Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified. Click here for more information.
Among all of the technologies that enable LCD to attempt to rival the picture quality of the best plasmas, LED backlighting is the most effective we've seen. LED-equipped models we've reviewed in the last couple of years have demonstrated superb black-level performance, mostly thanks to their local dimming circuits, which let the TVs dim or turn off the backlight in specific areas of the screen when it's not needed. But now a new twist has arrived in the form of "edge-lit" LED backlights, and the first such model we received to review is Sony's KLV-40ZX1M.
Edge-lit LED-powered displays such as this Sony and upcoming Samsung models announced at CES do not employ local dimming, so, as you might expect, their black-level performance can't match that of displays that do. On the other hand, edge-lit LED backlights allow the panels to be thinner than ever--the KLV-40ZX1M's panel, for example, measures just 1.1 inches thick. As a result, this TV looks stunningly thin and high tech, especially when seen from the side, and its LED technology allows for improved energy-efficiency. Naturally, you'll pay a good deal more for the privilege of owning a first-generation technology, although we expect edge-lit LED LCDs arriving later this year to cost less.
The gorgeous KLV-40ZX1M panel is a study in minimalist design. Black-textured metal surrounds the screen to an equal width on all four sides, regrettably interrupted by a line of indicator lights and white lettering on the lower right.
Unfortunately, the included stand spoils some of the panel's sleekness with its circular shape and relatively chunky base. A small arm supports the panel above the stand, which does not offer any swivel capability. It took us a minute to figure out that Sony had stashed the speakers inside the base of the stand--meaning that if you wall-mount the TV, you'll have to forgo speakers or attach the company's optional speaker bar (model SS-WAL700, $399). A specialized wall bracket, model SU-WL700, can be purchased for $299.
In addition to containing hidden speakers, the stand incorporates another slick design element. The stand's arm serves as a channel to hide the AC and HDMI cables running from the back of the panel. When you connect the included, flush-mount-friendly cables and use the snap-on plate to hide the connections, the cables sprout unobtrusively from the base of the stand at the rear, as opposed to dangling from the back of the panel. For folks interested in hiding evidence of connections, the KLV-40ZX1M does the job better than any display we've seen.
Including stand, the KLV-40ZX1M measures 38.9 inches wide by 26.9 inches tall by 12.1 inches thick and weighs 33.1 pounds. Without the stand, the panel's dimensions become 38.9 inches wide by 23.6 inches tall by 1.1 inches thick and its weight is a feathery 26.9 pounds. Despite its thinness, the panel felt sturdy enough, although we couldn't shake the vague feeling of fragility imparted by such a thin panel.
Sony's remote control is a poor effort in design, with way too many like-size and like-shaped buttons that make finding and engaging any one function a real headache. Numerous extra keys, apparently for use with devices other than the KLV-40ZX1M, are also included, such as four labeled "system control" and a PIP button that implies the display supports picture-in-picture (it does not). The lack of a dedicated key to switch aspect ratio modes is unforgivable. The clicker can command a whopping seven other pieces of gear, but that's about the only compliment we can give it.
We do appreciate that Sony's menu system is relatively simple and straightforward, lacking the fancy XMB interface found on most of the company's standard televisions. Text explanations accompany selected menu items, and everything was easy to find without too much digging.
The edge-lit LED tops the KLV-40ZX1M's feature list, allowing that vanishingly thin profile. As the name implies, the light originates from LEDs arranged along the edges of the panel, as opposed to the standard arrangement where the LEDs are placed evenly throughout the entire panel. Light travels from the edges the middle of the screen via special light distribution grids. See the Performance section for notes on how it influences picture quality.
In addition to allowing extra thinness, edge-lit LED improves energy efficiency. We tested the power consumption of the KLV-40ZX1M and found that it was quite efficient compared with the only other 40-inch LCD we reviewed last year, Toshiba's 40RF350U. The Sony's post-calibration number (with light output equalized) was an impressive 79.4 watts, compared with 115.9 watts for the Toshiba. We expect larger-screen edge-lit LED displays on sale later this year to provide a better comparison to more recent displays. It's also notable that although the KLV-40ZX1M is Energy Star 3.0-compliant, its default picture setting is the very bright (and relatively power-hungry) Vivid mode, and there's no initial home/store menu to encourage viewers to engage a darker, less-wasteful mode like Standard. For full details on the KD-40ZX1M's energy use, check out the Juice Box.
The Sony KLV-40ZX1M offers a 120Hz refresh rate along with Sony's MotionFlow dejudder processing. The set also includes four adjustable picture modes, although one, labeled Vivid, lacks a number of advanced adjustments. Such adjustments available on the other modes let you fine-tune color temperature, tweak color gamut, and choose from four gamma presets, among other settings. Sony's CineMotion processing affects 2:3 pull-down; there's a Game mode to remove any potential delay between a game controller and the onscreen action; and there's a Photo/Video optimizer to, well, optimize the picture for display of either still photos or moving video (however, we didn't test it).
Aspect ratio control on the Sony is adequate, with three choices for high-definition sources and a "Full Pixel" option that displays 1080i and 1080p sources without scaling. Unfortunately, there's no dedicated button on the remote to switch between different aspect ratio modes; you'll have to delve into the menu to do so.
Also notable are the features the KLV-40ZX1M lacks. First off there's no built-in tuner, making this display a "monitor" as opposed to a true TV. As you can imagine, it also lacks tuner-related features, such as favorite channels lists. Of course, lack of a tuner is a moot point if you connect a cable or satellite box.