It seems weird to be reviewing a budget TV from Sony. After all, only a few years ago, we used to talk about the Sony tax -- the extra you paid just to have the company's badge on the front of your TV. Times have changed, though, and Sony is now pricing its TVs aggressively throughout its entire range.
The 32-inch, 1080p KDL-32CX523 LCD TV is especially affordable -- you can pick it up online for around £400. Despite the low price, it packs in plenty of goodies, including impressive support for online services, such as BBC iPlayer.
The KDL-32CX523 lacks an LED backlight, so the chassis is relatively chunky, at 70mm thick. It's also pretty much entirely made out of hard plastic, so it doesn't have the premium feel of some of Sony's higher-end models. It still feels like it's bolted together well, though.
Viewed from the front, it's quite a handsome set, and its angular lines look clean and classy. The bezel around the screen is quite thick for a modern telly, though.
Many manufacturers skimp on connectivity options on their budget models, but that's not the case here. With four HDMI ports, a set of component inputs, Scart and composite connections, as well as a VGA socket, you won't struggle to find ports to hook your AV kit up to. The CX523 also sports two USB ports, as well as an Ethernet socket.
Sony has recently rejigged its TV user interface, moving away from the XrossMediaBar system that it has employed for the past few years. Hitting the 'home' button on the remote now pulls up a rotating line of icons at the bottom of the screen that you can cycle through to access the features you want.
The interface no longer obscures the current channel you're watching, but instead resizes it into a large, windowed box in the top left of the screen. The new interface isn't as immediate as, say, the one found on Samsung's latest sets, but it is faster to use than the older XrossMediaBar system.
The KDL-32CX523 has a Freeview HD tuner, so you can use the set to view hi-def services from the BBC, Channel 4 and ITV without the need for an external set-top box.
But Freeview isn't your only gateway to free content. The set's Internet features also give you access to a wide range of online media, including the BBC's iPlayer service, as well as Demand 5, YouTube and Dailymotion.
In fact, in terms of video content, Sony's Internet platform is one of the best out there at the moment. As well as online video, the TV also has apps for a number of social-networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Picasa. If you buy the optional webcam, you can even use the TV to make video calls over Skype.
Unique to Sony's TVs is the new TrackID feature. If you hear a song during a commercial or in a movie, you can press the TrackID button on the remote to find out the artist and track name. When you press TrackID, the TV uploads a snippet of the song to the Internet, where it's matched against a song database to deliver the answer. It's quick, easy to use and surprisingly accurate.
As with many of the latest 2011 models, you can also attach a hard drive to one of the USB ports to allow you to record live TV, or schedule future recordings using the electronic programme guide.
The TV can also play digital media files either via USB storage devices or over a network via a PC or network-attached storage drive. But, although it played DivX and Xvid files, it refused to play MKVs, so the format support isn't as good as sets from LG and Samsung.
Pictures with punch
The KDL-32CX523 lacks 100Hz processing or any kind of frame-creation technology, so you will see some motion blur and judder here and there. Also, the black levels aren't as deep as they are on LED sets, although this has to be weighed against the fact that the TV does offer reasonably good contrast performance. As a result, darker scenes still offer up decent amounts of shadow detail -- something which cheaper LED screens often struggle with.
The KDL-32CX523's colours are also surprisingly punchy for an LCD model, so everything from garish game shows to more subtle movie tones look pleasing to the eye.
Sony's X-Reality Picture Engine also does a good job of upscaling standard-definition TV channels and even Internet video content. It smoothes over picture noise well, without making images appear overly soft. It doesn't offer the same degree of sharpening as, say, Samsung's UE40D6530, but it does make standard-def images look much smoother and more watchable. HD pictures, on the other hand, look razor-sharp, so you're getting the best of both worlds.
For a smaller TV, the KDL-32CX523's sonics are impressively accomplished. Dialogue is punchy and the TV even manages to muster decent levels of bass. It's also loud enough to comfortably fill an average front room without descending into a distorted mess.
If you're seeking a budget TV that doesn't compromise too much on performance or features, you should definitely check out the Sony Bravia KDL-32CX523. Offering engaging pictures, solid sound quality and some great Internet features, it proves that entry-level TVs don't have to be boring.
Edited by Charles Kloet