Philips Aurea 42PFL9903H HD LCD TV Review.

Philips Ambilight II LCD TV, the Aurea 42PFL9903H ramps up both the amazing Ambilight effect and the picture quality; here’s how it performs on the first HD TV review for 2009.

Philips’ newest HD LCD TV provides the latest iteration in the Philips’ excellent Ambilight Spectra technology that uses a series of LED lights to create an active “sensorial halo” emitted from within the TV’s frame; a frame cut from a single slice of crystalline glass.

The lighting effect is produced by 150 coloured LEDs from within the extremely attractive though rather fat-as-a-result TV and creates an attractive, softly lit coloured glow from the front and rear of the frame. This means, to get the most of the effect, you’re best bet is to wall mount the TV on a clean (ideally white) wall.

Ambilight is designed (says Philips) to both help improve your overall experience of watching the set, improve the picture by increasing the apparent contrast and to provide a more immersive watching experience. And while some love it and others hate the Ambilight effect, I really rather like it, as does the misses, so if she says it’s nice, well it has to be of course!

In fact after watching the new set with Ambilight on, switching it off makes your movie-watching feel, well, sort of naked! Certainly, it makes watching a less complete experience since the “halo” of light matches the colour and motion on the screen to great effect and while watching certain types of program may be best done naked, I could not possibly go into that here…

But what of the new set’s picture quality? Well, Philips has certainly improved the picture quality of this panel from preceding models such as the Philips Aurea 42PFL9900D/10 or the Philips Cineos 42PFL9632D tested in September of last year.

The new TV combines the key technologies of Philips’ perfect Pixel HD engine, Perfect Natural Motion and a full HD LCD display with an improved 2-millisecond response time thanks to Philip’s 100Hz Clear LCD technology. A dynamic 30,000:1 contrast ratio also helps give a stunning picture performance overall, particularly HD resolution sources (as you’d expect perhaps) but it’s less successful on standard definition sources such as Freeview for example.

However, this it has in common with many LCD TVs we’ve seen, standard definition sources are simply not as well dealt with as many Plasma screens with more noise and JPEG artifacts being visible.

Having said that, the stylish new set needs a certain amount of careful setting up to get the most from it’s picture sources. In fact, Philips kindly provided me with a series of “recipes” for picture settings for a variety of effects for different sources; each is a balance between the input source and the effect you want to see on screen and of course, your own preferred viewing set up.

The ingredients for these settings are reached from within the set’s menu system, which is easy to use and follow. The set even has an easy to use guide “Help” system where you compare picture “looks” from a series of displayed images and movie clips and audio feeds selecting your preferred “look” and sound and the set will use your selection to create a picture from those choices.

There’s a collection of presets available as well, of course, which provide fast access to basic settings to get the TV quickly ready, for, say, movies for example. And the set’s performance on standard definition sources shows up some of the TV’s less successful aspects, such as the noise suppression, which just succeeds in producing less welcome artifacts around moving subjects if left too high, such as haloes of flying pixels around moving objects.

Using HD feeds, such as Freesat or my PS3’s Blu-ray player, things are much better and the new processing technology really works a treat, giving the sort of picture performance akin to that of some of the best set’s we’ve looked at and certainly on a par with many plasmas.

Blacks are deep and colours are rich and vibrant. The dynamic contrast system works well too with Ambilight enhancing the whole, to make watching the set a visually amazing experience.

The built-in speaker’s sound quality is very good too, with a rich distortion free sound quality provided by six internal speakers and dual integrated sub woofers, producing some of the best in set (loud) sound I’ve heard, while the Virtual Dolby Digital Surround and the dynamic bass enhancement help make the most of your movie viewing if you lack a surround sound system.

However, here I hit a problem. I used my Bose Lifestyle 35, 5.1 surround sound set up with the new Philips, and with all the funky image processing technology turned off things were fine sound wise. Switch on the Perfect Pixel HD engine and the 100Hz processing, the noise reduction, and the rest of the yummy kit and the sound slips, loosing synchronisation with the picture.

I tried many options to prevent the sound sync problems, with even Philips’ suggestions not working apart from one: “switch the clever technology off”, which I had to do in the end. Now that’s fine but you’re paying a lot of money for that clever technology and it helps you get the most from the TV. But I persevered, tinkering with settings, switching them back on one by one until I got good sound sync and good picture.

The best combination I found to get in-sync sound and good picture quality (using a (or rather my) surround sound system) was to turn off the noise processing, switch the advanced sharpness off completely, leave the HD Natural Motion on maximum, set the 100Hz processing to on and put Dynamic Contrast on its best picture setting.

I then had a great picture and in-sync sound (via the Bose system) at the same time although it’s worth making clear here; the TV’s built-in sound was always in synchronization with the picture.

And the sound sync problem? It seems the TV’s image processing slows the image down very slightly as kit such as noise reduction and judder removal are performed with a very frustrating end result indeed.

Back on a more positive note, the TV’s got great connectability with four HDMI connectors (3+1 and including HDMI CEC; there an integrated DVB-T/DVB-C MPEG4 (Freeview) Tuner too and connectablity is further enhanced with Ethernet and USB options so you can connect the TV to a network, for example.

An excellent and very well-made remote control oozes quality, just like the TV but it is slightly hamstrung by an overly sensitive rotating control (used to scroll menus or channel or input sources for example) that constantly skips the setting you want since it is ridiculously sensitive. Even a slight touch and ping! It skips to the next (usually) unwanted setting.

The remote’s heavy enough to smash plate glass though, so I refrained from throwing the thing as, for the umpteenth time, I missed the required setting or channel and ping ponged back and forth around the desired menu destination for the on screen cursor. Getting used to the remote control is almost as “interesting” as getting the TV set up properly.

And last, we’ve come to the price. At £2499 it’s certainly expensive for 42-inch LCD TV but it is also much cheaper to buy than the first incarnation of Philips’ Aurea TVs, which retailed for around £3000. Once again you’re left paying a lot of money for a 42-inch TV set that from another manufacturer might cost you lot less money, but then again, they won’t have the Ambilight lightshow to brighten up your viewing experience.

While it’s true to say you do pay for the privilege of that Ambilight light show, it’s good too see how the new image processing technologies employed by Philips produce a marked picture improvement from earlier Aurea sets. The caveat here is of course that the set needs careful set up and, I hope the issues with sound synchronisation through my Bose are because that sound system is now almost eight years old and because of a processing glitch in the set itself.

It’s a shame I had to turn off many of those picture-improving technologies in order to get the sound to syncronise properly with the picture when using an external 5.1 surround sound system. But to be clear, I’ve not had such sound synch issues with other large TV’s I’ve tested with the same surround system – not even from Philips! That aside (and the frustrating remote control), you cannot fault the superb picture quality and sound from the internal speakers. With a good wall to mount it on, the Philips Aurea 42PFL9903H HD LCD TV will give you a stunning picture and Ambilight performance making this a set that I can still write should have you reaching for your wallet.