Panasonic TH-42PD25 Plasma HDTV

Black level: the revenge.

Note: the other TVs in this Face Off include the LG RU-42PX11 Plasma HD Monitor, and V inc. Vizio P42HD Plasma HD Monitor.

As is usually the case, the display with the best black level, which usually means the best contrast ratio, won. What was interesting was how it just barely eked out that win. As I've said before, black level is important, but it's only one aspect of a good picture.

The "Montage of Images" from Video Essentials showed that the TH-42PD25 did some things better than the other plasmas and some things worse. As for the face that the other two plasmas had such difficulty with, the Panasonic had no visible quantization errors on this clip. Test patterns would later reveal that it wasn't capable of a perfectly smooth ramp from light to dark, but it was a lot smoother than the others, enough so that any steps weren't very visible in regular video.

While it may not have had quantization errors that were as severe as the other two, it crushed whites like it was a hobby. Any time there was a bright scene, you were guaranteed that the brightest information in the image would be crushed white. A cloud in the sky would have almost no detail; instead it would be a white blob. Reducing the contrast in the user menu only made the picture darker, while keeping the crushed whites.

Processing also wasn't the TH-42PD25's strong suit. It created very noticeable jagged edges in the waving flag from Video Essentials' "Montage of Images." Later, on Gladiator, the rooftops had obvious stair-stepping. Unlike the other two competitors, a decent progressive-scan DVD player is a must-have with this plasma.

With the other DVD selections, reactions were mixed. Most reviewers commented on an apparent lack of detail compared with the other plasmas. Scott thought that it looked the softest of the three with The Fifth Element. Half of the panelists liked the color, while the other half thought it was a little off. This was the kind of mixed reaction that this plasma inspired throughout the test. One section of the questionnaire would be all praise, while another section would be anything but. This was true with all the plasmas in this Face Off, but the most polarity seemed to accompany this set. The one exception was that the Panasonic was the clear winner with the Master and Commander selection. The deep blacks were welcome and didn't go unnoticed. Adrienne would have liked the picture to have been a little brighter overall, but not at the expense of the black level.

With DVD material, most people picked the TH-42PD25 second after the LG. When we switched over to HD material, the responses started to even out. Now it seemed that the Panasonic had better detail than the LG, and the better blacks became even more noticeable. Maureen thought that the Panasonic looked the best with HD.

What won this plasma its spot at the top was how everyone felt about it after calibration or, more likely, after the other plasmas were calibrated. The other two plasmas were extremely cool (very high color temperatures), which made the Panasonic, with its relatively accurate color temperature, seem overly warm. Once the other two plasmas were reigned in to a less-ionospheric level, the measurably accurate Panasonic finally appeared accurate. When I was running through my pre–Face Off setup, I kept going back to the Panasonic to double check that it was still set correctly and hadn't drifted into some bizarrely low color temperature. It's weird how the human eye works, isn't it?

Armed and ready to fight the second round with its tremendous blacks and the most accurate color temperature, the Panasonic was the winner, despite poor processing and crushed whites. Scott, Adrienne, and Maureen ranked this display first with HD material after calibration. When asked which plasma everyone would pick overall, the same three picked the Panasonic, with caveats. Scott only ranked it number one with HD content, Adrienne only number one after calibration, and Maureen only if you add in a progressive-scan DVD player. Amy liked the black level and color but just couldn't get over how inconsistent it was throughout the test, so she picked the more-consistent LG, with the Panasonic as number two. Adrienne mentioned something similar, saying that the Panasonic was a good theater display but, if you're just looking for a TV, the LG is probably a better choice.

While it didn't push anyone either way, the fact that the TH-42PD25 includes an HDTV tuner was icing on the cake.

When it comes down to it, if you plan on putting some time and money into setting it up correctly, the TH-42PD25 is a great buy and a great value. Black level wins again, but just barely.

• Black level, black level, black level
• Most accurate gray scale of the bunch