Sony's new 'Bravia' branded KDF-E50A12U is the latest in the long-running - but not particularly well-reviewed - Grand Wega line of rear-projection microdisplays. At its heart is an LCD projection engine that, in market share at least, has been convincingly outgunned by DLP in America (the home of rear-projection TV) and looks similarly endangered as a species in the UK.
So, has Sony revitalised the technology for this astonishingly affordable model, or it it just treading water before shifting away from LCD to its own LCOS variant, SXRD - which has wowed everyone who has seen it since its debut in Qualia guise a year or so ago?
The E50A12U is certainly pleasing enough from a cosmetic point of view. Its twotone grey finish is smart and the set's ultra-narrow bezel ensures that it wears its 50in proportions as subtly as any 50in TV might hope. It's footprint is also surprisingly slight for such a big screen.
Connections-wise, the E50A12U exceeds my expectations - not least by the inclusion of both HDMI and component video options for HD and progressive scan fodder. I'm also pleased to report a 15-pin PC jack and a trio of RF jacks, indicating not only that this set is equipped with a built-in digital terrestrial Freeview TV tuner, but also that Sony has gone to greater lengths than most to ensure this digital tuner receives the strongest signal possible.
The digital tuner RF input is joined by a CAM slot for adding Top-Up TV if you so desire. The only disappointment is the provision of just two Scarts - though thankfully both handle RGB. The E50A12U is HD Ready, and has a native resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, so its ready and willing for Sky HD.
In an effort to improve performance, Sony has introduced a number of new features into the E50A12U, perhaps the most significant of which is an adjustable iris, with four settings. This should have a radical impact on the black levels an LCD system can deliver, as it alters the amount of light let through the projector lens.
Another trick is a Digital Constant Image engine, whereby the picture is made more stable by only switching pixels in picture areas where the TV detects the content is changing. Other feature fundamentals include noise reduction doodads and support for the Freeview 7-day Electronic Programme Guide - complete with direct timer event setting and genre filtering. So, given the new tech armoury onboard, does this 50 incher thrill?
Well, not exactly. Even before the picture appears (which takes a few seconds), I was disturbed by the fairly hefty racket generated by the TV's built-in cooling fans. And after calibration, I was concerned by the TV's lack of black level profundity. The inky blackness at the start of Alien (HD courtesy of my D-Theater deck), was certainly flattened by the slight greying-over associated with low contrast.
The E50A12U does improve on its Sony microdisplay predecessors in this key regard and can be considered good by LCD rear-pro standards - but I feel DLP can still do better.
Another irritating picture flaw is a jagged look to contours and edges. Especially noticeable during highdefinition viewing, this problem makes the opening credits of Alien look like they're made out of Lego.
I should also mention the TV's tendency to over-stress edges during standard-definition viewing, leaving actors with a noticeable bright halo around them that certainly isn't an indication of any 'angelic' qualities. Colours are very vibrant, if not totally natural. Sure, bright scenes enjoy extremely rich saturations, delivered with impressively little dot crawl or edge bleed, but the tone doesn't always look convincing, especially with standard-definition TV.
When it comes to the adjustable iris, I can confirm that it helps the set enjoy much better black levels than it might otherwise, however its machinations can occasionally become distractingly obvious.
That said, after noting these initial observations, the E50A12U began to impress me. I was particularly pleased by the set's fine detail response, which etches every last pixel and texture of a good high-definition signal to spectacular effect. What's more, even standard-definition pictures look sharp and detailed, without overt accompanying noise problems.
It's also nice to see such a large, rear-projected picture completely free of those twin issues so often experienced with DLP sets; the rainbow effect (where stripes of RGB colour flit around your peripheral vision) and fizzing noise over motion. LCD technology doesn't need to be 'converged' like its CRT rival, either, meaning there are none of that technology's colour bleed and soft focusing issues.
Sony has also delivered an LCD rear-pro that suffers hardly at all from any visible LCD panel structure (the dreaded 'chicken wire' or 'screen door' effect). It only ever appears when the image is awash with expanses of pure white, blue or grey.
In fact, for most of the time I found the E50A12U's pictures perfectly respectable. And under certain circumstances - namely with bright hi-def pictures - they can even be quite spectacular. It's just a pity that these circumstances don't make up a greater percentage of your total viewing time.
The E50A12U's audio is also impressive. It delivers a wide soundstage packed with deep but undistorted bass, a particularly well-rounded mid-range, and trebles clear enough to add plenty of detail without introducing harshness.
Sony's E50A12U leaves me slightly frustrated. It's aggressively priced for a 50in screen, is well connected, and shows glimpses of pictorial splendour. And the onboard sound system is a definite cut above that on plasma and LCD panels. It's certainly worth auditioning if you really don't like DLP's artefact issues.
But what we really want to see from Sony is SXRD. This my friends, promises to be the real deal, with the clarity and depth that can really challenge DLP's dominance in this area. The KDF-E50A12U is good, but I want better. John Archer
Sony has finally delivered an LCD rear-pro that suffers hardly at all from any visible LCD panel structure