Last Updated: November 1, 2013
Samsung vs. Sony LED LCD TV Sets
A950 vs. XBR8 - Part 2
Sony XBR8 LED LCD HDTV Lineup
with Sony Triluminos LED Technology
We continue this comparative review of Samsung vs. Sony LED LCD HDTVs by looking at Sony first mass market attempt in LED backlighting technology. This is the Sony XBR8 Series with Sony's Triluminos LED backlight system.
These Sony LED LCD HDTVs are surely the most awaited LCD TVs. Sony flagship LCD HDTVs have always been regarded as exceptional solid performers; the new XBR8 series continues by setting new standards in picture quality. More information in this LCD HDTV Review article.
Sony's W900A Series LED TV with Triluminous backlight technology
Sony XBR8 LED LCD TV Lineup
As with the Samsung A950, the Sony XBR8 Series represents Sony flagship line for 2008. It is characterized by Sony's Triluminos RGB LED backlight system. Like the Samsung flagship, the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs comprises two models that come within the same screen sizes as the Samsung, the 55" Sony KDL-55XBR8 LED LCD TV and the 46".
The XBR8 represents Sony first mass-market attempt with LED LCD TVs. It is also the most awaited HDTV lineup around by videophiles. Samsung had already come up with the 81F LED LCD TVs last year and this year A950 LED lineup was expected to continue to build up on the already exceptional performance of the 81F. But Sony's XBR8 did not have any predecessors to enable one to determine where these LED LCD TVs from this giant might stand in terms of picture performance.
For sure, the Sony LED LCD TVs come with impressive features and equally impressive specification set. However, these Sony LED LCD TVs also come with an exceptionally expensive price tag. We say exceptionally expensive because at $7,000 for the 55 inch and $5,000 for the 46-inch, these HDTVs are some 60% more expensive than the already expensive Samsung equivalents. And at this price bracket, you can even get a larger 60-inch Pioneer KURO plasma for significantly less!
So the issue here is whether these expensive Sony LED LCD TVs are in reality capable of delivering exceptional performance in relation to their price. In particular, how do they perform with respect to the new Samsung LED series? And considering their very expensive price, are they capable of outperforming the best plasmas?
The Sony XBR8 LED LCD TV Series in detail...
The XBR8 series takes a rather wide design with the speakers placed on either side of the screen. This somewhat more impressive look is further enhanced by the way the side speakers attach to the rest of the panel. Like the Samsung Touch-of-Color design, Sony's way of appending the side speakers is also a love-it or hate-it affair. Sony provides alternative speaker grills to the black that comes as standard; these are available in red, silver, brown, and gold. This is sort of similar to what Sony had done with its 2007 - XBR4 series. Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs come with a black frame and a low profile stand. Like the stand on the Samsung A950 HDTVs, the Sony stand on the XBR8 series does not swivel.
Without the stand, the 55-inch measures 58.5 x 31.6 x 5.9 inches while the 46-inch measures 49.6 x 27 x 5.9 inches. These dimensions make the Sony some 1.5 inches deeper than the Samsung A950 LED LCD TV series. The pedestal stand that comes with these Sony HDTVs adds a further 2 inches in overall height by approximately 8 inches in depth.
The XBR8 comes with a backlit remote control that is larger than the average. But other than this, the remote is crowded with buttons for other gear; this makes the remote rather cumbersome in use.
The menu system uses Sony XMB interface - short for XrossMediaBar. It is more of a Media Center or PSP style menu than a traditional TV menu - with items arranged horizontally and vertically on a sort of cross structure. Originally adopted on 2007 models, this year version of XMB as applied on the XBR8 series come with a number of improvements with respect to the grouping of picture controls.
While this type of menu structure does not always result in the shortest path to access sub-menus, yet the overall effect is still a clean and easy to navigate menu system. Admittedly however, the 'standard' menu structure as adopted by Samsung on the A950 is more straightforward and feels easier in use.
Irrespective of the feature set that comes with the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs, the real differentiating factor is the LED backlighting.
Like the Samsung A950, the Sony LED backlight system uses local dimming - termed by Sony as LED Dynamic Control - to produce a deep shade of black and a rated 1,000,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio.
The innovation on part of Sony comes with the use of a three-color LED backlight module as the basis for its LED backlighting; this uses two green, and one of each red and blue LEDs as further detailed in our introduction (Part 1 of this LCD TV review article). According to Sony, the use of a three-color LED light source helps produce a wider color gamut, but as we will see further on in this write up, there is still an element of blooming.
Apart from the LED backlighting however, the XBR8 LED LCD TV series feature set is practically the same as that found on the less expensive XBR6 series - with just a few minor additional options.
Present is a 120Hz refresh rate which works together with Sony dejudder option - termed 'Motion Enhancer' in the menu (but also referred to as 'Motion Flow' in the accompanying literature) to help eliminate motion blur.
Equally important is the 10-bit video processing and a 10-bit display panel. Without going into the actual mathematics, 10-bit gives you 64 times more levels of color - or shades of gray - than an 8-bit panel. This translates into smoother transitions from color to color, thus making it possible for the display to produce subtle color changes even more accurately. Some manufactures boast of 10-bit processing, but then their display panel is not capable of handling full 10-bit color - hence it would not be possible to enjoy the full benefit of 10-bit processing.
Sony LED LCD TVs come with four picture presets, each of which can be adjusted independently per input; there is also a non-adjustable 'Theater' preset. Basic settings available on all picture presets include two noise reduction modes and three color temperature settings. Three of the presets also support a white balance control to further tune color temperature and a gamma setting.
Sony Bravia Engine provides the user with two modes of what Sony dubs Digital Reality Creation, or DRC, along with a Reality vs. Clarity matrix. DRC technology is an integral part of the BRAVIA engine and is designed both to upconvert standard definition 480i and 480p content to 1080p, and also to minimize loss in interlace-to-progressive conversion when converting 1080i content to 1080p. The 'Reality' setting affects the apparent resolution while the 'Clarity' parameter increases the noise reduction.
Other video processing options include CineMotion and which affects the TV's 2:3 pull-down performance, a Game Mode that removes video processing entirely to eliminate any delay between a game controller and the onscreen action, and a photo/video optimizer.
There are also four aspect ratio modes for high definition sources plus a 'Full Pixel' mode - equivalent to Samsung's 'Just Scan' mode to display all the individual 1920 x 1080 pixels in an HD image without any overscan.
Conveniences on the Sony XBR8 Series of LED LCD TVs include a Home/Store option (similar to what is available on some Panasonic and Samsung HDTV), plus two power saving options that limit the peak brightness for reduced energy consumption in the home. Power consumption is among the best - mainly thanks to the use of LED backlight technology; this is in line with that for corresponding Samsung A950 LED LCD TVs.
These Sony HDTVs also come with a handy Picture-in-Picture mode, but just like the Samsung A950 HDTVs, this is a rather restricted feature that can only display the TV/antenna input in the sub-picture for preview when the main picture is from any external; it does not work the other way round.
Like most high-end 2008 sets, the XBR8 series come with a very basic network support that allows it to work with DLNA-compliant devices. This DLNA support on the Sony is very much limited and allows you to access only digital photos (JPEG files) from another DLNA-compliant device; it does not support music or video streaming.
On the plus side, the Sony Ethernet connection allows you to receive firmware upgrades direct via the TV Ethernet port over your home network internet connection. In contrast, the Samsung A950 does lack this convenience. Yet the DLNA support on the Samsung A950 - despite not being truly DLNA compliant as it will only work with the provided Samsung DLNA server software, supports a wider range of music, video, and photo files.
One last convenience and rather uncommon feature worth mentioning here is the presence of an onscreen electronic programming guide mainly for use with over-the-air program content via the set antenna input. It can also be used with satellite and cable but users who have satellite or cable TV service will most probably still revert to their set-top-box EPG.
As one may expect from a flagship HDTV, connectivity on the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs is most complete.
The rear panel comes with 3 HDMI ver. 1.3 while a fourth HDMI resides on the side panel. There are also two component-video jacks, a VGA-style PC input supporting a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080-pixels, an AV input with S-Video and composite video, a separate composite video input, an RF-style antenna/cable input, analog audio output, a digital (optical) audio output, and an Ethernet port.
Apart from these standard audio video connections, the rear panel includes three Sony proprietary connections labeled Remote, DMex/Service, and DMPort.
The Remote jack allows the set to receive control signals from an appropriate remote.
The DMex/Service port is Sony dedicated USB port for Sony's Digital Media Extender and service upgrades. The Digital Media Extender provides a digital connection path for optional modules. One interesting but expensive optional module is the Sony Bravia Internet Video Link (or BIVL) to stream video content direct from your broadband connection without the need for a PC.
Additional optional modules also include a four-port HDMI box, and a wireless HDMI transmitter/receiver.
The DMPort allows connection to even more add-ons, including a Bluetooth wireless audio adapter and an iPod dock.
The side connection panel on the right side of the screen includes the fourth HDMI port already referred to above, plus an extra AV input with composite video, and a USB port for photos and music playback
Sony KDL-XBR8 LED LCD TVs - Overall Performance
Sony flagship LCD HDTVs have always been regarded as exceptional solid performers with respect to picture quality; the latest Sony LED LCD TV series is no exception - setting new standards in picture performance.
Some reviews say that the new Sony LED LCD TVs deliver the deepest black levels of any LCD, a most important parameter in picture performance. The XBR8 series also comes with accurate primary colors, best overall bright-room viewing characteristics, loads of video processing options, more than enough picture controls, and a complete suite of connectivity options.
Speaking of black level, Cnet reviews state that with dimly lit scenes, the Sony black levels are at practically the ideal value of absolute black. In this respect, Sony XBR8 HDTVs can do slightly better than the Samsung.
But like the Samsung, when it comes to displaying bright subjects over or adjacent to a dark background, blacks appear a bit less dark than expected. This is typical of LED LCD TVs. The local dimming of LEDs adopted by TV makers to achieve superb black levels is also responsible of making dark areas right next to bright ones, appear somewhat lighter with respect to the rest.
This is the blooming effect we referred to in the case of the Samsung A950 Series and which is also present to some extent on the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs. As with the Samsung, the blooming on the Sony is also quite subtle and less evident than that on the Samsung - but still visible, though not distracting.
As with the Samsung A950, the Sony black levels and color saturation fall off considerably with off-angle viewing - a lot more than with conventional CCFL-based LCD TVs.
Color on the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs is superb; primary color accuracy is almost spot on with the HD standard. Overall, these Sony LED LCD TVs are capable of well saturated but equally important, balanced colors - with colors that remain accurate even in very dark areas of the image.
Overall, video processing on the Sony XBR8 is good and generally free from artifacts. Noise reduction both with HD material and standard definition is superb. With the Motion Enhancer dejudder video processing switched off, these Sony 120Hz LCD HDTVs are still capable of preserving the natural cadence of film in 1080p/24 content without any excessive smoothing or the slightly jerky quality associate with 2:3 pull-down otherwise necessary with 60Hz displays.
The dejudder processing comes with three options. One of the dejudder settings also adds sequential firing of the LED backlighting - sort of the LED Smart Motion on the Samsung A950 and which scans the array of LED backlights from top to bottom at very fast rates. This sequential firing helps eliminate motion blur. The main difference between the two TV makers is that while with the Samsung, it is possible for the user to set the Auto Motion Plus dejudder settings and backlight sequential firing independent of each other, with the Sony the two functions become simply one; this may not always be what the end-user wants.
When it comes to de-interlacing, the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TVs can deinterlace 1080i video-based content correctly, but not film-based sources. This is somewhat typical of most HDTVs. With the Motion Enhancer in 'Clear' setting, the XBR8 can achieve almost the full 1080 lines of vertical resolution supported by the HD standard. This is the same as the Samsung with the LED Smart Motion feature engaged. It is the 'Clear' setting on the Sony that automatically engages the LED sequential firing; the other two settings associated with the Sony's Motion Enhancer yields less motion resolution. As expected, switching off the Motion Enhancer would yield an even lower motion resolution.
With standard definition content, the Sony XBR8 performance is average, showing a number of artifacts when the Sony Digital Reality Creation is set to 'on'. Interesting is that Sony's DRC is designed among others to upconvert standard definition 480i and 480p to display it on the set 1080p screen while minimizing loss in interlace-to-progressive conversion. With the DRC set to off, the artifacts will disappear but then jaggies on diagonals will become more visible. The Samsung A950 is capable of doing somewhat better here.
With PC content, these Sony LED LCD TVs can display the full 1920 x 1080 pixel image with no overscan - delivering crisp, clear text, both over the XBR8 VGA input as well as over the HDMI connections.
One complaint we came across among consumer reviews with respect to the video processing on the Sony is the rather longer processing delay with respect to other HDTVs. This makes the Game mode on the XBR8 even more critical for gamers as it helps minimize these delays by bypassing most of the video processing.
Image uniformity across the screen is one of the best with an even light output and neutral color across the full screen area.
However, like the Samsung, these Sony LED LCD TVs fail to hold their deep levels of black and neutral colors with off angle viewing. Just move slightly away from the optimum viewing position and blacks will appear washed out while blooming becomes more visible. This is very much the same like Samsung's behavior with off-angle viewing and while the Sony's fall-off is not as drastic as that of the Samsung A950, yet the latter is capable of delivering more natural colors - despite the resultant discoloration - with off-axis viewing.
As we have stated for the Samsung A950, standard CCFL-based LCD HDTVs can do better here than these extremely expensive LED LCD TVs.
The Sony XBR8 matte screen performance under bright light conditions is truly outstanding - with the images holding their deep blacks and color saturation even in a brightly lit room and with direct lighting falling on the screen.
Under such an environment, colors on plasmas would generally wash out considerably. In this respect, Samsung A950 HDTVs also hold on to their deep blacks under a bright environment but then fails to attenuate reflections as a result of its shiny screen - which is a handicap when displaying dark content in a bright environment. It is true that if you want the very best in picture performance, you should use your TV under controlled lighting.
But... if you cannot and want an LED LCD TV, then your best option is the matte-screen of the Sony XBR8 LED LCD TV.
Part 1: Samsung A950 LED LCD TV Series