It’s a somewhat annual ritual at my house: the HDTV Super Bowl party. The first year, 2001, Runco loaned a two-piece 50-inch plasma TV for the event, and it was the first time any of my guests or I had been in a living room with a $25,000 TV. Everyone tiptoed around it to the get to the cooler. As the guinea-pig minority of the TV viewing public, we watched a separate feed altogether from the analog TV audience who enjoyed first-string commentary by Phil Simms, while we digital pioneers had to make due with a backup squad. We endured our share of snafus, but we saw a glimpse of the future of TV sports and it was crisp, rich and wonderful.
A couple of years later, a Pioneer 50-inch Elite plasma model wowed my crowd. We graduated to the same broadcast feed as the analog viewers. My guests overwhelmingly preferred the glitzy look of the pricey flat-panel TV over my far cheaper CRT rear-projection HDTV on the other side of the room. Still out of reach of my beer-budget friends, the cost of a plasma had dropped to $10,000.
This year, Panasonic provided the eye candy for my Super Bowl party. The 42-inch TH-42PX50U plasma crossed a critical threshold: At a street price of $2,399-$2,599 ($2,999 retail), the flat-panel HDTV is no longer a product my guests can only dream about but one they can actually afford. That’s only a couple hundred dollars more than I spent for my first analog CRT rear-projection at a highly discounted press price.
Design and Features
The 42-inch TH-42PX50U has an attractive two-toned design. The black bezel around the glass minimizes the frame and boosts the contrast. Positioning the aluminum speaker bar at the bottom of the screen rather than the sides shrinks the overall width of the display, which could be the difference between squeezing the TV into a cabinet or not.
The thinness of plasma TVs is a test for industrial designers who are constantly challenged to add more connectors. In this case, functionality pays the price as there are no front or side-mount audio/video inputs. Camcorder users and gamers have to run lengthy cables behind the TV when they want to plug in–an inconvenience at best–and impossible if the TV is mounted to the wall.
The TH-42PX50U packs a sufficient number of video jacks with five video inputs: one HDMI, two component video inputs, and two S-Video/composite inputs. If you’ve got two HDMI sources, you’ll be disappointed not to be able to utilize both. For cable management, Panasonic includes a clamper in the accessory pack to keep cables in a neat bundle behind the TV–nice add.
A CableCard slot is also provided for consumers who want HD cable without the converter box, but there’s no TV Guide On Screen to dish up an electronic program guide. Since my cable company doesn’t send through the necessary program data to make TVGOS work, CableCard is useless for me all the way around.
The remote control on the TH-42PX50U is comfortable to use offering well-spaced buttons and logical organization. It’s easy to navigate and has a Light button that illuminates buttons with a red backlit for viewing in the dark.
On the audio side, the TH-42PX50U outputs 16 watts a side of stereo sound, respectable for a flat-panel if it is going to be used without an external audio system. Audio AI, according to the manual, “equalizes sound across all channels.” It basically has the effect of a loudness control and it filled the room nicely for the Super Bowl. A simulated surround mode widens the soundfield a bit, but the optimum solution is to skip the internal audio altogether and run audio through an external system.
Other notable features include Audio Leveler, which monitors the volume level of external sources and minimizes volume when you’re switching from one source to another. You appreciate that switching from a laid-back Norah Jones concert on DVD to a high-decibel beer commercial on a cable channel. The feature is only available when using the TV sound. Input Labels help you identify the input by source (DVD, game, cable, etc) so that you don’t have to remember which source is connected to each input.
The risk of burn-in remains an issue with plasma displays and until all programming is delivered in 16:9 that remains a hazard. Panasonic included a sidebar adjustment feature that lets you adjust the brightness of the sidebars to reduce burn-in. The tradeoff is that the brightest setting can cause a flashing effect that distracts from viewing.
Image Courtesy of Panasonic
Setup and Use
I used the off-air feed from the rooftop antenna and divided it between my CRT and the plasma using a Viewsonic splitter. I ran a 12-foot RG6 cable from the splitter to the antenna input of the TV. First-time buyers get a first-time menu setup screen when they power on the TV for the first time. By the time this review model reached me, the TV had already gone through that initiation so I tackled setup midstream. The menu system is simple to understand, navigate and tweak–a pleasure to use.
I ran an automatic channel scan which locked in the available digital and analog channels. No complaints. For those who don’t have to patience to fiddle with settings, Panasonic includes three picture modes with automatic settings: Vivid, Cinema and Normal. The TV had come to me jacked up: the picture setting was set to Vivid which made colors pop off the screen, maybe a little too much for the longevity of the phosphors but definitely pleasing to the eye. The many windows in my room demand this setting during the daytime.
Cinema mode is recommended for viewing movies in a darkened room, and that’s what I used it for–movies only. Cinema held comfortable color and brightness levels but softened the detail, hardly what my crew and I wanted to experience during the Super Bowl. We wanted to see the individual blades of FieldTurf and the tiny holes in the jerseys. We auditioned the Normal picture mode, too, but its darker, more subdued overall picture was underwhelming. Once you’ve experience plasma in the rich, colorful Vivid mode it’s hard to go back to more subtle settings.
There are plenty of options for the videophile to tweak the settings for brightness, color, tint and sharpness. Those who want to drill deeper can adjust black level and various noise reduction controls.
Most of my Super Bowl guests don’t own an HDTV. It was amazing how quickly they became connoisseurs, opting overwhelmingly for the crisp, 8.5-billion color brilliance of the TH-42PX50U, compared with its 57-inch CRT neighbor. My focus group’s preference mirrored current trends: if my group is any indication the rear-pro CRT doesn’t have a chance against sexy flat-panel displays as they plummet in price.
For me, the saturated colors seemed a bit artificial, although with the colors-not-found-in nature hues of today’s spectrum that may be the new reality. The lime greens and fluorescent oranges of the football arena took on a slightly exaggerated look, although they were far preferable to the duller colors of my five-year-old CRT to the right.
My guests all preferred the crispness of the non-projected plasma image and the more intense color levels. One guest who had not viewed much HDTV before said, “The picture is so clear I don’t need my glasses to watch the game.” A more seasoned HDTV viewer said, “I can’t believe how saturated and vivid the colors are.” Another guest said the price/performance ratio for plasma TV had finally met his comfort level. He’s ready to buy.
Post Super Bowl, I demoed the set with DVDs. I was stunned by the images of the video montage Koyannisqatsi
The TH-42PX50U is a pleasure to watch, easy to operate and packed with the essential connectors and features. It could use another HDMI input and front or side inputs for external sources, but overall it’s a great TV at a great price. Panasonic doesn’t list a lifetime rating for this TV in the specs, but if it did, those hours would be at the normal picture mode versus the vivid setting most people will opt for. The brighter setting will impact the life of the phosphors so buyers should keep that in mind.
Bottom line: Anyone seriously in the market for a TV today who thinks they can’t afford HD needs a price check. With plasmas selling for around $2,500 and big-screen CRTs starting under a grand, cost is no longer a significant barrier to HDTV. Congress’ recent passage of the budget reconciliation bill that cements an analog shutoff date for 2009 makes those price shifts all the more welcome.
The TH-42PX50U is a terrific value.
– Very affordable
– Great picture
– Deep black levels
– Cable Card access
– Missing inputs on the side of the set
– Only comes with one HDMI input
– No electronic program guide