Sony KDL-55W905A £2399
8th May 2013 | 15:16
Sony's new flagship TV raises the LCD bar
After years of being left hanging limply on the ropes by its big hitting Korean rivals, Sony suddenly exploded back onto the TV scene in 2012 with its multi-award winning HX853 series. This set saw Sony combining its high-end X-Reality Pro processing engine with the most sophisticated local dimming system ever seen on an edge LED TV to spectacular effect, instantly redefining our expectations of what LCD could do.
Attempting to ensure the HX853 wasn't a one-off fluke, Sony's engineers have beavered away at another innovation the brand hopes will keep its new W905 flagship TVs - as represented here by the 55-inch Sony 55W905A - ahead of a chasing pack with serious TV teeth.
That innovation is called Triluminos, and as we'll discover later, so long as you handle it with a little care, it really is impressive. Its name also handily raises echoes of the legendary Trinitron technology that served Sony so spectacularly well back in the days of CRT (remember those?).
The Sony W905 models also inevitably sport local dimming like that used so effectively on the HX853 series. They also feature an improved version of Sony's X-Reality Pro engine complete with a fine-tuned, expanded database of image scenarios and a two- rather than three-chip configuration that's cheaper to produce and more efficient in its workings.
Add in 3D, a video-packed online service and a new, much slimmer design approach than we've seen before from Sony, and it's abundantly clear that the Sony Bravia KDL-55W905A is intended to be a real statement TV with which to kick off Sony's 2013 television range.
As such, its main competition from the 2013 TVs we've seen to date would have to be Samsung's UE55F8000. This set delivers an even slimmer design and some startling if occasionally hard to follow smart TV innovations, as well as a large step forward in performance terms as Samsung finally manages to ditch its old backlight clouding problems.
The £2,399 (around AU$3,646 / US$3,714) Sony 55W905A is the largest screen in the W905 range, at 55 inches, and is joined by smaller brothers the 46-inch Sony 46W905A (priced at £1,799) and 40-inch Sony 40W905A (costing £1,399).
In terms of alternatives from Sony's own range, the W905 is the flagship series until Sony launches its X series of 4k models in the next couple of months.
So if you want something different you're looking at stepping down to the new W8 series, which ditches Triluminos and carries a less powerful audio system but keeps pretty much everything else.
Sony's most mass-market option, we suspect, will be the W6 series, which still retains the slim design, X-Reality processing and smart TV functionality, but dispenses with local dimming.
We definitely need to take a look at Sony's Triluminos innovation. This seeks to deliver a significantly wider colour gamut than normal TVs by placing red and green 'quantum dot' colour filters directly onto the LED lights arrayed around the image's edges. This means the blue light from the LEDs both creates the colour blue in the image and energises the red- and green quantum dots to complete the RGB effect.
Since Triluminos technology is a physical process incorporated into the hardware construction of the TV, it can't be turned off. So fingers crossed that we like it.
Sony's X-Reality Pro technology, meanwhile, essentially uses an expansive database of different video types to enable it to deliver video processing that's more accurate and less troubled by artefacts. In other words, the TV swiftly analyses the incoming source, compares its attributes against its pre-stored database of video 'conditions' and then applies picture setting rules already worked out as being the most appropriate for it by Sony's picture quality boffins at Sony's factories.
While Triluminos and X-Reality Pro grab the high-tech headlines with the Sony 55W905A, its design will be the first thing that strikes most ordinary punters on the shop floor.
In place of the somewhat chunky look of Sony's previous LCD TVs, the Sony 55W905A revels in a much more on-trend super-slim bezel that's only marginally more than 1cm across. Even better, its mostly black colour scheme is given a bit of swagger in the form of a distinctive angled, blue-toned reflective strip that runs right along the TV's top edge. Sony's name for this subtle touch of flare is A Sense of Quartz.
Also rather distinctive about the Sony 55W905A's design is the little silvery rectangular box that sits in the centre of the TV's bottom edge. This is the set's Intelligence Centre, hosting the TV's brainpower. It also serves a useful practical function in that it emits a different coloured light depending on what type of input you're using (Bluetooth, network, HDMI and so on).
Even the gleaming circular open-frame desktop stand is a radical departure from Sony's recent design trajectory, but the all-round newness hasn't stopped Sony's designers from pulling the whole concept together beautifully.
Connections on the Sony 55W905A are where we'd expect them to be on a flagship TV in 2013. Which is to say that as well as four HDMIs for digital video duties, you get three USBs (one of which can be used for recording from the built-in Freeview HD tuner), a D-Sub PC port, and both LAN and built-in Wi-Fi networking options.
Sony has never sought the endorsement of the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF), and this situation hasn't changed with the Sony 55W905A. However, this television does go a bit further with its picture set-up options than Sony is often wont to do, especially in its inclusion of a white balance toolset complete with gain and bias adjustments for the RGB colour elements, and a few gamma presets.
Admittedly there's still plenty more the Sony could do in colour management terms, but the brand is slowly moving in the right direction.
The Sony 55W905A also has a bundle of image processing options. Taking in everything from black level boosting to noise reduction, colour widening, edge and sharpness boosting and motion enhancers, many of them clearly won't be of interest to video purists. However, we recommend that you at least experiment with some of the settings on offer.
Sony's Reality Creation system, for instance, is one of the cleverest engines around for boosting sharpness - especially with standard definition footage - while simultaneously reining in noise, and Sony's Smooth Gradation system does a subtle but welcome job of removing the potential for colour striping in colour blend that even good quality Blu-rays can sometimes suffer with.
Even the Sony 55W905A's motion processing is worth more of a trial run than most systems, since some of its numerous setting options are gentle - and customisable - enough in what they do to deliver benefits without leaving the image looking unnaturally processed or riddled with artefacts.
Some options that we wouldn't recommend you leave active, though - at least when watching HD - are the noise reduction features, the edge and detail boosters, the black level booster, and especially the Live Colour feature, because even on its low setting this stretches the colour palette in very unnatural territory. This feature just isn't necessary when you've already got Triluminos delivering an enhanced colour gamut.
One final picture setting feature you need to pay attention to is the LED Dynamic Control System, since it's here that you are given a modicum of control over the local dimming engine that's so important to the TV's picture quality.
Two more features common to any self-respecting flagship TV these days are 3D playback and smart TV functionality, including online features.
3D is of the active flavour, and impressively from a situation just a couple of years ago of not including any 3D glasses with most of its TVs, Sony now includes no less than four with the 55W905A. Excellent.
Smart TV features
Smart TV features include playback of an impressively wide array of photo, music and video file formats from USB sticks or networked DLNA PCs, as well as access to Sony's latest online platform, dubbed the Sony Entertainment Network (to bring it in line with the online platform of the PS3).
This online platform impresses for the most part, thanks to the prodigious number of video streaming platforms it supports. Highlights include both Lovefilm and Netflix, Sony's own increasingly impressive Video and Music Unlimited services, BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, BBC News, Sony's Entertainment Television library, BBC Sport, a Sony-branded channel of 3D content, and Sky News.
Plus, of course, there are the usual social media suspects of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Picasa and Skype (if you purchase the optional extra Sony CMU-BR200 Skype camera).
There are loads more minor video services too, along with a reasonable cluster of basic games and a handful of utility and information apps. These second tier apps aren't nearly as numerous as they are on Samsung's current smart platform, but then the majority of Samsung's second-tier apps are just pointless clutter, really.
Active vs passive 3D
The Sony 55W905A follows current trends by shipping with a second remote and working in tandem with a dedicated iOS/Android app. We'll look at these in more detail in the Usability section of this review, but the key tricks of the second remote are that it offers a streamlined button count and supports Near-Field Communications (NFC) technology.
This means you can tap the remote against an NFC-capable portable device such as Sony's latest Xperia smartphones and instantly enable that device's screen to be mirrored on the TV.
The TV Sideview app, meanwhile, is one of the best presented we've seen to date, and provides exceptionally easy second-screen browsing of the TV listings and your digital media, as well as making it easy, of course, to present a chosen TV show or media file on the TV.
There is one feature that's surprisingly absent on TV SideView, though: second screen viewing. In other words, you can't stream video from the TV to your portable device for, say, watching in another room. Samsung, Panasonic and even Philips (on iOS, at least) by comparison, all offer this handy feature.
One final feature to mention is the Sony 55W905A's really exceptional input lag performance.
Our tests revealed that - so long as you use the TV's game preset and turn off as much video processing as possible - Sony's new flagship TV takes barely 10ms for on-screen video signals to arrive at its inputs. This is the lowest figure we've seen from a TV (as opposed to a dedicated PC monitor).
So does the addition of Triluminos to the core engine that made us love last year's HX853 series take the Sony 55W905A's LCD picture quality to genuinely new heights? Why yes. Yes it does.
The single biggest improvement, as you might expect, comes in the colour department. Instantly - no matter what source we watched - we could appreciate that colours enjoyed both a wider, richer tonal range and more subtlety in their blends than LCD TVs normally deliver.
As noted earlier, leaving Live Colour active can tip the impact of Triluminos into crazy, unbalanced, cartoonish levels of impact. But left in its natural state it's a technology that undoubtedly enriches your viewing experience, no matter what type of content you're watching.
From demos we enjoyed recently at a Sony 4K event in Los Angeles, moreover, we suspect that Triluminos will really come into its own if asked to play one of the Mastered in 4K Blu-rays Sony is readying for launch, with their expanded colour gamuts.
It doesn't do the impact of Triluminos any harm, of course, that it's allowed to strut its stuff against a backdrop of black levels that are at least the equal of those produced by Sony's ground-breaking HX853 TVs.
The use of local dimming allows the Sony 55W905A's screen to deliver remarkably deep black colours without, crucially, taking much punch at all out of any bright image elements that might appear within predominantly dark scenes.
What's particularly impressive about the local dimming system, though, is the way it delivers its palpable contrast enhancement without suffering heavily at all with local dimming's typical light blocking problem, whereby you can see rectangles of light around any bright objects against dark backdrops.
The Sony 55W905A isn't completely immune to this problem, but it only materialises during really quite extreme conditions. Which means that it's rare enough to feel like a more than acceptable price to pay for the set's generally outstanding contrast performance.
Certainly we've yet to see any other local dimming system on an edge LED TV that rivals the light management qualities exhibited by the Sony 55W905A.
Another strength of the Sony 55W905A's images is their adaptability. Thanks to X-Reality Pro the set is able to handle a huge range of different source types remarkably well, even managing to clean and sharpen up low-quality web feeds so that they're actually watchable even on a 55-inch screen.
The Sony 55W905A can upscale standard definition sources to its full HD resolution with considerable aplomb too, and make HD sources look sharper via the set's Reality Creation engine. This last option won't appeal to video purists, though.
Motion is excellently handled by the Sony 55W905A. Without any of the video processing options in play, the image largely survives the resolution loss over moving objects that's still common with LCD tech - a fact that joins with the unprecedented colour subtlety and more shadow detail delivery than is common with LCD technology in helping the Sony 55W905A's pictures look gorgeously textured and 'HD'.
If you feel like trying the motion processing options, some of them at least can deliver a reduction in judder without generating many unpleasant side effects.
We found there was something to be gained from using the Motionflow processing's Clear mode when watching 3D, since it took the edge off the increase in judder you get when watching 3D.
The Sony 55W905A's 3D playback is mostly very good. Colour saturations and brightness levels are exceptional, the set's excellent contrast performance helps it render a very strong sense of depth, and the screen does a great job of delivering all that lovely full HD resolution that active 3D was expressly created to deliver.
The only catch is that there's a touch more crosstalk than you get with Samsung's latest flagship 3D TVs (the F8000 series). But it's not remotely severe or common enough to stop the Sony 55W905A's 3D playback from being very enjoyable.
Aside from the relatively minor 3D crosstalk and dodgy Live Colour issues, the only significant problem we have with the mostly magical Sony 55W905A is its viewing angle.
You don't have to move very far at all down the set's sides before its previously impeccable backlight performance starts to slide, thanks to the appearance over the opposite edge of the screen from where you're watching of subtle but noticeable grey clouding.
This is a sufficiently strong problem to mean you at least need to consider the layout of your room before buying a Sony 55W905A. But provided you can work past this angle flaw, then the Sony 55W905A's pictures really are dangerously close to being beyond reproach.
Usability, sound and value
First, let's raise a glass to Sony for finally ditching its increasingly irksome 'Xrossbar media bar' GUI for its main menus.
In its place on the Sony 55W905A you get a much more attractive and vastly easier to follow new 'list'-style menu that also includes a handy new History option showing you the inputs and programmes you've watched most recently.
Far less praiseworthy, though, is the apparent backward step Sony has taken with its smart TV interface. Press the SEN button on the remote and you just get a long list of all the apps available on Sony's online service.
Aside from Sony inevitably putting its own Video and Music Unlimited services at the top of this list, there's seemingly precious little sense of a logical running order to the list. Nor can you separate the list's contents into app types to streamline your searching, or manually change the app running order - which means you could regularly find yourself having to scroll downwards over as many as 20 multiple rows of apps before you arrive at the one you want.
Making this situation look all the more weird is the fact that if you take the long-winded approach and access the SEN menus through the normal Home key then it is possible to pick your favourite online 'channels' and have them appear at the top of the list.
Sony has made no attempt to introduce any voice or gesture controls to its latest smart interface - which may sound a blessing to some, but it would have been nice to have seen Sony trying to do something a bit different, at least.
Nor has Sony provided a touchpad remote like those found with Panasonic and Samsung's high-end TVs. It has, though, provided a second remote, complete with a handily streamlined button count and - best of all - NFC.
This means that if you touch an NFC-enabled device to the remote's rear you can mirror that second device's screen on the TV - a brilliantly simple way to share content between devices.
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The last thing to consider here is Sony's TV SideView app. There's much to admire in the graphics-rich presentation of this app, and it's great to find it providing a one-stop shop for everything from browsing a TV guide and your multimedia content without having to disrupt what's showing on the TV, to being able to control the TV via an attractive virtual remote.
The lack of a way to stream video from the TV to your smart device is an oversight, but it arguably makes the TV SideView app easier to use.
It would be a shame if pictures as good as those produced by the Sony 55W905A weren't joined by at least a respectable audio performance. But we needn't have worried, because in fact they're joined by a great audio performance.
The key to its success is another Sony innovation going by the rather unfancy name of Long Ducting. What Sony has done is manage to squeeze a coiled duct 1.2m long into a 'box' on the TV's rear so that there's plenty of room for air to shift and thus create a more convincing, open, powerful and bass-laden soundstage than you get from the vast majority of flatscreen TVs.
Also contributing to the Sony 55W905A's audio quality is an angled flap hanging beneath the down-firing speaker outlet that redirects the audio waves forwards, so that it arrives at your ears more directly.
With its £2,399 (around AU$3,646 / US$3,714) asking price, the Sony 55W905A will clearly be beyond the reach of most consumers. But that doesn't mean that it's poor value.
On the contrary, for a flagship 55-inch TV delivering such imperious picture quality, its price seems entirely fair. It's worth stressing that it's £100 cheaper than the Samsung UE55F8000 too - though Samsung's TV does add a more sophisticated and video-rich online service to its offering.
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Sony's HX853 series from last year is a tough act to follow, but the brand's new high-end 55-inch 55W905A sets out a promising stall. The television's design is much trimmer and cooler than that of its predecessor, and its feature count is bolstered considerably by the introduction of Triluminos, which widens the TV's colour gamut by applying red, green and blue filters directly to each LED.
It also continues to use Sony's super-smart local dimming technology to raise its contrast to unprecedented levels, and backs up its outstanding visuals with some potent audio and a smart TV system that's reasonably rich in video if slightly lacking in features and GUI elegance.
The Sony 55W905A's pictures are sensational, with gorgeous colours and a huge contrast range. Its new design is smart too, and it's well connected, with good multimedia support. There's some powerful audio to accompany those cracking visuals, too.
The set's effective viewing angle is pretty limited, and there's a minor amount of crosstalk visible in 3D mode. Also the set's smart TV interface feels a little off the pace of some rivals now.
With so much quality already coming our way from other brands this year, we knew Sony needed to up its game from last year's much-lauded HX853 series. And in the elegant, space-saving shape of the Sony 55W905A, that's exactly what Sony has done.
As well as looking more chic, the Sony 55W905A uses new Triluminos technology to deliver a much improved colour performance without compromising the superb contrast performance so beloved on the HX853 TVs.
Sony's online platform includes plenty of video content to keep us happy too, ensuring that not even a slightly unsophisticated smart menu and a surprisingly limited viewing angle can stop us falling for Sony all over again.
The most direct rival from the TVs we've seen so far this year has to be Samsung's UE55F8000. This costs £100 more, but features an even more spectacular design, more top-notch online video services and a more advanced - if sometimes confusing - smart interface. Plus, handily, it boasts easily the best pictures Samsung has produced from an LCD TV to date.
For us, though, the Sony's pictures and sound both have the edge over the Samsung.
If you're after a decent 55-inch LCD TV with a much more affordable price tag, you could do worse than checking out Panasonic's L55ET60. This offers passive 3D and a 55-inch screen for as much as £1,000 less than the Sony or Samsung models, though it's let down by an uninspiring contrast performance.
Also worthy of consideration would be the 55-inch version of the Philips 42PFL6008, with its bold, Ambilight-driven design, passive 3D images and strikingly aggressive - by Philips' standards - price. The main compromise here is a sluggish and content-light smart system, and a less assured contrast performance.