Loewe can be regarded in the same light as Bang & Olufsen. Its products offer state-of-the-art design, specification and performance attached to exorbitant prices. Although the recently reviewed Concept L32 offered an exception to the affordability rule, the top-of-the-range Spheros R26 is undeniably expensive. In today's market, £1,899 can afford you a 42-inch plasma or at least two similarly sized LCD TVs.
If the cost doesn’t concern you, the stylish Spheros does offer class-leading performance and a future-proof specification. It's the first flat screen to integrate all types of digital TV reception -- terrestrial, cable and satellite -- although there's no analogue TV tuner. And the high-resolution panel equipped with numerous picture-enhancing technologies and complete connectivity is high-definition compatible.
The unique on-screen menu system is initially frustrating, but it offers peerless picture and sound quality. That's the real reason to consider spending so much on a mid-sized screen.
Immaculate build quality and understated style are Loewe hallmarks that have been indelibly etched into the design of the Spheros R26.
For a relatively small screen, the construction is surprisingly weighty and comparatively deeper than equivalent LCDs. The sharp, straight-edged design features a 26-inch widescreen flawlessly framed by a glossed black surround. The pristine appearance is preserved by covertly integrating controls into Loewe's circular 'infrared eye', which floats above a wave-shaped speaker system at the base.
The screen arrives with an easily assembled pedestal stand, although unsurprisingly expensive (£75) wall-mounting options are also available.
A removable panel at the screen's right-hand side reveals standard AV inputs -- and a CI card slot for accessing limited subscription TV services like TopUp TV. The side connections can be used to temporarily connect a camcorder or games console -- a feature often ignored in smaller LCDs. And the comprehensive range of connections elsewhere will also embarrass its rivals.
Awkwardly positioned across the underside of the rear panel is a pair of Scart terminals, although only the AV2 input is RGB-enabled for optimum picture quality. Alternative analogue connections include component inputs with support for progressive-scan video, provided you have a compatible DVD player. But it's the inclusion of an HDMI digital input that grants a future-proof specification allowing the screen to accept high-definition content from Sky's upcoming HDTV services or a similarly equipped DVD player.
Audio connectivity is equally impressive with a choice of standard stereo inputs/outputs as well as both a coaxial digital input and output that lets you supplement the sonic performance with an external amplifier or receiver. Unfortunately there's no PC audio input, but computer users and Xbox 360 gamers can still view images via a VGA/XGA input.
Loewe's superior build quality also extends to the tall, tapered remote, which is reassuringly heavy, intelligently arranged and comfortable.
Loewe claims the Spheros R26 is the world's first flat TV to integrate all three types of digital television reception. The screen arrives equipped to receive terrestrial Freeview broadcasts and cable digital broadcasts from its integrated digital tuner. And, on request, the Spheros can be retrofitted to receive satellite digital broadcasts without using an external set-top box.
But an analogue tuner has been omitted altogether so you'll need to check the digital reception in your area to avoid owning an expensive television you can't watch.
The screen's high-resolution panel (1366x768 pixels) will also support high-definition broadcasts and video signals with HDCP protection across various standards, including 720p and 1080i. In addition the specification is littered with a number of Loewe's own picture enhancing technologies -- each bearing a tedious title but all designed to sharpen picture quality.
Despite the extensive specification there are some unusual limitations, especially if you only intend to watch terrestrial Freeview broadcasts. For instance, the standard digital tuner will not receive digital radio stations or display a full electronic programme guide -- which also means you can't coordinate easy recordings with a linked recording device. Also several functions such as full Picture-in-Picture options are not available in the UK model.
You'll find Loewe's unique menu system initially frustrating until you get used to it. Various settings can only be accessed by scrolling through a confusing schematic menu system that's restricted to a bar at the base of the screen. Although menus are beautifully presented, the process is over-elaborate. And it's not assisted by a sensitive remote featuring two closely positioned cursor controls that often leave you changing channel in the midst of adjusting settings.
There are several short-cut keys giving you easy access to various picture and sound presets and the extensive Information Index, which explains everything from making connections to which batteries the remote uses, is useful but far from efficient.
As a serial channel-surfer, you might also find the delay in changing channels tiring -- the picture freezes for a split second before switching. And, in a quiet room, you can hear a slight electronic noise as you change programme. But we do like the way the screen turns off -- closing from the sides like a pair of curtains being drawn.
For this price you should expect class-leading picture performance and the Spheros R26 doesn't disappoint.
Digital broadcasts display striking density and detail courtesy of exceptionally deep black levels. Colours are bright and balanced without appearing exaggerated, especially with natural hues and skin tones, and the screen copes with fast-paced movement and pixelation problems better than a dedicated set-top box.
Standard-definition and progressive-scan video images using analogue connections display similar picture quality characteristics. But the screen's full high-definition potential is realised using the digital HDMI input to receive a 720p video signal from a compatible DVD player.
Inspiring detail exposes the slightest subtlety in tones and textures with cohesive gradation between colours and shadows. Outstanding contrast levels produce an almost surreal sense of depth and perspective while movement glides effortlessly across the screen. Aside from a distant shimmer in complex or darkly lit scenes, background noise is restricted to a minimum.
The four-speaker sound system is also capable of surprising depth and dynamics for its proportions. It's a performance to be proud of if you have money to spare, but quality comes at a cost that not everyone will be prepared to pay.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield