, I’d expect more.  But at today’s closeout prices, maybe the lack of fine-tuning for grayscale performance on this grade LCD is understandable.  It’s not a fair comparison, but my reference Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD, handles all the above without breathing hard.
Regardless, even on the more stringent demonstration materials on Kane’s disc designed to reveal a range of flaws from compression artifacts, high contrast, noise, color saturation, sharpness, etc., the 46Z4100 performed very nicely indeed.  As mentioned above, real world content, including some of the most demanding available today, all faired very well on the Sony.

Flowers

Watching a variety of both 1080i and 720p High Definition television via Comcast cable (standard service includes local unscrambled HDTV through Sony’s QAM tuner) and Standard Definition programs was actually quite good.  The 46Z4100 did a respectable job displaying SD on its 1080 screen.  I typically maintain the native aspect ratio coming in, as the distortion when blowing out to simply fill the screen is not acceptable.  High Definition looked especially nice.   

Motion Processing

There are parts of this that have to be some of the more complicated, least understood and most hyped aspects of modern television technology.  It’s one of those areas that seem to make sense when first explained, but it can quickly get confusing.  Notions like film and video running at 24 and 30 frames per second, 60 field per second video, 2:3 pulldown, 3:2 pulldown, inverse telecine, judder, interlaced, progressive, high speed electronically enhanced frame rates of 60, 72, 120 and 240 Hz, frame interpolation and more.  Add the manufacturer’s various trade names for these processes (we’ll be talking about Sony’s Motionflow™ and CineMotion®) and it just about gives you a headache trying to keep it all straight.  

The purpose of all this is to overcome the technical obstacles of integrating various formats with seemingly conflicting characteristics, in order to make the moving pictures on your TV screen look as accurate and smooth as possible.  A simple concept, but the implementation is not, and is the subject of controversy and disagreement among amateurs and professionals alike.  Count me as one who gets the basics, but has to pull out the manuals and draw little pictures on the back of an envelop to understand the many intricacies that compose this black art.  
Many of the problems, typically seen as a stuttering motion or judder, blurring or smearing is due to objects moving quickly within the frame or the movement of the camera by tracking or panning are a reflection of the inherent constraints in creating media through electro-mechanical devices.  The natural world does not have a frame rate.  

Motion picture film has been exposed and projected at 24 frames per second for decades.  This frame rate was arrived at largely through a trial & error process which took both the minimum number of frames per second necessary to convey relatively smooth motion to the human brain, and the economics of purchasing and processing the amount of film stock required for production and distribution.  The previous, silent movie era standard of 18 fps left frame-to-frame motion gaps that was unacceptable, and became more so when soundtracks were added.  Much higher film frame rates have been experimented with constantly, and nearly unimaginable speeds in the millions of frames per seconds can be achieved in certain scientific settings - but that a whole other universe.  Several years ago, Douglas Trumbull (One of the special effects supervisors on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Trumbull was responsible for the slit-scan camera technique for the famous “Star Gate” sequence flying through the psychedelic colors and shapes of the universe.) developed the Showscan process.  Showscan shot 65mm film at 60 frame per second, then projected 70mm prints at 60 fps to create a greatly heightened sense of realism by capturing and playing high resolution images as such a fast frame rate.  Although not a commercial success in the theatrical market because of the prohibitively high cost, Showscan is still used for motion simulation rides and specialty applications such as theme parks, science centers, etc.

Because of the 60Hz electrical system in the United States, video was designed to run at 30 frames per second - actually, each video frame is composed of two interlaced partial frames called fields, each 1/60 of a second in duration.  The first field is labeled and ‘odd’ the second as ‘even.’  How does film’s 24 fps fit into video’s 30 fps?  The six-frame difference between 24 and 30 is accommodated through the process of playing back the film through a telecine device to record onto video.  This results in a repetitive sequence where every other frame of film being recorded onto the video as three fields instead of the normal film frame filling two fields of video.  This pattern of 1 frame of film onto 2 fields of video, then the next frame of film onto 3 video fields is repeated for the duration of the program, and is referred to a 2:3 pulldown (aka 3:2 pulldown).  To complicate things, the telecine process also introduces a mixing of different film frames within the same video frame.  Since the images are constantly moving, the very slight offset and overlapping mixing of different film frames into the same video frame, along with almost imperceptible variations in speed, typically isn’t a problem for normal viewing.  However, with the superior image quality of modern displays, a wide range of standard and high definition resolutions, combining progressive scan and interlaced media, along with specialized compression & decompression techniques to store and playback content, flaws are amplified to the point where countermeasures need to be employed.
Film Frame

There are two main categories of motion processing:  High frame rate scanning to help reduce blur and generally increase clarity, and special detection and processing of film-based material.  Sony calls these Motionflow™ and CineMotion® respectively.

The 120Hz frame rates so popular now with LCD displays is what Motionflow is about.  By repeating the number of images displayed per second, content will appear somewhat smoother with less blurring.  Of course, motion blur is part of what makes film and video seem natural, so the notion of completely eliminating blur is not completely sought after.

120Hz Motionflow is always functioning in the 46Z4100, but through the Motion Enhancer control, you can increase its effect in Standard and High modes.  When set to High, the interpolation circuit is activated which analyzes the differences in motion between two sequential frames, then reconstruct a new, intermediate frame, inserts it and play it back between the two originals, smoothing out the action.  This is similar to computer animation techniques that use “key framing” to automate the animation and rendering process.  Basically, only significant action points on a path of movement will be created as original images.  Once the behavior of the object and the surrounding elements are plotted and the various shading, gravity and other dynamics accounted for in the computer, the intermediate frames between the key frames will be generated automatically from the calculations.  The Sony 46Z4100 does something similar, actually analyzing the difference between sequential frames, then making new, intermediate frames on the fly.  Pretty amazing!  However some people may not like what is termed a smoother, more ‘video’ like result.  Compression artifacts in backgrounds can also be generated on High, depending greatly on the nature of the content material and the quality being feed into the TV.

Motion Enhancer

The rather empty, on-screen interface Sony provides for making these selections leaves much to be desired in providing information about the effects of these adjustments.  Lots of dead space!  Being able to see a representation of how the different settings impact the content you’re viewing in the moment would be a much welcome feature of the interface. 

Picture Enhancer

Even Sony’s printed instructions provides little in the way of understanding just how these features should be optimized for viewing different content sources.  It would seem the designers of the 46Z4100 user manual ran out of gas when it came to illustrating these crucial visual concepts.  Instead, they allocated their graphic budget to “Exploring Fun Features” such as Favorites, the TV Guide, instead of more clearly explaining and demonstrating elements that would most effect picture quality.

Insert the added factor of the source device, e.g., Blu-ray player, having a variety of selectable, some forced, or automatic output settings for resolution and frame rate and it’s no wonder this is one of the most complex areas to understand for consumers, and is even the subject of differing views among industry professionals.

CineMotion is more of a traditional inverse pull-down processor to better display film-based content.  The attempt here is to deconstruct, then reconstruct the mix of film frames in video fields in order to eliminate the encoded overlap and image smearing.  Again, 24 fps film transferred to 30 fps (60 fields per second) video contains built-in picture and timing flaws that CineMotion attempts to correct.  In addition to turning the pull-down OFF, there are two settings, Auto 2 and Auto 1.  Auto 1 is the suggested mode for regular use, as it is supposed to apply to a wider range of content.  TV broadcast, cable and satellite in particular can be a bewildering mishmash of film and video formats, encoding schemes, etc.  It adds more processing for a smoother picture.  Auto 2 attempts to retain the characteristics of film, so is more appropriate when assigned to sources like Blu-ray and DVD.

Some people don’t care for applying all the smoothing techniques, and finding the right combination of Motionflow and CineMotion is something of a hit & miss process, with the content and its playback source important variables.  Some of the film pull-down issues are fading away as feature films distributed on Blu-ray are being encoded in their original 24 frame per second format.  A process that began years ago with DVDs, as it is more economical to store movies at 24 fps than 30, and it is truer to the filmmaker’s vision.  With displays like the KDL-46Z4100 able to show 1080p24, a more accurate final product will be seen.  Super smooth, blur-free motion isn’t always the intent.

In viewing different combinations of Motionflow and CineMotion setting with a number of real world commercial Blu-ray and DVD titles, along with the DVE HD - Basics Blu-ray disc, I didn’t see startling differences.  Keeping the Sony BDP-S350 Blu-ray player pretty much on its “Auto” modes and connecting to the 46Z4100 through HDMI, with Motionflow and CineMotion both set to “OFF” gave me great pictures.  No doubt other content like sports coming into the TV through assorted resolutions, frame rates and inferior transport codecs would benefit from customizing those inputs with these advanced motion settings, but you’ll need to experiment with what works best.

Roolar Coaster

Admittedly, I did not have access to the FPD Benchmark Software Blu-ray disc when conducting my review.  For a more comprehensive analysis of these particular features, I’d recommend reading the November 2008 review here on AVRev of the 40” version, the KDL-40Z4100, written by Adrienne Maxwell, who goes into extensive detail on both Motionflow and CineMotion.
 
When activating Motionflow and CineMotion at their highest processing modes, I did see an additional amount of smoothing on some material, such as panning or tracking shots of vertical lines.  But, it wasn’t so compelling that I felt the need to keep those settings.  Only so much can be done trying to correct these effects, and introducing too much in the way of artificial frame processing can sometimes detract from what the viewing experience like motion blur or a “picket-fence” effect which is intended.  There’s also the factor of incorrect encoding techniques such as improper cadence detection (untangling the mixing of different 2:3 frames and fields) being embedded in the content before it reaches your TV making it a lost cause from the start.
In all the combinations of settings for Motionflow and CineMotion, I simply didn’t see significant differences when watching real world, feature film content, and even on test and calibration discs.

Special Color Processing

Consider the KDL-46Z4100 a slightly lesser version of the 2008 model of the 46XBR6, rather than an upgrade from its S, V and W non-XBR siblings.  On the outside, the 46Z4100 and 46XBR6 could be mistaken for twins, having nearly the same form factor, with only minor cosmetic differences, most noticeably the XBR6 accentuates its floating sound bar beneath the LCD panel and offers optional grill covers in four colors at an extra cost.  However, the critical similarities that couple the Z4100 and XBR6 while distinguishing them from the S, V and W models are really a powerful grouping of image processing and display technologies.  

Both have 10-bit video processing and 10-bit LCD panels, x.v.Color™, Deep Color, High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) 1.3 interface, the same BRAVIA Engine 2, WCG-CCFL Backlight, 120Hz Motionflow™, a full assortment of input/output, network and media connections and other key performance capabilities where it really counts.  The XBR6 does have better dynamic contrast ratio and adds a built-in 11-watt subwoofer (always a nice touch) to its standard audio speakers.

But a few of the most advanced features also carry some question as to their practical expression of what you’ll actually see on the screen.  Among the specifications for HDMI version 1.3-compliant equipment are the requirements to transport what is known as Deep Color and the xvYCC gamut.  

x.v.Color™ is Sony’s brand name, now being adopted by much of the industry, for the xvYCC color standard.  It is an expansion of the color spectrum that can be accurately created, processed and shown by cameras, recorders, players and display devices.  x.v.Color nearly doubles the range the sRGB gamut, or Color Space, currently being used as the reference standard for HD television.

Reference Standard
Where x.v.Color enlarges the available colors video technology can reproduce, Deep Color increases the precision which colors can be shown in a range from very saturated color to white.  This capability depends upon the contrast ratio, the number of shades of gray from black to white, that can be reproduced as a smooth ramp of dark to light without drastic changes called banding.  The greater number of shades of gray, the smoother and more natural the image will be.  Color information is then mapped onto that grayscale foundation to produce corresponding hues.  

In digital video, this smoothness or precise is determined by the bit-depth of the hardware and software used to create, transport and display the content.  Since 1-bit (a state of On or Off) = 2 colors (black and white), if the technology supports 8-bits, 256 possibilities (28 = 256), or shades of gray from black to white, are able to be generated.
Grayscale
When each of the three primary colors of Red, Green and Blue are mapped onto its own 8-bit, 256 level grayscale, the result is a palette of nearly 17 Million (256 x 256 x 256 = 16,777,216) possible colors.  Because the 8-bit depth precision is being applied to three colors, this is referred to as 24-bit color, or 24-bits per pixel and is known as True Color.  But True Color is not Deep Color. Deep Color requires at least 10-bits of precision, and as such yields four times (210 = 1024) the 256 gradations of 8-bit.  When mapped to RGB, a palette of over 1 Billion (1024 x 1024 x 1024 = 1,073,741,824) colors.

Gradation

One of the most frequent times this banding occurs on television is on shots where there are natural extremes of contrast gradations such as the sky and underwater scenes appear with distinct bands of color rather than a smooth transition from saturated to light.  Another common instance is the use of a graphic background (often gray) ramping from light to dark, typically used in commercials with an overlay of a company logo, product shot or announcing a special sale price.  
 
That's Nice, But... 

Yes, the KDL-46Z4100 has the premium video capabilities of 10-bit processing combined with a 10-bit LCD panel, x.v. Color and Deep Color - all able to be transported over the HDMI 1.3 path.  The issue is that except for the new Advanced Video Coding High Definition (AVCHD), a version of H.264/MPEG-4 video compression, camcorders and some new Sony Playstation 3 video games being developed, there is NO readily available consumer content being produced with 10-bit, x.v.Color or Deep Color specifications.

Even Blu-ray discs are mastered in a highly compressed 8-bit color space, and there certainly are no high definition television programs available OTA, cable or satellite in a format better than 8-bit.  Don’t hold your breath in waiting for special 10-bit, x.v.Color, Deep Color Blu-ray discs or Internet streaming/downloads.  The increased storage and bitrate throughput required won’t be tackled anytime soon by the manufacturers, studios or carriers.

So what exactly is the point of having all this advanced video capability when the likelihood of those technologies ever encountering content that merits their existence is slim to none?  Does 10-bit, x.v. Color and Deep Color make 8-bit, sRGB, True Color look better?  Questionable.  Off hand, probably not, but I haven’t seen side-by-side tests.  Having the extra horsepower may be useful in assuring that the content that does enter the system looks as good as possible by at least maintaining the incoming quality coming without possibly being degraded.  But it’s not magic, and won’t transform highly banded content into smooth.

It does provide some measure of future-proofing as compression/decompression (codecs) formats improve, allowing advanced standards such as x.v. Color or Deep Color to actually be stored on media, transmitted and sent to your screen via HDMI 1.3.  There may also be some advances in online content delivery that would benefit.  However, 10-bit (30-bits-per-pixel), Deep and x.v.Color capability (aka 30, 36 and 48-bits-per-pixel) in your TV doesn’t guarantee you won’t see a banding effect, as those artifacts might be there already.  The original source material being feed into the system itself may be flawed to begin with, or it could be poorly encoded, or artifacts introduced during transmission before reaching your equipment.

Although the original material for feature films and other HD content is typically captured, edited and processed with professional equipment as uncompressed 10-bit, 12-bit or 16-bit in 2K, 4K and even up to 8K workflows (required for the IMAX scenes in The Dark Knight), high definition content currently delivered to consumers through broadcast, cable, satellite and Blu-ray movies is still encoded as highly compressed 8-bit video with AVC, VC-1 and MPEG-2 codecs.  This is required for smaller file sizes to store the content and much lower throughput bit rates consumer equipment is designed to accommodate.

OK - so, if my WALL-E or The Dark Knight Blu-ray discs are only 8-bit, with no realistic expectation there will be 10-bit BD or other consumer content anytime soon, why should I care if the TV has 10-bit video processing with a 10-bit panel, or whether the Blu-ray players can output x.v.Color and Deep Color?  Numerous Blu-ray players currently offer the ability to “upscale” 8-bit content to these advanced color profile, similarly to how they take 480i DVD-Video and convert it to 1080p.  10-bit players, interface pipelines and displays won’t magically clean up 8-bit which is already compromised, either being present in the master material, introduced during the workflow from capture into an editing system, encoding for distribution and perhaps re-encoded along a transmission path.  Consider it a “Do no harm” type of insurance policy.  The expanded palette offered by x.v. Color and increased precision of Deep Color in newer Blu-ray players and displays is only possible with 10-bit (or better) processing, and if the final piece of the chain, the display, only has 8-bit video processing and an 8-bit panel, the superior quality of x.v. and Deep Color will not be delivered.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve always liked Sony televisions and have owned several models, plus have used many of their professional standard and high definition CRTs over the years.  After dropping its plasma line a couple years ago to first focus on LCDs, Sony has made impressive strides.  Much of the overly sharp, edgy quality LCDs had early on has been mitigated through advances in the core technology, but also through higher frame rates and special motion processing.  Truly deep blacks still elude the Z4100 series, but it is a model position somewhere in the high-middle of Sony’s product offerings, so one shouldn’t expect the very best.

The 46Z4100 is beyond versatile in terms of media format input capabilities.  It’s getting close to being the central hub for audio, video and computer integration, and the addition of BRAVIA Link Modules connected through the DMeX port only enhances that potential.  The sound system is only average.

The on screen user interface works pretty well, but could use a touch-up to enable swifter navigation to the specific settings menus you want.  Luckily, once the primary viewing settings have been made, there are enough direct buttons or short cuts on the remote control that permit quick access to a variety of adjustments you’d make when watching.  People demand them and there are a lot of options on this TV.  With that, there is a limit as to how simple the selection of those choices and operations can be made.

All in all, the KDL-46Z4100 is a terrific LCD TV.  Considering it is last year’s model, but can be had at closeout pricing of half its original $2,800 MSRP (which is also what the new 46” Z5100 retails for), while containing near all the same features, makes it a real bargain.  A curious note is that the new 2009 Z5100 series does NOT include x.v.Color.  That feature is now exclusively with the XBR LCDs.  So, in addition to getting a great deal, you’ll have a set with features only available from Sony’s upper tier.





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