Philips 56PFL9954H Cinema 21:9 television review

Welcome to the wonderful world of CinemaScope TV. With a good 50% of Blu-ray discs containing movies in CinemaScope 2.39:1 aspect, high-def fans still have to put up with black bars above and below the action. Until now, that is.

Philips' Cinema 21:9 TV is not a new concept; we at Pocket-lint have been witness to many prototypes of similar ideas, but this is the first – and quite possibly the only – TV ever to go into production.

Its huge dimensions scream class, though if its unusual shape is designed primarily for Blu-ray movies and DVDs, what happens to regular TV pictures, games and movies that aren't in 2.39:1 format? As well as being the only screen available with a 2.39:1 dimensions, the Cinema 21:9 (so called because it’s designed to be used with 2.35:1, 2.39:1 and 2.40:1 sources) proves a versatile beast with almost any video, TV or games source despite its odd 2560 x 1080 pixel resolution.

In much the same way that 4:3 material is reformatted by widescreen TVs to fit properly, so 16:9 fare is stretched to fit the Cinema 21:9. That might sound awkward, but it works really well.

Put a digital TV programme, an Xbox 360 game or a normal DVD on and the picture is stretched slightly to fit the screen. It's done convincingly, largely because a few lines from the top and bottom of the picture are done away with. Not ideal, of course; some graphics on our Pro Evolution 2009 test game were cut-off, as were the qualifying results of the Grand Prix on BBC1. In fact, the top three names were all invisible, causing us to revert back to "16:9" mode, though for most TV, games and particularly for movies, this slight loss of picture is worth the sacrifice.

Meanwhile, watch a 4:3 broadcast of Frasier, for example, and it's slightly stretched to produce what seems to be a widescreen shape, with black bars on the sides.

The picture is always very high quality. It’s not quite so sharp as some of Philips' recent offerings, but it's darn close. Digital TV pictures are reasonably good despite the stretch, but it’s Blu-ray, not surprisingly, that proves the Cinema 21:9's highlight. Wide shots are spectacular and detail is impressive – not bad considering the TV is effectively zooming in on the disc to remove the black bars.

The immersive experience is added to still further by Ambilight Spectra 3, which proves more effective than ever; such is the sheer size of the screen that the lights emanate from three sides of the TV.

In our test disc Che: Part One – presented in the 2.35:1 format – in a scene where Fidel Castro send Che to set-up a training camp, the contrast of bright light and darkness in the same shot see Ambilight producing green light from one side of the TV and nothing from the other. As Che sits in darkness, it's hard to make out much detail in his clothes, though generally contrast ratio and black levels are very good.
The TV's most impressive feature is HD Natural Motion, which combines with 200Hz to produce a fluid picture that contains almost no blur whatsoever, though there is some flicker even if it’s set to "low".

Away from its fabulous pictures, which just stray from being reference-level when it comes to Full HD, the Cinema 21:9 proves itself very versatile.

Best of all is the sound; its huge width means bigger and more powerful speakers than almost any we’ve ever seen on a TV. Five HDMI are also nice, with Component video, a couple of RGB Scarts, a CAM slot (for adding subscription TV channels to Freeview), a coaxial digital audio output and a USB slot.

That USB slot is unusually skilled, playing MP3 and WMA music files, although the display of a graphic while music plays does cause the TV to resize constantly). On the video side, its plays DivX, AVI, MP4, and MPEG, though not HD variants of these formats. Again, there is an issue with resizing specifically with 4:3 footage, which appears in both its native shape and stretch to 16:9, depending on the TVs mood.

The Cinema 21:9 also includes a Wi-Fi (and wired) connection to a broadband network to plug you straight into the Internet. There is a portal that gives you access to various Net TV widgets (including YouTube and the more obscure MeteoConsult weather, Tunin FM streaming radio and Netlog social networking), though the ability to browse the Internet proper is intriguing.

In practice, it's a slightly clumsy process using the remote control, with the added problem of video file support – surf to the BBC iPlayer page and you'll be disappointed. Nothing will play, though text or picture-based pages are impressive.

Verdict

Despite minor criticisms, it's fair to say that the Cinema 21:9 provides an awesome experience that is initially stunning. It's a huge improvement on widescreen TV if you watch a lot of Blu-ray or DVD movies in the CinemaScope (or similar) format, and far easier to set-up or live with than the messy projector/anamorphic lens set-up that’s needed to achieve the same result.

At £4,500 it's an expensive upgrade to an existing flatsceen TV, and though short-lived, the initial wow-factor is almost worth the cash.