There was a time when the best TV buying advice you could give someone was to get a Sony. That was before it got caught out badly by the shift to flatscreen TVs. It has since been overtaken as the number one worldwide brand by Samsung.
Sony desperately needs a run of good quality TVs to restore the brand caché it's lost over the years. The top-of-the-range 55-inch 55HX853, which costs around £1,800, looks like a good contender to kick-off a Sony revival.
User interface and EPG
The set uses the same XrossMediaBar (XMB) that was found on later models in last year's range such as the KDL-55NX723. It's not as intrusive as the original XMB, as there's now a video window in the top-left corner of the display, with the menu bar shown across the bottom. The various options within the highlighted menu option are displayed on a column running down the right of the display. I think the interface is overly fussy and not as immediate as some competitors. Getting at basic settings can feel long-winded.
What I do like is the new interface for online services. This is accessed via the large SEN button on the remote and presents you with a series of tabs that are similar in look and feel to the Metro interface that Microsoft is using for Windows 8. The online services are split into apps, movies and music categories. In apps, you'll find the likes of BBC iPlayer and Netflix, while the music and video panels show the latest releases that you can buy or rent from the Sony Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited online services.
The electronic programme guide (EPG) is also pretty good. There's a thumbnail video of the currently selected programme on the top-left corner of the screen, while the EPG grid uses a traditional landscape layout. Moving around the EPG is speedy and it's easy to set up favourite channels or view a list of all upcoming movies.
Design and connections
The 55HX853's design may have its flaws, but one thing you can say about it is it's unique. It stands out from the crowd partly due to its stand. Rather than mount the TV on a pedestal, as other manufacturers do, the TV slots into a long and quite wide aluminium frame that holds the set at a backwards tilt of six degrees. The front of the TV is covered in gorilla glass and this runs all the way to the edge, which has a slick chrome trim. It looks like a giant iPad.
There's quite a thick 33mm bezel around the screen edge, which looks old fashioned next to the slimmer, frameless designs on Samsung's and LG's new TVs. The overall package, especially on this 55-inch model, is very imposing when it's sitting in an average living room. LG's designs, on the other hand, feel lighter and more airy.
Sony has eschewed fancy touchpads and motion-sensing remotes in favour of a standard zapper. The button layout is good, but the shape is overly boxy so it's not quite as comfortable to hold as it could be.
The extra girth of the panel means that Sony has been able to add full-sized Scart and component connectors, although these do point directly out of the rear of the set, which could be a problem if you're wall mounting it. The other connectors face either downwards or outwards form the side, so they won't get in the way if you decide to mount it on a wall.
The bottom panel houses two of the HDMI ports, along with the optical audio output and RF input for the aerial. There's an Ethernet port, but the TV has Wi-Fi built in so you don't have to use a wired connection. On the side panel are another two HDMI ports as well as two USB sockets and a VGA input. There's also a CAM slot for use with pay TV services such as Top Up TV.
Video file playback
Sony's TVs have always been troublesome when it comes to file playback and streaming. Unfortunately, this trend continues on the 55HX853. It supports DivX playback via USB, but although it played a standard-definition DviX 5.2 file over a network, it refused to play a 1080p DivX 5.0 file. It works with some -- but not all -- Xvid files but won't run the MKV format. This is a situation that Sony really needs to improve. The latest TVs from other brands such as Panasonic, LG and Samsung will happily to play these file formats either locally or across a network.
Like most of the other high-end TVs on the market at the moment, the 55HX853 allows you to record shows to memory keys or hard drives connected to one of its two USB ports (although they have to have a capacity of at least 32GB). However, although you can schedule recordings directly from the EPG, it's no replacement for a proper personal video recorder, as the single tuner means you can't record one show while watching another.
The range of video-on-demand services available in the SEN menu is excellent. It includes BBC iPlayer, but it's also one of the few TVs to have both Netflix and Lovefilm onboard. Alongside these you'll find a number of other services such as Demand 5, YouTube, Crackle, MUZU TV and Sky News.
There's a bunch of simple games, as well as some information apps, including AccuWeather. Facebook and Twitter are supported and feeds from these services can be shown side by side with a live TV feed. It's a neat line-up of services and is especially good for video-on-demand content, which is what most people want to access via smart TV apps.
If you're using the set with its desktop stand then you get the benefits of the extra audio system that's built into the stand. This has much meatier speakers than usual and they also fire outwards rather than downwards, so they produce cleaner and clearer audio than most other LED sets that I've used.
It even does a decent job of recreating low-frequency sonic effects in movies. All in all, it makes this a fantastic sounding set. There is a caveat though. If you wall-mount the TV, it switches to the integrated down-firing speakers, which simply don't sound as bassy or as crisp.
2D picture quality
The 55HX853 uses a panel with edge-mounted LEDs that can be dimmed locally to improve black levels. In fact, the first thing that strikes you about this TV is just how well it handles scenes with lots of contrast. It seems to be effortlessly able to handle pictures that have both very bright and very dark areas.
Its control of the backlight dimming is very good for an edge-lit model. There were only a few instances when I spotted blocking, where dark areas positioned next to bright areas aren't as dark as they should be. Backlight consistency was also excellent on my review model, with almost no clouding visible around the edges of the screen -- something that previous Sony LED models have suffered from.
It produces very rich colours with a warm palette, which make movies in particular a pleasure to watch. The deep black levels don't come at the expense of shadow detail either, as even moodier scenes retain lots of subtlety in the darker areas of the image. Detail levels are superb on HD feeds, but it also does an excellent job of upscaling standard-definition images -- something that screens of this size often struggle with.
As with all LED TVs, when motion processing is turned off, the 55HX853's motion handling isn't that impressive. Sony's motion processing technology has always been among the best out there and if you use the Clear or Clear Plus modes, you get very smooth motion without introducing the glassy, video-like effect that cripples similar systems.
There are a couple of negatives though. Firstly, the use of gorilla glass on the front of the screen means that it does tend to reflect ambient light in your room. The TV is no worse than most plasma screens in this regards, but it's worth bearing in mind if you usually have your telly sitting near a window. Secondly, the viewing angles of the panel aren't massively wide, so if you look at the screen from an angle, there's some wash-out on black levels and colour accuracy also drops off slightly.
3D picture quality
When it comes to 3D performance on LED TVs, speed is of the essence. You need a fast panel to avoid crosstalk -- the problem of seeing ghost images on the edges of objects in 3D scenes. The 55HX853 uses a 200Hz panel with backlight blinking that ups the rate to 800Hz. Previous Sony TVs have produced mixed results for 3D, but thankfully 3D images on the 55HX853 are pretty much crosstalk free.
What's more, the sense of depth that this set creates is the best I've seen yet from an LED model. A lot of this seems to be down to Sony's new X-Reality Pro 3D processing engine, which works on 3D images to increase the apparent sharpness, not just of foreground objects, but also background scenery.
Despite the dimming effect of the 3D glasses, pictures remain very bright and colours and contrasts are excellent.
Unfortunately, Sony doesn't ship any glasses with this model, but it currently has a deal running where if you buy one pair of 3D specs for £60, you get a second free, so adding a pair of glasses is relatively cheap by active 3D standards. The TDG-BR250 glasses are quite big and bulky though, especially compared to the latest active specs from Panasonic. Also, the glasses lose the 3D effect if you tilt your head to the side, so you can't lie on a sofa when watching 3D films.
Overall, this is the most convincing TV I've seen from Sony in quite some time. It expertly melds together supreme picture quality for both 2D and 3D material, excellent sound quality and a strong line-up of Internet services. Only the slightly chunky styling and annoying inability to stream common digital formats keep it from achieving a perfect score.