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HP PL5060N Plasma HDTV Page 2

But while the blacks in many plasmas measure no better than in most LCD sets (and sometimes worse), there's something about a plasma that produces consistently good subjective contrast, even when the objective measurements tell you that it shouldn't. This may be because a plasma operates much like a CRT in one respect: when the overall image is bright, the plasma's brightness is somewhat limited by the limitations of the technology (though it is by no means dim). But as the average picture level gets dimmer, a plasma can pump more energy into the bright areas of the image, making those highlights really stand out.

That's the case with the HP. The full-screen black level and peak contrast (see the "Measurements" section) aren't all that impressive, but only rarely did the image hint at the grayed-out look that many LCDs still bring to dark scenes. In fact, even though the HP, when properly adjusted and calibrated, is nowhere near as bright as many LCDs, the image "pops" in a way that is typical of plasma but rare on LCD. The HP's image has excellent depth, and while its shadow detail is little better than fair, I never felt that I was missing anything. Nor did the darkest grays turn crushed and muddled as they sometimes do on an LCD (though thankfully this characteristic is disappearing from the better LCD designs).

Two other ways in which the HP, like most plasmas, will smoke most LCDs are motion lag and off-axis viewing. Its visible motion lag, a characteristic that is important on all types of program material but particularly so on games and sports, is practically non-existent. And even if you move off axis until you can just barely see the screen, the image remains bright, crisp, and colorful.

The HP does fall short of the best displays in a few areas. One control omitted from the PL5060N is an option to manually select either video or film deinterlacing mode. The set is left to its own devices to recognize film-based source and compensate for 3/2 pulldown. Most sets offer such an auto setting, and most of the time it's adequate. But when it isn't it's useful to have a manual option to force the set into one mode or the other.

When I checked out the HP's video processing, therefore, I looked carefully for material that was not well-handled by the fixed, automatic 3/2 recognition circuits. The initial result: the set's deinterlacing and scaling were fair at best. On the video-based fluttering flag test, some jagged edges were evident, though I did have to look closely to see them. The set failed my toughest tests for 3/2 pulldown recognition: the moving crosshatch on the Faroudja test disc and the racetrack with bleachers on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark disc. It also exhibited significant artifacts on the HQV disc's 2/2 (video) and 3/2(film) cadence tests. But it did acceptably well on other video processing tests, and also properly de-interlaced a 1080i input to the panel's native 768p.

But I had conducted the above (standard definition) video processing tests using an HDMI connection from the Pioneer DV-79AVi DVD player set to 480i. (I currently use this player for these tests as it's one of the few that will output 480i via HDMI.) But when I repeated the tests with a component 480i input the set passed the 3/2 pulldown tests and sailed through the flag test. But it still failed the 2:2 video cadence test.

Most of the HDMI video processing problems appeared to come from the 480i-to-480p deinterlacing step. When I fed the display a 480p HDMI signal from a good progressive scan DVD player (the NAD Masters Series M55 that I reviewed recently, which uses Faroudja deinterlacing w/ DCDi) the only problem areas that remained were the cadence tests and the racetrack bleacher test.

But for the remainder of my testing I used an HDMI connection. Its video processing problems were rarely evident and in any case I found that an upconverted output from a good progressive scan DVD player provided the best of both worlds with this set: good deinterlacing/scaling and good resolution.

I also saw a few cases of false contouring on program material (also visible as stair-stepping on what should be a smooth black-to-white ramp test pattern), but it was usually subtle. And the set's bright greens were oversaturated in a way common to digital displays.

The HP also clipped below black and above white. This last issue was often the most obvious. In particular, very bright highlights in some program material could look overly bright, sometimes to the point of glare.

But none of these concerns interfered significantly with the enjoyment I experienced watching this set. Pre-calibration it was a bit too reddish in the Warm setting of the color temperature control, and too blue in both Standard and Cool. The post calibration grayscale, while a little uneven at the dark end, was good. Apart from the too-saturated greens, the color points were also reasonably accurate and the overall color excellent, including natural looking flesh tones.

While the HP isn't always the sharpest set in the shed on high-definition material, it never looked soft. I watched a lot of HD in the several weeks I lived with the set, and the best broadcast high-definition shows, from House to Heroes to Lost, while less stunning than on a good 1080p display, were rarely less than compelling. Sports looked great as well, although the rain-smeared Super Bowl was a disappointment through no fault of the HP. The Blu-ray Discs I tried also looked excellent, though marginally sharper with the player set to 720p rather than 1080i. The HP would not accept either a 1080p/60 or a 1080p/24 input from the Pioneer Elite Blu-ray player.

And I occasionally got a surprise courtesy of TiVo'd high-definition (well OK, not a TiVo, exactly, but rather my cable company issue DVR). When I set up to record Anastasia from the HDNet Movies channel, I expected to see the classic 1950's CinemaScope version starring Ingrid Bergman, Yule Brunner, and Helen Hayes. Instead I got the 1997 animated version starring (the voices of) Meg Ryan and John Cusack. But it was worth it. I rarely miss a major animated film, but I had never seen this one. It was a box office dud, but its computer animated, 2.35:1 images were amazing, and the HP got all the color, contrast, and detail of this unexpected, classic animation gem.

Standard definition DVD could look great as well. The remake of Flight of the Phoenix was sharp as the proverbial tack, but not artificially so. And my favorite movie-test DVD, Charlotte Gray consistently looked as good as I expect it to on a top-line display.

Decent standard definition material from cable was usually quite watchable, though often a far cry from high-definition. Standard definition digital cable channels looked far better than analog stations. And I can't deny that some of the latter could look pretty grim, often full of noise and microblocking. I suspect the blocking was in the source, since I never saw it on anything but the worst material, but such sources might have profited from a little noise reduction, which the HP does not provide.

Conclusions
HP unveiled a new 50" plasma at the recent 2007 CES. It will replace the PL5060N in a few months, and hopefully will correct a few of the problems I found on the current set. But none of these issues keeps the PL5060N set from being strong contender in the budget plasma category. It offers a lot of picture performance in a 50" design, and for a lot less money than most of the competition.

Highs
Punchy image with good color and detail
Subjective contrast good in both light and dark scenes
On-screen menus are straightforward
Excellent remote

Lows
Menus cover much of the screen and do not drop away for a clear view during adjustments
Clips above white and below black
Some false contouring
Video processing could be better

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