With LCD technology already dominating the mainstream flatpanel TV market (32 inches and less), and threatening to claim more of the 40-42in market in the future, plasma is increasingly having to head for larger ground. Enter NEC's 61XR4G, which, at 61in, comfortably tackles a size that LCD currently isn't commercially able to manage at all.
You might argue that at the best part of £9k the 61XR4G isn't much of a commercial proposition itself - especially as you have to add on more than £300 if you want a desktop stand and another £400 for NEC's own optional, detachable speakers.
NEC considers the 61XR4G to be part of its 'Residential' plasma range, and as such has put a reasonable amount of effort into making it look nice. The silver-trimmed black bezel and shiny plastic section along the bottom edge make an attractive home for the acres of screen.
It's still a corporate rather than consumer product though. This PDP monitor ships without tuner module (that's an optional extra priced at an unattractive £180) or Scart. But as compensation, there's a pair of HDMI digital video inputs (for PC or video use), two component video inputs, analogue PC support via a 15-pin D-Sub jack, and standard-definition fallbacks in the form of single composite and S-video options.
That said, compared against some NEC screens I've seen in the past, the 61XR4G is unusually tweaker-friendly. There are two Theater picture presets; noise reduction; gamma adjustment; a cinema mode for enhanced motion with movie sources; individual adjustments of the red, green, blue, yellow, magenta and cyan colour components; and the ability to adjust the brightness of side bars during 4:3-ratio viewing, to help avoid screen burn.
The screen has impressive picture-in picture facilities that allow, for instance, the simultaneous appearance of two high definition sources.
The two other plasma giants currently at large, Panasonic's 65PV500 and Fujitsu's P63XHA40, have both set high standards in the super-sized arena recently. To be honest, NEC's 61XR4G doesn't hit quite the same heights, but it's certainly no slouch.
The screen reveals phenomenal texture in Manny the Mammoth's fur on the D-VHS HD tape of Ice Age; there's so much clarity I found myself gasping in admiration. It also relishes the definition available from Xbox 360 releases like Fight Night: Round 3, adding tangible texture to the game's extraordinary 'skin mapping' graphics.
Indeed, this NEC's extraordinary clarity had me postulating that unless you've seen HD running on a super-large plasma TV, you really haven't seen it running at all.
The picture also enjoys some surprisingly (given NEC's previous problems in that area) natural colour tones, even where skin tone is concerned. Gratifyingly, this NEC does a better than expected job with standard-definition sources. DVDs and even a Sky feed delivered via an RGB-Scart-to-component converter both survive being enlarged to Brobdingnagian proportions.
The set's native resolution is 1366 x 768, and it accepts 720p, 1080i and 1080p.
So what are the caveats? Well, black level is adequate rather than good. When images and sequences are well-lit, during a 'normal', daylight scene or in-studio shot, the set's contrast range looks acceptable, but when the going gets darker the picture loses shadow detail, greys over and looks flatter and less dynamic.
I also noticed a somewhat jerky look to horizontal motion, especially when watching a TV source. Finally the picture just isn't especially bright. You really need to drop ambient light levels to make the picture communicate.
For the sake of completes I also auditioned the curiously diminutive (i.e. they don't fit the screen) attachable PX-SP2U/S speakers NEC supplies for the 61XR4G. While they actually sound reasonable, with good mid-range clarity and stereo spread, they look plain daft and can't be recommended.
it's always easy to be impressed by giant sized high-definition video. The sheer scale of such images, delivered by plasma of this calibre, elicits a positive emotional response. The reality, though, is that Fujitsu's super-sized monitor rival, the P63XHA40, offers an even better HD performance and typically costs less, while the 65in Panasonic TH-65PV500 is altogether more 'home friendly'. John Archer