For those of us fortunate enough to have both lots of wall space and deep pockets, a new wave of pricey Ultra HD TVs—with four times the resolution of a regular 1080p sets—promise ever bigger screens and more detailed pictures than you can get with current HDTVs.
We recently had a chance to visit Sony's headquarters to spend a few hours with the 84-inch XBR-84X900 Ultra HD TV, which sells for about $25,000. This visit follows our in-lab First Look test of the LG 84LM9600 Ultra HD TV, which is priced around $18,000. While there was a lot to like about each model—which are in many ways quite similar—we gave the edge to the Sony in terms of overall performance, although it should be noted that we were able to spend a lot more time with the LG under test-lab conditions.
This Sony set, which was introduced late last year, will soon be joined by several newer models, with some additional features, in smaller screen sizes. Prices haven't yet been announced, but we assume the smaller 65- and 55-inch screens will make them less expensive, though we're not convinced the greater picture detail promised by Ultra HD TVs will be as evident with smaller screen sizes.
One key difference with Sony's Ultra HD sets is that they come with a free media PC loaded with 4K content—including 10 full-length feature films—so there's at least some native 4K content to watch. (The company says it will launch an Ultra HD download service this summer.) Both TVs also upconvert standard 1080p and 1080i content, such as you'd get from a Blu-ray disc or your cable company, to the set's higher resolution.
Sony started our session with a 90-minute presentation that included a head-to-head comparison of a Sony XBR-Sony's Ultra HD TV with the LG 84LM9600 Ultra HD TV, as well an 80-inch 1080p LCD TV from Sharp (model LC-80LE632U). Unfortunately, the comparisons weren't ideal, as Sony didn't calibrate each TV for its best performance; instead, Sony said, the TVs were left in their out-of-box settings, though we have little doubt the Sony was adjusted to its best settings. (When we test TVs, we calibrate each TV for best performance using the standard user picture controls.) Sony did allow us to connect our own test gear to its sets, so were able to get some initial unbiased impressions of how well it performs.
Proprietary processing. Since the Sony and LG sets appear to have the same LCD panel, we assumed the TV's video processing would play a large role differentiating one manufacturer's set from another, and that was clearly a focus of Sony's demos. In one comparison that highlighted screen uniformity, Sony displayed a gray field of video on both sets, which showed relatively equal non-uniformity. But the Sony set had a feature that when activated applied a proprietary algorithm that noticeably corrected the issue, making the gray field look uniformly illuminated. Since this technique was independent of any TV set-up issues, we believe that Sony's approach is an advantage.
Similarly, the Sony set includes an edge LED backlight and auto/local dimming controls that seem to do a good job of dimming black levels while maintaining smooth transitions from dark scenes to brighter ones without a sudden jump in brightness. Local dimming side effects were subtler than we've seen on the LG model in our lab, where visible random illumination of dark areas of the image were more pronounced. This black-level performance is consistent from what we saw with some of Sony's top-tier sets last year (such as the KDL-55HX850, which uses Sony's Dynamic Edge LED local-dimming controls), with better-than-average black levels for an LCD set. We were also impressed with Sony's "impulse" processing on our motion-blur test patterns.
Sony also played a number of high-definition video clips, including some scenes from a Harry Potter movie. The TV showed excellent contrast on darker scenes, but we also detected some image oversharpening, which we believe was due to Sony's proprietary processing.
Ultra HD vs. upconverted 1080p shootout. For our two demos, Sony played Ultra HD content in both its lossless form (an exact replica of the studio master) and as a compressed video file, where some picture information is removed to make the video file smaller. The latter is more typical of what the consumers will eventually see at home. Each of these native Ultra HD (4K) clips were then compared to their 1080p HD counterparts
When we viewed the lossless video it generally looked excellent; in one scene, however, we did see some unusual colored speckles over specific areas of the image, which Sony attributed to the wiring setup rather than the content or the TV.
In the first Ultra HD/1080p shootout, there was a scene of people walking around a public square, with images filmed from relatively high above ground. We viewed a lossless 4K Ultra HD version on one Sony Ultra TV, while a lossless 1080p version (the same video downconverted from a native 4K master) was shown on another Sony Ultra HD TV right next to it. When we viewed the two TVs from a distance of about 6 feet, we were able to discern the extra clarity of the Ultra HD content.
But perhaps more notable was how good the upconverted material looked on the Ultra HD set—good enough that many people might not notice the difference, at least not with the content we were viewing. This becomes even truer from a more normal 8- to 10-foot viewing distance, when the difference between the quality of the two videos becomes even less apparent. We expect the difference to narrow even further with the compressed Ultra HD content that will likely be available, which has reduced image quality.
In the second shootout we also had a chance to do a head-to-head test of compressed Ultra HD movie streamed from the PC and upscaled 1080p content from a standard Blu-ray player. In clips from The Amazing Spiderman, it was obvious that the compressed 4K version of Spiderman lacked the clarity and detail of the lossless material we viewed previously.
In fact, at times it would be fair to say that this content looked more like HD than Ultra HD, to the point that when we synced playback of the clips, it was hard to distinguish one from the other. When we froze screens on the same video frame, we could see that the 4K version had a hint of more detail, but this was only when our noses were just inches from the screen. Again, this was our viewing experience on this one film, and we wonder if this will be the typical image quality you'll get at home.
During our review of the LG 83LM9600, we were surprised to find that the LG wasn't capable of playing high-resolution (8 megapixel) digital photos at the set's native 4K resolution when played from a flash drive via the TV's USB port; we surmised that the TV was downconverting the images to 1080p (2 megapixels). The Sony, apparently, can display photos in full resolution, though it wouldn't display the photos we brought. (A Sony engineer said the images needed to be saved in a lower JPEG level, such as 7, instead of the level 12 we used.) We'll have to check this out when we get a set in our labs.
3D, viewing angle, and sound. In many ways, the Sony and LG sets were comparable. For example, one advantage of Ultra HD TVs is that while they use passive 3D technology—which uses a polarization process that reduces the vertical resolution—there's enough resolution to present full 1080p 3D images to each eye.
Likewise, since both companies use the same IPS panels, we found both had wider-than-average viewing angles for an LCD TV, though black levels were compromised when the set was viewed from an angle. This is something we see on regular 1080p sets, though it's more noticeable on these TVs' larger screen sizes.
We gave the Sony the edge on sound quality. While we liked the sound from LG's integrated speaker system built into the set's cabinet, the XBR-84X900 features large, detachable speaker panels that connect to the side of the TV. With movie clips, the Sony sounded a bit clearer when reproducing dialog, and the overall sound was more robust, with deeper bass extension and better stereo separation.
Bottom line. If you can get beyond the price—and admittedly, most of us can't—the Sony seems to be a winner, both with native 4K material and upconverted 1080p fare. With the right content, the TV can produce a fantastic picture, with greater detail and picture clarity than what you can get from regular 1080p sets. That may let you buy a bigger TV without altering your seating distance from the set. It also has room-filling sound, great 3D performance, and better-than-average black levels and contrast for an LCD set.
But for many people, the advantages of an Ultra HD set are really only evident with very large screen sizes—and not everyone is looking for an 84- or 85-inch TV. And right now, there's no timetable for either Blu-ray movies or broadcast TV to support 4K resolution, so native content will be scarce. That's why we believe that Ultra HD will remain a niche product this year, with appeal primarily to those with the desire to own the current state-of-the-art in televisions, and the financial wherewithal to indulge it.
—Claudio Ciacci and James K. Willcox