Rear projection is no longer the flavour of the month, thanks to the increasing dominance and falling prices of flatscreen. However, this doesn't deter the many cinema enthusiasts, who will attest to rear projection's far more natural picture and value for money. While the premium design of the SP-50L7HX and its resulting price might fly in the face of the latter argument, it's still an impressive feat of style, features and performance.
The design flourishes have not been to the detriment of features and picture quality. First of all, the HDMI input and 1280x768 resolution mean that it's fully high-definition compatible, and Samsung's proprietary DNIe system performs a multitude of picture enhancements on the fly. It can really improve the quality of standard-definition pictures, or be disabled to enjoy the newest high-definition sources as they were intended. Either way, the Samsung SP-50L7HX is our favourite rear-projection television, sitting beside the iPod as an example of peerless design backed up by functionality.
The Samsung SP-50L7HX is so impressively styled that it even drew intrigued glances from our seasoned veterans. They got more impressed once we revealed that it's a rear-projection TV -- the bulky, square template of old has been ditched in favour of a sexy, awesomely wide display sitting atop an amazingly thin stand. It's like a magician's illusion for geeks -- just how have they managed to squash the projection system down so small? Only Thomson comes close to matching on first impressions -- its latest Scenium range is so small it can be hung on the wall.
Luckily, Samsung's unique flair stretches to the rest of the package too -- the circular display underneath the screen shows a smiley face on startup, the menus are crisp and easy to navigate, and the remote is unconventional yet resolutely useable. The black surrounding to the screen is also a nice touch -- it looks classy while adding more to the perceived contrast of the panel itself.
The television is heavy, but not as immovable as you might expect. The glass base adds considerably to the weight, but it will only take two people (perhaps straining in places) to set up. It's also impressively quiet while running, even though you can feel the heat that's being directed out of the rear. The sockets, of which there are many, sit on one panel on the rear of the stand. The star of the show is HDMI. Even though most people won't be using it yet, it guarantees that the set will be completely future-proofed when HDMI becomes the next Scart.
Speaking of which, three Scart inputs (2 RGB) is more than enough for most people, especially when they should take advantage of the progressive scan-compatible component inputs for DVD playback. There's also a VGA input for connecting a PC, which will also support high-definition video playback, but it's unfortunate that a DVI input wasn't included as well. It's the old 'analogue versus digital' argument. There isn't a huge difference between VGA and DVI picture quality, but all the Media Center PCs we've seen ship with a DVI connector as standard. It could be argued that these machines have now penetrated the market enough to be considered important in terms of compatibility.
Everything else on the connections side is purely academic -- you can input via composite or S-video if you start to get desperate, plus there's a mysterious service input if Samsung ever decides to initiate an upgrade.
The Digital Natural Image engine (DNIe) is the key difference between Samsung's rear-projection technology and those of its competitors. It combines a motion optimiser, contrast enhancer, colour optimiser and detail enhancer into one function, and you can choose to have it turned on or off. With the majority of viewing, that is from analogue television (shudder) or a Freeview/Sky box, we'd recommend having it turned on by default. It makes a really good effort of cleaning up the typical artefacts that can be seen from MPEG compression. Text is sharper and more defined, those fast camera sweeps prevalent in music videos don't degrade into a blocky mess, and everything else is given a more luminous, natural quality.
Colour reproduction deserves particular mention -- the natural look of the skin tones is something that projection technology is traditionally good at, but given the right setup tweaks, the SP-50L7HX is particularly enjoyable to behold. Of course, given the price and current state of the technological playing field, we could reasonably expect an integrated Freeview tuner, since we've seen so many digital displays fall apart when faced with an RGB Scart feed, but the SP-50L7HX takes it in its stride, so we can forgive it somewhat.
Despite being impressive from the default settings, you can tune the picture to how you like it. There are a pretty limited number on the picture side -- Dynamic, Cinema and Standard -- of which only the latter two were to our taste. There are more on the audio side, with Standard, Music, Movie, Speech and a Custom one to tailor to your own tastes. Particularly welcome is the ability to alter the individual levels of the colour spectrum, which will be useful to advanced users with access to a disc like Digital Video Essentials or the THX Optimiser.
The speakers are also unique in design, marked out as three circles that run down each side of the screen. In terms of power, they're not much to shout about, with only 30W to play with. However, you can add a little more perceived oomph by engaging the SRS TruSurround mode, which is accessible from the remote itself. We've always shied away from adding anything synthetic to the audio experience, but we can't argue that it's slightly more suitable for movie playback, giving a little bit more authenticity to action sequences and soundtracks.
Thankfully, whatever the geniuses in Korea have done to get such a funky design, none of it has detrimentally impacted on the picture quality. It's very impressive across the board, from RGB Scart to HDMI. This has to be down to Samsung's DNIe system, which is not simply another boast for the product launcher but also a highly effective way of cleaning up the picture. The lower the quality of the source, the better the results actually are, but it works both ways -- if you're going to be using a high-definition or HDMI DVD player, then you might want to turn DNIe off. But with Freeview broadcasts, all of the detail loss and motion artefacting seems to be removed in favour of a smooth, crisp picture.
The Samsung SP-50L7HX really was born for high definition, though. In the UK, we're pretty much limited to downloading movie clips from Microsoft or Apple to sample them, but if you're really up on technology and plug your Media Center into the television, you're in for a treat. Images are so smooth and detailed that it's really quite hard to go back to regular broadcasts.
In terms of the downsides, even though the brightness is excellent, like any other rear-projection television, it's best when used in a dimly lit environment. It also has a relatively limited viewing angle -- sit two or more spaces away from the straight-on position and you'll receive a negative effect to your viewing experience. It also takes about a minute and a half to warm up to full brightness, but once it's there, the level is very impressive.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide