Big TVs are great. Big, smart TVs are even better. Big, smart, ultra-detailed TVs are basically heaven. Sony has a new $20,000 4K Ultra HD telly that is, for my money, the best TV you can buy today. I spent a day with Sony's 85-inch BRAVIA X9500B, and it was quite fun.
N.B. Because big TVs are somewhat difficult to transport, and because it's hard to even find enough spare space in my house to put a big TV, Sony set me up in its North Ryde offices for a day with a PlayStation 4, BDP-S5200 Blu-ray player, a bunch of Blu-ray movies and a $19,999 85-inch KD-85X9500B 4K Ultra HD BRAVIA TV.
What Is It?
The Sony BRAVIA KD-85X9500B is an 85-inch local dimming LED-backlit LCD television with a native screen resolution of 3840x2160 pixels, and it'll set you back a cool $19,999 -- although if you buy directly from Sony, you'll get free shipping (bargain!). The LED-backlit notation is important, because it sets the X9500B apart from competitors like the LG UB980T and the Samsung HU9000, both of which are LED edge-lit, with a string of lights arranged around the screens' edge firing inwards through a series of reflective panels.
In the X9500B, that complicated setup is eschewed in favour of a simpler and more powerful sheet of LEDs directly behind the LCD display, sections of which can be dynamically brightened or dimmed to improve black levels and contrast on a per-millisecond basis. That backlight also ties in nicely with Sony's TRILUMINOS tech, which instead of using a white backlight and red-green-blue filters on LCD pixels uses a bright blue backlight and larger and purer red-green filters on the LCD; the end result is a brighter picture with a significantly wider colour gamut than competitor panels. This TRILUMINOS tech really is Sony's big advantage over Samsung and LG for this entire year, and when you see the three side by side the difference is clear.
Being one of Sony's top TVs, the X9500B is kitted out with all the Smart features you'd expect. It has built-in Wi-Fi and wired networking, and has a simple but powerful onscreen interface that includesirect access to Sony Pictures' Crackle movie streaming service and all the necessary video-on-demand apps like ABC iView and SBS On Demand and YouTube. An integrated USB and network media player lets you stream any downloaded content that you have saved on your home PC or laptop or network storage drive, and you can record from the digital TV tuner to a USB-connected hard drive for later review.
What Is It Good At?
4K Ultra HD
I tested the X9500B with three pieces of content, a couple of which I've used to benchmark other Ultra HD TVs and monitors in the past. Timescapes, which is a 25GB 3840x2160p h.264 file, and this clip from Star Citizen, and courtesy of Sony a series of match highlights and promo videos filmed in 4K at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
The X9500B, when it is displaying video content that is well suited to its Ultra HD panel, looks brilliant. Sony is big on pushing the fact that the extra detail offered by 4K lets you sit closer to the screen without those pesky pixels getting in the way, so I did exactly that -- and while it's not an experience I'd recommend to everyone all the time, since it's a little fatiguing having a flat moving picture take up so much of your field of view, it really does add that indefinable little bit extra to the movie-watching experience.
Timescapes is great for evaluating Ultra HD TVs because its excellent timelapse photography means that frames are full of detail, but not entirely static -- it's not like watching a slideshow where the TV can cheat and optimise backlighting and dynamic contrast instantly. The X9500B presents a huge amount of detail in the slow, panning difficult night time shots that most of the movie is comprised of -- just the right amount of edge enhancement and dynamic brightness boosting courtesy of Sony's 4K X-Reality PRO picture engine makes this movie look fantastic.
1080p Full HD
Even when it's displaying Blu-ray movies -- at its resolution of 1920x1080p and 24 frames per second -- the X9500B is the best 4K TV I've seen in terms of the detail and colour it can pull from a good piece of video. I've seen some 4K TVs that perform worse than equivalent 1080p screens when it comes to showing off Blu-rays, but Sony's top BRAVIA doesn't disappoint. Skyfall, our go-to flick for testing out TVs for its mix of dark and bright scenes, muted and strong colour palettes, looks consistently beautiful.
The X9500B's dynamically-adjusting lighting setup makes short work of Art Of Flight -- probably my favourite ever Blu-ray in the detail that it shows and the quality of its production -- and shows off the extent of the BRAVIA's powerful LED backlight. There's a surprising amount of shading and gradation in snow, especially in greys and blues, and the X9500B had none of the banding that I've seen on less capable displays. You pay for the privilege of this TV's display, but you get what you pay for.
A bevy of other Blu-rays, like Frozen and TRON: Legacy and Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, all looked good. When you're viewing high quality video in resolutions of 1080p or higher, it's really hard to fault the picture that the X9500B creates. The upscaling from 1080p to 4K really is just about as good as I've ever seen a TV handle.
With lower quality streaming video, the X9500B does a decent job, but it's hard to upscale a crappy YouTube stream without introducing significant smoothing and streaking, and there's never a chance of adding in all that lost colour information. If possible, this is a TV to spoil with Blu-rays and 4K, not digital TV and streaming Web video. Sony has spent several years refining its Smart TV platform, and while it doesn't have quite the same pizazz as LG's WebOS or Samsung's cube, it
The design of the X9500B is notable purely because of its simplicity. There's no curved frippery, no gaudy chrome accents, just a single flat sheet of glass that curves off at the edge of the TV's outer bezels. You can have the X9500B sitting on your floor with its included floor-standing legs -- no entertainment unit needed, since this TV will probably crush your generic IKEA plywood job -- or on top of a sturdy setup with two shorter legs. Sony is onto something genuinely good with its 2014 TV lineup design, and I hope it continues without losing its way.
What Is It Not Good At?
While the X9500B has far, far better speakers than the competition, it's a bit of a step down from the excellent forward-firing speakers of the X9000B. This is a TV which you'd usually pair with a high-end external sound system, so I can absolutely understand the hiding away of the X9500B's speakers in the lower back of the chassis, but in terms of all-in-one sound the X9000 is a more complete system. Take this information in its context, though, because the difference is still reasonably minor and both of these TVs are at the top of their game in terms of sound quality versus other brands on the market.
More than just dynamically adjusting the TV's backlight to suit the content of the scene you're watching, the X9500B has a software feature that boosts the brightness level of dark areas in each individual frame. While Sony touts this as helping the TV to providing double the brightness range of competitors, in reality this feature introduces a little bit of digital noise when it boosts dark areas -- it's a nice idea but if you're watching critically and if you know the films you're viewing, you're better off leaving that brightness booster disabled.
Oh, and, obviously, the X9500B is a pricy TV. Its $19,999 retail price -- and you're not exactly going to see this on the JB Hi-Fi run-outs desk -- puts Sony's flagship screen far out of the price range of the average TV buyer by roughly about $18,999. This isn't a TV that Sony is going to be selling hundreds of, but it would be nice if it was a little cheaper. The fact that there are no 55-inch or 65-inch screens in the X9500B spec means that if you want the best of Sony, you're stuck with this one size and at this one price.
Should You Buy It?
Look, you're probably not going to buy the X9500B. It's a very expensive television. But it's chock-full of technology that is eventually going to trickle down to TVs that you will buy, and if Sony continues on the same trends as it demonstrates with the X9500B, you're in for a treat when that happens. It looks great when you're watching a good Blu-ray or a 4K film, although the competitive advantage trails away when you're stuck with lower quality YouTube or streaming TV.
If you do happen to be in the market for a $20K, 85-inch, 4K Ultra HD television, then I have almost nothing but praise for the BRAVIA X9500B. It looks nice whether it's switched on or off, and it flatters the movies that you watch on it. Pair it with an equally expensive home cinema system and you'll have yourself one of the best home theatres in the history of ever.