While everyone else in the plasma world is frantically cutting prices to stay competitive, Sony has priced its new KDE-P42MRX1 much higher than its previous 42in plasma screens.

The KDE-42MRX1's opulence is apparent as soon as you get it out of its box. Its use of Sony's extravagant 'floating' design, where a transparent glass frame around the screen gives the impression that it's hanging in mid-air, remains as much a design classic as it ever was.

Connections are found on an external AV box that's exquisite to look at, but disappointingly lacks DVI or HDMI all-digital picture inputs. But, there's compensation in the form of three Scarts, a subwoofer line out, a normal PC jack and component video inputs able to take high definition and progressive scan fodder.

There's even an exotic touch in the inclusion of a Memory Stick slot, which you can use for recording still and MPEG4 video pictures from the TV, as well as for playing back digital photos.

Other unusual connections - such as a trio of RF jacks and a CAM slot - point towards one of the set's key features: its built-in digital tuner.

The other fundamental feature of the KDE-42MRX1 is its use of Sony's Wega Engine picture processing technology. This delivers more fine detail, scaling (which fits the source to the screen entirely digitally), better colour tone and richness, and smoother contours and colour gradations. Let's hope Wega Engine works as well with plasma as it did with LCD...

Also worthy of a passing mention here is the KDE-42MRX1's Freeview Electronic Programme Guide, which in terms of speed, presentation and flexibility is the best in the IDTV world. We also lapped up an innovative sliding scale system for trading fine detail against image smoothness.

Dazzling colours

Happily, Wega Engine's plasma incarnation is almost as good as its LCD one. The KDE-42MRX1's colours are dazzling in intensity, breathtakingly smooth, and overwhelmingly natural in tone.

Wega Engine's detail enhancements are also impressive. Its impact in this regard is perhaps not as aggressive as with Philips' Pixel Plus system, but the picture also looks less 'gritty' and less prone to processing side effects. In fact, this lack of side effects is arguably Wega Engine's biggest success. Even rapid motion remains perfectly clear and smooth.

Our niggles with the KDE-42MRX1 seem to have more to do with problems inherent to Sony's plasma panels than Wega Engine.

For instance, while high definition and progressive scan sources look nothing short of awesome on the Sony, digital and analogue tuner fodder can fall prey to familiar plasma issues such as grey/green dot crawl over black areas, glowing trails behind motion, and even patches of colour banding.

We also couldn't help but wish that a plasma screen of this price boasted a better black-level response, as dark scenes clearly suffer a little greying over.

Stirring sound

The KDE-42MRX1's slender built-in speakers are every inch a flagship proposition, however, managing a stirringly detailed soundstage as adept with bass rumbles as it is with treble peaks, and capable of startling amounts of raw power.

Issues with Sony's core plasma technology ultimately stop Wega Engine notching up quite such a resounding success with plasma as it did with LCD - and make the screen's price tag look rather steep.

But, nonetheless, Wega Engine has unquestionably raised Sony's plasma game to a whole new level, while Sony's decision to broaden our plasma choice by offering a genuine step-up option is just fine by us. John Archer