Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800 LCD TV £1350
12th Nov 2009 | 10:30
Sony's first 40-inch LCD TV with built-in Freesat tuner is a stunner
Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800: Overview
Although the current recession might have given many of the big names in AV quite a battering over the past 18 months, one name at least seems to have not only survived relatively unscathed but actually potentially benefited from the hard times: Freesat.
The BBC/ITV-led, free-to-air satellite broadcasting system, complete with a couple of HD channels, has attracted people to its service far faster than the vast majority of industry analysts – and us, to be honest – ever predicted.
The latest figures show a viewer base of 600,000 households as of September 2009, with a 50 per cent growth occurring in the quarter leading up to the release of that figure.
At the same time, Sky has for once struggled to meet its latest subscriber target, limping towards its desire for 10 million subscribers by the end of the year (and probably failing to reach it), rather than charging over the target line with months to spare as it often has before.
These facts, together with anecdotal evidence from many of our own friends and relatives, leads us to suspect that as the recession has bitten harder, more and more people have ditched Sky's subscription service in favour of the subs-free Freesat offering. Especially as they can use their existing Sky dish to get it.
All of which suggests that Sony's timing with its 40-inch KDL-40Z5800 couldn't be better. For this model is the very first TV from Sony to feature a built-in Freesat HD tuner, following in the footsteps of numerous Freesat models from Panasonic and a couple of models from LG.
Actually, we're kind of surprised that the 40Z5800 didn't arrive in the UK sooner.
After all, Panasonic has been making Freesat TVs for well over a year now, while LG's F7700 models came out as far back as March.
Panasonic had an initial exclusive deal with Freesat that explains some of the delay in Sony getting its Freesat finger out, but we can only hope that the time it's taken since Panasonic's deal ran out around the turn of the year is down to Sony wanting to make sure that its Freesat debut is something a bit special.
Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800: Features
We'd kind of imagined that Sony would have wanted to announce its Freesat debut with some kind of grand design statement.
So it comes as a surprise – and something of a disappointment – to discover that Sony has merely dressed the 40Z5800 in the same smoky grey colour scheme, glassy finish and slender bezel as the brand's Z5500 TV range – a TV range with which, as we'll discover, the 40Z5800 has much in common.
On the upside, the Z5500 models are, for our money, the most attractive TVs Sony has done for a while, though, so at least the 40Z5800 has chosen the right 'stock' to base its look on.
The 40Z5800's connections broadly mirror those of the Z5500s too, meaning you get such goodies as four HDMIs, a USB port able to play video, photo and music files, and an Ethernet port for accessing files on a PC or Sony's Applicast online service.
But the 40Z5800 also features, of course, one notable addition: a port for attaching a satellite feed.
As usual, if you already have a dish installed that used to point at Sky, all you have to do is attach one of the LNB feeds coming from that dish to the TV and bob's your uncle: you're ready to 'go' Freesat.
If you don't have an old Sky dish set up, though, then you need to be aware that 'Freesat' doesn't quite live up to its name. For you'll have to get a dish installed, which will cost you around £80 on top of the TV's price.
Given that the 40Z5800 already costs the not inconsiderable sum of £1,350, we wouldn't have thought this extra £80 would be a deal breaker for most people.
But if it is, you will doubtless be chuffed to know that at the time of writing, you can reduce the 40Z5800's price by £100 by trading in your current TV in at participating stores before 29 November.
More than just Freesat
Getting back to the TV rather than the story surrounding it, we were intrigued to discover during setup that the satellite tuner inside the Z5800 isn't only geared up for Freesat.
For we were given the option of installing Freesat channels or doing a simple DVB-S scan, with the latter bringing in any free to air channels (many of them foreign language ones) available from the satellites your dish is pointing at. However, you can't use Freesat and DVB-S simultaneously. It's one or the other.
The Freesat package currently offers more than 140 TV and radio channels. So obviously you're going to need an electronic programme guide to 'surf' them.
It has to be said that the one used by the 40Z5800 doesn't do anything very exciting – it's just a long list of channels, really, with their programmes presented in clear white text on grey background boxes.
Still, while in an ideal world the picture of the channel you were watching when you chose the EPG would continue to play in a small box while you browsed the listings, the 40Z5800's efforts to put your huge new channel collection into some kind of order work reasonably effectively and quickly.
There's none of the sluggishness noted with LG's Freesat EPG, for instance.
While Sony might not have gone to town in design terms for its Freesat debut, it has made sure that the Freesat tuner is far from the 40Z5800's only claim to fame. For the set also has a number of features on board to do with its picture processing.
For instance, as well as Sony's latest Bravia Engine 3 video system, it enjoys 200Hz processing – and this is 'real' 200Hz, where the image actually does refresh 200 times a second, rather than being something that relies on a combination of 100Hz and a scanning backlight, as happens with many rivals' 200Hz systems.
The only moan we would make about the 40Z5800's 200Hz approach is that it only features High, Standard and off settings; there's not the same flexibility in customising its activities that you get with Samsung's 200Hz models.
Other smaller but still notable little bits and bobs among the 40Z5800's onscreen menus are separate MPEG and 'standard' noise reduction routines, a black correction system, Sony's Live Colour engine for boosting colour saturations, and a reasonable degree of gamma adjustment.
To conclude this section, we need to talk for a moment about its online functionality. First of all, it's a shame that there's no Wi-Fi support on the 40Z5800, given that Samsung's online TVs allow a wireless connection via an optional USB dongle, and Philips' online TVs have full Wi-Fi connectivity built-in as standard.
Also aggravating is the current lack of any really meaningful content on Sony's AppliCast online service.
All you've got, essentially, are a few downloadable photos you can use as screensavers via the TV's PhotoFrame mode, an onscreen clock, an onscreen calculator, weather reports, and a few news stories, mostly to do with Sony's own products! Here's hoping we start to see this service being expanded considerably sometime soon.
Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800: Ease of use
The 40Z5800's onscreen menus use the icon-heavy, double-axis system we've seen on a number of previous Sony TVs – and it's a system we generally like, aside from the fact that it takes a little getting used to when you first get the TV.
The remote control is a pleasant enough device for the most part, with our only niggle being that the circle within a circle design at the remote's heart can lead to a few wrong button presses, especially if you're using the remote in the dark.
We also found ourselves a little confused initially about which digital tuner we were watching – Freeview or Freesat – at any given moment. The onscreen labelling should definitely be more helpful in this regard. But again, this potential for source confusion reduced over time, as we got to know our way around the TV better.
Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800: Picture quality
The best way to sum up the 40Z5800's pictures is to say that they're seemingly the same as those of the 46Z5500 we tested recently, minus that larger TV's noticeable backlight consistency problems. Which is another way of saying that the 40Z5800's pictures are for the most part really bloody good.
The 200Hz engine, for instance, does a really quite excellent job of tackling LCD technology's problems with motion blur and judder, achieving a strikingly – but crucially not excessively – smooth picture while generating precious few unwanted side effects.
In fact, if you set the MotionFlow system to Standard rather than high, you'll be hard pushed to notice any glitches at all – even though the picture still looks markedly more fluid and clean than it does with the system turned off altogether.
This motion clarity is joined by some extravagant sharpness when showing HD sources – this has long been a strength of Bravia LCD TVs, and it's given added emphasis here by the extra motion clarity caused by the 200Hz system.
Bravia Engine 3 has also proved highly successful in rescaling standard definition pictures to full HD screens, so it's no surprise to find the 40Z5800's standard def pictures combining sharpness with a relative lack of video noise.
Next, there's the sheer dynamism of the 40Z5800's pictures, as some impressively deep black levels sit side by side with searingly rich colours and pure, bright whites in a way seldom seen outside of the plasma or, especially, LED-backlit worlds. What's more, as noted earlier, there's no evidence that we could see of the distractingly different backlight levels in the picture's corners spotted with Sony's 46Z5500.
Whether this is a result simply of the 40Z5800 using a smaller panel than the 46Z5500 or reflects some improvements to Sony's manufacturing processes is currently impossible to say – so if you're thinking of buying a 46Z5800, try and check one out before you buy.
The only issues we have with the 40Z5800's pictures, really, are 1) that many of its presets are none too clever, requiring extensive calibration, 2) that the viewing angle is a little limited and 3) that the automatic backlight system can occasionally look a touch too obvious.
But these really don't amount to much versus all the good the TV does.
We should probably finish this section by saying that actually, there's nothing specific we need to say about the 40Z5800's Freesat pictures. They come out just as well through the TV's various picture processing bits and bobs as those of the Freeview tuner – except, of course, when they're HD and thus a million times better than Freeview!
Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800: Sound quality and value
Pictures as strong and dynamic as those delivered by the 40Z5800 clearly deserve to be partnered by equally potent audio. But unfortunately the 40Z5800's speakers seldom if ever rise above a fundamentally average level of performance, mostly thanks to the way a core lack of power prevents the TV from filling your room with an immersive soundstage.
Instead sound seems to become trapped inside the TV during heavy duty action scenes, as the speakers turn in on themselves to avoid distortion rather than opening up to meet the challenge.
While disappointing on such an otherwise high-powered TV, though, this audio state of affairs is hardly unique on TVs with extremely slim bezels.
It's impossible to ignore the fact that there are much cheaper Freesat TVs available from Panasonic and LG. But then the 40Z5800 does go some distance to justifying its cost with its online functionality, good multimedia support, 'real' 200Hz engine and, above all, its terrific picture quality.
Sony Bravia KDL-40Z5800: Verdict
Although it would be nice to see Sony sticking a Freesat tuner into a much more affordable TV at some point soon, there's no doubt that the 40Z5800 is a fearsomely talented statement of future Freesat intent – and as such it actually just about manages to justify its cost to anyone with sufficient readies at their disposal.
For the most part, Sony has integrated its Freesat tuner into what's essentially an existing TV chassis (the Z5500 range) really well. All the Freesat-related functions work slickly and efficiently, and the pictures from the Freesat tuner are outstanding.
In fact, the 40Z5800's picture quality with all sources, but especially Blu-ray, ranges consistently from very good to truly outstanding, as Sony's Bravia Engine 3 and 200Hz systems come together to spectacular effect.
With Panasonic and especially Philips both proving at the moment that it's possible to get good sound out of slim TVs, we'd really like to see Sony improving in this area for its next round of Freesat TVs.
We also found shifting between the TV's Freeview and Freesat digital tuners a rather confusing business at times.
The Applicast online system is currently impoverished too, and finally, as is so often the case with LCD TVs, we have to point out that if you're likely to have to watch the 40Z5800 from much of an angle, you're going to have to put up with a picture that loses a distressing amount of of contrast and colour saturation.
So you'd probably be better going for one of Panasonic's plasma-based Freesat TVs instead, as plasma technology is much more forgiving of wide viewing angles.
Despite carrying a slightly high price tag that inevitably forces us to look more keenly at its failings, the 40Z5500 remains overall a really terrific TV thanks to the way it combines the clutter-busting appeal of the built-in Freesat tuner with a totally uncompromising stack of picture processing which results in some of the very finest picture quality yet seen from an LCD TV.