Sony's TV business has fallen on some hard times of late. That said, the company still churns out some impressive performers, reviews tell us, and it is also offering some relative bargains. True, Sony's published MSRP still carries the typical Sony "premium" over other sets, but street prices (as set by Sony since the company is one of many that adheres to a strict Unilateral Pricing Policy, or UPP) are substantially lower, making pricing competitive with similar LED TVs. Sony has also pared down its models to just a handful of series, most of which come in only a few screen sizes and sometimes just one.
Dating back to when standard-definition CRT TVs were the only kind you could buy, Sony's XBR series has been at the top of the list of videophiles' favorites. For this year, the XBR moniker is applied to the company's three UHD models, the 84-inch Sony Bravia XBR-84X900A (Est. $25,000) , 65-inch Sony Bravia XBR-65X900A (Est. $7,000) and 55-inch Sony Bravia XBR-55X900A (Est. $5,000) .
Initial reviews for these sets, primarily the XBR-55X900A, say they're excellent performers with standard HD content and nothing short of spectacular with UHD -- or they would be if there were much UHD to watch. Sony is attempting to fill that content gap with a UHD media player, the FMP-X1 (Est. $600), which comes pre-loaded with 10 theatrical films and other UHD programming. Sony has also taken the wraps off of a UHD content download service. Video Unlimited 4K Ultra HD debuted in September with a total of 75 titles, with 100 more promised by the end of 2013. Rentals start at $7.99 for 24 hours and purchases of UHD films cost $29.99 and up. The catch -- other than the meager content -- is that the service is only compatible with Sony devices and it requires you to buy the media player.
Reviewers say that in terms of HD performance, color accuracy of the XBR-X900A is excellent and black levels are good, although how good is the subject of some debate. However, no one disagrees that the audio quality is probably the best of any TV ever. That's not surprising since the screen is flanked by two fairly massive Magnetic Fluid speakers that make the cabinet much wider than any other TVs in their respective screen sizes. Still, given the lack of UHD content, even with Sony's fledgling UHD service, the price premium over sets that perform as well or nearly so with HD content is a bit hard to swallow. As TelevisionInfo.com puts it, "ultra high definition is clearly the future of the TV industry -- not the present."
Instead, for most, the best Sony LED TV is the 55-inch Bravia KDL-55W900A (Est. $2,300) . It's offered in just the one screen size and was originally saddled with an astronomical list price. Since then, a $1,000 cut has brought this Sony LED TV in line with competing and comparable sets from other top-tier makers, like the 55-inch Samsung UN55F8000 (Est. $2,200) covered in our discussion of the Best Samsung LED TVs.
Although the Sony KDL-55W900A is no slouch in the features department, it is clearly bested by Samsung's competing set in both the quantity and quality of its features. However, the Sony gains an upper hand when it comes to producing the best picture quality.
The key is a technology called Quantum Dots, which Sony has branded Triluminos, used in the KDL-55W900A as well as the company's XBR UHD models. Those who want the whys and wherefores behind the technology can see this CNET article. For the rest of us, the bottom line is that Quantum Dots let LED-backlit LCDs produce the most accurate colors possible, and reviewers say the KDL-55W900A's color performance is nothing short of spectacular. Black levels produced by this edge-lit LED TV with local dimming are excellent, although not the best ever seen on an LED set, let alone a plasma TV.
On the features front, Sony doesn't break much new ground. The Sony Entertainment Network platform is easy to access and easy to use, but while most of the major providers and content types are represented, there's nowhere near the number of apps available from some other manufacturers, notably Samsung. There's also no app store. In addition, the KDL-55W900A is the only current Sony set to use active shutter 3D; the company has gone to passive technology for its other 3D sets, including its UHD XBR offerings. Performance is typical for active shutter 3D.
Also worth noting is one of this TV's several dejudder (motion-smoothing) modes, called Impulse. Although reviewers generally have "very bad things" to say about the excessively processed look of most dejudder modes in most sets from most makers, Impulse draws kudos from multiple sources. Despite introducing a few trade-offs, like a dimmer picture that clearly displeases Al Griffin at Sound & Vision magazine, motion processing in Impulse is generally described as perfect.
Sony's step-down W-series model, the W802A, is notably less expensive than the Bravia KDL-55W900A but draws far less praise. TelevisionInfo.com's Josh Fields looks at both sets and says in most respects, picture quality on the W802A just isn't as good as that seen on the W900A. There are no Quantum Dots in play here, and perhaps as a result, color accuracy isn't terrible but isn't perfect either, he reports. Will Greenwald at PCMag.com agrees, adding that black levels are "less than stellar." He says the W802A isn't a bad TV, but you can find better-performing sets at the same price point, or ones that perform just as well but cost less. One such option is our Best Reviewed Vizio M551D-A2R (Est. $1,100) ; see our discussion of the Best Vizio LED TVs for more information. The W802A comes in two screen sizes, the 55-inch Sony Bravia KDL-55W802A (Est. $1,500) and 47-inch Sony Bravia KDL-47W802A (Est. $1,100) .
Sony offers value LED TV sets, as well. Those in its R550A series have yet to be professionally reviewed at last look, but user feedback at sites such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com is enthusiastic There are no advanced picture features like local dimming, but basic features such as Sony's smart TV platform and passive 3D are included. Three models are offered: the 50-inch KDL-50R550A (Est. $900) , 60-inch KDL-60R550A (Est. $1,500) and 70-inch KDL-70R550A (Est. $2,500) .
Other R-series models are more basic still, but are well liked by those looking for a reasonably priced TV that focuses on good picture quality over bells and whistles. Case in point is the 40-inch Sony Bravia KDL-40R450A (Est. $450) , a bare-bones set without smart features or 3D. Colors are accurate and black levels are good for a set in its price and performance classes, experts say, but most also complain about poor off-axis viewing and less than perfect screen uniformity that's primarily visible during very dark scenes. Owners don't seem to mind so much. Feedback is strong at sites like BestBuy.com, where nearly every owner who posts a review rates the TV 4 stars out of 5 or higher and 98 percent say they'd recommend it to a friend. There aren't as many comments at Amazon.com, but users are nearly as enthusiastic. A 50-inch version, the Sony Bravia KDL-50R450A (Est. $600) , is also available.
Not every room or budget screams for a big LED TV. There are a number of good but basic 32-inch sets, including the Sony Bravia KDL-32R400A (Est. $300) . Like many in its price class, this is a 720p model, not 1,080p. However, experts say that at screen sizes this small, the benefits of 1,080p are lost unless your seating position is almost literally on top of the set.
Professional reviews are only mediocre, although the reasons why vary so widely that we have to wonder if the experts all looked at the same TV. PCMag.com praises the KDL-32R400A's viewing angle but complains about its color performance. In contrast, TelevisionInfo.com's Lee Neikirk says "only a trained expert could even try to notice a difference between this TV's color quality and a much higher-end unit, which is impressive." However, he's unhappy with the KDL-32R400A's viewing angles and calls motion performance a major shortfall. Others say that motion performance is not any worse than other sets with a native 60 Hz panel, which is par for the course with TVs in this category. Bottom line, when all opinions are weighed together, indications are that this set is pretty good performer for its class. Owners agree. Reviews are beginning to accumulate, and most are very pleased. Again, BestBuy.com has the most feedback, and the 4.8-star rating reflects the fact that all but one owner would recommend the TV to a friend.