Sony X950H 4K HDR TV review: Seriously satisfying

Sony X950H

“Superb picture quality that fully satisfies.”
  • Very bright
  • Impressive black levels
  • Top-quality motion handling
  • Excellent out-of-box color
  • No variable refresh rate support
  • Unstable tabletop stand

You might not need a TV as excellent as the Sony X950H, but if you see one in person, I’m willing to bet you’re going to want it.

To be honest, if you’re interested in a Sony TV with great picture quality and gamer-friendly features, the Sony X900H, which sits just below the X950H being reviewed here, would be a better choice. However, if you count yourself among the ranks of those for whom only the best picture quality in an LED TV will do, the X950H is where it’s at. If you want the best picture quality Sony makes this year — and indeed one of the best TVs you can buy in 2020 — consider the Sony A8H OLED TV.

For perspective, the X950H is available in 49-, 55-, 65-, 75-, and 85-inch versions for $998, $1198, $1698, $2798, and $3,998 ,respectively (nonsale pricing). The X900H comes in 55-, 65-, 75-, and 85-inch variants priced at $998, $1298, $2198, and $2798, respectively.  This puts a $400 premium on the 65-inch X950H over the X900H.

For those who aren’t aware, I am an unapologetic fan of Sony’s best TVs. The reason: Picture processing. Sony’s stated goal to deliver “creator’s intent” is most certainly a marketing line, but it something at which the company succeeds, and it does so through a picture processing chip that takes an LED TV panel any company could buy off the shelf and transforms it into a work of art.

To be clear, I understand that kind of accuracy is not a priority for many buyers, and it is true that there are many less expensive TVs that would be a more practical choice for most people. The X950H is certainly a niche TV, and Sony makes no apologies for that. Is it right for you? Let’s find out.

Out of the box

Prepare yourself for a rather involved unboxing experience. There is a ton of plastic clinging to the X950H, presumably to protect its gorgeous, glossy design accents. There’s also a glut of paper in the form of product manuals and setup guides, stuff I usually suggest tossing in the recycle bin.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

In this case, you may want to hold on to the setup guide if you are stand-mounting the TV — or just watch my X950H unboxing video — because getting the TV’s feet installed is … less than intuitive. On the plus side, there are two options for orienting the feet. One places the feet at the extreme ends of the TV, the other faces them inward for a more narrow footprint (but it looks goofy).

Once the TV is set up, you’ll likely admire its form factor. The X950H doesn’t have an especially thin profile due to its full-array local dimming backlighting system, but its bezels are almost nonexistent. Sure, it’s still a black slab in your room, but it’s a classy one.

Sure, it’s still a black slab in your room, but it’s a classy one.

Depending on the lighting situation in your room, you may notice that the TV’s screen casts off a sort of rainbow effect when it is off or when viewing dark content in a bright room. I believe this is due to a combination of antiglare treatment and a panel layer that improves off-angle picture quality. I’ve seen this on other TV’s, and while I didn’t find it to be problematic for most of my testing period, I was slightly bothered while trying to watch Netflix’s notoriously dark Ozark when sunlight was pouring into the room. I saw less of myself and the room reflected, sure, but I also saw a hazy rainbow.

Setup

Studies have shown that most people don’t do any picture settings adjustments when they get their TVs home, and for those who don’t, please know that the X950H’s out-of-the-box “Standard” picture preset is among the least obnoxious I’ve seen from any manufacturer.

If you’re buying this particular TV, however, I’m willing to bet you want the best picture quality possible and, for that I would recommend by starting with the “custom” mode, which offers the best color accuracy right out of the box. You may find the custom mode to be a little dark, so feel free to adjust the backlight setting to get the brightness level where you want it. Otherwise, you won’t have to touch anything else.

That works for SDR content, but you’ll also want to dial in the HDR picture preset that you like best for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision content. I suggest pulling up the YouTube app, searching for 4K HDR content, and playing back one of the clips that comes up. Go into the picture settings and select the HDR picture mode you like best.

For Dolby Vision adjustments, I suggest playing a Dolby Vision-enabled clip from Netflix. Again, go into the picture settings and select the Dolby Vision preset (bright or dark) that you like best.

One additional note for setup: Sony offers a “light sensor” option that will automatically adjust not only the X950H’s brightness but also its gamma curve based on your room’s lighting situation. I find the feature works extremely well, but it will also darken the picture in dark rooms, so if you prefer the punchiest HDR experience you can get, you’ll want to turn this feature off.

Sound

I don’t often talk about a TV’s sound quality because it is almost always poor and in dire need of at least a soundbar for anything other than watching the news. In the case of the X950H, however, it’s worth discussion.

Two added speakers pull off some impressive tricks.

Sony’s sound strategy with the X950H was to place small speakers on each side of the TV, located just below the top, in order to add a sense of directionality and spaciousness to the sound. Working with the two down-firing speakers at the bottom of the TV, these two added speakers pull off some impressive tricks. While I would not characterize the sound as high fidelity, I will say that the sound is far better than most TVs and adds some immersion to action-packed movies.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

I’d still suggest getting a better sound system for an experience that sounds as good as it looks, though.

Picture quality

If you’ve spent any amount of time reading TV reviews lately, you’ve probably heard a lot about zones and nits. Zones refers to the number of local dimming zones a TV’s backlighting system has to help control black levels and improve contrast. Typically, more zones are better.

Nits refers to the measurement of peak brightness a TV is capable of and, as you can probably imagine, more is generally considered better.

Sony breaks both rules. Please allow me to nerd out for a moment. Skip the next two paragraphs if you want the bottom line.

Sony doesn’t discuss how many zones its TVs have, nor does it like to talk about its peak brightness measurements, claiming in both cases that the numbers don’t necessarily represent performance. I agree, to a degree, but for grins, I did measure the X950H’s peak brightness in the custom picture mode at about 980 nits (with variance of 10 nits in both directions). For those who don’t know their nits from their mitts, that’s a very respectable number.

As for zones, I didn’t count because I don’t care and it is difficult to do with a Sony TV. Sony has some backlighting magic going on and is really the only TV manufacturer I’m aware of that manages to make zone count almost irrelevant. The fact that it is difficult to count the backlighting zones in the X950H is a testament to that fact.

The bottom line is that the X950H is more than sufficiently bright to deliver an excellent HDR experience.

The bottom line is that the X950H is more than sufficiently bright to deliver an excellent HDR experience while maintaining excellent black levels, all without crushing out low-light details. The backlight control is very good, which means the halos you might see around bright objects on dark backgrounds are minimized quite well. This also translates into very black letterbox bars that don’t turn gray when the action on the screen gets bright, and no excessive screen brightening when closed captions are in use.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

Out-of-box color is also very good in the custom mode, and it is surprisingly good in the game mode as well. Typically, game mode tosses color accuracy to the wind, but with the X950H, I was pleasantly surprised to see a warmer color temperature adopted while overall brightness was very high. More on gaming in a moment.

Motion handling is excellent with the X950H, providing smooth, judder-free movie playback, as well as stutter-free motion from 60Hz content on Netflix and YouTube. The X950H’s processing also eliminates any moiré effect one might see in very tight, uniform patterns such as the window screens or the tight patterns on high-rise buildings.

The X950H’s processing really shines when handling low-bit depth content from streaming services like Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu (any of them, really). On other TVs it is not uncommon to see an effect called banding in broad color areas — think a big picture of the sky with subtle changes of the color blue — where it appears there are semi-circular bands of color. The Sony X950H’s processor, however, smooths things out quite successfully.

The X950H has a superbly cinematic picture.

My only picture quality-related complaint is with off-angle viewing. Contrast and color roll off significantly if you aren’t sitting dead center in front of the TV. This is typical of LED TVs with VA-type panels, but Sony’s X-Wide Angle technology had me hoping for better. Ultimately, I’m glad no overall picture quality elements were sacrificed for wide-angle viewing. It is best to just accept that’s how VA LED TVs are and enjoy the superior contrast they provide.

With all picture quality components taken together, what you get with the X950H is a superbly cinematic picture. It is deep, rich, and punchy when called to sparkle. Simply put, it’s one of the best pictures I’ve seen on an LED TV, particularly at its price.

Not for gamers

While the X950H’s 18.3-millisecond input lag is suitable for most casual gaming scenarios, this model lacks the support for variable refresh rate (VRR) that we’re seeing across a broad range of televisions this year. Sony told me that it sees this TV appealing mostly to movie buffs and chose not to arm it with some of the features with which it blessed its X900H, including VRR (via future update) and an ATSC 3.0 tuner.

Android TV experience

Until recently, Android TV was a frustratingly sluggish experience. Fortunately, the system on chip now being used in most 2020 TVs handles Android TV without significant lag or load times. Fans of the Google experience will appreciate the ease of having any previously logged-in apps automatically updated so that repetitive entry of usernames and passwords can be avoided. Signing in to Google also allows YouTube users to keep their viewing history and suggested videos consistent across all devices.

Our take

The Sony X950H offers excellent picture quality, surprisingly good sound, and a solid smart TV experience. Its picture processing improves the viewability of all sources thanks to excellent upscaling and the ability to clean up low bit-depth content. While it isn’t the best choice for gamers, it is an ideal TV for movie buffs. While I am very confident in recommending this TV, I must stop short of an Editor’s Choice award because I think it serves a very niche audience.

Is there a better alternative?

I think the Sony X900H is a practical alternative for those who want excellent Sony picture quality with gamer-friendly features. Samsung’s Q80T is also a strong contender in this price class. We have yet to see what comes from Vizio this year and will update this section accordingly once we’ve had some hands-on time.

How long will it last

A lack of HDMI 2.1 compatibility, for which Sony is taking a lot of heat, gives me some pause when it comes to future-proofing. However, Sony’s solid track record for build quality and the X950H’s excellent picture quality has me believing this TV will be relevant for many years to come.

Warranty

Sony offers a one-year parts and labor warranty when purchased from an authorized retailer.

Should you buy it?

Hardcore cinephiles will love the X950H, but most folks in the market will probably be looking for better overall value or a TV with more up-to-date features. I say if you are among those who want the best picture they can get from an LED TV right now, the X950H is a solid choice. Those who are less enthusiastic may want to look elsewhere.

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