LCD has had a tough ride this year after bearing the brunt of plasma's revival. Samsung, Panasonic and Pioneer have all released excellent plasma televisions which have put most LCD displays to shame.
Sony would need something very special, then, to usurp the technological lead that plasma has taken. And with the KDL46XBR, they may just have done that.
In the States and Europe, there isn't an XBR series -- only different versions of the X. So, what's so special about our XBR's then? Essentially, the only difference between the two series' is the choice of bezel. In the XBR's case, these design touches add AU$300 to the price tag, while also looking a lot nicer than the interchangeable "cheese graters" on the X models. Both TVs should otherwise perform identically.
The Sony uses the same "floating glass" design it's used since the days of their plasma panels. The look is a matter of taste, and while the "On" light and switchable Sony logo look glamorous, the IR receiver looks like a badly-mounted resistor from most angles.
The screen itself is not as reflective as some others, such as the M8 series, so watching in a brightly-lit environment is comfortable.
The Sony KDL46XBR features a 46-inch 1080p panel, and also includes a number of up-to-date imaging features. There is support for the Blu-ray (and HD DVD) 24p standard, and a 100Hz anti-judder mode. But if HD disks aren't your thing then there is an onboard HD tuner so you can receive 1080i content for free. Other features include a USB port for photo viewing, PC connectivity, and three HDMI version 1.3 ports.
Useability is good, due to the menu being straightforward and easy to navigate, though you may need to push a few buttons to get into the actual Settings menu -- the Menu button initially gives you access to Digital Station Favourites and such. Advanced options, such as PC Power Saving, are logically arranged, while the Contrast control is here entitled Picture.
We tested another Sony recently, the KDL46W3100, and while we were impressed by the blacks and colour, there were still some issues with ghosting. Happily, there were no such issues with the XBR.
All content -- from SD to HD Blu-ray -- looked good when played through this television. One small note is that the TV display does exhibit a small tendency towards green instead of than blue -- even after calibration. Apart from this, the colour was excellent, and it was also one of the brightest panels we've seen.
One of the best features of the KDL46XBR is the 100Hz Motionflow technology. Unlike other anti-judder methods we've seen, this one actually works! Play a Blu-ray and all judder is gone -- even on the infamously jerky Mission Impossible III disk. Free-to-air sports was a little more unpredictable -- with some artefacting -- but for movies, Motionflow is pretty much set and forget.
Detail is generally very good, and is the equal of the menagerie of 1080p plasma TVs we've seen. Only LCDs, such as the R8 without a high-contrast coating, are able to wring more detail from Mission Impossible III. Otherwise, for-better-or-worse, the XBR presents every flaw in Tom Cruise's skin for all to see.
Meanwhile, contrast levels are excellent, and when placed side-by-side against our reference plasma, Pioneer 5000EX, the difference in black levels was almost negligible. This is very impressive. Only the brand new Pioneer Kuro series exhibits better blacks, but that's another story. For four-and-a-half grand, there are few options that offer a superior picture to the KDL46XBR.
However, the black performance isn't perfect -- last year's X series exhibited significant "clouding" problems, and the issue is lessened on the XBR but still there. The effect is only noticeable when the screen is absolutely black and appears, in our case, as a very, very dark blue patch. However, it only covers about 5 percent of the screen.
The sound quality of the KDL46XBR is actually one of its most impressive features. Sound detail is excellent, and you'd have to pay a lot more to get a better experience. For example, the dying Kong's grunts and whimpers as he struggles to hold onto the top of the Empire State building, on the King Kong DVD, are now audible -- on other TVs you just couldn't hear them.
The Sony XBR makes a very good case for the state of LCD circa 2007. It boasts impressive image quality, luxury styling and ease of use. It's not perfect, but when compared to the plasmas of only 12 months ago you're getting comparable image quality at half the price. The future looks bright.