Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified. Click here for more information.
At CNET, we never review the audio quality of a TV, because, frankly, it's usually terrible. As we said in our How We Test TVs page: "We believe that anyone who cares [about sound quality] would be better served investing in a separate audio system." However, Mitsubishi's LT-249 series is an LCD TV designed for people who do care about getting decent sound without having to fuss with an external audio system. Therefore, we tested the Mitsubishi's sound the same way we test other sound bar home theater systems.
What's the verdict? When paired with a subwoofer, the LT-249 can belt out audio as well as the smaller sound bars it resembles, which should sonically satisfy fuss-intolerant, decor-conscious buyers. The high-end Mitsubishi also has solid picture quality, although it won't match the better LED-powered LCDs and plasma TVs available in its price range. It also has a compelling suite of interactive features including Vudu and Pandora. However, this HDTV is all about the speaker; so if you don't mind paying more for better sound, the Mitsubishi LT-249 series deserves a place on your wall.
Series note: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 46-inch Mitsubishi LT-46249, but this review also applies to the 52-inch Mitsubishi LT-52249. The two LCDs have identical specifications aside from screen size, so we expect them to exhibit very similar performance.
In an era where nearly every HDTV maker designs its flat panels with so-called hidden speakers, those tiny drivers that cower behind thin slits along the bottom or the edges of the picture frame, Mitsubishi's LT-249 series proudly wears its sound on its sleeve. Below the display sits a prominent bar centered around a metal mesh grating that protects a row of 16 tiny speakers, each a bit larger than an inch in diameter. The outside speakers are placed closely together, and the inner speakers are placed further apart. The whole bar runs the width of the chassis and it can't be removed.
Although the 5-inch-tall speaker bar increases its cabinet height and makes it taller compared with other LCDs, the Mitsubishi LT-249 otherwise follows a commendably compact aesthetic. The border around the screen is less than an inch wide, which offsets the bulky area below the display nicely. Mitsubishi uses a glossy black finish for the frame and the speaker bar, although the curve and higher gloss of the bar can cause some reflections of brighter items below the screen (such as our silver TV stand). The Mitsubishi's stand is also glossy black and doesn't swivel.
You'll either like the TV's speaker-dominated look or you'll hate it, but we count ourselves fans of its appearance. Also, design-conscious buyers will appreciate that no combination of separate speaker bar and TV will look as integrated as the Mitsubishi does. This TV is best installed as a single discrete audiovisual unit, preferably on a wall, with no external devices or connections nearby.
We're not fans of the company's remote control or menu design. It is the same as on the Mitsubishi WD-737 series we reviewed. The remote is simply the worst we've ever used. It's a confusing jumble of same-size keys that surround a Tinker Bell-size cursor control that's all but unusable (unfortunately, operating the TV requires using it all the time, especially with interactive features). Its buttons blend together and are hard to tell apart by feel. Also, there's no dedicated key to switch aspect ratio. At least this version has red backlighting. You can use the remote to control up to four other pieces of gear, but you probably won't want to. A universal remote is almost a necessity with this TV, if only so you can put the horrendous included clicker away forever.
Mitsubishi's new "Activity" system introduces a solution to a problem that doesn't exist: changing inputs. It replaces the standard, perfectly functional input selection toggle with items like "Watch TV" and "Watch DVD" that you can assign to one or more renamable inputs. It's a good idea in concept; but in practice, we found it confusing. Unnamed and unassigned inputs, for example, automatically appear under "Watch TV," regardless of what activity they're actually used for; there's no easy way to incorporate an AV receiver; and the Activity key on the remote will confound people looking for a more conventionally named button. By the way, if you're looking to access the Vudu feature, it's buried in the Activity section and is nowhere to be found in the main menu.
The main menu system is nearly as poorly conceived as the remote control. Often it would pause for a second, sometimes displaying an hourglass, before responding, even when using a function as basic as the volume control. Counterintuitively, the menu requires you to press "enter" instead of the down arrow to move into submenus. On the plus side, we appreciated the "More" menu that provided shortcuts to often-used functions like audio and video presets or aspect ratio. However, when compared with previous years, Mitsubishi's menu and remote design have definitely taken a big step backward.
Without LED backlighting, the Mitsubishi LT-249 is missing a few feature bullet points that other brands' flagship flat panels have. However, its speaker bar is the Mitsubishi's big unique value-added feature. The LT-249 improves upon the other "Unison" TVs with speaker bars in the company's lineup by adding two additional down-firing speakers, but the concept is the same.
The bar, which Mitsubishi calls a "sound projector," is designed to provide a simulated surround effect and has some advanced setup options found on many external bars. A menu lets you to set room dimensions and layout information, adjust angle, and change levels or all five channels. The LT-249 also includes a mic that works with an autosetup routine, and there's a subwoofer output to connect an external sub, along with preset modes such as Stereo and Night, in addition to Surround. Check out the Performance section for full details on how the bar sounds.
Interactive features: The LT-249's other big feature bonus over lesser Mitsubishis is its interactive features, starting with the capability to stream on-demand, pay-per-view TV shows and movies from the Vudu service. Mitsubishi is the second HDTV maker, after LG, to include Vudu on its TVs. The Vudu service works as well on the LT-249 as it does on the LG 50PS80. You can check out the LG review or the review of the original Vudu for additional information, but here's the short story: video quality on Vudu is top-notch and approaches Blu-ray in the best examples of the highest-quality HDX format, but you'll have to pay quite a bit for the privilege. First-run HDX titles like "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" cost $5.99 for a 24-hour rental, and you can buy the standard-definition version for $19.99. You'll also need a solid high-speed Internet connection to take full advantage on the on-demand service.
The Mitsubishi LT-249 doesn't offer other streaming video services like YouTube or Netflix; however, Vudu provides some useful extras in its Internet apps section. Our favorite is its Pandora app that accesses the popular streaming radio Web site: you just input an artist's name (using the onscreen virtual keyboard) and you'll hear songs by that artist and related music. Just as with the regular version of Pandora, you can skip six tracks before it asks you to create a new channel (essentially, search for a new artist), and you can sign in to your existing Pandora account. We especially like Pandora on this TV, because of the LT-249's focus on sound quality.
There are also apps for Picasa and Flickr, the two major photo gallery Web sites, that let you sign in to view your photos. (When we tried to access our Picasa account, however, the system failed and restarted. Eventually it took us back to the main Vudu movies screen, so Vudu has some bugs to work out with the system). Other apps available include two varieties of solitaire, a video service called On Demand TV that consists mostly of short clips and podcasts, and a strange "Now Being Watched" feature that jumps around a Google map of the U.S. showing what Vudu users in various locations are watching.
In general, the apps are easy to use and we appreciated their clear instructions and straightforward interface. Its responsiveness was quite good, especially compared with Yahoo widgets, and we anticipate Vudu creating more apps as its service spreads to more devices.
Picture adjustments: Mitsubishi outfitted the LT-249 with a 240Hz refresh rate. We really appreciated that you can choose the amount of dejudder processing (zero is an option) you'd like to apply to the image thanks to the set's 10-setting adjustment.
The company has also significantly improved its other picture controls over last year's models. The company offers five picture modes, three of which are adjustable using basic parameters, and the other two settings, called ADV, offer advanced adjustments. The basic controls include a choice of two color temperature presets, a three-position noise reduction control, an edge enhancement option, and a "Deep Field Imager" that automatically tweaks contrast and brightness. There's also PerfectColor function for adjusting color decoding, a PerfectTint setting for tweaking hues (these two are disabled in ADV mode), and a Film Mode setting that engages 2:3 pull-down processing.
Engaging the ADV mode calls up a menu that looks almost like a service menu, rather than a user menu, with a smorgasbord of advanced options all conveniently summarized. Settings include gamma presets, gain and cut controls for fine-tuning color temperature, and a full color management system. We also appreciated that it has a blue-only mode for adjusting color saturation and tint without having to use filters. The ADV mode on the LT-249 models offers two independent input memories per input, one each for day and nighttime viewing.