Philips 32PFL9705 £1300
19th Aug 2010 | 08:20
Direct LED and peerless picture quality make this the best 32-inch TV ever made
Philips 32PFL9705: Overview
Philips' high-end sets are reliably innovative and tend to produce class-leading pictures, ensuring that the first of Philips' 9000 range arrives with some high expectations to live up to, despite its relatively small screen size.
The £1,300, 32-inch set will soon be joined in the Dutch firm's lineup by the 46-inch 467PFL9705H and the 40-inch 40PFL9705H.
If you can't afford the 9000 series, the only other new Phliips models we have full details on so far are the midrange 7605 sets.
Available in 32-inch, 37-inch, 40-inch and 46-inch options, these feature edge-LED lighting, online TV services, Ambilight and Philips' Pixel Precise processing.
Philips 32PFL9705: Features
The Philips 32PFL9705's hottest feature is its use of LED Pro direct backlighting (where the lights sit behind the whole screen, rather than just around its edges), complete with local dimming: a very unexpected, but promising discovery on a 32-inch TV.
This enables the screen to adjust clusters of its 1,000 light-emitting diodes individually, opening the door to a much higher potential contrast performance than is possible either with edge-mounted LED or traditional, fluorescent lamp-lit (CCFL) LCD.
Being able to individually control the luminance level of different parts of the picture enables one part of the picture to be in almost complete darkness while an immediately adjacent section is at maximum brightness.
Philips, as you might expect, is keen to put a contrast ratio number on the 32PFL9705's local dimming contrast potential: 5,000,000:1. This is the same figure quoted by Panasonic for its latest NeoPDP plasma TVs, and so raises the exciting prospect of an LCD TV able to rival plasma in the black level department.
Many of the 32PFL9705's killer apps are more instantly obvious than the two we've covered so far. First, there's the set's design. It's not quite as dramatic as last year's 9000 Series, but its deep grey colour scheme offset by a slender transparent outer layer is certainly striking. It's not super-slim, but then directly-lit sets tend not to be.
Another neat design touch is the extremely solid metallic stand the 32PFL9705 ships with, since this can either support the TV on a desk, or rotate behind the TV to be used as a wall bracket.
It does no harm at all to its aesthetic appeal, either, that the TV sports Philips' Ambilight Spectra 3 system. This uses an array of LED lights down the rear edges of the screen to produce a coloured aura around the bezel sympathetic to the colour content of the picture.
What's particularly excellent about this in the 32PFL9705's case is that, as indicated by the '3' part of Ambilight Spectra 3, the coloured lights spill from the top of the screen as well as the left and right sides.
Having the top edge in play makes the Ambilight effect look more immersive and effective, and really helps emphasise just how uncannily accurate the system is at matching itself, in terms of tone and locality, to the colours in the image.
The only catch with Ambilight Spectra 3 occurs when you're watching 'Cinemascope', 2.35:1 material, with black bars above and below the picture.
For while the Ambilight system takes its colour cues from the image between the black bars rather than just reacting to the blackness of the bars, the gap the top bar creates between the picture and the glowing colours around the TV frame can be a bit distracting, especially if you've got the Ambilight brightness level set high.
Connectivity and web
Connections are prodigious and introduce an impressive number of really handy multimedia features. The set can go online, for starters, either via the built-in Ethernet port, or wirelessly. And unlike any other brand, Philips' NetTV system lets you access the Internet at large, rather than just a ring-fenced section of it.
An Opera browser is provided for the web, which means it's not quite so all-encompassing as a full PC browser and occasionally fails to render a page or two. But we really didn't come across many issues during our time with the set and enjoyed not having our surfing controlled in any way.
The interface for choosing hyperlinks and inputting web addresses works reasonably well, too, though an optional keyboard for use with the TV would be welcome.
If the full Internet scares you, Philips does also offer pre-selected content with a streamlined, TV-friendly interface.
Stuff available here includes Box Office 365 (a subscription 'channel' offering music from Audiolounge, and TV content from ITV's drama, film, comedy and kids channels plus the Cartoon Network), YouTube, DailyMotion, ScreenDreams (providing a selection of HD video films showing pretty nature scenes or artworks) and two photo album services: Picasa and MyAlbum.com.
The 32PFL9705's Ethernet/Wi-Fi capabilities also let it hook up to DLNA computers for multimedia streaming.
Or you can use either of two provided USB ports for playing back video, photo or music files.
Philips has equipped the 32PFL9705 with an SD card slot. And, rather handily, the main purpose of this is to give you a means of storing downloaded standard def or HD video content to 4GB or 8GB cards.
This storage option will doubtless seem preferable to some people to the stability issues and 'watch once and it's gone' situation associated with the usual downstreaming video approach.
The last interesting connections of the 32PFL9705 are its four HDMI inputs, three of which are built to the v1.3 spec, and one of which is a v1.4 affair offering an audio return channel.
The 32PFL9705 introduces one final new and excellent multimedia feature beyond anything we've seen before. If you install the provided Wi-Fi MediaConnect software on your XP or Windows Vista/7 PC enables the TV to function as a remote PC monitor, showing exactly what's on your computer screen, and enabling you to access content on that PC wirelessly using the remote control.
The appeal of this system is that it enables the TV to exploit all the applications you might have on your PC. And it works strikingly well, even handling high resolution video streaming with reasonable stability and quality.
All this and we haven't yet mentioned the other key strand of features that makes the 32PFL9705 a cut above normal TVs: its extreme levels of video processing. This kicks off with the newest version of Philips' Perfect Pixel HD engine.
As far as we are aware, this is the most powerful picture processing engine used in mainstream TVs and it works on every element of TV image reproduction, from contrast and colour to motion handling and sharpness.
Philips now makes almost every one of Perfect Pixel HD's elements controllable/adjustable via the TV's epic onscreen menus, as well as other key elements of the 32PFL9705's performance-enhancing processing pot like 200Hz (100Hz plus a scanning backlight) and the intensity of the local dimming process.
Omitting Freeview HD is bizarre decision, though, especially considering how expensive the TV is. We guess the company might argue that such a premium TV would probably be attached to an external HD tuner, most likely a Sky HD receiver.
We should also add that, unlike the larger sets in the PFL9705 series, this 32in model isn't enabled for 3D. Apparently Philips didn't think 3D was effective enough on such a small screen size. The lack of 3D also explains why the 32PFL9705 uses 200Hz while the larger models in the range employ 400Hz.
Philips 32PFL9705: Ease of use
Thanks to the sheer number of features and picture tweaks they carry, Philips' high end TVs are notoriously tricky to use if you want to get the best out of them. And in any ways this remains true of the 32PFL9705, but there a couple of touches that really do make your life easier.
The first, massive improvement is the remote control. As well as looking gorgeous with its unusual stretched oval shape and brushed metallic finish, it's a masterclass in button minimalism. When we first saw how few keys it carried we couldn't comprehend how it could provide an adequate interface with such a complex TV. But it streamlines the whole interface experience superbly well in conjunction with Philips' new menu structure.
The other handy improvement concerns the set-up guide that automatically kicks in the first time you turn the TV on. This uses a series of photos to help you choose your favourite picture settings, and then also helps you set up your sources. It further automatically guides you through setting up your Wi-Fi connection, and even takes you through setting up an SD card for storing your video downloads, so have a suitable card to hand, if you can.
Final welcome touches find this initial setup menu helping you choose your preferred audio tone from the TV and even optimising Ambilight, including a new option that lets you tell the TV what colour your wall is, so Amiblight can adjust its tones to compensate.
As usual with Philips TVs, though, even after this installation process we'd still recommend regular visits to the TV's picture adjustment menus so that you can optimise the video processing for different source types.
In particular, you need to familiarise yourself with the HD Natural Motion, 200Hz, noise reduction and sharpness tools, so that you can reduce the potential for unwanted processing side effects with certain types of footage.
This makes the 32PFL9705 way more labour-intensive than your average TV if you really care about getting the best from it. Let's hope your efforts are amply rewarded.
Philips 32PFL9705: Picture quality
Considering it costs £1,300, the 32PFL9705's pictures ought to be among the best we've ever seen.
The number of strengths they display is really quite spectacular - so numerous, in fact, that it makes it difficult to dissect in the normal way.
The more we watched the 32PFL9705, the more one particular aspect of its performance stood out: its contrast. For the latest generation of Philips local dimming direct LED technology does a wondrous job of delivering deep, rich blacks within the same frame as bright, punchy whites and vibrant colours.
What's even more impressive about this is the way the set manages to reproduce shadow detail in its dark bits, such as the texture in Bond's coat as he sits in his target's office in the black and white sequence at the start of Casino Royale.
Shadow contrast performance
Struggling with shadow detail is generally accepted to be a weakness of direct LED technology, but the 32PFL9705 overcoming this traditional problem brilliantly.
Colours are also exceptional. They explode off the screen in truly dazzling fashion, injecting new life into Blu-rays and TV shows we thought we knew inside out.
What's even better about this is the fact that the exceptionally rich saturations are amazingly natural in tone; there's no sense of them being forced into moving beyond the bounds of video reality. No other small LCD we've seen has ever managed to reproduce skin tones with such a striking combination of vibrancy and authenticity.
Then there's the picture's sharpness. Philips' processing has long led the way in this respect, and 32PFL9705 continues the trend.
HD images are spectacularly crisp and full of detail. Anyone who doubts that hi-def can make an impact on a screen as small as 32in will need about one second with the 32PFL9705 to have their mind changed.
What's more, we're not just talking here about high levels of detail. For also playing a hugely significant role in the 32PFL9705's clarity is its motion processing. We've long believed Philips' HD Natural Motion system to be the most powerful suppressor of LCD motion blur and judder, and this is borne out again by the liquid smoothness and total clarity of moving objects on the 32PFL9705.
The power of the 32PFL9705's Perfect Pixel HD engine makes its presence felt in sublime style, too, with standard def material. In fact, it's able to add so much detail and sharpness to standard def images, while also being clever enough to identify and remove source noise, that the results often make standard def images; even really quite low quality broadcast channels resemble high-definition.
All these picture quality features add up to the best video performance we've seen from a 32in TV to date.
The only caveat is that it is possible to mess pictures up royally if you don't spend time learning your way around, and then regularly revisiting, the TV's long list of picture tweaks. For instance, while there's abundant evidence that Philips has really improved its recurring issue of processing side effects for the 9705 series, you still need to treat HD Natural Motion with kid gloves.
We never used it above its minimum setting, for anything higher causes too many twitches and glitches for comfort. And while its minimum setting works well for films, we turned the feature off completely during fast-moving sports footage.
We'd strongly suggest you don't use the Super Resolution feature either unless you're watching something extremely soft and fuzzy, since it can tip pictures into looking gritty and noisy.
Then there's the Perfect Contrast feature. Here again, while it definitely enhances the picture, we would only use it on its Minimum setting, since anything higher can cause over-obvious brightness jumps as the image content changes.
Local dimming issues
The sheer aggression and vibrancy of the 32PFL9705's picture, meanwhile, occasionally causes the operation of the local dimming system to become too obvious.
For instance, during the opening credit sequence to Casino Royale, you can sometimes clearly see localised blocks of light and saturation variance as the TV adjusts clusters of backlights in response to changes in the image.
And so as a trail of red blood seeps out onto a bright green backdrop, you can see the green around the seeping blood trail shift in tone until it looks quite distinct from the rest of the green it's supposed to match.
This problem is particularly overt if you set the Dynamic Backlight system to Best For Picture, ironically, so we left this feature set to Standard for the majority of the time. Though you might find it best to turn it off altogether if you're watching a very bright, colour-rich animated film.
There are two final issues you should be aware of. The first is that the 32PFL9705 struggles a bit if viewed from an angle of around 40° or greater, since from there you can clearly discern the haloing effect caused by local dimming, where cloudy grey auras spread beyond the edge of bright picture elements when they appear against dark backgrounds.
The other issue might affect gamers, as we detected a slight degree of input lag, where there is a small time difference between the picture leaving a source and arriving on the screen. It's not massive, but it is noticeable, even using the TV's provided game picture preset.
Crucially, though, these latter two problems are the only ones you can't get round by tweaking the TV's settings. Everything else is just stuff to you need to take care with to get the very best out of what is ultimately a benchmark-setting performer.
Philips 32PFL9705: Sound and value
A couple of generations ago Philips proved that you really could get great sound out of slim TVs if you separated the set's tweeters and woofers.
The 32PFL9705 continues to benefit from this 'discovery', with its two dome tweeters on the front and two woofers on its rear working in perfect harmony to produce a soundstage of exceptional power, dynamic range and clarity.
Bass is punchy and agile, the mid-range is open and well rounded and trebles are defined and clear, only very occasionally tipping over into sibilance.
There is no escaping the fact that the 32PFL9705 costs almost three times as some 40-42in TVs.
On the other hand, it is the best performing, most feature-packed 32in set we've ever seen, using genuinely cutting-edge technology to deliver outstanding pictures and sound. So we guess it's a classic case of if you want the best, you just have to pay for it.
Philips 32PFL9705: Verdict
With a price tag of £1,300 for a 32-inch TV, the 32PFL9705 was always going to have to try harder than most to justify its cost. But it succeeds in pretty emphatic fashion.
For starters, its feature count is absolutely enormous, including unprecedented multimedia support and the most powerful picture processing engine in the business. Plus it just so happens to produce the best picture we've seen on a 32-inch flat TV, accompanied for a change by superb sound.
The 32PFL9705 starts to win your heart as soon as you look at it, thanks to its sleek metallic chassis and ingenious Ambilight system.
Then, after a brief bout of brain battering, you also grow to love its huge multimedia support, especially the full internet access.
And finally you regularly find your jaw gaping open in amazement at just how astonishingly good for a 32in set its picture and sound quality are.
Only the well-heeled need apply. It's not a set for the technically faint-hearted, either, for getting the best from it requires regular revisits to some of the countless picture adjustments. Finally, you can see haloing if you have to watch from much of an angle and the omission of a Freeview HD tuner is a bizarre oversight.
Philips likes to push boundaries with its flagship 9000 Series TVs and it's done this again in grandstanding style with the 32PFL9705. What's more, it's done it on two fronts.
In feature terms, its expanded its multimedia support with the unique MediaConnect system, offering a really great way of getting your TV and PC to work together for people not comfortable with the usual more inscrutable TV file streaming approaches.
The other area where the 32PFL9705 breaks new ground is with its picture quality. The use of direct LED lighting with local dimming really does make the set the best picture performer the 32-inch world has ever produced. And you can't ask for much more than that.
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