Until we can get our hands on Philips' eagerly awaited flagship 9380 flat TV range, the new 32PF7520D represents the pinnacle of the company's current LCD TV line. And it's easy to see why it commands a premium - albeit not as substantial a one as we might have expected - over its cheaper Philips siblings.
For starters, it's the only 32in model in the current LCD range to carry Pixel Plus - Philips' acclaimed proprietary picture processing system. This claims to deliver enhanced fine detail, more natural colours, and better contrast. And on previous evidence, it delivers on all those claims in abundance.
The 32PF7520D also carries a built-in Freeview digital tuner that's both protected from electrical interference and impulse noise by a 'Pulse Killer Chip', and backed up by full support of Freeview's seven-day electronic programme guide (EPG). You can also set recordings direct from the EPG.
Also key among the 32PF7520's features is the fact that it meets the HD Ready criteria laid down by European AV industry body EICTA. The native resolution is 1366 x 768; the TV's compatible with all the necessary HD formats; and the connectivity's there to take HD signals in either digital or component analogue form.
However, while the 32PF7520 might gain official EICTA HD approval, it doesn't entirely gain mine! For while the TV can take the necessary component video HD and digital video HD signals, it annoyingly takes them all through the same single input: a DVI jack. This is okay for straight DVI connections, but getting component analogue HD feeds in requires a fiddly mess of a component to VGA adaptor and VGA to DVI adaptor.
This situation also means you can't leave a component source and a DVI source connected simultaneously - a nasty case of 'doubling up' on a single jack exacerbated even further by the fact that you additionally have to use the DVI input for connecting your PC! Elsewhere, the set's connectivity is fair, and includes a CAM slot for adding Top Up TV to your digital services and a digital audio output for Freeview broadcasts.
Other features of note include a stripped down version of the Philips Active Control system for automatically optimising various picture settings based on the content of the incoming image, and a straightforward noise reduction system. It's worth stressing here that the Pixel Plus system mentioned before is a much earlier version than the one that's going to appear on Philips' upcoming 9380 screens - but I guess this is fair enough given the 32PF7520's price.
Also of interest is a good brightness rating of 500cd/m2, a quoted contrast ratio of 600:1, and an LCD response time of 18ms - the latter two of which are actually rather uninspiring.
Starting out our tests with the 32PF7520's digital tuner pictures, I was mostly impressed. For starters there's the richness and vitality with colours that's long been a trademark of Philips TVs - LCD and otherwise. Black levels are reasonably good. Our Tech Labs measure the set's contrast ratio, after calibration, at 435:1, which is roughly average.
Freeview feeds look far sharper than normal too, providing a particularly convincing display of Pixel Plus's detail-boosting talents. However, there are a couple of niggles to report. One is the 32PF7520's tendency to exaggerate the MPEG blocking noise inherent in many Freeview broadcasts - sometimes to the extent that I could see vertical striping over contours (an episode of, erm, Hollyoaks, was especially troubled by this!). The other issue is that motion looks a touch unnatural. There's a slight smearing effect presumably partly caused by the limited LCD response time, and occasional flickers perhaps caused by the screen's Digital Natural Motion processing. is also quite prevalent - to the extent that it softens the picture up - during analogue tuner viewing. But surely you'd never want to watch analogue stuff anyway with your new digital TV, right?
The 32PF7520 is happier with RGB feeds from a Sky digital box or DVD player. With less noise in these source signals, Pixel Plus is free to work its magic more accurately. There are still slight issues with motion smearing, but overall RGB feeds are sharp and enjoyable.
Moving to digital video feeds from my reference Denon DVD-3910 upscaling DVD deck, the news is mostly good. It's gratifying to find the 32PF7520 largely untroubled by the MPEG noise that mars digital sources on a number of rival LCD TVs. Yet this is achieved without compromising on fine detail. Colours are intense, too, without looking forced or unnatural.
That said, skin tones can look a little waxy, and even with digital sources motion can look slightly blurred. The 32PF7520 is at its best with a genuine (ie not upscaled) HD 1080i feed from a D-Theater D-VHS deck. Pixel Plus sensibly seems to step back and let the source's native resolution do the talking, leaving a superbly crisp, layered and involving picture. A slight let down is that with so much more background picture information potentially available, slight shortfalls in the 32PF7520's black levels become more apparent.
The speakers to either side of the 32PF7520's gloss black screen frame look insubstantial - but actually they perform well. Particularly noteworthy is the width of the soundstage, together with the accurate placement of spatial effects within it. Voices, too, sound believably rounded without losing clarity, while action scenes are portrayed with more dynamic range than expected. There isn't enough aggression or depth in the presentation to rival the very best audio performers, but there's nothing to complain about.
The addition of Pixel Plus to the 32PF7520 raises it to a much more attractive level than other Philips LCD TVs we've seen lately - especially given that the picture improvement isn't accompanied by too much of a price hike. I still can't quite shake the feeling that Philips is holding much of its juiciest LCD stuff back for the top-end screens due shortly. But until they arrive, this one is more than halfway to being a winner. John Archer