When the original Philips Cinema 21:9 (56PFL9954) TV arrived in our office, it bowled us over. It looked unlike anything else on the market, did interesting things with widescreen 2.35:1 video, and had a bunch of other features that we really liked.
Now that TV has been superseded by a new, 3D-capable version with an LED-backlit display. That's not the only change either -- an updated design makes the new Cinema 21:9 (58PFL9955) look even more impressive than its predecessor.
On the downside, this is still a £4,000 television. Optimists might say that at least there's been no increase to the original telly's price, even though the new TV is two inches bigger, with a much-improved spec. But is this TV worth spending your money on? Let's find out.
Now a real visual treat
In terms of appearance, we don't think this TV can be beaten by any telly of a similar or lower price. Even the whisper-thin TVs from the likes of Samsung and LG don't have the impact of the Cinema 21:9. That's mostly a result of the size and ratio of the screen, and the fantastic metal finish.
There are plenty of inputs and sockets too, so you should be able to plug in every possible piece of kit with ease. Only one of the HDMI sockets is of the 3D-ready 1.4a variety but that's not likely to create any real problems -- we doubt anyone has more than one product that requires access to this port anyway. Sky and Virgin don't need HDMI 1.4a to provide 3D to TVs, so you're free to use the 3D-capable socket for your Blu-ray player.
Once again, we have to congratulate Philips on the quality of its TV audio. There really are very few mass-market TV manufacturers that can come close to achieving this level of performance from built-in speakers. The key to Philips' success lies in its rear-mounted subwoofers and front-mounted tweeters. This set-up delivers distinct dialogue from the forward-facing drivers, and smooth bass from the subs. It's a system we wish more companies used, because it takes TV sound to a new level.
That's not to say you should abandon a separate surround-sound system, because you'll always get better performance from separate speakers and amps. For day-to-day use, though, we're big fans of the Cinema 21:9's audio.
Ambilight is a Philips technology that generates lighting effects around a TV, matching the on-screen content. It's one of those things you fall in love with after you've used it for a while. It really does add something to the experience of viewing movies.
Philips has improved this technology, tweaking the way the system works on walls that aren't white. In the past, non-white walls proved a problem, but now you simply select the colour that best matches your wall from a menu, and the TV will configure itself to project the best-possible colour from the LED lights.
After numerous positives, we now come to one of the few negatives. This TV's 3D performance is a massive disappointment.
Firstly, the 3D effect is inferior to that which we've seen from other LED-backlit TVs from Sony and, in particular, Samsung. Depth was distinctly lacking in all our usual test material, and we also noted that the normal colour and brightness were adversely affected. We think you could push the backlight higher, but it would wash the picture out too much.
None of those problems is as severe as the ghosting, however, which is the worst we've seen on a 3D TV. The edges of objects appear to cast a shadow that really spoils any enjoyment you might derive from 3D viewing. This is often a problem with LCD TVs, and it's one of the many reasons we think 3D is -- for the time being -- a hugely flawed technology.
On the plus side, two pairs of glasses are provided in the box, and they're pretty comfortable too. Other companies that charge huge amounts for their 3D TVs often don't bother to include glasses, so it's great to see Philips making the effort.
No Freeview HD
While we're being disappointed, we should also mention the lack of a Freeview HD tuner in this TV. We appreciate that people in the market for this set are unlikely to watch much Freeview, but surely what they do watch should be in high-definition wherever possible.
This isn't just a problem with this particular TV, though -- for various reasons, Philips doesn't have Freeview HD sets ready to roll out at the moment. Expect them to arrive next year, probably in time for the next-generation Cinema 21:9 TV.
Menus and the new remote
When we first saw the new Philips TV remote, we were impressed. It's small, well-built and feels great. But, as we started using it, the problems with a cut-down controller became more apparent. Firstly, you need to go into a menu to do any but the simplest tasks, and the menu system isn't all that responsive. It makes for an occasionally frustrating experience.
While we're on about the menus, getting to the various inputs can be a real problem. Philips seems to want you to program everything onto the home screen, which is a simple-enough process, but it also means that navigating to a different input isn't a matter of one button press, but five. We also struggled to get the TV to switch to its side HDMI input, which was very strange.
Fantastic 2D HD performance
Philips once more deserves a hearty pat on the back for making a TV that handles high-definition video very well. Give this TV a 21:9 Blu-ray movie, and it shines like a star. Even though the image is upscaled to the higher-than-usual resolution of the screen (2,560 by 1,080 pixels), it still looks tip-top.
As you might expect, 1.85:1-ratio movies either have to be displayed in the centre portion of the screen, or stretched. We think it's better not to stretch an image out, no matter how good your processing is -- and Philips has done a great job with its stretching algorithm. But it's a matter of preference really.
Older programmes in the 4:3 ratio look horrific. You can either plonk the picture in the middle of the vast screen, or stretch it out to a 1.85:1 ratio. Any more than that, and the image looks absurd, although the TV will do it.
For the most part, the TV handles the alteration of aspect ratios quite well. The upscaling of 1080p images to fit the screen's higher resolution is impressive, with only minimal additional grain being visible in the picture.
In the past, we've criticised Philips for its picture processing. It's not so much that it's bad, but rather that the TVs leave the factory with these settings ramped up to levels that we feel corrupt the picture. We usually opt to turn everything right down to the minimum level for the best results -- the TV still works hard to generate a great picture, but isn't altering the director's vision of what you're seeing.
If you like Freeview, and watch it constantly, the new Philips Cinema 21:9 isn't the TV for you. If you have an extensive Blu-ray collection, with much of it in the 2.35:1 ratio, we're certain you'll have a very long and happy relationship with this set. Certainly, this is a super choice for movie lovers who don't want to invest in a projector.
Ultimately, our gripes with this TV are minor, besides its poor 3D performance. It's a great TV that looks stunning, and it's no more expensive than Sony's 60-inch Bravia LX903 3D TV. We think it's a better buy all round.
Edited by Charles Kloet