Promises, Promises

Sony Bravia 85XH90 Review

Does the most affordable “PS5-ready” TV the Japanese have been promoting actually deliver?

The Bravia XH90 is the most affordable “gaming TV” Sony is offering right now — has it fully justified the “PS5-ready” status the Japanese have attached to it since last year, though? (Image credit: Sony)

What makes a modern TV, a “gaming TV” anyway? At first, it was — let us be honest — just a marketing thing: there were no TVs specifically designed to be used for games per se, it was rather that some TVs when better at displaying games than others. It proved to be a selling point of note, though, so for the last two or three years manufacturers do promote specific models optimized for gaming use in the living room — conversely, some TVs now walk in the opposite direction, asking to be used for games in bedrooms or home offices instead of monitors. Why not?

Sony was not among those manufacturers, even if some of its TVs were capable of handling games well — just not in the best way possible. The PlayStation5 changed all that. During Q3 and Q4 of 2020, the Japanese giant ran a co-promotion between Sony Electronics and Sony Interactive Entertainment, highlighting its claim that two specific Bravia TV models are “the perfect match” for a PS5 because of specific features they offer.

The most affordable of the two is by far the Sony XH90 (X900H in the US) and I got to live with the 85-inch version for about three months. Should gamers — PS5 owners or otherwise — go for this TV at some point or not? Is there information they should be aware of before doing so? What would this journalist be doing if he were in the shoes of a consumer considering this TV? Let’s break this all down.

Generic design, every important feature present

It is true that, at first glance, the XH90 seems rather pedestrian design-wise. It’s not unattractive or anything, it’s just that everything about it is understated. There’s not a single element that stands out and people who are looking for a striking TV set might not be too impressed by it. A few weeks into using it, though, one realizes that is a conscious choice on Sony’s part: the TV frame draws zero attention to itself, never distracting the viewer’s attention from the screen. The bezels around it are not impossibly thin like e.g. on an OLED TV, but they are thin enough so as not to be off-putting. All in all a modern, somewhat unremarkable, but likable and effective design.

The XH90 is well-built and well-designed for a TV set of this class — consumers looking for fancy looks or luxurious materials have more expensive options available to choose from. (Image credit: Sony)

The Bravia XH90 is an upper-middle-class TV in Sony’s line-up, so one might not expect it to be as well built at more expensive sets of this or other manufacturers — but one would be wrong. It’s very, very well-built, a solid, carefully constructed device featuring an attention to detail that is evident in all the right ways. All 65-inch or larger TVs deserve to be wall-mounted but this one practically begs to, as all its ports are located on the left-hand side making this way easier. For people who plan to put it on furniture, though, the two metal feet accompanying the XH90 will be of great help as they can be put either in the middle or at the edges of the TV frame. This not only makes the placement of the TV on furniture not as wide as the TV itself possible but also allows for a soundbar to be put underneath it if it is.

Speaking of soundbars, people considering the XH90 might need one at some point. This Bravia’s sound is not bad per se — meaning that it’s no worse than what most other TVs of this price range are offering — but it severely lacks bass and the built-in stereo speakers are not powerful enough to compensate. Many movies or TV shows sound “flat” and uninspiring as a result, even though dialogue is thankfully clear. The XH90 naturally supports eARC so top-quality sound (such as Dolby Atmos) can be redirected to an external speaker system that will actually do modern movies and shows justice.

It’s a shame that the HDMI port that supports eARC happens to be one of the two — out of four total — that gamers are most interested in: the full-bandwidth (48 Gbps) HDMI 2.1 ports where a PlayStation5, an Xbox Series S/X or a hi-end PC will be connected to in order to take advantage of gaming features such as VRR, ALLM and others. In practice this means that consumers will not be able to make use of a soundbar and two gaming consoles — unless the soundbar itself offers HDMI 2.1 ports, which will not be the case for some time — so they will have to make a choice at some point down the road. An HDMI 2.1-equipped receiver is the only way out of this, unfortunately.

Sony’s choice to offer just two HDMI 2.1 ports and then use one of them for eARC is an unfortunate one, to say the least. (Image credit: Sony)

The rest of the ports one expects to find at the back of a good modern TV are all there: an Ethernet port for wired connectivity (sadly it’s of the Fast Ethernet variety), a couple of USB ports (for multimedia file playback from external storage devices), plus all the legacy ports there’s little point in being included anymore (such as composite video in or optical out). The XH90 offers faster wireless connectivity than wired (Wi-Fi AC) plus Bluetooth 4.2 for a variety of uses. Chromecast functions come as standard and Apple device owners will be pleased to know that AirPlay2 and HomeKit work as intended. Even Alexa is directly supported by the XH90, in case consumers find it preferable to Android TV’s Google Assistant.

What about those gaming credentials, then?

Well, as with any other TV of 2020 and 2021, advanced gaming support on the XH90 comes down to two things: the HDMI ports and the image processing subsystem. The latter allows for low input lag — how responsive the TV feels in displaying fast-moving titles such as first-person shooters or fighting games — and this particular Sony TV set is exceptionally good at that. In Game Mode (or even Graphics Mode if connected to a PC) its input lag clocks around 15ms in either 1080p or 4K at 60 Hz and around 7ms at 120 Hz — one of the fastest figures in the business at this time.

Those numbers make this TV a good choice for displaying games played on a PS4/Xbox One or a PC with a previous-gen graphics card — games, in other words, that are not offered at refresh rates higher than 60 Hz anyway (even if the actual frames produced are higher).

It’s at this point that the HX90’s credentials are becoming less convincing. When those two HDMI 2.1 ports are used with a PS5 or Xbox Series S/X (or a PC with current-gen graphics cards), gamers are getting that smooth 120 Hz framerate, yes, but that is only useful if that number is “locked”. If the number of frames is lowered or constantly fluctuates, motion on-screen becomes juddery again. That’s because the HX90 does not currently support any kind of variable refresh rate technology that would step in and adjust the number of frames displayed by the screen to the number of frames produced by the games device.

Variable refresh rate support is the whole point of advertising a TV as “gaming-oriented” in 2021, even more so as “PS5-ready”, but so far neither the XH90 nor the PS5 offer it. (Image credit: Sony)

This is a serious omission that cannot be overlooked. Other TVs offer variable refresh rate support through either HDMI VRR or FreeSync/G-Sync (or both) in order to “even out” the juddery motion caused by framerate fluctuations between 48 and 120 Hz/FPS. The difference this makes in the smoothness of motion on-screen, the accuracy of control and the overall gaming experience is astounding. Without it, PlayStation5 or Xbox Series S/X gamers — and indeed PC gamers with powerful systems — just can’t enjoy many modern titles to the fullest.

There’s a separate issue regarding the 4K/120 Hz display capability of the XH90, one highlighted by technical outlets and experienced reviewers: the apparent inability of this Bravia to resolve a full 3840x2160 pixel image when working at this framerate. Some visual information is lost when a PS5, for instance, is feeding the XH90 a full 4K image to display at 120 Hz. Detailed analysis has proven this to be true and Sony acknowledged it, issuing a firmware update to mitigate the problem.

This journalist did not discern any difference between the “fixing” update and the previous one — but, then again, he also did not discern loss of display information while playing the mere handful of PS5 games that support 4K/120. These games lower their graphics detail level considerably in order to run at 4K/120 (compared to 4K/60) and that was immediately apparent. But most people will not be able to tell whether all of the 8.3 million pixels of a 4K image are there or not from a normal viewing distance while playing a game at 120 Hz. It’s just the thought that they aren’t, in this exact circumstance, which is bothersome.

The XH90 still hasn’t been updated to offer VRR functionality in March 2021 and there’s no indication whatsoever regarding a possible timeframe. (Image credit: Sony)

But HDMI VRR is far more important an issue. Sony did not manage to have it implemented on the Bravia XH90 in time for the launch of the PS5 last year and, rather sadly, still hasn’t. It has repeatedly promised to do so in the future but the Japanese giant means to adhere to the guidelines of VRR operation dictated by the HDMI Forum — which is already late in certifying the chipsets TVs use in order to control HDMI ports and offer VRR. Other manufacturers opted to implement VRR without waiting for that certification and it seems that they were right, as the HDMI Forum’s time-consuming procedures proved to be damaging to products such as the Bravia HX90.

Sony has always strived to adhere to official standards whenever possible, so it’s no surprise that it is doing the same in this situation. The Japanese giant’s position on the matter is even more complicated because of the PlayStation5: word on the street is that a firmware upgrade addressing the lack of VRR support by its newest home entertainment system isn’t available yet because of the very same HDMI Forum certification delay. So it makes sense… in a way.

All this “background information” does not — and probably should not — concern consumers, though, who were promised a key feature not delivered by a manufacturer and are rightly upset about it. VRR is not just another bullet point on a marketing list: it’s the very reason why gamers (especially console gamers) would choose a TV model over another. Based on Sony’s history with promised updates one assumes that the Japanese will honor this commitment: in past situations where Sony was not sure it could deliver, it avoided committing to anything publicly. An undesirable situation for all involved, though, this most certainly is.

General picture quality punching way above its weight

The Bravia HX90 turned out to be less of a “gaming TV” than many of us hoped, but it balances that with unexpectedly good performance in general program viewing, sports viewing, as well as movie and TV show watching. This is a TV that offers local dimming for better control of backlighting, yes, but as a mid-range and not a hi-end model it employs a limited number of dimming zones (the areas of the screen that can be lighted independently of each other): just 32, when other TV manufacturers’ most expensive models offer 120, 320 or even 480 zones in the 85-inch diagonal.

For a mid-ranger, the XH90 offers superb image quality overall: it’s not perfect, but it’s way, way better than it had any right to be at this price point. (Image credit: Sony)

It speaks volumes, then, of Sony’s expertise and its superior controlling algorithm that the 85HX90 manages to offer amazing picture quality overall, avoiding almost all the usual issues attributed to low dimming zone counts. The Japanese manufacturer is probably the most experienced one among its peers in image processing at this point and it shows: problems such as blooming, clouding or haloing are all more or less dealt with in real-world content, despite the small number of zones employed. It takes some careful settings selection to achieve this but, even without calibration, it’s perfectly possible to have a punchy but wonderfully natural, contrasty but balanced picture on every usage scenario, from watching the news to watching TV shows or movies to hopping through YouTube videos to playing video games.

As an LED/LCD television, the XH90 cannot produce the perfect blacks of an OLED, of course, but Sony’s algorithm makes the best of the local dimming array in order to come close to those while offering brighter highlights in HDR content. The Japanese have mastered upscaling a long time ago, so it’s no surprise that content of lower resolution is presented in 4K as well as anyone can expect it to. Smooth motion is also guaranteed in sports viewing without any of the artificiality found in the picture produced by other TVs. It’s only on “edge” cases — such as specific 4K/HDR movies and scenes within them that reviewers use in order to find weaknesses in all modern TVs — that the XH90 falters. But, then again, so do most other TVs costing three or four times more: in most situations, in almost all everyday content, Sony’s mid-ranger is more than good enough for the vast majority of consumers out there.

The XH90 is a joy to use as it offers the fastest, most fluid implementation of Android TV on the market at this point in time. (Image credit: Sony)

Owners of any other television (from Sony or any other manufacturer) that’s based on Android TV operating system will be interested to know that the XH90 offers the best implementation of Google’s operating system in this category so far. Navigation and scrolling are nimble, there are no weird brief “pauses” when looking through content, while app execution is trouble-free and as fast as one can ask for (this is not a top-end Android smartphone we’re talking about). The XH90 actually has less system memory to depend on than some other TV models, but it manages to be a pleasure to live with. Never a small thing, that, in the context of everyday use.

A TV worth getting, provided that Sony delivers

Recapping, then, by answering the questions this review itself asked in the beginning: is the Sony Bravia XH90 worth buying? Absolutely. It is a very well-balanced, quality TV that offers amazingly high value for money as a general-purpose, everyday-use television all the members of a family can enjoy for over-the-air programming, streaming content, multimedia consumption via different sources and quality gaming.

Gaming remains, of course, the use case that raises concern for the reasons stated earlier. VRR really is the most important feature a “gaming TV” should be offering in 2020 and 2021 because it affects gameplay the most, especially as far as PS5 and Xbox Series S/X are concerned. The ability to display 4K games at 120 Hz is welcome, but what hands-on experience has proven that almost all titles running on the new PlayStation or Xbox struggle to take advantage of it without compromising image quality, while PCs can do it in specific titles only if they are powerful enough (not many are yet).

The XH90 is a very good TV but a lot depends on (a) one’s trust in Sony’s support and (b) the price point its successor will go for. (Image credit: Sony)

Sony has promised to update the Bravia XH90 so as to offer HDMI VRR and this journalist has every reason to believe that they will deliver. But time has caught up with the Japanese: not only did they not offer that in 2020 and still don’t, but in the meantime, they also announced the new TV model that will be taking HX90’s place at some point in 2021: the Bravia X90J. The HDMI Forum situation is such a mess that even the X90J might not come with VRR enabled: the day this story was published Sony’s official webpage for the product stated that VRR will be added later via a firmware update, just like the XH90 (the HDMI control chips are probably the same). This means that Sony still has no indication of the timeframe the HDMI Forum will offer that long-overdue certification.

So what are consumers interested in a Bravia XH90 to do, then? It is, after all, a very good TV that’s priced extremely competitively. Well, option 1: hold off their purchase until Sony has delivered the firmware update enabling VRR, make sure that it works as intended by getting informed through the relevant articles and then look for the best deals available for it (the XH90 will get heavily discounted once a release date for the X90J has been revealed). Option 2: if they have to, then buy the XH90 now (it’s been generously discounted at several outlets already) and have faith in Sony delivering the VRR firmware update in due course. Option 3: wait until the first reviews of the X90J hit the web and check out that model’s initial retail pricing: the X90J is better than the XH90 in several key areas and if the price difference is not too great, then go for that model instead. Decisions, decisions…

Veteran journalist, project kickstarter, tech nut, cynical gamer, music addict, movie maniac // Medium top writer in Television, Movies, Gaming // farkonas.com

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