Philips 9604 (32PFL9604) LCD TV Review

Will a display from Philips' acclaimed LCD range stand up to scientific testing?

by AVForums
TV Review

20

Philips 9604 (32PFL9604) LCD TV Review
SRP: £999.00

Introduction

Philips' LCD TVs seem to have something of an enthusiastic user base, but truth be told, the most time I've spent with them has been when I'm staying in hotels (a market the company seems to dominate), where they have most of the settings locked out. So, I was curious to finally get my hands on an unadulterated Philips LCD and try it out in a home setting. The 32PFL9604 is a 32” 1080p LCD display from the company, and includes its fair share of features: the most useful of these are probably the 5 HDMI inputs, which is the most I've ever seen on a TV.

Philips' own AmbiLight system is present here, as is what's possibly the first really useful Internet-on-your-TV system, which they call Net TV. Unlike other “walled-off” systems which ignore one of the key points behind the world wide web, Net TV actually lets you surf any site you want (compatibility issues notwithstanding), and doesn't require a physical connection to your router in order to do so (the TV has a Wireless module inside).

Design and Connections

The 32PFL9604 is one nice-looking display. Much of its appeal comes from the slick brushed steel appearance, which is a wonderful alternative to the ubiquitious gloss black that the market is flooded with. The panel and outer edges of the TV have curved edges, which is a nice touch, and the speaker grille's design is also uniquely shaped. The base (which the TV is supplied already fitted to) is matte: Philips' designers clearly have had the taste not to include gloss black even on the stand.

I suppose that the AmbiLight system is best discussed here: Philips' unique system features two strips of LEDs fitted to the back of the TV, which light up your surroundings by “projecting a glow of light from the back of the screen onto the surrounding wall”. Philips claim that the feature is intended to psychologically expand the screen, but being a cynic, I wonder if the effect was intended to act as bias lighting to disguise LCD's inherent black level limitations.

However, there are other good reasons to include bias lighting behind a display. The Imaging Science Foundation actually recommends 6500k lighting behind an emissive display (as well as calibrating the screen to the industry standard 6500k, of course) so later on, we measured the light coming out of not just the screen, but also the AmbiLight strips.

Menus

I have to hand it to Philips – using and setting up their display is a fairly unique experience. They seem to have done everything they can to make their on-screen displays feel as other-worldly and non-electronic as possible. Complex settings are buried fairly deep within sub-menus and ease and confidence of use appear to have been the number one priority.

When you first power up the TV, one of the first things you're greeted with is a picture set-up assistant. This is a series of screens which each show a split-screen image, and the user is invited to pick the side that they prefer. Examples include images with clipped black levels versus what would appear to be elevated black levels, images with paler skintones vs exaggerated skintones, and images with artificial sharpening vs images with none. After this, the TV tells you that everything is done, and that you're ready to sit back and relax. Ah, but if only – as with any TV, there is much more setup work to be done if we want the best results.

Most of the useful functions are accessed through the Home Menu (indicated by an icon of a house on the remote). Philips have arranged the icons into logical tasks, for example, “Watch TV”, “Browse USB”, “Browse Net TV”, “Blu-ray Disc Player”, and “Setup”. You can also add icons for other devices you have connected so they can appear as icons on this screen.

”Setup” delivers the goods and takes us to a set of configuration screens which more closely resemble what we're used to seeing on displays. “Smart settings” lets you choose a picture preset (Personal, Vivid, Standard, Cinema, etc.)

One small thing with these menus: on two occasions, the TV erased my calibrated video settings without prompting me. The reason for this: once you choose a picture preset (in my case, Cinema) and make even a single change to it, the TV will copy these settings into the “Personal” preset and adjust from there. In other words, after I'd calibrated the display, I looked through the different modes and adjusted some settings to see their effects, thinking I was only making changes to a preset that I'd never use – and bam, it turns out that the TV had erased the settings I wanted to keep.

The next instance was for Greyscale calibration. Philips' screen is laid out so that the controls are on the left, with the “starting points” (Normal, Warm, Cool) on the right. If you accidentally press Right too many times, the TV will automatically select one of these presets and obliterate the calibrated settings. A warning to anyone who has this display calibrated: make absolutely sure to note the settings down and keep them in a warm, safe, dry place!

Anyway, the available controls are fairly standard: Contrast, Brightness, Colour, Hue, Sharpness, a subtle Noise Reduction setting, and Tint. Wait a second – Hue AND Tint? “Tint” is actually the Greyscale preset (most manufacturers call it “Colour Temperature”). Below this, we have the “Custom Tint” screen, which lets us calibrate Greyscale: a great option to see. The controls are a little strange, with there being settings for Red, Green and Blue gain (as expected), but only Red and Green offset controls (Red and blue is the norm; it's best to avoid touching Green as this can cause visible shifts in Luminance).

If you're using one of the HDMI video inputs, then you'll be given access to an option called “PC Mode”. This is effectively a “Pure” mode which kills picture overscan as well as a few other functions which add delay to the video processing. Hook up a computer with “PC Mode” turned off, and you'll notice huge input lag when you move the mouse cursor around – it lags behind your actual input noticeably, depending on which processing modes are activated. I turned “PC Mode” on to disable undesirable processing functions.

Next, a set of controls for the “Perfect Pixel HD” video processor. This processor seems to be held in high regard by the AV press, so it will be interesting to see exactly what it does (or doesn't do) to the image.

The first control in this menu is for “Perfect Natural Motion”, which can be turned off, or switched between Minimum or Maximum settings. This is the frame interpolation mode, which causes film content to look smoothed over, as if it was shot in video. Off it went. (This is not available in “PC Mode”, because it introduces a delay).

Next was “100 Hz Clear LCD”, which was greyed out (inaccessible) and permanently set to Off, because I had used the Movie picture mode as a basis for calibration. (It's also permanently off if you use the PC Mode). The reason for this is that 100hz systems typically rely on generating new inbetween frames in order to improve motion resolution, but this causes an unfilmic motion effect in film-originated images. Some manufacturers let us use 100hz modes to improve motion resolution without causing the unfilmic effect, but there's no such choice here.

Next, “Advanced Sharpness”. This is a very selective sharpening filter, the strength of which is related to the main Sharpness control. It's certainly not the most convincing detail enhancement system I've seen, so I left it off for standard def content (and of course, for high def as well).

”Dynamic Contrast”: you would think that this adjustment would vary the intensity of the backlight depending on the on screen image, but this is not the case: this control is 100% electrical rather than optical. It appears to alter the video processor's gamma curve: crank it up and it'll wash the picture out – it's best left off.

”Dynamic Backlight” is essentially an optical version of the above. The brightness of the backlight lamps behind the LCD panel is raised or lowered depending on the video signal. It has two settings: “Best power” (to bias the control towards darker output) or “Best picture” (which I assume means “brighter”).

”MPEG Artefact Reduction” will hopefully reduce MPEG-2 compression artefacts – ah, but which artefacts, I wonder? There are so many from which to choose. Turning it on with test patterns and most real world content made no difference to the picture, so I can only assume that it's triggered by motion, and therefore is probably designed to reduce the “Tiling” or “Mosaic” effect. That's just my assumption, though, because I could never see it doing anything. Because Philips' on screen menus are so slow to use, it is very difficult to confirm if this theory is correct or not.

In any case, that's probably a good thing – once video has been damaged by compression artefacts, it's usually beyond convincing repair unless more advanced methods are used (and by “more advanced methods”, I mean methods that aren't ready for cost-effective use in consumer TVs). Certainly, this feature is not like the crude “cutoff” systems of yesteryear which would simply knock the highest frequencies out of the image to combat mosquito noise (these are the ones that made the picture look like a wet watercolour painting).

Lastly, we have “Colour Enhancement”. Turn it on and the TV will add Blue to the Greyscale mix (in other words, don't turn it on).

Test Results

I selected “Movie” mode and turned PC Mode on in order to get the most untampered-with picture as possible. The “Movie” mode is typically the one that adjusts a display as closely as possible to the industry standards used during film content production (although there is no reason that TV programmes shouldn't be watched this way either – they're both made to the same standards).

The first thing I noticed was that the Greyscale mix was biased towards green. Normally I'm used to seeing displays that are skewed towards blue (in order to make them appear brighter), so this is a slimey-looking change rather than a frosty-looking one. Incidentally, the TV sat on my desk before this one, Panasonic's most expensive Plasma display, also suffered from Green-tinted video before calibration. This error is more objectionable than displays with an emphasis of Red or Blue.

Measurements revealed the error, but fortunately, Philips include Greyscale controls, so this will be fixable later. However, although we can see a green tint to the greyscale, the actual colours that are laid on top of the Greyscale “base” are actually very, very accurate indeed. In other words, the picture should become very accurate and lifelike indeed after Greyscale calibration.

Greyscale calibration was a fairly painless process (after I stopped shouting at the TV because I managed to use it's user interface to wipe my settings half-way through the calibration process). All Greyscale Delta errors were below 2, which simply means that they should be essentially unnoticeable – an excellent result. There appears to be clipping of Blue at 90 IRE and onwards, which causes a slightly irregular blip in the RGB Level Tracking chart. Normally we can correct this by lowering Contrast, but this did not solve this very minor error in this case, which is unusual.

Colour is also absolutely excellent: accuracy is at the level of the Pioneer KURO Plasma displays and exceeds the THX certified Panasonic Plasmas. I managed to tame the slightly hot Luminance by reducing the “Colour” control by a few clicks. This lowered the amount of each colour present (which was a tiny bit too high to start with), without desaturating them excessively. You'll also notice that after Greyscale calibration, the yellow and cyan colour points have also moved closer to their accurate targets.

The 32PFL9604 calibrated wonderfully. Normally we complain about a lack of a Colour Management System on TVs, but in this case, the colour reproduction was so close to perfect that there's really little point in asking.

As for the promised AmbiLight measurements: the default AmbiLight mode samples on-screen video and adjusts the AmbiLight colour accordingly (individually for the left and right strips). However, this constantly shifting bias lighting can be somewhat distracting. Fortunately, the TV's menus let you choose a custom, fixed colour of AmbiLight (AmbiLighting?), as well as a "Warm White" preset. In my case, using the fixed settings of 8 and 9 (for Tone and Saturation respectively) got me 6500k bias lighting with none of the hassle of external light solutions. This setup would be very useful for avoiding eye strain in darkened situations.

From casual viewing, the TV's performance with regular standard definition 576i “Freeview” channels reminded me very much of Sony's BRAVIA LCDs, mainly because of the presence of slight interlace jaggies. The best video processing solutions can conceal these very effectively using a technique called Diagonal Interpolation. Test patterns revealed this analysis to be correct, whilst the TV was using some smoothing, it was at the level of “Good” performance rather than “Excellent”. I made sure to disable the PC mode, just in case this was cutting out processing which could improve the situation, but the performance was the same in both cases.

Philips' spec sheet indicates that the 32PFL9604 does detect and compensate for 2-2 Pulldown, to get the best out of Interlaced PAL film sources. This is true, and the TV did detect and process the video, but it would sometimes lose track and fall back to Video deinterlacing. This is not at all unusual, and several high-end devices have similar problems with this tricky cadence. As is often the case, the American NTSC 3-2 film cadence passed through unscathed.

Finally, the smallest Chroma details on the Belle Nuit PAL testchart showed flickering on the 32PFL9604. It's unusual to see this error affect only the Coloured components of the video (it usually affects Luminance, or Brightness, too, which is much worse). I didn't notice this error in real world viewing.

Next, for the Scaling test. With “PC Mode” enabled, the 32PFL9604 did a good job of scaling the 720x576 signal up to the 1920x1080 panel. Unlike several Panasonic Plasmas we've seen lately, high frequencies were represented well in the scaled image, which stopped it from looking unnecessarily blurry.

Input lag is quite apparent when the “PC Mode” is turned Off. Turning it on cuts it down to a very acceptable amount, but it doesn't appear to be eradicated entirely. Currently, only a small selection of LCD TVs (and all Plasma TVs) have featured an imperceptible amount of input lag, so this was in line with my expectations.

Full black, mid grey and full white images were input to the TV with a power measuring device plugged into the chain. Here's the results:

Dynamic Backlight “Best picture”: Black 57 watts. Grey 121 watts. White 128 watts.
Dynamic Backlight “Best power”: Black 57 watts. Grey 111 watts. White 128 watts.
Dynamic Backlight OFF: Black, White and Grey: 128 watts.

Picture Quality

The 32PFL9604 was capable of producing some nice images thanks to its untampered-with reproduction of 1920x1080p detail and its fantastic colour and greyscale accuracy. As with many accurate LCD displays I've reviewed lately, the weakest component is still the LCD panel itself. Black levels are somewhat average, and an all-black scene reveals that the panel isn't entirely uniform (my review sample had glowing near the top). Another common LCD issue, viewing angle fall-off, was also present. Contrast fell off towards the sides fairly visibly.

Initially we thought that the Philips 32PFL9604 did not feature a dedicated Backlight control. However, it has been pointed out that the TV's "Contrast" control unusually combines Backlight AND White Level control. Lowering the Contrast control will at first lower the screen Backlight intensity, and then at the lower settings, will begin to affect the video processor's White Level. While we would prefer two dedicated controls, this does mean that the 32PFL9604 can be matched to the surrounding ambient light conditions.

Under the Perfect Pixel HD menu, we do also have a “Dynamic Backlight” option to improve perceived contrast. Such systems aren't without their faults, though, because the raising and lowering of the backlight can be quite unsubtle to the viewer. There was also one case where the TV initially showed a scene with bright light output, but changed its mind for seemingly no reason a few seconds in and suddenly lowered the backlight intensity.

I was very impressed by the accuracy of the colours and calibrated greyscale being put out by the display. Additionally, the response time of the TV was good by LCD standards: some displays I've seen have had excessive streaking in dark areas, but Philips' does not. Furthermore, the fact that Philips have packed 1920x1080's worth of pixels into a smaller 32” screen means that the pixels are incredibly small, and there's therefore no “screen door” effect. The display looks smooth and velvety, doubly so because of LCD's total lack of flicker: a selling point for some, and a point of contention for others.

Because of the confusingly labelled menus, it took me a while to find the option which presents 4:3 video undistorted. By default, like most, the TV expands the 4:3 picture to fill the screen by stretching the edges. To get it to present 4:3 with side-bars and no stretching, I had to select the “Auto Format” setting under “Picture Format”, then enter the “Auto format mode” menu and choose “Auto Zoom”, which, bizarrely, does nothing of the sort.

Verdict

7
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • 1920x1080 panel allows for unadulterated detail from 1080 sources
  • Calibrated Greyscale accuracy is fantastic
  • Both uncalibrated, and calibrated Colour is also fantastic
  • Unique user interface should prove easy for all to use
  • Excellent sound, by TV standards
  • Net TV is the most useful of the "Internet on your TV" systems we've so far tested
  • AmbiLight can be configured as an effective Bias Lighting solution

Cons

  • Common LCD issues of black level and viewing angle issues
  • User interface can be unusually slow at times
  • Little to justify the sky-high price tag

Philips 9604 (32PFL9604) LCD TV Review

These days, we're seeing more and more LCD TVs that can be made to produce accurate, lifelike images. Accuracy goes a long way in producing high quality video, but unfortunately, many of these LCD displays suffer slightly because of their inability to produce deep, convincing blacks, or because of viewing angle issues. The Philips 32PFL9604 does not entirely manage to escape from this category: while the LCD panel here is at the better end of the scale, its contrast performance doesn't quite eclipse some of the better examples exhibited in Sony and Samsung's LCDs.

However, the 32PFL9604's calibrated accuracy - and even its out of the box accuracy - are commendable, and allow it to produce some beautifully lifelike images. Philips' Ambilight system, the TV's surprisingly decent built-in speakers, the unusually useful "NetTV" system, and the accurate pictures it's capable of producing further add to this display's appeal.
However, at its somewhat high price point, it competes with LCD sets from Samsung which are also capable of great accuracy, have better contrast performance, and slightly better SD video processing. Users who have a preference towards Philips' user interface, styling, or those who require a good-sounding TV, are advised to check the 32PFL9604 out, but must keep the existence of slightly better-performing, cheaper alternatives in mind.

Scores

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level

.
.
.
.
6

Screen Uniformity

.
.
.
.
6

Colour Accuracy

.
.
8

Greyscale Accuracy

.
.
.
7

Video Processing

.
.
.
7

Picture Quality

.
.
.
7

Sound Quality

.
.
8

Smart Features

.
.
8

Build Quality

.
.
8

Ease Of Use

.
.
.
7

Value for Money

.
.
.
.
.
5

Verdict

.
.
.
7
7
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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