Loewe's latest 42-inch plasma offers a classy design, powerful sound and good connectivity for a reasonable price, but be warned -- you'll need a PhD in television repair to operate the menu system
Even though Germany has given us Audi and Jurgen Klinsmann, Teutonic design has rarely hit the heights of Loewe's television stylings. Giving Bang & Olufsen a run for its money, Loewe is also on a crusade to make televisions upgradeable, with Internet connectivity and internal hard drive recorders just two of the optional extras on the majority of its range.
However the A42 is a break from tradition, finding the company less concerned with future upgrades and more about providing a fully featured TV out of the box. With high-definition compatibility, this is a plasma that's ready for tomorrow, yet it retails for around the same price as an equivalent Pioneer. Unlike Pioneer's PDP-435XDE though, this isn't a reference-quality picture performer, and the television's navigation is infuriating at times.
Physically, Loewe's plasma is all about smooth lines and understatement, a recipe that creates one of the most stylish packages we've seen. There's nothing too fancy on the television itself -- just the clear plastic power button and speaker grilles that are formed in a calming wave. This simplicity also means it's light on frills, and the A42 would have benefited from a swivelling stand like Hitachi's recent 42PD7200.
If your AV collection is relatively modern, then it'll find a perfect partner in the Loewe's A42. It's all geared up for the future when it comes to connectivity. HDMI is the star here, with relatively few devices supporting it as yet, but expect this to change once high definition TV and DVD hit these shores. Sat next door to HDMI is a standard PC VGA input, but annoyingly there isn't a standard PC audio input to accompany it -- a strange omission.
The AV side is far more complete, with component inputs and two Scarts sitting on the rear, and composite/S-video on the left hand panel. Only one of the Scarts is RGB, so you'll have to put up with poorer picture quality if you plug in a standard DVD player and Sky/Freeview box. Audio connectivity is good though, with stereo audio in/out and coaxial audio in/out on the rear. As coaxial is digital, you can connect your DVD player to the TV with a single cable and enjoy the highest quality sound possible.
Loewe's remote control feels as natural as a pen in the hand, but the on-screen menu system is a pain to navigate with it. The joystick in the centre is fiddly, and you tend to press down on it when it moves, which confirms the current selection.
The menu system is a joy to behold when you watch someone else operating it, but it's a nightmare to get to grips with. Eschewing all traditional menu structures, it's clear that it's meant to be set up by someone who knows what they're doing, such as a custom installer or Loewe dealer.
This approach means that it's complicated at first, but once it's set up you should be able to leave it well alone. Still, it's a pain having to tell the TV's setup program which equipment is plugged in to the various sockets, especially when you unbox the TV and simply want to test out a DVD. It also makes life complicated if you have a large AV collection (with lots of games consoles that you might want to connect and disconnect, for example). We suggest buying some sort of Scart splitter, or even an AV receiver.
The infuriation is alleviated, at least partly, by an on-screen help system. The useful, context-sensitive hints mean you don't need to consult the manual to find out more about the current option. It's a massive contrast to the usual dull menu systems of your average TV (although Sony's is still the reference system), but that doesn't mean that it's any better to use in the first place.
There are some smaller touches on the Loewe that improve the experience and leave you in no doubt about Loewe's heritage. Digital Refresh mode is necessary for the ALIS plasma panel, as it will prevent screen burn. We can all be forgetful and leave a DVD menu screen on by accident, so it's good that Loewe's screen has built-in features to prevent this. The nicest touch though, and one found on other premium TV sets, is the virtual curtains that close over the picture when you turn it off. A small addition, but one that says 'I'm better than you' when you show it to your friends.
On the remote control, you can activate Picture-in-Picture if you've got your eye on two channels at once. Although the menu is very fiddly to operate, we do like the way that advanced functions, such as altering the picture format from 4:3 to 16:9 and activating the Movie Mode, which boosts the contrast of the picture, are tucked away in a sub-menu. There is also a model that sells for a £100 premium that has an integrated digital tuner -- something to bear in mind if you're in a Freeview area.
Loewe's plasma suffers from a startlingly poor contrast level, meaning that darker areas disintegrate into a greyish mess. There's also quite a bit of graininess, even when we ran some Windows Media High Definition content through it. 1080i HD content was still the most impressive picture quality on the A42, but it was a less impressive experience than on Loewe's LCDs.
Strangely, it's much better at dealing with lower quality sources from RGB Scart -- our Ronin DVD was very enjoyable, as were pictures from a Freeview digital tuner. Television studios seem to work much better on screen, with solid detail and vibrant colours. The speakers are also impressive, with enough power to handle a movie soundtrack while providing vocal intelligibility.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide