Sony KDL-55HX853 3D LED LCD TV Review

Black Level

We measured the LCD panel’s natural black level during the ANSI checkerboard test (which is a good indicator of real-world content) at 0.07 cd/m2, which is a little disappointing. Keep in mind that comparably priced Plasma displays, such as the Panasonic TX-P50ST50, are managing 0.009 cd/m2, which is nearly ten times darker (although that doesn’t mean that it automatically looks ten times better). This measurement was taken with peak white set to the standard 120 cd/m2, using the “Clear Plus” Motionflow mode.

When fed an entirely black screen, the Sony KDL-55HX853 would partake in the usual LCD trick of turning the LEDs off entirely, returning pure, unadulterated black. Of course, that’s useless for actually watching TV, hence our insistence on the ANSI test. With the [LED Dynamic Control] mode shut off, the Bravia HX853 still dimmed its lighting when fed a fully black screen, returning a measurement of 0.005 cd/m2. That’s minutely lower than the genuine 0.009 cd/m2 – 0.010 cd/m2 performance of the Panasonic ST50 plasma, but bizarrely, despite measuring lower, it actually looks brighter. Why? Our theory is that because the level of brightness is not entirely consistent on the LCD (due to the use of polarized light and edge-lighting both causing some non-uniformity), so our eyes perceive it as being less black – whereas the plasma manages a consistently dark shade and seems to “disappear” (nearly) as a result.

All in all, black level performance is decent on the Sony KDL55HX853BU. We’ve seen other LCD panels do a better job in terms of native, unassisted black level, which leads to better contrast performance overall, but Sony’s LED dimming algorithm was well implemented enough for it to be unobtrusive during most film viewing.

Motion Resolution

As we mentioned previously, the three [Motionflow] modes we’re most interested in are [Clear], [Clear Plus], and the new [Impulse] setting. The other options perform motion interpolation on film images, which causes technical glitches as well as changing the look of the 24-frames-per-second (24fps) film material.

Our motion interpolation detector test lets us see that the [Clear] and [Clear Plus] modes partake in a bit of interpolation, but when the [Film Mode] is set to “Auto1″, it’s not enough to introduce a “soap opera effect”, or to cause visible artefacts. As such, we’re still happy to use these modes. With live action content or even most 3D animated content, you’re unlikely to see any issues. Hand-drawn animation is subtly affected, though, with the individually crafted drawings occasionally “morphing” between each other. Viewers who watch a lot of 2D animation can turn [Motionflow] off if they feel it’s a problem.

All three of these modes employ backlight (okay, edge-light) scanning to trick the human visual system (the eyes and brain) into seeing sharper motion images. The [Clear Plus] mode causes a darkening in the image. Users in brighter rooms might want to stay with [Clear], but users watching films in darker rooms can safely go with [Clear Plus]. In fact, this selection is saved independently in the [Cinema 1] and [Cinema 2] modes, meaning that calibrators can easily use [Clear] for a daytime viewing mode and [Clear Plus] for nighttime viewing, where the lessened light output won’t matter.

The new [Impulse] mode is interesting. It uses a type of backlight pulsing we’ve never seen before, which does up the motion clarity with test content. This completely eliminated perceived motion blur in many of our test clips, but some LCD panel blur (caused by pixel response time) remained. However, as the on-screen menu mentions, it produces flicker during bright scenes, which is likely to prove intolerable to almost all users. It did produce better motion clarity with all of the test sequences and content we tried it with, though.

In the end, we settled on [Clear Plus] since it’s a good middle ground between the three settings. With this selected, the Sony KDL-55HX853 did a fairly clean job of reproducing the scrolling test chart from the FPD Benchmark Software BD, although some LCD inverse ghosting was sometimes visible. With high motion video content, the image appeared relatively crisp, but was of course, still behind that of a Plasma TV – unless we used the flickering [Impulse] mode, that is. If we enabled this, motion was nearly as good as a Plasma (albeit with the LCD overdrive still causing some small motion trails), but the flicker makes it a no-go except for darker content.

High Definition

All things considered, the KDL-55HX853 did a fine job with HD content from Blu-ray. As we mentioned previously, there are some Greyscale and Colour inaccuracies that, while not too visible in themselves, do show up when the HX853 is compared with a display that does better in these areas.

Arrietty screenshot

Some people might roll their eyes at the idea of using an animated film to assess colour reproduction, and while it’s true that animation is more likely to feature stylised colours and therefore be of no use for, say, assessing flesh tones (don’t try to calibrate your TV to make the Simpson family appear flesh-coloured), live action films are often heavily stylised too. What’s more, as 100% synthetic content where every single colour and line is a deliberate decision on the part of the filmmakers, hand-drawn animated material often reveals issues which go unnoticed with photorealistic films. A case in point is Studio Ghibli’s latest feature film, Arrietty, which revealed the extent of the Sony KDL-55HX853′s slight colour issues when we played back the excellent American Blu-ray Disc (the film was released over there as The Secret World of Arrietty, and is a real delight for the eyes). Using an HDMI splitter to display on both screens at once, we compared the image to that of the Panasonic TX-P50ST50 plasma television, which features highly accurate saturation tracking, and is also at around the same price level of this Sony. During the scenes in the Japanese garden near the start of the film, the Panasonic coloured nearly all of the leaves and grass in a similar hue. On the Sony, the brighter leaves started to become more neon-like, and sometimes, slightly more yellow-green, which drew attention to them in a way which was almost certainly not intended by the filmmakers. Take a look at the saturation tracking chart during the Calibration section of our review, and you’ll see that this is backed up by the science.

Fortunately, the colour reproduction is still very good overall, but again, Sony, please add a colour management system (CMS) so we can hopefully correct small errors like these in the future.

Arrietty screenshot 2

The same disc revealed what is, in our opinion, a huge strength of the Bravia KDL-55HX853 when compared to its closest LCD-based competition. If you’ve read our review of Samsung’s latest ES8000 LED LCD TV, as well as a recent LG flagship model, you’ll know that we were annoyed to see both Korean HDTVs applying mild noise reduction at all times (unless their processing-light “Game Mode” settings were used, which introduced other compromises). The Sony KDL-55HX853 can be set up to show every luminance pixel from the source untouched without having to switch into a Game Mode, which is what we want for high quality material coming out of a Blu-ray player.

Although like most modern animated (and increasingly, live action) films, Arrietty was produced digitally, the producers actually added in a light sheen of simulated film grain to give the picture texture and depth, because their own testing revealed that viewers had a preference for slightly textured images over entirely smoothed-over and flat ones – something that Korean television manufacturers might want to take notice of. (If you’ve ever watched any of the Blu-ray versions of old Disney films, which generally have the film grain completely frozen or otherwise scrubbed out of the image, you’ll appreciate the difference). The Sony HX853 correctly reproduces all of the texture from a high quality film scan (or CG animation that partially emulates the look of one), which is excellent. In fact, although this will vary from person to person, I’d personally rather watch movies on a display with slightly less accurate colour and full detail (such is the case on the 55HX853) than I would watch them on a display with film grain blurring and better colour accuracy.

(Note for American and Canadian readers: the US Samsung LCD and Plasma TVs do not have any issues with smearing film grain like the European versions do).

Arrietty screenshot 3

Likewise, high quality film scans which feature a light sheen of film grain – our favourite example is the re-released version of Gladiator (NOT the original mess!) – also shone on the Sony KDL-55HX853. We found that the tiny amount of motion interpolation used in the [Motionflow] modes could dampen the film texture a little due to the motion interpolation process, but not to the extent that we found it troublesome – and anyway, the option is always there to turn it Off. There was no loss of detail, no smearing during dark scenes, or other artefacts which appear on HDTV displays which tamper with the picture.

Just one last note on this: during the review process, we found a bug with the KDL-55HX853 which can cause it to blur high very high frequency pixel details in motion (yes, that includes film grain and other fine textures). In fact, we detected this with our own Film Grain test pattern. We noticed that despite all the processing being shut off, the sharp pixel details in the film grain test would become hazy upon movement, although they lost none of their motion fluidity (if you’re well-versed on video processing, then you’ll understand this as motion-triggered spatial filtering). Fearing that we’d have to produce a third review in a row lambasting manufacturers for film grain blurring – something we don’t expect from a company like Sony, with their extensive post-production know-how – we were relieved to find out that it’s a bug with the [Reality Creation] “Off” switch, which can be avoided. During calibration, set [Reality Creation] to “Manual” and turn [Noise Filtering] OFF. Then, disable [Reality Creation]. If you disable [Reality Creation] without first setting the [Noise Filtering] to its lowest setting, the filter is not actually off; it’s still running in the background.

Not only is the Sony KDL-55HX853 capable of displaying film material without blurring fine details out, it’s also capable of producing wonderful quality motion with 24p content. Sony Bravias typically never falter in this area, and the HX853 is no exception. Any sort of camera pan is reproduced with cinema-like smoothness; with no irregular judder, and no “soap opera effect”, provided the [Film Mode] is set to “Auto1″ and [Motionflow] is set to either “Clear”, “Clear Plus”, or “Impulse”. Actually, the KDL-55HX853 does use motion interpolation as well as backlight scanning when it’s set to the Clear or Clear Plus modes, but the effect is not enough to create a “soap opera effect”, and film motion still looks like film. The gentle motion interpolation can occasionally cause “shredding” artefacts, especially with 2D hand-drawn animation, but as usual, the option is there to shut [Motionflow] off entirely – just in case.

So, let’s wrap up: we have full detail, excellent motion with 24p film content, good greyscale accuracy, imperfect but still good colour accuracy, and a reasonably high contrast LCD panel. We still prefer watching films on a high quality Plasma (or projector), but putting comparisons aside, the Sony KDL-55HX853 is the LCD TV that we’ve liked the most for movie viewing lately. Overall, it’s a good performance.

Standard Definition

Nearly all TVs out there now do a decent job with SD content, and the Sony HX853 is another of those. Diagonal interpolation during the deinterlacing stage is decent rather than great, with two out of the three bars on the HQV Benchmark disc appearing smooth. We’d be lying if we were upset by the way actual content appears, though. With [Film Mode] set to “Auto1″, the KDL-55HX853 correctly detected the film-to-PAL film cadence, and avoided throwing away vertical resolution and introducing jaggies into standard-def movie material. Scaling was also to a good, but not top-tier standard, with the handful of good SD DVDs that actually maximise the format’s resolution potential looking fairly good.

3D

The extra-dimensional experience on the Sony KDL-55HX853 is something special, despite some small flaws. We simply can’t stress the benefits of 3D display calibration enough – while the green-tinged out-of-the-box 3D image was still good, it rose to nearly the same level of quality we’re used to seeing in 2D after calibration.

The first thing to note about the HX853 is that its 3-dimensional pictures are BRIGHT – not as bright as 2D can get, but definitely compared to much of the competition. Under the “3D Settings” menu, [3D Glasses Brightness] can be set to High, and while this potentially will cause more flicker with certain types of room lighting, we saw absolutely no ill effects of turning the control to this setting.

With previous Sony 3DTVs, we’ve complained about the right eye image appearing to have vertical lines running through it – presumably a shortcut used to address the panel more quickly (active-shutter 3D TV displays require a faster refresh rate). This is greatly reduced on the Bravia KDL-55HX853, although it’s still here in a milder way. So far, only Panasonic’s IPS-based and Samsung’s recent SPVA 3D LCD TVs have managed to draw a tri-dimensional image which is free of these sorts of artefacts. Still, they’re mild, so let’s place them in context with the KDL55HX853′s other 3D strengths.

Making sure that [Motionflow] was shut off (the non-interpolating modes which we were fans of in 2D are not available for the 3D display mode), we ran our 3D motion tests on the HX853. 50hz content played back without motion judder (again, make sure [Motionflow] is off). In fact, to be doubly sure, we ran our 50hz 3D Motion Interpolation detector pattern, to make sure that the Sony KDL-55HX853 wasn’t converting 50hz 3D content to 60hz for output. The test passed perfectly, indicating that the 3DTV supports native 50hz 3D playback, meaning users of Sky 3D (or similar services across the PAL world) won’t see any motion stutter or shredding/tearing artefacts, provided Motionflow is disabled. 24hz, and of course, 60hz three-dimensional content were also reproduced without motion errors.

Like most LCD-based displays, the KDL55HX853 also reproduces full vertical 3D resolution (unlike passive 3D LCDs), and did so across the entire tonal range (unlike some 3D Plasmas).

After these pre-flight checks, we checked out some native 3D BD content, such as Sony’s own Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. The 3D effect was incredibly engaging, and, aside from occasional minor crosstalk artefacts (which have the aforementioned “vertical lines” running through them), we were very satisfied with the 3D image quality, which is getting closer to the high standards set by 2D – just with the additional depth, which, when done well, can be quite fun. After calibration, we could flick back to the 2D display mode and remove the glasses and see essentially the same colour and luminance coming from the TV, which is a pretty rare sight.

Console Gaming

Gaming proved responsive enough on the Sony KDL-55HX853, with 1080p/60 feeds from an Xbox 360 providing a fairly immersive gaming experience, provided we used the “Game” scene mode rather than the “Cinema” we’d used before. In fact, within the Game mode there’s a [Game-Original] setting which brings back a D65 white point, and disables revisionist picture processing, meaning games look good and feel good.

We measured input lag as being around 28ms, which is on the right side of acceptability, but isn’t as lighting fast as the 16ms found on some mid-range Plasmas. Only hardcore first-person-shooter and beat-em-up gamers are likely to notice the difference, though.

Conclusion

It appears that Sony is on the road to recovery. The KDL-55HX853 still has some rough edges that we’d like to see ironed out on future Sony LCD televisions, but that doesn’t stop it being the overall best LCD-based HDTV we’ve seen lately – much of the LED LCD competition has more severe kinks. Not only that, but it appears that the Japanese firm has finally woken up and realised how good its competition has gotten in the post-Trinitron days, and the KDL55HX853, for once, is not grossly overpriced.

Deciding on a final rating was difficult. Our favourite similarly-priced display is still the Panasonic ST50 plasma series, which delivers exceptional value for money and picture quality, with truly inky blacks and outstandingly accurate colour. However, some people don’t like the light flicker that it features, preferring the more stable image of the LCD, and some people will also prefer an LCD-based TV for use in very bright rooms. (The fact that the Sony HX853 produces a full vertical resolution 3D image without the sometimes-half-resolution subfield drive mode used on our closest comparison display doesn’t hurt, either).

There were times where we sat face on with the Sony KDL-55HX853 (complying with the LCD rule regarding picture quality deterioration with off-axis viewing), where we were so engrossed by the image that we felt that a low “Highly Recommended” rating was appropriate. Eventually, we decided to drop it down to a high “Recommended” because of the slight colour accuracy errors – something the company could easily fix with the inclusion of a colour management system. What’s more, we see no reason why the low-end Greyscale controls should be as coarse as they are, on a television which apparently features a 14-bit video processor.

Come on, Sony: calibration controls are a way to improve the quality of your HDTVs, which can apparently be done with just software changes (seeing as your TVs already have the ability to alter the colours, just not in any sort of scientific way). We know that videophiles are just one part of a very large market, but enthusiasm starts here – start focusing on picture accuracy rather than gimmicks, and you’ll begin to recapture the hearts and minds of LCD-inclined buyers who held your brand in the highest esteem in the CRT days.

The KDL-55HX853 is a realistically priced Sony LCD HDTV, and we don’t feel that it has any gigantic weaknesses. It produces a very high quality 2D and 3D experience, and we especially appreciate its freedom from irritating undefeatable video “enhancements”.

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