Photos by Tony Cordoza
Cutting-edge tech your thing? Flat-panel plasma TVs are where the action is! Over the past few years, the image quality of these space-saving sets has improved tremendously, and prices have moved steadily downward. While we still have a ways to go before the wall-mounted video display replaces the traditional boxy TV, every month thousands of people are giving in to their plasma desires, fulfilling their fantasies of a futuristic lifestyle.
Plasma TVs come in a range of sizes, which is why we selected models measuring from 32 to 50 inches (diagonal) for this test: Sony's 32-inch KE-32TS2U, Panasonic's 42-inch PT-42PD3-P, and the 50-inch Philips 50FD9955. What each set shares in common-aside from being flat-is a wide 16:9 aspect ratio screen. But as you'll soon see, the similarities end there. Each manufacturer has taken a distinctly different path to delivering plasma pleasure. One offers a reasonably priced, stripped-down model that emphasizes video performance. The other two have tried to make the flat-TV experience more user-friendly by loading on traditional features like built-in TV tuners, picture-in-picture (PIP), and remote controls that operate every component in your system. Let's see how well they deliver.
People expect a lot from Sony's TVs, and with the KE-32TS2U ($5,000) the company has made a big effort to meet those expectations. The set, which has a 32-inch (diagonal) screen and a silver-toned case, lacks some of the fancy video processing and PIP features found on the company's other TVs, but for a plasma model it's fairly tricked out. In addition to the attached stand for table placement (there's no wall-mount option), it has built-in speakers and a tuner for watching cable TV or pulling in analog broadcasts with an antenna. And die-hard tweakers will find no shortage of video adjustments in the set's menu.
Connectivity has recently become a big issue for HDTVs (see "Making the HDTV Connection"), and Sony's plasma offers a wide selection of input jacks. Its set of five RCA jacks does double duty as an RGB+H/V or a component-video connection, and it has a DVI (Digital Visual Interface) input that's compatible with high-definition tuners/satellite receivers. Unlike most plasma TVs, the set also has an antenna input.
Sony's well-designed remote control shows just how hard the company has worked to normalize the flat-TV experience. Not only does it have a partially backlit keypad, but it lets you access favorite- channel lists with a single button push and can be programmed to operate up to four additional components, including a DVD player, VCR, and cable or satellite box. To switch inputs, you toggle through them by repeatedly pressing the TV/video button-a tedious process. You have to do the same thing to select display modes, which include Normal (for standard 4:3 aspect ratio programs), Full (for widescreen DVDs and HDTV), Zoom, Widezoom, and Subtitle (vertically shifts letterboxed programs to prevent any cropping of subtitles).
As I said, Sony designed the KE-32TS2U with video tweaks in mind. Its extensive menu options include horizontal and vertical size and position adjustments, four gamma settings, standard and high-definition color-matrix settings, three user-adjustable picture presets, and three user-adjustable color-temperature presets, which you can personalize with your own labels. In addition, you can create your own presets for standard and high-def signals.
After I made a few adjustments to the AV Pro preset, color rendition looked very good. A few additional touchups to its color temperature brought it exactly in line with the 6,500-K NTSC standard (I named my custom preset Zippy, after the comic-book pinhead). Now I was really in business. A quick check of The Fifth Element, my reference DVD for color, showed that the skin tones of the actors looked natural and Bruce Willis's bright orange shirt looked vibrant but without any trace of softness.
T he Sony's picture menu includes a Cinema mode that automatically kicks in 2:3 pulldown processing for video images that originate on film. The diagonal lines in the opening shots of Star Trek: Insurrection-another trusted test disc-looked completely solid and smooth. Overall, I was extremely impressed with how clean standard (480i-format) DVD images looked on the Sony. In a comparison with 480p output from my reference progressive-scan player, there was only a very slight loss of crispness when I switched over to the standard input.
Since the progressive-scan DVD hookup delivered an edge in image quality (as is generally the case with plasma sets I've looked at), that's how I watched my discs on the Sony. In the over-the-top snowmobile chase scene from XXX (if you've seen the movie, you'll know what I'm talking about), the patches of blue sky and fields of white snow looked solid and realistic, while the brightly colored snowmobiles looked vibrant and crisp.
The Sony also delivered pictures with eye-popping contrast in the sunny surfing scenes from Blue Crush. With darker material such as the nighttime balcony scene from XXX, however, the image tended to flatten out-the detail in Yelena's dark-brown hair was swallowed up by the shadowy background.
Ready for some high-def action, I cued up a D-VHS tape of Fight Club. The picture was clean, but it didn't look quite as detailed as on the larger sets in this test. Of course, comparing a 32-inch TV with big-screen sets is, in some respects, comparing apples and oranges. A 32-inch set can deliver great image quality for its size, but it's not going to give you the feeling that you could step through the screen, hop on a snowmobile, and join the action.
The Sony KE-32TS2U jumps through hoops to make the flat-panel experience more familiar and user-friendly. It's probably a bit small for use in a serious home theater, but it would make a great choice for a small apartment or as the TV in a den or bedroom.
A little more than a year ago, I sat through a demonstration where a high-end video company displayed two plasma TVs side by side-one with high-definition resolution, and one with enhanced-definition (EDTV) resolution. The company had applied video processing to the EDTV set to improve its contrast level, and the effect was mind-blowing. Not only did it look better than the high-def set-it looked better by a wide margin. Reviewing Panasonic's PT-42PD3-P plasma set, I was reminded of that demo. Although it offers only EDTV resolution, its knockout image quality allows it to successfully compete with high-def models. Best of all, it lists for just five grand, although I've seen it selling online for as low as $3,500!
Of the three TVs in this test, the Panasonic has the sparsest feature set and the most industrial-looking design. The 42-inch widescreen display is framed in a black metal case and comes with a matching table stand. Both a wall-mount bracket and speakers are available as optional accessories (the set has speaker jacks on its back panel and a built-in 2 x 8-watt amp). The Panasonic has no built-in TV tuner, PIP, or any of the other features that you're used to seeing on TVs-it's basically a video monitor, with input jacks, a power cord, and a remote control. During the period when I was testing the PT-42PD3-P, however, Panasonic was offering a free HDTV tuner to anyone who bought the set-a perk that sweetens the deal considerably. (Check Panasonic's Web site, panasonic.com, for details.)
The inputs on its back panel offer most every kind of connection you're likely to need, including VGA and a set of five RCA jacks that accepts either component-video or RGB+H/V signals. There's no DVI connection for hooking up a high-def satellite receiver or tuner, but there is a serial port that can be hooked up to an AMX or Xantech system for external control.
Like other aspects of the TV, Panasonic's remote control is sparse yet functional. There's no backlit keypad, but the few buttons on its surface are spaced far enough apart that you shouldn't have trouble identifying them in the dark. You toggle through the set's inputs by repeatedly pressing the Input button. Another button, labeled Picture, is used to call up and adjust video settings. Hitting the Aspect button changes the display modes, which include Normal (for 4:3 programs), Full (for HDTV and anamorphic widescreen DVDs), Zoom, and Just (stretches 4:3 pictures at the edges to fill the screen but leaves the center intact). A Sidebar adjustment in the setup menu lets you select between dark, mid-level, or light gray bars at the sides when 4:3 images are onscreen (you can also select black sidebars).
The Panasonic has three picture presets: Standard, Cinema, and Dynamic. Any of these can be modified, and the set will save your changes. You can also customize and store settings for each one of the TV's inputs. After I made adjustments to the Cinema preset, the Panasonic's picture looked fine, but there wasn't any 2:3 pulldown processing option in the Picture menu. Because of this, a few tough scenes on DVDs, like the opening to Star Trek: Insurrection, were riddled with stairstep artifacts when I used a standard player. Of course, when I switched over to my reference progressive-scan player, the images became nice and smooth.
After making minor tweaks to the Panasonic's Cinema picture preset, I cued up XXX for yet another spin. The set did an excellent job of handling the scene where Xander and Yelena chat in a brightly lit restaurant as assassins wait for them outside. Picture contrast, color, and detail were all astonishingly good. I could detect subtle tonal differences between the pair's black T-shirts and the dark-gray suits of the businessmen sitting in the background, and the fine architectural ornamentation also came through clearly.
Skipping to the XXX balcony sequence-my new black-level torture test for plasma TVs-I was impressed by shadow details in this murky scene. Not only could I make out highlights in Yelena's dark-brown hair, but the nighttime sky surrounding it was a deep shade of black-something most plasma TVs have trouble achieving with dim images. Panasonic gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for delivering impressive detail with dark images.
As I noted earlier, although the PT-42PD3-P is an EDTV-resolution set, its unusually wide contrast range also gives it a visual edge over some HDTV displays. In the high-def D-VHS tape of Fight Club, the picture looked punchy and crisp-even in the dim scenes that take place in the abandoned house where the narrator's alter-ego Tyler lives. The image may not have been true high-def, but its clarity was remarkably HDTV-like.
With its PT-42PD3-P, Panasonic has created a stunning set that's likely to wipe out any misgivings hard-core video enthusiasts have about plasma displays. It does come up short where traditional, user-friendly TV features are concerned, but with a picture this good, who cares? If you're in the market for a new TV and have been yearning to go flat, this Panasonic is the best plasma deal I know of.
Unless you've been living in a cave for the past few years, you probably know that Philips sells plasma TVs. How would you know this? From innumerable TV commercials showing thin, pretty, trendy young people lounging in rooms with plasma TVs on the walls, ceilings, and almost any other available surface. Philips has done its work to drive plasma into the popular imagination, and the 50FD9955 ($11,000) is a striking example of its current flat-panel offerings.
The thin silver frame bordering the 50-inch screen is completely free of any control buttons. A strip of inputs on the side panel lets you connect video sources directly to the set and includes component-video, VGA, RGB+H/V, and DVI jacks. But you'll probably be better off using the company's receiver-an outboard A/V control and switching center that neatly connects to the TV via a single cable. The analog receiver costs an additional $1,000, but it gives you a bunch of standard TV features like two-tuner PIP, favorite-channel lists, and picture enhancement. The receiver also features an elaborate remote control that can be used to operate the other components in your system. The 50FD9955 comes with a wall-mounting kit-an item that usually runs $200 to $300 extra. But if you don't plan on hanging the set on a wall, I'd spring for the optional $299 stand. With its arching design and sturdy construction, this is one of the coolest-looking TV stands I've ever seen.
The suite of connections on the back of the receiver includes two sets of wideband component-video inputs, a VGA-style RGB input, and a RF input for hooking up cable or an antenna. There's also a front A/V input for a camcorder or game system. A VGA output connects the receiver to the plasma display, which also features a DVI jack for directly hooking up a computer (since the DVI input lacks copy-protection circuitry, it's not intended for connecting an outboard HDTV satellite receiver/tuner).
The sturdy remote control that comes with the 50FD9955/receiver combo is loaded up with buttons, but most are clearly labeled and logically grouped. The keypad can be partially backlit by hitting a button on the side of the remote. Pressing Source Select calls up an onscreen list of inputs (you can configure the list to reflect the components connected to each input), which you select from by using the joystick near the top of the remote to scroll through the list.
To change the set's display modes, you repeatedly press the Picture Format button. There are five modes, including options for standard 4:3 and widescreen programs as well as various stretch and zoom formats. The Philips receiver doesn't offer aspect ratio control for progressive-scan signals entering its component-video input, so if you plan on using a progressive-scan DVD player, make sure it has that feature.
Philips provides a huge laundry list of settings in the picture menu, including options to enhance color, boost contrast, and reduce noise. While these can help improve the look of standard broadcast or satellite programs or cruddy VHS tapes, you won't really need them when watching DVDs. The Philips receiver provides only one custom, or Personal, picture preset that applies globally to all of the video inputs-an unfortunate limitation. Also, you can't make modifications to any of its other picture presets. On a positive note, however, the Personal preset accommodates separate settings for standard, progressive-scan, and high-def signals.
Another feature in the picture menu is Digital Natural Motion, which is Philips's fancy name for its line doubler. With this setting enabled, DVD images looked fairly smooth, although I occasionally detected stairstep patterns-a visual artifact that occurs when a line doubler lacks 2:3 pulldown detection to compensate for the frame-rate difference between film and video. But Digital Natural Motion also lent images a near 3-D quality that, while hard to describe, was dramatically different from any other video processing I've seen on an HDTV. I didn't even need to wear polarized glasses! After I completed my adjustments to the Personal setting, the color balance was good, although I had to make a few minor touchups in the service menu (see "in the lab" for details).
Watching the diner scene from XXX, I could clearly make out differences in the red hue of the vinyl booth cushions and the blood dripping off the face of the bad guy after Xander doles out a beating (ouch!). I was very impressed with how well the Philips resolved fine details like the embossed design on the napkin where the waitress had scribbled the numbers "911." I was less impressed with its handling of some of the movie's darker sequences. For example, in the balcony scene between Xander and Yelena, shadow details like Yelena's brown hair tended to disappear into the dark background. And I also detected some false contouring in the scene-an effect also known as "posterization" that shows up as flat bands of color.
Moving on to HDTV, I pulled out a D-VHS tape of Ice Age. The animated feature looked great, with solid colors and crisp detail. After overdosing on Monsters, Inc. for the past few months, it was cool to watch Ice Age in high-def on the big Philips screen. The textures of the animated characters looked realistic, but the furry creatures themselves seemed stiff compared with those in Monsters, which have a more lifelike quality. These are the kinds of subtle distinctions you can make only when watching high-def video on a huge, high-resolution screen.
The Philips 50FD9955 is notable not only for its sharp design, but also for its impressive handling of high-def programs. You could forgo the company's receiver and buy the plasma display on its own to save some money, but I'd recommend getting the receiver for the extra functionality it provides. You've watched the commercials on TV. Now go and check out a Philips HDTV for real.
As the three sets we tested for this report demonstrate, flat-panel plasma-TV technology is definitely ready for prime time. They're still not cheap, but prices are dropping so quickly these days that there just might be a plasma set in your future.