Though plasma is still a firm favorite with reviewers and videophiles, it's overwhelmingly LCD televisions that most people actually buy. And if you want to know what the best LCD TV released in 2012 will be, then we may already have an answer for you: the Sony HX850.
Until the arrival of the excellent HX850, Sony looked to be in dire straits with a massive debt and an anemic TV lineup compared to companies like Samsung and LG. Sony's second-best new-for 2012 TV, the HX750, did nothing to quell our concerns, with picture quality far below what we expected from the company responsible for the excellent HX929 and NX720 last year. (As an aside, Sony told us there was an internal dispute over whether the HX750 should be an EX or HX; the HX contingent prevailed due to the 240Hz refresh rate.)
Then the HX850 came, and it was good. Here was an edge-lit TV with local dimming providing excellent black levels and well-saturated colors, all in a stylish design. While it can't match the features of some like-priced competitors, image quality is where it counts.
Sony's HX850 versus the competition
I tested the Sony against two of this year's high-profile TVs, the LG LM9600 and the Panasonic ST50, and it held itself up very well. While the LG fell over in a wet heap as we'll discuss shortly, the Sony was able to match the superb Panasonic plasma's performance in some areas, most notably in its performance on highly contrasting scenes. While you will pay more money for the Sony when compared to the plasma competition, I have yet to see another 2012 LCD that gets close to it.
In fact, due to this year's preponderance of "features-over-performance" TVs, it's going to be hard for any manufacturer to approach the image quality of the HX850 for the price. Samsung is the most successful television manufacturer at the moment, but the odds aren't good that its best LCD, the UNES8000, will be able to compete on picture alone. While the UNES8000 is packed to the brim with features like voice and motion control, 3D, and Smart TV apps, it misses out on an important picture-affecting feature: local-dimming.
As my colleague David Katzmaier reported earlier, Samsung's "micro dimming" doesn't actually dim the LEDs this year; instead its dimming is supposedly accomplished via video processing. Last year's UND8000, which did have dimming LEDs, was still a significantly worse TV overall than the NX720, and the HX850 is better than either one.
Local dimming may have problems with blooming, especially in some edge-lit designs, but I'd rather watch a TV with the occasional blooming effect than suffer through grey blacks. While I've seen some quick demonstrations of the TV, I'll reserve my final judgement until we at CNET can review the unit. At this point I'd be surprised if the Samsung can conjure up the black levels needed to justify the $1,000 premium of its 55-inch UNES8000 over the Sony HX850.
The same problem happened with LG's local dimming LM9600, a stunning "looking" television that didn't hold a candle to the Sony. Its performance light black levels were joined by noticeable light leakage, crushed blacks, and a $1,000-too-expensive price tag. The LM9600 has been receiving mixed reviews around the globe and I think I know why...
Our test procedure dictates that a TV needs to have a specific light output (40 Fl) to be compared on the same playing field as its peers. At low light output levels the LG performs well with decent black levels, but when bumped up to 40 Fl -- bright enough for a dim room but not particularly bright by today's TV standards -- the picture falls apart. LG has made some changes to its cabinet design this year and its possible that a trade-off was made with light output to facilitate this. The LM9600's combination of poorer-than-expected picture quality and high price means it just isn't a very good deal at the moment.
The Sony HX850 is an excellent TV primarily on the strength of its excellent black levels. Bar some TVs that haven't been announced yet, perhaps from a nameplate like Sharp Elite, I am quietly confident that the Sony HX850 is an olive wreath away from being hailed as this year's top LCD.