Sony's high-end HX853 had excellent picture and sound quality, but also a surprisingly affordable price tag for a high-end TV. As a result, it ended up scooping a decent clutch of awards.
The KDL-40W905A has been given the unenviable task of following up the HX853. Priced at £1,400, it comes with a more mainstream design, NFC for one-touch mirroring with Sony's Android smart phones, backlight dimming and Sony's new Triluminos colour technology -- but is it a worthy heir to the HX853?
EPG and user interface
Sony had been updating and rejigging its XrossMediaBar (XMB) interface over the last couple of years, but for its 2013 models, including the W905, it’s decided to ditch it completely. In its place comes a menu system that looks and feels more like Windows 8 due to its use of tiles and stylised text lists.
When you hit the Home button on the remote you find yourself on a brand new screen where the main options are shown as a column of text headers. As you select options such as 'TV', 'Applications' and 'Connected Devices' in this list, a row of tiles rotates into view beneath the text header. You can then cycle through these to get to the app, settings screen or feature that you're trying to access.
It looks quite slick and classy, and perhaps just as importantly feels faster and more fluid to use than the old XMB system. That said, it does take a little while to get used to. This is mainly because the layout is significantly different to most other manufacturers' menu systems, and isn't as simple as the new approaches taken by the likes of Panasonic and Samsung lately.
The set now has two programming guides. The first is the standard Freeview HD guide that gets its programming information over the air. The second is Internet based and uses the Gracenotes database to present you with more detailed information about upcoming shows.
The standard guide is really very good -- it includes a video window and its layout is crisp and easy to read, thanks to the high-contrast white text against a black background. The secondary Internet guide looks even sharper and benefits from lots of extra metadata, so it can show information on actors in soaps or movies, for example.
It's very slow to load data and doesn't cache content, so every time you open it up it needs to load up all the information again, something which makes it borderline unusable.
Luckily you can switch between the two guides via the settings menu, although this is long-winded and not explained in the manual. You need to go to Settings > System Setting > General Setup > Guide Key Behaviour and select between 'Launch Guide' (for the Freeview guide) and 'Launch Guide and Search' (for the Internet guide). Not very straightforward, is it?
Digital media and Internet features
Panasonic and Samsung have managed to add seriously appealing interfaces to their smart TV systems this year, but while Sony's overall interface is quite good, the interface for its smart TV system is decidedly underwhelming. The problem is that it just looks downright lazily designed next to the competition, as all it really does is plonk a load of icons for the various services and apps on a single scrolling screen. You're not given any way to customise the order and they're not divided into groups according to content.
To be fair to Sony you can add apps to your favourites list, so they're listed in the main menu. As this list is essentially a single banner though, it can get quite ungainly if you add more than a few favourites to it apps, especially as Sony's own Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited and PlayMemories services always have to sit in this banner.
On the plus side, Sony's smart TV service does include a good selection of video content. Alongside BBC iPlayer and Demand Five, you'll also find both Netflix and Lovefilm. Sony's own Video Unlimited service lets you rent new movies titles, and there are also apps for BBC News and Sport, as well as MuZu TV for music videos. Sadly there's no support for ITV Player or 4oD at the moment, two services that are now available on Samsung's TVs.
There are a few extra smart TV tricks dotted around the interface, though. When you press the channel up button it calls up what Sony calls the 'Fast Zapp' mode. This shows you what's on across different channels to let you quickly flick between them, but you can also jump left or right to see recommendations for movies on Sony's Unlimited services and videos on YouTube. It's quite cool, but in all honesty it's not something I found terribly useful.
Sony's on-board media player is also quite weak, something the company's TVs have always suffered from. Like older models it'll play Xvid and MP4 files, but it doesn't stream MKV video across a network, even though most other manufacturers TVs now support this. In fact, when I tried to play MKV HD files it locked up the TV, requiring me to pull the plug to get it to work normally again.
Design and connections
There are elements of the W905A's design that I'm not particularly keen on -- such as the large rectangular box at the bottom of the bezel that houses the Sony logo -- but as an overall package it's still a feisty looking TV. I particularly like the circular chrome stand. It's extremely clever as no matter which angle you swivel the TV to, the stand always looks as if it hasn’t moved.
Sony has also slimmed down the bezel on this model compared to the HX853, something that makes it look visually lighter and less slab-like. It's still relatively chunky when you peer around the back, but let's fact it, once a TV is in place you rarely actually catch a glimpse of it from its side profile.
I'm not completely sold on the blue tinge that the designers have added to the edge of the bezel. It's quite subtle from a distance, only catching the light every now and again, but up close it looks a bit naff -- like a piece of cheap costume jewellery.
While it's clever that the LED light beneath the logo can illuminate in different colours, it just ends up distracting from the on-screen images. Luckily you can turn off the colour changes and effects, so it just produces a subtle pulse when you fire commands via the remote.
The set actually comes with two remotes. The first is the standard zapper that's similar to the one that shipped with last year's model. It's very light and quite angular, but the layout of the buttons is on the whole very good.
The secondary remote is much narrower and only has the bare minimum of buttons -- there are no numerical buttons, for example. You have to pair this remote with the TV before using it, something that's weirdly missing from the initial setup guide the TV runs through when it's first switched on.
This remote also has NFC built in and if you've got one of Sony's newer Android handsets, such as the Xperia SP or Xperia Z, you can mirror what's on the smart phone's screen to the TV just by touching it to the remote, which is a great idea. There's a relatively long pause as the TV and phone do the handshaking to set up the connection, but it's still a good use of NFC technology. I found streaming tends to stutter however, and there's quite a bit of lag between the phone and TV, so you can’t really use it for playing mobile games on the big screen.
On the connection front there's plenty on offer, including four HMDI ports (one of which supports MHL for connecting up smart phones) along with three USB ports and a set of component inputs.
2D picture quality
It’s obvious from the minute you turn it on that the W905A is something special when it comes to producing deep and rich black levels, at least by LED TV standards. Sony's use of a VA panel helps, but it's more due to this model's edge light dimming feature. This changes the intensity of the backlight in different areas of the picture according to what's displayed onscreen.
Sometimes this type of dimming can produce pulsing effects or blocking, where some areas of the picture look unusually bright compared to other zones. Sony's system largely avoids these issues, as long as you keep the LED Dynamic Control setting on low, leaving you with more natural, high-contrast images instead. If you choose the more aggressive high setting, the dimming effects do become a bit more obvious and as a result more intrusive.
The TV also uses Sony's new Triluminos system to help it produce a wider colour gamut (i.e. more potential colours than usual). Essentially Sony has added some tiny quantum dots to the LEDs that help to boost the intensity of the set's colours. Standard LED TVs are already able to produce the full colour gamut used in broadcasts and Blu-rays, so it's hard to tell whether this is really a benefit.
Nevertheless, the set does produce very rich, vibrant hues and strongly realistic skin tones. You can push things even further with the Live Colour control in the TV's Advanced Settings menu, but the results aren’t great. It works okay for broadcast content, but it's best left off for Blu-Ray movies. Sony will be releasing some 'Mastered in 4K' Blu-rays later this year, which the company says will support a wider colour gamut, so it may be that it works better with those, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Sony's X Reality Pro picture engine is first class though, and is especially good at helping you to tart up standard-definition broadcasts thanks to some clever noise reduction and other artefact removal abilities.
The set's motion performance is top notch too for an LED model. With all motion processing turned off, the panel does suffer from motion blur as all LED panels do, but it's towards the top of the heap in terms of native performance in this regard. Sony's MotionFlow 800Hz processing is particular good and offers lots of different modes. The Impulse mode has been improved so there's less flicker, but it still dims the image too much to be truly useable. The Clear and Clear Plus modes do an excellent job of producing smooth motion while also keeping artefacts like flickering edges on moving objects to a minimum.
There are some weaknesses though. The set's black levels are very, very deep by LED standards, but at times they also have a very slightly blue-ish tinge. It’s a very minor point, but it’s something you don’t see on the likes of GT60 or F8500 plasmas. The set does also slightly crush shadow detail. It's not bad by LED standards in this regard, but it is worse than similarly priced or cheaper plasmas.
Despite the edge dimming, when viewing the TV in a darkened room I could see some slight leakage from the backlight in the lower left-hand corner during very dark scenes. These issues aren't hugely problematic for normal viewing, but the W903 is an expensive TV and these are problems you just suffer from on plasma models like Panasonic's cheaper 42-inch GT60.
Overall, the W905A is very strong in the picture department for an LED TV, but in terms of absolute picture quality it still lags behind plasmas such as Panasonic's GT60, which is around £100 cheaper for a lager 42-inch screen size.
3D picture quality
Sony may be going with passive 3D for some of the less expensive sets in this year's range, but with the W905 it's stuck with the active system it's used on all its previous TVs.
In the box you'll find two pairs of active shutter glasses. It's also worth noting that the TV is compatible with the active 3D standard, so you can use glasses from other manufacturers, such as Panasonic and Samsung with the set. That's something that wasn't possible with older Sony 3D TVs.
The TV's 3D performance is actually very good. It's able to counteract the dimming effect of the active glasses better than most plasmas thanks to its high brightness levels. Colours also still look very rich and punchy in 3D and pictures retain excellent levels of sharpness. Although the set's 3D pictures aren't completely crosstalk free, it rears its head so rarely that it's not really an issue with this TV.
The W905A's strong picture performance is thankfully matched by its impressive showing on the audio front. Sony has developed a new speaker configuration for its high-end TVs that uses a long speaker duct at the rear to give audio more depth and warmth.
It works well on the W905A as the set produces more bass than usual, while also managing to deliver clear dialogue that's nicely anchored to the centre of the screen. That said, it doesn’t have the impressive all-round sound quality of last year's HD853, which had a sound system built into its stand.
The KDL-40W905A puts in a very strong showing in terms of picture quality. It's got very deep black levels by LED standards and also offers up rich and vibrant colours, while keeping motion blur to a minimum. It's also a more stylish looking TV than the older HX853 that it replaces. Sony's Smart TV system has fallen behind what's available on rival sets such as Samsung's F8000 series however, and it doesn't offer the same value for money as plasmas such as Panasonic's TX-P42GT60, which offers a bigger screen size for around £100 less.