- Strong colour performance
- Impressive black levels
- Good value
- Pictures only just bright enough for HDR
- Slightly flimsy build quality
- Android TV can be frustrating
- 55-inch LCD TV with edge LED lighting
- Native 4K resolution
- HDR 10, HLG HDR support
- Android TV and YouView smart platforms
- Multimedia playback via DLNA and USB
- Manufacturer: Sony
- Review Price: £1,290.00/$1,935.00
WHAT IS THE SONY KD-55XE8596?
The 55XE8596 is a new 55-inch TV from the middle of Sony’s latest 4K range. It still supports HDR despite only costing £1,290, uses edge LED lighting with whole frame dimming, and deploys a combination of YouView and Android TV for its smart features.
So far, so 2016. The 55XE8596 ups the 85 series’ game for 2017, however, by jettisoning last year’s IPS panels in favour of a more contrast-rich VA one, and by powering its pictures with Sony’s X1 4K HDR video processing.
SONY KD-55XE8596 – DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY
The 55XE8596 is attractive for a mid-range TV – from a distance, at least. Its combination of a rectangular metallic silver bar-style stand, minimalistic, skinny black screen frame and startlingly trim rear doesn’t immediately suggest any price-based design corner cutting.
I couldn’t help but notice, when I was putting the 55XE8596 together, that it’s rather flimsily built. The stand wobbles and flexes until the TV’s been attached to it, and at 18.6kg the screen is one of the lightest 55-inch TVs I’ve lifted for a long time. This alerts you to a distinct lack of glass and metal in its predominantly plastic bodywork.
The remote control the 55XE8596 ships with is also pretty lightweight and plasticky. It relies too heavily on two concentric circles of buttons around the central select button, making it a tough handset to use in a dark room.
On the upside, Sony has at least ditched last year’s horribly ill-conceived flush-finish buttons.
SONY KD-55XE8596 – FEATURES
Squeezed into the 55XE8596’s screen is a 4K 3840 x 2160 pixel count. Sony also claims support for the HDR10 and broadcast-friendly HLG HDR formats, while picture processing comes courtesy of its X1 4K HDR chipset.
This is not as powerful as the X1 Extreme system found in Sony’s XE93, ZD9 and A1 OLED models, so we shouldn’t expect it to deliver quite such impressive pictures. Nor is it powerful enough to support the addition of Dolby Vision HDR support via firmware update like the X1 Extreme models can.
It’s still more powerful than anything you’d expect to find inside a £1290/$1935 55-inch 4k HDR TV, though. Among its talents is an integrated picture database for recognising different types of incoming pictures and applying the most appropriate noise reduction and 4K upscaling processing to them. There’s also driver software for Sony’s wide-phosphor Triluminos colour platform. Well worth a mention is Sony’s Super Bitmapping system for reducing the colour banding problems most TV brands suffer from when showing HDR pictures.
The 55XE8596 is illuminated by edge-mounted lighting – but unlike the XE93 series, there’s no local dimming on hand to let different sectors of the edge LEDs output different levels of light simultaneously to boost contrast. Instead, all the set can do is dim or brighten the whole frame at once, to suit the images you’re watching.
The 55XE8596’s smart features come from two sources: Android TV and YouView. Android TV – which is now running the Nougat platform – offers a bounty of content, from games through to video streaming platforms, utilities and infotainment apps. For me, it mistakes quantity for quality with its apps, and also doesn’t do enough to highlight TV-friendly content. Its interface is also cumbersome and sluggish, and doesn’t give you enough customisation options.
YouView, with its focus on easy access to the catch-up TV platforms of the UK’s main broadcasters, is much better. In fact, I suspect that for many users it will become the main go-to part of the 55XE8596’s smart system.
The Netflix and Amazon Video apps on the 55XE8596 both support 4K and HDR playback.
SONY KD-55XE8596 – SETUP
For once there’s not a lot that needs saying here, since the 55XE8596 delivers much better pictures right out of the box than most lower-mid-range TVs.
My main picture tips would be to only watch HDR using the Standard presets, since all the others look too dark; tone the Live Colour setting down from its high default setting to Mid or even Low; and leave the Adaptive Contrast setting on at least Low, and more likely Medium, if you don’t want the set’s impressive black levels to disappear.
I have an audio tip, too. Reduce the ‘surround effect’ setting from its default 6 level to three or four to make the sound appear fuller and more convincing.
SONY KD-55XE8596 – PERFORMANCE
The 55XE8596’s picture is almost ridiculously good for its money – as long as you accept one inevitable limitation.
Before I get to that limitation, let’s run through all the good stuff, starting with its unexpectedly outstanding black level response.
The 55XE8596 manages to deliver deep, rich and remarkably uniform black colours that remain largely devoid of backlight clouding even when you’re watching HDR. This would be a pretty remarkable achievement for any LCD TV, never mind one with no local dimming to help it out.
It’s usually the case that TVs with good black levels deliver rich, natural colours, and the 55XE8596 continues this trend. Everything from low-lit pale skin tones through to massively saturated HDR animation looks believable, rich and balanced.
While tones are very vivid for this price point, they also contain mesmerising amounts of tonal subtlety and finesse, regardless of whether you’re watching in high or standard dynamic range. This helps HDR pictures frequently attain a look of genuine beauty that you really have no right to find at the XE8596’s price point.
What’s more, thanks to Sony’s Super Bitmapping feature, HDR images appear entirely free of the colour striping problems that can affect areas of colour with many other more expensive TVs.
The strong black level performance also means that colours in dark areas look pretty much as rich and natural as those in bright areas, since their intensity is not flattened or reduced by the intrusion of backlight greyness over and around them.
The XE8596 performs beyond its price point when it comes to sharpness and fine detail reproduction. Native 4K content looks gorgeously rich in texture and boasts the sort of minute detailing associated with only the crispest 4K displays. As a result, the advantages of its 4K resolution are abundantly obvious from a normal viewing distance, countering the notion that you need at least a 65-inch screen to really benefit from 4K resolution.
The clarity and detail holds up even when there’s a lot of motion in the frame. Even without using Sony’s outstanding Motionflow processing, pictures are far less impacted by judder or blur than those of most similarly affordable TVs. However, Motionflow works so well on its Clear, True Cinema and even default Standard settings that you might as well just use it to get the sharpest pictures possible.
The limitation I referred to earlier is its brightness. Coming to this Sony after a flurry of ultra bright LCD and brighter-than-ever-before OLED TVs, it’s immediately obvious – especially with HDR content – that it just isn’t in the same brightness ballpark. Measuring its light output with a 10% white HDR window uncovers a figure of 426 nits, whereas this year’s OLED TVs are hitting around 700 nits, while Sony’s own XE9305 LCD series are hitting nearly 1500 nits.
This inevitably means that the brightest parts of HDR pictures don’t look as bright and punchy as they do on brighter screens, and that colours don’t enjoy as much real-world ‘volume’ as they do on brighter screens.
Before you get too deflated by this, Sony’s excellent video processing does a good job of retaining details in its brightest HDR picture areas, suffering much less ‘clipping’ than might have been expected. Even better, the Triluminos system really is unique at this level of the market when it comes to delivering a HDR’s wide colour spectrums – despite the TV’s lack of brightness.
In short, you can clearly see a difference between SDR and HDR content on the XE8596, and the HDR results aren’t as all-round compromised as I might have expected.
The biggest problem with the 55XE8596’s relative lack of brightness with HDR comes in dark areas more than bright ones. As with other limited brightness HDR screens, dark parts of HDR images tend to look a little too dark, drawing undue attention to themselves and crushing out subtle detailing.
While the XE8596’s black levels are, for the most part, exemplary for its price, there are exceptions. When you’re watching a predominantly dark HDR scene that has bright elements within it, you can start to see gentle greyness in the black bars you get above and below very wide aspect ratio films. Even when this appears, however, it’s less distracting than the striping backlight issue that locally dimmed edge-lit TVs can produce.
The limited brightness isn’t an issue with standard dynamic range pictures. In fact, thanks to Sony’s outstanding HD to 4K upscaling processing and superb colour management, the XE8596 gives an outstanding SDR account of itself with Blu-rays and HD broadcasts.
The only thing to add on the brightness front is that the results discussed here – especially with HDR – depend on you viewing in as dark a room as you can manage. While SDR holds up pretty well in a typically bright room environment, dark HDR scenes and picture areas can become really quite difficult to make out.
While the 55XE8596’s performance is mostly an emphatic endorsement of Sony’s decision to move away from low-contrast IPS LCD screens for 2017, there is one downside. With the VA type panel the XE8596 uses, you have to watch it from an angle of no more than 30 degrees off axis – or else contrast and colour start to take a noticeable hit.
The XE8596 is a good gaming screen, too. Its input lag measures just 21ms when you’re using its Game picture preset – one of the lower figures around this year, and one that should have minimal negative impact on your gaming abilities. This 21ms figure is an average taken from measurements that cycled between as low as 10ms but as high as 51ms. Fortunately the 10ms measurements comfortably outnumbered the 51ms ones, but a consistent 21ms would be preferable.
While the XE8596’s audio is perfectly decent – good, even – for day to day TV viewing, its limitations are exposed by potent movie soundtracks. The brutal explosions of Hacksaw Ridge sound more like pops thanks to a lack of bass depth, and trebles tend to be exaggerated – sometimes to the extent that they become a bit harsh.
On the upside, the speakers can go loud without distorting, and provided you’ve followed the earlier audio setup advice, the soundstage spreads remarkably wide, achieving a sense of depth behind the screen as well as width and height beyond the screen’s edges.
SHOULD I BUY THE SONY KD-55XE8596?
Buying a 55XE8596 requires you to accept a couple of compromises. Its HDR playback is limited by a lack of brightness, and its Android TV smart platform is a little sluggish and unhelpful.
However, its HDR pictures are still more watchable than those of many rivals in the same sort of price bracket, its relatively low brightness helps it deliver an excellent black level performance, and its colours and sharpness are both outstanding for its price point.
In terms of alternative options, we’re yet to see many other affordable 55-inch 4K HDR TVs from 2017 ranges. Samsung’s UE55MU7000 (which we should be reviewing soon) looks like a potentially interesting option, adding much more brightness and local dimming to the equation for £1500/$2250. You can also currently get LG’s outstanding OLED55B6V 2016 OLED TV for just £1490. Be quick with that one as stocks are likely limited.
It’s hard to imagine many similarly priced TVs outperforming the 55XE8596 this year. Its lack of brightness may put a lid on its HDR potential, but it counters that with some of the best black levels, sharpness and colour I’ve seen on a sub-£1500/$2250 55-inch TV.