It's astonishing how DLP - now the dominant force in video projectors - is revitalising the rear-projection TV market. Only a short time ago, anything other than a flatpanel display - be it plasma or LCD - looked to have no future on the high street.
But the benefits of a DLP light engine - combining high picture resolution, relatively low unit price and small cabinet size - have enabled rear-pro TVs to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.
Thomson, both in Europe and under its RCA brand in America, has been a huge supporter of these microdevice displays. Indeed, it's already up to a second-generation set, with this, the 50DSZ645.
Aesthetically, it's in a different class to its predecessor, and to the vast majority of its rivals, come to that. The combination of matt grey and glossy black on the fascia is gorgeous enough in itself. But add the extravagant slenderness of the speakers and you've got one of the most gorgeous rear-pros available.
It's not just the speakers that are slim, though. Somehow Thomson has kept the unit just 174mm deep. The company even suggests that you could fit the 50DSZ645 to the wall with its ACCSDLP01 optional bracket - but having nearly given myself a hernia moving the thing around my viewing room, I'd beg to differ...
The 50DSZ645 has excellent connectivity. As evidence of its higher-definition aspirations, there's a DVI jack equipped with the necessary HDCP protocols for receiving Sky's high-definition broadcasts.
For analogue HDTV and progressive scan DVD, meanwhile, there's a set of component video inputs, while more run-of-the-mill options include a trio of Scarts (two RGB enabled), and the usual front-facing AV inputs. The only thing missing is a D-Sub PC connection.
The 50DSZ645's onscreen menus will lead you to some interesting features. In the Picture menu, there's an option to switch the DVI jack between PC and video mode (make sure you don't forget to set it to video for movies!); a contrast booster; a film mode for improving the appearance of motion; picture-in-picture facilities; and unusually for a rear-pro set, the option to adjust the lamp output for a more dynamic picture.
Audio is well catered for, too, with both Pro-Logic II and SRS TruSurround XT processing provided to boost the basic Nicam system's cinematic impact. You can even adjust the clarity of dialogue with the SRS system.
There's something else important working in a behind-the-scenes capacity, too: Hi-Pix HDTV. This is a high-def-friendly update of Thomson's old Hi-Pix system, which analyses incoming pictures and calculates extra pixels of detail, and doubles the sampling of the red and blue elements of the YUV colour system during its digitalisation process to, hopefully, deliver brighter, sharper colours.
Flipside of the coin
The 50DSZ645's pictures don't jump out at you like they do with rival rear-pro sets. Some murky scenes can thus look a little bit flat. Furthermore, bright segments of a picture are occasionally accompanied by an off-putting ghostly aura. I also noticed that there can be quite a bit of aliasing around especially contrasty edges.
But, by reining in the brightness, Thomson has done a cracking job of suppressing the noise that can plague DLP technology. Particularly noteworthy is the almost complete absence of dotty green noise over dark picture areas. And I was also struck by how little rainbow effect I spotted, along with the almost total removal of DLP's traditional fizzing over horizontal motion. The result is a very cinematic, natural picture.
Best of all, I detected practically none of the tendency to stress noise when viewing via the DVI input witnessed on a few recent DLP and LCD TVs.
The controlled brightness also helps the set produce profound black levels. Dark scenes suffer no residual 'glow' or greyness, and there's plenty of background detail and subtle colour gradations to give them integrity.
The set uses an HD2 high contrast DLP chipset with a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels. Consequently, fine detail levels are acute too. I wouldn't go so far as to say that I can particularly see where Hi-Pix processing kicks in, but the screen certainly makes the most of whatever detail there is in the source.
Finally, colours are pleasingly saturated. The screen is not over-vibrant, but there's enough picture control to get a good tone to the image. What's particularly good about these positive comments is that they largely hold true for all video sources. Naturally, high-def/ digital inputs look the best. But even tuner pictures are never less than extremely watchable.
The 50DSZ645's audio performance is a solid match for the larger than life pictures. The virtual Dolby surround sound system is more than suitable for general viewing, and its mid-bass performance is plentiful and smooth. It's worth noting though, that the unit's onboard cooling fan can be heard during the quiet passages of a movie.
The 50DSZ645 is a desirable addition to the DLP rear-pro scene. Visually, it can match the clarity (if not the brightness) of plasmas costing considerably more, yet looks stylish and is free from screenburn.
Its unusual low-brightness approach won't suit everyone - especially if you watch TV in a brightly lit room. But as a serious home cinema display, it knows what makes a good movie picture tick. And significantly, it doesn't penalise you if you watch more Freeview than HD. Overall, a great alternative to a plasma.