Sony KDL-32CX523 £500
10th May 2011 | 14:24
Smooth images, smartphone control and BBC iPlayer on this so-called entry-level Bravia
Sony KDL-32CX523: Overview
The 2011 batch of Bravias has been kept back a little, but rather than herald the arrival of a new lineup of big, bold, competitive and cutting-edge flatscreen TVs. The Sony KDL-32CX523 32-inch LCD TV delivers purely as a good value package. And then some.
A combination of a basic LCD panel with an integrated Freeview HD tuner ought to suit the mass market just fine and there are some surprising extras, such as smartphone app control, USB recording, wireless connectivity (via an add-on dongle), Bravia Internet Video (including BBC iPlayer, Sony's own Qriocity hub, and Lovefilm) and a new incarnation of the Xross Media Bar user interface (familiar to PS3 owners), alongside a full HD resolution. You won't, however, find 3D playback or 100Hz scanning.
The KDL-32CX523 is joined by the 40-inch KDL-32CX523 in the CX range, the latter selling for around £700. That '3' on the end of the model number proves crucial, since Sony also sells the non-Freeview D-equipped CX520 series that, despite lacking Freeview HD, is only a shade cheaper (the 32-inch KDL-32CX520, for example, sells for around £650) and are otherwise identical in basic spec to the model reviewed here. The CX520 Series also includes the 37-inch KDL-37CX523.
Next stop up on the Bravia bandwagon is Sony's Essential series; there you'll find LED backlighting, 100Hz panels and 3D capability, as well as Bravia Internet Video and an Opera web browser.
The corresponding model, the KDL-32EX723, costs around £749 and is one of the smallest 3DTVs around. It's joined by the 37-inch KDL-37EX723 (£900), 40-inch KDL-40EX723 (£1,000), 46-inch KDL-46EX723 (£1,400) and 55-inch KDL-55EX723 (£1,700) models.
Sony KDL-32CX523: Features
Unlike Sony's KDL-32EX723, this identically sized product is in the pared-down CX range.
The use of an old-fashioned (or should that be budget-conscious?) CCFL-lit LCD panel rather than a LED-backlit model could be a cause for concern if you're allergic to pictures that feature the kind of uniform brightness that produces greys instead of blacks.
Even basic LCD panels are getting better at reproducing blacks, but movie aficionados more into Blu-ray than Bargain Hunt are advised to look elsewhere in Sony's predominantly LED-based Bravia range for more convincing contrast.
The same goes for those after 3D, but don't make the mistake of thinking that this is a bog-standard, basic TV. For starters, the KDL-32CX523 uses a full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) panel, something that was far from standard-issue only a couple of years ago.
Other brand new functions on this so-called entry-level TV comprise smartphone control, Skype Video calling and Track ID. The latter is a Gracenote database-powered system that enables you to discover the name of a piece of music almost instantly. However, in our tests it produced only error messages.
Don't forget to download the MediaRemote app for Android or Apple phones; it's a genuinely engaging way of controlling the TV, and, though it's not quite perfect, the gesture control will be easy for any smartphone user to master.
It works only if the KDL-32CX523 is on a home network, something that's done most easily by purchasing a Wi-Fi USB dongle from Sony for around £70, though there's also the free option to hook up a LAN cable to the TV's rear.
In theory, this USB device enables simple and free voice and video calls over the web, but the feature was nowhere to be seen on our sample. Cue an imminent firmware update.
In the absence of 100Hz frame insertion (MotionFlow, in Sony's case), it's left to the proprietary X-Reality Picture Engine to bring images up to scratch. We expect it to work wonders with DVDs and video streamed across the web, which it's designed to muster more from without creating any nasty side-effects, such as picture noise. There's also a collection of 'scene select' picture presets for different sources of video.
Showing eight channels over two hours (having tuned in HD as well as SD channels), the KDL-32CX523's electronic programme guide is peerless in its design. It's accessed from the new Xross Media Bar that stretches only along the bottom of the screen, with the pop-up lists (which used to obscure anything underneath) now appearing on the right-hand side. Meanwhile, the channel you're watching is reduced to a window about two-thirds of the size of the screen. Sony's software eggheads have done a great job.
Next on the XMB comes a tab for Recordings. Attach a HDD to the KDL-32CX523 via one of the set's two rear-mounted USB slots and it's possible to make recordings, though only if capacity is above 32GB. That's a shame, since similar features on rival brands enable 2GB USB memory sticks to power a simple pause/rewind live TV function. Not here. Recording flexibility is similar to other brands in that it's only possible to record what you're watching, or when the TV is switched off – you can't change channels while you record.
Bravia Internet Video is similar to the 2010 crop, comprising BBC iPlayer, Lovefilm, Demand 5, YouTube, Eurosport, Sky News, Moshcam, Australia) and a host of either minority interest services (GolfLink) and downright trash (SingingFool). Video and music on demand is also available through Sony's own Qriocity service, though both were offline when we tried to review their progress.
Nearby in the otherwise empty (where have the Bravia widgets gone?) Applications folder is a web browser from Opera that can surf the net to your heart's content – or, rather, the opposite. Slow to load and presented far too small to read, this service is, in practice, completely useless.
A list of recently visited places – including MP3 files and online content as well as TV channels – sits next to an input selector and a Media tab. From USB sticks we managed to get MKV, MPEG4 and WMV files to play, which covers the likes of DivX and DivX HD. MP3 and WMA music, and JPEG photos are also supported.
Accessed through the same bright 'n' breezy file system on the XMB we managed to stream the same collection of files from a networked Mac, though we were also able to play AVCHD and MOV video files, too.
Sony KDL-32CX523: Picture quality
Picture quality from streamed video is better than expected. A five-minute programme from uStudio on Bryce Canyon in HD was faultless aside from the odd juddery vertical camera pan.
A far lower quality news clip video from Eurosport was much more blurry, but oh so clean. The X-Reality engine seemingly glosses over the tell-tale signs of SD content – jagged edges and picture noise – on a full HD screen, which doesn't bring any great benefit in terms of extra details, but it's far less offensive to HD-trained eyes.
A trailer of 2012 in DivX HD format also shows off the KDL-32CX523's excellent colour palette, though there's always a touch of polarisation in files such as these.
We also noticed more signs of what turns out to be one of this TV's weaknesses: motion blur. It's barely noticeable for much of the time, but even slow camera pans can cause an ugly judder.
The KDL-32CX523 lacks any frame insertion technology, so the fact that there's some blur on this 50Hz image is no great surprise. We also spotted it in our Blu-ray test disc Donnie Darko, though the issue wasn't as serious as we'd feared.
In the same way that online fare is treated with care, so too are Freeview channels, which look clean and free from too many jagged edges or visible pixellation. It's an unusual approach from Sony, but it's almost as if the circuitry behind X-Reality is visibly trying to remove the effect of the full HD panel's extra pixels and it works a treat.
It is possible to tweak the basic picture parameters, but Sony would rather you used its seven different presets; Cinema, Sports, Game, Photo, Music, General and Graphics modes are all accessible via the Scene button on the remote.
Still, we wanted to see what could be done about the average contrast, so dived into the set's Advanced menus. There you'll find a Black Corrector (useful if left on Low mode, but introducing a forced look if any higher), Advanced Contrast Enhancer (best left off), a Gamma adjuster and Live Colour, the latter is only worth using on its lowest setting. Any higher and inaccuracies don't so much creep as thunder on to the screen. It's the quickest way to get sunburned and, in any case, the native colours are just about adequate.
We also spotted Film Mode, but don't mistake this for frame interpolation technologies used on a lot of displays; it's nothing of the sort and doesn't appear to affect the picture in any major way.
Bright hi-def material is laden with detail, though that's not the case with the gloom of Donnie Darko. Contrast is greater than you might expect at this spec and price, but darker areas of the picture are relatively feature-less; the likes of Black Corrector and Advanced Contrast Enhancer can be used, but they only make these areas blacker, not more realistic. The problem isn't terrible, but it leaves the KDL-32CX523 light years away from a good plasma.
Sony KDL-32CX523: Sound, Value and ease of use
Fitted with 20W speakers, this 32-incher is never going to reproduce the grumble of a home cinema, but it does a good job with what its got. The Eighties hits in Donnie Darko are reasonably well reproduced, though the darker, more morose orchestral pieces later in the film aren't as spooky as they could be.
Overall, there's a lack of any sparkle, but high volumes don't distort. Adequate, then, for general living room duties, though steer clear of the treble-heavy Clear Voice mode.
On build quality and looks the KDL-32CX523 just about gets by. We're still convinced that 2010's 'monolithic' look was down to a designers' sabbatical rather than the creation of a revolutionary new look, and the 2011 team has been similarly sluggish. The KDL-32CX523 is reasonably streamlined, but its back-to-basics look leaves it far behind Samsung TVs, for starters.
Its 70mm depth seems reasonable at this price, though the width of the actual screen surround – at around 45mm – is a tad too much.
An otherwise sleek-looking set that hides some TV controls behind its left-hand side, the truth about its construction is revealed upon close inspection; that brushed metallic 'look' is just that.
In terms of what you get for your money, the KDL-32CX523 should be considered as a replacement for Sony's outgoing KDL-32EX403, though this updated set adds some unique smartphone, record-to-USB and (soon) Skype features which, for the money, adds up to quite a haul.
Ease of use
The newly designed menus are reasonably easy to skip through, if a little long-winded, but there's no doubting that the KDL-32CX523 – and by extension, all Sony TVs – are among the easiest to use.
Aside from some onscreen menus occasionally being a little sluggish, our major problem with the KDL-32CX523's remote was its insistence on controlling external AV kit. It just wouldn't stay away from a Samsung Blu-ray player we had connected-up, so much so that it proved impossible to get back to Freeview channels while a Blu-ray disc played without recourse to the iPhone app.
Sony KDL-32CX523: Final verdict
An entry-level TV with some distinctly mid-range features, the KDL-32CX523 nevertheless has an unfinished feel to it. With Skype coming soon and Track ID refusing to work on our sample, we suspect there's more to come – and there's great potential here for a value-busting living room set.
The refreshed user interface is a work of art, while the glossy and pin-sharp electronic programme guide for Freeview HD is as good-looking as the hi-def TV channels themselves.
Blu-ray and digital files are also handled well, while the X-Reality processing enables even low-rent online videos to be highly watchable on the full HD screen.
The smartphone app, while not instantly perfect, is intuitive and speedy, and helps lift the KDL-32CX523 above some of its rivals – as does the appearance of BBC iPlayer and its stablemates in the excellent Bravia Internet Video collection.
The KDL-32CX523 looks much less plasticky than most TVs of this size and price, but it's a completely uninspiring design. Without LED backlighting there's a question mark over the KDL-32CX523's contrast, and we spotted some blur and judder, too.
The lack of built-in Wi-Fi is understandable, but annoying, given the KDL-32CX523's tremendous haul of online and networking features – though the web browser proved too tricky to read.
Just as X-Reality does with poor quality video, the few niggles we have about the KDL-32CX523's ultimate picture quality should also be glossed over; this is an exciting package from Sony.
Destined to be some people's first taste of an online video hub, and with smartphone control, networking (albeit wired) and the possibility of Skype video calling for upgraders, the KDL-32CX523 has the potential to be one of the best mainstream TVs yet. The phrase 'entry-level' just got a whole lot more exciting.
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