In a market dominated by LCDs, plasma screens are struggling for recognition. But Pioneer believes that the technology still offers a more realistic performance, especially in large screen sizes -- and on this evidence it's hard to argue.
The 7th-generation PDP-427XD is the latest in an illustrious line of high-performance plasma displays. The design has been fully integrated to keep pace with its convenience-oriented competitors, while the specification includes high-definition compatibility, integrated Freeview, complete connectivity and some of the most advanced picture processing available.
Despite a comparatively low resolution the screen will display all high-definition formats, although 1080i/p standards are scaled down. Nonetheless, picture performance is exceptional with more depth and natural colours than LCD, while the price is around the same.
Pioneer's plasma screens have gradually evolved towards total integration. Earlier models featured separated tuner boxes, speakers and stands, which suited wall-mounted installations, but didn't offer the convenience of this all-in-one design.
The screen is elegantly framed by a piano-key black surround with a seamlessly integrated speaker system beneath. The lacquered finish is popular with flat-screen designs but exceptional build quality and attractive, sloped edging gives this screen a more refined appearance than most.
The metal-cased rear panel offers further evidence of high-quality construction and houses a full range of connections, although the under mounted arrangement of some inputs makes them difficult to reach.
High-definition sources can be directly connected using two HDMI digital inputs, which offer versatility and the highest quality performance from HD devices like Sky's receivers and the latest DVD players. The same cable can be used to carry multi-channel sound signals, too.
Analogue component inputs can also be used with some high-definition sources like the Xbox 360 games console, as well as supporting progressive scan from more conventional DVD players. Strangely, there are no analogue stereo inputs to accompany the component connections. This means you'll have to make a separate Scart connection for sound or connect the source to an external home cinema amplifier.
There are three Scart terminals and two are RGB-enabled for uncompromised performance from a standard connection, which should be more than enough since a digital TV tuner has been recently integrated. A previously ignored PC input with sound has been included, which offers convergent options for PC or media centre users.
Otherwise, there are some low quality AV inputs arranged at the side of the screen that allow easy access to devices like games consoles and camcorders, which might not always be permanently connected.
Unlike some cheap, plastic units that are supplied with expensive screens, the weighty remote is stylishly finished, expertly arranged and responsive. Dedicated controls for separate input sources also make it easy to switch between devices, especially if you're using a full complement of components.
This is Pioneer's 7th-generation model and years of experience have led to the development of some of the most advanced plasma technologies available. At the core is the latest Pureblack Panel 2 supported by a unique Crystal Emissive Layer as part of the front glass panel, which reduces unwanted light emissions to create distinctive black levels that enhance contrast and definition.
There's also sophisticated digital video processing using the new PURE Drive 2HD system assisted by several proprietary technologies that aim to reduce noise, enhance colour gradations and create high-resolution images from standard-resolution sources. It would take too long to explain all the picture-enhancing systems used, but you can be certain that this screen is at the forefront of plasma technology.
This advanced internal processing allows the screen's comparatively low XGA resolution (1,024x768 pixels) to display all high-definition formats including the latest 1080p signals -- although both 1080i and 1080p signals are downscaled to fit. Pioneer maintains it's the processing not the number of pixels that influence image quality and picture performance supports this argument.
Integrated analogue and digital TV tuners offer flexible convenience for terrestrial viewing and there's a CI card slot at the rear, which allows you to receive some subscription-based channels from TopUp TV services. Digital broadcasts are accompanied by a decent seven-day electronic programme guide that doesn't appear overcrowded and lets you easily search for listings by date or genre.
The menu system is colourfully presented using detailed graphics secluded at the side of the screen. As the technology suggests there's a seemingly endless amount of adjustments. Lethargic users can choose between various presets including specific modes for watching films, games and sport. It pays, however, to persevere with the advanced adjustments featured in the manual and Pro Adjust menus.
You can fine-tune images by applying a variety of systems including advanced colour management, noise reduction and specific adjustments for controlling elements such as dynamic contrast, black enhancement and gamma levels.
Average users may find this all too confusing and there's an option to have the screen custom calibrated using ISF 3. At a cost, a professional engineer will visit your home and precisely adjust your settings according to your ambient environment. Settings can be calibrated for day and night uses and then stored and locked separately from the main menu, which can still be used.
Typical sound settings are supplemented by various SRS WOW audio enhancement technologies. These include a pseudo-surround function, Focus and TruBass control, which can be further enhanced by connecting the screen to an external subwoofer using a dedicated output at the rear.
Picture performance impresses whether you're watching TV, standard-definition DVDs or high-definition sources. The integrated digital tuner is the finest we've seen from a plasma display, with off-air broadcasts that are beautifully controlled and detailed with well-balanced colours.
You may not get the same meticulous detail that LCD offers, but outstanding black levels create dense definition and superb contrast, while colours appear more natural -- especially with subtle gradations between shades. Even with analogue connected sources using progressive scan you'll struggle to see any picture noise or disturbing digital artefacts.
High-definition sources are equally impressive with sumptuous colours, cohesive movement and even more detail. We did, however, notice that 1080p sources did appear more precise using a 'Full HD' resolution LCD like Samsung's LE46F71BX -- so Blu-ray devotees have something to think about.
Nonetheless, this screen's outstanding all-round ability (including excellent sound performance) means Pioneer retains its title as the class-leading plasma in our reviews.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield