Sony XBR-55X900B 4K LED TV Review
Great for music, not-so-great for movies
The Sony XBR055X900B (MSRP $3,999.99) is a 55-inch 4K (UHD) TV that boasts serious pixels and huge built-in speakers.
The X900B lives just below Sony's excellent X950B 4K flagship in the company's lineup; the chief difference between the two is that this Sony lacks the flagship model's full-array backlight.
Unfortunately, in an effort to capture the dynamic performance of a full-array model, the X900B wields software dimming and contrast enhancement that disrupts the quality of its picture. Leaving these software settings on results in a heavily affected picture with lots of glossed-over details, while turning them off strips the TV of its strongest feature: dynamic range.
If you're shopping in this price range and willing to spend a little more, there are better 4K options that take a subtler approach. Right now, you can find Samsung's curved, 65-inch HU9000 or Panasonic's 65-inch AX800U both for $4,500 online.
A decent picture that's hindered by well-meaning software
When I reviewed Sony's X950B 4K flagship earlier this year, I found it to be an excellent performer with lots of hardware-level attention to detail. That X950B's full-array backlight, for example, makes use of a finely tuned dimming algorithm to create deep, impressive blacks and bright whites that don't interfere with the TV's motion, middle-tone luminance, or color production.
Why the long exposition? Because the X900B wields similar enhancements, called Dynamic Contrast, Live Color, and LED Dynamic Control, with the aim of making up for its hardware shortcomings (read: edge-lit LED backlight) via software processing. Unfortunately, these enhancements take a heavy-handed approach that mars the integrity of high-quality content like Blu-ray discs and HD streams. While turning these settings off reduces some of the errors they cause, the result is detrimental to the TV's performance in areas that were otherwise strong suits.
For example, measurements in the X900B's Movie mode revealed stronger dynamic performance than average for an edge-lit LED TV. The TV's deep black levels and bright luminance owe much of their integrity to the Dynamic Contrast and LED Dynamic Control settings, however, which boost dynamic performance in local areas on screen. Mid-tone picture areas are affected negatively by these settings, though, and tend to grow either artificially dark or artificially bright under the guidance of the software's dimming algorithm. When those settings are turned off, the mid-tone areas improve, but the black levels and highlights lose some of their otherwise impressive darkness and brightness, respectively.
If there's one thing that edge-lit TVs like the X900B tend to struggle with, it's screen uniformity and edge blooming. Alas, this is another "pick your poison" situation. Enabling the software enhancement creates evenly lit full-field black and dark gray uniformity, while turning it off reveals visible areas of backlight at the edges of the picture. Most of these issues are naturally more pronounced while you're watching the TV in a dark or dim environment—with the lights on or windows open, it's not as bothersome.
The X900B performed well in other categories. With the Live Color setting enabled, the TV expands production (especially red and green) to create a more saturated, vibrant color palette that greatly benefits newer movies and nature documentaries. With Live Color turned off, the X900B matches ideal color standards for current content, giving it some welcome flexibility.
Finally, what about those giant speakers on either side of the screen? Each speaker set adds a sub-woofer and a tweeter for bass and treble respectively, drastically expanding upon the usual audio capabilities found in a modern TV. If you're listening to audiophile audio files or playing a Blu-ray with 5.1-channel support, the audio quality is well above average, projecting with plenty of volume and clarity. Streaming content off of Hulu or Netflix doesn't net this advantage, though, which is disappointing if streaming is your primary source for content consumption.
Loud and proud
The X900B is not a TV to be taken lightly in the looks department; unlike most modern LED TVs, it's not afraid to go big and boisterous. This TV's "Wedge" design is the key to its most stand-out feature: huge side-mounted speakers that stack up vertically on either side of the screen.
The "Wedge" shape is what makes this TV's front-facing tweeter/subwoofer combos possible. The X900B is thicker at the bottom, giving the subs room to move, and slowly tapers into thinner territory from the bottom up. The whole panel/speaker combo rounds out into black bezels that are end-capped by smooth metal fixtures. These silver fixtures transfer almost seamlessly into two pronged feet that serve as the TV's stand.
Aesthetically, the addition of the side-mounted speakers is bound to elicit a mix of praise and scorn from consumers. You can't remove the speakers and there's no way to cover them up; like it or not, you're stuck with them. There's also something to be said for permanent speakers installed on a $4,000 TV: It's likely that many consumers shopping in this price range have already invested in some kind of external audio solution.
I'm a fan of the TV's looks, but almost all of my co-workers found the speakers to be ugly or unsightly. The X900B's appearance won't appeal to fans of minimalist design, that's for sure. The TV seems to shout to the room, "Look! I'm a big screen with big speakers! Watch me, listen to me!" If you enjoy attention-seeking tech like Alienware's glowing LED keyboards, you'll probably love the X900B.
Utility elements, like the audio/video connections, live in covered areas accessible by removing two plastic panels. Sony includes four side-facing HDMI inputs, two composite inputs (one hybrid component), three USB 2.0 inputs, a coaxial jack for cable/antenna connection, analog, digital, headphone, and subwoofer audio outputs, ethernet (LAN) in, and an RS-232c control port. Two of the HDMI inputs support MHL (Micro High-Definition Link) for mobile device playback, and one is a dedicated ARC (Audio Return Channel).
Sony includes a slew of extra goodies alongside the X900B, too. Like most of Sony's high-end 2014 models, the X900B includes two different remote controls. The first is the usual infrared companion, stuffed full of buttons like volume/channel rockers and a number pad. The second remote is smaller, about the size of a mouse, and is geared specifically to make smart TV tasks (like web browsing) a less frustrating experience. You'll also find two pairs of 3D glasses, a port replicator, and an IR blaster.
Smart, but a little self-centered
Compared to Samsung's Smart Hub and LG's webOS, the Sony Entertainment Network (the name for the X900B's collective smart features) doesn't break any molds. It's a great choice if you're already invested into Sony's content ecosystem, however.
The Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) is broken into multiple tabs: Movies (for video content); Album (for photo content); Music, Apps, and a new addition, PlayStation Now. The highlight of each section is a proprietary Sony service, primarily cloud-based content providers like Sony's Video Unlimited or Music Unlimited.
Purchasing the X900B earns you a small but breathtaking selection of content from popular photo forum 500px, and of course all of the top-tier apps are here: Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video. There's plenty of shovelware to wade through on your search for quality apps, but fortunately most of the major content providers are pre-installed—the remote even has a dedicated Netflix button.
Like most of Sony's high-end TVs, the menu software presents a bit of a learning curve. The full suite of picture pre-sets, like "Cinema," "General," or "Game," live in a sub-menu called Scene Select that's separate from the Picture and Audio sub-menus, and can be tricky to find if it's your first rodeo. These so-called scenes are a mix of picture and audio settings meant to complement a specific kind of content, like film-based movies, video games, or even music playback.
Despite cries for reform on the calibration side of the industry, Sony still doesn't include access to a CMS (Color Management System).
Professionals and hobbyists will still find 2-point white balance controls, a gamma slider, and multiple motion compensation settings in a menu called Motionflow. In the advanced picture menu, you'll find controls for the X900B's software-based local dimming, as well as dynamic contrast and color space toggles.
There's no doubt that the X900B's smart features and software options are extensive and well-tailored, but they're also not a major reason to invest in this TV.
It makes a strong effort, but this TV doesn't live up to its price tag.
Four-grand is a lot to spend on a 55-inch TV, even one of the 4K (UHD) variety. The XBR-55X900B has a few strong performance points—including its huge, side-mounted speakers and next-generation color abilities—but at the end of the day is still only an edge-lit LED parading a premium price tag.
What's most disappointing is that the X900B would be an excellent contender if only its Dynamic Contrast/LED Dynamic Control software were a little less aggressive. While those settings are enabled, the TV tends to push on-screen elements in two different directions: either too dark or too bright. The result is a lot of detail loss, which is especially notable during playback of native 4K content. Turn those settings off, and much of this TV's otherwise laudable uniformity and dynamic range is lost to the bright LEDs that line the sides of the screen.
Unless you absolutely can't stand the idea of setting up a soundbar, sound plate, or traditional surround system, there's not much reason to invest in the X900B instead of cheaper 4Ks like Panasonic's 58-inch AX800U or Samsung's 55-inch HU8550, both about $2,000 online.
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