Sony X90J series review: Polished experience, excellent picture

In my years of reviewing I’ve learned that the best TVs made by brands like Vizio and TCL can perform as well as better-known nameplates like Samsung and the TV granddaddy of them all, Sony. The question TV buyers face is whether to pay a couple hundred dollars more for the sleeker design and superior cachet of an “S” brand. The midpriced X90J is Sony’s strongest attempt yet to convince you to pony up — just a bit.

Don’t Like

  • More expensive than competing TVs with similar picture quality.

The X90J has a better picture than last year’s commendable X900H, and while the X90J didn’t perform quite as well as the TCL 6-Series, the two were very close in my side-by-side comparisons. The Sony is bright with great contrast for both standard and HDR content, and while it doesn’t match the punch of the TCL or the Hisense 65U8G — both of which cost less — it’s still an excellent performer.

Sony’s sleek looks and the Google TV operating system score additional points in its favor, as does its next-gen console support (it has 4K/120fps inputs and Sony promises VRR… sometime) and built-in NextGen TV tuner. But whether you buy this TV really comes down to how much you value Sony’s brand. The X90J is probably the best value in Sony’s TV line this year, but if you want the best value overall, it’s still the TCL.

Sizes in Sony X90J series

Model number Screen size
XR50X90J 50-inch
XR55X90J 55-inch
XR65X90J 65-inch
XR75X90J 75-inch

In addition to the models above, Sony is also selling the 100-inch X92J with similar specifications. It gets its own model line, however, because of a different bezel configuration and, you know, its humongous size. It ships later this summer for $20,000.

Lean back in black

The X90J doesn’t deign to use silver or off-gray to differentiate itself — it simply wears all black, all the time. From a distance it looks like every other black slab of TV, but closer inspection reveals touches like the beveled frame edge and a narrow slit under the subtle Sony logo. The stand’s legs angle the panel back slightly from plumb, an effect visible in profile but not straight-on.

Sony X90J

David Katzmaier/CNET

The remote is old-school Sony: Way too many buttons, most of which you’ll never use. I prefer the sleeker, simpler clickers of Samsung and Roku, as well as the motion-infused wands of LG. 

Google TV, no Chromecast required

Until TCL’s Google TVs arrive later this year, Sony is the only TV maker to build in Google’s latest big-screen operating system. Google TV, also available on the new Chromecast, has a few upgrades and improvements compared to the older Android TV system found on TVs from Hisense and others. Both systems offer the same selection of thousands of apps — more than Samsung and LG, and on par with Roku and Fire TV — but Google TV is more polished to use.

Sony X90J

David Katzmaier/CNET

The For You section lets you choose which services appear in Google TV’s list of recommended shows. Choices include major names like from Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, HBO Max and Sling TV, but as usual Netflix isn’t included. Search leans heavily into Google Assistant voice commands, with suggested phrases like “Show me free movies” front-and-center, and I appreciate the ability to dive deeper into sections like Comedy TV Shows or New Movies. All told, I still prefer the simple, app-based menus of Roku, in part because Google TV still seems cluttered with stuff I don’t want, but it’s a more capable system than Samsung, LG or Vizio.

New for this year is Sony’s BRAVIA Core streaming service, which delivers Sony Pictures and some Imax movies in “UHD BD equivalent quality with streaming up to 80Mbps.” If you’re a stickler for image quality and like the selection, it may be worth buying the films there instead of a competing service like Vudu, Apple or Amazon, but personally I’d choose the greater compatibility of another service. I did appreciate that my X90J sample unlocked five free movies, however.

Local dimming, meet game-friendly connections

Key TV features

Display technology LED LCD
LED backlight Full array with local dimming
Resolution 4K
HDR compatible HDR10 and Dolby Vision
Smart TV Google TV
Remote Standard voice

The X90J is Sony’s most affordable 2021 TV with full-array local dimming, a feature that illuminates different areas of the screen independently for better contrast — and an essential picture enhancement for any serious LCD-based TV. Unlike Vizio, Hisense or TCL, Sony doesn’t disclose the number of dimming zones on its TVs, and while more zones generally equate to better performance, that’s not always the case.

Other picture-centric extras include a native 120Hz refresh rate, a notable improvement on paper over the fake 120Hz refresh rates (they’re actually 60Hz native) found on cheaper TVs. The X90J supports all the major HDR formats, including Dolby Vision. Unlike Samsung, TCL and Vizio, Sony doesn’t use quantum dots, so its HDR color gamut isn’t as wide. 

Sony X90J

David Katzmaier/CNET
  • 4x HDMI inputs
  • 2x USB ports
  • Composite AV input
  • Ethernet (LAN) port
  • Optical digital audio output
  • 1x headphone/subwoofer audio output
  • 1x RF (antenna) input
  • RS-232 port (minijack)

The X90J’s input selection is very good, if not yet as capable as some competitors. The first two HDMI inputs are basic HDMI 2.0 while Input 3 and 4 work with some HDMI 2.1 features, namely 4K resolution at up to 120 frames per second — great for gamers who want to take advantage of high frame rates from an Xbox Series X or Sony PlayStation 5. Input 3 also supports enhanced audio return channel

No input handles VRR (variable refresh rate) however, an extra most competitors offer. Sony says VRR will arrive with a future firmware update, but didn’t specify when. It said the same thing about the X900H from last year, and that TV still doesn’t support VRR. Neither does Sony’s own PS5 console, yet.

The X90J’s antenna input features a built-in ATSC 3.0 over-the-air tuner, which allows it to receive NextGen TV broadcasts. Those are still only available in a small number of markets so I didn’t get the chance to check out this feature, but it’s nice to know that once the broadcasts become more widespread, X90J owners won’t have to connect an external tuner box to watch. The X90J is the cheapest 2021 TV with a NextGen tuner.

Unlike many of Samsung’s and LG’s sets, the Sony actually has an analog video input, albeit composite-only, and I also appreciate having a headphone jack.

Sony X90J

David Katzmaier/CNET

Picture quality comparisons

Sony’s baseline local dimming model has superb image quality, with deep black levels, bright highlights and excellent accuracy. It can’t get quite as bright as either the TCL or Hisense I used for this comparison, a difference that showed up in bright rooms and with bright HDR images in particular, but its contrast and black levels in mixed content were on par and in many areas it was more accurate than either one.

Dim lighting: The X90J performed well in home theater situations, as I saw during the dark Dol Guldur section of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on standard Blu-ray (Chapter 3). With brightness calibrated for a dim room, the Sony, TCL and Hisense all looked very similar in terms of black level in areas like the letterbox bars and shadows of Gandalf’s cage, for example. Details in near-black areas like the stone stairs and ruined crags of the fortress appeared natural and well-defined on all of the TVs, and while the Sony had a slight edge it was close enough to require a side-by-side comparison to discern.

Bright lighting: The X90J is a bright TV, with similar luminance to the X900H last year. It didn’t outshine the competing TCL or Hisense models in my side-by-side comparison, however.

Light output in nits

TV Brightest (SDR) Accurate color (SDR) Brightest (HDR) Accurate color (HDR)
Samsung QN65QN90A 1,622 1,283 2,596 1,597
Hisense 65U8G 1,569 1,500 2,214 2,214
TCL 65R635 (2020) 1,114 792 1,292 1,102
Sony XR65X90J 951 815 945 847
Sony XBR-65X900H (2020) 841 673 989 795
Vizio P65Q9-H1 (2020) 768 629 1,305 1,084
Samsung QN65Q80T (2020) 664 503 1,243 672
LG OLED65G1 377 334 769 763

Vivid is Sony’s brightest standard dynamic range (SDR) setting and as usual it has highly inaccurate color. For an accurate picture with SDR I used the Custom setting with brightness at Max and Peak Brightness turned up to High — it worked, but I’d prefer Sony to have a separate, accurate picture mode for bright rooms, like Vizio with its Calibrated mode.

Unlike previous years the brightest high dynamic range (HDR) mode wasn’t Vivid, instead it was the more-accurate Standard. Since Standard is about 100 nits (roughly 10%) brighter than Custom, it’s a decent choice if you want maximum brightness for HDR but don’t demand the accuracy of Custom.

The Sony’s screen finish was superior to the TCL and Hisense at dimming bright reflections and preserving contrast and black levels, although the difference wasn’t major. I preferred the Sony’s bright-room image to that of the other two in most scenes, although it wasn’t as good overall as Samsung models I’ve tested previously.

Color accuracy: The Sony was solid before calibration, aside from a slight bluish tinge, and afterward was excellent. The Battle of the Five Armies has a muted palette until the very end when Bilbo returns home, and the brilliant greens of the Shire hillside, the blue of the sky and even the colorful yellow, red and blue doors came through beautifully on the X90J. As usual however it didn’t outpace the other sets significantly after adjustment, either with the movie or test patterns.

Video processing: The X90J had no issues delivering proper 1080p/24 cadence with its Motionflow controls in the Off position, which is probably the best for film purists. Meanwhile the Auto setting introduced the buttery smoothness of the soap opera effect. Then there’s the Custom setting, which has adjustable Smoothness and Clearness.

A Smoothness setting above 1 introduces significant SOE, while 0 turns it off. I actually didn’t mind the slight smoothing that the 1 setting introduces (some purists might), but its effect on motion resolution was really slight, so I’d probably stick with 0. The Clearness setting ramps up black frame insertion to improve motion resolution, but it doesn’t have any effect (aside from dimming the image) unless you’ve got Smoothness at 2 or higher. In other words, there’s no way to get the best of both worlds — high motion resolution and no SOE — with one setting.

Sony talks up its cognitive processing but with The Hobbit I found it tough to pick out any advantage the X90J had over the other two TVs. Details looked similar and unless I played with the Reality Creation settings, which added extra processing I didn’t really like, any differences were subtle at best.

Uniformity: Each of the screens was roughly similar at delivering an even image across the entire surface, with no major bright or dark spots, banding or other major issues. From off-angle the X90J was slightly better at maintaining color fidelity than the TCL and about the same as the Hisense, while the Sony’s black level fidelity from off-angle was similar to the others, although it did show less blooming than either one.

Sony X90J

David Katzmaier/CNET

Gaming: Although it lacks the fancy game extras like dedicated modes and status displays found on 2021 models from LG and Samsung, the X90J is still a very good gaming TV. Playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla on Xbox One X, its default 4K HDR image was excellent, with better shadow detail than Hisense and about the same as the TCL — crucial for making out hidden enemies. Highlights and overall brightness were dimmer than the other two but the Sony still had plenty of HDR punch.

With both the PS5 and Xbox Series X, the X90J handled 4K/120 fps input on HDMI 3 and 4. At first that didn’t seem to be the case, however — both consoles indicated that they’d maxed out at 4K/60 when I initially connected them. I surfaced the issue with Sony and was told to make sure the HDMI setting (found at Settings > Channels & Inputs > External Inputs > HDMI signal format) was correct. 

Changing it from Enhanced format (Dolby Vision) — which limits input to 4K/60 — to Enhanced format did the trick; only in the latter setting will the X90J handle 120fps input at 4K. Playing Ori and the Will O Wisps on Series X looked suitably smooth. It’s worth noting that non-Sony TVs delivered 4K/120 automatically in my tests, without me having to adjust those kinds of settings.

The X90J served up low input lag in game mode at around 17 milliseconds for both 1080p and 4K HDR. That’s a couple milliseconds more (worse) than the X900H last year and a couple more off the pace of the least-laggy TVs, if you’re counting, but I doubt even the twitchiest of gamers would notice.

HDR and 4K video: The Sony X90J delivered an excellent HDR image. While it didn’t match the impact of the other two, both of which looked consistently brighter, the Sony was more pleasing with mixed theatrical content and also showed less blooming. Between the three I preferred the TCL in most scenes overall, but the Sony is a close second.

Watching the montage from the Spears and Munsil 4K Blu-ray, for example, bright natural scenes looked very good on all three TVs, but the TCL and especially the Hisense were markedly brighter, an impression confirmed by spot measurements. The setting sun above the lake, for example (2:10) measured 391, 560 and 621 nits on the Sony, TCL and Hisense respectively, a difference that was easily visible. Another obvious difference came with the objects on largely black backgrounds, such as the peacock feather (2:59), where the Sony’s “black” appeared as more of a dark gray around the edges of the feather and the corners of the screen, compared to the deeper black of the other two, especially the TCL. 

To its credit the Sony hewed closer to the target EOTF than the Hisense, which showed some brighter shadows among the buildings and a flatter, less-natural look on the crocodile, for example, but the difference wasn’t drastic. The Sony’s HDR color also looked very good, despite its smaller gamut measurements. The flowers and butterflies appeared lush and well-saturated, better than the TCL and about the same as the Hisense. 

When I switched back to the 4K HDR Blu-ray of Five Armies, the Sony came into its own. Highlights and brighter scenes were still dimmer than the others but in mixed dark scenes, like Dol Guldur in Chapter 9, the X90J maintained darker letterbox bars than the other two, in particular the Hisense, for a more theatrical look. Between the three the TCL looked best, striking the most pleasing balance between brightness and black level for the most consistent contrast, but the Sony was very close.

The Sony’s letterbox bars also betrayed less blooming, or stray illumination, then either of the others, with the ultrabright Hisense again the worst offender. Comparing colors in the film, from the raging red of Sauron’s flames to the gentle hillside of the Shire, the Sony and Hisense looked the most pleasing once again, with the TCL just a step less-saturated. 

Sony X90J

David Katzmaier/CNET

Sony X90J picture settings, HDR notes and charts

CNET is no longer publishing advanced picture settings for any TVs we review. Instead, we’ll give more general recommendations to get the best picture without listing the detailed white balance or color management system (CMS) settings we may have used to calibrate the TV. As always, the settings provided are a guidepost, and if you want the most accurate picture you should get a professional calibration.

Prior to calibration, the Cinema, IMAX Enhanced and Custom settings were the most accurate on the X90J, with the slight edge to Custom for its more linear gamma. All three modes showed somewhat bluish color temperature and higher brightness than my dim-room target. After adjusting brightness to hit my 137-nit target, the basic two-point color temperature controls worked superbly to calibrate the blue cast away, to the extent that I didn’t need to touch the available 10-point system at all. Primary and secondary color accuracy was a similar story: accurate enough that I didn’t even miss the Sony’s lack of a CMS.

Dark room settings

Display & Sound, Picture menu

— Basic sub-menu

  • Picture mode: Custom
  • Auto picture mode: Off
  • Light sensor: Off

— Brightness sub-menu

  • Brightness: 5
  • Contrast: 90
  • Gamma: -1
  • HDR tone mapping: Off [grayed out for SDR]
  • Black level: 50
  • Black adjust: Off
  • Adv. contrast enhancer: Off
  • Auto local dimming: Medium
  • Peak luminance: Off

— Color sub-menu

  • Color: 50
  • Hue: 0
  • Color temperature: Expert 1
  • Live Color: Off

— Clarity sub-menu

  • Sharpness: 20
  • Reality Creation: Off
  • Random noise reduction: Off
  • Digital noise reduction: Off
  • Smooth gradation: Low

— Motion sub-menu

  • Motionflow: Off
  • CineMotion: High

— Video signal sub-menu

  • HDR mode: Auto
  • HDMI video range: Auto
  • Color space: Auto

— Adv. color adjustment sub-menu

  • HDR mode: Auto
  • HDMI video range: Auto
  • Color space: Auto

Bright room settings

— Brightness sub-menu:

  • Brightness: Max [or to taste]
  • Peak luminance: High

[no other changes from above]

HDR notes: Custom delivered the most accurate image for HDR, tracking the target EOTF slightly better than Cinema or IMAX Enhanced and much better than any of the other modes. Among the three HDR Tone Mapping settings (Off, Gradation Preferred and Brightness Preferred), Off followed the EOTF closest but the Cinema default, Gradation, was also quite close. Color gamut measured relatively low at 87% of P3 while secondary color measurements were both very good.

Geek Box

Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.004 Good
Peak white luminance (SDR) 951 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.25 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 0.76 Good
Dark gray error (30%) 0.78 Good
Bright gray error (80%) 0.34 Good
Avg. color checker error 2.00 Good
Avg. saturation sweeps error 1.54 Good
Avg. color error 1.72 Good
Red error 1.17 Good
Green error 1.89 Good
Blue error 2.87 Good
Cyan error 1.52 Good
Magenta error 1.09 Good
Yellow error 1.76 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 1200 Good
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 400 Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 13.8 Good
Black luminance (0%) 0.004 Good
Peak white luminance (10% win) 945 Average
Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976) 86.71 Poor
ColorMatch HDR error 2.72 Good
Avg. color checker error 1.67 Good
Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR) 13.5 Good

Sony X90J CNET review calibration results by David Katzmaier on Scribd

Portrait Displays Calman calibration software was used in this review.