Panasonic TH-42PX25 Plasma HDTV

Plasma black level is no longer an oxymoron.

In March of 2003, we had a plasma Face Off that featured eight displays. What surprised us all was that the clear winner was not the brightest, nor the one with the most resolution. In fact, of the mix of budget and midlevel 42-inch plasmas, the winner was an enhanced-definition set with the second lowest price of the bunch. It was a Panasonic, and it won for the same reason that this plasma is so good: black level.

Plasmas work by charging little pockets of gas with electricity, causing the gas to emit UV light, which in turn makes a phosphor material glow. It would seem simple to create good blacks in a system like this; after all, if you don't charge the gas, there's no light. In practice, this is a lot more difficult. So difficult, in fact, that few plasma manufacturers can create a black that even approaches, well, black. Now I'm not saying the TH-42PX25's blacks are as good as those of a CRT, but they're certainly the closest I've seen. As usual, though, I've gotten ahead of myself.

Most plasma manufacturers choose to make the frame that surrounds their plasma as small as possible to create the illusion of an image floating in space. Panasonic chose to go a different route, making a cabinet that's attractive with the lights on. It's larger than most of the plasma cabinets we've reviewed, but its smooth bottom edges and included stand would look good on many types of furniture. The same features, I think, would make it look a little odd hanging on a wall. Keep in mind that this is coming from a guy whose idea of good room aesthetics is cables, gear, and DVDs.

The remote is as stylish as the cabinet, with far more buttons than the usual plasma remote. This is due to the fact that this plasma is a TV—an HDTV, at that. So, in addition to all of the normal plasma buttons, you get the standard TV-control buttons. If you're really adventurous, you can program the remote to control six other devices. You activate the backlighting with a glow-in-the-dark button, which is good; however, one button cycles through the eight inputs, which is bad.

The onscreen menus are extremely colorful and easy to follow. When you're adjusting parameters (such as contrast or brightness), the main menu drops away so that you can see what you're doing. The only real snag I encountered during setup was the rather peculiar placement of the HDMI input. The entire jack pack is recessed into the back of the plasma, and the HDMI connection rests on the roof of this recess. With an HDMI cable, this shouldn't be a problem, but all I had lying around was a big DVI cable (my source component had a DVI connection) and an adapter plug, and this combo didn't fit. A cable with DVI on one end and HDMI on the other solved the problem.

DVD was up first, including a little tweaking with Video Essentials. The TH-42PX25's color decoder and DC restoration (the display's ability to hold dark details at a constant level while the overall image gets brighter) were both only OK. Beyond the test patterns, I didn't encounter any problems with actual program material to make either of these an issue. Title 18, chapter 6 of VE features a gray ramp that steadily moves from white on the left side of the screen to black on the right. An analog display will show this as a smooth transition from light to dark. Some digital displays are starting to look smooth, as well. The Panasonic exhibited some steps in the gradations, but it wasn't as bad as several plasmas I've seen. On the Fifth Element Superbit DVD, this shows up at the beginning of chapter 5 when Bruce Willis sits upright in bed. I saw subtle steps between the brightness of his lit face and the darkness of the rest of the room.

At the end of chapter 12 in Gladiator, the TH-42PX25 was unable to lock to a 3:2 signal, so the rooftops in this scene were extremely jagged. (I verified this with VE's Snell & Wilcox Zone Plate test pattern.) When given a progressive image from a DVD player with an excellent deinterlacer, the TH-42PX25 scaled the image well, with no additional artifacts.

To test HD material, I started with the 720p D-VHS version of Digital Video Essentials. Well, at least that was the plan. Neither the HDMI nor the component input accepts a 720p signal. However, the RBG input on the front panel does. In went the 1080i tape, and all was well.

With both DVD and HD material, I noticed a subtle softness to the image through the component input. I've seen these clips on a number of plasmas, and there just didn't seem to be as much detail here (even at similar resolutions). Using DVI or RGB, which has noticeably more resolution than the component input, helped this somewhat. Does it look soft on its own? Not really, but a side-by-side comparison in a store may reveal slightly less detail.

The internal tuner lacks the ability to search solely for digital channels, but you can delete the analog channels with ease after the channel search is done. It changes channels with about average speed. I can't speak too much about its ability to pull in stations; where our studio is located, I can almost pull in stations with a paper clip and some duct tape (hmm, I'll have to try that). It did pick up all of the stations in our area. In case you were wondering, the inability to accept a 720p source doesn't translate to the tuner, so you'll be able to watch 720p programming without a problem.

Phosphor lag is a problem for many plasmas. This occurs when a pixel doesn't like to go dark after it's been given a bright image for any length of time. The worst-case scenario is that the bright image is permanently burnt into the screen. In lesser instances, you may see a ghost of the bright image. In my weeks of testing the TH-42PX25 with stationary test patterns and actual video, I couldn't get it to burn-in at all. I'm not saying that you can leave a picture of your cat on the screen all day long with the contrast cranked all the way up, but this TV shows a resistance to burn-in that's downright impressive in a plasma.

Honestly, the issues I've mentioned about this plasma are extremely overlookable. When you turn out the lights and throw in a movie, the set is eminently watchable. That's no small compliment from a videophile about a plasma. I found myself just sitting back and enjoying the image. All of the other plasma companies argue about which of their products has the best contrast ratio, and they're welcome to do so. Panasonic is in a completely different class, so much better is their black level and, therefore, their contrast ratio. The image has a depth that you won't find in most plasmas. When you consider the picture quality and add a built-in HDTV tuner and CableCARD slot (see this month's "Hook Me Up" column for more info on the CableCARD) for $6,000, you have quite a value. Sure, you could spend less and get a lot less; but, as is sometimes the case, you could also spend more and get a lot less. That kind of value with this watchable image should not be overlooked.

• Amazing black level
• Stylish cabinet
• HDTV tuner and CableCARD slot

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