Over three years ago, way back in The Perfect Vision Issue 42, I reviewed a giant direct-view German HDTV by Loewe (no longer distributed in this country) and was blown away by the incredibly beautiful color produced by its huge 38” almostflat RCA picture tube. Sony's answer to that TV was the $2800 34XBR910, which was smaller and cheaper but technically a better set—the "gold standard" for CRT lovers. The 910 was a behemoth at nearly 200 pounds, but it did set the bar for 34” HDTV performance, partially due to the resolution of its incredibly fine pitch CRT, which was almost the equal of a giant computer monitor. Many potential buyers passed up the 910 because it just didn't look impressively bright enough next to more conventional sets in dealers' showrooms. Those that overlooked this apparent weakness and bought it anyway were rewarded with a picture that was truly hard to fault, regardless of source material or viewing environment.
The 34XBR960 is an updated version of the 910. It looks about the same but it costs $600 less. Yet, it has several new features that were missing from the 910, including a built-in HDTV tuner for off-the-air digital reception. Since it costs far less and has more going for it, you're probably already wondering just where Sony made cuts. Having once been a 910 owner and having calibrated scores of 910s and 960s for customers of my ISF calibration service, I can tell you with confidence that the newer, cheaper model is even better than its predecessor. The 960s I've calibrated have had better geometry than the 910s, as well as a more accurate factory-calibrated grayscale and a far more accurate color decoder. Unfortunately, the set has not gone on a diet. Truly flat 34” picture tubes are just plain heavy due to the thickness of the glass involved. Don't put this one on a cheap Wal-Mart table! It still weighs a whopping 195 pounds!
So, why would someone pick a prehistoric monster like this over a flat-panel LCD set of the same screen size? The LCD set would be far smaller and lighter (it could even hang on the wall) and would have a brighter picture that would likely be even sharper looking than the Sony's and certainly more impressive right off-the-bat. Three answers immediately come to mind: First is contrast. A well-designed CRT-based set can reach right on
down to coal black when the scene demands it, while showing detail in dark scenes that LCD (and even DLP and plasma) sets can only dream about. If you're only into sports and news, this advantage will mean nothing, but if you're into movies, particularly with the room lights down or off, the 34XBR960 will never fail to impress you. Even darker sit-coms and soap operas on broadcast TV usually look washed out on the newer technologies. Not on this set!
Second is color rendition. Many LCD and plasma sets do blues and reds pretty well, but nearly all give that annoying "glowing lime" look to greens, particularly green athletic fields. The 34XBR960 has remarkably accurate color rendition, (not just primary colors—even the shades in between) aided considerably by a factory grayscale calibration that's far better than any LCD set I've yet tested.
Third is video procesing. Sony's processing is excellent—significantly better than what's found in some of the cheaper LCD sets hitting the market at competitive prices—and the difference will really show when watching lower quality cable or satellite TV. Just because a set looks stunning with HD sources and DVDs is no guarantee it will look good with conventional programming. This set will. In fact, you're not likely to find any set of any technology with a screen this large or larger that will look as good on conventional TV broadcasts.
Finally, any CRT set will outperform current LCD sets when viewing well off axis and any CRT set will outperform LCD sets in a dark bedroom or den when lower light output is desirable. LCD sets don't do well with the contrast turned down but lower light output shows CRT sets off at their very best.
As mentioned, the biggest change in the 960 from the earlier 910 is the inclusion of an ATSC (digital) tuner for receiving digital off-the-air broadcasts (including HD broadcasts). You can purchase an aftermarket stand-alone tuner for a 910 for about $300, but the cheaper 960 has it already built in, which makes organizing cable and off-the-air channels far easier and more convenient.
The 960 also has CableCARD capability, meaning that a simple plugin card from your cable company will allow you to receive all of its digital cable channels (except pay-per-view) without an external (and inconvenient) cable box. Since this is a premium XBR product, you'd expect the inclusion of all possible bells and whistles. A few highlights are the two-event clock timer, signal indicator for DTV signal strength (antenna), a picture freeze feature, advanced PIP (picture-in-picture) capability, and SteadySound automatic volume control. While the 910 had a DVI input, the newer 960 has an HDMI input for digital connections. And finally, the 960 now has independent memories to customize video settings for each input.