- Review Price: £8999.00
I hope you were sitting down when you clocked the £9,000 price attached to Sharp’s LC-52XS1E. For it’s definitely the sort of thing that might get your average punter feeling a bit faint, especially in the recession. Even a politician would have a hard time putting one of these babies through on expenses, for heaven’s sake.
Of course, though, while the 52XS1E might be phenomenally, even ground-breakingly expensive (conveniently forgetting the £12k or more price tags of the very first plasma screens all those years ago), it’s also pretty damn interesting. For surely any TV that reckons it can persuade people to part with so much money must have some pretty special talents tucked away up its sleeves.
There are probably three main ‘excuses’ for the 52XS1E’s price. The most instantly obvious of these concerns its build quality. Designed to a no-expense-spared spec by charismatic Japanese design guru Toshiyuki Kita, its bezel is resplendent in a brushed aluminium finish. And the seriously meaty, also-aluminium stand is about as heavy duty – while still being very attractive – as it’s possible to get.
The screen is remarkably slender too; just 23mm at its slimmest point. This really reinforces the sense that you’ve got your hands on a piece of genuinely next-generation technology.
The already positively regal design prowess notches up even higher if you attach another of the 52XS1E’s big selling points: the detachable but 2.1-channel speaker ‘bar’ Sharp has put together – in conjunction with Pioneer, no less. This gently curved bar is clad in the same metallic clothing as the TV, and somehow softens the sharp rectangular lines of the screen to give it a more elegant profile.
The single most important 52XS1E selling point for me, though, is the technology driving its pictures. For it’s Sharp’s debut LED model, and despite the screen’s extreme slenderness, it actually uses ‘direct’, rear-mounted LED lighting rather than an edge-based system, meaning that it can use local dimming technology to deliver potentially total blackness right alongside extremely bright whites.
Even better still, those whites should look more crisp and natural than most thanks to the 52XS1E’s use of RGB dimming rather than the more common – and cheaper – black and white LED dimming system.
Using coloured Light Emitting Diodes should additionally, hopefully, enhance the TV’s contrast performance beyond that of even normal LED screens, as well as helping colours look richer and more natural, since the actual illumination point of the TV is in tune with the pixel colour of the source image.
To put some numbers on this, Sharp claims a colour range of 166 per cent of EBU colour systems for the 52XS1E – a really extravagant colour palette that should reveal levels of colour dynamism and subtlety well beyond the capability of most ordinary LCD TVs.
Turning to slightly more prosaic but still significant features, the 52XS1E carries a 100Hz processing engine, Full HD resolution, and built-in tuners for both Freeview and, unusually, DVB-S satellite systems (though the satellite compatibility only extends to free to air, non-HD broadcasts).
Actually, the tuners are only sort of built-in. For as is often the case with extremely skinny TVs, Sharp has actually placed its tuners into an external AV receiver/connections box that ships with the TV.
Also easy on the eye, this box connects to the TV via a single cable – handy for cable haters. And alongside the RF and LNB inputs it carries three HDMIs, a USB port so you can play JPEGs or MP3s from USB sources, and a D-Sub PC input. The greedy AV lover in me would have liked to find such a premium TV sporting a fourth HDMI, if I’m honest. But if this proves to be the 52XS1E’s only shortcoming, it’s not really a big deal.
Unable to contain myself any longer, I switched the 52XS1E on and prepared myself to be blown way. But it didn’t quite happen – at least straight away.
The problem is that the set’s colours just don’t look quite right ‘out of the box’. Everything – but especially skin tones – looks that bit over-ripe. Just as well, then, that the TV provides some pretty extensive adjustment options for making colours look much more convincing. The hue and saturation levels of all the six main colour elements can be tweaked, as can the TV’s Gamma set up. And some time spent with these options in conjunction with a simple set up aid like the Video Essentials – HD Basics Blu-ray yields significant levels of improvement.
Once this has been achieved, the 52XS1E starts delivering on its extravagant promise. For instance, now I can properly appreciate the extraordinary intensity of the set’s colours, which really do enjoy levels of richness with extremes of the colour spectrum that I haven’t seen on any TV before – including Sony’s LED-based X4500s and Pioneer’s KURO plasmas.
The opening credits of ”Casino Royale” on Blu-ray, for instance, are an absolute revelation, as I witness levels of saturation and intensity with the card-game based graphics that I’ve honestly not seen before. Reds are particularly dazzling, reminding me vividly just how difficult lesser TVs find it to render a rich, deep red accurately.
The extraordinary expansiveness of the set’s colour palette also gives me a new-found respect for just how important rich but also subtly shaded colours can be in creating a sense of solidity and depth in a video picture. At times the ”Casino Royale” credit sequence almost looks like 3D – without the need for any silly glasses.
The best thing of all about the 52XS1E’s colours, though, is that they’re not just great at boosting the intensity of graphics and animations. The almost infinite subtlety and range of the TV’s post-calibration palette also has a jaw-droppingly positive impact on ‘real’ video. During the Freerunning sequence near ”Casino Royale’s” start, for instance, the range of greens visible in the fauna as Bond chases his quarry through a forested area are unprecedented, as is the combination of vibrancy and tonal variation visible in the sea behind the high crane part of the sequence.
The remarkable expressiveness of the 52XS1E’s colour tones continues with the relatively dark interiors of the embassy that houses the finale of the sequence, too, showing that the set’s colour talents are just as formidable at low brightness levels as they are with light, outdoor material.
Sorry if I seem to be going on about the 52XS1E’s colours a bit, but I really can’t state enough just how amazing they really are.
Not that colours are the only ‘amazing’ thing about the 52XS1E’s pictures, mind you. For its black levels also have to be seen to be believed. The black bars around the 2.35:1 ”Casino Royale” image seem pretty much perfect to me, without a trace of the customary flat TV greyness, or any backlight inconsistency whatsoever. This TV really does produce a purer, more natural, more uniform, more engaging and less blemished black colour than any other flat TV I have ever seen. High praise indeed from a man with a self-confessed and unrepentant black level obsession!
Another profoundly impressive thing about the 52XS1E’s picture is the fact that thanks to LED’s local dimming system, the sublime black levels aren’t dependent on overall brightness levels being reduced. So dark scenes can enjoy a dynamism and intensity you just can’t get on a normal LCD screen.
This also helps the TV reproduce sensational levels of greyscale subtlety and shadow detail information in dark parts of the picture, making them look totally believable and full of depth.
Yet more great news concerns the 52XS1E’s sharpness with HD footage. High quality Blu-ray images look spectacularly detailed, clear, clean and textured, without the accompaniment of any of the graininess or edge-stressing noise sometimes seen where such acute sharpness exists.
It’s a pleasure, too, to find that the clarity of HD images doesn’t fall apart when things get moving. Sharp’s 100Hz engine has gone in a couple of generations from being one of the worst to one of the best, so that here it ensures motion looks crisper and more fluid without generating seemingly any unpleasant side effects.
Even standard definition pictures look good on the 52XS1E. They’re not quite as noiseless and crisp as we’ve seen from the best Panasonic and, lately, Toshiba Resolution+ TVs, and they sometimes exhibit minor jaggedness over some curved edges. But they’re impressive nonetheless, and certainly markedly better than we’re used to seeing from Sharp’s normal LCD TVs.
The frequently extraordinary picture strengths I’ve just detailed leave me really no choice but to score the 52XS1E a 10 for picture quality, as an expression of HD superiority over every other domestic TV around right now. But the 10 score doesn’t mean the 52XS1E’s pictures are totally perfect.
Forced to put on my most super-critical ‘glasses’ by the nine grand asking price, I would say that while motion is very good, there is still a minor trace of judder with HD – even the very occasional actual stutter with 1080p/24 sources – plus a residue of motion smearing with standard definition sources. Also, no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t quite stop skin tones with standard def sources from looking a tad too pink.
Next, the dynamic contrast system can sometimes be a bit too aggressive in its brightness adjustments, causing visible brightness ‘jumps’, and finally, very occasionally I noticed slightly elevated patches of brightness around really bright image elements, presumably as the local dimming mechanism wasn’t able to operate quite locally enough to respond to the brightness demands of a specific bright element without also slightly lightening surrounding pixels. I must stress, though, that I only noticed this phenomenon three or four times – and subtly at that – in the space of a test session that lasted many hours
Still, while these glitches show that not even £9,000 buys you absolute TV perfection, they don’t stop the 52XS1E from producing what really could be the finest HD TV pictures I’ve ever seen outside of one of Pioneer’s ‘future tech’ demo rooms. Which is particularly striking given that Pioneer’s TV future tech isn’t actually going to appear any more!
The Pioneer references back there leads me neatly into an assessment of the 52XS1E’s sound system, with its joint Sharp/Pioneer heritage. And as you might expect, it’s outstanding.
The scale and scope of the soundstage is dazzling, filling your room with clean, well-steered audio that holds on to its clarity and range even at extreme volumes, without distorting or sounding harsh.
In fact, I’d say the sound bar actually becomes better the harder you push it, as its mid-range never fails to expand to accommodate a sudden explosion or orchestral burst, and it consistently hits the sort of bass levels that you’d normally only obtain from a separate, dedicated audio system. Home cinema is as much about sound as pictures, yet the 52XS1E is one of only a handful of TVs I’ve ever seen with the audio power to do this fact justice.
Against my expectations, if I’m honest, Sharp has come up with a genuine ‘statement’ product in the LC-52XS1E; one that actually arguably delivers on its marketing promise to produce the best flat TV picture quality ever. Plus it throws in one of the best sound performances around, just for good measure.
For all this, though, I still have to question if the LC-52XS1E can really justify its £9,000 price tag. That sort of money could get you a full, high-quality projection system, for instance – not to mention a new car! And while the TV really does deliver ground-breaking picture quality, is the extent of its greatness truly worth the £6,700 over Pioneer’s KRP-500A?. I’m not sure that I can honestly say that it is, and for this reason I can’t give the LC-52XS1E a TrustedReviews Recommended badge, no matter how awesome a performer it might be.
If you just so happen to be super-rich, of course, and one of those people who just has to have the absolute best of everything no matter what it costs, an LC-52XS1E should find a place in your home as soon as you can arrange it. But for most normal people, the LC-52XS1E will forever remain one of those products we can only dream about, rather than actually even trying to save up for.
Score in detail
Image Quality 10
Sound Quality 9