Panasonic's love affair with LCD has taken a few twists and turns over the past couple of years. The company swept everybody off their feet with its early portable efforts, proving that size didn't matter if you wanted wide screens, a cracking set of speakers and a body to die for.
Then it concentrated on its steady relationship with plasma for a while, before bursting back into liquid crystal with last year's drop-dead Viera series. Trouble was, this new line-up, while easy on the eye, was lacking in the HD brains department and despite sterling SD credentials, lacked long-term potential.
Panasonic has put this right with the TX-32LXD500, a 32in LCD that is not only fully specified for next-generation broadcasts, but also boasts a built-in digital tuner. Could this be The One?
Just the sight of the word 'Viera' on the box let's you know that you're in for something seductive and this 32incher is a real looker. Matt-black finishes,after a brief flirtation with piano lacquer, are what the most stylish sets are wearing these days and the screen surround here is offset nicely by a smart silver strip running along the bottom and bearing the controls and secondary inputs.
The speakers take some finding and are eventually presumed to be lurking underneath a pair of stiletto-thin grilles, running up each side of this economically framed TV. The set sits on an attractive, swivelling rhomboid stand.
The Viera's inputs are built-in rather than in an external multimedia box. The chief distraction here is the HDMI jack, which means high-resolution video and audio straight from source to screen with no mucking about with analogue conversion.
You'll also find a trio of jacks, two of which are RGB capable and a component video input, as well as provision for a CAM (Conditional Access Module), should you feel like upgrading to pay TV in the future. The other connection of note is a PC card slot under the front flap.This enables you to view photos or MPEG4 moving pictures and also means that you can record the latter from your TV.
The plain menu graphics are slightly at odds with the effortless verve found in every other department, but the lists are plentiful and it's all very easily navigable and thoughtfully arranged. Panasonic still insists on making you use the 'input' button and then the Fastext keys to switch sources,which is a conspicuously clunky way of toggling through your options, but it's hardly a crippling blow. The remote is a treat, though, with its ergonomic curves and swish silver trim looking the part, while the rubber buttons get on with being large, well laid out and unambiguously labelled.
Tuning is quick and accurate. You'll be enjoying Freeview broadcasts within minutes of switching on. After that, the tweaking process is a breeze and you'll have both pictures and sound sorted in a jiffy. The only niggle is that there is an irritating lag when switching between channels, but this should only rile those of you with Basil Fawlty-type temperaments.
The incompatibility of Panasonic's last LCD selection with high-def was immensely frustrating, given the obvious quality of the panels, so there is a sense of unfinished business itching to be completed with the TX-32LXD500. Happily, it more than exceeds hopes and expectations, with one of the finest all-round performances you'll see at this price and some way beyond it.
Start with standard digital broadcasts and you'll be struck by just how clear, fresh and vibrant everything looks. Whether it's the solid primary colours of CBeebies, brightly lit newsrooms on ITV1 or scratchy documentaries about the sinking of the Bismarck on UKHistory, you'll benefit from an invigoratingly dynamic watch almost entirely bereft of the usual noisy nasties that Freeview tends to throw up. Tizzing around edges and the odd bit of blocking still occur now and again, but this is more to do with the service than the set.
Switch your attention to DVD via RGB Scart or component and you'll begin to get a sense of the real calibre of this screen. Colours are rendered with absolute precision, with the TX-32LXD500 able to switch from full, mega-saturated retinal assault to immensely subtle, muted graduations within the blink of an eye.
Hero's heavily stylised palette is a stern test for any panel, but the Panasonic is more than up to it, treating each colour-coded section as well as the frequent visits to the washed-out desert, with an unimpeachably even hand.
Detail is also excellent. Have a squint at the massed ranks of the Qin army or the swarm of arrows it looses on the calligraphy school in the 'red' segment for evidence.
And if you like all that, you'll love what it can do with high definition. Our sample footage of the Newport Jazz festival was almost frighteningly sharp: the added layer of detail makes for an image that is so three-dimensional as to be almost uncanny.
The complex grains and textures of double-bass and guitar bodies are handled effortlessly, while it's possible to pick out individual stitches in the pullover worn by one interviewee in what is not even a particularly close shot. The awesome facility with colours carries over and the whole is about as realistic as we've seen at this size, whatever the technology. If there is one flaw with the performance, it's that blacks could benefit from a little more depth, but contrast is generally decent and the overall experience is immensely satisfying.
Audio is also surprisingly good, with those skinny drivers creating a crisp, precise and admirably detailed soundstage with enough muscle for most needs.
This is the set that we knew Panasonic was capable of, but had hitherto failed to produce. The simple addition of HDTV compatibility has elevated the company's LCDs from elegant underachievers up to arguable class leaders. Chuck in a digital tuner and what is still a very reasonable price and you've got a winner. We're smitten. Jim Findlay