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Far Eastern imports usually offer huge savings, but they come at the expense of overall performance, build quality and long-term reliability. And by supplementing Japanese technology with Taiwanese cost efficiency Mirai has developed one of the most affordable large screen LCD TVs on the market -- but you'll have to accept a few drawbacks.
The cumbersome design of the Mirai T37156 looks cheap and is strangely styled with a detached speaker system fitted to the frame. The specification does include high-definition compatibility but, unlike rival models, only features an inhibited analogue TV tuner. And, although there's a competitive range of functions, not all of them make a difference to picture quality. At least any fears about long-term reliability are eased by a standard two-year warranty.
However, with an emphasis on high-definition it's unusual that the HDMI-induced images actually appear dull and subdued compared to the more impressive analogue connected performance. But it's still great value for money -- even if you add the expense of a separate Freeview box and better speakers.
While most modern LCD TVs prefer understated designs, the Mirai's unique construction is anything but inconspicuous. The straight-edged, black screen is surrounded by a silver 'horseshoe' structure that awkwardly integrates a pair of detachable speakers on either side. It's a design that provokes a second glance -- and not for the right reasons.
The screen is also comparatively heavier and far deeper than its rivals, and build quality is overwhelmed by acres of plastic including an unstable, circular stand -- but that's the price you pay to save money.
At least there is a full compliment of connections to support your accompanying equipment. A front panel conceals several basic AV inputs, including S-Video, and the remaining connections are arranged beneath a pair of oversized, removable panels at the rear.
An all-important HDMI input allows the direct digital transfer of high-definition signals from devices like Sky's forthcoming HDTV receivers and compatibly equipped DVD players. Not only do digital connections generally offer improved performance and the convenience of a single cable but they also future-proof screens for the dawn of a new digital age.
Until then, there's also support from a varied range of alternative analogue connections. Component video inputs enhance picture performance, especially if connected to a DVD player with progressive scan. There are also two Scart terminals, both of which are RGB enabled for uncompromised quality. And PC users can connect to the screen using a standard VGA input supported by a PC audio input, which are sometimes ignored even in more expensive screens.
The lightweight remote is inundated with spongy controls and feels cheap, but it is intelligently arranged and responsive.
The T37156 Cobra, is the flagship screen in Mirai's limited range of LCD TVs. The specification is slighted by the lack of an integrated digital TV tuner leaving you a choice of only analogue terrestrial channels. Eventually analogue broadcasts will be replaced by digital so you'll ultimately need to invest in a separate set-top box. However, this is one of the most affordable high-definition compatible, 37-inch LCD screens available.
The high-resolution (1366x768) widescreen panel will accept high-definition signals in all commonly used formats, including 720p and 1080i, so you can receive Sky's imminent HDTV broadcasts and watch upscaled high-definition images from a compatible DVD player. Although high-definition compatibility is undoubtedly the star of the specification there's a decent supporting cast of functions for the price.
The colourful menu system is presented with a range of typical picture and sound settings. You can choose between several preset options, with the 'Fantastic' mode performing best, or customise your own picture settings. There is also a set of advanced adjustments such as digital noise reduction, a black-white expander and vertical sharpness enhancer. But the effectiveness of these functions is questionable and involves the improvement of one picture element at the demise of another. For instance, the black-white expander creates more depth but loses detail, especially in dark scenes.
Standard sound settings are accompanied by a basic SRS surround option, which attempts to add a sense of spaciousness to the ordinary audio from the stereo speakers. And there's also a decent Picture-in-Picture system that allows you to view and listen to other sources in a small window in the main picture. It's ideal if you want to keep an eye on the match while, say, watching a film.
Although the impact of some functions is debatable, there are more features than you may expect at this price level. And the fuss-free operation, including quick access keys on the remote for practically every adjustment, makes the Mirai very easy to use.
Picture performance is mixed, with a few surprises that contradict the connection hierarchy used with input sources. Playing DVDs through Scart or component analogue inputs produces pure, well-defined images with strong, engaging colours. And deep black levels give the images density and perceived contrast that enhances overall realism. But the expected improvement usually associated with upgrading to a digital video input never arrives.
If anything, using HDMI with an upscaled 720p signal from a DVD player like Denon's DVD-1920 only impairs the picture. Over-bright images appear to bleach black levels, softening detail and contrast, while colours are muted by comparison. The picture is still immaculately clean and noise-free with impressively cohesive movement but it's less striking and detailed than the images afforded by analogue inputs.
The performance of the analogue TV tuner is only average. Programmes are consistently afflicted by grainy instability, overcooked colours and softly defined edges. Connecting a separate digital Freeview box improves the picture greatly, but obviously involves another expense. And sound performance is also disappointing with restricted dynamics and not enough weight or expression to enhance film scores.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield