Sharp LC40LE700E LCD TV £800
3rd Feb 2010 | 09:59
Sharp delivers one the UK's most affordable LED-backlit TVs to date
Sharp LE-40LE700E: Overview
As a 40-inch LCD TV with LED backlighting, the first thing we need to do in this review is nail what bit of the LED world it belongs to.
And rather surprisingly, it turns out that it's a direct LED model - as in, one where the LED lights are positioned directly behind the screen, rather than being positioned around the screen's frame as happens with edge-lit LED LCD TVs such as Samsung's B7000 and B8000 ranges.
The reason this is surprising is that direct LED lighting is still generally considered to be the 'premium' LED approach in quality terms, and so not the technology you might expect on a self-consciously affordable LED-lit TV.
It has to be said Samsung has done a pretty solid job of countering the 'direct is best' idea with some of the arguments it's put forward to support its edge LED TVs - and there's no denying that Samsung's B7000 and B8000 ranges have been for the most part outstanding TVs.
But the direct LED TVs will always have one movie-loving trick the edge approach won't: local dimming.
In other words, with direct LED TVs it's possible to control each cluster of LEDs behind the screen individually, so that you could, for instance, have one cluster completely turned off to give a really deep black in that section of the picture, at the same time that the neighbouring cluster can be running at full brightness to give a really bright white.
You don't have to be Albert Einstein to figure out that having local control over brightness in this way can have a pretty profound impact on contrast compared with normal LCD lighting, where the image is being driven by a single, always-on light source.
The only potential problem with the system - and one we'll return to during the performance part of this test - is that there are nowhere near as many LED clusters lighting the picture as there are pixels in the full HD screen
Although Sharp is cagey about exactly how many clusters there are, we suspect the number is substantially less than the 224 being sported by, say, Philips' new PFL9704 direct LED screens.
What this means in picture terms is that the local dimming might not be able to get the light levels exactly right for every pixel in the picture.
This was certainly a big issue with early direct LED TVs, but successive generations have made huge improvements, so hopefully the 40" 40LE700E will continue this progression.
One smaller point worth making about the 40LE700E's LED make up is that it uses white dimming rather than the RGB dimming found on a few much more expensive LED-lit TVs - including Sharp's own ultra high-end XS1E models and Sony's Z4500s.
RGB dimming is reckoned to give a richer, more expansive colour performance - though we have to say from what we've seen that the cheaper white version used here arguably produces a colour palette better suited to current video standards.
Turning to rather more prosaic matters, the 40LE700E is a bit of a mixed bag aesthetically.
Viewed straight on, its glossy, minimalist bezel, bold triangular blue power light and subtle infusion of blue along the extreme bottom edge make for an attractive proposition.
But if you're sat to the side, you can't help but notice how chunky and utterly bland its rear is. In this respect, at least, edge LED-lit TVs have a clear advantage.
The 40LE700E's connections improve on those found on its cheaper LE600E siblings in that they include a handy extra HDMI - bringing the total to four - and add a USB port capable of playing MP3 audio and JPEG photo files.
All the other bits and bobs you'd normally expect on any modern TV - Scarts, CAM slot to support the Freeview tuner, digital audio output and so on - are also present and correct.
You don't get any Ethernet or wireless connectivity for accessing PC files or the internet, but we can live without this if it's one of the reasons Sharp's been able to make the LE700E so affordable.
Since it's what chiefly separates the LE700E range from the LE600E range, you could argue that the most important single feature of the 40LE700E is its 100Hz engine, there to double the frame rate and in the process hopefully reduce LCD's tendency to blur moving objects.
In fact, adding to the potential importance of this feature is the fact that our main criticism of the LE600E models has been the extent to which they suffer from motion blur. So if the 40LE700E can put this issue to bed, we're likely to be very happy bunnies.
Sharp LE-40LE700E: Picture quality
First, the good news: When the 40LE700E is at the top of its game, its pictures are really pretty brilliant.
The bad news is that it's not at the top of its game for as much of the time as we'd like it to be.
The key to the moments of brilliance we just referred to is, as we might have expected, the 40LE700E's black level response.
The local dimming engine really does enable the set to blow the straight, CCFL-lit LCD crowd out of the water when it comes to showing dark scenes without the customary, distracting pall of greyness hanging over everything that should look black.
On the 40LE700E, if something is supposed to be black, it looks black.
What's more, thanks to local dimming the 40LE700E doesn't have to reduce the brightness of the picture as a whole in order to deliver its deep, rich black response.
So where a picture contains a mix of dark and bright elements, like the battling ships against the backdrop of outer space at the start of Star Wars III, the bright bits still look punchy and dynamic despite the profound blackness around them.
There's hardly any of the general brightness dimming during dark scenes that you get with ordinary LCD TVs when they want to boost black level response.
The 40LE700E also impresses for the most part with its colours. Tones are boldly presented, with really full-on saturations that grab and hold your attention and make pictures look exceptionally dynamic without ever - well, hardly ever, anyway - slipping over into looking cartoonish.
The TV certainly hits a more natural (for video) colour temperature than any of Sharp's non-LED LCD TVs. And pictures get a boost, too, from apparently improved subtlety when it comes to showing colour blends and transitions.
As a result, images definitely feel a touch more three dimensional (without actually being 3D in any way, of course!) than we're used to seeing from Sharp.
Running through a few Blu-rays and Sky HD movies, meanwhile, reveals that the 40LE700E can pleasingly deliver a palpable sense of the extra sharpness and detail that makes HD the only video format we're really happy watching these days.
Even its standard definition pictures are pretty respectable provided the input is of a pretty decent standard in the first place.
If they're not, however, the 40LE700E doesn't have the processing cleverness to resurrect them as well as some rival TVs can - particularly the latest offerings from Philips, Samsung and even, to some extent, Toshiba.
They tend to look a little soft, as if the TV is resorting to this softening tactic to hide the fact that it doesn't know how to deal with the noise inherent to your typical low-quality Freeview broadcast.
Now that we're headed into negative territory, by far the biggest single problem we have with the 40LE700E is its motion handling.
For whenever something moves across or around the screen at any sort of speed, it blurs really quite noticeably.
This is crushingly disappointing given that the set provides 100Hz processing expressly to counter this common LCD motion problem. Yet while the 100Hz engine does reduce the amount of blurring somewhat compared with the non-100Hz LE600E series, it doesn't go far enough to satisfy.
We also noted a few motion processing side effects at times, such as a flickering around the edges of moving objects.
Though thankfully these issues tended to be much less overt if we made sure we never used the set's Film Mode in either of its Advanced settings at the same time that we used the 100Hz engine.
One final negative point finds the LE700E falling prey, predictably, to the so-called 'blooming' phenomenon, where the local dimming isn't quite local enough to prevent auras of light appearing around really stand-out bright objects when they appear against very dark backdrops.
It would be wrong of us to overstate the impact of this 'blooming', for it's actually very subtle, to the point of being invisible during 'normal' bright scenes. But it can sometimes have a subtle softening effect on really dark scenes.
Sharp LE-40LE700E: Ease of use
While we appreciate the picture setup flexibility offered by the 40LE700E, we have to say that we're not particularly big fans of Sharp's current operating system.
Its on-screen menus look a bit too 'teccy' - like they've escaped from some commercial display designed for professional installation in an office or retail environment.
On a similar note, I also feel that the menus are not particularly well organised and could likely intimidate a novice TV user.
The remote control, meanwhile, is really quite cheap and nasty for a TV that, for all its cheapness relative to the market as a whole, actually sits at the top of Sharp's current mainstream TV range.
It's made from the lightest of plastic, its buttons are small and rubbery, and their layout doesn't strike us as being particularly logical. Certainly we struggled badly to find the buttons we needed when viewing in a darkened room.
Delving deeper into the 40LE700E's features, its long and intricate on-screen menus play host to a few bits of interest - though arguably not as many as might first appear.
Definitely the most important of these on-screen menu features is a colour management system that allows a surprisingly fulsome amount of tweaking.
It's slightly oddly split across two different menu options, but in the end we got good mileage out of it in improving the colour palette considerably from the factory preset values.
Another surprisingly ambitious touch for such a self-consciously cheap TV is a gamma adjustment, while we also appreciated various noise reduction settings, a film mode and the option to turn the 100Hz system off if it doesn't suit something you're watching.
Finally, given the prominence of green issues at the moment, we guess Sharp will be keen for us to point out that as well as featuring a mercury-free chassis, the 40LE700E runs a claimed 40% more efficiently than a typical LCD TV of a similar size.
Sharp LE-40LE700E: Sound quality and value
The 40LE700E's audio probably actually falls somewhere between the three and four-star levels, but given the TV's value for a 40-inch LED TV, we've felt generous and rounded it up to the four level.
On the plus side, it's capable of revealing quite a lot of detail in a mix, and distributes this detail quite widely around your room.
The problems are familiar ones with flat TVs: a somewhat cramped mid range that sounds dense and muddy when pushed hard by an action scene, and a lack of bass response.
The 40LE700E is, to date, the cheapest 100Hz 40-42" direct LED TV on the market, and so almost by default it has to rate as good value.
Especially as it delivers the main black level benefit of direct LED technology.
However, you don't really need to spend all that much more to get yourself a slice of Samsung's edge LED action, which might not quite match the Sharp on black level, but comfortably outguns it on motion handling, making its pictures overall more natural to watch.
Sharp LE-40LE700E: Verdict
Reaching a final conclusion on the Sharp 40LE700E is a pretty complicated business, for the simple reason that it's such a mixed bag.
Its pictures deliver on its main LED promise, but let themselves down in other ways.
Its features are comprehensive in some ways, a little off the pace in others. Its sound works well at one end of the audio spectrum, but feels thin at the other. It's good value in some respects, but acts its money in others.
Even its design is schizophrenic, with a pretty front and ugly rear. Time to rub our chins and go 'hmmm...'.
The 40LE700E's price is attractive for a TV using direct LED technology and boasting 100Hz processing. The set's design is easy on the eye when you're looking right at it, too.
By far the most lovable thing about the 40LE700E, though, is the superb contrast of its pictures, as deep, deep blacks are able to sit within the same frame as crisp, dynamic colours and whites.
The picture knows how to reveal the sharpness of HD footage too, provided there's not much motion around to soften things up, and finally we really appreciated some of the set-up flexibility - particularly the colour management feature.
This one's easy: the set's motion handling problems hang over the 40LE700E's otherwise often glorious pictures like a brooding rain cloud in an otherwise clear sky.
The amount of motion blur on show, even with the 100Hz engine engaged, really can be quite distracting at times, especially during HD viewing when it suddenly takes the edge off the extreme sharpness on show during relatively static moments.
We'd have appreciated a bit more bass potential from the 40LE700E's speakers too, and a touch more crispness to the set's reproduction of average standard def sources.
In the end, the Sharp 40LE700E spends more time looking pretty damn good than it does looking blurry and disappointing, so it's certainly worth hunting down for an audition, especially if you can find it for a knock-down price on some website or other.
It's just a shame that during that audition you'll have to weigh up whether the set's motion handling weakness is a reasonable price to pay for the set's affordable black level glories.
This review was written in conjunction with:
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