Whatever god you worship, now would be a good time to offer up a prayer of thanks. At long last, Sony has delivered unto us an HD Ready TV. We can start to forget the debacle of Sony's previous LCD and plasma TVs which, despite in some cases targeting the 'luxury' end of the display market, failed to provide the digital video jack needed to guarantee compatibility with the next generation of high-definition sources (including Sony's own Blu-ray high-definition DVD players).
The brand is, in fact, launching a whole range of new HD Ready TVs in the coming months. But the first model we've managed to get our hands on is the 32in LCD KDL-V32A12.
Back in black
Aesthetically, while it loosely follows the current 'black is the new silver' trend, the V32A12 puts its own distinctive spin on things, going for a less glossy finish and more black-dominated look that restricts the customary silver trim to a single narrow strip. The result may be a bit butch for some tastes/living rooms - but I like it!
A quick perusal of the V32A12's connections reveals that, hallelujah, there really is an HDMI jack. Phew. Plus there is a set of HD-capable component video inputs, completing the connectivity phase of the set's HD readiness. Another interesting discovery is a CAM slot, indicating that this TV carries a built-in digital TV receiver, while more run-ofthe- mill stuff includes a trio of Scarts, and the usual S-Video and composite video last resorts. This is fine so far as it goes, but some sort of PC connector wouldn't have been too much to ask for on an £1,800 TV.
Completing the V32A12's key HD Ready stats are a widescreen native resolution of 1366 x 768, and compatibility with all the key HD formats.
Also crucial to the V32A12 is its WEGA Engine image processing. This proprietary picture-improvement system is designed to deliver more fine detail, enhanced all-digital scaling, better colour tone/richness, and smoother contours and colour gradations. And it impressed me very much on Sony's previous flatpanel line.
As you'd expect of a company with as much DVB experience as Sony, the digital tuner in the V32A12 is backed up by a tasty set of secondary features, including full support for the latest seven-day electronic programme guide and interactive functions. You can also set timer events directly from the EPG, and sort through the listings by genre.
Other more mundane, but still noteworthy, features include a backlight adjustment, a dynamic picture contrast boost, gamma correction for adjusting the balance between light and dark picture parts, and noise reduction routines that include various levels of processing, plus CNR and MPEG block NR options.
When it comes to images derived from the TV's own digital tuner, the V32A12 immediately impresses. Particularly startling is the treatment of MPEG noise. Digital images from most channels look smooth and polished rather than blocky and shimmery. And even when a little MPEG fizz does rear its head (including during the occasional DVD via the HDMI jack), there's an MPEG noise reduction mode on hand to tone it down to more acceptable levels.
This Sony's digital tuner pictures also score over those of most rivals by actually looking quite sharp - presumably the softness caused by low bitrates is countered somewhat by the detail-boosting talents of the WEGA Engine. I say presumably because if it's true, WEGA Engine certainly goes about its picture-improving business at the expense of remarkably little in the way of negative side effects.
This clarity extends into RGB-fed Sky Digital or progressive scan DVD playback too, with, for instance, every last skull on every last coin of the cursed Aztec booty in Pirates of the Caribbean being clearly defined.
Doubtlessly assisting WEGA Engine to deliver such a sharp impression is the Sony's impressive response time. Even rapid footy action during Match Of The Day fails to catch the set out, with the players looking reasonably crisp and free of smearing or blurring no matter how fast they leg it around.
Also worthy of praise are the V32A12 colours, which look bright, compelling and solid enough to give the picture three-dimensional presence, no matter what source you're watching. Digital 'toons such as Toy Story look good enough to eat.
There's no hiding the fact, though, that the V32A12's pictures aren't quite as benchmark-setting as I'd hoped for from a cutting-edge TV that sits at the higher end of the current 32in LCD price spectrum.
One key problem are its black levels. There's definitely an improvement in this area over Sony's previous LCD efforts, but there is still something forced about dark scenes, such as the below-deck shots in Master & Commander. Black picture parts also lose some depth thanks to the flattening impact of a gentle blue overtone, which neither the contrast booster nor the gamma correction tools manage to completely eradicate.
Next, perhaps because of this blue tinge, darker colours can occasionally look ripe in tone. Finally and perhaps most disappointingly, the V32A12 doesn't rise to the challenge of highdefinition sources as much as I'd like, looking marginally softer than the best sets out there.
Sadly the V32A12's sound is rather average, lacking the power and frequency-range to do even a fairly tame movie soundtrack full justice. Just as well most of our readers will probably be using some secondary sound system, then.
Ultimately, the V32A12 delivers a lot, but still falls a little short. While I'm cock-a-hoop that Sony has finally got with the HD program, and delivered an HD Ready TV with a picture performance that's certainly never less than distinguished, I can't help but wish that the brand had ushered in its HD aspirations with something more class-leading. Had this model appeared eight months ago, then the story might have been slightly different. But things are moving fast in the LCD arena.
Overall, this remains an above average performer, with some very nice visual characteristics. But I'm left wondering why we had to wait so long for it to arrive. John Archer