Over the years I’ve been wowed by plenty of high-end TV sets at CES. Two years ago, when the first jumbo 4K (UHD) sets were unveiled they were eye-popping. Now that UHD sets are commonplace in vendors’ booths, I was expecting to be fairly ho-hum about this year’s models. Last night though, Sony showed that there is more to UHD than resolution. Its new Bravia sets for 2014 combine 4K with a raft of well-thought-out technologies for stunning images.
Finally TV makers figure out it isn’t just about resolution
Just as camera makers figured out that there is more to a good camera than megapixels — once they crammed in so many that it became senseless to add more — so TV makers have started to hone in on other aspects of what makes a good picture. Sidetracked by the allure of 3D for a couple years, effort is now going back into creating more lifelike displays. In Sony’s case there are several new technologies that work together to make its new sets visibly better than last year’s models: updated Triluminos displays, X-tended Dynamic Range processing, and X-Reality Pro image processing.
Sony’s Triluminos displays make all the other goodies possible. By allowing a larger range of colors (wider color gamut) to be displayed, Sony engineers can then go to town in their image processing code to produce lifelike images. While Triluminos is not new, Sony has somehow improved it for this year, allowing even more saturated colors — without them looking cartoon-like. New for 2014 is X-tended Dynamic Range processing. Expect to see something like this from all TV makers, as they realize that lifelike contrast ratios are just as important as 3D for creating awesome images. In fact, many folks seeing sets like these in the store for the first time will think they are seeing some type of 3D without glasses technology.
Sony’s X-Reality Pro image processor puts these new display technologies to good use by analyzing each scene and attempting to enhance the contrast and color as appropriate, while upscaling content to 4K (UHD? 2160p?) if needed. For the source material Sony selected in its booth, it worked really well. I’d want to see it on a wider variety of content before making a final judgement on whether this processing is something you’d always want to leave turned on, or would find yourself turning off some of the automatic enhancements for old movies, for example.
Sony’s new TVs may actually stream better, too
Netflix’s Reed Hastings made a surprise appearance on the Sony stage, not just to announce that Netflix is moving to 4K streaming and content production in a big way, but to praise the new Sony Bravia sets as being the “fastest to start up when viewing 4K content” that Netflix engineers had ever seen. He and Sony attributed this to new video decoders in the sets. Sony is planning to extract this part of their secret sauce, along with some other smart TV features, and package it into a media player module for owners of some existing Sony UHD TVs — so they can take advantage of the new content without upgrading their entire set.
All in all, Sony is fighting hard to regain its spot as king of the TV. Having attended both the Sony and Samsung press conferences announcing their new models, Sony was much more focused on video quality, while Samsung featured bells and whistles like integrated sports and second screen content, and of course its new bendable screen. However, until sets reach stores later this year, it’ll be hard to know which approach will resonate best with consumers. If you’re itching to get started you can pre-order some of the Sony sets from its site, but the high-end models are still in drool mode only.
A range of models for every budget
The top of the new Sony line is the XBR-950B, a monster with 65-inch and 85-inch versions featuring every piece of technology Sony has in its slim frame — including a unique Pro version of X-Tended Range. No pricing has been set for either it or its slightly less gorgeous siblings, the XBR-900B and XBR-850B, but expect them to be pricey. If you want to take advantage of the new smarts and are willing to settle for a more traditional HD set, the new W600B, W800B, and W850B models are available for pre-order starting at $ 500 for the entry level 40-inch version.