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Pioneer’s sixth generation plasma TVs introduce the PUREBLACK crystal layer and a new level of contrast.

By launching the world’s first WXGA plasmas in 1997 and then being the first to adopt an HDMI socket, Pioneer has been technically HD Ready – and waiting – for quite some time. The head start has meant that, while Sony is hurrying out its first HD Ready TV range this year, Pioneer is now into its sixth generation of plasma screens that have been developed with high definition video in mind.

Pre-empting the whole high definition gold rush by several years has given the company time to perfect its plasma – a notoriously difficult technology to tame – and expand its panel production by buying up NEC’s huge plasma facility. This year sees the fruit of that collaboration and the introduction of two key technologies plus some other subtle improvements on previous models.

The new 50-inch PDP-506HD has the same cool black styling as last year, with optional side-mounted detachable speakers and a separate media box incorporating a digital TV tuner. A table stand is included or you can choose from a range of installation accessories that also fit Pioneer’s other 50inch panels.

As is the case with rapidly evolving technology, wait a year and you get a lot more for your money. The media box now has two HDMI inputs, specifications have improved across the board and the price has dropped below $8000. 


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The build quality here is high too. What looks like a smooth glass bezel is actually glossy black plastic framed by metal. The Direct Colour Filter, introduced last year, is a sheet of plastic that replaces the glass pane that other panel manufacturers use and reduces unwanted reflection from external light. Another beneficial side effect of course is that the net weight is reduced dramatically. It’s still heavier than most LCD TVs, but it’s much more manageable than other big plasma panels.

Pioneer’s proudest achievements though are two picture-enhancing technologies. The PUREBLACK panel has a crystal emissive layer that improves the stability of the colour reaction in each cell to give purer colour and blacker blacks. Meanwhile, PURE Drive 2 HD is another proprietary video processing technology – like Philips’ Pixel Plus – that uses 10-bit processors to reproduce video with smooth gradation and less MPEG noise.

The separate media box gives an obvious advantage in terms of installation as it deals with all of those tiresome cables and can be stacked with the rest of your home cinema while a long DVI cable is supplied to carry video from box to screen. Its two HDMI inputs will also be a key advantage over rival panels with just one as the digital interface becomes more fashionable. Three would have been even better. It’s a shame there’s no DVI connection though. Another oversight is the location of the PC input behind the media box’s front flap. This makes it really awkward to connect a Media Center PC.

 

 

The digital tuner has auto setup and is accompanied by an analogue tuner, so you can enjoy features like PIP (Picture in Picture). The heavy remote is user friendly and makes it fairly easy to scroll around the screens logical onscreen menu. Within the menu pages, you’ll discover some other nifty features like the flexible Colour Adjustment settings and something called Home Gallery. This well-conceived picture-viewer allows you to access JPEGs from a PC card on screen. Pioneer even supplies its own card full of high-def images in the panel’s native resolution to show it at its best.

The improvements in picture quality are quite tangible. Given a well produced DVD like the luxurious re-release of Titanic and a reliable DVD player like Pioneer’s own DV-S969AVi connected via HDMI and you will be struck first by the deep, deep blacks. During the closing credits – our favourite part of the film – the inky black screen behind the white lettering of the actor’s names matches the black plastic bezel almost exactly. Only Panasonic’s Viera plasmas have managed to do this so effectively before.

More telling are the underwater scenes in chapter one where searchlights scan the wrecked hull. There’s no better way to demonstrate the flaws in a plasma panel as they have no way to cope with the banding that surrounds the light sources. In this case, the colour gradation is impressive as the concentric circles are far less obvious than any rival panels we have seen. What’s more, the contrast in the very murky depths is quite distinguishable, even in a well-lit room. This is of course the one area where plasma traditionally scores over LCD.

Unsurprisingly, the picture is utterly dependent on the source material and a screen of this size is going to show up any flaw in all its glory. The built-in digital TV tuner is a massive improvement on the all-but-unwatchable analogue tuners of previous generations – we could barely get a signal on the supporting analogue tuner here –  but the bitrate on most digital broadcasts is often fairly compressed as well. Consequently, the smearing and MPEG artefacts that disrupt the image is more the fault of the broadcaster than the panel-maker. Otherwise though, the picture is strikingly bold in terms of colour with strong delineation and contrast.

Pioneer built this panel primarily for high definition material and if you can find a way of playing some – we used JVC’s DVHS deck –  the results are huge step forward from standard def DVD. Pioneer’s boast of a 4,000:1 contrast ratio should be taken with a pinch of salt, but our more conservative measurement of 880:1 puts the PDP-506XDE right at the top of the class. Pioneer’s ‘billion colours’ is probably true, although we have to admit we didn’t actually count them. The impressive greyscale and smooth transition from one colour to another means the horrible banding effect is kept to a minimum and the image appears particularly crisp and clear.

Pioneer has managed to secure its narrow lead over rival plasma TVs with this latest incarnation for now. In all of the key categories; connectivity, contrast ratio and overall performance the PDP-506XDE is convincingly leading its closest plasma rivals. With LCD panels getting bigger, better and more affordable a lot faster than plasma, Pioneer should be looking over its shoulder, but for now, this is the best large screen TV you can buy.

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Pioneer PDP-506HD $7999

For: slick and lightweight design; deep black levels and sharp delineation on screen; two HDMI inputs; HD Ready

Lows: No DVI input or rear panel PC input.

Verdict: Without a doubt, the finest flatscreen available

 

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