A French company known for its mobile phones decides to make a rear-projection television? It's a move into the smallest part of the already niche market of big-screen TVs -- like Apple suddenly deciding to make electric cars. Not that that hindered Sagem with its first range, and now that everyone is demanding high-definition compatibility, the company has decided its Axiums are ready for an upgrade.
We're finally starting to see the benefits of a ratified 'HD Ready' standard, and as a result Sagem's new HD-D56 will be future-proof for many years to come. True, it is based on projection technology, so there are limitations such as lamp life and viewing angle, but if you are attracted to the more cinematic picture of rear projection, then you're not going to find better value for money.
The sheer size of the HD-D56's screen is amplified by it sitting atop a much smaller stand. It's a class act, with only a thin black bezel around the screen and no fancy logos to spoil the main attraction. The silver/black combo is particularly alluring, making it feel like a luxury item.
There's not much else to be found in Sagem's package, particularly not in the way of cables. Sagem's remote control isn't amazing. It's small, but it doesn't feel like it belongs with this premium TV. In terms of usability though, it's ergonomic and the main buttons for changing channels are easy to find without looking.
Connectivity is housed around the rear and sides of the TV, and thanks to HD Ready approval, it caters for all possible needs. All current AV hardware will fit right in with the three RGB Scart inputs -- the most you usually get is two RGB. This means you should never have to use the composite or S-video inputs, but two of each have been included anyway.
If you're making an investment in rear pro, you shouldn't be doing it just for the screen size -- Sagem's TV is fully high-definition compatible too. The DVI input sitting inconspicuously on the rear is a glimpse of tomorrow's technology today. Unlike current standards such as Scart and even component, the DVI standard keeps all video signals digital, so they're less susceptible to degradation. DVI's higher bandwidth also means you can transfer more information, and in 2006 there will be a number of new video formats that will up the resolution of standard video to offer far more detail. If you're a picture-quality junkie, you'll want to invest in it, and even if you're not, the difference is likely to convert you. You can also use the DVI input to connect a computer up to the TV (if you have an older desktop or laptop, you can use the VGA connector on the right panel). The TV's component inputs are also HD-compatible, but Sky HD will require DVI. All in all, it's a remarkably complete package that's missing nothing.
Audio connectivity is just as good. As well as a multitude of standard stereo inputs to accompany composite and S-video, there's a coaxial connector that can be used as an input or output. This is an excellent addition for two reasons. If you're using the television's built-in speakers, you can connect your DVD player up and the HD-D56 will process a Dolby Virtual Surround soundtrack. If you've got a home cinema setup (and you should have, if you're getting a TV this size), you can output your TV sound via coaxial and let it amplify the audio. Either way, it's another feature on the HD-D56 that you're unlikely to find elsewhere.
The number of features on the HD-D56 is quite intimidating, but they're sensibly presented in the on-screen menus. For example, the sound system has been given a substantial boost on this new model and there are numerous things you can do to tweak the way the two stereo speakers and subwoofer perform. We preferred the vanilla stereo playback to the chocolate-chip Dolby Virtual Surround, because the latter sounded false. But with Dynamic Bass, Loudness and a number of presets for Music, Cinema and Studio conditions to play around with, you'll have to experiment to find your favourite setting. Perhaps the most useful feature is the Smart Volume setting, which means you don't have different volume levels across AV sources such as DVD players. It might be a small point, but it's annoying when the volume settings differ between, say, a Freeview box and a DVD player.
The same presets and variables also apply to the image section of the menu system. Again, there are individual settings for Cinema, Studio and Sport material, and the User setting allows you to tweak the brightness and contrast and save your choices. As it's a projection device, we recommend using a setup disc such as Digital Video Essentials to optimise your viewing experience.
You might also want to extend the life of the projection lamp by using the Eco mode. The projector loses some brightness as a result, but it's not much of a problem. Another fantastic touch is being able to name each of the individual sources, so AV1 becomes 'Freeview' and AV2 becomes 'DVD', for example. This makes it far easier to find what you want on the TV, and we're amazed more mainstream manufacturers such as Sony aren't doing this. Like many other TVs, you can also set the TV to turn itself off if you're falling asleep.
The only other feature you could hope for is integrated Freeview -- but you don't get it. Separate boxes aren't too expensive these days, and Sagem has provided enough RGB Scarts for you to hook up all of your equipment. But with so many companies pushing Freeview as standard, we can't help but think that Sagem has held off so it can issue it on a future upgrade.
The engine sitting inside the HD-D56's projector is Texas Instruments' new HD2+ DLP chipset. Combined with Faroudja's DCDi deinterlacer, the picture quality is extremely solid but most importantly it's bright and will survive use in bright light. The contrast ratio of 3000:1 is also excellent, meaning that there's plenty of shadow detail and the colour range is spectacular. Stay head on to the screen though, and the detail, colour and contrast are all excellent -- but because it's a rear-projection TV, the HD-D56's viewing angle is very limited. If you pay particularly close attention to detail you might notice the rainbow effect, where the light splits into its component colours when you run your eyes across the screen. It's a general problem with the DLP chipset, but still annoying if you begin to notice it.
The HD-D56's sound deserves praise because the internal speakers are very powerful, and more than up to the demands of movie viewing. As the picture is driven by a projector and therefore much more cinematic than a plasma or LCD, this is particularly important. For Freeview use, the TV is also very good, coping with low-resolution pictures admirably. Because of the sheer size of the screen, blockiness can be quite noticeable, but the picture remains solid, presumably because of the DCDi interlacing.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide