In many ways, German brand Loewe has helped define the cutting edge when it comes to TV screen technology. As well as offering some of the highest performance standards around, the brand has innovated functionality, allowing its customers to retroactively upgrade their sets with new modules.
Yet somehow, it's never managed to get its head round the demands of the UK's digital broadcasting system. Until now... That's because its 42in Loewe plasma TV, the Xelos A 42, is equipped with an integrated Freeview digital receiver. You can, incidentally, get a non-digital version of the A42 for £100 less than the digital one - but it's this digital effort which captures the imagination.
Welcome to the future
The design Loewe's chosen for its digital debut is wonderfully futuristic, with a bold, circular IR receiver and the arcing lines for the speaker grilles. I'd strongly recommend would-be owners to negotiate for the optional 'Rack' floorstand option, since it, too, is drop-dead gorgeous - as well as letting you rotate the screen on it.
Connectivity is mostly on the money. A HDMI jack means the A42 is primed for Sky's high-definition broadcasts. But there are also component jacks for analogue high-definition and progressive scan sources, a standard PC input, plus two Scarts and the usual lower-quality fall-backs. I couldn't help but wish for just one more Scart, though.
One final connection worth a mention is a Common Interface slot, which you can use for adding functionality to the TV - such as, for instance, the Top Up TV subscription service.
Features on the Xelos A 42 may leave you disappointed. For starters, unlike practically every other large Loewe TV, the A 42 can't be fitted with any of the feature upgrade modules mentioned earlier (except for a largely pointless - in the UK - digital satellite one). Then there's the fact that the A 42's digital TV system can't handle MHEG5, and so doesn't offer the full level of interactivity found with most rival IDTVs.
Even worse, it transpires that the set can't handle Freeview's seven-day EPG system. Apparently, these digital shortcomings should be addressed by a chassis changeover in July - but frankly I think Loewe might have been better served waiting until that chassis was available before launching any IDTVs at all...
On a more upbeat note, the Now/Next EPG available is beautifully presented, keeping a small picture running to the left hand side, and making full use of the 42in of screen size available in the presentation of the channel information. The set also gives you sophisticated genre searching, and allows you to set timer recordings.
Other general features worth noting include a 'Movie Mode' for improving how movement appears with certain sources, and a Digital Refresh Mode for countering any potential screen burn.
The A 42's operating system, while interesting, is flawed. An all-new onscreen menu system, which employs intriguingly horizontal and vertical axes, looks great and feels slick - but soon had me wishing that I could access its features more directly. The remote control, meanwhile, tragically relies on an abysmally fiddly joystick navigator. But life is made easier by an inspired, interactive onscreen manual.
In use, the A 42 is also a mixed bag. The Alis panel performs reasonably well with both digital tuner pictures and sources fed via the RGB Scart. It keeps noise down giving them a clean, direct, instant appeal. We found colours are radiant too being both well-saturated and tightly contained.
Fine detail performance is also pretty impressive - although there is a slightly waxy look to skin tones; I suspect that this panel would have benefited from some advanced signal processing. It's also pleasing to note that there's little colour banding; the Xelos A 42 clearly eking plenty of gradation even in dark areas.
Unusually though, the A 42 begins to struggle when you step up to higher quality sources. High-definition, progressive scan and HDMI feeds confirm the screen's fine detail talents but they also, for instance, emphasise slight shortcomings in the A 42's black level, which mean that dark movie scenes occasionally have to be squinted at through some of the classic grey murk that characterises black level problems.
Dark scenes also look rather hollow, and emphasise a slightly unnatural colour tone which leaves skin tones, shadows and even some peak whites tinged with a greenish/purpley hue.
Premium grade footage also confirms that the A 42 fails to completely avoid the common plasma problems of grey and green dot crawl over dark areas, and fizzing noise over horizontal motion.
A final niggle is that the A 42 seemed susceptible to screen burn. The Digital Refresh Mode generally sorted this out but had to be used alarmingly often unless you turn the contrast down. Sonically, the A 42 is more consistent.
As usual with Loewe, there's a fair amount of power to help the speakers serve up a dynamic performance. There's a touch less finesse and detail than with Loewe's higher end Spheros TVs, but it still pushes more buttons than many rivals.
Despite Loewe's recent track record, this debut IDTV is something of a disappointment. Sure, it looks stunning, sounds great, and at times gets its pictures just right. But inconsistencies with higher quality sources and several key digital TV shortcomings can't be ignored, especially given it's premium price point.
Perhaps we'll need to re-evaluate the screen when the chassis is updated later this year, but until then, this is one Loewe screen to pass by.