Sony’s presence in the TV world has always been a strong one. Well, except for the company’s last few generations of TVs that have fallen short of the mark. We’ll just put that down to a bad day in the office, because it looks as though Sony has come back kicking and screaming with the latest HX8-series.
Not only does the KDL-46HX853 that we’ve had in the office for a few weeks look great as a design piece, but its image quality is also equally as impressive. The dynamic edge LED with local dimming LCD screen includes Sony’s latest Motionflow XR 800Hz technology for the most fluid-like motion and crisp picture quality. But of course there’s a lot of competition out there: with the likes of the Samsung E8000, LG LM860V, and Panasonic WT50 series it’s no easy battle. So how does the KDL-HX853 hold up?
When we first saw the HX853 at 2012’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas we were initially impressed with its quirky "monolith" design. The screen sits on a soundbar stand that is titled backwards by some six degrees - it makes the screen a design piece in itself, which looks great even when the screen’s switched off. It’s hard not to think, "that looks cool" from the press images or when looking at the TV itself.
But – and there’s always a “but” isn’t there? – we’re not quite sold on the design from a practical point of view in the end. To our eyes a TV should be a flat, forward-facing piece of kit.
Fortunately the tilted angle doesn’t affect the image quality on account of the TV’s wide viewing angle, and it has some benefit in that reflections are often less prominent in daylight, but otherwise we’d prefer a taller-standing and parallel-to-eye flat screen. So it’s fair to say that the HX853 is a little bit indulgent by design; we do think it looks cool, but not with any great benefit to functionality.
Including all its backing the screen measures in at 3.5cm thick – certainly small, but not as razor-edged as some of the competition. Though, in fairness, when mounted on its stand the 25.5cm thickness makes the initial measurement almost irrelevant.
The overall monolith design concept will suit some, but others less so. Though that doesn’t mean the screen can’t be wall-mounted. And it’s about what the screen delivers as a whole that’s most important. Picture quality is what’s paramount.
And it’s at this point we can certainly attest that the KDL-46HX853’s image quality is nothing short of brilliant for an LCD TV.
The contrast range and black levels are excellent. When black really looks black in a darkened room it makes the viewing experience all the more immersive. There’s the occasional “light blocking” issue, as with any LED-backlit LCD TV, but it’s rare and more than up to scratch when considering its competitors.
But it’s not just the blacks that impress; it’s the whole palette. Whites are exactly that, while colours are punchy but not hyper-real or pushed to the point of excess vividness, and the whole picture fuses into a sumptuous vision. It’s great stuff.
The viewing angle, too, is also excellent. For a TV that’s mounted on a tilted bracket it’d have to be, and the fact this makes no difference to the overall image quality is testament to just how good this tech is.
Under the HX853’s skin is Sony’s Motionflow XR 800Hz technology, which uses a backlight that "blinks" at four times per refresh on the native 200Hz panel. There’s also frame interpolation to provide a smoother image. This pseudo-800Hz refresh rate uses the same method as many of its competitors, and although not a true native rate, it genuinely does help trick the brain into perceiving a smoother image, which is particularly useful when viewing 3D images, because each eye needs to function independently.
The 3D images might not quite match the 2D quality, but it’s pretty close. There’s some crosstalk, and colours are a little duller - but the latter point is down to the way current 3D glasses technology works: you lose a bit of light to the dark glasses. It’s also worth noting that the KDL-HX853 model doesn’t come with 3D eyewear, but they are easy - if expensive - to buy as an extra.
There’s other technology to champion too: Sony’s X-Reality Pro technology is designed to upscale whatever the original source material’s resolution is. So even when we streamed the latest Skyfall trailer via Sony’s Entertainment Network (SEN) it looked very impressive. And closing the gap between physical and online media is an important thing for the future of consumption. The HX853 balances itself well between handling high-end HDMI 1.4 input for consoles and 3D Blu-ray input as well as to up to date media servers or the internet for online streaming.
There are multiple ways that the HX853 can obtain media, but the Homestream system is one of the understated methods of doing so. We say understated as there’s no literature about it on the box, in the manual, and little to be found even on Sony’s dedicated HX853 webpage. Odd. However, browse a little further afield and there’s more information.
Homestream’s premise is simple: download the Mac or PC software and sync your computer with the TV (or other network devices) for real-time TV playback. The software live decodes on the fly and can read all manner of files including MT2, MTS, MKV, MP4, AVI and many more. It’s an ideal way to turn your computer into a media server, and saves the faff of copying files in order to play them back.
The thorn in the side is the other faff - that of setting the system up. It took us a fair amount of fiddling to get the Mac version working, and it wouldn’t work before sourcing the router’s IP address – something low-level users are probably shrugging at in confusion already. And we’re on their side: something like this should be far easier to set up and use.
To add to this, once Homestream is up and running the library layout is predetermined by Sony. So the "Titles", "Movie" and other columns are arranged in alphabetical order. But not necessarily alphabetically by the file name as the system draws the file’s metadata and then even associates existing titles to box covers from an internet database. These presumed covers can be wholly inaccurate and, therefore, it can make the browsing experience confusing. A way to mirror folders on your own computer would make far more sense, or at least the option to manipulate the file structure would help. It’s also not possible to connect to external drives attached to your computer.
But when it works it works a treat. It’s great to be able to dive into the TV’s menu system and pick out a movie, TV show or similar to watch. Full sound and motion are transmitted through Wi-Fi, and you can adjust the number of computer-based cores processing should you also wish to do other work whilst playing files back. For best results ensure you have a decent router and home network up and running – otherwise you may lose sound sync, or get stuttering in playback (though that’s not Sony’s fault).
Performance and Services
You needn’t have a computer to set up much of the HX853’s functionality though. There’s a bevy of online treats available in the Sony Entertainment Network (abbreviated to “SEN” on the controller) that makes diving into the likes of Lovefilm, Netflix, YouTube or other services a breeze.
And when we say other services there are a shed load of additional apps - Skype, Facebook, BBC Sport, and a list that goes on as long as your arm. In fact it’s probably longer.
Accessing such services is a lot like using the Playstation 3’s interface, albeit a less colourful one. And for those unfamiliar, take comfort in the fact that it’s simple to use and scroll through, and doesn’t interrupt your viewing because a small window shows to the top left hand side of the screen.
However the sluggish response of keypresses and time taken for media to appear is a small gripe. It doesn’t feel nearly as fast as the speedy Panasonic WT50 series for example.
If movies take your fancy then Sony’s own Video Unlimited is an on-the-fly rental service that also includes free trailers. In a similar vein is Music Unlimited, though this is a subscription-based service.
Despite one or two gripes about the slanted design, the stand that the telly sits on is a soundbar with integrated speakers. It even plugs into the rear of the TV in order to connect – though if you choose to wall-mount the set instead then you’ll have to forego the soundbar and deal with altogether different sound output.
With the soundbar wired up the KDL-46HX853’s sound is great – and this is something that many manufacturers often overlook when it comes to design. Straight out of the box there’s warm, rich sound that covers a twinkling tweeter range through to a bassy lower end. It’s not sub bass, mind, but it’s as rich and an all encompassing experience as could be expected.
Of course should you wish to upgrade then the inclusion of an optical out and HDMI ports means it’s possible to wire up all manner of sound systems. At a basic level the 3.5mm headphone socket can even be used in tandem with the TV’s sound output should you have an additional device to connect.
Sony is kicking back hard with its latest TV series. The HX853’s image quality is sublime; we love the blacks and the punchy colours.
But it’s not as perfect as many other reviewers may have you believe. The slanted monolith soundbar stand looks cool when the TV is off, but who wants to watch a movie on a slanted screen? It makes a minor difference, but is something to consider.
Reaction times can be slow too: the dual picture, Sony Entertainment Network and general button pressing is tardy in response. Furthermore the Homestream service - while potentially fantastic in this connected, streaming day and age - is a headache to set up, and needs a more refined, exciting interface and better library system.
But that’s nitpicking, right? There’s no escaping that the Sony screen is easily among the best of its class. It looks great when switched off, the picture looks just as good when switched on, the sound is full and rich, there’s loads of connectivity and it’s positioned at a sensible price point with respect to its competitors. Small qualms are present, sure, but otherwise this is one bloomin’ great TV.