Sony XBR-X850D series review

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THE GOOD: The Sony XBR-X850D offers cutting-edge 4K HDR features, accurate color and solid video processing. Its minimalist design looks understated yet futuristic. Android TV’s large app selection means you might not need an external streamer.

THE BAD: Worse contrast and overall image quality than many competitors we’ve tested.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The midpriced Sony XBR-X850D gets the features, style and smart parts right, but falls short where it really counts: picture performance.

The name Sony is synonymous with high-performance televisions, but the X850D series isn’t one of them. Compared to its peers from Vizio and Samsung in side-by-side comparisons, this relatively affordable bearer of the company’s “XBR” moniker fell well short, with worse contrast and impact overall.

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In my book contrast is the most important aspect of image quality, and image quality for the price is the most important factor in choosing a TV. If you judge it by other factors, however, the X850D brings a lot to the table. Its features include 4K resolution and high dynamic range (HDR); its sleek, minimal design goes with pretty much any decor; and its Android-based smart TV system is one of the best — good enough that you probably won’t need to connect an external streaming box.

If that stuff, along with the cachet of the Sony name, are enough for you, then the X850D could be a worthy choice. But in my book there are plenty of better choices, including the slightly more expensiveSamsung UN65KS8000 and the cheaper Vizio M series, both of which beat this XBR’s picture. If you want a TV that truly lives up to the Sony pedigree, you’ll have to pay extra for a model like the X930Dor something even more expensive.

Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch Sony XBR-65X850D, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and, according to the manufacturer, should provide very similar picture quality.

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Design: Thin and sleek

This is one sharp-looking television. Its thin frame is flat black and all sharp angles, classy understatement ruling the look. Seen from the side the TV is even more impressive, almost as razor-slim as the X930D — the 65-inch size measures 1.73 inches deep at its thickest point and 7/16-inch at the thinnest.

Like other Sonys this year the edge is banded with a thin metallic strip, chrome in this case rather than the higher-end sets’ gold, providing the only bright spot beyond the blue power LED under the logo.

The silver stand base angles up for an unusual and attractive alternative to the staid pedestal. I much prefer a single central stand to the splayed-leg designs on some other sets.

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I like the remote a lot, although it’s more traditional than some competing clickers. Instead of separate buttons, the entire face is rubberized with raised sections that correspond to buttons. They’re pleasantly tactile, a feel reinforced by the rounded sides and Sony’s typically excellent arrangement and differentiation. Downsides include relatively hefty size, numerous buttons, lack of backlighting, and a big Google Play shortcut key that pales in usefulness next to the Netflix key.

The new clicker also has a prominent voice search button up top that doesn’t require you to aim at the TV to work. That’s smart, because most people will hold the top of the remote up to their mouths to speak into the mic, screwing with that aim. Unlike most voice remotes, however, you do have to aim it to perform any other function, from power to volume to the Home button. You also have to manually activate the mic button using the TV’s setup menu, an annoying extra step that seems like classic Android (that is, needlessly complex).

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Android TV brings on the apps

Sony’s sets run Google’s smart TV system, and it beats the home-brew solutions from Samsung and LG (if not Roku TV) in the most important area: app coverage.

Unlike external Android TV boxes such as the Nvidia Shield and Xiaomi Mi Box, Sony TVs have an Amazon Video app, complete with its substantial library of 4K and HDR content. So does the X850D’s Netflix app. The TV also comes with Sony’s own Ultra app — the latter offering 4K and HDR movies by Sony Pictures on a purchase-only basis (typically $26-$30 each). There’s a Vudu app (as of press time it hadn’t been updated to support 4K or HDR), an UltraFlix app with some niche 4K content and, of course, 4K support on the YouTube app.

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Other apps abound, from PlayStation Vue to CNNGo to HBO Now to Plex to PBS Kids to Sling TV to Watch ESPN to CBS All Access to MLB.TV to Spotify, and of course numerous lesser apps and games are available via the Google Play Store (don’t get too excited, it’s specific to Android TV, and much less extensive than the one on your phone). Speaking of phones, many more apps can be cast to the Sony via its built-in Google Cast functionality, which works exactly like a Chromecast. And speaking of speaking, voice search using the remote works very well to find stuff.

While it may lack Samsung’s cool universal remote control feature or LG’s motion remote control, Android TV on Sony is better than either of them overall thanks to its variety of apps, Along with Roku TV it’s the one system that’s so good, you probably won’t need to connect an external streamer.

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KEY FEATURES

Display technology: LED LCD
LED backlight: Edge-lit
Resolution: 4K
HDR compatible: HDR10
Screen shape: Flat/Curved
Smart TV: Android TV
Remote: Standard
3D capable: No

The one feature that consistently improved LCD TV image quality the most, local dimming, is absent from the X850D. In theory such an absence leads to lighter black levels and less contrast, and in practice that’s exactly what we found. The more expensive X930D, which has significantly better image quality than this TV, does have local dimming.

The set supports HDR (high dynamic range) content in HDR10 format only; it lacks the Dolby Vision HDR support found on Vizio and LG’s 2016 HDR TVs. It’s still too early to determine whether one HDR format is “better” than the other, and I definitely don’t consider lack of Dolby Vision a deal breaker on this TV; instead it’s just one more factor to consider. Check out my article on the HDR format war for more.

Other image quality specifications are suitably high-end. The TV uses Sony’s Triluminos wide color gamut technology for more realistic colors, and has its MotionFlow XR 960 processing and a 120Hz native panel. Unlike the X930D, the X850D does not support 3D.

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Plenty of connectivity

  • 4x HDMI inputs with HDMI 2.0a, HDCP 2.2
  • 1x component video input (another shared with component)
  • 1x composite video input
  • 3x USB ports
  • Ethernet (LAN) port
  • Optical digital audio output
  • Stereo audio output (minijack)
  • RF (antenna) input

Sony’s input selection is solid, including four state-of-the-art HDMI inputs (all are HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2) and a good selection of other jacks.

Picture quality

Given how well the Sony XBR-X930D performed, and Sony’s claims of improvement over last year’sXBR-X850C, I expected more from the X850D. I didn’t get it.

The TV’s image quality has some strengths, including accurate color and solid video processing, but it simply can’t compete against other comparable sets from Samsung and Vizio. Its black levels and contrast are poor, washing out both standard and high dynamic range material, and its uneven uniformity causes noticeable bright spots across the screen.

Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV’s picture controls worked during calibration.

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Sony, we have a problem. The black level performance of the X850D, and hence its overall contrast and pop, was easily the worst in my lineup, and the worst of any TV I’ve tested all year — including the LG LH8500. Its darkest black is a shade of gray several shades lighter than the next-brightest in the lineup, the Samsung KU7000 (the only other LCD without local dimming), and much worse than any of the others, whether LCD or OLED. The difference was immediately visible in TV shows and movies, for example the “Sicario” Blu-ray.

In dark material like the opening white-on-black titles and the shot of Agent Mercer in the troop transport, and in brighter scenes as the FBI raids the corpse house, those lighter black levels caused the image to look flatter and less impactful than on any of the other sets. The difference was much less obvious in brighter scenes, like the full sun of the desert outside the house, but the bright letterbox bars were still evident, and again took away some of the punch.

Bright lighting

When we turned up the lights and opened the windows in our test lab, the X850D looked better, mainly because its poor black levels were less obvious, but it still didn’t beat any of the others in our lineup.

Light output was solid but certainly not in the same league as the X930D. Its light output was middle-of-the-LCD-pack, as you can see below, and like all TVs I’ve tested recently (including the 55EG9100OLED) it’s plenty bright for just about any room. With HDR sources it was about as bright as the others, without the peak light levels of the X930D.

LIGHT OUTPUT IN NITS

TV Mode (SDR) 10% window (SDR) Full screen (SDR) Mode (HDR) 10% window (HDR)
Sony XBR-65X930D Vivid 926 492 HDR Video 923
Samsung UN65KS8000 Dynamic 618 480 Movie 1346
Vizio P65-C1 Vivid 502 572 Vivid 486
Vizio M65-D0 Calibrated 456 450 Vivid 507
Samsung UN65KU7000 Dynamic 452 453 Dynamic 441
Sony XBR-65X850D Vivid 427 461 HDR Video 432
LG 55EG9100 Vivid 353 92 N/A

The screen did a decent job deadening reflections but not as good as the Samsung KS8000. It was basically impossible to evaluate black-level fidelity on the Sony because its black levels were so light.

Color accuracy

The X850D performed well in this area according to test patterns, evincing low color errors with pretty much all of my objective tests. Colors also looked very good in program material, including skin tones and both indoor and outdoor scenes from “Sicario.” The only real knock is that none of the colors appeared as rich or saturated as the other TVs, a symptom of its black level issues.

Video processing

The X850D performed basically the same as the X930D in this category: very well, but not as good as some of the best Samsung and LG sets. The balance between smoothing and motion resolution, controlled by MotionFlow, isn’t as easy to achieve. For film-based sources (including scripted TV and movies) I recommend using the True Cinema mode because it preserves the correct 1080p/24 cadence of film without smoothing. The same goes for Off and the Custom mode if you select “Min” smoothness.

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Unfortunately all of those modes also achieve “Min” motion resolution (300 lines). The only way to improve it is to dial in a mode — like Standard, Smooth, Clear or a Custom Smoothness setting of 3 or more — that creates the soap opera effect. The most effective, namely Clear and a Custom Clearness setting of 2 or 3, engage backlight scanning, which dims the image. Unless you’re really sensitive to blurring, it’s best to stick with a less smooth mode like True Cinema.

I also checked out the CineMotion settings with a 1080i source and the default, High, looked best with film-based material; lower settings introduced too much judder. I did not spend much time evaluating the Reality Creation processing under the Clarity menu, because with high-quality sources like HDTV and Blu-ray, I prefer minimal or no “enhancements.”

Input lag was also in the same ballpark as the X930D at 35 milliseconds in Game mode. That’s very good, but not as impressive as some earlier Sony sets or 2016 Samsung models.

Uniformity

The Sony fell toward the bottom of our side-by-side lineup in this category, showing a brighter upper-right corner and both lower corners in dark full-field test patterns, and brighter top and bottom edges in brighter patterns. The issues were visible in program material that showed a dark or black background, such as credits, and in numerous dark scenes. In brighter scenes with camera movement I also noticed a bit more “dirty screen effect” than on most of the other sets.

Off-angle, it was a mixed bag. In dark scenes the image became washed out and discolored faster than the other LCDs, but brighter scenes maintained color fidelity better.

HDR and 4K video

Since HDR calls for a maxed-out backlight and the X850D lacks the local dimming that can control that backlight more precisely across the screen, light black levels are an even greater problem with HDR. The same scenes from the Sicario 4K Blu-ray disc showed even worse washout and bright blacks, and the bright spots on the screen, namely the edges and corners, showed up even more readily.

The story was the same streaming the HDR version of “Goliath” with the Amazon app. The initial nighttime scene at sea was relatively washed out and devoid of detail compared to other sets, and the same went for the dark interior of the bar.

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In its favor the Sony showed characteristic HDR pop in brighter scenes and highlights, and accurate HDR color, especially compared to the Vizios. It fell short of the wide color gamut of the KS8000, but compared well to the others. Overall the Sony’s HDR looked better than the M series’ (still flawed) rendition of HDR10 material, marginally better than the KU7000 and not as good as the KS8000 or the P series.

Comparing the Sony’s HDR10 to the Vizio M series’ Dolby Vision, using “Marco Polo” streamed from Netflix, the two were neck and neck, with the Vizio trouncing the Sony in dark and mixed scenes as described above, and the Sony beating it handily in brighter scenes, evincing better pop impact.

The X850D was able to pass the full resolution of 4K from YouTube and played through a suite of 4K test patterns from Florian Friedrich with no issues.

GEEK BOX

Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.052 Poor
Peak white luminance (100%) 427 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.16 Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.283 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.2 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 1.055 Good
Avg. color error 1.340 Good
Red error 1.162 Good
Green error 1.908 Good
Blue error 1.313 Good
Cyan error 1.061 Good
Magenta error 1.22 Good
Yellow error 1.378 Good
Avg. saturations error 0.832 Good
Avg. luminance error 1.85 Good
Avg. color checker error 2.5 Good
Percent gamut Wide (DCI/P3) 88.45 Average
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 1200 Good
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300 Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 35.1 Good

(cnet.com, https://goo.gl/v82JFY)

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