It’s no secret that Sony – as any other major tech manufacturer – depends on the effectiveness of the “halo effect” in order to maximize sales: the company offers many different product lines per category every year but focuses on delivering the highest possible quality with its most expensive models, in the hopes that consumers who can’t afford those will choose something out of Sony’s more affordable lines. Why? Because consumers are subtly but routinely led to believe that their less expensive choice shares at least some of that top-level quality with those flagship models.
It’s a strategy that obviously works, but – in reality – there can be a huge gap in performance or value between the best Sony products in any given category and the ones the majority of consumers can afford. This is most definitely the case with modern TVs, where Sony is offering spectacular models going for “Best of the Year” awards, as well as models well below the $1000/€1000 threshold (where picture quality expectations should be kept to a minimum).
When it comes to affordable Bravia TVs, then, it’s all about picking out which ones retain as much of Sony’s signature picture quality as possible – Sony’s “DNA”, so to speak – for the asking price. The X85L has its work cut out for it, then: it is the very definition of a midrange, mainstream Bravia TV, sitting just under the very well-reviewed X90L (Sony’s most affordable model offering the company’s latest image processing system and features). So how much of that top-shelf picture quality can this particular model really deliver at its asking price? After spending about a month with the 55-inch model, yours truly can offer a few answers in this Sony Bravia X85L review.
Bravia X85L design, ports, sound: passable at best
Sony’s midrange TV sets usually look spartan but elegant enough and the X85K is no exception: there may not be any one feature standing out when looking at it, but its relatively thin bezels and clean lines make for a TV that will look nice in any room despite its generic design. Although it’s using a lot of plastic – this is a mainstream TV set after all – the X85L is solidly built and its sturdy frame is supported by heavy metal feet that can be placed on either side of its lower part or in the middle of it (allowing for placement on furniture that’s not particularly wide). When placed on either side of the X85L’s screen, these metal feet provide enough room for a soundbar between them – always a welcome option to have.
Speaking of soundbars, prospective owners of an X85L should probably consider buying one at some point because this TV’s built-in sound is rather inadequate. Simply put, every aspect of the sound offered by the X85L leaves something to be desired: dialogue is clear but lacks texture, bass is strong but lacks detail, effects are fast-moving and accurate but rather flat. Audio is delivered distortion-free, for the most part, but directionality is severely limited (which does not help the X85L’s case when it comes to Dolby Atmos content). Being a midrange model, the X85L does not employ even a single one of Sony’s advanced audio technologies reserved for its high-end models (such as Acoustic Multi-Audio), so what consumers get is basically the kind of typical, mediocre sound most TVs deliver nowadays.
Taking a look at the back of an X85L tells pretty much the same story: what’s there will probably meet the needs of the crowd this TV model is intended for, but that’s about it. There’s an Ethernet port for wired connectivity (still limited to around 75-80 Mbps in practice), two USB ports (useful for multimedia file playback from external storage but not much else) along with a composite video input and an optical audio-out port… for some reason. Τhe X85L offers faster wireless connectivity than wired (Wi-Fi AC), plus Bluetooth 4.2 for a variety of possible uses. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing essential missing either.
Οne area of connectivity where every new Bravia model has been rather limited over the last few years relates to HDMI: most recent Sony TVs offer four such ports, but only two of them are of the 2.1 variety. What’s more, one of those two ports happens to be the eARC port: this means that consumers interested in using a good soundbar with this TV will be able to connect just one modern gaming system e.g. a PlayStation5, Xbox Series S/X or hi-end PC and use to its fullest.
This is such a commented-upon issue that there really is no point discussing it yet again. In the case of the X85L, though, it’s not that much of a deal: mainstream consumers are far less likely to need more than one HDMI 2.1 source and an eARC soundbar connected to this TV, all at the same time (it’s different with Sony flagship models for obvious reasons). Current workarounds, for those that truly need one, include a soundbar equipped with HDMI 2.1 inputs, an HDMI 2.1-equipped receiver or even an HDMI 2.1 splitter: all of those will add at least two such ports. It’s not what anyone would consider a deal-breaker for the X85L specifically, but something to keep in mind.
Bravia X85L picture quality: you win some, you lose some
It’s fair to say that, when it comes to mainstream Bravias such as the X85L, picture quality is most probably not the decisive factor in the eyes of consumers just looking for a great all-around TV. But this is still a Sony product – one that costs more than competitive mid-range models from other manufacturers – and the company does take pride in its picture processing tradition regardless of model. So where does the X85L stand in terms of picture quality overall?
For an LED/LCD TV featuring full-array local dimming one would have to say that the X85L delivers, but… barely. See, the number of local dimming zones employed by TVs like this greatly affects the way content is handled and the 55-inch model on review here features just 24 of those zones. While they are enough to boost contrast compared to e.g. edge-lit LED/LCD models, they are way too few for tight light control (there is a reason why top TVs of this kind cost four of five times as much as an X85L). As a result, blooming and haloing around bright objects on dark backgrounds – as well as clouding and unevenness of color in other circumstances – are all evident during testing, especially in difficult patterns or challenging material. It’s not as evident or problematic in real-world, everyday content – shows, movies, sports or games – but casual viewers may notice such issues from time to time and experienced ones definitely will.
It’s true that the majority of consumers the Bravia X85L is designed for will probably not mind: this is, after all, a fairly bright TV set offering high contrast, decent blacks and acceptable color accuracy for its price range. Motion is handled very well, while upscaling low-resolution material and cleaning up low-bitrate content is really effective, resulting in a balanced, pleasing 4K picture. The X85L does enough things right that, in practice, the less-than-perfect image often displayed on screen will only bother people who know what flaws to look for in an LED/LCD TV (and those people shouldn’t be considering the X85L anyway).
The X85L’s screen is of the VA variety, so viewing angles are not great – image quality degrades as viewers sit further from the “sweet spot” right in front of the TV – but they remain reasonably wide for most spaces. The X85L does a good enough job at handling reflections, too, especially in bright environments (in dark ones it’s best not to have strong light sources hitting directly at the screen though).
The very fact that the X85L is not based on the company’s latest Cognitive Processor XR is a testament to Sony’s legendary dimming zone algorithm and picture processing overall. This TV set features the company’s previous – ageing by today’s standards – image processor, the X1 4K, and it still manages to look nice, better than most of its directly competitive models from other manufacturers do (despite employing such a low number of dimming zones). If Sony’s last-gen processor does a better job than the current-gen ones employed by others, is it any wonder that the company feels so confident when it comes to TV picture quality?
Still, no amount of algorithmic magic can change the fact that 24 local dimming zones are just too few to help any LED/LCD TV overcome the inherent limitations of the display tech it’s built around. Prospective owners of an X85L can expect a bright Sony television that offers good enough colors and high enough contrast under favorable circumstances (as well as superior upscaling and tight motion control), but also one that’s not able to display a high-quality picture every every circumstance. The key issue here is consistency: sometimes the image displayed on an X85L screen will be great, other times it just won’t – so it’s up to each individual consumer to decide whether he/she’s OK with that or not.
Bravia X85L operating system, apps, gaming, extras: no surprises
While the X85L leaves a lot to be desired in the eyes of consumers who care about picture quality, it’s still a TV set that’s easy to live with. It’s based on the operating system all modern Bravia models are built around, Google TV (just Android TV with a refreshed user interface on top), which runs well on the X85L. It’s fast, responsive, high-resolution and customizable enough – just a pleasant TV OS to interact with on a daily basis. Google TV currently offers the widest possible selection of apps, too: not only are all the basics covered, but also a number of niche services, which is not a claim competing TV operating systems can easily make.
Extended functionality offered by the X85L includes Google Assistant and Google Chromecast support, plus Apple AirPlay and Apple HomeKit support, all of which can come in handy depending on various use cases. Although not really promoted as a gaming TV, the X85L does offer the new Sony Game Menu, as well as support for most game-centric features – such as VRR, 4K/120, ALLM – and seamless integration with the PlayStation5’s Auto HDR Tone Mapping and Auto Genre Picture Mode functions. Picture quality in Game Mode is not the best – it’s quite difficult for even top LED/LCD TVs to make VRR and full array local dimming work without issues, let alone mid-range ones – but it’s good enough for casual players.
The X85L is also compatible with the Bravia Cam, Sony’s custom-designed webcam (it’s connected to this TV via USB rather than through a special port). The company offers several functions for it, ranging from picture/sound optimization based on the room an X85L is placed in, to viewers’ presence detection, to gesture controls, to video chat. Despite its clear potential, though, in terms of performance the Bravia Cam currently leaves a lot to be desired – so it’s not exactly a necessary purchase, even by accessory standards.
Bravia X85L: not enough of a Sony TV to recommend
So, back to the question asked in the opening of this review: how much of that “Sony DNA” does the Bravia X85L retain, given the number of compromises made? The answer is just enough to deserve its Sony branding as a consumer product overall, but not enough to justify its Sony pricing in terms of picture quality. See, the company’s TV sets always cost a bit more – or a lot more… – compared to competitive models from other manufacturers and, well, sometimes Sony can’t get away with it that easily. The recommended retail price of the X85L at 55 inches is set at around $1200/€1400 (depending on the region), which is just too much money to spend on a TV of this size and this level of picture quality nowadays. It is as simple as that.
Sony is right to point out that the X85L is a better TV than its predecessor, last year’s X85K – full array local dimming and higher brightness are enough for that all by themselves – but that’s not saying much when mainstream consumers have a number of quality choices offered by other manufacturers within the same $1000-$1300 price range (plus a few comparable ones that go for much less). Even Sony itself offers an OLED TV (!) at the same diagonal for around the same amount of money on sale, which speaks volumes. The X85L itself can be found on sale too, obviously, but the discount in question would have to be pretty substantial for this particular Bravia model to make sense.
So the Bravia X85L is a good enough all-around TV for the crowd it’s meant to appeal to – the assumption being that picture quality is not a priority for that particular crowd – but it can only be recommended as a purchase if heavily discounted. Sony fans looking for the company’s best mid-range 2023 TV in terms of value should skip the X85L and go straight for the X90L: it costs a bit more at the same diagonal, but it sports the latest Bravia XR image processor, more than double the amount of local dimming zones and better sound. The X90L is also on sale quite often, so it’s definitely worth looking out for such discounts over the next few weeks or months instead of going for the X85L.
But here’s the thing: when a review of a specific TV model basically works as an ad for another TV model from the same manufacturer, there’s clearly something wrong with the former’s market positioning in the first place. It’s almost as if the Bravia X85L was created so that Sony can claim to offer an affordable FALD-equipped LED/LCD TV in 2023, while hoping that nobody will touch on how pointless it is to do that in an inadequate manner.
Needless to say, the company will have to re-evaluate its pricing strategy when it comes to its mid-range TVs in 2024: there’s just no point in offering a Bravia model “just under” its best mainstream one, if their difference in value is much greater than their difference in cost, now is there?
SONY BRAVIA X85L SCORECARD
TO THE POINT
Good enough for many use cases of interest to mainstream consumers, but the Sony X85L faces stiff competition by better and even more affordable TV sets in its price range. Only recommended if heavily discounted.
Very good motion handling
Effective processing of low-bitrate content
Many game-centric features
Fast operating system
Wide selection of apps
Too low a number of dimming zones…
…so haloing, clouding, blooming etc.
Narrow viewing angles
Only two HDMI 2.1 ports
Expensive for what it is