LCD is now making it big in all senses of the word. LCD screens have been selling like hotcakes recently, and now they're also starting to hit prodigious sizes. Philips wowed us with its 42in LCD debut recently, and now Sony is out to do the same with its own 42in offering, the KDL-L42MRX1.

Regular readers may recognise the set's 'MRX1' designation as belonging to Sony's current flagship flatpanel range. This means four key things when it comes to the KDL-L42MRX1: firstly, it'll cost you an arm and a leg; secondly it's clad in Sony's classic 'floating' design; thirdly it's got a built-in digital tuner; and fourthly, it's got Sony's new Wega Engine image processing. Let's cover these points in more detail one by one.

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Sony's KDE-P42MRX1 plasma typically sells for around £5,000. But the KDL-L42MRX1 will cost you even more. This is interesting because it implies that Sony believes that LCD can justify its price premium in the real world.

The floating design is lovely. There's still nothing sleeker in the AV world than the sight of a huge flatpanel TV seemingly hanging in mid-air thanks to a transparent glass outer frame - especially when an illuminated Sony logo floats ghost-like beneath the picture. Wee silvery speakers bolted on at each side detract from things a little, but there's still no doubt that the KDL-L42MRX1 wears its flagship status on its sleeve.

The built-in digital tuner is revealed at the connectivity stage by the appearance of both an RF loopthrough system and a CAM slot on the TV's external multimedia/connections box. Other connectivity treats include a Memory Stick slot you can use for playing back pictures or MPEG4 movies, or recording them from the TV; a trio of Scarts; high definition-friendly component video jacks; and a standard PC input.

However, the set lacks any digital video input, be it DVI or HDMI. This means that it's likely that this screen, for its price and cutting-edge approach, will not be able to display Sky's highdefinition broadcasts when they launch next year. This is a devastating blow.

The inclusion of Wega Engine processing improves my mood, however. This proprietary system delivers more fine detail, enhanced all-digital scaling, better colour tone/richness, and smoother contours and colour gradations. I've been seriously impressed with it every time I've seen it in action so far.

Wega Engine is not the only unusual feature the KDL-L42MRX1 boasts, though. It's also got a twin tuner picture-inpicture system, support for the seven-day Freeview EPG, backlight adjustment, a contrast enhancer, a superb sliding scale adjustment for trading sharpness and detail against noise, and a Film Mode for enhanced DVD playback.

Plasma fist-fight

In many ways the KDL-L42MRX1's pictures are first rate - and more importantly, I'd say they are better than those of Sony's 42in plasma MRX1 alternative.

The biggest 'wow' factor comes from the set's colours. Even tricky low-lit skin tones look never less than 100 per cent believable. Colours are also immaculately contained, with no edge seepage and no sign of 'drop off' as they approach their borders within the image. The ensuing supreme consistency of the image is backed up by an almost complete absence of haloing or glimmering around hard edges, jaggedness over curves, colour banding or the sort of green pixel noise that still afflicts practically all plasma TVs. Throw in the fact that Wega Engine actually scores over Philips' rival Pixel Plus technology in terms of how few processing artefacts it throws up, and you've got one of the cleanest 42in flatpanel pictures on the market.

I also lapped up the image's fine detail talents. Wega Engine might not generate quite such a dramatic detail impact as Pixel Plus, but there's still no doubt that it makes standard resolution pictures much sharper, and does so without any of the slight introductions of grain or dot crawl that Pixel Plus occasionally falls prey to.

More good news is seen in Wega Engine's flexibility, in that it proves able to adapt itself surprisingly well to all types of source, from top to bottom, digital to analogue. In fact, the quality with which it handles plain old analogue tuner pictures is nigh on miraculous.

It's not all sweetness and light in KDL-L42MRX1 land, though. The screen's contrast is good but not outstanding and it seemed to suffer with traces of backlight seepage in a couple of its corners.

My other niggle concerns LCD smearing. Unless you're careful not to set the screen's brightness and contrast levels too high, fast-moving objects can blur quite noticeably.

It's a testament to how good the screen's strengths are, then, that in spite of these niggles its pictures still excite. If Sony can manage a slightly better response time and more black level next time out, it could be getting frighteningly close to picture perfection...

The KDL-L42MRX1 also has a good on-board sound system. The speakers justify their slightly ugly presence with a terrifically detailed soundstage that's as adept with bass rumbles as it is with treble peaks.

In pure performance terms, then, the KDL-L42MRX1 is a tempting proposition. It keeps both the Wega Engine and LCD flags flying high. But there are caveats when it comes to contrast and motion blur. And the KDL-L42MRX1's intimidating cost and shortage of future-proofing caused by its lack of a digital video input conspire to deny it the unequivocal recommendation it would otherwise have earned.