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Our first Sony of 2014 is kind of a big deal. Although the company is pressing boldly towards the next step in television tech with three new 4K TV series, it also has a fancy new lineup of high-end regular HD televisions.
Thus, if you aren't quite ready for the ultra-high-def future yet, Sony has you covered: The KDL-55W950B (MSRP $1,999.99) is the company's flagship LED HDTV, and a direct successor to last year's Sony W900A. The fancy new W950B series competes with top-of-the-line 2014 LED HDTVs and ships in 55- and 65-inch varieties.
While the price tag is serious, the performance is too. Testing revealed a contrast ratio that didn't wow us, but in medium ambient lighting, this Sony really shines. Expect extremely accurate colors, a perfect white balance, and nearly flawless out-of-the-box calibration. Pile on Sony's expansive software and improved 2014 smart platform and you've got an extremely viable option in the W950B. Oh, and that's to say nothing of the design: Talk about a handsome suit.
For an edge-lit LED TV, the Sony KDL-55W950B fosters a very solid picture. Testing revealed a palatable black level, accurate colors, and nearly perfect sub-pixel balance.
To put it in more digestible terms, this Sony is a powerhouse performer that requires practically no calibration.
In the TV's Cinema 1 picture mode, for example, users can expect a brightness level that's already perfect for theater lighting, replete with vibrate hues and a perfect white balance throughout the grayscale. Movie lovers, take note.
If you're an avid gamer or a sports fan, the W950B is a friend to you, too. In the TV's Game mode under Scene Select, we tested a very minimal amount of input lag, meaning on-screen game elements will respond to controller inputs almost instantly. The W950B also handles all but the most intense motion sequences deftly. Between its natural efficacy, and the on-board Cinemotion and Motionflow interpolation modes, there's almost always a proper setting for whatever you're watching.
The W950B does have a hardware issue that dragged down its score some, however. The perimeter LEDs that allow it to be very bright and thin also tend to bleed light into black bars during letterbox or 4:3 content. It's not as much of a problem with the backlight set to minimum, or in a brighter room, but home theater owners will definitely notice uniformity issues.
Finally, the most disappointing thing about this TV is its contrast ratio. The excellent color performance I described previously is made possible by mitigated light output—and that can create a slightly flat-looking picture at times. To maintain the integrity of the black levels, the Backlight must be kept to lower levels. If you raise the Backlight too much, it brightens areas of shadow, making the TV less suitable for dim or dark settings. This is the W950B's biggest (and only) flaw, and it means that this TV (like most LED LCD displays) is best suited to bright or medium-lit rooms.
Once you've built the KDL-55W950B, the first thing you'll notice is its unibody appearance and unusual pronged feet. The screen is supported by two sets of feet that screw into the far ends of the TV, and the entire rig looks like one solid piece of metal and glass.
The W950B's new "Wedge" design is meanwhile both unique and naturally tip-resistant: The TV is thickest at the bottom, and slowly thins out towards the top. It's a standalone, modern look that most people will probably enjoy. Just be aware that the very wide stance of the TV's "feet" might not work with your TV stand. We can normally fit TVs as large as 65 inches onto our media stand, since they're normally supported by a single, central pedestal—but the W950B's wide stance overreached our table.
Fortunately, the design doesn't bar the W950B from the possibility of wall-mounting. Wherever you place it, though, make sure you leave room to access the video ports—there's a lot of them.
On the back of the TV, you'll find two analog audio inputs, a hybrid component/composite input, a LAN (ethernet) in, and one digital audio output port. Sony includes plenty of side-mounted ports, too: a subwoofer out, another audio out, three USB 2.0 ports, four HDMI inputs, a headphone jack, an RF (cable/satellite) jack, IR out, and an RS-232c input. The HDMI inputs are MHL (mobile high-definition link) and ARC (audio return channel) capable.
Sony throws a lot of extras into the package, too. Alongside the panel and stand, you'll get two remote controls: The first is the standard kind—a long black wand with lots of buttons, and the second one—new for this year—sports a touchpad. We've seen similar ones on high-end TVs from Samsung and Panasonic, and we're happy to see Sony catch up. The new touch controller also houses buttons for "Home," "Sony Entertainment Network," and "Social."
Last but not least, you'll find two pairs of 3D glasses, an IR blaster, a warranty card, AA batteries, and operating instructions. Sony even throws in a free pair of in-ear headphones to use with the TV's headphone jack. The cherry on top? A webcam at the very top of the TV hooks up for all your Skyping needs. The device is removable if it offends your sense of style, but Sony does a solid with the design.
The high-end W950B is naturally a 3D-capable smart TV, and it's equipped with Sony's newest smart platform. Last year's version was a mixed bag. The 2014 iteration is already looking much more user-friendly.
The new SEN (Sony Entertainment Network) is broken up into four pages: Movies, Album, Music, and Apps. Pressing the "SEN" key on the remote drops you into the Apps page, where widgets for a handful of pre-installed items are displayed along the left side of the screen. Featured apps include Sony's Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited, and PlayMemories, plus Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and Hulu Plus.
There's also a large "My Apps" box. The "plus" icon loads a page with all of the pre-installed selections. Some of the apps here are quite welcome—the rest are shovelware. They range from Bollywood to Slacker radio, and there's also the usual, horrible flash games.
The Movies tab features selected picks from Video Unlimited, Crackle, and files shared via USB or DLNA. There are also smaller links for Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. The Music tab is almost identical, offering up Music Unlimited, VEVO, and USB/DLNA content.
Finally, the Album tab serves as a stand-in for Sony's PlayMemories online photo album, which allows the user to create an account online and upload photos or videos to Sony's cloud service. Kind of like Microsoft's OneDrive, the content can then be accessed through the Album tab—assuming you've signed up for a SEN (Sony Entertainment Network) or a PSN (PlayStation Network) account first.
As for the non-smart software? It's still a tad confusing for non-Sony users, but offers a fleshed out array of settings nonetheless. Pressing the options button will bring you to a smart, transparent menu that fixes to the right side of the screen.
Here, you'll find sub-menus for "Scene Select," "Picture Adjustments," "Wide Mode," and "Sound Adjustments." The Scene Select menu lets the user select from archetypes that affect the TV's overall performance: Auto, Auto (24p Sync), General, Cinema, Sports, Music, Animation, Photo, Game, and Graphics. Within each setting, the minutia of picture and audio modes are adjusted automatically to suit performance.
However, the real meat-and-potatoes settings for picture enthusiasts and DIY calibrators are in the "Picture Adjustments" menu. This menu is where hobbyists can find adjustments for Backlight, Contrast, Brightness, Color, and Hue. You know—the basics.
Sony includes a ton of more specific sub-menus, too: Noise Reduction, MPEG Noise Reduction, Dot Noise Reduction, Reality Creation, Smooth Gradation, Motionflow, and CineMotion. And that doesn't even include the Advanced Settings menu, which contains toggles for Black Corrector, Advanced Contrast Enhancer, Gamma, LED dimming, Auto Light Limiter, Clear White, Live Color, White Balance, Detail Enhancer, Edge Enhancer, and Skin Naturalizer. Adjust at your own risk, folks.
Finally, you'll also find menus for Twin Picture, which includes side-by-side or picture-in-picture setup, Sleep Timer, Notification Settings (to turn smart notifications on/off), a control menu for the indicator LED below the screen, 3D adjustments, a slider for headphone volume, and a menu for any external speakers connected to the TV.
The W950B is truly stuffed to the gills with features, abilities, and ways to personalize your viewing and audio experience. Sony fans will probably be right at home—and pleased by the cleaned-up, streamlined look, too. Newcomers may be a little overwhelmed at first, but the learning curve is shallow, and the attention to detail is well worth the time it takes to figure things out.
The Sony KDL-55W950B has a lot going for it: a sleek, modern appearance, snappy smart features, and some of the best picture quality we're likely to see from an edge-lit LED TV this year. For $2,000, you could do a lot worse than a 55-inch TV that comes with stunning design, 3D glasses, headphones, and a webcam. Barring some issues with uniformity and contrast, the picture here is perfect.
That's not to say the W950B doesn't have some competition, though. So far this year, we've seen competitive entries in the form of the Samsung H6350 (55 inch for $1,399); the Panasonic AS530U (55 inch for $999); and Vizio's E-Series (55 inch for $729.99).
If you just want a solid picture, you should check out one of those cheaper options—just don't expect flawless performance right out of the box like on this Sony. Either way, the W950B wins the race when it comes to looks, advanced software options, and high-end flourishes like 3D and webcam functionality. Consumers looking for posh presentation and solid picture quality should therefore keep this Sony on their radars.
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