The arrival of high dynamic range (HDR) technology has made life notoriously difficult for the once relatively safe space of the mid-range TV.
Buy a budget HDR-capable set and, if you’re being realistic, you’ll be fully prepared to only get a pretty limited HDR experience. Mid-range TVs like the $2,299.99 Sony 65X900F under scrutiny here, though, still represent a considerable investment for most households, and so people who buy them understandably expect a lot from them. Even though pretty much all the evidence I’ve seen over the past couple of years has shown that only the best really high-end TVs can deliver a truly uncompromising HDR performance.
The result of all this is that you often find mid-range TVs trying too hard. For instance, they push for more brightness than their backlight set-ups can sensibly handle. Or they try so hard to deliver awesome black levels that they have to grossly limit their brightness - despite the importance of brightness to a convincing HDR picture.
Sony’s 2017 X900E (XE9005 in Europe) series, though, came closer than most to getting the mid-range mix right. Not least because unlike most mid-range rivals, they combined direct LED lighting (where the LEDs sit behind the screen rather than around its edges) with local dimming, where various sections of those LEDs can simultaneously output different levels of light to suit the demands of the picture.
The Sony 65X900F in my living room. Probably.
The new X900F (XF9005 in Europe) range picks up this sensible and popular backlight arrangement and runs with it, adding more individually controllable dimming zones and boosting peak brightness. It also, crucially, uses a much more powerful video processing chip than the X900Es, and introduces a brand new motion processing system.
It does all this, moreover, without making the range significantly more expensive than last year’s equivalents. All of which has meant that these TVs have looked like potential killer models from the moment I first saw them at the CES in January.
I’ve now been living with a 65-inch 65X900F for the past few days, and I have good news. For while it’s not, inevitably, perfect, it is still mostly the mid-range hero I’d hoped it would be.
Things get off to a slightly mixed start, though, with its quirky and potentially divisive design. The frame around the screen is pretty straightforward with its dark coloring and silver trim, but the long, angled out feet vaguely resemble clown’s shoes, adding a slightly ridiculous flavor to the otherwise serious look.
One of the Sony 65X900F's clown shoes.
There’s a potential practical problem, too, since the placement and angling of the feet means you will need a fairly wide piece of furniture to put the set on if you don’t want it to just tip onto its face. The 65X900F does, though, score design brownie points for the way grooves in the back of the feet let you keep your cabling tidy.
Connections are up to speed for a mid-range set, thanks to its four v2.0 HDMIs, three USBs and support for both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
The network solutions support file sharing and access to Sony’s online world. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Google’s online world, given that the 65X900F continues Sony’s partnership with the Android TV platform.
Regular readers of my reviews will know that aside from its built-in Chromecast support, I’m not exactly a fan of Android TV. Its interface is too dictatorial, over-bearing and short on customization options, and the platform is far too fond of extensive and regular updates. These will become tedious in the extreme if your home isn’t serviced by decently fast broadband.
Not So Smart TV?
My full if slightly aging review of Android TV can be found here. Aside from the Android 7 platform currently present on the 65X900F being a bit less buggy than previous iterations, it’s disappointing how many of the issues I had when I wrote that initial Android TV review still exist. Including the fact that the system still runs more sluggishly than rival smart platforms, and seems to slow down the TV's main operating menus a bit too.
The Sony 65X900F.
Sticking with Android TV may also find Sony potentially falling behind in the Smart TV feature race. It certainly looks as if Samsung and LG will be introducing a range of cutting-edge new smart features on their 2018 TV ranges that don’t appear to be on Sony’s roadmap.
The best it seems we can hope for from the 65X900F is that things improve when Android 8 arrives on it - something which Sony has promised will happen.
One bit of good news for UK users, at least, is the presence on their 65XF9005 of the YouView app. This provides access to the catch-up TV services of the main UK terrestrial broadcasters via a handy electronic program guide interface.
Before assessing the 65X900F’s picture quality, let’s put a bit more meat on the bones of the new features that distinguish it from 2017’s X900Es. Perhaps the single most significant one is the switch from using Sony’s original X1 chipset to the X1 Extreme.
All About Chips
The Extreme chipset is apparently 40% more powerful than the original X1, and introduces some key picture quality features. For instance, it uses a twin picture database engine to deliver class-leading upscaling of non-4K sources. It also delivers what I consider to be currently the best standard dynamic range to high dynamic range ‘upscaler’, and provides a ‘Super Bit Mapping’ system that does a superb job of removing color striping/banding from HDR sources.
One other benefit of the X1 Extreme processor is that it supports playback of the Dolby Vision premium HDR system (explained here). Or at least it does (kind of) in the US. Unfortunately, due to issues with the US Dolby Vision software update reported here, people like myself who live outside the US are still waiting for the necessary firmware to roll out. So frustratingly I still can’t test how Dolby Vision looks on a Sony TV. Guess I’ll just have to come back to it at a later date…
Turning to the increased number of dimming zones in the 65X900F, there’s not much else I can say. Sony won’t reveal exact numbers, and trying to count them yourself seems to me too imprecise a process to be worth doing. We’ll just have to see how much better the picture looks, I guess!
The extra brightness sees the 65X900F hitting brightness peaks on a 10% white HDR window of around 1000 nits. That’s a handy 25% increase from the 800 nits recorded on the X900E range.
Poetry In Motion
Finally, X-Motion Clarity cleverly combines black frame insertion technology with the 65X900F’s direct lighting/local dimming technologies to deliver a strikingly crisp, clean but still cinematic look to motion without brightness taking a hit in the way it usually does with black frame insertion systems.
The Sony 65X900F's rear is a tidy affair. Especially with cable tidy channels in the legs.
For the most part, the 65X900F’s pictures are outstanding for its price point. Starting with HDR feeds from 4K Blu-rays and streaming services (the Netflix and Amazon apps both support 4K HDR streams - though at the time of writing, the YouTube app does not), the extra brightness Sony has found compared with 2017’s X900E range has an immediate impact.
The combination of much brighter light peaks and noticeably less clipping (less loss of subtle detailing) within those peaks creates a much more compelling, satisfying HDR experience. The 65X900F’s extra brightness also unlocks more color tones, especially in bright areas, enabling you to experience far more of the full color volume HDR is capable of than you could on the X900E.
To be fair, the X900E was certainly no slouch in the color department. But seeing the 65X900F in action makes it clear that the X900E was relying quite heavily on Sony’s proprietary Triluminos processing engine for its color prowess, whereas with the X900E you feel as if you’re seeing much more of the actual color information present in the source material. To quite a beautiful effect.
Blade Runner 2049 on 4K Blu-ray is especially effective at showing off just how excellent the X900F’s colors are or a mid-range TV. Few films in recent memory carry such a striking combination of natural skin tones and garnish, gaudy tones (for instance, in the cities’ digital billboards), yet the 65X900F handles both the artificially extreme and natural tones with equal aplomb.
Corner detail of the Sony 65X900F.
Crucially there’s no striping in color blends in HDR mode either, and there’s no sense of the extra brightness Sony has found causing any peakiness or ‘bleaching’ of bright tones. This is a particularly important testament to the quality of the direct backlighting system.