Pioneer has consistently lived up to its moniker when it comes to flat-screen technology. It launched the world's first plasma television back in 1997 and it has just unveiled its eighth generation of plasma TVs, of which the PDP-508XD is currently the highest-specced, highest-priced model.
Search online and you can expect to pay around £2,500 for this 50-inch TV, plus extra for speakers and a stand should you need them. That sounds like a lot considering Panasonic's highly impressive TH-50PX70 will set you back a mere £1,250 or so, but Pioneer claims that this model has the features -- and more importantly the performance -- to warrant its princely price tag.
This screen, say its makers, offers the most film-like performance of any flat-screen TV on the market.
The styling and build quality certainly suggests you're getting a top-class piece of equipment for your cash. The screen is surrounded by a narrow frame finished in glossy piano black and almost free from any adornment, except for a single power button and the Pioneer logo. The stand and speakers are optional, so those who want a wall-mounted display will end up with a very clean-looking and relatively compact solution. The speakers can be attached either below the screen or on each side.
Build quality is equally impressive. Our review model arrived with a swivelling tabletop stand and pair of speakers already attached, and everything feels rock solid and reliable.
Pioneer has really gone to town on the connections. First and foremost, it's toting no less than three HDMI inputs, each of which conforms to the latest version 1.3 specification. You also get a component video input, so it's possible to connect four hi-def devices at once (or even five if you hook up an Xbox 360 or PC via the VGA input). Three Scart connections and a subwoofer output round off the socket selection at the back, while the left side-panel has S-Video and composite inputs, plus a headphone socket and a USB port (for viewing photos from a USB stick or card reader).
As befits a wallet-bashing top-of-the-range television, the PDP-508XD is packed to the gills with advanced technology. For example, it can display Blu-ray and HD DVD at their original speed of 24 frames per second (fps) -- many TVs still speed them up to 25fps, increasing the pitch of the audio by 4 per cent. In addition, it boasts a handful of different noise reduction features, plus the PureCinema function, which scales up the frame rate to ensure smooth, steady motion when you're watching a movie. It even comes with a light sensor that allows it to automatically tweak the brightness level for the light conditions in your home.
In fact, true home cinema nuts can even get the screen custom calibrated by a professional, thanks to its ISF C3 feature. This allows an engineer to accurately set the TV's contrast, tint, colour level and so on for your room's light levels -- the idea being that you get a perfectly balanced image.
The menu system is a variant of the one that has appeared on every Pioneer plasma TV of the past few years. It's fairly simple to use, although it can sometimes take a lot of button presses on the remote to access a feature. One nice touch is the button that allows you to flip the picture from before to after you changed settings (and vice versa) -- it makes it much easier to see the results of your tweaking.
A host of picture-in-picture modes is offered, as well as the Home Gallery function for viewing digital photos from a connected USB device. The Home Gallery has been slightly updated, allowing you to view pictures in crisp high resolution. We did find it a touch slow and clunky to use though, with full-resolution photos taking a few seconds to appear.
Pioneer plasmas are always strong when it comes to picture quality, but this screen really moves things up a notch from previous efforts. Serenity on Sky HD looks absolutely stunning here: the black levels are in a different league to those seen on most plasmas, and about four leagues up from the average LCD TV, which gives everything a far more realistic, almost CRT TV-like quality. Black areas remain a deep, rich black even when you're watching in an almost totally unlit room.
Noise is dealt with well by the on-board processing, too, and detail is sharp despite this only being a 1,365x768-pixel panel (a full 1080p version is coming in September). Colours are also bright and rich when required, with reds and greens blazing out beautifully.
Things are even better with HD DVD movies. King Kong, running at 24fps, moves beautifully smoothly on the screen, with none of the juddering effect one often sees on flat panels. Movement is clean and crisp in all formats, in fact, so gamers can get stuck into the really fast-paced titles without having to worry about smearing and ghosting.
The excellent black levels, colour reproduction and noise reduction mean that even standard-definition content looks good on the 50-inch screen, whether it's from the built-in digital tuner or a connected Sky box or DVD player. The picture is a little softer and the colours aren't as clean and vibrant, but this has far more to do with the quality of the source than it does with any shortcomings on the television's part.
We can't really find anything bad to say about the picture here. Full pixel-by-pixel 1080p support would be handy -- if you want this, wait for the 50- and 60-inch models due later this year. The only thing that this TV could possibly improve upon is its performance in a room containing lots of ambient light -- the screen is quite reflective, so you don't get as clear an image as you might.
Sound quality is similarly impressive (which is quite surprising given that the speakers are only optional), with movie dialogue coming out crisply and plenty of grunt on tap when the likes of explosions and gunshots are required.
In terms of picture quality, design and features, this is one of the best televisions we've ever reviewed. The picture in particular is of a totally different class to most flat-screen televisions, and has us looking forward to the September launch of Pioneer's "premium" 'Full HD' screens -- with even higher contrast ratios, according to the manufacturer.
As it stands, this 50-inch screen is a fantastic performer that makes hi-def movies and games look utterly spectacular -- if you're in the market for a high-end screen and are serious about picture quality, this should be right at the top of your shopping list.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield