German TV guru Loewe can't be accused of lacking chutzpah. After all, if you're going to call a TV 'Masterpiece', you've got to be confident that it's something special otherwise you're setting yourself up for a serious fall.
But it's almost annoying to report that, aesthetically at least, the Spheros R 37 Masterpiece really does look special... incredibly special.
The first thing that sets it apart from the LCD and plasma pack is the fact that the skinny screen is built flush on to an equally skinny floorstand. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the screen is built into its stand, since inventively, Loewe appears to have hewn the stand and screen frame out of the same hunk of raw material.
This means there are no seams to spoil the fascia, leaving you goggling at a single, gorgeous expanse of high-gloss, jet-black loveliness that's unbroken until it reaches the grey-fronted speakers right at the bottom.
I also love the bold, metal circle of the infrared receiver, and the way this monolith of a TV is set atop a circular pedestal that can rotate the TV left or right hydraulically via the remote control. In short, the Spheros R 37 is probably the most attractive TV released this year.
More explanations for what is, by 37in LCD TV standards, a pretty high price tag, become clear during a hunt for connections. But before I cover those there's another bit of design splendour to admire, as it turns out that Loewe has built a full-on multimedia tuner box into the stand's rear. You simply pull this up to a horizontal position while cramming in all your AV gear.
The highlight of this fearsomely specified AV box is a DVI input with HDCP, making the Masterpiece compatible with Sky's upcoming high-definition STB. There's also a set of high-def/progressive scan capable component video jacks, and a full set of six audio line outs to back up the TV's onboard Dolby Digital decoding.
You'll also find two coaxial digital audio inputs, a coaxial digital audio output, two Scarts, a PC audio input, two infrared link jacks, a VGA input, and a nine-pin control jack. What's more, this being Loewe, you can add optional extra feature modules to the Masterpiece, such as an online web-surfing module and wireless home automation kit.
Moving on to the Masterpiece's features list, you'll discover a variety of justifications for the steep asking price. Not least among its attractions is a built-in 100GB hard-disk recorder. This offers all of the normal recording features you'd expect, including the pausing of live TV and multiple picture quality settings.
The set carries noise reduction, too, plus a movie mode for improving the appearance of DVD playback, Dolby Virtual processing, twin-tuner picture-in-picture facilities, and an inspired onscreen, interactive 'instruction manual' which makes getting around this complicated TV easier. It's a pity the remote control's a bit fiddly, though.
Simply the best
The Masterpiece's body is so lovely that poor pictures from the screen would stand out like a sore thumb. So it's a relief to report that the picture quality is anything but poor. In fact, with strong sources it's up there with the best in class.
The biggest highlight is the picture's black level response. It overcomes this traditional LCD weakness superbly, giving pictures plenty of contrast, depth and texture.
As is usually the case, the absence of the grey misting effect associated with a poor black level lets the screen's colours look resplendent, too. Crucially, though, the hues are also as natural as they are radiant.
Another plus over many rival big LCD screens is the unit's suppression of noise, be it grain, moiring over details, or LCD dot crawl. What's more, the picture is also largely free of LCD's traditional smearing issues.
This Loewe is predictably at its best with high-definition and progressive scan video feeds. It's unlikely either source will disappoint (at least once you've increased the vertical size of the high-def picture by a pixel or two to remove a visible scanning line at the screen's top).
If I had to pick a flaw in the Masterpiece's pictures, it would be that they're not quite as textured and detailed as some of its competitors. But then the screen is intrinsically less noisy than some, which is a trade I suspect some buyers will be more prepared to make.
The R 37's hard-disk recordings are very good. At their highest quality, recordings are indistinguishable from the original broadcasts.
The Masterpiece's pictures are backed up by above standard audio. Particularly remarkable by flatpanel TV standards is the amount of bass. Midbass reproduced smoothly, powerfully and fully without edging out the treble details that bring a soundstage to life.
I don't think Loewe has been presumptuous in calling its new TV a 'masterpiece'. Both inside and out, it's more like a work of art than a TV.