Pioneer PDP-501MX 50" plasma monitor Page 3

It turns out that the proper color settings for HDTV are woefully off for NTSC. Fortunately, the monitor has four memory locations for user-specified picture settings, which lets you store different settings for HDTV and NTSC. This solves the problem. Still, after storing the picture settings for each input, users must wade through menus to make the change every time they go from NTSC to HDTV, which is likely to be a frequent transition in the new world of digital television. If this problem of the disparity between the two signals is not solved soon, manufacturers are going to have to make it easier to invoke alternate picture settings for digital and analog programs.

The monitor includes factory presets designed for different sorts of programming: sports, movies, etc. Some users might like these presets, but I'd rather make the adjustments myself. However, one note: Whenever you call up one of these presets, the carefully adjusted standard picture settings (not the ones in the user memory locations) are reset to the factory defaults. So if you make picture adjustments you want to keep, be sure to save them to memory if you intend to use any of Pioneer's picture presets.

I should point out that switching from S-video to component-video connections between the DVD player and display noticeably reduced some of these problems. The echo lines were less evident, and the noise was less severe. The situation improved even more with the high-definition input. Yes, the noise was visible when gray areas came onto the screen, though it was tamed a bit. But I saw little evidence of the vertical-line echoes.

Not surprisingly, I found all these problems with the first set to be rather distressing. When I called Pioneer to ask about them, Bill Whelan, a product planner for the company, said he was able to replicate them on a set he had in their office. Pioneer decided that perhaps my monitor might be exhibiting the flaws more severely because it had been around the block a few times before it got to me, so they sent me another one.

Being the set's first user made a significant difference in the viewing experience. Yes, the monitor exhibited video noise, but at a level typical of many monitors: barely evident in normal program material. Yes, the double vertical lines were still there, but they were quite faint—I was never able to spot them except when looking at a test pattern. On this sample they were a curiosity, not a debilitating problem. And yes, the picture was still divided into five horizontal segments, each one a slightly different level of gray. But again, the effect was far more subtle and consistent with what I've seen on other plasma monitors. The video noise had made these bars prominent in the first sample; the darker ones showed the noise more conspicuously, accentuating the difference between those bars and the others. With the noise reduced, so were the differences between the horizontal stripes.

Overall, when playing high-definition material, the PDP-501MX is quite a good monitor, considering that it's a plasma display fraught with all the technological challenges that come with this new medium. With NTSC, it's pretty good. But, like all plasmas, this one cannot offer the level of contrast that a direct-view set provides—plasmas can't yet render true black.

Plasma is a new consumer-display format, while other CRT-based display technologies have had the benefit of 50 years of research and development. So in some ways, a comparison of the two isn't fair. This monitor is close to the present state of the art, but the art itself is still behind other display technologies.

Going into this review, I wondered who might spend $25,000 on a 50" widescreen set that offers 1 million pixels of resolution; after all, rear-projection HDTVs with far higher resolution and larger screens are on sale right now for less than a third of the price. But for many the allure of flat-panel technology is powerful, and for now the Pioneer is the most advanced plasma display in the world.