When Philips debuted its new ClearLCD technology on the 42PF9831D, it made one heck of an impression. Designed expressly to tackle two of LCD's key weaknesses, black levels and motion handling, it did pretty much exactly as promised. And now it's here again, in the smaller and much more affordable form of the 32PF9731D.
In case you missed the 42PF9831D review, let's quickly recap on exactly what ClearLCD involves. For boosting black levels, the TV uses new hot cathode fluorescent lamps (HCFLs) as a backlight system, and these can have their light output reduced by up to 30 per cent more for dark scenes than a normal LCD backlight.
This has the potential to reduce drastically the residual black level greyness that can often occur in the LCD world.
As for motion handling, there are two different processes involved: Overdrive Control and Dimmable Scanning Backlight (DSB).
OC simply boosts the voltage applied to the liquid crystal array to speed up its reaction time, while DSB drives the HCFLs in a way that mimics the scanning effect of a CRT TV, meaning that instead of all pixels receiving the same amount of light at the same time and for the same duration, pixels can be lit progressively and for shorter durations. This should tackle the 'sample and hold' effect responsible for many LCD motion problems.
Oddly the DSB element doesn't work with high-definition sources, but then experience suggests that HD footage tends not to suffer so badly with motion artefacting as standard definition anyway.
While the 32PF9731D is much cheaper than the first ClearLCD TV we've seen, it's still hardly cheap by 32in LCD standards. So it's a relief to find that ClearLCD is far from the TV's only innovative feature.
As soon as you switch the TV on, for instance, coloured light radiates from its rear sides, revealing the presence of Philips' Ambilight technology. This can make viewing more relaxing (honestly, it really can) by using built-in fluorescent tubes to emit a light sympathetic to the colour content of the picture you're watching.
Also critical to this TV is Pixel Plus 3HD. This is the latest take on Philips' long-admired Pixel Plus image processing system, with its main innovations being the introduction of more sophisticated noise reduction techniques and a more 'intelligent' monitoring approach, which assesses the image content and reduces processing where it detects it's not needed.
Connectivity is remarkably extensive. Twin HDMIs lead the way, joined by component video inputs, Scarts and the usual S-video/composite video fallbacks.
But that's just the start, as our eye also falls on a D-Sub PC input, digital audio input and outputs, a CAM slot for adding subscription TV services (showing the TV sports a digital tuner), a multiformat memory card reader, USB socket, and even an Ethernet port so you can access photos, music and movies stored on your computer. 'PC convergence' support of this magnitude is currently unique to Philips.
Settling down to watch the 32PF9731D, as per other Pixel Plus TVs, the first aspect you notice is the picture's unusal sharpness, especially, you may be surprised to hear, with standard definition (SD).
We don't mean that Pixel Plus 3HD miraculously makes SD sharper than high definition, but that compared with the generally rather soft and fuzzy SD performances all too common on rival LCD TVs, the set's sharp, textured SD efforts are a revelation.
Even better, this extra crispness is achieved without the picture looking noisy or harsh, as could be the case with previous Pixel Plus generations. In other words, the noise reduction elements of the latest system finally seriously address the main concerns of the Pixel Plus naysayers.
SD footage also provides a fi ne demonstration of the motion handling talents of ClearLCD, with horizontal motion smearing noticeably lessened with the feature activated. On the downside, ClearLCD seems to cause the picture to look ever so slightly softer.
Moving over to HD playback, the 32PF9731D reaps the benefits of Pixel Plus 3HD's more sensitive approach, as good HD sources are now left to 'speak for themselves', rather than being heavily processed even when such processing isn't always necessary.
The result is that HD pictures, while still outstandingly sharp, also look noticeably less noisy than on Pixel Plus 2HD sets.
Searching for further advantages of ClearLCD uncovers black levels that are among the best the 32in LCD TV world has to offer. We're not talking about anything truly revolutionary, perhaps, but good enough to raise hopes for future ClearLCD generations.
Bright, colourful scenes on the 32PF9731D, meanwhile, enjoy extreme impact thanks to almost viscerally dynamic colour saturations; an unusually varied palette; and acute subtlety when it comes to blends and tones.
The net result of all the strengths above is that pictures frequently look nothing short of spectacular, with high-definition and (good) standard-definition sources alike. Provided, of course, that you've got it set up correctly.
For instance, if you don't tone down the contrast from its absurdly high factory preset, the picture highlights MPEG noise, even from HD sources. You also need to take care with the level of noise reduction (MPEG and standard) you use, and handle the TV's Digital Natural Motion processing with kid gloves, for it can actually tend to make the picture look anything but natural in our opinion.
Crucially, though, the only picture issues we couldn't solve by simply adjusting the TV's settings are slight traces of backlight seepage (which may be limited to our review sample), and an occasional slightly waxy look to skin tones. But neither of these glitches causes any great alarm in the context of all the impressive stuff going on.
Sonically the 32PF9731D is solid. The soundstage enjoys plenty of width and depth, and vocals sound quite clear and pronounced. But while the frequency range is decent, it certainly doesn't rival the very best TV audio performers out there.
The 32PF9731D is quite a landmark product for Philips. It's still more expensive than we'd like, but in sheer picture quality terms it shows a level of maturity and sophistication with its image processing that's miles ahead of previous Philips systems - even though those systems were themselves, of course, anything but slouches.