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Sony PFM 500 42-inch Plasma HDTV Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 July 1999
ImageThe Sony PFM 500 plasma is a $10,000 high-definition ready, 42-inch diagonal television or data grade, 16x9 aspect ratio video monitor. At six inches deep, it is not the most slender in its class, but compared to traditional CRT sets, Sony’s Plasma is easily twenty inches narrower. It can be hung on a wall with an additional bracket ($900) or it can be set on a flat surface by engaging the feet built into the monitor.

Note: I am calling the Sony Plasma a monitor. It is not a television, as it does not have the built-in tuner, amplification or speakers that you’d find on a conventional TV set. The Sony Plasma is ready for HDTV in neighborhoods where this technology is already available. You will need a $1500 HDTV tuner and after-market antenna set-up in order to receive your NFL or Tonight Show in HDTV.

Inputs, video switching and remotes
The Sony Plasma can take a variety of inputs, including one composite, one S-Video, one input that takes either RGB or component video via an BNC connector, and a second RGB input that uses a 15 pin VGA connector. If you are directing your video inputs right into the Sony Plasma, you have lots of options, including sending a data grade signal from your laptop via the 15 pin VGA, connecting your DVD though the RGB1 input while running your VCR through your composite, and so on.

More than likely, you’ll be using your AV preamp to switch your DSS, VCRs, cable TV, antenna and other possible video sources for the sake of ease of switching and general simplicity. In my system, featuring the Sony Plasma, I used macros on a Crestron STS color touch screen remote in order to switch video inputs both through the Sony Plasma directly and through my AV receiver. The use of macros via an after-market remote helped to create a truly integrated feel between even my scant four video inputs. Without some sort of input management, you could be reaching for remotes far too often.

As for the stock Sony remote, you’ll find input switching for all of the above-mentioned inputs, but the names are fixed and non-intuitive. For example: the YUV is your label for component video. If you are technically savvy, this moniker won’t bother you. If you are a potential Plasma customer who wants a turnkey solution, consider a well-programmed Philips Pronto, a Crestron or AMX-Phast system. Additionally, the Sony remote shows signs of rushing to get to market in that there are buttons on a crowded remote that are obviously not for the Sony Plasma monitor. For example, Degauss is a feature that is great for a CRT television set that suffers from the negative video effects of magnets. This problem is not relevant with plasma technology, so why put it on the remote?

Is 16x9 for you yet?
There is no other to say this: the 16x9 (widescreen) aspect ratio is going to be the way of the not-so-distant future. The problem is, most markets are still getting ready to broadcast in HDTV. If you are living in a major market US city and have an HDTV feed, there is a very small amount of content available to you: NFL football games, the Tonight Show and the occasional TV program like Chicago Hope. By 2006, everything on TV is federally mandated to be broadcast in HDTV, nationwide. Within a few months, you’ll be able to get a new, slightly larger DSS dish and receiver that will allow you to bring down HDTV feeds of HBO and other pay-service content, which does sweeten the pot a bit.

The question you need to ask yourself before you plunk down the Platinum card is: do you watch enough 16x9 DVDs and or HDTV programming to make a $11,500 (price including the Sony HDTV tuner) investment worthwhile? If you are watching mainly 4x3 ratio, NTSC feeds and plan to watch them in that shape, you are only getting approximately 33 inches of useable screen space with masking bars to the left and right of your pricy monitor. The solution I used in my system was to set the normal NTSC 4x3 cable TV signal to a 16x9 aspect ratio, use the menu and expand the picture height about +25. This trick does cut off a little bit of the picture on the top and bottom of the screen, but it does allow you a smooth, not heavily distorted full-screen video experience for the vast majority of content you’ll be watching before HDTV becomes the standard in your home town.

Watching Movies on the Sony Plasma
The minute you pop in an anamorphic DVD and direct the picture to the Sony Plasma, it is hard not to be impressed by the smoothness of the image. It is important to be sitting at least six to ten feet away from the screen in order to avoid seeing pixilation in the image, but when you do not sit right on top of the monitor, the picture is a treat. The colors are detailed and the picture is resolute. On Waterworld (DTS DVD) chapter four, the scene where the ship is attacked, you’ll find a great example of how well the Plasma performs when reproducing refined colors. The sky is a vibrant blue, while the water is more of an emerald hue, the kind of green you’d find if you were looking at a movie set with lots of dye in it. The point is, the Sony Plasma has such a refined picture that you can really see the difference.

Another strength of the Sony Plasma is its ability to clearly resolve complicated visuals. On the same chapter on the DTS Waterworld DVD, there is a point where Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character appears in front of a jerry-rigged ship. You can see clearly deep into the scene to tell just how haphazardly that ship was assembled. Resolving details that deep into a shot is normally reserved for big gun, nine-inch CRT projectors, but on the Sony Plasma, you get the same benefit with a six-inch-deep set.

The Downside
While watching a Philadelphia Flyers -- Detroit Red Wings game in 4x3 from NTSC cable TV, sitting 16 feet away from the set, I found that the game was hard to follow. Essential details like the movement of the puck and the numbers of the players’ jerseys were nearly impossible to track, especially considering the fast-paced nature of this playoff intensity game. The black levels you’ll find on most plasma TVs, the Sony included, are not that dark, so the contrast is not as good as what you’d find on a traditional CRT set. This likely also factored into how hard it was to watch this matinee hockey game.

The ambient light from the 14-foot, western exposure windows that flank the right side of my family room in Scottsdale, Arizona, make the screen completely unwatchable during the afternoon. The screen, much like a CRT projector under similar conditions, is faded to the point where you might as well keep it off. I had blackout shades installed on a lift in order to reduce the light coming into the room, which helped somewhat. Carefully choose which room into which you plan to install a plasma and consider how dark you can make it. I had to trade off enjoying a beautiful view of Gainey Ranch Golf Course and Camelback Mountain to darken the room to the point where I could see my plasma set.

For what it does well, the Sony Plasma monitor is abolsutely great. It fits into places where you could never have put a conventional TV before, with a picture that is great today and will be even better when HDTV becomes a widespread reality. You must consider, before you invest the sizable amount Sony asks, whether or not a plasma set is right for your watching habits and for your room. If so, I endorse this set strongly.

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