Panasonic TH-42PX60U Plasma HDTV, SA-XR57 A/V Receiver, DMR-EH55 DVR/DVD Recorder, and SB-TP100 Speaker System Page 2

Goodbye, Macros. Hello, EZ Sync.
Anyone who has ever struggled to program a universal remote or create macros to control multiple devices will appreciate what EZ Sync offers. Once it's activated in each device, EZ Sync allows the Panasonic TV, receiver, and DVD recorder to communicate their status to one another and adjust accordingly. If you want to watch a DVD, simply press the One Touch Play button on the receiver's remote to turn on all three devices, set everything to the correct input, and begin playing the disc in the DMR-EH55's tray. When you're finished watching the movie, simply turn off the TV, and the other devices turn off, as well. The system is smart enough to leave the DVD recorder on if you're recording or burning content.

1106panasonic.8.jpgI connected my cable box to the Panasonic system by running component video directly to the plasma TV and optical digital audio to the SA-XR57 receiver. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, whenever I switched TV inputs from HDMI to component video (and vice versa), the SA-XR57 receiver automatically switched to the correct source mode for that input. That eliminates the need for high-def switching through the receiver. Also, when I inserted a DVD into the DMR-EH55 while watching cable, the system would automatically switch all of the devices to DVD playback mode.

I certainly enjoyed these perks, but I can't say that EZ Sync always made it easier to use the system. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out EZ Sync's behavior. For instance, the One Touch Play function only works when there's something to play; if there's no DVD in the DMR-EH55's tray and nothing recorded to the hard drive, it doesn't work. Pressing the Play button automatically turns on the recorder and the TV but not the receiver. Interestingly, when I connected my cable box to the TV via a DVI-to-HDMI cable, the switching function I described above did not work as well.

It didn't help that these Panasonic devices aren't models of simplicity to begin with. The user manuals are dense, the receiver lacks an automatic calibration tool and onscreen display (you can manually set speaker size, distance, and crossover via the front-panel display), and the remotes aren't backlit. All three remotes are programmed to control all three devices out of the box, but no single remote has every button you'd want to easily control the entire system. The receiver remote is the best option but still lacks important buttons like record and a dedicated TV on/off button. These little things all added up to a user experience that was sometimes less than friendly.

But How Does It Perform?
Setup and ergonomics don't mean much if the system doesn't cut it in the performance department. On the audio side, I give the receiver/speaker combo solid marks in power and dynamic ability. Despite their slim profiles, the SB-FS100 tower speakers produced a big sound that filled my large living room, even in stereo mode, and the SA-XR57's 100-watt-per-channel amplifier never sounded taxed during the densest sequences from The Return of the King and The Matrix.

1106panasonic.13.jpgBetween the tower speakers and the SB-PC100 center, the largest woofer is a mere 3.25 inches in diameter, so it's no surprise that the system sounds lean in the lower end of the middle frequencies. Still, the towers' tweeters provide clean, razor-sharp high-frequency effects that only occasionally turned harsh at the loudest volumes. The SB-WA101 subwoofer also uses a smallish driver (6.75 inches), and it, too, lacks meat in the lowest registers. While not prodigious, bass output is controlled, which makes this a nice subwoofer for music reproduction and general film effects. Ultimately, it's the center channel that holds back the system's audio performance. I'm willing to overlook the use of a minuscule center speaker in a $500 HTIB, but this $1,700 speaker system deserves better than the SB-PC100. Despite an admirable effort, it just doesn't have the real estate to produce deep male vocals in a natural, non-chesty way, nor can it handle all of the effects in an action soundtrack. Luckily, this system doesn't use proprietary speaker connections, so you can substitute a different center channel if you like.

The DMR-EH55 hails from a long line of Panasonic DVD recorders; its day-to-day functionality is similar to the DMR-E95H that I reviewed back in the January 2005 issue (available online), so I won't devote much space to that here. Suffice it to say, the new model offers the advanced recording and editing features we've come to expect from Panasonic, and it ups the ante in several key areas: the addition of DVD+R/+RW playback and recording, a larger hard drive, improved resolution and video processing through the component video outputs, and HDMI upconversion to 720p or 1080i. Processing through the HDMI output is good with film-based sources but only average with video-based sources, and setting the player for 720p output introduced noise to the Video Essentials resolution test pattern. I recommend using the 1080i setting; even in this setting, however, resolution is only about 460 lines per picture height, so you shouldn't expect much improvement in apparent detail when viewing an upconverted image.

1106panasonic.15.jpgThe TH-42PX60U plasma HDTV is the highlight of this all-Panasonic system. Thanks to its excellent contrast ratio, good bit depth, and solid color temperature, it renders clean, rich HD and DVD images. Panasonic plasmas consistently offer the best black levels in our tests, and this one bests them all at 0.012 foot-lamberts, so black level and detail hold up in a darkened room. It's also brighter than previous models (27.77 ft-L), resulting in the best contrast ratio (2,314:1) of any flat panel we've reviewed to date. The picture retains saturation in a moderately lit room, although light reflection off of the glass is an issue in a brightly lit environment. Before calibration, the color temperature measured a bit cool in the Normal picture mode and a bit warm in the Warm picture mode, but neither is that far off the 6,500-Kelvin standard. Should you choose to have the display calibrated, it can get even closer to 6,500K.

The TH-42PX60U does have some issues. Its detail could be better with 1080i sources, and its green color point is off the mark, giving the picture a slightly bluish-green tint. The internal HDTV tuner doesn't hold onto a signal as firmly as I'd like, and the TV's video processing through the component video inputs is average at best, so you may see some artifacts with film and video sources. A bit of phosphor lag was evident with test patterns, although, with the contrast set to a reasonable level and a few more hours of use on the panel, this will probably disappear. If you view the set from an angle, you can see some image reflection between the glass panel and the filter. Ultimately, the TH-42PX60U's positive traits outweighed these concerns for me. I was consistently impressed with the image quality, be it HDTV, SDTV, DVD, or HD DVD. Through both the HDMI and component video inputs, the 16 Blocks HD DVD looked gorgeous.

As a complete system, this Panasonic ensemble's strengths are video performance, easy setup, versatile DVD recording and editing, a well-endowed budget receiver, and advanced control. The speaker system is solid, but you could find a less expensive, more balanced performer elsewhere if you're willing to break up the matching aesthetic that these products share. As for EZ Sync, it may not be a panacea for all of the control ills we encounter in the modern home theater, but it's definitely a step in the right direction, providing a glimpse at HDMI's promising future.

• EZ Sync allows products to communicate intuitively over HDMI
• Beautiful HD and DVD images
• Basic setup requires minimal cables