We like Sony's new Wega Engine technology a lot. Which is just as well, since it appears to be a universal fixture across the brand's flatpanel range.
Originally, it appeared on the seriously costly, flagship-level KDL-32MRX1. More recently we saw it on the seriously affordable, entry-level KLV-L32M1. And now, wouldn't you just know it, Wega Engine is appearing on a new mid-range TV, priced squarely between the M1 and MRX1. Let's just hope that this mid-ground offering, the 37in KDE-P37XS1, strikes the perfect balance between its costlier and cheaper brethren, rather than falling uncomfortably between the two.
Aesthetically the £3,400 KDE-P37XS1 resembles the MRX1 range in that the screen is surrounded by black glass and there's a small transparent glass strip along the bottom within which an illuminated Sony logo hangs as if in mid-air. This glass strip doesn't extend around the whole screen like it does with the floating design KDL-32MRX1, but it's still a highly attractive effort.
When it comes to connections, the KDE-P37XS1 bears closer resemblance to the M1 range, in that it carries all of its jacks on the screen's rear, rather than providing a separate external AV switching/tuner box.
Sockets available include three Scarts, a component video input (able to handle high-definition and progressive scan formats), and a trio of RF jacks so that you can enjoy a premium aerial feed for the TV's built-in digital tuner and then pipe the RF signal out through a VCR for the analogue tuner. There are sadly neither PC inputs nor digital video (DVI or HDMI) inputs, however.
Did I say digital tuner? Sure did. This marks one of the main feature step-ups from the M1 models, and is backed up by a fast-acting, superbly presented Freeview Electronic Program Guide (EPG) and a CAM slot for adding card-reading modules should you fancy Pay-TV somewhere down the line.
Another step-up from the M1 is the KDE-P37XS1's inclusion of a MemoryStick slot, usable for direct playback from a MemoryStick card of digital still pictures and MPEG4 movies. Unlike the MRX1 range, though, the KDE-P37XS1's MemoryStick functions don't run to recording as well as playback.
Continuing a scan for features, I guess you might want a quick reminder of what the most important feature, the Wega Engine system I've been bleating on about, actually does. So, as briefly as possible: it's an image processing system which uniquely keeps all of the flatpanel screen's picture scaling in the digital domain - dispensing with messy digital-to-analogue/analogue-to-digital conversions - as well as adding detail and improving contours, contrast, colour gradation and colour tone.
Enhancing Wega Engine on the (plasma rather than LCD) KDE-P37XS1 is a very sophisticated suite of DRC adjustments for adjusting both the pixel density of the processed picture, and the final balance between extra detail and picture smoothness.
Elsewhere the key bits and bobs worth mentioning are Dolby Virtual audio processing, and RGB centring for sorting out, say, a PlayStation signal if it doesn't arrive correctly positioned on the Sony screen.
Can you dig it?
Given my love of Wega Engine on the LCD screens I've seen it on so far, you probably won't be too surprised that I also dig it on this plasma incarnation.
A defining characteristic of the technology is the way it effortlessly ups the fine detail levels in a picture without generating any unpleasant side effects. Even pacey cross-screen motion manages to avoid processing induced smearing or blurring, while the amount of texture visible helps create a pleasing depth of field. No other detail-boosting system I've seen goes about its business quite so immaculately as Wega Engine, and there's no overstating what a stunning impact it can have.
Wega Engine also generally lives up to its billing when it comes to colour reproduction. Sony's older plasma TVs have impressed us in this department too, but the KDE-P37XS1 takes things to another level in the way familiar vibrancy is joined by a new degree of authenticity, as even skin tones during dark scenes largely avoid plasma's common green undertones.
These strengths ensure that with high-definition and progressive scan feeds, the KDE-P37XS1 is nothing short of magnificent - among the top two or three best plasma TVs I've seen. But while I was very impressed by how well Wega Engine adapted itself to all sources on Sony's new LCD TVs, this first Wega Engine plasma offering struggled a little with lower quality feeds - including those from its own digital tuner.
The key problem is that with such low-grade footage even Wega Engine can't conquer plasma's problems with grey/green dot crawl over dark areas, or its tendency to leave a subtle glowing dot trail behind rapid movement, especially where faces are involved.
None of this has anything to do with Wega Engine; that works as immaculately as I've already suggested. The problems are actually traditional to plasma technology as a whole. But even with that taken into account, I have seen other plasma screens handle them better - especially the dottiness over motion.
My other niggle with the KDEP37XS1 concerns its contrast. Rated at just 140:1 by our Tech Labs, the lack of black level results in a slight flattening of pictures and a loss of background details.
As with the MRX1 range, the KDE-P37XS1 proves a pleasing audio performer. The skinny silver speakers might not look up to much, but in practice they're almost miraculously powerful and well engineered. The result is a big, bold, believable soundstage full of subtle details and mid-range rumbles, but which never loses its grip on vocal tone or clarity.
As it did in the LCD world, Wega Engine promises to make Sony a premium player in the plasma game. The system hasn't completely overcome all of Sony's old plasma troubles, but it's enough of a stride in the right direction to ensure that the KDE-P37XS1 merits a place on any plasma TV shortlist.