NEC PX-50XR4A PlasmaSync 50-inch Plasma Display 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs Plasma HDTVs
Written by Michael Levy   
Wednesday, 01 December 2004

NEC is a premium Japanese audio/video manufacturer with a long history of producing some of the finest display devices made. They are famous among industry inner circles for being sticklers for detail and their products are known for quality and advanced design for both professional and consumer usage. The clean lines of this new $8,995 50-inch NEC plasma give it an elegant look in a dedicated theater or indeed almost any living environment. It is a mere 3.8 inches deep and the bezel is as thin as a minimal picture frame. It comes in a beautiful matte silver finish that can actually be removed for painting. This allows the room designer options not available with other units.

The PX-50XR4A offers every desirable input and is fluent in both digital and analog. Colors are deep and image quality is first rate. The gray scale is well delineated and accurately displayed. Most importantly, it is impressive when viewed with any source, but it particularly excels with digital sources. Live sporting events in HD look like a window into the playing field and movies have the natural warmth and delicate hues called for by the director.

With its slender 3.8 inches of depth, handsome in its picture frame bezel, the unit can be either wall-mounted or placed on its stand. It sports a multitude of video inputs. There are two RGB analog inputs (one BNC, one 15-pin D-sub), one DVI-D HDCP, two composite video (one BNC, one RCA), one S-Video and two analog component HD (one BNC, one RCA). External speakers can be added and are powered by an internal nine-watts-per-channel amplifier. Its weight of 96.4 pounds requires care to make sure of the strength of a wall installation. In addition to its IR remote, the unit can be controlled via a 9-pin mini D-sub RS 232 input, an important feature, if you have a whole-house control system such as Crestron or AMX.

As with any display device, proper calibration is important for achieving the ultimate level of picture quality. As a professional video calibrator by trade, I felt the unit was set up to be impressive but not ultimately accurate out of the box. The white-level contrast is set so that the output is at maximum on an image that calls for full output. This puts it into a non-linear area of performance where the last two levels of white in the gray scale are bleached out. The black-level brightness setting is too low, removing the last two levels of gray scale detail before black. The good news is that this is easily correctable and, when set up to industry standards, it is very linear and presents all of the available information.

While the unit has color temperature settings that range from low to high, with several stops in between, they are all set incorrectly at the factory. None of them are linear, and with 7,100K at the lowest light level to 10,100K at the highest light level, they are well above the reference of 6,500K. The highest light output is 48.4 foot lamberts, well above the reference of 30 foot lamberts. The adjustments for color temperature are available by simply pressing enter on the remote when in the color temperature setting on the menu. The unit adjusted easily and, when the white level (contrast) was set at reference, was quite linear. I was amazed that this feature was easily available to the user. You will need a trained calibrator with a meter to complete this task and I highly recommend that you do not attempt to do it on your own. Even the best calibrators will not attempt a color temperature setting without a reference.

The technical test material on the Video Essentials reference DVD revealed flaws in the digital processing, even when the unit was fed directly through the DVI. These flaws were exacerbated when the input was analog. The noise reduction caused a knurled glass look as it froze a noise pattern over the image rather than eliminating it. This was apparent only when looking closely at fine details, but I still found it bothersome. Diagonal lines moving quickly broke up and some digital artifacts were evident in small details when they crawled across the screen, rather than moving smoothly. An external processor, such as those offered by Faroudja Labs or DVDO, would most probably remove most of the artifacts when set to the native resolution of the display.

Testing Movies and HDTV
“Star Trek: Insurrection” (Paramount Home Entertainment) was beautifully colorful, with excellent delineation of hue in the opening chapter on the planet. Faces were well defined in detail, although the skin tone variations were limited. The outdoor hues of the brown trees, the green leaves, the aqua water and the blue sky were well differentiated and the grass looked alive.

Scenes where deep black was needed were faded because the lowest level of light output is not black, but a very dark gray. The black level of the NEC is excellent for a plasma display. Only a CRT-based system, with its own well-publicized inherent limitations, could improve on the PX-50XR4A’s performance. Plasma displays have a minimum threshold output they must maintain to operate properly. Phillips has started marketing plasmas with a back light, since a little light in the room will mask this flaw, but the lowest level details are lost, and movies are supposed to be viewed in darkness. This limitation inherent in plasma displays was most evident in “Insurrection’s” sequences inside caves and in outer space, lacking the deep velvet black we associate with caverns and the vastness of the cosmos.

“The Fifth Element” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment DVD) is a nutty science fiction drama that draws its strength from the visual power of each of its scenes. The costumes, settings and lighting combine with excellent camera work to move you into its crazy world. The attention given to small details when making this movie is clearly and accurately reproduced by the NEC, thanks to its excellent color gambit and wide gray scale. The detail of shades of gold and red in Milla Jovovich’s hair come across brilliantly. The high level of detail is evident in Chapter 9, when you can see the cracks in the glass just before Jovovich’s Leeloo breaks it, and in Chapter 10, there is excellent depth of view just before she jumps off of the ledge. Even the outer space scenes barely evidence the limited black level, and the overall feel of the movie comes across impressively.

“Seven Years in Tibet” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment) – talk about being blown away in the Himalayan snows. I almost started to shiver. Detail in white can be as important as detail in black, and the NEC excels here. Small snowflakes can easily be seen and they move smoothly and always in the right direction. Later, in the Buddhist monastery scenes, the colors and details of the wonderful artworks done by the priests jump out with a multitude of hues and fine clarity.

I use “Raging Bull” (MGM/UA Home Entertainment) as my black and white test. Qualities of gray scale and color temperature are much more important for the proper effect. The NEC does a wonderful job. It is impressively smooth and film-like.

High definition sources were predictably the most impressive during my testing of the NEC PX-50XR4A. The knurled look disappeared and the detail level and color definition was excellent. I viewed sports and movies from a satellite source and, while the movies lacked the immediacy of the live sports shots, I was equally impressed with both. They were smooth and detailed and the dynamics of the image were much closer to the open window effect. Unfortunately, due to logistics, I was not able to test the NEC PX-50XR4A with my reference D-VHS movies and HD source material.

The Downside
I was amazed that the unit did not have an “accurate” setting that had been set at the factory to reference. Some manufacturers, such as Runco and Faroudja, ISF calibrate their display devices at the factory. It astounds me that NEC doesn’t do this, since it could be done so easily – in fact, a little too easily. The color controls available through the remote to the consumer on this unit should be put in a service-only submenu with an entry code. The controls are the level and gain for all three colors. In order to set them properly, you must be trained to use the proper test patterns and a color meter. If altered by an untrained consumer, the resultant image will most probably be discolored.

I believe NEC could have chosen a better processing chip set. The knurled glass look and the crawling small details that I described are digital artifacts caused by processing. The difference is evident when you look at HD sources. They do not exhibit that artifact. High definition images are clean and smooth in motion.

The remote is typical for a Japanese manufacturer. If you are remote control-savvy and know how to use a menu-oriented system, you will have no problem with it. To put it more plainly, many people will want to keep their hands off of the remote. I could easily get into a rant here. When will they get it? While I find these remotes simple to operate, they are a brick wall to many people. With all of the human interface technologies available, why can’t average people operate their ever more complicated electronics? The answer is language. We are speaking different languages. Crestron and AMX get it, and they have made a business out of it. They provide well-designed remote systems, but since they need many hours of programming by a trained programmer, they are out of the price range of most consumers.

The major manufacturers should adapt a remote control standard. The system complexity and flexibility could be addressed in a self-recognizing system like plug and play for computers. Yes, I know I am dreaming here. Even if they create a standard, there will be a competing standard, and we will have another Beta/VHS, Apple/IBM, SACD/DVD-Audio-type war. As usual, the result will be a discouraged consumer.

In my recent article on the pros and cons of plasma displays I spoke about plasma display technology and how it fulfilled my dreams as a prescient audio/video product designer. Many hurdles had to be leaped over to create the reality from the dream. It encompassed not only the display’s ability to reproduce the wide color gambit of high definition with proper gray scale and detail in motion, but also the ability to sync to and properly size and center the many standards presently available in both digital and analog sources. All this must be done properly in what is a rather small package. The processors that are used for these purposes in the professional world are large and expensive. The new NEC PlasmaSync 50XR4 automatically senses and converts a wide array of standards to its high definition (1365 by 768) display with impressive quality that can rival these professional processors in a slim and elegant package.

You can hang the PlasmaSync on a wall in your living room, bedroom or den and it will impress with its elegant design while melding into the room with its minimal depth. Be sure to place it at the proper height for viewing. Paintings are usually viewed standing, but you would be making a mistake if you placed a plasma display at that height, since home entertainment is usually viewed from a sitting position. Otherwise, you may well end up with a stiff neck.

Phosphor life was an issue with early plasma units, but has been improved greatly. You can expect a bright and clear image from this unit for at least 60,000 hours. That works out to almost seven years of it being on constantly, or almost 21 years at eight hours a day. It comes with a one-year limited warranty on phosphors, and a three-year limited warranty on parts and labor.

With a list price of $8,995, the unit is on the high side of the middle price range. Considering the wide color gambit and gray scale, the level of detail, the flexibility of use and the overall quality of the display, it is well worth it. The image quality is impressively better than most 50 inch plasmas.
Manufacturer NEC
Model PX-50XR4A PlasmaSync 50-inch Plasma Display
Reviewer Michael Levy
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches

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