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Sony XBR Plasma TV Review

Model: SONY KE-42XBR900 Plasma TV
Description: 42" Diagonal Plasma Monitor/TV, Widescreen 16:9 Format
Warranty: 1 Year Parts and Labor
Reviewer: Robert Wiley
Review Update: 07-30-2003



A Plasma TV, or any TV for that matter, with a feat of engineering and imagination such as the Sony 42XBR deserves to be prefaced: Meet the Ferrari of plasma TVs.

This piece of visual art is beautiful and robust, containing not only incredible looks but a host of effective operating tools as well. It is off the chart of what has been introduced in the past in the mainstream plasma TV market. And, it's going to look great hanging on my wall.

This is the first XBR plasma display introduced by Sony and they have really put forth a fair effort to obtain a premier spot in the plasma market. This plasma uses an entirely different plasma display element (glass panel) than that of the KE 42TS1 plasma panel. The engineering is also vastly different as the media receiver box does most of the processing, the built-in speakers are voluminous, and the special features of the XBR version are over the top. Specific features and strengths and weaknesses are discussed below.


Sony KE-42XBR900 on the review rack

As usual with some of the most recent plasma TVs to hit the market, black levels and gray scaling are improving significantly. The Sony KE42XBR900 is no exception and exceeds many picture elements of other plasma displays. Color rendition is true, rich and exciting - it's luscious even. Definition and sharpness are great - very little fragmenting around image outlines. No ghosting in action sequences. Light throughput (amount of light entering and exiting through the pixel) is excellent, allowing for a naturally bright and exuberant picture image. Color saturation is one of the best features of the unit - exceeding any I have seen.

While watching the DVD, Catch Me If You Can, I noted only a few slight problems with gray scaling. My reference Panasonic plasma met its match on most all picture notes and was outperformed by the Sony on color saturation, brightness, and clarity, but still remains strongest in contrast and picture detail in the dark levels. Regarding picture quality one of my only complaints with the Sony was a loss of detail in darker images and scenes tested on the screen. It was also evident that there was some "mapping" in the gray scales.

Each individual picture setting on the XBR Sony plasma displays have their positive and negative attributes. These picture modes are integral to the use of this display and are controlled by the "picture" button on the remote control. They are: vivid, standard, pro, and mild. These advanced calibrated picture settings are great for bypassing all the menu options necessary to create varying picture effects. Why altering looks? Different input signals will often need calibrating by using completely diverse methods in order to optimize picture performance for the individual user under current lighting and room conditions. In other words, your satellite feed may need a different picture setting than an incoming DVD signal. And while I have seen this feature on other plasma TVs, I have never seen it so well calibrated and effective. The Mild setting is great for creating a soft picture image reminding one of old Cary Grant films. The Vivid function increases color saturation and contrast while losing much detail in darker images. Standard is the best combination of all settings and coincides almost perfectly with CIE Chromaticity Coordinates for the NTSC standard. And lastly, the Pro setting will be used when the viewer wants little to no enhancements from the media receiver box. This setting might be used in a controlled lighting environment like a home theater and may help to extend the vibrancy and life of the plasma. It has a classic look and feel.

Sony's latest terminology for line doubling or upconversion is Digital Reality Creation or DRC. This technology upconverts NTSC signals significantly. However, I found that our Samsung HDTV decoder actually did a slightly better job with most signals (of upconversion and enhancement that is). High density will be the preferred mode here for most video programming. Cinemotion enhances film-based content with 3:2 pulldown processing. The feature is designed to eliminate motion artifacts created when converting frame rates. I thought the Sony XBR plasma did a superb job of decoding and displaying DVD content.

Lastly, regular NTSC cable looked very clear and the media receiver did a nice job of upconverting with the Zoom mode of the plasma being used to scale to full screen size from the original 4:3 source. Some of the picture quality still depends upon the bandwidth presented per channel but the media receiver definitely improved the process and cleaned up picture images. HDTV pictures appeared as if you were watching the event in person - so clear and defined and with all the depth that comes with good HDTV programming. Black levels and contrast excluded you will not find an overall better picture with almost any video input.


I'll start here with a description of by far the best looking plasma TV on the market. The Sony XBR Plasma display has an encasement wrapping of thin alloy silver all the way around the unit. Inside of this is a protective transparent plexiglass, which allows your wall or backdrop color to be seen and actually compliment the plasma TV to blend with your environment. There is a large 2 ½ inch thick black banding around the actual plasma display element to increase contrast of the image. The attached speakers have a protective and attractive silver alloy metal foil casing. So this plasma aesthetically is well suited for a table stand or wall mounting. It will make a room! It's just that kind of piece - with lots of time and thought and engineering put into making it appealing. It has silver, black and transparent aspects that will allow for integration into any décor.

The actual dimensions of the plasma TV are listed as 52" wide X 28 ½" Height X 4" Depth. However, I measured the depth of the plasma display at 3.75". The included media receiver is quite large at 17"W X 14"D X 4" H and weighs a hefty 15 to 20 pounds. Keep those measurements in mind when considering where and how to display the plasma.

The media receiver has its ups and downs. It's bulky but more disturbing than that is the high-pitched noise it makes (it does quiet down some after warming up). It is audible at 14' with the audio on (a test I normally reserve for the plasma display). It is actually louder than the plasma TV itself and must be well ventilated.

Sony MBT-XBR900 Media Receiver Box - Front & Back

This is the primary problem with the Sony KE42XBR900 in all - the noise. The second problem with the media receiver is that it does not decode HDTV signals. An outboard HD receiver must still be purchased to receive those coveted broadcasts. This is a normal scenario and would not be a problem except that list price on this unit is $10K, and at $10K a television should have the damn HDTV decoder incorporated.

The plasma TV itself has a well ventilated back panel and contains just one fan and an internal cooling system. It is passably quiet though not the best I have encountered. From 10 feet I can hear a slight whirring noise from the plasma with the audio off. When turning on audio function, noise from the plasma is not a factor.

The speakers of the plasma produce excellent sound saturation and from ample 15 watt amplifiers (the largest and best I have encountered on a plasma). With the volume at 75% a user will fill a small home theater. Audio function is a very impressive aspect of this plasma.

The Sony XBR plasmas are feature rich containing not only many functions but practical and useful ones as well. The wide button on the remote control will give your aspect ration options of Wide Zoom, Normal (4:3), Full, and Zoom. Zoom mode will be used to scale a 4:3 image to the full screen size and does a great job of this. The bars on left and right of a 4:3 image appear in a light gray color. The choices and quality of aspect ratios are fairly standard these days. Nothing stands out about the unit's conversion/scaling ability, but the Sony does a nice job of scaling to full wide screen from a 4:3 image which is important.

The menu is intensely colorful and graphic and is fairly straightforward. Where it lacks, a very thorough manual makes up. The Sony 42XBR plasma's remote control is the best I've used for a plasma display. It is preprogrammed universal and is extremely well designed and thought out. The remote control is also very polished in appearance and handling.

One popular feature that the Sony plasma TV incorporates well is PIP and split screen. This is accomplished by pressing the guide button on the remote control. Favorite channels can be programmed into the remote and found and used by a favorite button on the remote control. I found these functions entertaining and fun.

And just to name a few other features there is a parent setting, which allows the user to set up the TV to block programs according to their content and rating levels, as well as memory stick options for downloading photos. Generally, the Sony XBR plasma displays are packed with useful and well thought out features. The manual is 100 pages and very complete in its presentation of how these functions work and assist the owner.

VALUE - 80

Though this plasma TV is by far the most aesthetically pleasing and one of the best engineered on the market it is priced at more than double some of its competition. If you want the best plasma television out there - this is it! Look no further. The double take street prices ranging from $7K (Internet) to $9K retail are steep but I have to say that you do get quite a special piece of engineering mastery with this plasma TV. Sony strove for perfection with this unit…and damn near came close to it.

OVERALL - 91 (picture double weighted)

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