Maxent MX-50X3 Plasma Monitor

As retail prices for plasma displays continue to decline, there appear to be some really good deals coming to market – mainly, plasma monitors sold under unfamiliar brands in big box stores and wholesale clubs. In particular, plasma monitors are of interest to buyers who already own a cable, satellite, or terrestrial DTV set-top box and don't particularly need an integrated tuner or CableCARD slot.

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Maxent is one such manufacturer that is getting a fair amount of shelf space at the national chains, and their 50-inch MX-50X3 HD plasma monitor is now available at retail for $2,999. That's not much more than a 42-inch XGA-resolution plasma TV costs these days, and a very attractive deal. The question is, what kind of performance can you expect at that price point?

Out of the Box
The MX-50X3 isn't particularly "jazzy' in appearance. It has a simple, attractive silver frame around the screen, complemented by an equally austere but strong support stand (already attached). The back of the display has more of an industrial look with four large wall-mount posts and a pair of speaker terminals (the speakers must be attached separately). In other words, the design isn't calling attention to itself.

There are more than a few inputs on this monitor, starting with two pairs of composite (on RCAs) and S-Video jacks, and progressing to two separate component inputs (also on RCAs). There's also a 15-pin VGA jack with a loop-out to an external monitor, and one HDMI interface (audio supported).

Each of the analog input pairs also has a pair of RCA jacks for stereo audio, plus a master audio output pair and a separate line-level connector for a subwoofer. The supplied column speaker systems are rated at 10-watts per channel, more than adequate for everyday TV viewing. For home theater use, don't bother with the speakers – use your own system.

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The supplied remote control has large buttons – not too many of them, fortunately – for the most commonly used functions. It's one of the better remotes I've used in a while, featuring four large menu navigation buttons shaped like semicircles and a large Menu button in the middle. You can definitely operate this remote in the dark by feel.

Direct access to any input is had by sliding down the cover on the face of the lower 1/3 of the remote control. There are other functions in this hidden compartment you won't be able to use as they apply strictly to TV functions – and the MX-50X3 doesn't have any TV tuners.

Menus
The MX-50X3's menu structure is almost as simple as its packaging. There are three factory picture modes (Standard, Vivid, Cinema) and one User mode for tweaking image parameters. Unfortunately, there is no way to go into advanced calibration settings, such as red, green, and blue controls for adjusting the color temperature, without having a separate service remote. There are no service codes you can enter into the standard remote to get into a service menu. I was able to obtain a service remote and calibrate the set prior to doing any serious viewing.

206maxant.3.jpgIn User mode, you can adjust brightness, contrast, color saturation and hue, and sharpness, plus select one of three different pre-set color temperatures (Cool, Natural, and Warm), select two different analog noise-reduction settings, and toggle between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. You can also change picture geometry with horizontal and vertical width and height sliders, plus fine-tune the pixel clock.

Even though most of the functions you'd find on a plasma TV are not available in the menu, there is a picture-in-picture (PiP) function that will allow overlay of an analog input atop an HDMI image source. The PiP window can be placed in one of four quadrants, and that's it. The base image must always be from the HDMI channel – you can't overlay an HDMI image atop component video, for example.

Image Quality
Measurements showed some bandwidth issues (see "Tests and Calibration"), so I figured the MX-50X3 would be happiest with a diet of 480p and 720p content, and that's just how things played out. Part of the reason is the internal deinterlacing and motion processing, which is below par.

The HQV Benchmark test DVD revealed plenty of scan line artifacts (jaggies) when fed as a 480i source. The monitor also had difficulty detecting 3:2 pull-down cycles, not to mention oddball cadences including 2:3:3:2 and 2:2:2:4.

Oddly enough, the composite video decoding is very, very good, with plenty of detail at 300 and 400 lines and little to no color moiré, using the Video Essentials Zone Plate test chart. It's the poor 3:2 motion compensation that causes problems, so I'd advise you to use a quality DVD player in 480p mode with the MX-50X3.

Best results with HD content came with live 720p/60 sports and event programming. I played back clips of ABC's Super Bowl XL coverage and found no problems with motion or image detail. Colors were saturated and images had plenty of "pop". (Hint – turn the Sharpness control down to 2 or less as it adds unwanted ringing around objects in HD modes.) The built-in noise reduction helps a bit with analog noise; there's no cure for digital "mosquitos" or other encoding artifacts.

Despite the measured bandwidth issue, 1080i doesn't look too shabby either, depending on the source. You'll find that live sports and concerts on CBS show much better on this monitor than do a lot of the filmed programs transferred to 1080i and broadcast by Discovery HD and INHD. That's because CBS usually allocates higher bit rates to its HD content than other networks. Interlaced motion artifacts aren't all that noticeable in 1080i/30 mode. It depends on the source of the filmed content and how much motion is present.

As for analog video – use an outboard scaler to clean it up, particularly NTSC video from cable or VHS tapes. You're simply asking too much of the MX-50X3 by feeding these low-resolution signals to it, and you won't be happy with the results. The images will be properly decoded but you won't be able to escape the interlace artifacts.

Power Consumption
I ran the MX-50X3 for 6 hours with normal programming from INHD to see just how much juice it gobbled up. Using the Watts Up? Pro meter, I logged a total of 2.36 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy use, with average power consumption around 431 watts. Using a base electricity rate of $0.08/hr, it cost $0.19 per hour to operate, or $22.66 for 30 days of operation, six hours per day.

Conclusions
Maxent's MX-50X3 plasma monitor looks best with progressive-scan content. It's on-board video processing of interlaced material is its primary shortcoming. But with a good outboard scaler that does clean interlaced-to-progressive-scan processing, particularly one that can process signals and convert them to the HDMI format, it's definitely worth a look.

Highs and Lows

Highs
Simple operation and menus
Tracks good grayscale when calibrated
One digital and three analog component inputs

Lows
No user access to RGB white balance adjustments
Poor deinterlacing and 3:2 detection

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