Sony EX403 (KDL-40EX403) LCD TV Review

Sony's new entry level EX403 LCD HDTV surpises on many levels as Phil Hinton finds out..

by Phil Hinton
TV Review

56

Recommended
Sony EX403 (KDL-40EX403) LCD TV Review
SRP: £750.00

Introduction

As a regular attendee of CES in Las Vegas each year, you usually get a good idea of the new TV models heading our way for the coming year. However, with it being a show staged in the States, you find with companies such as Sony that the models announced at CES vary quite a bit from those we actually see in the UK. However that all changes with the 2010 range with all the models shown at CES in January; heading to the UK. “It has been slightly confusing for some of us in the UK, with model number differences being different to the states, but this year everything you see here will come to the UK”, announced a very happy Tim Page from Sony UK, as we interviewed him at this years show. True to that promise, we see the first of the new Sony ‘Essential’ range here at AVForums for review, the KDL-40EX403.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Sony range of TVs if there wasn’t an accompanying list of slightly differing model numbers in the EX range. The 403 is the entry level set, with slightly better equipped 503, 603 and 703 models due to hit stores in the next few weeks at the 40inch and above sizes. So what does this entry level Sony offer us in terms of picture performance and features? Let’s find out.

Styling and connections

Thankfully the days of just a black coloured rectangle box are behind us with LCD and Plasma screens tackling the design aspect as well as picture performance. Obviously a good looking TV is useless unless it has excellent picture quality, but with the larger screen sizes now finding their way in to people’s homes, the design and look of the set has to be considered very carefully. We have seen an influx of super slim and designer LED designs of late, and whilst it’s not the slimmest TV, by a long way, the Sony does sport some design flair.


Obviously this subjective area of choosing a TV will certainly be a personal choice; the Sony, in this reviewer’s opinion, offers a sleek and unassuming pose with just a slight hint of something a little different. Looking head on to the EX403 - the vertical side and top bezels have a right angled industrial black look, with the bottom horizontal bezel sporting a gun metal grey (silver) face cover. The screen surface when the set is switched off has a reassuringly black look to it that further pushes the design aspect. Obviously we don’t have TVs in our living rooms switched off very often so perhaps it’s not that important a design point.

The remote control supplied with the EX403 also sports a slightly different design that looks more expensive than you would expect for a plastic item. The on/off power button is not only on the normal top face of the unit but the design has added a recessed green coloured on/off switch to the rear face of the remote as well. Added to this are a curved top plate and a mock carbon fibre feel to the body of the remote which rounds off the designer touch. I have to say that I was suitably impressed with the time and effort that has obviously gone into the design of the remote control and it certainly feels more expensive than the usual plastic examples with other TVs in this price range.

The EX403 uses the traditional CCFL backlighting approach for the LCD panel and, as such, the body is not quite as slim as some of the newer LED side/backlit units out there. That said, I have always found the push for ultra slim TV’s a little strange as you would need to have the TV in the centre of the room to make any use of the impact a slim screen has. Even wall mounting such a slim TV would take away any real impact of the slimness on offer; so slim isn’t everything. There, I’ve said it, that’s better…

The connections for your sources are placed on the rear and side panel of the TV and offer up a wide selection of options. Chief amongst these are the four HDMI slots with two positioned on the rear panel and two on the sides. Also here are two RGB Scarts, a PC D-sub slot, one set of Component and Composite inputs along with a USB slot and Ethernet connection. There are also a host of audio inputs and outputs and the TV is even wireless ready. Whatever connection set up you would require for your home cinema set up can be catered for with the EX403 including DLNA and internet video.

Menus and Set up

Moving on to the menu and set up we are greeted with the now familiar Xcross menu system that originally debuted on the PSX and was first seen on these shores in the PSP. If you are not used to the way the system works, it will take a while to get your head around where to find the options you need for picture set up and so on. However, I happen to find the menu layout quite intuitive and easy enough to navigate quickly between the various options available.

The first thing you will need to do with the EX403 is tune in the analogue and digital tuners – a process that takes around 5 minutes and works every time. It’s a simple process and if you live in an area that can receive Freeview HD pictures, they are automatically stored for you.

Moving to the picture set up options the basic front panel controls as well as some advanced options are available. On the first page we have the Backlight setting which offers 10 steps from max to min (bright to dim) then Contrast, Brightness, Colour, Hue and Colour Temperature. For Colour Temperature we have a selection of Cool, Neutral, Warm1and Warm2. Also included on the main menu page is the Sharpness control, Noise Reduction, Mpeg Noise Reduction and Film Mode. The Picture mode selection offers options for Vivid, Standard and Custom presets, but by pressing the theatre button (orange in colour) on the remote we can also access the more accurate Cinema Mode which Sony has pre-calibrated for accurate as possible playback.

You can also use the Scene button on the remote to bring up a further selection of picture modes for using with particular material such as Game, Sports, Photo, Music, Graphics and Cinema. Obviously if you want the best picture quality from all your sources you don’t need these extra scene selections, just hit the Theatre button to get as accurate as possible images to the industry standards for TV and film playback.

Moving to the Advanced settings, from the access point at the bottom of the main menu, we are introduced to further picture tweak controls. Sadly there are only really two controls that are of any real use for accurate video playback quality on the Sony, these being the Gamma selector and White Balance controls, for Greyscale set up. The remaining controls such as the Black Corrector and Adv. Contrast Enhancer are not required for accurate image reproduction and we switched them off.
So with the picture set up covered what other features do we have within the menu system?

Features

The KDL-40EX403 is not equipped with 100Hz or any type of frame interpolation system. This is not really a bad thing in some respects as frame interpolation can cause its own issues by trying to guess what frames it should insert and can often cause unwanted artefacts. Plus motion resolution on this Sony is not necessarily bad for an entry level LCD TV. We will cover this in more detail later in the review.

The biggest feature that Sony are pushing on the EX403 is its Internet Video capabilities using the included Ethernet connection (or using its wireless ready capabilities if you purchase the optional dongle). The internet video function offers the user the chance to watch content such as Demand Five, You Tube, Blip TV and other online video portals in the comfort of your armchair. It’s not a new feature, as most of last years models had similar functionality, but it is faster and slicker than last year’s version. You can also network the Sony to your laptop or PC network and view video content or stream music through the TV. The USB slot on the side of the TV also allows playback of photos, videos and mp3 music tracks.

Test Results

Out of the Box measurement

Now we move on to how well the Sony performs, out of the box, in terms of picture quality and how close it is to the playback standards. This is important so we can see TV and film material as it is supposed to be seen with the correct colour and white balance to the source material. There’s no denying that an LCD TVs strong point is its brightness in strong lighting and areas where there is a lot of ambient light. However, bright images also don’t necessarily equate to natural colour or accurate pictures. So how does the Sony EX403 look in the best out of the box settings?

We chose the Cinema picture preset along with the warm 2 colour temperature selection, then we used test patterns to set the brightness and contrast levels for our review room. Here are the results.

We start with the Greyscale tracking and colour balance and can see that out of the box this Sony has a very good pre-calibrated factory preset with Warm 2 selected. This returns errors (Delta E) that are well under 3 across the stimulus points and gamma managed to track well in the +1 setting. This was close to our desired 2.2 reference point. Looking at the tracking results, and they are better than most HDTVs out of the box, our concern is that they are not tracking uniformly across the entire 0-100IRE range, so may cause us issues when we come to calibrate the greyscale.

Moving on to the colour gamut and we can see that in Cinema mode the Sony again performs well, if not as perfect as we would like. It certainly looks like Sony have listened to feedback from previous years and made the cinema preset as close as they can to the industry standards for a factory calibration. The colour points across the board are, for the most part, under saturated and the secondary colours show up as having hue errors. However the luminance (brightness of the colour points) is well tamed and doesn’t introduce any further errors to proceedings. Luminance points are usually forgotten about in some other review testing, but can prove extremely important for actual on screen results. Overall errors (Delta E) are under 4, which is a very good result for an out of the box preset and, certainly, on screen images do look more natural than the vivid and standard modes. However, I did notice a tendency for skin tones to appear a little on the yellow side and a lack of red was noticeable. I have to state now that unless you are used to watching accurate images on a daily basis, or have the Sony sitting side by side with a reference monitor, the small issues seen here would not be obvious. Indeed to most users, the out of the box settings we used here, would be more than adequate to fulfil their enjoyment of the latest TV and film content the way it should be seen but the slightly yellow skin tones might stand out a little.

Calibrated Results

The trouble with this latest Sony is that although it is full of unwanted and unnecessary picture processing controls, they have yet again forgotten to add a 3D Colour Management System (CMS) which is a now standard feature on models from Samsung, LG and Toshiba, to name but three. Because of this we are unable to correct the colour points by selecting a wider gamut preset and then bringing all the points back to where they should be. The Live colour selection tool in the menu does widen the gamut in Cinema mode but also boosts the luminance of the colour points high enough to become an issue on screen, even in the low setting. This is an issue as without a CMS, as you cannot then tame the luminance of the colours, so I decided to use the cinema preset gamut with no additional processing and, just corrected the greyscale using the white balance controls.

As you can see the greyscale when calibrated is an improvement over the out of the box results, but only slightly. The calibration controls available in the white balance (RGB Gain and Bias) are quite coarse in their implementation and as such we still cannot fully correct both points without adding in bigger errors at certain stimuli. So because of that I balanced the greyscale to achieve errors (Delta E) under 2 across the board and keep our gamma point around the 2.2 reference level. This was the best overall result available with the Sony and shows that sometimes correct calibration with domestic displays is about balancing different errors to achieve the most desired and accurate results.

And the same goes for the colour gamut. Because we have no CMS, and didn’t want to use unnecessary picture processing controls, we settled for getting as balanced a result as possible. It’s a shame that Sony still don’t offer full control here but on screen the images still appear natural and without any serious errors.

Picture processing

The Sony KDL-EX403 offers excellent video processing for such a budget HDTV. The Bravia 3 engine, with Standard Definition film material, recognised and applied the correct cadence detection to various material from Pal 2-2 to the American 3-2 and 2-2 cadences found on Region 1 DVDs (if fed to the TV by a player that is not upscaling). One word of warning here, is that the film mode selection on this TV was switched off in the default out of the box settings, so it will need to be switched on if you are feeding the TV from a non-upscaling DVD player or watching the built-in SD tuners. And scaling such material, to its native full HD resolution, was also not an issue for the EX403 with very good detail levels and no obvious signs of ringing or halos. For video sourced material, the results were not as good with some signs of jaggies being present on the HQV tests. Watching football in SD transmissions highlighted this issues with straight lines on the pitch.

24p and HD material in either 1080i or 1080p incarnations looked extremely good on the EX403, without any underhand added sharpness or other processing. The playback of 24p material was very good with no signs of induced judder.
Being the entry level TV in the Essential range, the EX403 does not have 100hz or frame interpolation technology so the panel is prone to the usual LCD motion blur on pans or moving scenes. Using the FPD benchmark BD test pattern resulted in the EX403 resolving around 350 lines of detail, which is average for an LCD TV.

Gaming Performance

Not being the quickest gamer in the world, I found the KDL-40EX403 input lag, of approximately 40ms, to be more than adequate for most games. I would imagine that only the super quick gun slingers out there would have any issues with this type of response time. Note: Response time measured in the Games preset.

Power Consumption

In terms of power consumption the EX403 continues the current trend of reducing the overall draw of power and being a backlit TV the figures are fairly static. Measuring at 0IRE, 50IRE and 100IRE in calibrated Cinema mode the Sony gave a constant 86watts figure. In games mode at those stimuli points the figure was 104watts. Standby was 1watt.

Picture Quality

Image quality on this entry level Sony was actually an experience I wasn’t expecting. Straight away it was obvious that in a normal living room, during daylight hours, the black levels and image uniformity was extremely good when looking straight on to the display. Even strong sunlight (a rarity in these parts) bouncing onto the screen through my windows didn’t dent the image contrast like it would (and did) on a plasma screen. Blacks were strong and looked deep and solid but they did tend to rob the image of some shadow detailing. Indeed the contrast and dynamic range of the TVs pictures were strong but not as deep as the best displays out there, including some around the same SRP as the Sony. Colours were also very natural looking in the best out of the box settings as measured above. Skin tones were the only slight downside within the image, with a slight yellow cast and reds were not as strong as they should be, looking a little under saturated. I did switch to standard picture modes to check what they would look like in normal lighting but the reds and skin tones only looked worse with an overly bright image (as I expected). Unless you have this Sony sitting next to a reference panel (costing many hundreds more) most viewers would probably not notice these slight issues.

Where things started to go down hill slightly for the Sony was off axis viewing from the side of the panel. If your living room layout has family members sitting to the sides, then their enjoyment of the picture quality will suffer from the viewing angle performance. Image luminance and colour balance shifted quite noticeably from around 30 degrees and more. Obviously the more offset the viewer, the more the issues become obvious.

Moving to evening viewing and critical movie watching, in a dimmed environment, was not that big a struggle for the EX403 compared to other LCD TVs. Screen uniformity held up very well in low light conditions with no overly obvious clouding of the backlight. It was only when the Sony was fed dark material such as ‘Fight Club’, on Blu-ray disc, did the image uniformity struggle and those deep blacks revealed that they were not resolving the finer qualities of shadow detailing. Black level gradation in low light was a stumbling point but I don’t think any LCD would manage as well as a plasma screen. Also viewing angle issues were amplified in low light conditions.

Verdict

6
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

The Good

  • Good build quality and nice design
  • Good out of the box greyscale and colour gamut in 'Cinema' mode.
  • Nicely designed Remote control unit
  • Good black level performance and screen uniformity in normal lighting
  • Natural looking colour balance in calibrated settings
  • On demand features via internet TV

The Bad

  • No 3D Colour Management controls
  • Coarse white balance controls
  • Undersaturated Reds and Greens in best mode
  • Viewing angle
  • Lack of shadow detailing and contrast in dimmed viewing conditions

Sony EX403 (KDL-40EX403) LCD TV Review

Compared to their offerings last year, this new entry level Sony did provide a very reasonable image in normal bright environments and it was only when asked to perform critical movie watching duties, in low light, that the TV started to struggle. As an every day TV I would have no issues at all in recommending the Sony for the task of family viewing, in normal lighting conditions. I would however steer movie fans and critical viewers towards another technology if that is what makes up the majority of your viewing. The Sony is a good solid all rounder but not perfect by any means for the film fans amongst us.

So, if you want a solid living room workhorse that has excellent black levels, good accurate colours and performs well as an all-rounder; then the Sony might just fit the bill. It comes recommended for the majority of domestic circumstances but film fans can get better elsewhere.

Recommended

Scores

Sound Quality

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4

Smart Features

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6

Ease Of Use

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6

Build Quality

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6

Value for Money

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6

Verdict

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6

Picture Quality

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6

Video Processing

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6

Greyscale Accuracy

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7

Colour Accuracy

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6

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level

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6

Screen Uniformity

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6
6
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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