Faroudja PlasmaSync 42MP4 & Native Rate Series Digital Cinema Source Plasma Display & DVD player-digital video processor

Faroudja has long made among the very best video processors—the company virtually invented the industry. NEC has made outstanding plasma televisions for several years. Combining an NEC plasma that incorporates several important Faroudja enhancements with a top-of-the-line Faroudja processor and selling them as a package was an inspired idea that presented me with an intriguing product for review.

What makes this package even more enticing is that the processor, which Faroudja calls its Native Rate Series Digital Cinema Source (NRS-DCS), comes with a built-in DVD player. Judging from the appearance of the onscreen menus and certain notes in the instruction booklet, the DVD player appears to have been made by Pioneer, which manufactures some of the best DVD players on the market today. This mélange of three products from three different companies offers the buyer a superb but expensive device.

The 42-inch PlasmaSync 42MP4 widescreen plasma display, optimized by Faroudja, is not sold alone; you must buy a processor with it. My review package of 42MP4 and NRS-DCS costs $18,995. Faroudja also sells the plasma with a less-expensive processor that omits the DVD player and some additional benefits of the NRS-DCS, for $12,995. Your choice. Either processor comes set to the resolution of your particular display, and if you later buy a different display, the processor can be returned to Faroudja and reset to the resolution of the new device.

Faroudja sells similar packages incorporating 50- and 61-inch plasmas. Both of those provide a higher native resolution than the 42MP4, whose native resolution is 1024x768. That means it can display 720p HDTV, an ability that became more important in June, when Fox Television announced that it would begin broadcasting 50% of its prime time programming in 720p beginning in fall 2004, joining ABC, which also uses that format (see this issue's "Behind the Scenes").

The 50- and 61-inch plasmas offer a native resolution of 1366x1024. The processors included with all three plasmas scale every signal to the display's native resolution. The 50-inch package costs $25,995 with the more expensive processor, $19,995 with the cheaper one. For the 61-inch, the respective prices are $35,995 and $29,995.

In the Package
The PlasmaSync 42MP4 is a handsome plasma screen in a jet-black frame only 3.5 inches deep. The controls are on the bottom, front left, just under tiny labels on the front panel. The screen offers a rich array of inputs—composite, component, RGB, etc.—plus a DVI input. (Interestingly, there is no S-video input.) Faroudja has included a DVI input in the same spot where a standard NEC plasma offers a second RGB input. Both processors sold with the display have DVI outputs. Faroudja says the tweaks it performed on the plasma include improved color saturation and optimized black and white levels, as well as unspecified adjustments to the high-definition inputs.

A few years ago, Faroudja tried to make processors with few front-panel buttons; most adjustments were available only via the remote. That proved unpopular with enough customers that the newer models offer front-panel buttons for most basic functions. And since the NRS-DCS is a processor and a DVD player, the number of controllable features is high. This large black box has an intimidating array of 29 small silver buttons across the front, many with associated red and green pilot lights. There are nine buttons for input selection and aspect-ratio control, and five for picture-setting presets, a standard Faroudja feature.

The DVD tray is in the center of the front panel, just above a two-line, blue LCD display that provides detailed information about the complex machine's functions. The NRS-DCS plays CDs as well, though not DVD-Audio or SACD discs. The player decodes Dolby Digital and DTS signals as well as 96kHz PCM and MPEG audio, but not, according to the manual, formats such as Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS ES. The documentation offered no indication of which, if any, recordable DVD formats the NRS-DCS might be able to handle.

The NRS-DCS's outputs more or less mirror those on the PlasmaSync 42MP4: composite, component, RGB (DB-15), RGB/HV (BNC), and DVI. As with the 42MP4, most of the outputs use BNC connectors. The NRS-DCS also provides several inputs for running external devices—such as a TV tuner, satellite tuner, or second DVD player—through the processor and to the display. External high-definition signals are passed through the unit without processing, to either the RGB/HV output (generally for front projectors) or the DVI output to the plasma.

The processor, the result of decades of Faroudja research, first deinterlaces the signal, then scales it to the native resolution of the display. It's possible to use the NRS-DCS with a display other than the 42MP4, but it's important to understand that the processor is factory-set to output only one resolution to match the native resolution of whatever display you use. A normal production unit would not be adjustable, but mine was, which enabled me to see that there are 10 available resolution options, from 480p to 1360x1024.

Faroudja notes that its enhancements to the DVD player include completely independent audio and video circuits with integrated radio-frequency interference protection. Display and motor controllers are isolated, with separate power supplies. The unit includes DCDi 3:2 pulldown correction and the ability to view below-black bars in test signals. Like most everything in the NRS-DCS, the latter is adjustable.

The Pioneer instruction book that came with the DVD player is reproduced in the middle of the larger Faroudja booklet, with occasional notes added by Faroudja. For instance, this appears just below the instruction for changing the digital audio settings: "Notice: The digital audio settings have been optimized by Faroudja for the NRS-DCS. Do not change the settings." Following the section explaining how to activate the S-video output, Faroudja notes: "The S-video output is not available with the NRS-DCS." In fact, there is no S-video output. Anything sent to the device through its S-video input is converted to be sent out through one of the available outputs.