For television buyers who prefer LCD over plasma, few manufacturers are doing as much to earn their dollars as Sony. The company’s excellent HX929 Bravia series from 2011 is still one of the best LCD TVs you can buy, and we’re deep into 2012. And if you don’t want to lay out roughly $2,000 for the 46-inch Bravia, you can feel confident picking up the newer HX850 in the same size for about $400 less.
The HX850 is one of Sony’s premiere LCD panels. (Only the HX950 is spec’d higher.) It offers color depths and black levels that rival similarly priced plasmas, and it has a decent array of built-in streaming apps, so you don’t need to invest in an external streaming box. Configuration is complicated, but once you get it set up to your liking, you can forget about the adjustments and just enjoy one of the best pictures on the market no matter what sources you throw at it.
The design is really something. The panel itself is very thin (only 35mm deep), and it’s secured on a bowed stand with a pole socket that lets the TV spin on the center axis. So if you want to angle the screen to face different parts of the room, you just swing it from side to side. It moves about 15 degrees in either direction when you nudge it with a gentle push. The screen is one big edge-to-edge slab of almost completely unadorned Gorilla glass. True to the tradition of Sony televisions past, it’s a Meisian stroke of minimalist beauty. Furthering the aesthetic, the inch-thick bezel around the screen is capped by a barely-there aluminum ring.
The choice of Gorilla Glass here is a smart one. It’s presumably more durable and scratch-resistant (the terms of our loan agreement with Sony kept me from fully testing that part) but it’s also resistant to glare. I can’t say how much of this is Sony’s doing and how much is Corning’s, but the HX85 looks fantastic in all reasonable lighting situations. I tested it in a room filled with ambient daylight, in the same room with a couple of accent lamps, and in total darkness. It always looked amazing, and the glare from the lighting did very little to degrade the picture.
There was very little LED blooming evident from the edge-lit screen. It wasn’t even noticeable in anything other than a totally dark room. Much like Sony’s HX929 we reviewed earlier this year, the HX850 has a superior local dimming engine that’s remarkably consistent. It was certainly good enough to maintain absolute blacks in letterboxed pictures or when watching full-screen content with wide variations between light and dark.
Color representation is excellent as well, if a little saturated. But of course, you can fix this in the menus. And you’ll need to dig through them — one of the first things I did when loading up a Blu-ray of There Will Be Blood was futz with Sony’s picture-smoothing technologies to sharpen everything up and get rid of the soap-opera effect.
Once I had everything configured — I turned off most of Sony’s video enhancement engines, dialed back the brightness and color saturation, but left the dejuddering Motionflow setting on “low” — the picture was extremely sharp, bright and colorful. Just as impressive were the deep blacks. It’s cliche to talk about black levels on a TV by calling them “inky,” so pardon me while I qualify it: “none more inky.” I watched a variety of concert DVDs, Blu-ray features, and streaming HD clips from Vimeo, and both the colors and blacks were gorgeous in every case.
The layout of the ports on the back is a little weird, with an Ethernet jack, composite and component hookups and two HDMI ports along the bottom, then two additional HDMI ports along the side. Two USB ports are also on the side, about 8 inches from the top of the television. Putting the USB ports all the way up there doesn’t matter if you’re loading movies from a thumb drive, but if you’ve got a 1TB drive full of files, you’ll need a very long cable, or you’ll have to put a shoebox under the drive to keep it from dangling (like I did).
The full complement of big-name streaming apps come built-in: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon, NHL (sad trombone) and other on-demand options through the Sony Entertainment Network. All of these are accessible via the TV’s content menu, which, I’m sad to report, is inscrutable. This is sold as so-called “Smart TV,” but the thing is barely out of grade school. Even though the big appeal here is that you don’t need Roku or an Apple TV, I’d recommend plugging one in anyway just so you’ll never have to browse this bloated mess.
The good news is that Sony’s HX850 displays a uniformity of picture quality no matter the source — streaming, over-the-air HD, Blu-ray discs, and MKV-MP4 files from a USB hard drive.
One stumbling block: 3-D. It’s only so-so, and it requires a pair of Sony-made glasses, as the company doesn’t use one of the cross-compatible standards other manufacturers are relying on. Still, I’m not going to let the bummer 3-D experience sour me on this television. It does seem a bit small next to the 55-inch and 60-inch models common on store shelves these days, but it’s more than big enough for apartments and smaller TV rooms. And for the exceptional quality you get, it’s a great buy, especially if you can find it for a hundred or two less than the $1,600 advertised price.