Great package, improved price
Although Pioneer is widely known for A/V receivers and DVD players, its main focus over the past few years has been plasma TVs. It does an impressive job with them, too, which is why Pioneer plasmas often cost more than competing brands. But at $5,500, the new PDP-4350HD is reasonably priced - at least for a Pioneer. And look at all the stuff you get: a digital cable-ready HDTV tuner with CableCARD, multiple HDMI and FireWire (i.Link) connections, and oodles of fancy video processing modes for both standard- and high-def pictures. You also get a pair of slim speakers.
The Pioneer's sleek design heightens its already considerable appeal. A glossy black frame surrounds the 43-inch screen - an inch bigger than the other TVs here - and the whole thing rests on top of a sturdy metal stand (Pioneer also offers a couple of different optional wall mounts for $500 and $250). The flexible stand not only has the ability to swivel left or right, but it can be pivoted forward or backward during installation. All audio and video connections are made to an external media receiver (back only shown below) that links to the TV via a 10-foot cable.
The PDP-4350HD's remote control is another design high point. It has a fully backlit keypad, and the buttons dotting its surface are organized by function into easily located blocks. There are seven direct-input keys for fast A/V source switching plus four favorite-channel buttons. Pressing one of the latter calls up a menu listing ten cable or broadcast TV channels that you store in memory.
SETUP Fine-tuning the Pioneer's picture didn't require much effort, although it took me a while to figure out that turning on the cryptically named DRE adjustment was important to getting the best possible high-def performance. After I selected the Warm color temperature and made the standard picture tweaks, the set's color rendition was pretty much perfect. I also found that the DNR and MPEG NR (noise-reduction) controls helped smooth out grainy-looking programs - both analog and digital - without reducing detail.
The Channel Setup menu provides a number of helpful options for pulling in and organizing local digital TV broadcasts, including an onscreen signal-strength meter. But the digital tuner's reception was relatively weak compared with the one in the Panasonic, prompting me to experiment with a number of different indoor-antenna placements. Unlike the other TVs in this test, the Pioneer gives you a stretch mode for watching HDTV, which can be used to fill the screen when 4:3 programs are shown on high-def channels.
PICTURE QUALITY The Pioneer's clean, natural color rendition was evident on every DVD that I watched. Even the "colorized" images of Sky Captain (the movie was originally shot in black-and-white and then tinted via computer in postproduction) looked appealing. Watching a scene in a cavernous hangar, I could make out fine details in the spindly frame of a Zeppelin under construction, and subtle gradations of light and shadow came through clearly. Most important, I saw virtually no trace of the false-contour effects that bothered me with the Vizio and HP sets.
Tuning in INHD on digital cable, I was happy to see the stoner classic Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke . But even more surprising was how good the high-def transfer of this movie looked. The suntanned skin of the cannabis-loving comedians looked natural, and I could easily see the differences between Cheech's bright red wool cap and suspenders and Chong's paler red bandana. And I saw loads of fine detail in the furry pastel-covered material lining the car's interior. It looked so plush that I resolved to do up my own ride in the same style the very next day.
Pioneer's PDP-4350HD isn't the price king of this group, but its high style, great features, and excellent out-of-the-box performance make it the best overall value. As Pioneer's newest plasma TV proves, choosing something you're good at and sticking with it makes a lot of sense.
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