Philips 40PFL9704 LCD TV £1800
2nd Feb 2010 | 11:34
Pricey 40-inch LED screen that pulverises plasma
Philips 40PFL9704: Overview
With tumbling prices and features galore, standing out in the big-screen TV market isn't easy.
However, Philips has managed it with distinction in the last 12 months - and amazingly the 40PFL9704 tops its previous successes.
It's part of Philips' 9000 series LED Pro range of TVs, which also includes the 46-inch Philips 46PFL9704.
A brushed aluminium frame and three-sided Ambilight system lends this 40" LCD TV a unique look, but it's the sheer quality of its hi-def pictures - and, more unusually, its built-in speakers - that give the 40PFL9704 the enviable status of being one of the best flatscreen TVs around.
Its on-screen success is largely down to what Philips calls LED Pro, a backlight system that features 224 LED lights arranged behind the entire screen, which can switch on and off individually.
Philips uses LED Pro to differentiate the 40PFL9704 from other less serious variants of LED tech available.
Compare this Philips' 'local dimming' system (where any segment of the screen can be in total darkness while the segment beside can be at maximum brightness) to 'edge' LED lighting from the likes of Sony, Samsung and LG.
Edge LED systems are self-explanatory - LED lights around the frame shine light into the panel, potentially leaving the middle of the screen far less dynamic.
But although the 40PFL9704's LED Pro system seems relatively high-end, it's very similar to that found on Sharp's recent sub-£700 LED TVs; at £1,800, this Philips is going to have to put in an exemplary performance.
Picture quality on this Full HD set is given a further boost by Philips own Perfect Pixel HD engine, the most interesting parts of which are a 200Hz system and Perfect Natural Motion, circuitry that's designed to rid Blu-ray playback of blur and judder, respectively.
Ins and outs aren't typical either, with a stunning five HDMI ports included alongside a multimedia USB port and, best of all, a built-in Wi-Fi module.
The latter allows the 40PFL9704 to stream music, video and photos from a computer on the same home network, though its primary function is to power this set's Net TV feature.
A collection of widgets include some giving you access to YouTube videos and Ebay, and are operated solely from the TV's remote control, a luscious affair that matches the TV's silky metallic design.
Adding to its aura is Ambilight Spectra 3, a collection of yet more LED lights around the outside of the TV that projects coloured light on to the walls behind
Designed to reduce eye strain, Ambilight underlines the 40PFL9704's high-end status. It's presented here in its three-sided version, with lights around the sides and top of the rear of the TV.
Elsewhere in the 9704 Series is a 46-incher, while those after something even more unique should head for Philips' 56PFL9954H. Otherwise known as Cinema 21:9, that £3,500 LCD TV can present Blu-ray discs in their native 2.35:1 or 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Philips 40PFL9704: Picture quality
The 40PFL9704's performance with Blu-ray is irresistible.
Contrast is stunning, with a plasma-like richness to dark areas of the image.
During a space combat sequence in Star Trek on Blu-ray, the fine lights of far-off star systems are visible, with no halo whatsoever; LED Pro's promise of local dimming is a reality and the screen hosts stunning contrast all over the display area.
Better still, the 40PFL9704's wide viewing angle means you can watch from anywhere without any loss of colour or contrast - something that's almost unheard of on an LCD TV (don't let the 40PFL9704's use of LED tech confuse you - this is an LCD TV at heart, which has been updated with a different backlighting system that aims to be more subtle).
Though startling contrast is the 40PFL9704's most delightful feature, it's run pretty close by Perfect Natural Motion.
Working only with discs, not live TV, this tech estimates motion in the picture and corrects the judder - and it does it potently.
With Perfect Natural Motion on its lowest setting, Star Trek's opening scene of a young Kirk racing a Chevrolet towards the Canyon is very fluent and easy to watch, though we did notice the occasional flicker.
In another scene where Kirk and Spock walk down the steps of Starfleet Academy, a noticeable flicker rings the edges of actors passing quickly through the shot in both the foreground and background.
The 200Hz system, which can only be used if Perfect Natural Motion is on at least the minimum setting, is slightly less accomplished.
During a panning close-up of fighting zebras from Life on Blu-ray, the 40PFL9704 arranges their markings without much judder or flicker, though there is a slight loss of resolution.
Soft Freeview pictures
In contrast to its superb HD performance, digital TV pictures look rather soft, with a sheen of processing across the picture; the 40PFL9704 does its best work on a hi-def diet.
That's the one area that lets the 40PFL9704 down - and the main reason why you should consider, and certainly compare, this LED TV's performance to that of a plasma.
Far friendlier to Freeview while being sharp enough with Blu-ray (and with comparable DVD performance), plasma's continued success is proof that LCD manufacturers still have some work to do.
Although they appear to have solved LCD tech's problem with contrast and reproducing deep black, it comes at a cost; the 40PFL9704's price tag is around twice that of a decent plasma TV.
What you don't tend to get on a plasma - aside from Panasonic's high-end sets - is a host of extras that are included on the 40PFL9704, such as Wi-Fi, Net TV and video playback from USB.
Philips 40PFL9704: Value and ease of use
Philips' provision of five HDMI inputs is very welcome, though perhaps slightly overcooked for anyone but those who solely watch TV in high definition.
They'll be useful to those with a couple of games consoles, a HDMI laptop, Sky +HD box - and anyone with designs on a Freeview HD set-top box.
Elsewhere, connectivity is just as comprehensive.
A set of component video inputs (which are capable of carrying a HD signal, bringing the 40PFL9704's possible HD feed to a maximum of six!) are provided next to a couple of Scarts, a composite video input and even an S-video port - something that's rapidly being deemed as unfashionable as almost all other TV brands remove them from new sets.
The USB port works well, while there is also a connection for a PC, some analogue stereo ins and outs, and a headphones jack.
No digital audio-out
Our only grumble about connectivity on the 40PFL9704 is the absence of an optical digital audio output.
A coaxial digital audio is provided, but the lack of optical could trouble some amplifiers.
Relegated from headline act to bit-part player on the 40PFL9704 is Ambilight, though it remains every bit the high-end feature.
Unique to Philips TVs, Ambilight Spectra 3 is a cinch to use - and as impressive as ever. Yet more LED lights are used, this time on the outside of the TV, hidden on the back of the frame.
The idea behind Ambilight is that it projects dynamically changing light that matches whatever is showing on the screen. So, for instance, images from a football match will usually mean green light from all sides, but when the camera goes to a close-up of the players, the colour of the shirts then get represented instead. It's designed largely to reduce eye strain, though it puts on an impressive light show in itself.
A dedicated button on the remote toggles Ambilight on or off, while the on-screen menus contain settings to adjust its brightness, the separation of colours, and dominant colour - from warm white, blue, cool white or a colour of your own choice.
Ambilight can even be set to shine a white light when the TV is switched off, effectively acting as a lamp in your living room - as it uses LED lights, that's a relatively eco-friendly idea.
Incidentally, having a lamp behind or alongside a big TV is a good idea; it's easier on your eyes, and helps improve the perceived contrast you see on the screen - though a £10 lamp will do the job, making Ambilight seem an expensive luxury.
While the 40PFL9704 is hardly a media mogul, it does support most major file formats stored on a USB stick.
For such an expensive TV, media playback is rather restricted; in our tests we got MP4, MPEG, WMV and some AVI video files (though not most DivX movies) to play without any issues, alongside the usual MP3, WMA music and JPEG photos.
The absence of DivX HD support is a shame, if hardly a catastrophe, but it's worth noting that bargain basement TVs from the likes of LG and Samsung can usually handle any file format you throw at them.
Stream over Wi-Fi
In contrast the 40PFL9704's built-in Wi-Fi module is a real boon. Though hardly essential for a TV, we consider it a must-have on any product purporting to be a 'connected TV'; having to either put a TV next to a broadband router or sliding an Ethernet cable around a living room will only delay the 'net TV' revolution.
That said, Wi-Fi streaming is very slow with video files, although it works much better with Net TV. It's not the best platform of its type; browsing Ebay is a slow process, and much easier to do on a PC or laptop.
Most of the other widgets are fillers, though Screen Dreams gives you free access to a photo gallery of hi-res pictures that can be displayed full-screen.
Philips 40PFL9704: Sound quality
With subwoofers strapped to its rear, the 40PFL9704 projects the most energetic sounds we've heard on a 40-inch TV this side of a Loewe screen.
Bass is slightly detached from the overall soundstage, but dialogue is always clear and far fuller than on most TVs.
A quasi 'surround' mode doesn't add much to what is already a great performance, but it does create even more depth and the occasional illusion of rear effects.
Easily worth the extra hulk it adds to the TV's chassis, the 40PFL9704's speakers are a runaway success and easily able to take the place of a separate home cinema system in a small living room.
Philips 40PFL9704: Verdict
For the last few years we've often wondered why some brands had dropped plasma in favour of LCD.
Although LCD tech continues to magnify even the slightest problem with images, Philips' LED Pro at last delivers on the tech's potential and achieves a picture quality that arguably tops the best plasmas.
Drenched in contrast and with minor blur, this elegant yet powerful LED set is decent value if you can afford it.
Blu-ray discs with this much depth are something of a revelation, while accurate colours and a huge dollop of contrast make the 40PFL9704 a set to stun. There's very little motion blur and on-screen action is lent even more fluidity by Perfect Natural Motion.
Arguably what makes this set truly stand out from the crowd is its audio. Powerful and nicely balanced stereo sound with plenty of bass is a rare thing indeed on a flatpanel TV.
The cost, of course, is slimness - this is a fat-panel compared to most - but serious AV fans will thank Philips for ignoring the trend for super-slim TVs in favour of some seriously punchy sonics.
Also worth a mention is the 40PFL9704's versatility; it's particularly good with Blu-ray and HDTV sources, but its treatment of DVD and even digital video files is also impressive.
Though undoubtedly a TV high on quality, the attractiveness of the 40PFL9704's Perfect Natural Motion feature is ultimately down to personal taste.
We're prepared to live with the odd blemish in exchange for some giddy depth, though others may not be.
The occasional - though distracting - flicker from Perfect Natural Motion aside (it's best left on its lowest setting), the only other serious concern for some will be the 40PFL9704's treatment of digital TV pics from its built-in Freeview tuner.
Soft, noisy and looking over-processed, it's a serious low point on the 40PFL9704, though thankfully this slight weakness with standard definition doesn't stretch to DVD, making this as good an all-rounder as any LCD TV.
A benchmark LED set it may be, but a good plasma - which costs half the price - remains a good alternative. Our advice is to bide your time and shop around for a lower price, but don't let the 40PFL9704 fall off your radar, because this is one luscious LED TV.
This review was written in conjunction with:
Follow TechRadar Reviews on Twitter: http://twitter.com/techradarreview