Philips 50PFL7956T £1999
3rd Jan 2012 | 16:17
Philips' ultra-widescreen Edge LED TV sets the gold standard for movies
This LED TV may have unusual, almost unique, dimensions that lend it an almost futuristic appearance.
But the ultra-widescreen Philips 50PFL7956T Cinema 21:9 Gold's strange shape will make a lot of sense to committed movie buffs.
The reason for its existence, of course, is CinemaScope. Films have been shot in the super-wide 2.39:1 format for yonks, and even now most films are presented on DVD or Blu-ray with black bars above and below them.
The flipside with this TV is that anything not filmed in CinemaScope – such as broadcast TV programmes – theoretically need black bars on each side. The Philips 50PFL7956T promises to upsize regular widescreen fare to fit well on the super-wide Edge LED panel, which it does primarily by zooming in slightly.
Given its widescreen shape, the Philips 50PFL7956T is a TV strictly for movies, although its smaller size indicates that it's aimed just as much at living rooms as at dedicated home cinema rooms.
It's dressed to impress, too, with an ever-so-slightly gold-tinged metallic silver casing that's more than skin deep. This is one of the most solid and attractive TVs we've yet seen, and eons ahead of its gloss black plastic rivals.
How it differs to the previous incarnation, the Philips 58PFL9955H, is two-fold. As well as not being nearly as expensive, the Philips 50PFL7956T – a full eight inches smaller in the diagonal, but only 32mm in depth – has a much smaller footprint. It's very difficult to compare Cinema 21:9 sets with 'normal' TVs because of the way they're measured, but for the sake of argument it's best to think of the Philips 50PFL7956T as a stretched 42-inch TV – the footprint is roughly similar.
This is actually Philips' smallest version of its now two-strong Cinema 21:9 range, with the flagship 58-inch Philips 58PFL9956 Cinema 21:9 Platinum also available.
Aside from width, the major difference between the two ultra-widescreen TVs is their flavour of 3D. The Philips 50PFL7956T sports the cheap passive 3D system, which Philips calls Easy 3D, while the 58PFL9956 pushes its flagship credentials by using the pricier, more detailed active shutter 3D system, termed 3D Max in the Philips lexicon.
This dual approach to 3D is an odd one, but seems to have been adopted to ensure that some of Phillips' mid-range standout TVs remain affordable. Relatively speaking, that's the case here - despite its high price, this is an attempt to get 21:9 ratio televisions into the mainstream.
Elsewhere in Philips' rather late arriving arsenal are some good value, more normally proportioned offerings. The entry-level 7000 Series consists of the 37-inch Philips 37PFL7666, 42-inch Philips 42PFL7666 and the 47-inch Philips 47PFL7666.
Next up is the 8000 Series, with the 40-inch Philips 40PFL8606, 46-inch Philips 46PFL8605 and the 52-inch Philips 52PFL8605 that all swap Easy 3D for 3D Max.
Finally there's the no-holds-barred 9000 Series, whose star turn is undoubtedly the 46-inch Philips 46PFL9706, which uniquely comes complete with a Moth Eye Filter – a reflection-eliminating nanostructure, if you're asking. The 9000 Series also includes the 52-inch Philips 52PFL9706, although this one doesn't have Moth Eye.
Although those with no interest in watching Blu-ray discs in full super-widescreen glory will see nothing but novelty in the Philips 50PFL7956T, the TV's got more going for it than mere dimensional rarity.
Using an Edge LED backlight, the Philips 50PFL7956T's 2560 x 1980 pixel panel can show 3D material and make 2D-3D conversions on the fly from any source. Its thoroughly advanced Pixel Precise HD video processing is fitted with 400Hz Perfect Motion Rate, HD Natural Motion and Super Resolution.
For a full examination of the Wi-Fi-powered Net TV, read our Philips 42PFL7666H review, but for now know that you'll find BBC iPlayer, YouTube, TuneIn Radio, Aupeo, Picasa, Acetrax and Box Office 365. Attach a wireless keyboard and you can type straight into the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as well as into a dedicated web browser.
Ambilight Spectra 2, Philips' two-sided version of this unique lighting tech, makes an appearance on the Philips 50PFL7956T. It's actually a bit of a let-down - although the dynamic light show that accompanies a film or TV is technically as impressive as ever, the two sides are so far away from each other that the effect is not as cohesive or enveloping as it can be.
A third strip of Ambilight LEDs along the top of the TV is needed, although its no-show simply helps to explain the Philips 50PFL7956T's relatively low price.
That said, there's a surprise in store for gamers. Although they're not the target audience of the Philips 50PFL7956T, the extra-large screen can be used for two-player full screen gaming, if both players use adapted 3D specs.
Two pairs of regular 3D glasses are included in the box, but for this feature to work you'll need to either buy the £50 PTA436 pack of two special gaming glasses from Philips, or make them yourself – the pack contains one pair that uses two left eye lenses, and one that has only right eye lenses in. Geddit? Forget 3D effects – the 3D glasses are used here not to create depth, but to make only half the pixels visible to each player.
Connections on the Philips 50PFL7956T are fairly standard for a high-end TV; four HDMI inputs (including one on the side panel, and one that's Audio Return Channel-compatible) are joined by a set of component video inputs, an RGB Scart, a couple of USB slots, an Ethernet LAN port, an SD card slot (for Net TV downloads only), an optical digital audio output, ports for a PC link and a headphones slot.
One of those USB slots can be used to make recordings from the Philips 50PFL7956T's built-in Freeview HD tuner, as well as power a record/pause feature. Streaming digital files across a home network is also possible.
Ease of use
One of the key features of the Philips 50PFL7956T is its stretching and cropping of various video inputs. While 2.39:1-shaped Blu-ray movies are simply cropped top and bottom to present their full screen, an Auto Fill mode ensures that everything else fits. Sort of.
We tried it with a range of TV broadcasts and DVDs, and found that some background actors lost their heads, while other footage, such as sports and movies, generally didn't suffer. In fact it often looked amazing. Auto fill isn't perfect, but there's never any nasty stretching involved.
While Net TV, along with many of the Philips 50PFL7956T's core functions, is easy to use, Multi View turns out to be a let-down. Despite the screen being so wide, the provision of a main screen and a thumbnail beside ought to work. One of those windows must be Net TV, and unless you're watching something on BBC iPlayer, there's not a lot of point to Multi View.
That goes double because the web browser option in Web TV is slow and hard to navigate. Reach for your smartphone is you want to surf the web.
The remote control is nicely designed, with an oval shape, although this time the metallic finish is merely painted plastic. One thing we did notice was the remote's lack of a dedicated 3D button. If you're using a 3D Blu-ray player, this makes no difference - the TV automatically prompts you to choose 3D mode. But if you're watching from a Sky or Virgin Media box, as we were, it's necessary to dive into a long series of on-screen menus to find the side-by-side 3D format option. It's not a problem as such, but the TV doesn't make it easy, and as a consequence the instant 3D effect is lost.
Cover up the logo on front of the Philips 50PFL7956T and we would still know that this was a Philips TV. Not because of the shape – something only Phillips has experimented with – but because of its Pixel Precise HD engine.
The Philips 50PFL7956T arrived to us in its default settings, which meant all of its key slices of tech, including Perfect Motion Rate, Super Resolution and HD Natural Motion, were on their medium settings.
Take Downton Abbey as a great example of how Philips addresses a TV's picture. This is a period drama, and on most TVs, appears as such. However, aside from cropping the top and bottom of the footage to make it fit the 21:9 panel, the Philips 50PFL7956T's circuitry creates a picture that is highly detailed, with an unusual depth even into 2D mode – so much so that some of the characters appear slightly divorced from the background.
Put simply, the out-of-the-box picture on the Philips 50PFL7956T looks processed, although whether that's a positive or negative depends on your point of view. We found that HD Natural Motion successfully put an end to blur and judder, especially from Blu-ray discs, although it is best left on its lowest setting. It's worth playing around with the settings (something that can be time-consuming) because simply switching off Pixel Precise HD's tech instantly softens the picture.
Put on a Blu-ray movie – in this case Black Swan – and the results are astounding. Presented in the correct aspect ratio, it's a real screen-filling treat. Watched in the well-judged ISF Night setting in a blackout, the detail is clean enough to please and colours remain on the right side of lifelike.
The contrast and peak whites are not as impressive as they could be, which is down to the use of Edge LED technology - it must work even harder to illuminate the bigger panel.
Aside from the drop in brightness that active shutter 3D systems suffer (to say nothing of their glasses' high price and heavy design), 3D images on the Philips 50PFL7956T are punchy and lively. There is a noticeable drop in resolution (half the number of pixels are available to each eye when compared with active shutter screens) and horizontal lines are visible on the screen – the major reasons why passive 3D pictures aren't quite as involving, or as impactful, as active shutter 3D pictures.
Legends of Flight 3D from 3D Blu-ray provides some comfortable aeronautical excitement with a stack of well photographed sequences where the front effects aren't so in-yer-face as cinematic 3D fare. Donning the 3D specs does add a touch of contrast, but peak whites aren't clean and there was a slight lack of shadow detail inside the cockpit.
Those slight weaknesses of the panel are tempered by the fact that it's perfectly possible to watch 3D in a brightly-lit room – and there's not even a tinge of crosstalk. Easy 3D seems a wise move, but bear in mind that very few 3D movies have been released to make it a fair fight.
We're not sold on 2D-3D conversion, although the reason for its existence is simple: unless you like children's animation, there's really not much to watch in 3D. Still, the Philips 50PFL7956T's attempt at adding this to A Christmas Carol is rather lame.
When the credits roll, from three names presented on the screen, the bottom one is discernibly further forward than the others. There's very obviously an averaging-out algorithm at work that's not paying attention to what's being shown on the screen. Needless to say, the 3D effect in the movie itself was hugely random, yet occasionally impressive.
A blast of Pro Evolution 2012 from an Xbox 360 looked simply awesome. The stretched aspect ratio really suits such games, and the Philips 50PFL7956T in Game mode provided crisp and blur-free results that were blighted only by the slight lack of contrast.
The Dual View mode works well indeed, with the exclusive view for two separate players really making a difference in a two-player game, something that brings a tactical change to the game play itself. It's an excellent trickle-down from 3D tech, and arguably both just as useful and similarly as limited, with both features giving fairly soft-looking images.
Sound and value
With a decent stereo effect and more power than most TVs, the Philips 50PFL7956T is certainly one of the better audio performers. However, despite the 34W power – and maybe because of its sheer width – we weren't blown away by the various audio modes.
Almost all Philips TVs have better-than-average speakers, but the absence of separate woofers on the rear slashes the bass on offer and produces a soundstage that despite being powerful, seems a little thin in the mid-range.
Considering the almost exclusively movie-based diet of the Philips 50PFL7956T, we'd suggest hooking it up to a home cinema system, which we'd expect most potential buyers to already own.
The 50PFL7956 is Philip's most affordable attempt at CinemaScope, but that's tempered by the fact that this is a smaller TV. In our opinion, it's a much better fit for the average living room than bigger versions, and deserves to sell well despite its high price.
It's the rarity of the CinemaScope-shape screen that you're paying for here; most of the same tech and special features can be found on Phillips' circa £800 TVs, which puts into perspective just how much of a treat the Philips 50PFL7956T is. And, make no mistake, movie fans will love this television – there are few better ways to watch a 2D Blu-ray disc.
Gamers might be attracted by the Dual View option, although this feature is possible on any passive 3D TV; regular fullscreen gaming – as with all regular widescreen 16:9 footage, including all broadcast TV – is zoomed in on to make it fit the screen. Heads can disappear in the process, so a movie lover's dream could be an annoyance for those watching prime-time TV.
The Philips 50PFL7956T, then, isn't an all-rounder, but instead a specialised, highly capable and surprisingly versatile choice.
Is the Philips 50PFL7956T the first affordable CinemaScope TV? Not quite, but this effort from Philips halves the price of a 21:9 aspect ratio telly while also halving the resolution of 3D. Using Edge LED backlighting and passive Easy 3D tech, the Philips 50PFL7956T is a noticeable step down from the flagship 58-inch – and £4,000+ – 58PFL9956, but here the experience is smaller, so those compromises on ultimate quality are less of a problem.
With no flickering or crosstalk, and an overall more versatile, watchable experience, we'd rate Easy 3D a success on the Philips 50PFL7956T. A fabulously made TV, the Philips 50PFL7956T's headline act of removing black bars from Blu-ray is where it impresses most, displaying bags of detail and well-judged colour, though some games also benefit from a stretch.
Aside from games, the way the Philips 50PFL7956T handles anything that isn't in the 21:9 format leads to occasionally bizarre decapitations, while engaging the 3D mode on anything other than 3D Blu-ray is long-winded, and can look soft. Meanwhile, the two LED strips that power Ambilight are simply too far apart to be fully immersive, Net TV's provision of BBC iPlayer is really all the online platform has going for it, and there's a slight lack of contrast that's more noticeable because of the stretched display.
A living room-sized version of a CinemaScope TV aimed at those who mostly watch Blu-ray movies, the Philips 50PFL7956T comes with a raft of must-have features – including a clean and easy 3D mode. The fullscreen option for split-screen games provides a tempting trickle-down tech from 3D, and some games look fabulous in a 21:9 shape, although this TV is at its best when it's simply removing the black bars from Blu-ray discs – and presenting them with more detail than ever.