A Real-World Plasma Face Off
Yes, you heard right, kiddies. The plasma antichrist (me) is performing a comparison of eight mostly industrial-strength plasma displays. Will I deride them all? Probably. Will their beauteous splendor turn me to the dark side? Possibly. Will I lose my mind in the process? Read on to find out.
Normally, we acquire products through manufacturers' public-relations firms, line them up in our lab, and compare them. We usually have certain requirements to ensure that the playing field is fair, like making sure all of the products are the same price, size, and type. While this is certainly a fair way to compare products, we often wonder how products from different price points would compare. Does the most expensive always win? Jason Koehler, senior consultant for Vantage Technology Consulting Group, gave us the opportunity to find out. Vantage, based in Manhattan Beach, California, provides engineering consulting for large-venue audio/video projects all over the country. They've worked in numerous hospitals, universities, and entertainment venues, including the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas. Jason, a Face Off veteran, had lined up a bunch of plasmas to show to one of their clients, who would then choose one for their project. Jason offered us access to the products in exchange for our experience with product comparisons. We eagerly agreed, packed our gear, and headed south.
Jason rounded up eight plasmas from seven manufacturers: Panasonic, Pioneer, Gateway, Hitachi, Zenith, Sony, and two displays from NEC. The Sony, NEC MP Series, and Gateway units are considered consumer models, while the others are labeled as commercial or professional models—in other words, they're sold through commercial distributors for use in business and/or industrial locations. You won't likely find these models at your local Best Buy or independent retailer, and the manufacturers normally wouldn't promote these products for home theater use. What's the difference? Commercial models are often less-expensive, stripped-down versions of the consumer models. They may lack 3:2 processing, TV tuners, or PIP, for example. Of course, if you use an external scaler or a satellite tuner, you may not miss these features. Commercial models often offer more-industrial-style parts. Most commercial displays use BNC-type connectors for the video input, while consumer models have RCA-type connectors. Commercial products aren't as easy to come by, but people often buy them in lieu of consumer models, and they're safe to use in your home.
Four of the plasmas in this Face Off—the Gateway, Panasonic, Zenith, and NEC VP Series—are ED monitors with an 852:480p (progressive) pixel array or native resolution. ED stands for enhanced definition, which means that the display has a native resolution that's greater than regular (or standard-definition) television's 480i (interlaced) vertical lines but less than high definition, which is generally defined as 1080i or 720p vertically (1,920 or 1,280 pixels horizontally, respectively). Technically, this label also applies to both the Hitachi and Sony displays, which have a 1,024:1024i resolution, although it's worth noting that 1024i is only a hair short of a true high-definition signal's 1080i rate. A hair short is a hair short, however. The Pioneer and NEC MP Series panels use progressively scanned 1,024:768 phosphor grids, making them the group's only true high-definition panels. Then again, these units have to convert a 1080i signal to their panel's progressive 768 array.
The Pioneer and NEC MP Series displays were also the most expensive panels, with list prices of about $10,000. Considering the Gateway panel's $3,000 cost, there was quite a price spread. A quick online search, however, indicated that even the most expensive panels in the group could be had for $5,500 or so (these prices may not include shipping, be legitimate, or be available by the time this article goes to print).
Associate editor Geoffrey Morrison and I adjusted each display's front-panel controls, particularly the black or brightness level, to an accurate setting before editor Maureen Jenson and executive editor Adrienne Maxwell joined us for the impromptu comparison. We looked at several different video clips, including Hollow Man and Toy Story on DVD and The Haunting in the high-definition D-VHS format. Due to time, technical, and logistical constraints, we were unable to calibrate the displays and re-evaluate them.
Although we performed most of our evaluation using component (Y/Pb/Pr) signals, Geoffrey and I took some preliminary notes about each display's performance with composite signals. If you still use composite sources like VHS and analog cable, you'll find that most of the displays do an adequate job with the lower-quality signal. Only the Zenith and Pioneer plasmas had any noticeable dot crawl, both with static and moving images. This appears as a zipper-like artifact on vertical color borders and makes composite signals look slightly less detailed. Both the Zenith and the Pioneer use comb filters that allow cross-color artifacts to pass through, as well. This means that fine diagonal details will have a rainbow-like shimmer that shouldn't be there. The other displays did not exhibit these artifacts and looked reasonably good with composite sources.
Most of the plasmas' color decoders were equally good. Test patterns indicated that the Zenith display should push red severely and that the Gateway and Hitachi panels would rank slightly behind that. The other displays seemed very accurate. While the Gateway and Hitachi did indicate a slightly pinkish tone with video material, the Zenith looked fine. This is most likely due to the Zenith's extremely blue color-temperature setting, which tended to wash out most color, thus striking a balance. The Gateway and Hitachi displays had much more-accurate color-temperature settings and might benefit from an alternate color-decoder setting to match. Then again, the other displays' color decoders may have too little red.
Regardless of the input, the Gateway, NEC MP Series, Sony, and Zenith displays—plasmas that are sold either specifically to the consumer market or to both the consumer and commercial markets—offer 3:2-pulldown recognition for film-based sources. All of the plasmas include line doublers to upconvert interlaced sources to the panel's native resolution. Upconverting video-originated content is relatively easy, although the Zenith display lost resolution when it switched to its video-processing function. Only these four panels, however, dealt with film-based sources' extra frames. These additional frames create a 3:2 frame sequence that matches film's 24-frame signal to video's 30-frame signal. When a display upconverts this signal incorrectly, the result is noticeable motion artifacts and jagged edges. These displays reject the additional frame and instead repeat the previous upconverted frame, producing a smoother, more-solid image with fewer video artifacts and a more-realistic look.
The following are the panelists' comments about each display's performance with DVD and D-VHS material.