Vizio P50HDM 50-inch Plasma Display 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs Plasma HDTVs
Written by Andrew Robinson   
Wednesday, 01 March 2006

Back in the day, which in the world of consumer electronics can mean yesterday, televisions and flat panel displays could cost as much as a car. Today, we have companies like Vizio that are feverishly working to put an end to the notion that you have to pay a lot to get a lot.

A few months ago I wrote about another fine Vizio product, the P42HDe plasma display. While P42 had its faults, it was one of the greatest values in all of home theater. I say “was” because the P42, as reviewed in January, has been discontinued to make way for a newer model coming out in March. Shortly, after my unsolicited review of the P42, Vizio contacted me and set me up with their 50-inch high-definition set, the P50HDM. The P50HDM has already found its way onto several publications’ Top 10 lists and is riding a huge wave of popularity among budget-conscious consumers. This didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was the P50’s asking price: $2,599.99. That couldn’t possibly be right, even after my experience with the P42HDe. A quick gander at an online electronics giant revealed 55 different types of plasma or LCD TVs for sale. Out of the 55, there were 22 larger than 42 inches diagonally (all of them plasma). Out of that 22, not a single one was at or under the P50’s asking price. In fact, the only displays approaching the P50’s price range were all sporting screen sizes less than 37 inches diagonally.

Unpacking the P50 is a job for two people, so get ready to solicit a friend’s help, because you will need it. The box for the P50 is elegantly and intelligently designed, making it quite easy to get the screen free from the packaging and onto your table. Make sure whatever surface you place or hang the P50 on is strong enough to handle its 137 pounds. Out of the box, the P50 is simply stunning. While I liked the looks of the P42, I am in awe of the P50’s piano-black frame and silver-accented speakers. One can’t help but notice that the P50 bares a striking resemblance to some of Samsung’s current plasma designs. However, the P50 looks a lot more solid and, dare I say it, more upscale than the competition. There’s no getting around the fact that the P50 is big. While the P50’s screen is only eight inches larger (diagonally) than my P42, it simply dwarfs it visually. The P50 measures in at 48.5 inches wide by 34 inches tall and a mere four inches deep; if you include the attached table base, the depth then becomes a hair over 12 inches.

Turning my attention back to the P50, I noticed that the bottom-mounted speakers are not detachable. This kind of bummed me out a bit. The minute I saw the P50’s piano-black frame, I thought how cool it was going to look flush against the wall without those silver speakers. But it wasn’t meant to be. The speakers don’t look bad and I prefer their placement along the bottom than on the sides like most plasma screens. Turning my attention away from the speakers, I focused on the P50’s screen. The façade of the P50 is somewhat featureless, in the sense that you won’t find any controls for power, volume, channel etc., just the Vizio logo and a few third-party logos in the lower left corner of the shiny black frame. The manual control panel for the P50 rests along the right edge of the screen out of plain sight and includes controls for power, channel, volume, input and menu. Turning my attention to the rear, or rather the bottom, of the P50, I found more than just the usual input/outputs. For starters, there are two, count ‘em two, HDMI inputs. Why two? Imagine you want to demo two different HDMI-compatible DVD players at the same time. Well, plug each of the players into the P50, activate the P50’s PIP option and, bam, you’re in business. While that may appeal to the reviewer in all of us, it has practical purposes as well. Say, for instance, your current receiver or processor doesn’t have HDMI switching or up-sampling capabilities, but your HD receiver and DVD play both have HDMI outs. To get the best possible picture, you could run two sets of HDMI cables to the P50 and enjoy all that the digital world has to offer. Next to the individual HDMI inputs are two pairs of standard RCA audio inputs, for those of you needing to use the P50’s built-in speakers. The P50 can also be used as a computer monitor via its RGB analog in. For those of you still rocking the analog video world, the P50 has two sets of component video inputs, labeled analog HD1 and HD2. The analog HD1 input (YPbPr) is capable of passing through signals ranging from 480i to 1080i, while the HD2 input (YCbCr) can only process 480i or 480p signals. Either way, a pair of analog audio inputs accompanies both the analog HD1 and HD2 inputs. Beyond the land of component video, somewhere around the dawn of Man, there was S-Video and composite video. Like the little brother you never wanted to hang out with, manufacturers still have to put these outdated connections on their sets for those few who still think the yellow cable that came with their DVD player works just fine. If this applies to you, you’re in luck, because the P50 has two composite and two S-video inputs, complete with their own analog audio inputs. There is even a headphone output for late-night or incognito listening. Throw in a pair of audio outs, a detachable power cord and a master power switch, and you’ve got the P50’s rear panel in a nutshell.

Turning my attention inward, I saw that the P50 boasts some very impressive specs, given its price range. For starters, the P50 has a respectable resolution of 1366 by 768 pixels at 720p, and while it’s not the highest resolution out there, it will more than deliver a clear HD picture. If this past CES show is any indicator, 1080p is all the rage. Or so they say. I’m not going to argue that 1080p isn’t the “best,” but with proper calibration, the difference between 1080p and 720p is hardly night and day. While the P50’s signal of choice is 720p, it can display 480i, 480p, 720p,and 1080i. The P50 also has one of the highest stated contrast ratios found in the market today at 10,000:1. Mate that with 231 billion colors and a typical brightness level of 1,000 cdm2, and you’ve got an image that should wow you with vivid detail, beautifully saturated colors and excellent black levels. A 170º viewing angle means no one in your family will have to suffer come movie night.

Beyond the normal facts and figures, the P50 includes some not-so-standard features, including DCDi deinterlacing from Faroudja. This is a huge step up from the P42’s generic deinterlacing software, giving you a much clearer image, freer from motion artifacts and “jaggies” than ever before. Aside from the third-party support from Faroudja, Vizio has included some of their own image-enhancing software, starting with DNR or Digital Noise Reduction. DNR basically helps to remove picture noise caused by numerous types of compression, mainly MPEG, found in many of today’s broadcast and DVD signals. Vizio also included their own MNR (or Motion Noise Reduction) software to aid in removing video noise from fast-moving images, such as broadcast sporting events or the latest action flick. The P50 also features PIP, or Picture in Picture, capability for those of you who like to watch multiple programs, like sports, at once.

This brings me to the remote. The more I review, the more that last bit is starting to sound like a catchphrase. The P50’s remote is better than the P42’s in terms of overall style, yet in functionality, it’s basically the same. You can gray-up all the plastic you want, but if your remote isn’t backlit or intelligently laid out, then I’m afraid you’re left with nothing but a New Age paper weight. Compared to the P42’s remote, the P50’s buttons have gotten smaller and a little more evenly spaced, but they’re harder to find and read in low light situations. As usual, I went ahead and programmed the P50 into my Harmony 880 remote and called it a day.

Once I got the P50 out of the box, I knew I had to have it on my wall. It took one quick phone call to Vizio for them to hook me up with one of their own wall mounts. I could write a whole article on the conundrum of why plasma mounts cost so much. Let me just say this: Vizio’s mounts are the least expensive, a snap to install, and the easiest to live with day to day of any brand that I’ve seen. Once the mount arrived, I had the P50 installed, with the help of a friend, in about an hour. I chose to hook up the P50 to my reference receiver, the Denon 4806, via its component and HDMI inputs. For DVD, I chose my ever-ready Denon 3910 universal player, with the TV duties falling to my new Motorola HD receiver from Adelphia. I connected everything using Monster M Series Cable for both audio and video. I did listen to the P50’s internal speakers, but 90 percent of the time, the audio duties rested on the shoulders of my new JBL L Series loudspeakers.

Once everything was connected and ready, I popped the Digital Video Essentials Disc into my DVD player and began calibrating the P50. For those of you unfamiliar with the Digital Video Essentials Disc, you’re really missing out. While professional video calibration is always preferred, this do-it-yourself calibration disc really can work wonders, so long as you’re willing to put in the time. I calibrated both the HDMI and component inputs of the P50, since I tried to split my time between the two formats equally. The P50’s menus were easy enough to navigate without having to consult the manual. The manual is very handy and well-written for those of you just getting started in the high-definition realm, but if this isn’t your first HD set, you’ll probably find it a bit elementary. Moving on to the image controls, I noticed there were fewer options than on the P42. I was a bit perplexed by this, yet when I began to calibrate the P50, I found the controls there were much more responsive to minute changes than those of the P42. Overall, I found the P50 very easy to calibrate. Shockingly, the P50’s factory setting, “movie,” turned out to be dangerously close to my custom results. In fact, at one point, my settings were erased and I didn’t realize that I was watching the factory default setting until two days later. Bottom line: out of the box and with very little effort, the P50 was ready to shine.

Television and Movies
I started my evaluation of the P50 with one of my favorite films from director Michael Mann, “The Insider” (Touchstone Pictures). Shown through the P50’s HDMI input, with my DVD player set to 720p, the image was breathtaking. Right off the bat, the image depth just captivated me. The P50’s edge fidelity was as sharp as I’ve seen out of any plasma screen regardless of price, which only furthered the pictures already stellar three-dimensional feeling. “The Insider” features some of the most amazing close-up shots that I’ve seen captured on film in the past 20 years. One such close-up, towards the beginning of the film where Russell Crowe stares out the window before turning towards camera to face Al Pacino, was captured in all its glory by the P50. The P50 didn’t rob the image of the almost infinite detail found in the strands of Crowe’s bleached white locks. Likewise, the P50’s rendering of skin tones maintains every wrinkle and pore on the characters’ faces without making them appear plastic or glassy. When I focused on the skin tones for a moment, the P50’s color saturation was excellent. I felt the saturation at times was a little too poppy, given the film’s muted color palette, yet it never got in the way or ruined my enjoyment of the film. The P50’s white levels were held beautifully in check with zero signs of blooming. The P50 also showed signs of improvement over the P42 when it came to displaying black levels. The P50 seemed to go blacker than the P42 and have a much tighter grip on the image during darker scenes. Noise levels had also dramatically reduced through the P50, which solved a lot of the banding issues I had with the P42. I also couldn’t detect any motion artifacts or de-interlacing issues at any point during the film. If I had to fault the P50’s image, it would have to be in its portrayal of dark grays. The P50 didn’t go from absolute black to the lighter shades of gray quite as smoothly as I would have liked. However, I’ve seen plasma TVs three times the P50’s price that don’t make this transition at all.

Moving on, I cued up the comic book classic “Spider-Man 2” (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). I skipped ahead to the film’s numerous highflying fight scenes between Doc Ock (Alfred Molina) and Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). During the scene where Doc OcK and Spider-Man are duking it out on the top of the commuter train, I was unable to really detect any motion artifacts. Even among the scene’s countless buildings and rows of glass, I never saw any traces of “jaggies” or pixilation. The film’s color palette was astonishing. There was a slight emphasis on the red side of the spectrum, but again, it never became objectionable. Spider-Man’s suit was vibrant and punchy, yet it never overpowered its surroundings or bled outside into the subtle hues of the buildings. The buildings themselves seemed to continue on indefinitely, creating an almost hyper-real depth of field, which helped to create a clear separation between foreground and background elements that resulted in one of the most dynamic 3D images I’ve experienced in this price range. The black levels were also quite good – while not as deep as “The Insider,” the transition was much smoother between absolute black and darker shades of gray. Picture noise was kept to a minimum, although some of the textures, mainly natural stone on some of the buildings, provided a bit of a workout for some of the P50’s internal software.

All in all, the P50 didn’t disappoint me when it came to DVD viewing. In fact, I was rather surprised, given my experience with the P42. Where the P42 came up short, the P50 shone, and where the P50 wasn’t quite the best, it proved it could still keep pace.

This is the year for all things high-definition, and what better example than the Super Bowl on ABC. Say what you want about the game – the official calls or whether or not your team won – the image looked marvelous. The “grass” had excellent saturation without seeming too cartoonish and never became pixilated as it does in standard broadcasts. The colors were beautifully rendered with the sort of real presence previously unavailable at the P50’s asking price. The detail on the players’ helmets was superb. At one point, I paused the game, walked up to the screen and could clearly see the lights in the stadium reflected in the helmets. The P50’s higher resolution and sheer clarity allowed me see the differences in fabric on the players’ uniforms, even during the game’s wider shots. While the game may not have been the barnburner I was hoping for, it did feature some spectacular long yardage plays. During one such play, I was unable to detect any motion artifacts in the crowd as the camera panned across the field in an attempt to keep up with the Steelers’ player. The black levels were excellent, on par with what I experienced with “The Insider.” The P50 seemed to have an easier time transitioning out of the darkest regions with the high-definition broadcast material than it did with the “Insider” DVD. During the Super Bowl and other HD broadcasts, I did notice the P50 becoming a bit noisy in the lighter regions of the screen. Also, the P50 wasn’t completely immune to banding when transitioning out of white. However, this also has a lot to do with the purity of the signal. With everyone and their mother watching the Super Bowl it may have brought on the slightly degraded image quality.

But what about standard broadcasts? The P50 performed very well with standard-definition material, much better than the P42. Standard digital cable is pretty much crap in my opinion, and while the P50 couldn’t turn apples into oranges, it did wash ‘em off a bit. Again, if I had to dock points off the P50’s performance, it would have to be for its slightly noisy picture with certain source material and its tendency to band at the light and dark extremes. Keep in mind, this is a $2,600 HDTV, and even sets costing tens of thousands of dollars can have these same issues.

The Downside
As much as I loved the piano-black frame of the P50, I found it was rather reflective and if you watch TV with any light, it’s only going to be amplified by the shiny plastic material. Your best bet to avoid this is to keep the P50 away from direct light and/or reserve your critical viewing to low/no-light situations. This seems obvious, but in the real world, plasmas end up in all sorts of locations that are less than perfect in terms of ambient light.

I was a bit bummed to not see an auto aspect ratio circuit on the P50. When displaying high-definition material, the P50 will switch between 16x9 and 4x3 when needed. However, when switching between high-definition and standard, it will not change the image to the proper aspect ratio on its own, forcing you to have reach for the remote.

Speaking of remotes, I’m afraid the P50’s just doesn’t cut it. It was easy enough to operate and felt pretty good in the hand, but the second you kill the lights, it’s useless. Like I said earlier, keep a backlit universal remote handy and you shouldn’t have a problem.

Lastly, there are the speakers. I would’ve liked them to be detachable, since I really have no use for them in my system. They’re not terrible-sounding, they’re better than most plasma speakers, but if you’re planning on making the P50 part of your home theater, I would recommend separate speakers.

A year ago, if you had told me that I’d be able to have a rather top of the line, 50-inch, high-definition plasma screen for $2,600, I would have called you crazy. Hell, if you had told me that six months ago, I would have said the same thing. But that was then, and this is Vizio. The P50 is, without a doubt, worth every penny and then some. The overall quality of the P50’s image is just stunning, despite any minor shortcomings. I know 2006 has just gotten underway, but the Vizio P50 gets my early vote for product of the year: it’s that good.
Manufacturer Vizio
Model P50HDM 50-inch Plasma Display
Reviewer Andrew Robinson
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches

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