With Pioneer bowing out of the high-end TV market, could it be Loewe's turn to fill the premium space left behind? Well, the German brand's latest slimmed-down LCD set, the Art 42 SL, is certainly a step in the right direction.
The Art 42 SL is bang up to date technology-wise, and can be accompanied by luxuries like an internal hard drive recorder and an all-aluminium 5.1 sound system.
And with those sleek lines – this is Loewe's thinnest telly yet, with a 90mm depth – it might just have the X factor needed to claim that difficult high ground.
The Loewe system, as assembled here, flaunts a price tag that could push an Icelandic bank over the edge, but it can be broken down to more manageable components if you prefer. The new Art TV is available on its own, and without the HDD recorder or stand, for £2,345.
The Individual Sound package can be purchased separately and even bundled with one of Loewe's Individual TVs as originally intended. The fabulous aluminium stand certainly adds panache to the overall look, but it also bumps up the price by £440.
You can even specify what kind of tuner and hard drive modules you'd like slotted into the panel – an HDTV tuner perhaps, with a 250GB hard drive? No problem: Loewe likes to think of its TVs as luxury cars and nothing is impossible when it comes to the optional extras. At times, this is baffling, but the proposition is nothing if not versatile.
So how well does this good-looking system come together? Has it been assembled using unremarkable components? Is it ultimately a question of style over substance? Well, when it comes to the screen, it's safe to say that Loewe isn't simply dressing up a budget off-the-shelf LCD panel in fancy togs.
Part-owned by Sharp, the LCD panel used here is almost certainly sourced from the Japanese brand. It's a decent looking 1080p screen with a 100Hz refresh rate, 24p compatibility and Loewe's own picture-enhancing video processing inside.
The set comes with a basic Freeview tuner as standard. Another module contains the DR+ hard drive that enables the TV to perform tricks like pausing live TV and recording up to 200 hours of video.
Other functionality includes USB sockets and a photo-sensing cell that can measure the ambient light, and dim the screen accordingly to save energy.
Connectivity includes three HDMI inputs, component, RGB Scart and a common interface slot.
Of course, it also looks nice and fancy. A lustrous high gloss black finish is one option, but in my opinion the all-chrome version pictured here is a little bit more striking.
The TV at the heart of this system is a rather mixed bag. Subjectively it achieves a generally high standard with both standard-def and Full HD images, but our Tech labs team were less impressed with its objective performance.
To access its hi-def credentials, I used a Panasonic DMP-BD35 player as a source, but the company does make its own BluTech machine if you wanted to keep to all-Loewe badges.
I ran a variety of material, from X-Men: The Last Stand through to Twilight on BD. I noted a wide colour range with vivid reds and suitably natural fleshtones.
Loewe has included some very active video processing, similar in many ways to Philips' Pixel Plus system, to spice-up the picture even further. But with Blu-ray, the Fine Quality Improvement, as it's labelled here, is quite unnecessary – I found it gave Twilight an unrealistic halo of distortion around the edges of solid objects.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Art 42 SL really comes into its own with standard-definition images, particularly from the DVB tuner. Shop demos tend to feature HD material to hook you in the store and then disappoint when they look soft and smeary with regular TV back home, so Loewe has concentrated on smartening up standard-def by enhancing the sharpness and removing motion blur with its DMM processing.
You can turn the effect up by degrees to find the optimum balance between naturally soft images and artificially sharpened ones and your hours of tweaking the picture will be automatically saved for that input the next time you switch the TV on. It all means that this set looks a lot better in regular TV mode than many of its Full HD rivals.
To be honest, the Art 42 SL user interface takes a little getting used to, but persist and it comes good. It's a matter of moving the cursor horizontally and vertically along a pair of axes to navigate the menu. At least the remote is made of weighty metal.
Loewe has also added a few user-friendly features that other manufacturers have overlooked. You can set up your favourite channel list to include other sources for instance. So while channel one might be BBC1 on Freeview, channel five could be your Xbox 360, or a satellite channel.
However, one area where Loewe's TV does fall short – particularly in regards to the Pioneer Kuros – is in calibration. With no individual colour management tweaks, our Tech Labs were unable to achieve anything sufficiently close to a 6,500K colour temperature. I suspect this means that some dedicated cinephiles will immediately cross if off their audition list.
Full Metal Jacket
Matching the Art 42 SL for style is the world's first aluminium subwoofer. The Highline sub is brand-new, and buried beneath the metallic surface is a potent digital multichannel amplifier that drives not just the woofer, but all five of the satellite speakers as well.
This means that the only other component you need is an audio processor, which could be as simple as a module that slots into the TV. Loewe didn't have one available for this test, so I used the brand's Auro DVD 'preceiver' to process sound externally.
Given the mix and match nature of the components, the system gels seamlessly together. There's just one Loewe remote control, which operates the TV and audio system on the same onscreen menu. In fact, the same remote also controlled my Panasonic BD35 without any programming.
You just hold down the 'TV' button for a few seconds to make the remote operate the Blu-ray player's deeper controls, or hold it down again to gain access to the TV's more advanced controls again. There's really no need for a more sophisticated universal remote.
The Highline sub then connects to the four Individual speakers to complete the cinema setup. The two towers at the front and bookshelf speakers at the back match the TVs own internal speakers tonally. Four speakers? Isn't this a 5.1 rig? Kinda: you'll need to tell the Art 42 to act as a centre speaker in the menu.
The slinky aluminium cabinets look very smart in brushed metal with their interchangeable coloured trim and grills, but they don't at first sight look as though they're built for big cinema thrills. But hold on: this is no case of mere style over substance. The single metal extrusions that make each speaker are so rigid that they provide enough stability for the drive units to generate a remarkably large sound.
What they can't manage is the deep room-filling bass that big wooden boxes are good at, but that's where the Highline subwoofer steps in again. Technically, the Individual speakers can manage a wide dynamic range, but the system works better set at a high crossover with the sub taking care of the bass.
The clarity of the Individual package is what I noticed first. It revealed all of the fine detail in Twilight's soundtrack without ever sounding tinny and directional. The dialogue from the TV's speakers isn't a perfect match; if you really want a coherent front soundstage, you'll need to pick-up a dedicated Individual centre speaker as well. The subwoofer does its part, but overall, it's more about crunchy mid-bass than warm, bassy depth.
The Auro preceiver is perhaps the weakest link in the chain. The in-built DVD player is woefully inadequate with no video upscaler, or even an HDMI output to send the signal to the screen – I had to use the component input instead. In this day and age, when you can buy an upscaling HDMI-equipped DVD player for £50 or less, that's pretty galling.
You really should try and keep everything in the digital domain to maximise picture potential. In an ideal world, the Loewe would be offering the faithful a Profile 2.0 Blu-ray player. But it isn't.
I get the impression that Loewe is trying to strike a balance between design-led European brands like Bang and Olufsen and the performance-led ethos of Pioneer, and, to an extent, it's on the right track.
The Art panel TV has an eye-catching form factor, and the ability to spec a built-in HDD recorder and DVB-S tuner increases its appeal, too. Yet picture performance struggles to match its high-end rivals, and the brand's current video components are inadequate. Still, the brand is clearly cutting a dash.