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Pioneer PDP-501M 50-inch Plasma Display Print E-mail
Monday, 01 November 1999
ImageWhat most captures my imagination in this new era of digital video is the flat-panel plasma display with its characteristic ultra thin chassis. Pioneer's PDP-501M is the biggest and best display in this category so far. It's also the most expensive at a recently reduced $22,000. The PDP-501M is a full 50" diagonal screen in a 16:9 aspect ratio, accommodating DVD and HDTV broadcasts. While other plasma displays deliver a 480p picture, meeting Standard Definition specifications, the PDP-501M is the only commercially available plasma display capable of displaying a high definition 720p picture. A wide array of inputs are provided for different types of sources. A standard NTSC composite and S-Video input allows hook-ups of analog VCR's and Laserdisc players. The RGB (component) inputs are essential for the best reproduction of DVD and Digital VCR material. For some eye-popping web surfing a VGA input is included turning the PDP-501M into one formidable PC monitor.

How Plasma Works
Plasma screens are made up of cells, which are turned on by an electric charge to the plasma gas contained within the cell. These charges produce ultraviolet radiation, which energizes the phosphors to emit light. Images are created by adjusting the brightness, color and contrast of each cell. Each cell represents a single pixel with its own RGB elements.

While most plasma sets have about 350,000 pixels, capable of a 852 x 480 resolution, the PDP-501M blows away the competition with its 983,040 pixels for a maximum resolution of 1280 x 768. The increased vertical resolution allows it to display a 720p high definition source. (1080i sources are down converted to 720p -- but since the eye tends to loose about 30% of an interlaced picture, you're not going to notice an overly dramatic difference between 720p and 1080i.)

Since I could no longer wait to get my hands on one of these coveted beauties, I drove myself down to Pioneer's offices here in Los Angeles for a personal demonstration. The less than 4" thick display outshines LCD's, demonstrating that plasma is the superior format for flat panel displays. Conventional CRT's and PTV's are no match for the PDP-501M and only high-end, two-piece video systems could compete with the extraordinary image quality of this display. The wider 160-degree horizontal and vertical viewing angle allows a larger audience to enjoy the picture as off-axis anomalies don't start to occur until you get almost perpendicular to the screen.

For demonstration purposes a 1/2 digital videotape called "Over America" was used as the high definition source showcasing some breath taking and sensational aerial views of America's major cities and national parks. Cities teeming with cars and pedestrians were so clear and distinct you could imagine sitting in the chopper taking the pictures yourself. Billboards and signs could be read clearly at extreme distances. There was no visible edge to edge distortion from any angle, which is a benefit of the flat panel design, and the depth of field was nothing short of spectacular.

Video noise was only apparent on evening shots, with the glowing lights of the cities exhibiting a slight blooming effect. However, this was probably due to the limited bandwidth (10MHz) of the videotape. If we'd had a full bandwidth (27MHz) HD source there would be no problem resolving such fine levels of detail. In fact, it would be possible to sit within eight to ten feet of the screen without loss of resolution.

The PDP-501M is capable of displaying 16.8 million colors (24-bit) for rich and true-to-life coloring. The Grand Canyon's natural tones were as brilliant and realistic as the neon signs in New York City's Times Square. The decrease in resolution of DVD clearly demonstrated the inferiority of NTSC by comparison. Still, watching DVD on this display was a real treat as it outperforms most other types of monitoring systems.

On 'L.A. Confidential' (Warner Bros.) skin tones and facial detail were as film-like as anything I'd ever seen from many similarly priced two-piece video systems. It exhibited terrific light and dark detail in the high-contrast sequence during the shoot-out in the bungalow, near the end of the film. Colors were dazzling on the sci-fi film 'The Fifth Element' (Columbia Pictures), with its cartoon coloring, including the lead actresses bright orange hair, resolution was simply phenomenal, only breaking up on scenes with a tremendous amount of minute detail. Since this is a common occurrence on most NTSC-based video systems, I wouldn't consider it a negative.

The 16:9 aspect ratio is great for Anamorphic DVD, as you loose the 'letterbox' black bars all together. By pulling on the edges and not squeezing the center of the picture, Pioneer's Natural Wide setting allows 4:3 aspect ratio sources to fill the screen too. While some stretching is obvious, it's not overly pronounced.

Additionally, plasma displays don't employ an electron beam like CRT's or PTV's, making them completely unaffected by magnetic fields. This allows placement of any loudspeaker or subwoofer near the screen without ill effects.

The overall dimension of the PDP-501M is 48" (W) X 28" (H) X 3.86" (D) with a weight of less than 95 lbs. The rear panel comes installation-ready with several pre-drilled mounting holes for mounting on the ceiling, the wall or a desktop.

The Downside
By nature, plasma displays have a potential problem with black level. Since the cells always receive power, there is a small amount of light emanating from every cell, even those representing black. The inability to adjust a display to absolute black negatively effects its depth of field. However, I found depth of field, particularly on the HD source, to be exceptional. I suspect my perceptions were influenced by the extraordinary resolution and brightness of the PDP-501M.

Cost becomes an obvious downside of many new technology products. For the PDP-501M, it's a frustrating downside because you'll start lusting after it as soon as you see it.

The PDP-501M is only going to fit the budget of a select few, falling into that early adopter category. For me, it represents the science fiction of my youth, manifesting itself in my present. I couldn't help but be intrigued, fascinated and enthralled by the PDP-501M. It also solves the ultimate dilemma: how to elegantly place a 50" monitor in a small 12' x 14' home theater. With the promise of larger screens, and lower prices in the years to come, the PDP-501M is just the beginning of a technology that will ultimately revolutionize how we watch TV.

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