Sony KDL-32EX403 Positioned beneath Sony’s flamboyant NX flatscreens, the EX line is squarely aimed at mainstream Sony TV buyers. These are not screens designed with cost-no-object electronics and from a cosmetic standpoint are more Ugly Betty than Heidi Klum. However they’re difficult to resist when common sense budgeting takes precedence over runaway indulgence.
This particular model has been a bestseller for Sony for months and it’s easy to see why. With Freeview HD (for on-tap hi-def without subscription), DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) compatibility and USB media playback, plus the IPTV feast that is the Bravia Internet Video service, the 32-inch KDL-EX403 ticks many of the must-have check boxes on our replacement TV list.
Sony A cursory glance at the side of the screen will confirm that the backlight employed is traditional CCFL (cold-cathode fluorescent), rather than super-slim LED. While this means the set has girth, it’s refreshing to see uniform illumination on an LCD TV in the midst of the current vogue for hotspot-plagued edge LED screens.
With most of 2011’s big-brand TVs expected to push the internet connected angle quite aggressively, the feature spread of this 32-incher seems strangely prescient.
Sony has been a long-standing advocate of the internet connected TV market. Over the past 12 months, its Bravia Internet Video service has become a tasting menu of IPTV service providers, both free and pay.
Hook the Sony KDL-32EX403 up via Ethernet or Wi-Fi and you’ll get instant access to BBC iPlayer (with variable bitrate streaming depending on your connection speed) and Demand 5 catch-up services, plus: Sky News; LoveFilm; YouTube; Daily Motion; Sony Entertainment Television (a misnomer if ever there was one), Eurosport; Blip.tv; Howcast; Ustudio; Golflinks; Livestrong; LoveFilm Trailers; Singing Fool; Videocast; Tagesschau and – pause for breath – Deutsche Welle.
It doesn’t stop there. Classical music fans can enjoy the Berlin Philharmonic or, if you’re a rocker, there’s Moshcam as well as National Public Radio. The TV even offers Picasa support for happy snappers.
More recently we’ve seen the addition of the Qriocity movie streaming service to the Sony Bravia stable. There is wide studio support for this VOD initiative, so there’s no shortage of new release movies and back catalogue titles to stream and watch. Prices begin at £2.49 for standard-def material, with a typical £1 surcharge for hi-def.
The sibling Qrio Music Unlimited service is also accessible, although having a subscription music service on your TV is perhaps not ideal. Once subscribed, though, you can also listen via your PS3 or Blu-ray player.
The KDL-32EX403 is DLNA compliant, but as we’ve seen with many other similarly certified screens, this is no guarantee of widespread file compatibility. Tests with a variety of popular file formats bring only limited success. There is no support for MKVs or AVIs, although AVCHD camcorder footage is accommodated.
The playback situation improves when files are read directly from a USB drive: AVIs with SRT subtitles and MPEG4 files are suddenly accessible. However, the TV still discriminates against MKV wrapped content. If you’re looking for a TV to stream sundry downloads from a networked NAS or PC, this isn’t the model for you.
Overall image quality is good. While it may lack the faster refresh rates of the Motionflow models (this screen is unapologetically 50Hz), the panel is bolstered by the upspec Bravia Engine 3 picture processing suite.
Freeview HD channels are smooth and clear, lacking the chaotic fizz of low-bitrate standard def fare, and Blu-rays look extremely nice.
Picture parameter control is better than you might expect from a mainstream 32-inch TV. There may be only three picture presets (Standard, Vivid and Custom), but there’s plenty of opportunities for tweaking. In the Advanced menu you’ll find a Black Corrector, Advanced Contrast Enhancer and Gamma adjustment. There’s also the option of switching the set’s Film Mode to Auto or Off (you might as well leave this on Auto as it seems to contribute little either way).
One of the more curious embellishments you’ll find is Live Colour. By fiddling with one of the three settings (Low, Mid and High settings), you can turn lemon yellow into tangerine Orange. Generally speaking, this is not a good thing. There’s also an Auto White limiter, to prevent peaks from searing your retina.
The toughest test for any LCD display is motion resolution. While a static 1080p image sparkles with tantalising detail, much of that clarity is lost when objects begin to move. Without Motionflow to rescue things, clarity drops from 1,080 lines to around 600 (maybe 625, it’s difficult to tell on such a small screen). The good news is that there are no motion compensation artefacts. Horizontal panning is extremely smooth, with no overt judder.
A challenging test of horizontally scrolling patterns of English and Japanese text played at varying (decreasing) luminance levels shows some minor image bleariness at full throttle that then worsens as the greyness takes hold, but the performance is generally much better than expected.
Colour fidelity is generally acceptable. Reds are a little orangey, but not outrageously so. The CCFL backlight does however rob the panel of deep blacks. A test sequence of the Tokyo Tower, shot at night, combines bright peaks from the illuminated tower and surrounding buildings, with deeply shadowed trees and background. The KDL-32EX403 struggles to reveal depth in the gloom and shadow detail is crushed.
There is a pretty simple fix for this. You can negate this perceived lack of black level by keeping your ambient room light medium to high. A classic trait of CCFL screens is that they look more dynamic and contrasty in bright environments than they do in subdued lighting, which is why they punch above their weight in retail outlets. Keeping the lights on when you settle down to watch a movie may seem a little counter intuitive, but it will lead to a better viewing experience with this particular set.
There’s also an Ambient sensor which automatically detects the brightness levels of light in the room, and adjusts accordingly.
The KDL-32EX403 is not going to thrill audiophiles. The noises produced by its S-Force digital amp module are a little honky when driven at volume, but the output is perfectly serviceable for low level listening.
While the two 10w speakers can’t compete with a dedicated 2.1 or 5.1 sound system, they’re fine for TV viewing. There are three audio blends (Dynamic, Standard and Clear Voice) to play with, as well as an S-Force Front Surround mode. The Standard audio setting is the best balanced of the options.
The surround mode widens the stereo soundstage: you may like it, you may not.
The KDL-32EX403 can be considered fair value. Although design fetishists will be horrified by its silhouette, the screen acquits itself reasonably well.
Limitations in picture processing mean you’ll shave off a fair amount of fine detail during sports and action movies, but given the size of the picture this may not be a deal breaker. Many causal viewers may not even notice. Certainly the inherent speed and quickness of the panel make it eminently watchable.
It’s unfortunate that its DLNA credentials are so lightweight. The TV’s network file compatibility is actually rather woeful. Given that some of Sony’s rivals (Panasonic, LG) are becoming increasingly cooperative in this area, this is an ongoing weakness on which the brand would do well to improve.
Conversely, the wealth of IPTV content that becomes viewable once the screen is coaxed online is a real treat.
Ease of use
This is a very easy TV to live with. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the set is building its gloss black pedestal stand. You’ll need to spend a few minutes with a Philips screwdriver to bolt it together.
A neat plastic ‘skirt’ is provided to cover the metalwork. Unlike its bigger EX brothers, the KDL-32EX403 doesn’t recline so you can’t alter the viewing angle.
Although not super-slim, the set can be wall-mounted, should you feel the need. Sony supplies its own custom-fit wall bracket (SU-WL500) for the job, but there’s no shortage of third party suppliers.
Build quality is reasonable for a mass-market TV of this size. With a depth of nearly 10cm it’ll certainly not take home any awards from Weight Watchers and it lacks designer flash – the bezel is unfashionably wide – but the impression is one of smartness when viewed square-on.
A wide selection of connections are provided to hook your kit up. On the rear are two Scarts, two HDMIs and component video, plus audio, an optical digital audio output, an Ethernet LAN port and a PC 15-pin D-sub.
On the left-hand side of the screen are auxiliary phono AV, two more HDMI inputs, USB and a common interface for a pay TV module. Over on the right, there’s a manual power (sorry, ‘Energy Saving’) switch, channel rocker and TV guide button.
The USB can be used for either a Sony Wi-Fi dongle (UWA-BR100), or for media playback. Our advice for those without a network point in their TV room would be to invest in a PowerLine system which utilises your ring main to distribute network data. From a Powerline plug you could run Ethernet cable into a network switching hub, thereby giving you up to eight wired connections (ideal if you also have a games console, Blu-ray player and other streaming products) in the same room.
Navigating your connected devices and sifting content is achieved via the standard Sony XrossMediaBar interface. However while simple enough to use, one can’t help feeling it’s starting to look a little dated compared to the hi-res graphical style embraced by some of its rivals.
If you ever get stumped, help is just a key press away with an onscreen i-manual. Unlike the new onscreen guides from Samsung, it’s not interactive, but it saves having to try to locate the paper version when you forget how to operate something.
The TV listing EPG is fast and well designed. A Live TV window top left enables you to monitor channels as you choose what to watch. There are no adverts intruding into the space (Panasonic, take note).
The KDL-32EX403 is an everyman big-brand TV. It sits just above the maelstrom of shopping trolley tellies and in that context perhaps looks a little expensive, but its basic feature spread is solid.
Considering the screen has been deprived of Sony’s more glamorous picture processing technology, presumably discriminated against due to screen size and positioning, it does an OK job; it is smooth and pleasingly artefact-free.
Its biggest attraction is as a conduit for Sony’s sprawling Bravia Internet Video IPTV empire and the upstart Qriocity VOD movie streaming service. Watch a lot of catch-up TV and YouTube? Sit back and enjoy. However, this is not a screen for you if you intend to stream media across your own network, or from USB sticks: file compatibility is just too limited.
The diversity of streaming video content available from Sony’s Bravia Internet Video portal is impressive. The lack of picture processing artefacts in its images is pleasing to the eye and the XrossMediaBar interface is a pleasure to use.
The relatively low motion picture resolution is a disappointment, audio is congested and the video file support offered for network streaming is miserly. The lack of MKV support from USB and limited contrast and black levels also grate mildly.
The KDL-32EX403 is an unadventurous, slightly overweight, entry-level Sony TV that delivers a relatively good picture given its lack of picture processing muscle. It’s also a winner when it comes to IPTV.
The range of content available from both the Bravia Internet Video service and Sony’s new Qriocity streaming video movie service continue to impress, helping to make this a good choice for couch potatoes on a budget.