Sony XBR-65Z9D LCD Ultra HDTV Review

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PRICE $5,500

AT A GLANCE
Plus
State-of-the-art local dimming
Class-leading HDR brightness
Above average off-center viewing
Minus
Price

THE VERDICT
With the top manufacturers jostling for a view from the top of the Ultra HD pyramid, Sony has taken an express elevator and is racing fast for the checkered flag. But enough with the mixed metaphors. If this TV isn’t today’s best LCD UHD/HDR set (and perhaps the best of any type), it’s not for lack of trying. Sony has given us their best technology here, and it shows.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2016, Sony demonstrated a prototype of a future LCD TV design incorporating what the company called Backlight Master Drive. We found it dazzling, as did most of the show-goers with whom we spoke. Nevertheless, we all looked at it as a “show car”—something that might appear in a store near you in a couple of years, if ever.

Sony has cried wolf before: Do a Web search for “Crystal LED, CES 2012.” But while that remains a dream (at least for consumers), Backlight Master Drive is here today. (Just this past July, on soundandvision.com, we reported about its launch.) The technology is featured in Sony’s XBR Z9D series of LCD Ultra HDTVs, available in three sizes: 75-inch-diagonal at $10,000, 100-inch at $60,000 (yikes), and for the…ah…more budget conscious, the 65-incher at a more attainable $5,500—the subject of this report.

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Design and Features
The sleek XBR-65Z9D is actually a bit fatter than the XBR-65X930D we reviewed in our September 2016 issue, though not in an obtrusive way. Its back panel is well finished and can be fitted with removable covers (included) to conceal the cable mess that’s common to a TV installation.

As with most other premier LCD sets, this TV employs LED backlighting with full-array (not edge-lit) local dimming, for superior blacks and shadow detail. In most local-dimming sets, the LEDs are controlled by zones. Sony also uses this technique in the XBR-65Z9D, but with a major difference: Each LED backlight is controlled individually and is therefore its own zone, offering finer control over dark and bright areas of the picture. The number of LEDs isn’t specified, though at our private briefing at CES, it was implied that Sony had calculated that approximately 1,000 individual light sources could be used to provide about the same local-dimming benefits as a pixel-specific emissive display.

The set’s Backlight Master Drive consists of this LED backlighting array together with Sony’s new 4K HDR Processor X1 Extreme. The latter is said to have 40 percent more processing power than the company’s best previous core processor. It also provides 4K upscaling for 1080p and lesser material, 14-bit internal processing to minimize color banding, and other services. Sony is close-lipped about the bit depth of the LCD imaging panel itself, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s 10 bits, tops. An incoming source, generally no more than 8 or 10 bits, must be upconverted for the higher bit depth of the video processing, then downconverted to match the panel.

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The Sony’s four HDMI inputs are all HDCP 2.2 compliant. But only HDMI 2 and HDMI 3 can convey the full bandwidth (18 gigabits per second) required to pass Ultra HD with all of its key features intact (4K resolution, high dynamic range, and wider, deeper color). The set has three USB ports (one of them 3.0, the others 2.0), as well as two audio outputs: Toslink digital optical and analog on a minijack (the latter usable with a subwoofer or headphones). You also get an antenna connection and an Ethernet LAN port.

Picture controls are similar to those in the XBR-65X930D, but not identical. They include the usual assortment of useful adjustments plus a blizzard of others, most of which many videophiles (myself included) will leave off. X-tended Dynamic Range, which analyzes the frame and addresses the LEDs to boost highlights or dim dark areas, is used mainly with HDR sources but may be engaged to produce a pseudo-HDR effect with standard dynamic range content. I tested it but ultimately left it off. (See “Comparisons” below.) And as in the company’s other 2016 sets, Sony now calls its Brightness control “Black level” (good) and its Backlight control “Brightness” (potentially confusing).

There are both 2-point and 10-point Adv. color temperature (grayscale) controls, along with something called Color Gamma Adjustment Points. I only used the 2-point controls. Sony’s version of motion-blur compensation, Motionflow, offers a number of settings of varying effectiveness (including one setting that has separate Smoothness and Clearness options, whatever they mean). But I still dislike what any sort of motion compensation does to the look of film-based material, so I left Motionflow off.

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For smart TV features, Sony has adopted Google’s Android TV. I found it a bit too thorough and more than a little intimidating, in that it attempts to please everyone’s taste for Internet content. Fair enough, and I did get good results wirelessly streaming a variety of material from Netflix and YouTube. The set can also perform all the gymnastics you might demand, such as playing music and videos and screening photos stored on your home network; mirroring the screen on your tablet, mobile phone, or computer, and much more. The multifunction remote lacks backlighting. It does offer voice recognition, but I couldn’t get it to work. Meanwhile, the navigation controls are too close to the buttons surrounding them; I often hit the wrong one.

Although the set’s promotional materials talk about its audio capabilities, I didn’t find its sound, in any of its modes, to be particularly special. The optical Toslink output carries twochannel Dolby Digital and DTS from the set’s onboard tuner or streamed apps to your AVR, though not discrete 5.1. But you can use ARC (audio return channel) on HDMI to access the latter, if your AVR also offers ARC.

1116sonytv.250.jpgWhen I reviewed Sony’s XBR65X930D, I encountered and reported on a few control freeze-ups. I had some similar experiences with our Z9D sample, which either cleared them on its own or with a few random button pushes on the remote; on three occasions, I had to unplug it briefly and restart it. Fortunately, this wasn’t a prominent issue (the set operated normally 99 percent of the time), and these are the sorts of glitches that manufacturers often address in firmware updates if they prove to be widespread.

Full HD
I chose the Cinema pro Picture mode for 1080p and lower-resolution standard dynamic range (SDR) sources. The Sony passed all of our standard video tests as long as the Cinemotion control was set to Low. (When it was set to Off, the TV wouldn’t properly deinterlace 480i and 1080i sources.)

The Sony’s backlighting worked as advertised. Fades to black were totally black (with rare exceptions, likely due to the source), as were the black bars on widescreen films when viewed in a totally dark room. But this was highly dependent on the correct setting of the Black level control. If you set it just one step too high, you’ll see a very dark gray instead of total black. In other important respects—color, resolution, brightness—the Sony held its own (on 1080p sources) with any other set I’ve yet reviewed, and its upconversion to 4K was excellent. With the proper control settings, and even before a full color calibration, it exceeded expectations with everything I threw at it, particularly when I played good Blu-rays. After calibration, its SDR technical performance was nearly flawless (see Test Bench).

To really tell the tale, however, I found that a direct A/B comparison with another flagship set was more meaningful than any flowery words I could spin here. Luckily, the Samsung UN65KS9800FXZA LCD Ultra HDTV we reviewed in our October 2016 issue was still on hand. It’s also a high-performing design with fullarray backlighting. You’ll find my comparison between these two sets in a separate section, below.

4K and High Dynamic Range
All of the 4K content for this report came from HDR-equipped Ultra HD Blu-rays via Samsung’s UBD-K8500 player. The TV won’t let you enter different menu settings for SDR and HDR in the same Picture mode. According to Sony, the set automatically adjusts for this when you switch to HDR; however, any adjustments it might have made during my audition didn’t alter the numbers that appeared in the setup menu. Unwilling to assume that any correct auto adjustment was taking place, I chose a different picture mode (Custom) for HDR setup and viewing. The only downside to this was that I had to manually switch between Picture modes when going between SDR and HDR sources.

While the color possible in Ultra HD is superior to what we’re used to seeing from standard HD, the improvement is typically subtle. Ditto (and to an even more elusive degree) for resolution—particularly on the less-than-largest screens. The contribution from HDR, however, can’t be missed. Still, whereas the Sony’s default Custom mode settings measured reasonably well, something wasn’t quite ideal with them. The image was definitely punchy as all get out, with stunning, bright highlights. But shadowed areas, particularly faces, looked too dark and even a little crushed. I ended up with different but partially subjective settings that solved this issue. The downside was that these adjustments produced measured results that were impressive in some areas but mediocre in others. Apart from these mixed technical messages, however, the Sony’s HDR images were now so jaw-dropping that I went with the new settings.

1116sonytv.rem.jpgI began with The Martian. In the opening scenes, the (CGI) camera pans across the Mars landscapes, showing a mix of bright areas and dark shadows. It then transitions to a scene of the astronauts conducting experiments. While a few of these scenes still looked a bit too dark, they’ve also looked that way on most of the other HDR sets I’ve reviewed. That said, they’ve never looked better than they did here. My main concern was that the new settings, which greatly increased the visible brightness, would produce images that looked more like a normal SDR source played in Vivid mode. In other words, I feared that everything would simply look too bright. But it didn’t. The spectral balance was now near-ideal: Bright scenes popped, bright highlights in otherwise normal scenes did so as well, and normal scenes of average brightness looked average, and right.

One of my favorite new go-to discs for HDR is Oblivion. At first, I didn’t expect much improvement in the visuals (the standard Blu-ray is excellent), but I was wrong. When the opening title pops up just as Jack approaches his helicopter, you can easily spot the mirror-like reflections in each letter. Later, as Jack gets caught in a thunderstorm, the bolts of lightning jump off the screen. And in the dark, underground library scene—as Jack is chased by the Scavs and as flashes from his rifle light and muzzle land in your lap, punctuating the gloom—you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Comparisons
I set up Sony’s XBR-65Z9D side by side with Samsung’s UN65KS9800FXZA. For 1080p sources, I used an Oppo BDP-105D Blu-ray player (with its Darbee features off). For 4K/HDR, I used the Samsung Ultra HD Blu-ray player. The two sets were linked through an AVProConnect AC-DA12-SUHD HDMI splitter. I adjusted the Samsung TV to match the look of the Sony as closely as possible (equalizing their peak outputs by meter), in both 1080p and UHD/HDR, but I didn’t fully recalibrate the Samsung (it had been calibrated during its review). These altered settings (Backlight, Contrast, Brightness, and Gamma) very likely shifted the Samsung’s older color calibrations off the mark, but I went with them because the visible differences in color between the two sets after tweaking the Samsung were negligible. (With one exception. Read on.) The sets were comparable in their off-center viewing (typically an issue with LCD TVs). They were good for up to 20 degrees, watchable but very slightly faded by 30 degrees, and clearly heading for the door at 45 degrees (though even then, a non-critical viewer might not have noticed).

With a 1080p sharpness pattern, the Sony showed some artificial edge enhancement, subtle but visible even with its Sharpness control at midpoint and Reality Creation turned off. (Midpoint is Sony’s neutral Sharpness setting—though with many brands, including Samsung, it’s zero.) The Sony also slightly softened the resolution lines in the pattern. The Samsung’s pattern was crisp and clean, with no visible edge enhancement even at low settings of its Sharpness control. None of these pattern differences were directly visible from the viewing seat, but the Samsung did look marginally but consistently sharper (without visible enhancement) with 1080p source material. These differences were minor, however, and would never have been obvious without a side-by-side comparison.

It was a surprise to find that with 1080p material, the Samsung ran neck and neck with, or even marginally ahead of, the Sony in black level and shadow detail. On the opening star fields from Avatar (at about 2:16 minutes into the film), the stars were a little dimmer on the Sony and more noticeably so as the brighter ship moved to occupy more of the screen (this will be a function of how a set’s local dimming is configured). The difference wasn’t dramatic, but always favored the Samsung. To improve on this, I tried several different settings on the Sony. None made any significant change in the brightness of the stars, including activating X-tended Dynamic Range at Sony’s recommendation. As noted, this control turns on the Sony’s pseudo-HDR mode. X-tended Dynamic Range did, however, make larger bright areas pop dramatically (particularly a few scenes later in a shot of Pandora, a life-supporting moon, with its host planet behind it). Oddly, the two sets were much closer in the star fields that appear early in Prometheus. And both sets ran neck and neck in that film’s cave scenes.

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In chapter 9 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Neville leads Harry and friends through a dark tunnel and the camera angle shifts to a long shot of the subjects, the Samsung went nearly black in the gloom surrounding them while the same areas on the Sony were a shade or two lighter gray. Ditto for a number of other scenes in this dark movie. It was close, however, and the setting of each set’s black level control (Brightnes on the Samsung, Black level on the Sony) were critical in getting the best from each of them. But as with the sharpness discussion above, short of a direct A/B comparison, most viewers would find the differences between the two sets in both black level and shadow detail insignificant. Both sets are clearly pushing the state of the art in these qualities. The Sony did have the upper hand, however, in its reproduction of red. It was deeper and less orangey than on the Samsung, particularly in a shot of a red Ferrari from an old Pioneer Blu-ray demo disc.

One of the claims made by Sony is that the tightness of the XBR-65Z9D’s LED zones, and their superior collimation (your word of the day!), dramatically reduces the flare or blooming often seen on TVs (particularly, backlit local dimmers) when a bright white or solid color object is set against an otherwise black or very dark background. Visibly, however, the flare on both of these TVs looked about the same, and only marginally better than on most respectable local dimmers.

Moving on to HDR material, I had to make considerable alterations to the Samsung’s controls to achieve a close subjective match to the Sony. After that, it was very much a toss-up. Reds were still somewhat richer on the Sony, which was significant in the landscape scenes from The Martian. The planet’s red desert look was appropriately saturated on the Sony, but it was more like a lightly singed Sahara on the Samsung.

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The sets appeared equally crisp in 4K, with no visible resolution differences between them. And while my reference discs for HDR black level and shadow detail are fewer than my discs for 1080p, that underground library scene in Oblivion, with its dark shadows and bright highlights, was equally impressive on both displays.

Searching for other UHD/HDR differences between the two sets would be a fool’s errand. I will say, however, that whereas the Sony still had 10 steps of Brightness (backlighting) and 13 steps of Contrast remaining after I entered my preferred settings, I had to max out the Samsung’s Backlight control and do nearly the same with its Contrast (with only two steps to spare) to get it to be toe-to-toe with the Sony’s visible punch. The Sony is clearly the brighter TV—though in a home setting, I’m not sure how much this will add up to a usable advantage. It might depend on the amount of ambient light in your viewing environment.

Except perhaps for 3D. The Samsung doesn’t do 3D, but the Sony still does. It comes with two pair of active glasses. And its 3D is brilliant, thanks largely to the set’s high available luminance. In scenes from Avatar and Tangled, I found the 3D fully satisfying, with no visible ghosting. When properly set up, the TV boasted a 3D brightness level that was as pleasing as a good SDR 2D presentation. It’s not, of course, anywhere near as dynamic as HDR, but 3D offers its own rewards.

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Conclusions
Apart from some minor critiques, the Sony XBR-65Z9D performed superbly on 1080p material. When it comes to HDR, we’re still wandering around a bit in the calibration wilderness, but nevertheless I was seriously impressed by what this TV could do with HDR sources—and you’ll be as well. True, it’s really too early for any of us to know if what we’re seeing from UHD with HDR sources, on any set, is what the filmmakers intended as they graded their movies in those formats. All I can say for certain is this: What I see in HDR is very different from what we’re accustomed to seeing in SDR, but after a brief acclimatization, it looked supremely real on this Sony TV. I want more of it.

Specs
Dimensions (WxHxD, Inches): 57.6 x 33.4 x 3.1 (without stand); 57.6 x 36.3 x 10.5 (with stand)
Weight: (Pounds): 70.6 (without stand); 78.7 (with stand)
3D Glasses: Active, two pair included, extras $50 ea (TDG-BT400A)
Video Inputs: HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 (4), ARC on HDMI 3, component (1, shared), composite (1, shared), cable/antenna RF
Audio Inputs: Analog stereo (1, shared)
Audio Outputs: Optical digital (Toslink), audio analog (on minijack, headphones/subwoofer)
Other: USB (3: 2, USB 2.0; 1, USB 3.0), LAN, remote (RSC-232C on minijack for wired control)
Price: $5,500

(soundandvision.com, https://goo.gl/fBA9Y3)

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