If 2013 was the year that 4K took its first tentative steps into the TV arena, 2014 is the year it bursts from a cake with tassels on its nipples and a full song and dance routine.
That's thanks to standards being finalised, formats being settled upon and service providers (most notably Netflix) committing to recording and broadcasting in Ultra High Definition 4K. It's also thanks to a flood of new 4K TVs coming out from every manufacturer of note, perhaps the most exciting and distinctive of which is the Sony Bravia X9B range.
The series consists of three TVs, starting with the almost-affordable 55in set (KD-55X9005B) and taking in a 65in model (KD-65X9005B) and a 79-incher (KD-79X9005B). Those TV manufacturers really do know how to pick a catchy name, eh?
Anyway, they're packed with tech and with a starting price of £2700 (for the 55in model), almost within range of mere mortal bank balances. So here's everything you need to know about them.
READ MORE: Why 4K is set to conquer your living room
Design: the wedge of reason
Ultra-thin TVs are rarely genuinely ultra-thin. Most are thin at the edges but have a protrusion at the back that contains the electronics, while others have a separate box for all that gubbins that you hide somewhere else. The Sony X9B range has no time for any such tricks, instead making a virtue of the fact that it's a little bit thick.
Its distinctive wedge profile not only means that there's plenty of room towards the bottom for all of the electronics, but also enables it to have much bigger speakers than those you'll find on almost any other television.
Last year's model (we reviewed the KD-55X9005A) already had large front-facing speakers flanking the display, but now there's a new audio circuit and more advanced materials for the drivers, making everything a bit punchier and more detailed.
What's more, that extra cabinet volume at the bottom means the bass driver also now fires forwards (the old model's subwoofer reflected off the wall behind). Having heard both old and new models side-by-side, we can confirm the 2014 set sounds significantly bigger and weightier.
If it's still not bassy enough for you there's an optional wireless subwoofer available, which in combination with the X9B's ClearAudio+ virtual surround sound should amount to quite the cinematic experience.
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Tech: the best of Sony
As a flagship 4K TV series it's little wonder that the X9B series is packed with the very best technology Sony currently has to offer.
First up is X-tended Dynamic Range (XDR for short), which is designed to not only give you super-bright whites and absolute blacks, but also handle every small gradation in-between. Having briefly seen it in action we think Sony might be on to something. Every single percentage change in light was reflected on the Sony: even the difference between 1% brightness and absolute black was visible, whereas the rival sets we saw were pitch black from around 7% down. It makes for a more natural picture, and one in which you can still see all the detail at the extremes of the spectrum.
Then there's the Triluminous Display, designed to produce a wider and more vibrant colour palette. Again, having seen this briefly in action we can definitely say it achieves that goal, but to our eyes a couple of colours - particularly red - looked just a little too bright and too vivid. There should be settings to tweak Triluminous onboard, though, so we're not too worried about that being a problem when we come to our review.
Finally there's the 4K X-Reality Pro engine controlling everything behind the scenes. This new version of Sony's picture-processing tech analyses the image and compares it to an internal database to enhance individual elements of the picture. For example, it will recognise an explosion and boost brightness and colours in that area to give it maximum impact. This even works with games, and according to the engineers doesn't create any lag.
The 4K X-Reality Pro engine also handles upscaling of lower resolution sources, and you're still going to be watching those for a while yet. The idea is that while a 1080p Blu-ray might not look quite as good as 4K on the X9B range, it should look better than it does on any standard full HD TV. A brief play of the Elysium Blu-ray certainly went some way to convincing us.
More after the break...
Smarter than the average telly
Sony’s overhauled its UI for these new TVs, and it seems the XrossMediaBar is finally gone. Now you get One Flick Entertainment, which is designed to work hand-in-hand with the bundled One-Flick Remote.
As you might imagine from the name, a single flick upwards on the remote's touch sensor brings in a pop-up menu of features and content, all of which are overlaid on the bottom of whatever you’re watching. Swiping left and right allows you to choose the content you want, and the Sony even brings in listings from Sky and can control your box if you’ve got one connected. It’s all very seamless and pretty quick, judging by what we’ve seen so far.
Clearly Netflix is going to be popular with 4K TV buyers, seeing as it’s already enabled some 4K streams. The Sony is perfectly able to access these thanks to full support for the HEVC codec. Got one of last year's 4K Sonys? You’re going to need to add the £350 FMP-X5 to get HEVC support. Well, you did know early adoption was risky, didn't you?
Social Viewing is another interesting new feature of the X9B series. The first part of it is the Twitter integration – activate it while watching a sporting event, for example, and the TV will scroll any tweets that contain the automatically selected keywords. Want to change those keywords? Just write your own into the feature’s menus. Speaking personally, the opportunity to have Sniff Petrol's ramblings scrolling across the bottom of the screen while watching F1 is one not to be missed.
The other side of Social Viewing is Skype, but we’re a bit more dubious about this. Being able to Skype directly from your TV is great (and enabled via an almost-invisible camera built into the top-left bezel of the X9B range), but doing so in a window while watching a football game or similar? Not so much. Sony says it’s trying to recreate the feeling of watching the game with your friends, but who spends the game actually looking at their mates?
Talking of Skype, though, the camera here has facial recognition and tracks you if you move around the room - although in our brief demo that seemed a little less reliable than the similar tech used in Kinect on Xbox One. We’ll give you our definitive verdict once we've tested it in full.
Sizes, prices and release dates
The X9B series is available in three sizes: 55in (KD-55X9005B), 65in (KD-65X9005B) and 79in (KD-79X9005B). Pricing is £2700, £3600 and £7500 respectively and all are available to order from sony.co.uk right now, although if you go for the 79-incher (you lucky so-and-so, you) you’ll be waiting until July for delivery.
Sony X9B series initial verdict
We’re massively excited about all of 2014’s 4K TVs, and after seeing the X9B range in action we're particularly excited about Sony's offerings. The picture quality looks exceptional and as the sound quality seems to be even better than it was on last year’s models, they'll almost certainly turn out to be the best-sounding sets in the world.
On top of that, these 4K models look as if they'll handle full HD content better than the very best native full HD TVs available. That wasn’t a given last year, and it means that whatever you feed the X9B series it will look as good as it possibly can – reassuring if you’re spending £2700-plus on a telly.
Of course we won't really know how good they are until we've spent a lot more time with them, and pitched them against other incoming 4K TVs from the likes of Panasonic, Samsung and LG. Rest assured that we'll be doing that soon, so keep checking back for our full review.