Editors' note: Since this review was first published, we've received reader complaints, both in the user opinions and in e-mails, regarding uneven backlighting in XBR2 and XBR series flat-panel LCDs from Sony's 2006 line. Since we didn't notice abnormal backlight behavior in our review samples, we can't comment firsthand one way or the other. Sony did however issue a statement, which you can read here, addressing the complaints. If you notice uneven backlighting, especially in dark scenes, we recommend you contact Sony's customer service (1-800-222-7669). And as always, feel free to post your own user opinion.Update 5/7/2007: This product was originally given an Editors' Choice award but that award has been removed due to changes in the compeditive landscape.
Unlike many of its competitors, Sony focuses on LCD, as opposed to plasma, as its flat-panel technology of choice. In the past, flat LCDs cost a whole lot more than plasmas for the same screen sizes. But, the gap is narrowing, led by discount brands like Vizio. Some Sony flat panels, namely the 40-inch KDL-40S2000, also approach plasma price points, but others, like the 40-inch KDS-40XBR2 reviewed here, demand a lot more from your pocketbook.
This LCD is loaded with features, including 1080-pixel resolution, and enjoys solid video quality, but that's not really the point. Its main appeal is style: It brings back the company's floating-glass look and ups the ante further by allowing you to replace the silver bezel around the screen with other colors. If you love the look and have plenty of cash, you're probably already reaching for your wallet. But if value is important, there are plenty of better LCD bargains.
Some people might agree with CNET editor Will Greenwald, who said the KDL-40XBR2 was "trying too hard," but there's no denying it offers a style that's altogether unique among flat-panel LCDs. The first thing we noticed about this 40-inch HDTV was the glass frame around the entire panel. The frame, made more-visible by an angled silver edge on all sides, measures 5/8 of an inch wide on the top and sides and 7/8 on the bottom. Etched into the glass in the upper left is the Bravia sub-brand, while the bottom has a subtle row of technology logos on the left, a big illuminated Sony logo in the middle, and three status LEDs suspended magically in the glass on the right. When you switch Logo Illumination to Off in the setup menu, the blue light behind the word "Sony" fades tastefully away.
The unique style continues with the bezel, or frame surrounding the screen. The KDL-40XBR1 comes with a silver bezel but, as explained on Sony's Web site, you can exchange silver for any of five (designer) bezels: (Arctic) white, (Pacific) blue, (Velvet) black, (Scarlet) red, and (Sienna) brown. Each color costs $299, which seems a little steep given the high cost of the TV alone.
The Sony KDL-40XBR2 is also a lot wider than a 40-inch LCD needs to be, owing to its side-mounted speakers and overall over-bezeling. Including the stand, the set measures 43.8 wide by 28.3 high by 12.8 deep and weighs 77 pounds. Of course you can also ditch the stand and, instead, wall-mount the panel; Sony's official kit for that purpose is the SU-W51, although the right non-official kit may do the trick.
Sony kept the remote and menu system the same as its 2006 SXRD sets, such as the KDS-60A2000, but quite a bit different from the step-down KDL-S2000 LCDs. The longish remote stands out as a model of ergonomics, although we would have appreciated glow-in-the-dark keys or other illumination. It can operate three other devices, such as DVD players, satellite or cable boxes, and VCRs, and the company behind Blu-ray took care to equip its clicker with device controls for "BD/DVD" gear." The big, central cursor control falls naturally under the thumb, and just enough shortcut keys are available to quickly cycle through picture, sound, and wide (a.k.a. aspect ratio) settings. A convenient Tools key calls up a couple oft-used submenus, including picture and sound modes, wide screen controls, and closed-captions.
The tools menu is even more welcomed because the main menu key summons a seemingly unnecessary interstitial menu that's too focused on tuner controls; three of its five options pertain to cable and antenna channels, which cable and satellite box owners will almost never use. Otherwise, Sony's menu design is characteristically clean and thoughtful throughout, offering text explanations of various functions and logical progression from basic to advanced functions. We also liked the input menu, complete with options to name used connections (including custom names up to 10 characters) and skip unused connections.
Chief among the KDL-40XBR2's features is its native resolution of 1080p. In other words, its screen is composed of 1920-by-1080 pixels, which is significantly more than most other panels and is the highest resolution available among LCD TVs today. The set should be able to display every detail of incoming 1080i and 1080p sources (see Performance), and it scales all other sources, including 720p HDTV, DVD, computer and standard-definition, to fit the pixels.
While the Sony KDL-40XBR2 has numerous conveniences, one surprising omission was picture-in-picture, which isn't available on any Sony flat-panel LCDs this year. The company did include a freeze function, however, as well as extensive tuner extras like a favorite channel list. There's a built-in ATSC tuner but no CableCard--not a huge omission in our book, but still notable given the XBR2's price.
As you'll discover in this review, the company did not omit any picture controls. Settings for the standard brightness, contrast, and other controls can be saved individually to each of the three adjustable presets, labeled Standard, Vivid, and Custom. In addition, each of these presets is independent for each input, so your contrast setting in Custom for Input 7, for example, can be different from Contrast in Custom for Input 6. (In case you're wondering, Sony likes to use the term "picture" to denote contrast.) This provides a huge amount of flexibility in adjusting the picture for different sources, lighting conditions, and user preferences.
There are four color temperature presets. The default for Custom, Warm 2, comes closest to the standard, but only the two least-accurate are available in Vivid and Standard. Other basic picture adjustments include a 10-step backlight control, which adjusts the intensity of the light behind the screen (unlike the backlight settings of many TVs, Sony's are also independent per picture mode and input); five noise reduction settings; two DRC modes (only one is available with non-HDMI sources) and a DRC palette control (which is disabled in certain circumstances). DRC stands for Digital Reality Creation, and we cover its effects in the Performance section of this review.
There's an additional menu section labeled "advanced settings" that appears only when you're in the custom picture preset. In general, your best bet is to leave all of these set to Off. The options include a four-step Black Corrector, which is best left to Off to preserve shadow detail; a four-step Advanced Contrast Enhancer, which changed the overall brightness and seemed to dim areas near black as the image got brighter (and that's again best left off to preserve shadow detail); a five-step gamma control, which should be set to Low in dim environments for the most-linear rise from black to white; a three-step Clear White control that belongs in Off since the other settings just make whites look bluer; a four-step Live Color setting that seemed to make reds more intense, although Off provided the best color balance; and a Live Color control that we preferred to leave in Normal for the most-accurate primary color reproduction. Next up is a white balance setup screen that includes 20 steps each for Red, Green and Blue gain and bias, in case the out-of-the-box color temperature doesn't come close enough for your liking. The four-step Detail Enhancer should be left to Off with already-sharp sources like HDTV and even DVD since it introduces unnatural edge enhancement, and there's another four-step control entitled Edge Enhancer that had no effect we could discern.
The Screen menu offers a solid selection of four aspect ratio controls for both standard-def and high-def sources. Many of the aspect ratio choices, especially the Zooms, allow you to adjust the horizontal and vertical position, as well as the vertical size, of the on-screen image. We appreciated the unique option to specify how the set deals with 4:3 programs, as well as the option to automatically detect widescreen shows and properly size the picture. A Display Area control adjusts overscan; we loved its Full Pixel option because it showed the extreme edges of the image, and didn't subject 1080p-resolution sources to scaling. We recommend this setting unless you see interference along the edges.