After hitting several bum notes on the TV front over the last couple of years, Sony is back on song, finally delivering what people are looking for from a telly.
The 55-inch version of this set is one of my favourite TVs of the year, but not everyone has the space for a monster screen. The 40-inch 40HX853 will be a much better fit for many people's living rooms. Priced at around £1,000, it's about £500 cheaper too, but does it perform as well as its bigger sibling?
User interface and EPG
This set's user interface is very similar to the one Sony added to the TVs that appeared towards the tail end of last year. It's a re-jigged version of the XrossMediaBar that first appeared on Sony's game consoles that's since been reworked to be more TV friendly.
When you call it up, it doesn't take over the whole screen as it used to. Instead, there's a video window in the top left-hand corner, while the menu bar runs across the base of the screen. When you select an option from the bottom bar, the menu for it is shown as a column down the right-hand side of the display.
Sony has added a new menu for Sony Entertainment Network (SEN), which you can call up by hitting the dedicated SEN button on the remote. This has a tile interface, similar to the look of Windows 8, with individual tiles for apps, movies and music. The latter two show you the latest releases on Sony's Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited rental services, while the Apps tile is where you'll find entries for the likes of iPlayer and Netflix.
The whole user interface looks slick and modern, but it's not all that easy to get your head around initially, especially if you haven't used Sony's game consoles. Navigation can be long winded and the icons aren't brilliantly designed -- it's not always easy to tell what function they represent. There are times when you can access the same functions in different ways, which is confusing and pointless. For example, you can get to apps either via the Internet Content option in the XMB, or through the SEN menu.
The electronic programme guide (EPG) is very good though. It, too, has a video thumbnail window in the top left corner so you don't lose track of what you're watching when you want to check what's on other channels. Upcoming shows are shown as a traditional horizontal grid and it's speedy to navigate around and easy to read from a normal viewing distance.
Design and connections
The design of the 40HX853 will split opinion, but at least it's significantly different to pretty much all other TVs on the market. I don't think it's as attractive as the likes of the LG 47LM960V, as the bezel around the screen is thick and the monolithic design makes is imposing.
The unique stand makes a bold design statement though. The TV slots into the stand at a slight angle, so it's tilted back by around six degrees. The entire front of the TV is covered with a single sheet of Gorilla Glass, while a chrome band runs around the outer edge of the TV. It looks like a giant tablet PC.
Other manufacturers have started shipping fancy touchscreen remotes or motion controllers with their high-end TVs, but Sony hasn't gone down this route. The TV comes with a standard zapper. This is angular and not all that comfortable to hold, but on the plus side the buttons are reasonably large and the layout is sensible, so all the key functions are within easy reach of your thumb.
The TV is pretty well specced for connections. The panel on the left-hand edge houses two HDMI ports as well as a pair of USB ports, a VGA connector and a CAM slot. On the rear on a downward facing panel, you'll find another two HDMI ports, an optical audio output and the RF input for the Freeview HD tuner. There's an Ethernet port here, but as the TV has Wi-Fi built in, you won't necessarily need to use it. Pointing directly out of the back of the TV is a full-sized Scart socket and a set of component inputs.
Video file playback
While the media players on most other TVs have started supporting a broad range of digital media file formats, Sony has stubbornly refused to add support for popular formats such as MKV. Sadly, it's the same old story on the 40HX853.
The set supports DivX playback via USB, but would only play standard-definition DviX files across a network, as it refused to run my 1080p test video. It did play some Xvid files, but refused others and doesn't work at all with MKV files. You can get around the problem by using Sony's free Homestream software on your PC to convert the files to a playable format on the fly, but that's not much good if you want to stream from a NAS drive when your PC is turned off.
As with a lot of today's high-end sets, this one records shows directly from its Freeview HD tuner to USB drives. It's worth noting, the drive has to be at least 32GB in size. And as there's just one tuner, you can only record a single channel at a time.
Where the set really impresses is its range of online video services. Open the SEN menu and you'll find apps for a whole host of premium services including iPlayer, Netflix, Lovefilm, Demand 5, YouTube, Crackle, Muzu.tv and Sky News. Naturally, Facebook and Twitter are also supported as well as information services such as AccuWeather. It's up there with the best online offerings you'll find on today's top smart TVs.
The clever thing about the 40HX853's stand is it includes an extra sound system. This connects back to the TV via a short cable. The stand includes two front-facing speakers that produce cleaner and crisper audio than the down-firing ones that are built into most of today's flat-panel TVs. The difference really is very noticeable and the stand's sound system even manages to do a pretty good job when tasked with delivering bass frequencies, adding extra punch to movie soundtracks and music videos.
One caveat -- if you choose to mount the TV on the wall instead of using the stand, it switches back to the speakers built into the TV chassis, which don't sound anywhere near as good.
2D picture quality
Rather than using direct LED backlighting, Sony has opted for an edge-mounted LED system that can be locally dimmed to produce deeper black levels. Edge dimming isn't always that effective in my experience, but the system that Sony has developed is first class. It generates astoundingly deep blacks without leaving you with lots of areas of clouding or blocking on the display.
You can see a tiny amount of blocking creep in now and again, but that's only really when you have a very bright area of the picture next to a dark area. In fact, the backlighting is remarkably consistent across the display -- something most other LED models struggle with.
Contrast performance is first class too, helping to give movies that cinematic sense of depth and finesse. It handles subtle shadow detail with aplomb. Colours are richly nuanced and the set's high brightness levels add punch to pictures. It upscales standard-definition channels or DVDs sympathetically, and HD feeds are just about as sharp as you're likely to see on a 40-inch TV. All LED screen have inherent motion blur when motion processing is turned off, but with its Clear or Clear Plus settings, this model handles motion superbly well.
There are a couple of negative points. As with pretty much all of Sony's recent TVs, viewing angles aren't as wide as competing models from the likes of LG and Panasonic. Venture too far off axis from the centre and you'll notice colours and contrast shift quite a bit. Also, the Gorilla Glass used on the front of the panel is more reflective than some rival LED models, although no more so than today's high-end plasmas.
3D picture quality
In the past, some of Sony's TVs have struggled with cross-talk -- or ghost images -- when showing 3D pictures. Cross-talk is often a by-product of slow LED panels, but as the 40HX853 uses a 200Hz panel with added backlight blinking to up the rate to 800Hz, I was hoping cross-talk wouldn't be an issue.
Thankfully, it's not, as the set is virtually cross-talk free. In fact, 3D images look solid and create an impressive sense of depth. Sony's X-Reality Pro 3D processing seems to help, sharpening up both foreground and background objects to improve 3D clarity.
Unfortunately, Sony doesn't include glasses with the set, so you'll have to buy them separately. They'll set you back around £30 each if you purchase them online. The specs are quite big and chunky, so they're not hugely comfortable to wear. They uses IR rather than Bluetooth to sync with the TV, so if you tilt your head they lose sync. You can't really lie on a sofa while watching a 3D movie.
The 40HX853 is every bit as good as its larger sibling. It has the same stunning picture quality across both 2D and 3D, superb sound from the audio system built into its stand and great support for online TV services.
Not everyone will be sold on the design and its support for digital media playback needs improvement, but as an overall package, this is another stunning TV from Sony. Before you get your plastic out, also check out these excellent, similarly sized screens -- Panasonic's TX-P42ST50B, TX-P42GT50B and LG's 42LM660T.