Sony KDL-37EX524 £649
30th Aug 2011 | 14:21
The fast-disappearing 37-inch category gets a shot in the arm courtesy of this Sony model
Not so long ago, 37-inch TVs were the most popular size in Britain. In 2011, though, they seem to be a dying breed, with fewer and fewer models finding their way into TV ranges. Sony, for instance, only has two 37-inch TVs in its latest range, including the KDL-37EX524 we're looking at today.
This gradual 37-inch death seems more down to manufacturing issues and the relatively little difference (in price as well as size terms) between 37-inch and 40-inch TVs than the fact that there aren't still plenty of UK punters who want to buy one, though. So here's hoping that the 37EX524 gives the increasingly ill-served 37-inch TV fanbase something to sink their teeth - and cash - into.
The EX524 series sits relatively low down Sony's current TV range, so it's no surprise to find the 37EX524 shorn of any 3D playback options. It's also predictably not one of Sony's opulently designed 'Monolith' sets, with their sheer glass fascias. Instead it looks reasonably but certainly not spectacularly cute in its attractively two-tone but disappointingly plasticky and 'raised bezel' chassis. It's very slim, though, thanks to its edge LED illumination system.
With no 3D talents to yell about, it falls to the 37EX524's Bravia Internet Video (BIV) services to provide its headline feature, along with a wealth of multimedia support that includes DLNA streaming and file playback from USB storage devices.
Alongside the 37EX524 can be found the 32-inch 32EX524, the 40-inch 40EX524 and the 46-inch 46EX524, while moving one step higher up Sony's range gets you to Sony's NX723 series, which introduce 200Hz scanning, toughened 'Gorilla Glass', and Sony's Monolithic design.
If the EX524 series is too rich for your blood, Sony's next series down is the EX523 series, which lack the USB HDD recording and presence sensor functions of the EX524s. But for now, let's get back to the business of putting the 37EX524 through its paces.
For a 37-inch TV costing just £649 - or even less if you search about online - the 37EX524 has a decent bounty of connections. Particularly impressive is the level of multimedia support, thanks to a LAN port and two USBs.
The LAN, rather brilliantly, can handle file streaming from DLNA PCs, as well as supporting the set's built-in Freeview HD tuner and providing access to Sony's BIV online system.
As for the USBs, they can play a decent selection of photo, music and video file types, though some of you may be disappointed to hear that MKV-wrapped files are not on the menu. You can also make the TV Wi-Fi by adding one of Sony's optional USB Wi-Fi dongles, and in a change from the EX523 series, you can even record from the Freeview HD tuner to a suitably formatted USB HDD drive.
Just bear in mind that as with all integrated TV USB recording solutions, you can only play back recordings you make this way onto the same TV you recorded them on. You can't stick the USB drive into a PC or portable media player and watch your recordings on that.
The other key discovery among the 37EX524's connections is a healthy count of four HDMIs - the same number you'd expect to see on a much higher-end TV.
Exploring the BIV online service next proves to be a very rewarding experience. The main reason for this is that Sony continues to focus its online efforts on delivering video streaming services rather than lots of the more 'apps-like' content delivered in such bewildering and often pointless quantities by some rival Smart TV platforms.
The full list of Sony video services on offer at the time of writing (the exact list can change at any time, of course, given the cloud-based nature of the content) shapes up like this:
The BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 broadcaster catch up services; a Sky News video headlines service; Sony's rather excellent Entertainment Television library of older TV series, taking in everything from Rescue Me to Diff'rent Strokes; LoveFilm; Sony's Qriocity movie library; Eurosport; YouTube; a new 3D experience channel (which obviously doesn't work on the non-3D 37EX524!); Billabong; blip.tv; Daily Motion; Ustudio; health and fitness videos from Livestrong.com; golfing tutorial videos from golflink.com; the Singing Fool music video channel; access to Video Podcast services; and a duo of foreign language options. There also used to be a collection of videos from the HowCast network, but these didn't seem to still be available during this test.
Non-video streaming services comprise Sony's subscription-based Qriocity music network, a 'Berliner Philharmonkier' section, concerts from moscham.com, and the National Public Radio service.
Making up the rest of the BIV 'smart TV' system are the Picasa online photo storage site, Facebook, Twitter, Skype support (if you add an optional webcam) and an open Web browser.
The only bum note in all this is the Web browser, which features text so small that it's pretty much illegible. Trying to surf the Net via a normal TV remote isn't a particularly fun experience, either.
As might be expected of an affordable TV with so much multimedia functionality up its sleeve, the 37EX524 isn't especially overburdened with picture processing features. The screen is a standard 50Hz affair, and there's no frame interpolation system onboard to reduce the potential for motion blur you get with any LCD panel.
There are a few fine-tuning 'toys' within the 37EX524's onscreen menus, though. These include no less than three different noise reduction tools (a general one, plus one dedicated to MPEG noise and one dedicated to dot noise), a black level booster, a multi-level dynamic contrast system, Sony's 'Live Colour' system, and a white balance adjustment that lets you tweak the gain and bias of the RGB colour elements.
Two more little 'fun' features worth running by you are TrackID and the presence sensor. The former of these rather brilliantly manages to identify successfully almost any music track that might be playing on TV when you press the Track ID button. The presence sensor, meanwhile, can detect whether anyone is in the room or not, and turn off the screen to save power if it doesn't think anyone is watching.
TVs which use edge LED lighting like the 37EX524 tend to deliver extremely bright, punchy pictures but suffer from problems during dark scenes - in particular inconsistent brightness levels, where pools or clouds of extra brightness appear over some parts of the picture, especially in the corners. The 37EX524, though, turns edge LED preconceptions completely on their head.
For actually, its presentation of dark scenes is superb for its price level. After nudging down the backlight and contrast settings from the levels used by the TV's presets, dark scenes look almost completely uniform in their blackness. Even the extreme corners of the screen hardly vary at all from the black levels at the centre - an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that the black level response being delivered is exceptionally rich and deep by LCD TV standards.
The grey pall that hangs over dark scenes on so many LCD TVs - especially ones at the more affordable end of the market - just isn't there. Instead black colours actually look black, and you're not left peering through cloudiness for shadow details. It's really reassuring to discover in the shape of the 37EX524 that affordable edge LED TVs can deliver dark scenes convincingly after all.
The catch is that, as hinted earlier, the settings used to deliver the 37EX524's impeccable black level response also leave the picture looking a bit low on brightness compared with typical edge LED sets. You just don't get the same explosive colours and retina-endangering peak whites routinely delivered by edge LED TVs from the likes of Samsung and LG.
While this could be considered a fairly serious flaw for anyone who's looking for a TV to install in a very bright environment, though, for everyone else it's certainly not the end of the world. In fact, the slightly subdued look to the 37EX524's colours helps them contain some really fine tonal subtlety, as well as producing an overall tone that's unusually cinematic, for want of a better world.
Certainly there didn't seem to be as much need as usual to spend any significant time tinkering with the provided colour adjustment tools.
The 37EX524's rather muted appearance does play a part in a further significant shortcoming of the set, though: a lack of apparent sharpness in HD pictures. The way very bright screens can push out every pixel of detail in a picture can help their HD pictures appear much sharper than they actually are, especially during scenes containing a mixture of bright and dark content. But the 37EX524 just hasn't got the light output 'punch' to deliver this detail illusion.
Nor is the lack of brightness the only or even the main reason why the 37EX524's HD pictures look slightly soft. For the set also quite obviously loses resolution when it's showing motion due to its panel response time. This is a common failing with budget, 50Hz TVs, but the extent of the 'blurring' on the 37EX524 is slightly higher than it is on some rival sets at the same approximate market level.
HD pictures do still look HD, it must be stressed, despite the twin 'softeners' of its motion blur and lack of vibrancy. But the HD impact certainly isn't as emphatic as it is on some rival sets.
Turning to standard definition, the motion blur remains - maybe even increases a little. But for the most part the 37EX524 remains a more than satisfactory handler of standard def sources, predominantly because its new X-Reality processing engine does a fine job of suppressing block and dot noise.
The final issue to raise is a loss of contrast, colour saturation and backlight consistency if you have to watch the TV from an angle of 30-40 degrees or more. But of course, this is true also of just about every other LCD TV.
Sound, value and ease of use
Sony's recent flat TV output has been rather hit and miss where sound is concerned, but happily the 37EX524 falls marginally into the 'hit' camp. It sounds more powerful than most very slim TVs, leading at sensible volumes to a decently open, clear mid-range - with authentic vocals - and some accurate and plentiful treble detailing.
Just don't try and run the set too loud though, for there's a clear point beyond which the speakers suddenly give up the ghost quite spectacularly, causing vocals to fuzz and the TV's bodywork to buzz.
How cheap you find the 37EX524 essentially depends very much on how much you want/value its Bravia Internet Video service. For if you're not attracted by BIV's charms, then the set's merely solid picture quality might not be enough in itself to justify the set's cost. If you do fancy an extensive on-tap stream of on-demand video, though, the 37EX524's BIV charms make it look like a pretty decent deal.
Ease of use
Here Sony giveth and Sony taketh away, it seems. On the 'giving' side, Sony has revamped its BIV onscreen menu system to good effect, making the wealth of content it carries much easier to navigate than it was on previous generations of BIV TVs.
The rest of Sony's revamped onscreen menus, though, aren't nearly as helpful. They're confusingly presented, confusingly divided in terms of what features go in which menu, and unhelpfully organised, with access to some of the most commonly needed features requiring you to cycle past lots of far less useful features en route.
The remote control is a decent effort, though. Its gently concave top edge feels comfortable to use, and the button layout is spacious and reasonably logical. The only potential cause of trouble is the use of a concentric circle button layout at the remote's 'heart'. But even this, once you've got used to it, shouldn't cause you any consistent problems.
Sony's KDL-37EX524 gets off to an attractive start simply by virtue of offering something surprisingly few other TVs do right now: a 37in screen size. And it builds on this initial appeal with an excellent array of connections, complete with USB multimedia playback and DLNA PC streaming support.
Probably its star attraction for its price point though (given that it doesn't have either 3D or any particularly notable picture quality adjustments to its name) is its online, on-demand video service.
Dubbed Bravia Internet Video, this offers more video streaming content than any other current online service, all presented in decent quality on our standard broadband line and much of it genuinely enjoyable (the BBC iPlayer and Demand Five catch up services are particularly welcome).
Picture and sound quality are both perfectly acceptable for a reasonably affordable set, though people with very bright rooms should note that once it's been set up right, the 37EX524's pictures aren't particularly bright. A more general complaint would be that motion looks rather blurry, too, meaning that pictures - even HD ones - don't look as sharp as they ideally would.
The Bravia Internet Video online service sported by the 37EX524 continues to lead the way in terms of smart TV services that actually give you what you want on a TV: namely, lots of video content, rather than lots of pointless apps.
The set is decent looking too, and its black level response is excellent by edge LED standards, which helps it deliver impressively cinema-like pictures with Blu-ray discs. The 37EX524 sounds better than most very slim TVs too.
There's some noticeable motion blurring at times, even a little when watching HD, which can leave motion-packed sequences looking slightly soft.
The 37EX524 is not as bright once calibrated properly as many rival LED TVs which could be a problem if you're wanting to put it into a bright room. And finally the set's onscreen menus are - aside from the new BIV interface - rather fiddly.
Sony's 37EX524 is a solid enough performer with unusually cinematic pictures thanks to an excellent black level response performance that humbles many much more expensive edge LED TVs. However, ultimately some motion resolution issues and a slightly muted overall light output make it a considered rather than 'must buy' purchase for picture enthusiasts.
Its real selling point, provided it's something you're interested in, is its superb Bravia Internet Video online service, which offers considerably more interesting video streaming content - much of it free - than any rival 'smart TV' platform.
Follow TechRadar Reviews on Twitter: http://twitter.com/techradarreview