Sony KDL-26EX553 LED LCD Television Review
Mark drags the armchair that little bit closer to examine Sony's 26 inch EX553
The last – how should we say it – modestly sized TV we looked at form Sony, the EX320 was a typically swish looking little entrant from Sony but lacked the punch in its pictures needed to gain an AVForums award. With the nation on an ever upward trend in buying bigger televisions, it’s likely the model under review here, the 26 inch EX553’s likely destination won’t be front and centre in the living room; it’s a bedroom or kitchen/diner display – or at least it is round our way. At an asking price just shy of £430, the KDL-26EX553 is going to need to turn in an impressive performance, although the inclusion of built-in Wi-Fi and Sony’s full suite of Smart functionalities should sugar the pill somewhat. Regrettably we used up the ‘great things in small packages’ line in the intro of the EX320 review so we’ll just get on with the nitty gritty.
We were hugely impressed by the ease of assembling the Sony EX553 and we’re tempted to give it bonus marks just for making our lives less complicated but there’s no official scoring category for that. The EX553 is another understated design from Sony and no worse for that but some may be surprised at its relatively thick chassis when the modest screen size is considered. The added depth does allow a pair of reasonably capable speakers to have been equipped, however. We don’t and probably never will like the XMB as a GUI for a TV but as most of the major controls are accessible from the Options button, on the remote control, it’s not a fatal flaw.
To get the most from the generous set of connected and Smart features aboard the EX553 will necessitate a trawl through the sluggish XMB, however, but there are dozens of Video on Demand services on offer for those that do. Sony's own Music and Video services are readily accessible with just a single click of the SEN button but we really would have preferred Sony to make all the other features – VoD, PVR, Media Streaming – accessible from the same interface. As it is, it can feel like a slog to see all that’s available. Sony are currently in the process of streamlining the entire company and they should apply similar thinking here.
Out of the box performance in the Cinema mode was reasonably pleasing but much improved with calibration whilst the video processing of the X-Reality engine was as reliable, as ever, with both HD and SD content. The EX553 managed an excellent black response with very good - for an edge-lit LCD - screen uniformity. As a gaming screen, it’s bang on average for the 2012 TVs we’ve tested with an input latency in the high 40 millisecond range.
The real weak point of the Sony EX553, and unusually for a LED TV, is its inability to produce bright pictures meaning that unless you intend this as a ‘watch-in-bed’ TV with the curtains drawn, you’ll never be getting the most out of it. If you do intend the EX553 for the bedroom then its mixture of impressive dynamic range, all round colour fidelity and a whole host of Smart features – all readily accessible through the built in Wi-Fi – make it a very worthy choice. But are you sure you can’t go bigger?
Design and Connections
As you’ll probably appreciate, during the course of operations, it’s necessary for us to construct and deconstruct a lot of TVs. It’s not a complaint but we can’t pretend the blood pressure doesn’t boil when confronted by samples with unnecessarily complex fixings solutions that necessitate unwelcome intrusions in to the working day. Sony has always scored highly for us in this department, and the EX553 takes it on that bit further by being probably the easiest TV to assemble we’ve ever encountered – outside of the sometimes ready-constructed samples we take in – and requires a simple click in and two-screw operation to get it to sit upon the two footed aluminium style stand. Lovely.
Despite the fact that it’s no big-screen flat panel and that it’s an LED edge-lit number, the EX553 isn’t an ultra-slim affair, at least not by 2012 standards. The chassis is reassuringly thick, at around 5cm in depth, and the charcoal grey bezel is relatively substantial, measuring 3cm around the top and sides and just over 4cm, at the bottom. The fact that from our usual viewing position it rather resembles a Tablet PC is probably just a matter of relativity and we don’t expect the wrath of Apple's legal team will hit Sony any time soon. Behind – and to the side – of the façade are a decent set of connections for a TV of this size and we’d expect the two out-facing HDMI ports to be adequate for most, given the EX553’s likely location and use. Joining the digital video inputs is a Component video in with corresponding stereo audio jacks, a RGB Scart terminal, an aerial, SPDIF optical audio out and a LAN connection. As well as a wired network connection, the EX553 also offers built in Wi-Fi which is a big bonus for the ‘Smart’ feature-set. To the side, there's a USB input that can be used for media playback or with a HDD for recording TV. Additionally there's a CAM slot, headphone jack and a D-SUB (VGA) PC in.
The supplied remote control is slightly smaller and lighter than those of the HX853 and HX753 but in terms of the buttons and their layout, identical. Placement is well considered but, again, we’d prefer the exit button to be bigger and better placed, The fact that it’s no more effective than the Return button for getting you out of a menu, in most circumstances, is also a complaint we’ve voiced before but it’s worth saying again, in case Sony take note.
Aside from giving a better chance at providing superior screen uniformity compared to your average Size 0 LED TV, the added girth of the KDL-26EX553’s chassis should allow the 2 x 8W speakers to move that little bit more air and produce a competent soundstage; and so it proved with the little Sony more than holding its own against many, much larger TVs we’ve had the displeasure of listening to. We’re not suggesting that sonically the EX553 is anything more than proficient but at least there’s a sense of some top and bass and a good clarity to dialogue. Considering it’s unlikely to be hooked up to external amplification in a bedroom or – to use an estate agentism – a second reception room, it’s nice to see Sony hasn’t neglected this important facet of performance.
At the risk of being the proverbial scratched record (remember them?), we don’t like the Cross Media Bar (XMB) user interface when deployed in a TV. It’s fine for the Playstation but there’s really no need for the complexity in a TVs menu system. Thankfully, most of the frequently used controls are available through the OPTIONS button on the remote control. Top most of the selections available from the OPTIONS button is the Picture Menu from where the Picture Mode, Backlight, Contrast, Brightness and Colour controls make up the ‘first page’ of options. To get the most accurate out of box Picture Mode, you’ll need to use the SCENE button on the remote to select the Cinema mode.
Below the standard Backlight/Contrast/Brightness/Colour controls, there are settings for Hue, Colour Temperature, Sharpness, Noise Reduction, MPEG Noise Reduction and Dot Noise Reduction. Last of the non-advanced settings, is the Film Mode, which will be dealt with in the ‘Test Results’ page. The Advanced Settings area of the Picture Menu houses White Balance and Gamma controls in addition to the Black Corrector, Adv. Contrast Enhancer, Auto Light Limiter, Clear White and Live Colour options that proved no use for anything.
All of Sony’s own online content is accessed directly from the SEN (Sony Entertainment Network) Button of the remote control. The new interface is nice enough and split in to four sub-sections – apps, video, music and favourites. We still think it would be better to group all of the ‘smart’ features together and have the likes of the Skype, PVR and Media Player functionalities in the same place as the online content, as per the LG and Samsung approach. Instead users will need to go in to the XMB to get at those other features. The whole thing just seems a little fractured and though we do welcome the new Internet GUI, we still think Sony need to rethink the entire menu system to make it a more streamlined experience.
The apps section has broad appeal with headliners including the usual suspects of BBC News and iPlayer, Demand 5, Facebook and Twitter. Delve deeper and there are dozens of video on demand services including Love Film, EuroSport, You Tube and Netflix. Sony’s 3D Experience streaming service a decent variety of sports, video games and nature clips to see plus some music videos, Harry Potter, Travel and ‘World Heritage’ material.
Shuffling across the SEN interface and the Video and Music tabs are portals to Sony’s Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited services. These are subscription based and give you access to a wealth of Sony Entertainment created content. The Music Unlimited service is akin to the likes of Spotify but feels a little bit restricted given Sony doesn’t have the rights for a lot of recordings. Still, there should be enough to keep most happy. The final tab, Favourites, is simply a place to stick any of your favourite apps that don’t already appear on the front page.
As we said earlier, there’s built in Wi-Fi allowing DLNA streaming but of course you can do it wired too. File support is reasonably generous but we found we needed to use a transcoding media player to get MKV’s to run. The manual lists AVCHD, MPEG2, MPEG1, MP4 (AVC), MP4 (MPEG4), DivX, WMV for video. Photo’s are limited to JPEG over the network but USB connected devices will be able to display 3D MPO files, whilst MP3, linear PCM, WMA are the possibilities for music. Also worth a mention is the TrackID Button on the remote control which, whilst there is music playing on-screen – be it TV or Movie based - will send the HX853 in to a search of the Gracenote database to seek out the track details and it actually works - sometimes.
All in all, it’s a comprehensive set of features from Sony but more thought is needed to give them greater coherence and connection.
After a fairly lengthy set-up, the Sony KDL-32EX553 managed to deliver some very pleasing images. The overall accuracy of the colour palette meant almost everything looked natural and the impressive black levels set everything off well. The merits of watching Full HD content on a 26 inch 720p screen are questionable, unless you like sitting extremely close, but viewing the likes of Boardwalk Empire and Rio on Blu-ray disc, during our time with the Sony, definitely revealed the inherent advantages of the higher bit-rate format. The fact that there’s a Freeview HD tuner equipped is even more of a plus as the differences in HD and SD transmissions are generally even more noticeable than those between DVD and Blu-ray. We can imagine a number of EX553s will be hooked up to DVD players and the sympathetic scaling and SD processing will mean users shouldn’t be disappointed here.
The undoubted biggest weakness in the Sony EX553’s armoury is its inability to produce anything like a bright picture in its best picture mode. For an LED TV, its light output is quite shockingly low. It is possible to get a bit closer using the Standard picture mode and, by switching the Colour Temp to Warm 2, gain a reasonably pleasing image but, truth be told, it still doesn’t give enough pop in a room containing anything approaching a reasonable amount of ambient light. The filter works well, however, so at least there’s not too much contrast wash out in those kinds of situations but, ultimately, the EX553 is for the bedroom, curtains drawn.
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Full HD Smart LED LCD Television
Size: 26 inch television
Suggested price: £429
Reviewed 24th October, 2012 by Mark Hodgkinson
To get the best out of your TV or projector, consider getting it calibrated.