Sony KDL-46HX853 £1450
18th May 2012 | 09:56
Sony finally blows our telly-loving socks off
With the latest TV ranges from Samsung and LG already out and attracting mostly positive critical notices, the pressure on Sony's debut TV for 2012 really couldn't be any greater. Especially with Sony's TV business contributing spectacularly to the brand's latest round of cataclysmic operating losses.
Still, the noises coming out of Sony about the 46-inch KDL-46HX853 are all promising. There's been much talk of 'getting back to what Sony does best' and 'putting quality ahead of compromise', along with assurances that the sort of mistakes that have riddled the past couple of generations (at least) of Sony TVs will not be allowed to happen again.
To back up these fine words, the KDL-46HX853 - which is the top-level 46-inch model from Sony's new range - comes packing some significant heat. Its enjoyed a slinky redesign, for a start, without losing touch with the Monolithic aesthetic Sony has been following for a couple of generations.
Sony has also (thankfully) revamped the interface for its online services and added a few bits of significant new content to what was already one of the best online video platform around. But perhaps most significantly of all, pretty much every aspect of the KDL-46HX853's picture quality - from its video processing through to the way it controls its edge-based lighting system - has allegedly undergone a profound round of improvements.
The set also, naturally, fits perfectly into a modern multimedia household thanks to its DLNA support, integrated Wi-Fi, aforementioned video streaming capabilities, and playback of plenty of multimedia file formats via its USB ports.
Alongside the 46HX853 can be found a 55-inch version, the cunningly named KDL-55HX853, and a 40-inch version, while a step down Sony's new range you get to the HX753 series, which we'll hopefully be checking out soon. This comes in 32-inch, 40-inch, 46-inch and 55-inch flavours.
Given its flagship status, the most direct rivals for the KDL-46HX853 would have to be Samsung's ES7000 and ES8000 ranges, along with LG's LM860V series and Panasonic's new WT50 series.
We haven't fully tested all of these rival series yet, but we've seen enough to know that they each represent some pretty stiff competition for Sony's hopes for the KDL-46HX853. So without further ado, let's start finding out if the KDL-46HX853 really does have a shout at turning Sony's TV fortunes around.
Sony has tweaked its Monolithic design for the KDL-46HX853 to give it a slightly less masculine, slightly softer appearance, with a narrower bezel width and the addition of a little metallic outer trim along all four of its edges. The result is perhaps not as original as the previous all-black Monolithic look, but actually we prefer the less severe impact of the new design.
What's more, the TV ships this year with an enormously attractive and extremely well built 'bar' table top stand that both allows you to angle the TV back slightly if you like, and also contains speakers, to take the audio burden off the TV's slender chassis. This sort of designer stand was only available as an optional extra with last year's Monolithic Sony sets.
The KDL-46HX853 is pretty much on the flagship money with its connections. There are four HDMIs, all built to the v1.4 specification for full support of the active 3D format. There are both LAN and integrated Wi-Fi options for adding the TV to your home DLNA computer network or for taking the TV online, while two USBs allow you to play back film, photo and music files from USB storage devices - or record from the integrated Freeview HD tuner to USB hard disk drives.
LG this year has made a concerted effort to make its TVs as compatible with Apple Macs as they are with PCs, and Sony has thankfully followed suit with the KDL-46HX853 courtesy of a new Homestream downloadable application, which does a fine job of streamlining the process of getting files off your computer - or any other 'connected' device - and onto the TV.
One extra excellent connectivity point to raise here is that if you've got a Sony tablet computer, you can stream what's showing on the TV to the tablet for watching elsewhere in the house, or else you can easily send stuff from your tablet to the TV screen.
Inside the 46HX853's glamorous body can be found a wealth of picture processing technology. For starters, there's Sony's Motionflow XR800 Hz system, which uses a combination of a blinking backlight, native 200Hz panel and frame interpolation to deliver an 800Hz-like effect.
As well as potentially having a beneficial effect on the KDL-46HX853's motion handling, it's also to be hoped that the XR800 Hz system - especially the native 200Hz panel refresh rate bit of it - might see Sony avoiding the nasty 3D crosstalk ghosting issues that plagued some of its 2011 sets.
Sony has provided a startlingly long list of variations on its motion processing theme, moreover, including a new 'impulse' setting that repeats each image frame four times and then blinks the backlight right at the end of each scanning phase. The idea behind this is to provide a blur-reduction option for video purists who can't be doing with the more typical frame interpolation approach to combatting motion problems.
Also potentially hugely important to the 46HX853's picture fortunes should be the brand's X-Reality Pro technology.
This uses a dedicated new chipset to upscale standard definition and even seriously low-rent online streaming sources to high definition. This rather cleverly improves its efficiency versus rival upscaling systems by being able to automatically recognise different types of source content and then applying a series of largely predetermined processing routines to them.
The new version of X-Reality Pro works so efficiently, in fact, that the 46HX853 even lets you apply its 'upscaling' charms to full HD 3D pictures for the first time.
The edge LED lighting system on the KDL-46HX853, meanwhile, employs a new, more sophisticated local dimming system to deliver a degree of lighting flexibility across different 'zones' of the picture - something that should boost the screen's contrast performance considerably. Experience also suggests, though, that such local dimming on edge LED screens can cause 'light blocking' issues around very bright objects, so we'll have to be on the look out for those.
As noted when discussing the KDL-46HX853's connections, Sony's new set is capable of playing back 3D sources using the full HD active format.
With this in mind it's a pity Sony doesn't include any 3D glasses for free with the TV, as research suggests that if people can't use a feature straight out of the box, they often never get round to using that feature at all. However, there is at least a promotion on at the time of writing whereby you can get two pairs of Sony 3D glasses for the price of one (about £60).
The glasses are worth investing in too, as they're some of the best ones we've tried thanks to the way they try to stop light sneaking in around their edges. This makes them markedly more bulky than most 3D glasses, but surely it's the quality of the 3D performance that really matters?
There's an interesting feature related to the glasses too, for the TV provides the option to adjust the brightness of the 3D picture they produce. This matters because an offshoot of this feature is that it can become a tool for controlling crosstalk noise, with lower brightness leading to less crosstalk.
The final big feature of the KDL-46HX853 concerns its online services. Sony has recently managed to pull the various threads of its streaming world together under the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) banner, and it's this platform which now takes over from the previous Bravia Internet Video (BIV) one.
As with BIV, the SEN system sensibly continues to focus for the most part on providing streaming video sources rather than deluging you in piles of pointless, second-tier apps like Samsung and LG TVs are wont to do. Here's the full list of online features we found at the time of writing (bearing in mind that services can be added or even taken away at any time):
Sony's Video Unlimited movie streaming subscription service, Sony's Music Unlimited movie streaming subscription service, Twitter, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, BBC News, Sky News, Sony's Home Theatre Control app, Skype, Facebook, LoveFilm, Netflix, MUBI, Sony Entertainment Television network, Crackle, Eurosport, Muzu.tv, Euronews, YouTube, Sony's 3D channel, Billabong, Wired, epi, Concierge.com, Style.com, DailyMotion, UStudio, golflink.com, livestrong.com, ehow, video detective, singing fool, a podcast player, moshcam, Picasa, a Web browser, a calendar, an RSS reader, a calculator, an alarm, a world clock, Aupeo, AccuWeather, and a handful of games, including backgammon, Bubble, chess, Sudoku, and Pipemania 2.
Sony's emphasis on video for its online services suggests that the brand agrees with us that video content is much more important to a Smart TV than smaller 'utility' or game apps. And this same appreciation for the differences between Smart TVs and other Smart devices also leads to the 46HX853 integrating Twitter in a much more sensibly subtle way than you get with other TVs. Basically, the default Twitter setting finds latest tweets from the people you follow appearing in a smallish area underneath the reduced-size TV picture you get on Sony's new SEN 'home screen'.
This is a much better approach than forcing Twitter users to take over the entire screen of what is, after all, a shared device every time they want to glance at the latest pearls of wisdom the world of tweets has to offer.
As noted at the start of this review, Sony has been surprisingly bullish in its claims for the picture quality of its latest TVs. But on the evidence of the KDL-46HX853 Sony has actually been too modest. For amazingly given the TV turmoil Sony gave us in 2011, the 46HX853 turns out to be probably the finest LCD TV that's ever graced the TechRadar test benches.
The more cynical of you will already be tutting and rolling your eyes at such an admittedly bold statement. But if you choose not to believe us and go off to buy something else instead, that's fine - just trust us when we say that it will be very much your loss.
So many things are right about the 46HX853's pictures, in fact, that it's initially tough to know where to start describing them. Over time, though, it becomes clear that there is one area in particular where the KDL-46HX853 pretty much rewrites the edge LED rulebook, and that's contrast.
The 46HX853 uses a local dimming system to adjust individually the brightness levels of different segments of the TV's edge LED array. This it does in a bid to boost the image's contrast levels. It's not a new idea; most other brands use it too, in fact. But never has the technology been used as cleverly or as effectively as it is on the 46HX853.
Black colours, for starters, really do look black, which instantly makes dark scenes look massively more believable than they usually do on LCD screens. Even better, the screen's black level abilities are constant from one corner to the other, as Sony manages to virtually eradicate the sort of grey cloud patches or corner 'light jets' that afflict most LCD TVs to some extent. This backlight uniformity again has a profound impact on how deeply you become invested in what you're watching.
Then there's the amount of shadow detail Sony manages to retain in dark scenes. Usually when an edge LED strives for really deep black levels it has to take so much light out of the picture that dark picture areas end up looking empty and flat, as there's just not enough illumination left to pick out subtle dark detailing.
But looking at some of the darkest scenes in disturbing Clint Eastwood-directed oddity The Changeling - a film that appears on Blu-ray with an unusually extreme contrast range - the KDL-46HX853 produces pretty much every pixel of detail the disc has to offer. Even though the black colours remain exceptionally deep and natural throughout.
And there's more. For it's also apparent when watching The Changeling - or any scene from anything that combines deep blacks with bright whites or colours in the same frame - that the KDL-46HX853 is uniquely talented by edge LED standards when it comes to presenting bold, bright punchy colours right alongside inky blacks. And it pulls this feat off for the most part without displaying to any distracting degree the sort of rectangular or square blocks of excess light around bright objects commonly witnessed when edge LED TVs try to use local dimming.
The KDL-46HX853 - perhaps inevitably - isn't wholly, 100 per cent immune to the light blocking effect. Under really extreme circumstances, such as when a white logo appears in the corner of an otherwise black screen, you can see a small square of light around the bright item. But in our opinion these moments are so rare during normal video viewing as to be insignificant.
The KDL-46HX853 also pushes the envelope with its motion handling. Admittedly the fancy-sounding new Impulse mode doesn't live up to our hopes, causing too much flicker for our tastes. But even without any motion processing in play, motion-packed scenes look crisp and remarkably natural. What's more, even if you do call in some of the other motion options, so long as you use them on one of their low-power settings they generally improve clarity even further without making the image look at all unnatural. Outstanding.
Yet another area where the KDL-46HX853 is for our money in a league of its own is its upscaling of very poor quality sources. The way X-Reality Pro is able to smooth away noise, remove jaggedness while simultaneously adding detail has to be seen to be believed at times, to the point where it makes YouTube videos a genuine watchable option rather than something you might only start streaming if you want to give yourself a headache.
It's no surprise after this to find the KDL-46HX853 also doing a likeable job of upscaling decent standard definition sources such as DVDs and digital broadcasts. The impact of the upscaling system with these sources isn't as marked or as ahead of the competition as the upscaling of online content, but it's nonetheless commendable.
Yet another area of excellence for the KDL-46HX853 is its colour reproduction. There's much more punch and dynamism to colour tones than there was on most of Sony's 2011 output, yet crucially this extra vigour hasn't led to a reduction in the subtlety with which colour tones are reproduced.
On the contrary, the range and finesse of the KDL-46HX853's colour palette is little short of mesmerising, giving images a sense of precision and definition that you just don't see very often. The set's colour processing is sufficiently powerful, moreover, to ensure that the colour bands and stripes you see on many flat TVs in place of what should be smooth blends are completely absent on the KDL-46HX853.
Add to all of the above some exquisite portrayal of fine details and textures in HD material, and you've got a 2D picture from the KDL-46HX853 that doesn't just have moments where it takes your breath away, but rather constantly has you shaking your head in wonderment.
In many ways the KDL-46HX853's picture pleasures continue with its 3D performance, thanks again to the impact of the X-Reality Pro processing. Now usable on 3D for the first time, X-Reality Pro does a pretty remarkable job of enhancing the sharpness and apparent depth of 3D pictures - even full HD Blu-rays. Toggle the processing on and off while watching 3D Blu-rays and the effect is so pronounced that it's hard to believe the non-processed pictures were actually HD at all!
There are downsides to the X-Reality Pro system, firstly that occasionally the edges of some 3D objects look a little stressed, and secondly that the 3D depth feels a touch more forced - a little like a series of parallax slices rather than a fluid, natural area.
These issues might persuade some people not to use X-Reality Pro on 3D. But personally we found the lure of the extra detailing and sharpness too much to resist.
It's gratifying with the KDL-46HX853's 3D pictures, too, that they look markedly brighter and more richly coloured than the slightly dull efforts of previous Sony 3D TVs.
The only flaw with the KDL-46HX853's 3D images, in fact, is crosstalk. You can see a little of the double-ghosting phenomenon over objects in the far distance from time to time.
This is undeniably disappointing given that the latest flagship active 3D TVs from Panasonic and Samsung have pretty much done away with crosstalk. However, since the KDL-46HX853's crosstalk is restricted to the far background, it's not severely damaging to your 3D experience. Plus there is that facility mentioned in the features section for reducing the brightness of the 3D glasses in return for reduced crosstalk.
The last point about the 46HX853's pictures concerns the time the TV takes to produce an image after receiving an external source. Using the set's Game preset, we measured a lag of around 30ms - low enough to let you play all your games without fear of the TV significantly damaging your performance.
Sound, value and ease of use
There's good news and bad news when it comes to ease of use. On the upside, it's a huge relief to find that Sony's latest remote control now features a nice big 'SEN' button giving you fast, direct access to all of Sony's online content.
Also a major improvement is the onscreen menu system for accessing online stuff. The TV picture continues to play on the left, with Twitter feeds scrolling along underneath, while ranged across the screen to the right are a series of different content categories: Video, Music, Apps and a Favourites section where you can position all your most-used apps.
There's still more that could be done to make finding individual apps a little easier. But the latest online Sony TV experience remains a million times better than the fiddly menu mess you had to trudge through on 2011 Sony online TVs.
While you can now access online features more easily, however, getting to the rest of the set's features sadly still requires you to tip-toe through Sony's once-cool but now hopelessly cluttered and illogically organised PlayStation-style double-axis menu system.
One final negative point to make is that Sony hasn't made any effort to offer any control alternatives to the standard handset. There's no touchpad remote, no gesture control, no voice control, no 'magic wand'-style remote... Perhaps surprisingly, though, we didn't actually find ourselves missing these sort of 'enhancements' all that much, except for when trying to use the integrated Web browser.
The KDL-46HX853 is one of the best-sounding flat TVs around. The key to its success lies in that included silver 'bar' stand you get with the main TV. For Sony has taken advantage of the extra physical size of this bar to include a decently powerful set of forward-firing speakers, which receive their sound information courtesy of a dedicated connection cable running between the stand and the TV.
The result of using the stand for the TV's sound is a soundstage that's wider, richer, clearer and more powerful than anything you'll hear from the vast majority of rival sets. Just occasionally a vocal can sound slightly dislocated from the on-screen action, but these moments are very rare, and probably won't bother you at all from a typical viewing distance.
It wouldn't have been unreasonable for Sony to have really cranked up the price of the KDL-46HX853 given how much effort has clearly gone into improving its performance and design. But actually, at £1450, the KDL-46HX853's price compares very favourably indeed with the prices of rival sets from the likes of Samsung, LG and Panasonic.
The KDL-46HX853 arrives at a time when Sony really, really needs to start getting its TV business back on track. And right away it feels like it's heading in the right direction, with a slimmer, sleeker variation on its Monolith design theme that suggests Sony has really started to think about what consumers want rather than just going with something they think looks distinctive.
Its feature count is impressive too in terms of the picture calibration tools on offer, the amount of video content available through the online system, and the extent of the multimedia flexibility.
Where the KDL-46HX853 really sets the world on fire, though, is with its barn-storming, cutting edge picture quality which, in 2D mode at least, is the best the LCD TV world has delivered so far.
The KDL-46HX853 takes LCD picture quality to a whole new level, particularly where contrast and motion handling are concerned. The set looks gorgeous too, and features what's for our money the best - or at least the most sensibly focussed - online service around. Plus it's great value for what's on offer.
There's a small amount of crosstalk when watching 3D, and Sony's main onscreen menu system is in need of an overhaul. It might be nice if Sony offered a touchpad remote - at least as an optional extra - for people who like to use the TV's onboard web browser. And finally it's a shame Sony can't see its way to including even a single pair of free 3D glasses with the TV.
There really isn't any overstating the potential importance of the KDL-46HX853 to Sony right now. For in one single leap its stunning picture performance takes the struggling Japanese giant from near-zero to all-conquering hero - an achievement made all the more remarkable when you consider that this outstanding TV is being delivered at a more aggressive price than the usually ultra-competitive Korean brands are offering on their range equivalents.
To sum all this up, with the KDL-46HX853 Sony isn't just back, it's back with a vengeance.
Samsung's UE46ES8000 and UE46ES7000 models sit on pretty much the same feature level as the KDL-46HX853, with the Samsung models scoring points on account of their mind-blowingly slender designs, innovative control systems and slightly superior 3D images. However, they cost more than the Sony, and the KDL-46HX853 is on another level in terms of its 2D performance.
Panasonic's WT50 series also look stunning and use dual-core processing to offer some handy multitasking functionality that the Sony cannot. But while the WT50's pictures look good from what we've seen so far, they're certainly not as impressive as the KDL-46HX853's, especially when it comes to black level response.