Sony KDL-50W800B 50-inch HDTV Review: Superb Picture

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Who it's for: Cinephiles who want a reasonably priced TV that will deliver faithful colors, good detail and all the popular smart TV features. 

If you are the sort of person who cringes when you see how overblown the color and brightness settings are on your friend's TV, then the $950, 50-inch Sony 50W800B is for you. It continues the Sony tradition of faithfully delivering accurate picture quality without ever becoming ostentatious. (The W800B line also includes a 55-inch model with a $1,300 list price.)

The set is far from the cheapest TV of its size available; other brands offer models with similar basic features for about half the price. However, the proof is in the performance, and Sony proves itself against the competition. The 50W800B's provides impressive blacks, dark tones and contrast; and its image-processing renders a clear picture, rather than trying to over-enhance it, as some competitors do. 

Design: Slight and clean

Reflecting its excellent but somewhat understated performance, the Sony 50W800B is slim and subtle. Even though it's a 50-inch set, it won't dominate a room. 

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The set has a very thin black bezel and a U-shaped silver-colored stand that's steady enough so you won't have to worry about Rover knocking it over. The 50W800B is not the thinnest TV we've seen, but there's no need to put it on a diet. Half the set is 2.5 inches thick and it's just a little over that figure at its widest portion along the bottom. There are no controls on the minimalist front of the TV, but buttons behind the left side of the screen allow you to control the TV and navigate the menus should your remote go missing.

Sony's TV has the requisite built-in Wi-Fi (as well as an Ethernet port) for making an Internet connection. This Sony also has all the necessary inputs and outputs, including four HDMI, and two USB ports, as well as composite and component video and analog audio in and out. It will deliver Dolby surround sound via an optical digital output should you want to feed the audio to an outboard system. Finally, an ATSC tuner allows you to receive over-the-air HDTV broadcasts. 

Features: Fully loaded 

The 50W800B has nearly everything that a family or movie fan could want. Sony supplies smart TV apps, which cover dozens of popular services, from Netflix to Vudu. Sony also touts its own music and video services under the Unlimited brand (more about that later). Sony's Social View feature allows you to select a Twitter hashtag to follow and then see comments about the show on a text crawl below the screen (something I found distracting rather than enlightening).

The 50W800B is also 3D-capable and includes two pairs of active 3D-glasses (versus the lighter, passive 3D glasses available for TVs from other brands, such as LG). The set can play native 3D content from special Blu-ray discs or simulate 3D by upscaling 2D programming, which is less compelling. 

If all this still isn't enough to keep you entertained, you can play PlayStation 3 games streamed directly to the set without a console. It's what Sony calls PlayStation Now and requires a $55 (list) DualShock 3 controller – not to mention additional fees, which start as low as $1.99 for a 4-hour rental but vary widely depending on the game title. There are currently scores of games available and Sony plans to eventually offer more than 150 titles.

The only feature missing is a built-in video camera, which comes in handy if you want to do a whole-family Skype chat.

Ease of Use: Total Control

Sorting through the 50W800B's various picture options and settings may try the patience of the average TV viewer. But those looking for the ideal hues and details will be rewarded by the flexibility of Sony's video-processing options. You can select from more than a dozen picture modes, each optimized for a different type of programming from animation to sports. And then you can adjust a seemingly infinite array of features, including such advanced parameters as dot noise reduction and smoothing, which attempts to remove jagged edges and stray pixels. 

If you're a tinkerer, you'll love it; others in the house may not. Fortunately, you can lock the picture adjustments so that little fingers don't ruin your custom settings.

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When it comes to navigating Sony's smart TV features, it looks as if the company can't decide whether to push its own services or put them on an equal footing with competitors such as Amazon and Netflix. Sony Entertainment Network includes not just games but also Sony Music Unlimited and Video Unlimited for on-demand rentals and purchases. Fortunately, there's also Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon, and apps for MLB Slacker, YouTube, et al. There are also some free casual games like backgammon and blackjack. Our only complaint with the smart TV component was that it was a little slow to respond; clicking out of an app would interrupt the movie we were watching for a second before returning to the main tile display of apps. 

Remote: Poor layout 

If the 50W800B has an Achilles' heel, it's the included remote control. The designers could not leave well enough alone and added curved function buttons around the primary four-way directional pad. Consequently, it's easy to inadvertently hit the Netflix button when you really just want to move back or forward through a menu.

Otherwise, the remote doesn't have any particularly noteworthy features, such as voice recognition. It does have a special SEN button, which stands for (you guessed it) the Sony Entertainment Network. 

Image Quality: Satisfying viewing experience

There are so many possible adjustments available that the 50W800B is something of a chameleon, able to adapt to nearly every taste and program source. Standard mode, for example, worked best with standard-resolution DVDs, reducing artificially induced contrast, maintaining consistent colors and minimizing dot crawl noise (what looks like stray dots traversing the screen). However, it really benefits from higher-resolution Blu-ray discs. In our instrument tests, Cinema delivered the best results in terms of color accuracy, shadow detail and other quality aspects.

In the Istanbul rooftop chase scene in Skyfall (on Blu-ray) using either Standard or Cinema mode, the individual roof tiles looked sharp as the motorcycles raced past, without giving the impression that they were created using computer animation (they weren't). Viewers accustomed to cranking up the sharpness controls, on the other hand, may feel the focus is a little soft on details (although that can be adjusted as well).

Color: Spot On

Sony's strength is definitely its ability to deliver subtle colors. In a Blu-ray of The Red Shoes, skin tones looked luminous, and the blue hues of the Mediterranean were enticing. In the Blu-ray version of Gravity, red patches on the astronauts' space suits looked clean without ever bleeding into the surrounding white fabric. Our color gamut test results confirmed this, producing the best color accuracy results in Sony's preset Cinema mode. The mode's color temperature (overall hue) of 6339 is almost spot-on for the standard of 6500K. Reds and blues were technically a bit undersaturated, according to our tests, but that wasn't noticeable with real-world material. (Click image below to enlarge.)

The only gripe I had with color reproduction was using the Standard mode (Vivid was always too much for us) to watch a football game recorded at 720p. While the field looked green (rather than too blue or yellow), the picture tended to be a little too bright, a sensation that can cause eye fatigue (especially if the game goes into overtime). A few picture adjustments, such as changing brightness, backlighting and sharpness, easily corrected the issue. (The 50W800B has a Football mode, accessed by a dedicated button on the remote control, but I didn't find it to have much effect on picture quality.)

Contrast and Black Levels: First-Class

In outer space, poor contrast performance becomes obvious. Fortunately, the Sony 50W800B handled all the scenes we threw at it with aplomb. In darker movies, such as Aliens, the Blu-ray disc scenes of dank corridors and monsters hiding in the walls were rendered cleanly while maintaining accurate colors. Rust-red railings and green-faced victims were clear. The 50W800B's great shadow detail had the unintended effect of making hidden aliens perhaps more obvious in the dark corners than the cinematographer originally intended. (The soldiers never would have missed them.). In other words, the TV's performance is high enough to show the weaknesses in the source material. 

There were no splotchy patterns, demonstrating the set's excellent contrast range. Star fields in Gravity also looked remarkably good, with deep blacks that did not diminish the appearance of thousands of points of light in the background. Our contrast ratio measurements also ranked the 50W800B as one of the best we've tested so far.

Image Artifacts: None to See

In various modes we noticed that the 50W800B's blur-reduction setting was usually engaged. Yet we never shrank from its effects. Such video processing can sometimes create more problems than it solves, adding software visual glitches and noise (graininess.) There were no glaring artifacts, like trailing objects behind fast-moving subjects, or other distortions — a testament to Sony's video processing skills. 

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Audio Quality: Easy Listening 

The 50W800B delivers reasonable audio from its two 10-watt built-in speakers and processing that Sony calls Clear Audio+. The system makes dialogue clear without burying the rest of the soundtrack. The speakers never become bombastic. On the other hand, there's little perceived dynamic range, so action scenes and car chases can sound a little muffled. 

Bottom Line

The Sony 50W800B is a mid-level HDTV that offers a pleasing picture and superior performance. It rewards those who are willing to tweak its picture and has a full array of smart TV features to keep the whole family happy.

John R. Quain

John R. Quain has been reviewing and testing video and audio equipment for more than 20 years. For Tom's Guide, he has reviewed televisions, HDTV antennas, electric bikes, electric cars, as well as other outdoor equipment. He is currently a contributor to The New York Times and the CBS News television program.