The 40-inch Sony KDL-40EX523 is the entry-level model among Sony's line-up of LED screens.
Priced at around £500 online, the 40EX523 does lack some extras such as 100Hz motion processing and 3D, but that's not to say it's totally devoid of features, as it does have two USB ports and decent onboard Internet video functions.
This model includes the updated version of the Xross Media Bar (XMB) that's found on all models in Sony's latest range. This retains much of the feel of the old system, but there are some key changes. Previously the cross-section of the bar sat in the middle of the screen. Now, however, it's less of a cross and more of a corner bar, as the main menu runs across the bottom of the screen while the sub-menus appear on a vertical column on the far-right of the display.
This has allowed Sony to add a large video window of the currently selected channel on the left-hand side of the screen. As a result, using the menus isn't as intrusive as it used to be.
The system looks very slick and the transitions between the menus are smooth. However, it does take some getting used to, as it's not immediately obvious which menus you need to look in to find certain features. Things aren't helped by the fact that many of the icons in the main menu look quite similar and don't visually relate well to their functions. Because of this, you often find yourself spinning through menus to track them down.
One aspect of the menu system we like is the Scenes function. This is a preset that covers audio settings as well as pictures. So, for example, choosing the Cinema scene will switch to the movie picture preset as well as change the audio settings to something that's more suited to watching films.
We're also quite fond of Sony's electronic programme guide (EPG). It uses a dark and dreary colour scheme (much like the XMB menus), but it's crisply laid out. In the top left-hand corner is a video window for the show you're currently watching. To the right of this, there's a summary of the programme that you've got selected in the listings, while below is a large grid showing you eight channels' worth of programming info.
It's quick to move between shows and channels and there are some good sorting options, including one that lets you see at a glace all the movies coming up over the next few hours or days.
Digital media and Internet features
Sony's TVs have generally produced mixed results when it comes to digital media playback and streaming, and so it proves with the 40EX523. The problem here, as with other Sony models, is the patchy format support.
This model played DivX, Xvid and WMV files without any problems, but it refused to run MKV files, either locally or streamed across a network. MKV is an increasingly popular format on the Internet for HD videos, so it's about time that Sony started to include it, especially as it's now supported on most Samsung, LG and Panasonic TVs.
The set is strongest when it comes to the number of Internet video services available. Alongside the BBC's iPlayer, there's Lovefilm, Demand 5 -- channel Five's on-demand service, along with stalwarts like YouTube and Dailymotion. Sony has also included its Qriocity video on-demand service, that allows you to rent either standard or high-definition versions of new blockbuster movies.
What's less impressive is the range of mini Internet apps available. Sony only offers widgets for Facebook, Twitter and a simple RSS reader, as well as apps for Picasa and Skype (if you buy the optional camera and mic).
There is also a full web browser, but it doesn't support Adobe Flash, so you can't play videos on some websites. The latest TVs from LG and Samsung offer a much broader array of apps. Their app libraries have been growing steadily this year, whereas Sony's offering has stood still for the past six months.
Design and connections
The design of Sony's current TVs haven't changed all that much from the company's pervious generation of sets. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing. They're perhaps not the most showy models, but the understated design, with the slim piano-black bezel on the top and sides and a gun metal grey finish on the bottom, will fit the décor of most rooms.
There are no surprises when it comes to the range of connections on offer. As you would expect on a contemporary 40-inch flatscreen, this one has four HDMI ports. Three of these are mounted on the rear, while the fourth has been shifted to a panel on the left-hand edge to make it easy to get at if you've wall-mounted the set.
The rear panel is home to a full-sized Scart socket, a set of component inputs, an optical audio output, the RF-in for the Freeview HD tuner, as well as an Ethernet port. Unlike Sony's higher-end models, this one doesn't have Wi-Fi built in. However, there is a dongle available that plugs into one of the two USB ports found on the panel on the left-hand edge. Also on this panel is a headphone socket, CAM slot and VGA port for connecting a PC or laptop.
The 40EX523's speakers perform well when it comes to mid-range frequencies. Dialogue tends to sound strong and nicely anchored. However, the age-old problem of a lack of bass -- which affects the majority of today's LED screens -- also rears its head here. And this is despite Sony adding a little extra room towards the bottom of the chassis to fit in slightly larger speakers.
The overall sound quality is fine for most day-to-day viewing. But if you put on a more action-orientated movie, the lack of deeper bass frequencies leaves explosions and pounding soundtracks sounding tame and flaccid.
Sony only gives you the minimum of control over the audio too. Rather than the multi-band equalisers that you'll find on other brands, here you can only tweak bass, treble and balance controls. However, the TV does include a surround sound mode that widens the stereo image in a pleasing way, but stops a long way short of providing convincing surround sound.
Given its relatively low price tag, we weren't expecting this to knock our socks off when it came to picture performance and, well, it doesn't.
Let's look at some of the bad points first. As with a lot of budget LED sets we see, this one suffers from uneven backlighting. In darker scenes or during title sequences, pools of light are often visible emanating from the top and bottom edges of the picture. Viewing angles aren't as wide as we would have liked either. If you sit off-axis, the screen colours tend to take on a slightly blue-ish and unnatural tinge. As a result, this might not be the best set for larger families to crowd around.
Although the TV is capable of producing quite deep black levels, these come at the expense of contrast performance. Darker scenes tend to look muddy as it's just not capable of teasing out shadow detail the way more accomplished sets do.
The TV's lack of motion processing is also evident when it's presented with more challenging material, such as camera pans in movies. When there's a lot of movement on the screen, images tend to blur and look smeary. It simply doesn't have enough motion resolution to hold on to the detail levels.
But let's not just concentrate on the negatives, as this set does have a fair few positives too. When not dealing with darker scenes, pictures tend to look bright and punchy, with the LED backlighting helping to push colours very much to the forefront. Also, colour performance, while not as accurate as some, is still relatively good for the price. The Cinema picture mode's warm palette does help movies to look rich and cinematic.
The upscaling of standard-definition material is also handled nicely. HD sources, like movies on Blu-ray or high-definition channels from the Freeview HD tuner, have excellent levels of sharpness.
There's plenty of competition at this price for cheaper LED TVs that don't have 3D support. Unfortunately, we don't think the 40EX523 does quite enough to win this battle.
Sure it has its strengths, including warm colours, a stylish design and a good selection of Internet video content. However, the likes of Samsung's UE40D5520 offer better picture performance and more extensive Internet features, while undercutting the price of the 40EX523.