It's amazing what a lick of marketing paint will do. After several years of underperforming flatscreens, and a brand name that just didn't catch fire with the global public (Wega? Vega? Vaguer?), Sony has successfully rejuvenated its entire TV division under the umbrella of BRAVIA. Many millions of advertising dollars later, the name is a hit (Bra! Bravo! Bravura!) and the entire Sony TV juggernaut is back on track.
The technology is much the same as what has gone before - although the more expensive models in the BRAVIA lineup do, indeed, innovate - but now everyone is taking an interest.
The KDL-S40A12U represents the affordable end of the range - it's got the features to warrant serious attention (for real high-end horsepower, Europeans will have to wait for the Xrange BRAVIAs to go on sale) and sells on the happy side of £2k. It's more than tempting for 40-odd inches of screen.
Like all the BRAVIAs, it's a stylish looker. The silver colour scheme isn't particularly interesting, but the slenderness of the bezel, swivelling desktop stand and tasteful matt black inner screen frame all help convey an air of class.
It's on the money with its connectivity, too, offering both HDMI input and component video jacks, as well as an analogue PC input (by no means a given with Sony flat TVs), and a CAM slot for a TopUp TV boost to the set's built-in Freeview tuner (if you're not in a digital reception area, there's also an analogue back-up). Naturally there are Scart (just two, but both RGB enabled), S-video and composite video fallbacks too.
When it comes to picture processing, there's only generic drivers onboard. The WEGA Engine picture processing is currently reserved for the mid-range 'V-range' models. And there's certainly not the wide colour gamut backlight, for enhanced chroma fidelity, detailed in our BRAVIA feature, page 26. But operationally, it's up to snuff.
The digital TV tuner is backed up by full 7-day electronic programme guide support, complete with direct-selection timer-event setting, and genre filtering to make browsing easier.
Images benefit from a noise reduction system, backlight adjustment, and a small selection of presets. And elsewhere there's Dolby Virtual surround sound processing, a Power Saving mode that reduces the screen's brightness output, and a light sensor that can dynamically adjust the picture in response to the amount of ambient light in your room.
The panel resolution is an HD-friendly 1366 x 768.
In action, the S40A12U's pictures veer between excellent and average, depending on what you ask it to show.
With bright, colourful footage from a DVD or a high-definition source it can look outstanding. This is thanks to a killer combination of brightness, fine detailing (even without WEGA Engine to help out), suppression of grain/dot crawl and vibrant colour performance. High quality sources also appear subjectively free of the sort of disturbing motion smearing seen on rival LCD TVs with a slow response time.
Step down to the level of an RGB-fed Sky Digital receiver, though, or the TV's own digital tuner, and things deteriorate. The picture softens up quite considerably, movement occasionally seems prone to gentle LCD blurring, dominant colours tend to bleed slightly into subtler ones, and, curiously, motion sometimes judders - especially when there's a particularly large amount of it going on. This latter problem is particularly evident when text is scrolling along the bottom of the screen, but that's certainly not the only time it happens.
A common limitation of all LCD screens is apparent contrast. This Sony is no different. Dim the lights and blacks devolve into a grey mist. The vast egg cavern on the crashed spaceship in Alien (D-VHS HD) thus looks less sizeable than we've seen it on screens with greater black level depth. It looks better in brighter ambient light.
Sharply defined edges can suffer obvious jaggies - even during HD viewing. This is evident on the opening credits to Alien, but can also be seen on the contours of people's faces, regardless of the quality of your source material.
The S40A12U's onboard sound system is average for a slimscreen of this ilk. The speakers deliver a decently wide soundstage, but there's not much bass to speak of, or breathing room for action scenes to open up into. And this sometimes means things sound harsh if the volume is cranked up. Ideally, a screen of this size should be used with a separate sound system for preferred viewing.
The power of Sony's brand building will ensure that many consumers will look longingly at the KDL-S40A12U. The screen size/price is right and at first glance the set appears to have everything you need.
But the reality is that this is a good, but not great large-screen LCD. It can look very nice with high-quality sources (Sky HD would be a must-have to make this set shine), if viewed in a moderately bright room, yet when it comes to contrast, black level and response time, there's no doubt it can be outperformed by a number of comparable-screen size, big brand plasmas.
Still, this screen is just the tip of BRAVIA iceberg. Our advice is to look a little further up the brand's current price-range at the 'V-series', and keep an eye open for the true high-end BRAVIA sets that will eventually ship into the UK. It's with these that Sony will create a genuine performance buzz.