Sony KD-55X9005A £3299
26th Nov 2013 | 14:19
Awesome 4K and great Blu-ray upscaling, but it's audio and 3D that make this 4K TV shine
Ultra HD is an expensive hobby. However, after a year or so of extortionate five-figure sums being bandied around, the new 4K format is finally beginning to slip from the bracket marked 'footballer' to one with a slightly less salubrious 'AV enthusiast' tag.
At the vanguard is this 55-incher, which has received an almost immediate price drop from £4,000 to £3,299, thanks to Toshiba's decision to sell its own 58-inch attempt at 4K for a mere £2,999.
With a screen that measures 55-inches in the diagonal, the KD-55X9005A is just about big enough - in our humble opinion - to make the best of Ultra HD sources (not that there are many of them). However, the KD-55X9005A has got something that rival Ultra HD TVs don't have; amazing speakers.
Boasting a 2.2-channel sound system - with two subwoofers on the rear and what Sony calls its Magnetic Fluid Speakers on each flank - the KD-55X9005A is quite something. It takes us back to the early days of flatscreen TVs, when clip-on speakers were common, and underlines that sound is at least as important as resolution in any attempt at high-end home cinema.
However, from a visual point of view we're not convinced that it works.
Firstly, why are there no grilles on the speakers? The inner rims - all done out in shiny gloss black plastic - tend to catch the light and can be a tad distracting. There's also the strong possibility that anyone with the money to spend on this telly will already have a better sound system at home.
We're also a little worried about the width they add to the already rather large footprint of the KD-55X9005A; though the bezel on the top and bottom measure just 23mm, they stretch to 127mm on each end. It makes the entire product stretch to 146cm, which is 22cm wider than Sony's non-4K range-topper, the 55-inch KDL-55W905A.
Certainly don't plan to swap-out even a 50-inch telly installed in a corner for the KD-55X9005A - it's so much wider. It's also worth considering that the KD-55X9005A has a completely circular stand that increases the depth from around 100mm (it's 58mm without the bulging subwoofers) to 405mm. The KD-55X9005A is beautiful, but it's big.
Aside from its headline-grabbing 3840x2160 pixels - which create about four times the resolution of a regular Full HD telly - the KD-55X9005A uses a Sony-tweaked LED panel called Triluminos.
However, in the absence of any native Ultra HD fare, the KD-55X9005A's key technology is perhaps its 4K X-Reality PRO upscaling.
But things are looking up for Ultra HD fans. Although our review sample of the KD-55X9005A came with a mini-computer that hosts Ultra HD clips, the company also sells its stop-gap Sony FMP-X1 4K Ultra HD Media Player for the brand's X900A Series of Ultra HDTVs, though it's only sold in the US (for US$699, which includes 10 pre-loaded films in 4K).
Sony looks to be covering all bases with its recent announcement that its Video Unlimited service - available on the KD-55X9005A through its Sony Entertainment Network - will soon stream native 4K content.
Besides, the wider AV industry soon seems set to welcome a new Blu-ray format at January's CES exhibition in Las Vegas. Blu-ray Ultra, per chance? If it does come, the owners of the KD-55X9005A will be in pole position.
The 55-inch KD-55X9005A we have in our glare is surely as close to an everyman TV as Ultra HD gets at the moment.
At £2,300 it's got a big price tag, but consider the alternatives: Sony also sells the 65-inch KD-65X9005A, for £6,000, and the quite disgustingly big 84-inch Sony KD-84X9005. That particular slice of opulence will set you back £25,000 - and you'll need to add the world's biggest living room, too. Relatively speaking, the KD-55X9005A is a compromise product par excellence.
Is the KD-55X9005A packed with all-new tech ripe for a new era in TV? There's certainly some tweaked software on board as well as that 3840x2160 pixel panel, but there's plenty of familiar technology - and some familiar problems, too.
The KD-55X9005A uses an LED-backlit LCD panel - complete with local dimming - and Sony's own Triluminous technology, which sees white LEDs banished in favour of blue with an accompanying array of quantum dots good for green and red light.
So, exactly how advanced is that 4K resolution? Squeezing in those 8,294,400 pixels on a 55-inch panel is no mean feat, though the maximum image is 'only' eight megapixels.
It's four times that of a Full HDTV - itself capable of a maximum two-megapixel image - but the pixel density still doesn't compare with what you'll see on most smartphones. Take those promises of 'like looking through a window' and chuck them out the door; 4K is an evolution, not a revolution.
That said, the KD-55X9005A produces a stunning image from native 4K footage, though it's also being touted as the answer to the 3D 'problem'.
The KD-55X9005A plays in the 'passive' 3D arena - therefore using an LG-made panel, no doubt - and ships with four pair of super-lightweight specs.
The way passive 3D tech works cuts out half of the resolution, which is a big problem on Full HD TVs; here, that sacrifice is far less noticeable. The 3D specs in question are Sony's TDG-500P, which cost an improbable £9 each, though the ones still in your coat pocket from the last 3D film you saw in the cinema will do just as well. SimulView - aka 2D dual full-screen gaming - requires Sony's TDG-SV5 specs.
Ins and outs on the KD-55X9005A are generous, varied, and all on the TV's left-hand side (as you view it). A lower side panel on the rear of the corner offers two USB slots, while just above and further in is a cut-out featuring a single HDMI, a third USB, a headphones jack and a Common Interface slot. Slightly bizarrely, there's a second HDMI slot on its own near to a fourth connections panel - this time down-facing - that includes the third and fourth HDMI slots and feeds for its built-in Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners.
A fifth area sweeps-up, adding wired Ethernet LAN (Wi-Fi is also included), an optical digital audio output, component video and phono ins, and, lastly, something of a throwback; a full RGB Scart. Have we time-travelled back to the 1990s?
Sony promises that the HDMI inputs - which are all ARC- and MHL-ready - will be upgraded to the latest HDMI 2.0 spec in the near future, though we're not sure how. Firmware upgrade?
For now, the flagship technology on board is Sony's 4K X-Reality PRO engine, but can it really upscale DVDs, YouTube videos and dodgy Freeview channels to 4K-like quality? The maths involved is mind-boggling; the KD-55X9005A is going to have to use one pixel of SD to occupy 16 of its own pixels.
Other circuitry includes the motion-blur-suppressing Motionflow XR 800Hz, a dynamic backlight and Reality Creation, which ups sharpnesss while keeping noise levels low. Other than that, there's not an awful lot to tweak aside from basic picture parameters such as brightness, colour and contrast.
NFC One Touch Mirroring from smartphones is a nice touch, as is the provision of the free TV SideView app, though it's the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) that steals the smart TV headlines. It's not the best around, but it's slick and contains most of the apps most of us want; BBC iPlayer, Netflix, LoveFilm, YouTube, Skype, BBC News, BBC Sport and Sky News. It also features Sony's Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited, the former of which will soon offer 4K downloads.
The KD-55X9005A represents a huge step forward in TVs, but it's not quite as perfect as it thinks it is. Let's start with the headline act - detail.
Sony claims that, such is the tiny size of the pixels, it's possible to sit much closer to this TV than to a regular Full HD model. Around 1.5 times the height of the TV, in fact, and though we'd broadly go along with that (the pixels are so small they're almost impossible to see), that only applies to 2D. Watch in 3D and you're better off sitting further back, where you usually sit. Two rows of sofas, anyone?
Back to the detail. Native 4K footage is awesome. In our reservoir of 4K samples were trailers for After Earth and Total Recall, the latter of which we also had on Sony's 'Mastered in 4K' Blu-ray disc (so in Full HD resolution).
Despite 4K X-Reality PRO, the two don't compare; the subtlety of the light and the pin-sharpness of close-ups in the native 4K version are quite brilliant.
The Blu-ray version is actually almost as good, however, and 4K X-Reality PRO is clearly doing its job; watching Blu-rays (and not just 'Mastered in 4K' versions - we watched Hugo and The Amazing Spider-Man, too) on the KD-55X9005A is a real treat.
Reality Creation is a key technology here, effectively dressing up Blu-rays as something akin to 4K, complete with sharp edges and saturated blocks of colour. It's clever stuff, though occasionally the upscaling is overdone, and close-ups can look a little thin. It's worth underlining how brilliant the colour is on everything the KD-55X9005A displays.
However, 4K X-Reality PRO can't do much about this TV's endemic structural issues, which are slight but noticeable.
The most annoying is motion blur; even with Motionflow XR 800Hz on its 'Clear' setting, each time the camera pans that awesome 4K image blurs, retreating into something visibly less than Full HD. It's very noticeable on the many FIFA Confederations Cup football 4K clips provided to us by Sony; camera pans blur, and the ball leaves a trail and a double image. Ditto in some tennis clips. What a shame.
There's also a worry over this panel's native contrast. With the lights off there's a bluish look to dark scenes, denoting some LED clusters, though LED Dynamic Control addresses this pretty well. Black levels are acceptable but, again, not as impressive as on Sony's high-end Full HD tellies - solid blocks of black contain little in the way of shadow detail.
Nor is 4K X-Reality PRO the cure for all ills it claims to be. It makes a decent stab at upscaling Freeview HD channels, but regular standard definition fare isn't as comfortable to watch as on a decent Full HD TV. The same goes for DVD, whose ragged edges are delivered with visible blocking, though the KD-55X9005A does handle digital files well.
Some hi-def MKV trailers we had looked fabulous, though for some reason some AVC HD files from a camcorder appeared over-upscaled.
We've been listening to analysts say that Passive 3D - thus far hamstrung by a lack of pixels on Full HD sets - won't come of age until Ultra HD hits the stage. Well, that's now - and we're here to report that Passive 3D on the KD-55X9005A looks fabulous.
The horizontal lines are still visible (particularly in long-shots, but never in close-ups), but only if you look for them. Sitting further back helps, too, but overall the cleanness, sharpness and completely crosstalk-free 3D images are a delight. Our only regret is that there were no native 4K 3D samples for us to test with.
We are, however, conscious of one 3D fact; in terms of detail, 4K active shutter 3DTVs look even better.
Ease of use, sound and value
Ease of use
We're big fans of the KD-55X9005A's user interface. It's identical to that found on all Bravia TVs for 2013, and it puts an emphasis on simplicity and speed.
All graphics are hi-res, too, which is a nice touch - a good example being the bright and breezy electronic programme guides.
However, the remote controls are relatively poor for a high-end TV. As opposed to LG and Samsung - both of whom provide wand-style remotes and/or brushed metallic touchpad versions with embedded microphones - Sony has issued this £3,299 telly with the same remotes found with its everyday TVs.
At least the main remote is simple to use, sporting buttons for Home and SEN for easy access to the main functions and smart TV apps, respectively. We also like the fast Zapping mode, which allows the quick navigation of TV channels on a side-menu, though it takes some getting used to.
However, the second, smaller remote that powers the NFC features (tap to a phone to pair with the TV) is otherwise too basic.
As a smart TV hub, SEN is an add-on, an extra, which makes it vastly different to how most smart TVs walk. However, we like this conservative approach; most of the time one doesn't want to go anywhere near apps when attempting to watch TV.
Our only complaint is that Sony's own Video Unlimited, Music Unlimited and Play Memories apps are given pride of place on the TV's user interface, though that's not necessarily a bad thing since the choice is good.
Digital files - accessed through the Connected Devices menu - are dealt with nicely, with all major filetypes for video and music handled. Via its USB slots we managed to play MKV, AVI, MPEG, MP4, MOV and WMV files, though over a network MKV files aren't supported. Music in WMA, WAV, MP3 and M4A versions played fine, too.
The KD-55X9005A excels with audio - and in one swoop explains why this set is pricier than Toshiba's 58-inch 58L9363DB.
Its 2.2-channel sound system delivers unusual bass levels, of course, but it's the wide soundfield and precise stereo imaging delivered by the Magnetic Fluid speakers we're entranced by. It goes loud, too, and delivers more than enough oomph for frenetic films.
It's all a welcome throwback to the early days of flat TVs (and then some), though we're guessing the wider design won't appeal to everyone.
Despite the rapid price-cut from its original £4,000 level to £3,299 (thanks, Toshiba), Sony's KD-55X9005A is all about having the latest and greatest slab of 4K tech - and at a reasonable size. Considering that the 65-inch version costs almost twice as much, we'd judge the KD-55X9005A as pretty good value - relatively speaking.
That impression is helped by the quality upscaling, the proficient handling of digital files (and other hum-drum daily chores), but mostly by the top quality speakers - what a treat.
It's a strange thing to say that a major highlight on one of the first 55-inch Ultra HD TVs is, in fact, sound quality. But that's exactly what the KD-55X9005A excels at, along with searing amounts of 4K detail and a fine upscaled Blu-ray experience.
Aside from detail, the KD-55X9005A does brilliantly with colour - and even better with sound.
In fact, we'd rate it as the best-sounding TV around. The design is high-end, the user interface slick and the 4K detail stunning. More importantly, at least at this early stage of 4K evolution, is upscaling, and some good news; Blu-rays have never looked better - and that goes for 3D as well as 2D discs.
If most Full HD TVs are best fed an HD-only diet, that goes quadruple for the KD-55X9005A, which doesn't make as much of the 4K detail as its bigger 65-inch sibling.
Active vs passive 3D
Standard definition sources look rather ropey, and we also noticed some issues with contrast and the 4K-cancelling amounts of motion blur.
We're also not convinced that built-in speakers - and the consequent super-wide design - will appeal to the kind of home cinema aficionados that are bound to be most interested in the KD-55X9005A. At 34.5kg it's a whopper, but is it really big enough to show-off 4K?
With only slightly less wow factor than its big sibling, the far pricier KD-65X9005A, the KD-55X9005A is currently the best value Ultra HD telly around.
But it's not just the pin-sharp performance with (as yet non-existent) 4K sources that blew us away. As if to throw the AV world a few crumbs as we await 4K Blu-ray, Sony's provision of some awesome speakers flanking the 4K panel are a timely reminder of just how much cinematic impact is from sound.
Colour, too, is stunning, and the upscaling of Blu-ray is proficient.
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The downsides are a touch of motion blur and the somewhat ropey-look to upscaled standard definition sources, where the maths involved proves too much.
One of the best performers with Blu-ray, let alone 4K, the KD-55X9005A is a standout winner with 3D, too. The passive 3D system's loss of resolution here looks less like a compromise, and it's always smooth and bright. Until we wait for native 4K Blu-ray discs to drip onto the market, the KD-55X9005A has plenty to keep anyone satisfied.
Also offering 55-inch-or-thereabouts Ultra HDTVs is LG, Samsung and Toshiba.
If you want to save a few quid, head for Toshiba's slightly larger 58-inch 58L9363DB (£2,999).
Both Samsung and Toshiba use the Active Shutter 3D system on their Ultra HDTVs. Most are available in 65-inch versions, too, but the prices almost double.