Sony isn't usually a brand we associate with particularly aggressive prices. Yet £750 or so for the Bravia KDL-40V5500 really doesn't seem all that much when you consider it's a 1080p, 40-inch LCD TV complete with Sony's new Bravia Engine 3 video-processing software and AppliCast online system.
Given its position towards the bottom of Sony's current LCD TV range, the KDL-40V5500 boasts a surprising amount of shelf appeal. For starters, it's very robustly built, and its slender black body is quite attractive, despite not looking particularly original. It's also handsomely connected, with four HDMI sockets, an Ethernet port and a USB jack among the highlights.
The Ethernet port is a dual-purpose affair, allowing you to access either files on a networked PC, or Sony's AppliCast online service. The USB jack is better than most too -- it plays MP3 audio and movie files, as well as the typical JPEG stills.
Our good first impressions were reinforced as we delved into the KDL-40V5500's neatly presented on-screen menus and uncovered an impressive degree of picture-setting flexibility for such a relatively affordable TV. Options include Sony's colour-enhancing Live Colour engine, a black-level booster, and two different noise-reduction circuits.
There's plenty of picture-enhancing features behind the scenes too, most notably Sony's Bravia Engine 3 video processing. Sony claims it represents a major improvement on previous Bravia Engine generations. It's designed to improve everything from colour and black level to motion handling, sharpness and noise reduction. The only disappointment so far is the KDL-40V5500's lack of 100Hz motion handling. For that, you'll have to step up to Sony's new W5500 models.
Another disappointment is the AppliCast system. It's really short on content compared with the online systems from other brands like Philips, Panasonic and Samsung. All you get of note are a few uploadable photographs to use as screensavers, a world clock, access to RSS news feeds, weather reports, and an on-screen calculator.
Thankfully the KDL-40V5500 gets back on track with its picture quality. Initially, it looks pretty much impeccable. Colours, for instance, are startlingly radiant and dynamic, yet also authentically toned and subtly blended. They benefit, too, from appearing against a backdrop of outstandingly deep black levels, by LCD standards.
This black-level prowess helps the KDL-40V5500 deliver dark scenes with a good sense of scale and depth, especially since the TV's natural contrast talents mean it doesn't have to reduce its brightness too drastically in order to achieve the good black levels.
The KDL-40V5500 also excels at delivering all the glorious sharpness, detail and texture associated with high-definition sources, while the Bravia Engine 3 system ensures that standard-definition images are upscaled to the TV's 1920x1080-pixel resolution with impressive clarity and colour accuracy. Add to the KDL-40V5500's potent picture some solid audio, and it's starting to look like Sony has a tangible hit on its hands.
The longer we lived with the set, however, the more we started to become aware of a distracting flaw: patches of greyness in the set's corners. This sort of backlight inconsistency isn't uncommon in the LCD world, but the size of the affected patches on the KDL-40V5500 is greater than usual.
To be fair, the grey areas are so faint that you'll only see them during the most pitch-black of scenes, especially if you set the TV's backlight level very low. But, really, in this day and age, we'd rather not see them at all.
A smaller problem is the appearance of slightly more motion blur than you get with Sony's 100Hz TVs, but this issue is pretty insignificant compared to the flawed backlight.
If you're a casual user, the Sony Bravia KDL-40V5500 has plenty going for it. It's unusually cheap for a Sony Bravia TV, especially considering how much multimedia functionality it's got, and there are times -- many times, in fact -- when its pictures are outstanding. But serious film fans will inevitably find themselves cursing the subtle backlight inconsistencies from time to time.
Edited by Charles Kloet