Yes, You Want a 4K TV (Or at Least I Do)

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Harry McCracken /

A wholly inadequate smartphone photo of Sony's new 4K TV (trust me -- in my in-person demo, those musicians looked real)

When I attended the CEATAC consumer-electronics conference in Tokyo last October, my favorite bleeding-edge technology was ultra-super-high-resolution TV — sets with displays that are 4,000 or even 8,000 pixels across in pixel resolution. Almost a year later, these HDTVs haven’t reached my living room or yours, and it’s possible that it’ll be many years before they do.

But Sony’s first 4K TV, which it announced this week at the IFA conference in Berlin, has made its way into the Sony Store at the Stanford Shopping Center in Silicon Valley. Sony held a media event at the store this morning to show off the set and other new products, and I cheerfully admit that I found the TV demo enthralling.

The TV is the Bravia XBR-84X900, and it’s an 84″ LED set with simulated 5.1 surround sound. There’s no broadcast 4K content or 4K Blu-ray yet, so the store was showing a loop of sample video played off a PC. It was spectacular — far more real-looking than any 3D I’ve ever seen.

Sony didn’t show us any 1080p video — which we may need to start calling “low-def high-def” someday — but the company says that it also looks great on the set, which uses Sony chips to upscale everything to cover all those additional pixels. (I sure hope that it looks better than standard-def video looks on today’s HDTVs.)

Now, there’s no consensus yet that 4K makes sense in the home. In January, home-theater journalist Geoffrey Morrison, who knows far more about this stuff than I do, argued at length that the human eye can’t see the difference between 4K and garden-variety 1080p video, especially when shown on TVs in the sizes that are typical for in-home use. (The new 84″ Sony is the company’s largest set ever, although it didn’t look all that vast at the Sony Store — the place is sprawling, and the TV had a large quantity of wall real estate to itself.)

Morrison summed up at-home 4K in one word: “stupid.” He did concede that it’s helpful for 3D TV that uses passive glasses, since that technology effectively halves the pixel resolution and therefore needs all the pixels it can get — the Bravia also does passive 3D, but Sony didn’t show it to us today.

I bow to Morrison’s expertise. I understand that sample video created to make a TV look good, such as the loop Sony is using, can be deceptively impressive. And I know that it’s pointless to get too excited about 4K until there’s lots of content and affordable devices capable of delivering it to a 4K TV. (Some content is being shot in 4K already, including a Taylor Swift music video that’s premiering tonight.)

Ultimately, though, I care most about what my own eyeballs tell me. They’re still excited about 4K, and Sony’s demo only got them more riled up about it.

Sony says that the XBR-84X900 will ship by the end of this year. It hasn’t disclosed the price yet; it plans to do so at next week’s CEDIA Expo, a conference attended by high-end electronics installers who specialize in catering to the needs of the sort of well-heeled home-entertainment nuts who might plausibly consider buying an 84″ 4K TV in the near future.