Runco PlasmaWall PL-61cx 61-Inch HD Monitor
Plasma, that sexy, newfangled display technology, is growing by leaps and bounds. Not long ago, 42-inch-diagonal, 16:9 panels were the only game in town. Then came the 50-inch HD-ready models from a small handful of manufacturers. Now, we're seeing a few behemoth models in the 60- and 61-inch categories from a few bold manufacturers like Marantz, Zenith, LG, and NEC. Runco has also jumped into the fray with the PlasmaWall PL-61cx, a 61-inch panel and the subject of today's review.
The Runco panel is distinguished from its competitors by the addition of an outboard video processor that simultaneously provides aspect-ratio control (16:9 anamorphic, letterbox, and standard 4:3) and upconversion of regular video sources. The processor is a modified version of the company's PFP-11, which utilizes Runco's ViViX technology. At a list price of $32,995, the PL-61cx is not for the budget-minded home theater enthusiast, but high-end video never is. When you consider that the PFP-11 costs $6,995 when sold separately, the PL-61cx's value seems more solid.
Measuring 36.125 by 59.5 by 5 inches, the panel itself is quite imposing, but it weighs a reasonable 165 pounds when fully assembled with the table stand or 140 pounds without the stand, which is about half the weight of a comparable rear-projection TV. With a viewable area that's 53 inches wide by 30 inches high, this baby gives a big picture. Its incredibly slim 5-inch depth makes it quite easy to integrate into a living room or family room, especially if you mount it on the wall. All of the audio and video connections are on the panel's left side for ease of wiring in a wall-mount configuration.
The PL-61cx has a number of inputs that are best reserved for your progressive-scan DVD or high-definition signals. You should route NTSC sources through the external scaler. The panel has two RGB inputs (one five-wire BNC and one 15-pin VGA-style), one three-wire RCA-type component video input, one S-video input, two composite video inputs (one RCA and one BNC), three stereo audio inputs, left and right speaker-output terminals, a PC-DVI (Digital Visual Interface) I/O, and an RS-232 port. You can configure the BNC RGB input as a component video input by selecting it in the processor's menu and wiring it appropriately.
The PFP-11 sports one RCA-style component video input, one S-video input, one composite video input, a 15-pin VGA-style RGB passthrough for sending unprocessed HD signals directly to the panel, an RJ-11 (phone jack) I/O, and a five-wire BNC RGB output for routing all NTSC source signals to the panel. An RJ-11-to-9-pin adapter lets you connect the processor's RJ-11 I/O to the plasma's RS-232 port; this connection allows the PFP-11 to communicate with the panel and ultimately control it. The processor has a handsome industrial design with a high-tech look and is two rack units high; its width and depth are similar to those of a standard A/V component.
The PL-61cx has a native resolution of 1,366 by 768, and the PFP-11 scales all incoming NTSC sources to match that resolution pixel for pixel. This high-resolution panel can do justice to HD signals, particularly 720p sources, which are now becoming more prevalent. To evaluate the PL-61cx, I used DVD and 1080i HDTV as source materials. My DVD player was a Sony DVP-S550D interlaced player. For the HD material, I used a Panasonic PV-HD1000 D-VHS VCR via an IEEE 1394 (aka FireWire) connection to a Panasonic TU-DST50W digital set-top decoder box.
To get a handle on the panel's out-of-the-box performance, I watched some scenes from the Star Trek: Insurrection DVD. The PFP-11's picture settings are set at 0, except for sharpness, which comes set at 16. The panel's contrast and brightness levels were at the 50 percent mark. When you change the contrast and brightness levels on the PFP-11, these levels automatically change on the panel, as well. Thanks to that RJ-11 connection, you never have to access the panel's controls to tweak the picture. Prior to calibration, the picture was overly bright and the black level was too high, but this is typical out-of-the-box performance.
Looking at the opening scene of Star Trek: Insurrection is one of the best ways to determine if a video processor or scaler has 3:2 pulldown, which is why I use it whenever I evaluate an HD-capable display that uses a video processor to upconvert good old NTSC sources like DVD. Simply put, 3:2 pulldown is a circuit that aids in the conversion of film-based material's 24-frames-per-second rate to video's 30 fps by compensating for the frame-rate differences. In this case, the Star Trek scene revealed that the PL-61cx's processor has 3:2-pulldown detection, as evidenced by the complete lack of the motion artifacts and crawling jaggy artifacts that processors that lack it invariably produce. This scene features a long pan shot of a village, in which bridge railings and rooftops crawl with these artifacts if 3:2 pulldown is not present. On the PL-61cx, the scene was rendered virtually perfectly. The railings and rooftops were reproduced smoothly and cleanly, with a distinctly filmlike look.
I calibrated the PL-61cx using the Video Essentials DVD. I lowered the contrast level from 0 to -20, which brought the panel's contrast level to about 25 percent, and I adjusted the brightness control up to 7 using the PLUGE test pattern. A note on the black-level setting for plasmas is in order: Black level is a plasma's biggest weakness, and you'll get better results if you set the black level just slightly higher than you would for a CRT-based display. This minimizes the low-level noise in black images that virtually all plasma displays produce. I left the PL-61cx's color and tint controls at 0, as the color-bar test pattern revealed them to be correct. I brought the sharpness down to 5 and left the Luma Enhance and Chroma Enhance levels at 0. Keep in mind that these levels may not be ideal for other PL-61cx monitors, as variation from one unit to another is likely.
The PFP-11's extremely accurate color decoding is among the best I've ever seen. In the processor's menu, you can access RGB Gain and Offset controls for gray-scale calibration, which give you more control over gray-scale parameters than most other plasmas on the market offer. The comb filter, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. Use S-video or component sources whenever possible. Using a Photo Research PR-650, gray-scale calibration resulted in a nearly perfect 6,510 degrees Kelvin at the bottom of the scale and 6,520 degrees K at the top of the scale. The PL-61cx's peak light output was an incredibly bright 38 foot-lamberts, so this plasma is ideally suited for high-ambient-light viewing environments (such as living rooms and family rooms) where control over lighting is difficult or impossible and where black-level performance is less of an issue.