If you forget, for a joyless, mercifully brief moment, the existence of Sharp's Elite and a few 75-inch, 80-inch, and 84-inch LCDs, the Sony XBR-HX950 is the most expensive major-label TV of the year. It costs more than any 2012 TV set in its size class, and offers fewer gimmicky extras -- no voice and gesture recognition, no "invisible" bezel, no touch-pad remote -- than any other top-of-the-line 2012 TV.
What it does offer is local dimming from its full-array LED backlight at a price that still undercuts the Elite dramatically. That backlight enables the HX950 to outperform all other LED-based LCD TVs we've reviewed this year, upsetting the previous champ, Sony's own HX850. Unfortunately for Sony, the picture quality difference between the two isn't worth the $1,000 price difference at 55 inches. I'd only recommend the HX950 to well-heeled TV buyers who don't want plasma, can't quite afford the Elite, and want to buy the 65-inch size. That's a select group, but at least they can console themselves in owning the best, and maybe the last, local-dimming LED TV to bear the Sony name.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch Sony XBR-HX950 series, but this review also applies to the 65-inch size in the series. The two models have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.
The Monolithic Design style used by the sleekest Sony TVs of the last few years is one of my favorites. Yes, the microthin bezels of Samsung and now LG look arguably more impressive in person, but if you want a flat panel distilled down to its understated, no-nonsense essence, then Sony's XBR-HX950 wins. The screen disappears into the black slab when turned off, and when it's turned on, the black border doesn't detract from the image like some metallic frames do. Along the edge of the black is a thin silver strip, but that's it for adornment.
Until, that is, you look below the TV. The HX950's mirrored, circular-base stand is the main external feature differentiating it from the HX850, and it's a big improvement. Like LG's awesome "U" stand, the "O" of Sony's 2012 XBR suspends the panel so it seems to hover over the table, an illusion enhanced by the open space encircled by the base. I also appreciated the improved stability compared with the XBR-HX929 from last year, although I'm not a fan of the slight tilt the stand is designed to introduce.
Sony's remote seems pretty cheap for a flagship TV. It's the same clicker found on downstream linemates, and while it's good enough, I didn't like it as much as the XBR-HX929's remote. It lacks illumination and can't be used to control other gear. The dedicated Netflix button is a plus, however, and as usual I really appreciate Sony's remote ergonomics, shown in its discrete button groups, different shapes and sizes, and logical arrangement.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Full-array with local dimming|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||240Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
|Other: Optional 3D glasses (model TDG-BR250, $50, or TDG-BR750, $100)|
Sony's kitchen sink isn't as full as Samsung's, but I'll take full-array local dimming over voice and gesture control any day. The HX950 is the only second 2012 TV to offer an LED backlight with a full array that dims different areas of the screen independently. The first, LG's LM9600, was a disappointing performer, but the HX950 lives up to the extremely high potential of this technology. Unfortunately Sony wouldn't tell us how many independent "zones" the backlight has, although diligent owners at enthusiast site AVS Forum claim it has slightly more than its predecessor. Click here for more background on the different LED backlight varieties.
Sony's MotionFlow 960 video processing might superficially seem better than the 240 and 480 versions found on the company's less expensive models, but Sony's explanation of why amounts to a bunch of mumbo jumbo (see HD Guru's explanation if you're interested). The main things to know are that the TV has native 240Hz refresh rate and, par for the course, a few different settings that can introduce smoothing (dejudder). The TV also offers the new Impulse mode, which "reproduces the original picture quality" to provide a "cinemalike picture, which may flicker." It does flicker, and as on the HX850, I don't recommend anyone use it. Sony does tout improved video processing compared with the HX850 series, but I didn't see any obvious benefits in my testing.
Unlike Samsung and Panasonic, Sony's 2012 3D TVs like the HX950 don't support the Full HD 3D standard, so this set is incompatible with other makers' 2012 active glasses that do, such as the Panasonic TY-ER3D4MU ($55) and Samsung SSG-4100GB ($20). To watch 3D you'll need to buy Sony's own specs, like the $50 TDG-BR250 from last year (above) or the new, slimmer TDG-BR750 for twice the price. Neither will work with non-Sony TVs.
Sony didn't include the three innovative, if esoteric, features found on last year's HX929 that involved a sensor and low-resolution camera that could respond to viewers in the room. The Presence Sensor automatically turned the TV off when it failed to detect a viewer (see the KDL-EX720 review for details); the Position Control was said to automatically optimize picture and sound by detecting viewer position; and the Distance Alert disabled the picture and emitted a warning sound if a child approached the screen. Again, none of these are included on the HX950.
Smart TV: The good news is that Sony offers a great selection of content, including Amazon Instant -- missing from LG TVs -- and a pair of Sony Entertainment Network exclusives: Video and Music Unlimited. There's also the cool, Shazam-like TrackID system by Sony-owned Gracenote.
Unfortunately, that content isn't always easy to find. The XBR-HX950 scatters it over so many menus and submenus that you'll probably never see most of the apps. There's the main Home menu with direct access to major apps; a separate "SEN" menu with similar apps but a different look and feel (and longer load times); the "Internet video" section with a massive array of smaller niche video services from Billabong (yes, the sportswear company) and Biinkx to the Sony Cinema Concert Series and 3Net (the last is disappointing though, deploying a paltry selection of 3- to 4-minute 3D clips); and, yes, the full panoply of Yahoo widgets complete with yet another "app store."
For more, check out our in-depth write-up of Sony's 2012 Smart TV system.
Picture settings: Sony divides its picture presets into two groups: General (with three choices) and Scene Select (with eight plus two Auto modes). Two of the Scenes, Cinema and Game, have two separate modes of their own as well. The total number of adjustable modes crests the double digits, which should be enough for just about everybody. It will probably also confuse everybody; I wish Sony had consolidated the picture presets into one menu tree.
The available adjustments themselves are somewhat sparse by today's standards. The company didn't add the option to adjust dejudder processing beyond the four presets, and unlike some competitors it doesn't offer a 10-point white-balance control or color management system. Sony does offer more adjustment of video processing than other makers, however, found in the Reality Creation section. There are also a couple of local-dimming settings, Standard and Low.
Connectivity: There are no connectivity surprises, with four HDMI ports and two USB ports being almost a prerequisite currently. Analog inputs come in the form of composite, component, and PC. If you'd like to connect to the Internet, the TV comes with a choice of onboard wireless, in addition to the aforementioned Direct Mode and an Ethernet port.
Unlike the HX929 from last year, the HX950 doesn't have an RS-232 port bulging from its back. In fact, it doesn't have an RS-232 port, period, nor does it support the Control 4 remote interface. The HX950 is a bit less custom-installer-friendly than its predecessor.