Using LED backlighting in LCD TVs is no longer news. Over the last few months we've seen a flurry of new TVs from a growing number of brands all exploiting the technology. Yet the Philips 46PFL9704H makes LED feel all shiny and futuristic again, simply by virtue of how damn good it is.
The 46PFL9704's play for your AV heart begins as soon as you take in its crisp, metallic (brushed aluminium, metallurgy fans), two-tone design, offset by the spectacle of Philips' Ambilight system spilling from three of the TV's sides.
If you dont have the space for the 46PFL9704 then there is the 40-inch version as well, available for around £1800.
Its siren call merely grows louder, too, with the discovery of five HDMIs, an Ethernet port and a USB input among its connections.
The 46PFL9704's feature count, meanwhile, is fearsome, even by Philips' usual 'kitchen sink' standards. The interesting stuff starts, of course, with that all-important LED backlighting system. This takes the 'traditional' direct approach, rather than the edgemounted system pushed by ultraslim TVs like Samsung's B7000 and B8000 models.
As a result, the 46PFL9704 can deliver local dimming, where clusters of LEDs can have their brightness adjusted individually depending on the content of the part of the picture they serve. In theory this allows pitch blacks (where the LED arrays are switched off) to sit right along side ultra-bright whites (where the LED arrays are switched on fully).
What's more, the 46PFL9704 sports a massive 224 individually-controllable LED segments – 75 per cent more than was present in last year's 42PFL9803. This ought to reduce local dimming's issues with lost shadow detail and 'haloing' around bright objects.
The potentially much more precise LED lighting has been partnered with a new panel design, resulting in Philips' ground-breaking claimed contrast ratio of 5,000,000:1. Of course, anyone who believes such a figure probably also reckons the moon is made of cheese and the Earth is flat, but our Tech Lab's measurements of a 343,000:1 contrast ratio in Vivid mode, and 224,000:1 in Standard, are very impressive.
The other big attractions of the 46PFL9704 are its built-in internet access, and a potent brew of video processing that chiefly comprises Philips' über-powerful Perfect Pixel HD system and a 200Hz engine (actually a combination of 100Hz with a scanning backlight).
In the current market, Philips 'net functions are the most advanced, particularly the inclusion of an Opera web browser, meaning you are unrestricted in the web content you can call up on your bigscreen.
Going through everything Perfect Pixel HD does would take far too much space, so suffice it to say that although you need to take care with some settings (more on this later), when the Perfect Pixel-driven images are at their best they are arguably the finest I've seen from an LCD TV.
Suck it and see
Such hyperbole will doubtless have our more cynical readers headed straight for their nearest AV Moaner forum. But it's hard to imagine anyone watching a well-calibrated 46PFL9704 disagreeing with me.
The single most devastating element of the 46PFL9704's pictures is their black level response, in terms of both the depth of grey-free black reached while showing the spacescapes of the latest Star Trek opus on Blu-ray, and the amount of shadow detail reproduced with dark interior shots. This latter achievement is particularly startling, since the loss of shadow detail is usually considered one of the weaknesses of direct LED technology.
The Philips' viewing angle is good, too, so the black level response hardly reduces at all if you have to watch the TV from an angle. Making the 46PFL9704's black level prowess all the more dramatic is the extreme brightness and vibrancy of the rest of its pictures. Here again you can clearly appreciate the worth of LED local dimming, as the image scarcely needs to dim its overall brightness at all to keep black levels looking excellent, even when an image contains a stark mixture of brights and darks.
Colours are exceptionally rich, yet they're painted with excellent subtlety, range and blend finesse, meaning that the 46PFL9704 is as at home with EastEnders as it is with The Incredibles.
Next there's Perfect Pixel HD's effective touch with sharpness. As well as producing extremely precise clarity and detailing with HD, the 46PFL9704 makes standard definition pictures look sharper and more 'HD' than possibly any other brand can manage. This extra detail is accompanied, too, by nowhere near as much noise as I've seen on other manufacturer's engines.
On the downside, the HD Natural Motion system can still generate some low-level artefacts, like shimmering around the edges of moving objects, even if you use it on its lowest setting. But these artefacts are less distracting than ever before, leaving the benefits of the processing standing prouder. Plus, of course, you can turn the system off entirely – though inevitably this will lead to a marginal increase in motion blur.
Other negatives include problems with the advanced sharpness tools. They're poorly thought out and can make pictures look ridiculously noisy. Also, none of the presets get close to 6,500K.
Finally, there is a trace of haloing around very bright objects. But you only really notice this if you're sat stupidly close to the screen.
It's back to good news with the 46PFL9704's audio performance. The TV uses the tried-and-tested Philips system of two dome tweeters in the front and two mid-bass drivers mounted in large volume speaker boxes on the rear. The result is powerful, dynamic and clear.
King of the castle
Yes, the 46PFL9704 is expensive. Yes, the 46PFL9704 is demanding. But provided you show it the care and attention it deserves, the 46PFL9704 is also nothing short of outstanding.
Of course, 2010 looks like being the Year of LED TV, with ever more feature-packed and slickly-designed models set to launch in the coming months, but I can easily recommend this current Philips TV to anyone after a high-end bigscreen.
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