Pioneer PDP-5060HD Plasma HDTV
Despite my lauding of projectors, it seems like the only question people ask me about TVs is, "What's the best plasma?" I usually respond, as you would imagine, with a detailed description of the strengths and weaknesses of several brands, what that means to the viewer, and a cost/performance analysis. All the while, I'm trying to ignore the bored and distracted look on my questioner's face. "Yeah, but who's the best?" he'll ask. "The Patriots," I reply. At this point, the average questioner's face scrunches up to resemble the average raisin. In an effort to finish the conversation so that I can be left alone to eat my burrito in peace (mmm, Chipotle), I tell them: "Panasonic for black level; Pioneer for processing." There, I said it. There are plenty of companies that make great-looking plasmas, but these guys are the leaders. They shine with regard to their respective specialties but don't screw up the rest of the display. What I love about this business, though, is that nothing is stagnant—everything advances. Just last month, I reviewed a Panasonic plasma that went a long way in improving the company's major processing shortcomings. While its black level was still good, its scaling improved for a much better-looking image overall. So, it's Pioneer's turn. Their processing, on all levels, has been good in the past. Their black levels, on the other hand, have left much to be desired. I was told that Pioneer's past few models have improved black levels. We'll see.
Like all of the Pioneer plasmas I can remember, the PDP-5060HD is piano black. It looks great with the lights on and the picture off but can reflect room lights. This is sometimes annoying when the picture is on. The external box has a changed look, though. It's now mostly silver. I'll give it a shrug; I've seen worse. This box allows for a large number of inputs and outputs, although several key inputs are on the front. This could mean that you'll have cords coming out of this thing all over the place—kind of like that scene near the end of Superman III. (You know the one I mean.) The remote is a little on the long side, but it's backlit and has direct input-access buttons. Unlike Pioneer remotes of yore, the backlight only lights up when you press the glow-in-the-dark light button. This may not seem to matter, but the old remotes would tear through AAs like vegans at an all-you-can-eat tofu buffet.
Unless they had taken a step back, Pioneer was bound to excel in this department. Of course, I've seen backwards steps before, so test we shall. This is the first display I've reviewed in several issues that actually picked up the 3:2 sequence. (While we're talking about backwards steps, why is 3:2 pickup so hard for manufacturers to implement? Is it really that much cheaper not to? Sorry, just a little rant there.) So, as I said, the PDP-5060HD picks up the 3:2 sequence just fine. It goes a step further with this plasma, as there is an additional progressive-scan deinterlacing mode labeled ADV. This increases the scan rate of the plasma to 72 hertz. Seventy-two is easily divisible by that magic number of 24, as in 24 frames per second. Let me back up.
The reason 3:2-sequence processing exists is so that the 24 frames per second of film can effectively fit the 30 frames per second (or 60 fields) that television employs. The first frame is split into two fields, the second frame is split into three fields, and so on. If you combine the wrong fields, combing, tearing, and other nastiness occurs. So, it's important that whichever device performs the deinterlacing (be it the TV or the DVD player) correctly combines fields in this 2:3 (or, colloquially, 3:2) sequence. Here's where this 72 Hz comes in. All Pioneer does is run each film frame three times. Isn't that simple? The result is smoother motion, especially in pans. It's not perfectly smooth, as it's still 24 frames per second, not 30 or 60. But it's smoother than the jerky three-frame/two-frame of 3:2 pulldown.
Title 18, chapter 6 of Video Essentials has a gray ramp: black on one side of the screen that smoothly transitions to white on the other. Like the previous Pioneer plasma we reviewed, the PDP-5060HD has an extremely smooth gray ramp, among the best in digital displays. With actual video material, this reveals itself in any shadow or onscreen transition from light to dark. It's smooth and natural.
There is, however, a fair amount of graininess in the image. From a normal viewing distance, it isn't really noticeable. There are several built-in noise-reduction adjustments, but, while these do knock off a lot of the noise, they also tend to knock off some of the fine detail. According to Pioneer, this is dither noise, the existence of which is part of the reason they're able to make the rest of the image so smooth overall.
The scaler isn't bad, but it's not great. Going up from 480i, I've seen displays with more apparent detail. On the other hand, it comes down from 1080i quite well. HD was very detailed.
When I switched, using the same signal, between the digital and analog inputs, there was slightly more detail in the digital version. I also had extreme difficulty getting the PDP-5060HD to recognize an HDMI signal. Turns out, this is because the default state for the HDMI inputs is off. Sure, it's just a menu setting away from making them active, but I mean, come on. How many phone calls is Pioneer going to get from customers who can't get their new DVD player to work on their new TV?
Black as Night (In the City)
The black level on this Pioneer is noticeably improved. How much improved? Well, I can't give you numbers, as our last Pioneer review was before we started measuring contrast ratio. But, what was once much higher than Panasonic is now just a little higher. The Panasonic TH-42PX500U I reviewed last month had a black level of 0.027 foot-lamberts and a full-on/full-off contrast ratio of 779:1. This Pioneer's black level is 0.033 ft-L. That difference may seem trivial, but it's some 22 percent higher. To the eye, it's a little higher but much improved. The PDP-5060HD's contrast ratio of 611:1 is not terribly impressive.
What should really catch your eye in that measurements box is the staggering ANSI contrast ratio, which is more indicative of what you'll actually see on the screen. Now, 1,135:1 is impressive. This is because the Pioneer can be very bright, but, like all plasmas, its full-screen light output (which is what we use to measure full-on/full-off) is restricted. Images have a lot of punch, and, on most video, the black level appears lower. (In fact, in most of the black boxes on the ANSI test, the black level actually was lower than it was during the full-on/full-off testing.) On dark movies like Master and Commander, though, the black level was quite noticeable. Then again, on anything but the best DLP front projectors and CRTs, all displays have a bad black level with this movie. With everything else I watched, I never once thought there wasn't enough contrast.
Color, for the most part, is also improved. The blue and red color points are now almost perfectly accurate. Green, however, is still very much not accurate. This is true, disappointingly, of most plasmas. Grass and foliage are a little too vibrant. In some scenes, it's almost as if the background is shouting, "Look at me! I'm a tree!!"
The tuner is great. It pulled in all of our local HD channels and displayed them with nary a blip, all with just a cheap indoor antenna. It's rare that a display ships with such a good tuner. Adding channels was easy and fast, but, inexplicably, I couldn't find how to delete channels. So, I had to scroll past all those pesky analog channels. Also, the onscreen readout of the channel number was a little strange. Instead of saying 4.1 or 4-1, it said 00004.001. All I need to know here is the channel, please. I don't need enough digits to show my ZIP code.
This plasma was nearly silent, but the external box had some fan noise. It seemed quieter than their last box.
Not surprisingly, Pioneer is giving Panasonic a run for their money, holding steady on what they do well (processing) and improving on what they historically haven't (black level). So there, for those who want to know. Between this and the Panasonic from last month, you and your wallet are going to have a tough choice ahead.
• Much-improved black level
• Great HD reception