Sony KDL-46HX923 £2099
6th Dec 2011 | 15:30
Sony goes for broke with its latest flagship LCD TV
Despite a rather up and down performance through 2011, Sony looks like it could be about to finish the year on a high. For rolling into town today is the brand's KDL-46HX923.
This 46-inch LCD set sits at the very top of Sony's range this year, a position that's mostly defined by the fact that it - along with its 55-inch 55HX923 sibling - is the only Sony set that uses direct LED lighting with local dimming rather than edge LED or CCFL lighting.
Sony's previous direct LED sets have generally been very impressive, so there's every reason to hope that this trend will continue with the 46HX923.
Naturally the 46HX923's appeal doesn't end with its direct LED lighting, though. The set also carries a full list of all Sony's key features this year, including active 3D playback, solid multimedia playback support, the 'Pro' version of Sony's new X-Reality picture processing suite, and access to Sony's mostly excellent Bravia Internet Video online service.
As you would expect, the 46HX923's flagship status means that it carries a fairly premium price tag: around £1650. If this is out of your reach but you fancy a Sony TV, then one step down in the range you get to the HX823 series, which carries a similar feature count to the 46HX923 but uses edge LED lighting instead of the all-important direct LED lighting system.
If you're a lucky member of the money's no object brigade, though, it's time to find out if the 46HX923 really is worthy of such a substantial wedge of your hard-earned cash.
The single biggest selling point of the 46HX923, at least where AV enthusiasts are concerned, is its direct LED lighting. Positioning the LED lights behind the screen rather than around its edges and then providing the processing power to separately control the light output of individual LED clusters should allow the set to deliver a 'real' contrast range streets ahead of anything possible using edge LED lights. And so far as most movie lovers are concerned, contrast is definitely king.
The 46HX923's design will also be a major selling point to a lot of people. Its direct LED system means it's not the thinnest TV ever, but it benefits from Sony's 'Monolithic' design, which finds the screen and its black bezel sharing the same single 'plane' and opulent glinting finish. It's less showy than some rival 'designer' TVs, but we suspect this will enhance rather than hinder its appeal to more conservative households.
Spinning the set round uncovers a more than satisfactory collection of connections. There are four HDMIs - a number that seems to have become pretty much standard in the upper echelons of the TV market - with other highlights of two USB ports, a D-Sub PC port, a LAN port and, best of all, built-in wi-fi.
The USBs support recording of material from the built-in Freeview HD tuner and playback of a good selection of multimedia file formats, while the fact that the 46HX923 can be added to a PC or broadband network means you can use it to either stream in multimedia files from your PC or access Sony's Bravia Internet Video service.
The variety of file formats the TV can support is pretty robust, but the real star of the multimedia show has to be the Bravia Internet Video service. This is arguably the best online TV platform around, at least to the extent that it delivers so much of the sort of video content that appears best-suited to an 'Internet on your TV' experience.
Highlights include the BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 catch-up services, a Sky News video headline 'app', Sony's Qriocity movie database, a Sony TV 'archive', and LoveFilm. Even the pretty expansive raft of more 'b-list'/minority interest video services have more gems tucked away in them than you find with rival online video services.
Add in Skype, Facebook, Twitter, the music 'arm' of Qriocity and an open Web browser, and the 46HX923 really does offer an awful lot of 'extra-curricular' activities to keep you busy. Though this does also create a couple of usability problems, covered later in the Ease of Use section.
3D and video processing
The 46HX923 inevitably carries 3D playback capabilities. And as Sony has yet to jump aboard the passive 3D bandwagon, the 46HX923's 3D talents are of the active, full HD variety, with two pairs of Sony's chunky but actually reasonably comfortable glasses thrown in for 'free'.
Furthermore, unlike some of Sony's 2010 3D sets, the 46HX923's 3D transmitter is built into the main TV body, rather than being an optional external extra.
Another sign of the 46HX923's flagship status comes from its video processing. For it boasts both X-Reality Pro (the top tier of Sony's new X-Reality engine) and MotionFlow 800Hz, which uses a combination of a 200Hz panel, a scanning backlight and frame interpolation processing to deliver an 800Hz-like effect.
The Pro bit of X-Reality Pro refers to an extra bit of processing power especially designed to work its magic on internet video sources.
Sony doesn't trouble itself to seek the endorsement of any third party picture 'authorities' such as the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) or THX. But this doesn't mean that the 46HX923 isn't well equipped with calibration tools - even if some of them (particularly the 'colour management' system) are rather non-standard in their presentation.
There's certainly enough setting flexibility to get pictures looking either very close to the key video standards if that's the way you like things, or very dynamic and punchy if you prefer to go that way. Or both if you like different settings for different types of viewing.
For much of the time, the 46HX923's pictures are very good indeed - outstanding, even. As with previous Sony direct LED sets, for instance, the 46HX923 is capable of producing some very rich, deep black colours. Not on a par with the very best plasma TVs or Philips' recently reviewed 46PFL9706H, but a notch above anything you'll get from any of this year's edge LED TVs - even Samsung's.
The local dimming aspect to the TV's direct LED system, moreover, allows the 46HX923's deep black colours to be accompanied simultaneously - within the same frame - by very punchy colours and crisp, pure whites. In other words, there's no requirement to dim the overall brightness of the image to achieve a good black colour.
Local dimming can sometimes lead to shadow detail getting crushed out of the picture during dark scenes. But the 46HX923's brightness/contrast balance seems well judged, ensuring that even the darkest corners still contain enough low-light detail to avoid looking hollow and/or flat.
Sony's very first direct LED TVs suffered with a slightly green undertone at times. But this is not the case with the 46HX923, which instead pumps out really bright, vibrant but also natural colour tones across an impressively wide spectrum. There's almost infinite subtlety in the way colours are portrayed too, with immaculate blends and a strong sense of depth to objects and people, even when you're only watching in 2D.
Having said that the best plasma sets can produce deeper blacks than the 46HX923, it's only fair to stress that the 46HX923 can outgun plasma screens with its brightness.
Sony can generally be relied on to deliver excellent HD sharpness with its relatively high-end TVs, and the 46HX923 fits the bill perfectly. Turning off all the available motion processing reveals the set to have a pretty impressive innate response time that means there's only the faintest trace of resolution loss over moving objects.
Even so, it's good to see that the motion processing options the set offers are unusually assured in that - provided you stick with their lower 'power' settings - they are subtle in the way they work and don't throw up lots of unwanted side effects. So they're at least worth experimenting with, rather than just being better off avoided entirely as can often be the case with motion processing systems.
While the 46HX923 is clearly at its best with HD material, it's a more than solid standard def performer too. The X-Reality Pro engine is extremely able when it comes to adding detail to standard def sources without exaggerating noise - even when handling the often heavily compressed material you get from the Internet.
Colours are perhaps not quite as natural as they are with HD, but this isn't a big deal really, and doesn't stop standard def images from being perfectly enjoyable to watch.
There are a couple of issues to report with the 46HX923's 2D images, though: one predictable, the other weird. The predictable one is that very bright objects can exhibit a little 'haloing' when they appear against dark backgrounds. This is caused by the number of dimmable LED clusters not being numerous enough to deliver pixel-precise levels of light accuracy, and it's an issue found to some extent on all local dimming direct LED TVs.
The key point, though, is that the extent of the haloing is sufficiently limited and its brightness sufficiently low-level that it's seldom seriously distracting.
The weird issue is the appearance at the left and right edges of the screen of faint dark seams. These vertical lines appear about a cm from the screen's edges and are around half a centimetre across. Their location at the periphery of the image and their subtlety means you certainly aren't always aware of them, by any means. But they could become one of those things that you can't stop yourself looking out for.
Turning finally to 3D, the 46HX923's extreme brightness, strong colours and rich contrast serve it well, allowing its 3D image to look dynamic and engaging even though Sony's chunky but reasonably comfortable 3D glasses are usually considered to take more brightness out of images than most.
So far as issues with the 46HX923's 3D pictures are concerned, the set could perhaps work a bit harder to compensate for the colour shift introduced by the active shutter glasses. You also have to sit with your head bolt upright, for otherwise the picture can be tinted red or blue if you tip your head one way or the other.
By far the biggest problem, though, is that the 46HX923's 3D images suffer with crosstalk. In other words, it's routine to see double ghosting around some objects in 3D frames, especially those in dark backgrounds.
This blurring of dark backgrounds has been alarmingly common with 2011's active 3D TVs, and it really needs to be sorted out on 2012's sets if active 3D is to continue claiming the high ground against LG's rival passive 3D technology.
Sound, value and ease of use
Perhaps because the 46HX923 has a little more depth to play with than many premium TVs, it manages to produce a well-rounded sound performance with a fairly open mid-range that makes it very comfortable indeed to listen to - at least with relatively straightforward material.
Loud action scenes expose a little shrillness at the upper end of the spectrum and a very clear limit to the TV's bass handling capabilities, but the 46HX923 overall certainly sounds much better than the flat TV average.
Considering how well it's built, how many features its got, how good its 2D performance is and how relatively expensive its all-important direct LED lighting is to manufacture, the 46HX923 seems fairly priced.
In fact, its price seems considerably more than reasonable if you also factor in the current promotions Sony is running with the TV, namely: giving away two pairs of active shutter glasses for free; bundling the necessary external camera for Skype; giving you £150 cashback if you send in a claim form before January 31st 2012; and most remarkably of all, allowing you to claim a free PS3 console with Uncharted 3 and two 3D Harry Potter Blu-rays!
Please note, though, that the PS3 offer only runs until December 12th...
The only pity is that you're paying for 3D pictures that can vary between very good and merely average, depending on what's being shown.
Ease of use
Given that the 46HX923 is Sony's flagship TV, it's a touch disappointing to find that it only gets Sony's standard remote control. There's nothing wrong with this remote per se; in fact it's rather well laid out and quite comfortable to hold. But it does feel a bit lightweight and plasticky, and so doesn't seem a good fit for the more opulent build quality of the TV.
There's also work for Sony to do with its TVs' onscreen menus. The main menu system is poorly presented, with too much reliance on obscure and small icons, too much scrolling through long lists of submenus, and seemingly little discernible logic to the way the menu lists are ordered.
The Bravia Internet Video menus, meanwhile, are thankfully a big improvement over the pretty hopeless efforts of Sony's 2010 TVs. Yet they're still less intuitive, attractive and efficient than those of the latest 'Smart TV' systems from Samsung and LG - despite not being clogged up as some rival systems are by swarms of largely pointless apps...
There are some ways in which the 46HX923 is pretty easy to use, though. For a start, it's more sensible with its picture preset modes than many rivals, which will doubtless appeal to people who have no interest whatsoever in endlessly fine-tuning settings for themselves.
It also works harder than most to help you economise, particularly with its presence sensor, which can turn the screen off automatically to save power if it detects that nobody is in the room while the TV is on.
Finally, it's good to find that a reasonable selection of features - including the brilliantly fun Track ID system that automatically identifies with startling accuracy any songs that might be playing on a TV show you're watching - can be accessed directly from the remote, without you having to resort all the time to the fiddly menus.
The 46HX923 is designed to be Sony's 'statement' TV for 2011, sporting its fullest feature count in terms of picture technology and multimedia support. Its most important high-end touch is its uses of direct LED lighting, which experience has shown can deliver a truly premium level of performance.
It also looks lovely in its 'Monolithic' clothes, and ticks pretty much all our multimedia boxes with its video-rich Bravia Internet Video online service, DLNA support, USB playback, and USB HDD recording from the Freeview HD tuner.
As you would expect of a flagship TV this year, the 46HX923 also has active 3D support, with two glasses thrown in for free. Actually, the set's appeal is currently - though only for a little bit longer!! - greatly enhanced by further deals including cashback, free Skype cameras, and even a free PS3.
The 46HX923's design is very classy, and we're loving some of the limited offers Sony is currently providing with this TV - though the PS3 one may well have expired (forms have to be in by December 12th) by the time you're reading this.
The set's 2D picture quality is very good indeed too for the most part, especially where contrast is concerned, and its online video service remains the most broadly watchable of all the current 'smart TV' systems.
The screen's inherent brightness and colour richness serves it well when watching 3D too.
3D pictures are fairly routinely troubled by obvious crosstalk noise. Also, there's a faint but still sometimes noticeable 'seam' just inside the left and right sides of the picture that once spotted can become increasingly annoying.
Sony's current operating system needs a revamp too, as it struggles to cope comfortably with all the features the set carries.
The 46HX923 mostly does a good 'flagship' job of showcasing Sony's TV talents this year. Its design oozes understated elegance, its connectivity is excellent, and its feature count is long, headed up by such key findings as direct LED lighting, active 3D support, a high-level video processing system, and what remains in some ways the best online video service in town.
Its 2D pictures are mostly outstanding, meanwhile, with vivid colours, a deep black response, a wide contrast range, excellent sharpness and good motion handling.
The 46HX923 falls frustratingly short of bagging an unqualified recommendation, though, on account mostly of crosstalk with 3D and some curious 'shadowy lines' down each of the TV's sides.
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