Inside Sony - This Time Next Year
Day 3 of AVForums visit to Sony's head office in Tokyo
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5As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs, Sony conducted a survey in which they discovered that the single most important factor to consumers was picture quality. As a result, they have placed a great deal of emphasis on not only delivering an accurate picture but also finding ways of making the disparate video sources that we watch these days as good as possible.
Central to this concept is Sony’s X-Reality Pro engine which offers what Sony call Multi-Frame Resolution, which is essentially deinterlacing and scaling, coupled with Super Bit Mapping, designed to reduce banding in the image. The X-Reality Pro engine is actually a combination of two chips, the X-Reality engine and XCA7, which is the seventh version of Sony’s Extreme Creation Architecture that they've been developing since 1995. Sony actually gave us gift-mounted copies of these chips and they believe that the combination of them, using 14-bit processing in the engine and 10-bit processing on the panel itself will deliver a far superior image, especially when watching standard definition material or the kind of highly compressed, poor quality video that is often watched from the internet.
In the actual demo, Sony had their latest HX853 up against a Samsung D8000 LED LCD TV and a Panasonic VT30Plasma with all three initially showing the same 480i image. The Multi-Frame Resolution enhancer was deinterlacing and scaling this signal up to full 1080p and the results looked very impressive. Once the standard definition signal has been deinterlaced, the software then analyses each frame on a pixel by pixel basis, and then using proprietary databases, it uses complex algorithms to deliver very detailed and precise scaling. Since scaling always involves a degree of guess work, I am happy with Sony's approach but less convinced if the processing introduces interpolation on film based material, which results in it losing its film-like quality. The second demo used 1080i content, which resulted in a combination of deinterlacing and some processing, specifically the Super Bit Mapping which reduced banding. Once again, I am happy with Sony's approach in theory but less convinced if this processing introduces interpolation on film based 1080i material, which would result in it losing its film-like quality.
The most controversial aspect of Sony's X-Reality Pro is the use of a database of images, which the software uses to determine the correct level of adjustment needed. The high performance detection picture analyser automatically picks the best setting for content, after detecting the format, resolution, frequency etc. and then applies noise reduction. After pattern classification, the reality creation software uses a waveform representation of the image, and then uses the database of images to adjust this wave form. How Sony actually creates this data base is proprietary but they claim it combines thousands and thousands of images that have been analysed in order to allow the image engine to adjust the image on a pixel by pixel basis.
Sony have also developed their X-Reality Pro engine for use with 3D content, which they refer to as 3D Super Resolution. This uses a Near Field Database to adjust the objects in zero or negative parallax and it uses a Far Field Database to adjust the images in positive parallax. Watching a side-by-side comparison of the same scene from Avatar, the TV using Super Resolution did have a more prnounced 3D effect, although whether this was what James Cameron had in mind remains a matter of some conjecture. Sony's new 3D TVs also include Double Drive which repeats each eye view to increase brightness and reduce crosstalk. Sony feels that this approach is better than Samsung’s black insertion method and whilst they admit that LCD has limitations when compared to plasma, they feel that plasma can’t express gradations very well. As an example they quote PDP as having 10-bit plus dither in 2D but only 4-bit plus dither in 3D, hence the inability to express gradations finely. Sony 3D TVs now combine both Double Drive and crosstalk compensation using over drive to improve response time by outputting a higher voltage on the first frame. These new 3D TVs also include auto adjustment to offset the affect of the lenses, so if the White Balance has been set correctly, this feature can automatically adjust for the lenses and result in better colour accuracy.
After looking at the X-Reality Pro engine, we went into a room where there were six TVs lined up - a Kuro, a Panasonic VT20, a LG LW980, a Sony HX923, a Samsung D8000 and a Sony HX853. All the TVs were in cinema mode and any signal processing turned off, so that it was as close a playing field as possible. Sony chief engineer Naoki Ikawa explained that the ideal TV should reproduce reality but the limitations of the TV system prevent this. Problems such as floating blacks, hold effect blur, viewing angle, colour banding, after glow, gradations and reflections all impact on the quality of the image. Using test images produced by a TG45 signal generator, the Sonyengineers sent the same 12-bit, 1920 x 1080 progressive signal with a gamma of 2.2, delivered over HDMI. If you used a 0IRE image then certain TVs such as the Samsung looked good but if you used an image that alternated between 0IRE and 30IRE, you create a moving picture black. Under these conditions the Sony TVs with their local dimming looked the best, producing very deep blacks and a fantastic dynamic range. There was a small amount of haloing but this was far less obvious on the new HX853, although conversely the blacks weren't quite as dark on the HX853 when compared to the HX723. Sony wouldn't confirm the actual number of dimming zones but apparently there are actually less on the HX853. Sony said that the reason for this is that the number of zones isn't as important as the control system and processing being used. There is an interesting feature on the two Sony TVsthat allows you to see the local dimming working behind the panel.
Whilst the plasmas delivered the best native blacks they weren't as impressive in the gradation tests, especially the Kuro, which is only 8-bit. Here the Sony TVs delivered smooth gradations whilst some of the others, including the Samsung seemed to struggle. In fact the Samsung seemed to struggle the most out of the competition, although with its local dimming set to medium or high, the LG LW980 looked awful and when set to low it wasn't black enough. However both the HX723 and the new HX853 looked good in all the tests and with their local dimming turned on they both gave black levels that were comparable to the plasmas. Another area where all the LCDs appeared to have the edge over the plasmas was when there was ambient light in the room. Thanks to ambient light filters such as the Opti Contrast on the Sony TVs, the ambient light could be rejected and the image remains clear with an excellent contrast retained. Obviously it shouldn't come as a surprise to discover that a Sony TV does best in a test devised by Sony but I checked the settings on the other TVs and everything seemed to be set up correctly. Ultimately whilst the HX853 looked very impressive in all the testing, we won't really be able to pass judgement until we get one in for review.
Whilst we're on the subject of Sony's new line up of TVs it is worth mentioning that they have quite a deep chassis and a wide bezel. This is deliberate on the part of Sony and once again relates to market research they have been doing. It would appear that people are less concerned about an ultra-thin chassis or almost bezel-less border but are far more concerned about picture quality. Sony said that the wider bezel and deeper chassis will allow them to deliver a more even backlight with less light pooling or brightness at the edges. Certainly from looking at the HX853 it did appear to have a much smoother backlight, with no dirty screen effect or other unwanted artefacts.Sony also admitted that the dreaded 'crease' was the result of some production issues last year but that they have corrected the problems and don't think it will be an issue this year.
There’s no question that Sony have been shocked out of their complacency by the recent successes of Samsung and LG and especially with their 55” OLEDs. Sony have clearly raised their game in recent months and are determined to regain their position in the market by delivering TVs that combine stylish design with superb picture quality. Whether or not they succeed is a matter of conjecture but based upon what I’ve seen, there’s no denying their intention. There’s certainly some fascinating products in development, such as Crystal LED but unfortunately due to non-disclosure agreements, I can’t talk about them at the moment. However, I can leave you with one fascinating comment from Sony’s global head of television production, who said rather cryptically that “this time next year the Sony Bravia will be very different...”
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