So-called 'lifestyle' products tend to offer eye-catching design at the expense of overall performance. But, like Sony's PSP or Apple's iPod, there are exceptions to the unwritten rule. And Loewe's latest Concept 32 LCD is a similar anomaly -- a seriously stylish product that's capable of class-leading performance.
German manufacturer Loewe has a history of enhancing screen design and the Concept L32's undeniable aesthetics ensure that tradition is continued. The future-proof specification has all the requisites for receiving high-definition television and video signals, as well as including an integrated Freeview digital tuner.
Loewe's attractive designs are usually accompanied by inflated price tags. But the Concept L32's cost (around £1600 online) is surprisingly competitive, since the price has been reduced by £300 and can be considered as top of the entry-level class.
Loewe has a penchant for strikingly simple designs that stand out in the company of typically unimaginative alternatives -- even its oversized CRTs deserve a double take. And the Concept L32 is etched with familiar hallmarks that are guaranteed to catch envious glances from your guests.
The broad 'platinum' screen surround contrasts with a pair of matte-black CRX speakers mounted at either side, which add to the illusion of extra width. Build quality is exceptional, with flawless finishing and a four-legged true metal stand that stares at you through Loewe's trademark 'infrared eye'.
After some searching you'll find the front panel of the stand flips down to reveal the power switch, limited primary controls, a headphone jack and basic set of AV connections that allow easy access for a games console or camcorder.
A more comprehensive set of connections is awkwardly arranged on the underside of the rear panel. There's complete connectivity for a full range of AV equipment that includes a pair of Scart terminals, although only the AV2 terminal is RGB-enabled, meaning you'll have to cope with lesser quality pictures from one of your Scart-connected components. Elsewhere, there are progressive-scan supporting component inputs and an all-important HDMI digital video input that's used to receive high-definition broadcasts, such as Sky's upcoming HD service, or signals from a compatible DVD player.
There are several standard analogue stereo connections including a supplementary set at the front. Both a coaxial digital input and output are included, which can be connected to a home-cinema receiver to augment the already impressive audio performance. PC users can employ the screen as a monitor via a standard VGA/XGA input, but sadly there's no PC audio input.
Finally, for such a fashion-conscious screen, it's no surprise that the complementary remote is suitably stylish. The tall, tapered design is reassuringly weighty, with comfortable controls featuring a chrome-effect central cursor within easy thumb's reach.
The Concept L32's specification has one eye fixed firmly on the future. Both analogue and digital tuners have been integrated, giving you access to terrestrial broadcasts and Freeview channels. And, with a high-resolution panel (1366x768 pixels) and digital video connectivity, the screen is fully equipped to receive high-definition broadcasts or video signals up to 1080i from a compatible DVD player.
Initial operation of the screen's controls and unique menu system will leave you looking for help. Aid arrives in the form of a useful remote information button that displays a detailed description of the controls you're using -- but if the process weren't so intricate, it wouldn't be necessary.
Resplendent menus greet you when the screen is switched on for the first time. On-screen menus lead you through a series of steps with full-sentence explanations of your every move until automatic channel-tuning finally begins. While the menus are graphically well presented, the process seems pretentious, with several unnecessary steps that don't allow you to simply plug and play.
You'll also find adjusting picture and sound settings quite complicated until you get used to the distinctive system. Various settings are displayed in a bar across the bottom edge of the screen. They follow a kind of linear schematic that requires you to scroll either horizontally or vertically until you reach the desired setting. But, once again, the system is easier on the eye than it is on your patience and the process isn't helped by the remote's confusing cursor arrangement.
The remote features a central cursor that's used for scrolling, but it's surrounded by another circular control that's used for changing channels and volume. All this means that you're more likely to change channel midway through making adjustments, which can be infuriating after the first five times.
The choice of picture and sound settings is pretty standard, although there are a few useful extra-curricular settings. For instance, AMD (Automatic Movie Detection) recognises widescreen broadcasts and automatically adjusts the aspect ratio. Auto Volume prevents the sound increasing during advert breaks, which is always annoying.
Digital channels are accompanied by an impressive electronic programme guide (EPG), which lists programme schedules and appears with moving thumbnails. You also get Picture-in-Picture options, either using a split screen or small screen that allows you to view different channels or inputs at the same time.
Operation of the Concept L32 favours flair over functionality, at least until you've adapted to the menus and remote, but Loewe likes to do things differently. Even turning the screen off will surprise you, as the sides of the screen close in on the picture and the sound fades, as if the final curtain has been drawn on the evening's entertainment.
All operational quirks can be forgotten at first sight of the Loewe's picture performance. Digital images easily outperform their analogue equivalents. While analogue channels are disturbed by a cacophony of picture noise, Freeview broadcasts are impressively stable, without common complaints such as shimmering straight lines and smeared movement. Colours are drawn from a rich palette to create a strikingly bold picture.
But it's the screen's high-definition performance that really sets it apart from its rivals. Black levels plunge deep enough to expose all the detail you could want and create almost tangible three-dimensionality. Colours, even difficult-to-render reds, are stunningly vibrant without affecting natural skin tones or landscapes. And you'll struggle to unearth a digital artefact in even the most challenging scenes.
Analogue connections can't quite scale the same heights, but are nonetheless impressive even when compared to considerably more expensive models. And sound performance carries surprising weight and expressive detail for a pair of television speakers.
The Loewe's all-round ability is nothing short of sensational and the Concept L32 deserves to be considered a class-leading product at this price point.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide