CES 2009: Despite LCD “Buzz,” Plasma TVs Could Be Your Best Choice

CES 2009: Despite LCD “Buzz,” Plasma TVs Could Be Your Best Choice

Depending on where (or from whom) you seek information, you can easily find A/V pundits who will tell you that “LCD TVs have taken over” or that “plasma TVs are yesterday’s news.” And they’re half right; LCD TVs do own a large and growing share of the market and most industry buzz does follow developments from the LCD world. But that doesn’t mean plasma TVs are out of the hunt—not by a long shot.

Based on observations I made at CES, and judging purely on the basis of observable picture quality, it seems to me that plasma TVs still set the “gold standard” that LCD TVs are chasing (except in the area of absolute brightness, where LCD technology holds the high ground). Let’s look at some examples.

Deep Blacks, Shadow Details, and “Local Zone” Dimming: Traditionally, plasma TVs have offered superior blacks and deep grays—areas where LCD TVs claim to have caught up thanks to LED backlighting systems with local zone dimming.  And sure enough, those technical advancements have made LCD TVs better. But does that mean LCD TVs are now as good as (or better than) plasma TVs?  

When it comes to reproducing pure black test panels the best LCD TVs can perform well, but when it comes to reproducing blacks, deep grays, or fine gradations of color or shadow detail in real-world movies or TV programs, I think plasmas still enjoy significant advantages.

Remember that in order to improve black and deep gray performance, today’s best LCD TVs use LED backlighting systems with “local zone dimming,” where the screen is divided up into a grid of illumination zones, with each zone providing backlighting for literally thousands of pixels. When a region of the screen is, on average, relatively dark, illumination for the zone can be turned down, and vice versa, but that doesn’t mean illumination is precisely right for each pixel within the zone.

In a plasma TV, however, each pixel is effectively its own “illumination zone,” emitting precisely the right amount of light.  When it comes to accurately rendering continuous, fine gradations of color or shadow detail, which would you rather have—a set that offers a handful of backlighting illumination-zones (LCD TVs) or one that offers 2,073,600 self-illuminated pixels (plasma TVs)? Advantage, plasma technology.

What About Motion Artifacts? Traditionally, plasma TVs have offered superior performance when rendering objects in motion—an area where LCD TVs claim to have caught up by implementing schemes for interpolating frame data and increasing frame rates, first from 60Hz to 120Hz and now from 120Hz to 240Hz. Once again, those advancements have made LCD TVs better.

But good though today’s best 240Hz LCD sets are at rendering objects in motion, I think today’s best plasma sets are noticeably better. At CES, I made a point of comparing plasma vs. LCD sets (among manufacturers who offer both technologies—specifically LG, Panasonic, and Samsung) and in each instance I felt the plasma sets enjoyed a small but noticeable edge vis-à-vis their LCD counterparts. On plasma sets, objects in motion somehow looked more “stable,” for want of a better word, with better-defined edge details. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but I would encourage you to make the comparison to see what you think: the outcomes may surprise you.


Viewing Angles? On paper, plasma and LCD sets claim pretty similar viewing angle specification, which might lead you to think their performance in this department would be similar, but in practice I found that plasmas (as a general rule) have noticeably wider usable viewing angles than LCDs.

Here’s the pattern I’ve observed in the past and saw once again at CES: if you move away from the centerline of an LCD TV, picture quality holds up well to a point, but then seems to fall off sharply—so that you reach an angle where the picture, though still fairly bright, simply doesn’t look as good as it should (from off-axis, colors, textures, and details all seem a bit “off”). Try the same test with a plasma TV, however, and overall picture quality stays within a usable, watchable zone even when you are quite far off-axis from the TV’s centerline.

What About Brightness? There’s no question that, when push comes to shove, LCD TVs can throw out a lot more light than plasmas can.  Even so, there’s a practical limit to how much light output you really need or can use (unless you plan on watching TV at high noon in a greenhouse…).  Nonetheless, an LCD TV would arguably be the better choice if you plan to do a lot of viewing in a very brightly illuminated environment.

But interestingly, brightness is one area where plasma technology is making strides to narrow (though not to fully close) the “illumination gap” with respect to LCD TVs.  At CES, several plasma makers announced two-pronged thrusts to increase light output while reducing power consumption.  The kinds of equations being talked about (in comparing 2008 models with next-gen 2009 plasma models) went something like this: “…you can have the same light output as before but at half the power consumption, or you can have considerably higher light output at the same power consumption levels as before; take your pick…” Panasonic’s Neo-PDP plasma TV lineup makes a good example, as new models are said to provide “…a brighter panel (with) double luminance efficiency…” (Italics are mine).


New Screen Coatings Extend Plasma’s Advantages: Some people argue that plasma sets sacrifice performance because their typically glossy screen surfaces too easily pick up room reflections, but not anymore. Today’s best plasma sets have exotic new screen coatings that not only help enhance black level performance and color fidelity, but that have an uncanny ability to reject room reflections (even though the screen surfaces appear to be glass-smooth—not matte finished).

Look at the photo of the 55-inch Samsung plasma set shown above and you’ll see that, even though the TV is displayed on a brightly illuminated pedestal and even though the photo was taken with a flash, there are few (if any) reflections visible in the screen surface. Note, too, that even though we are viewing the set from far off-axis, on-screen images remain clear and “watchable.”

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