In an industry where it's all too easy to play it safe and follow the herd, Panasonic is to be applauded for sticking grimly to its insistence that LCD has no place appearing on screen sizes above 32in. And so while UK manufacturers have now migrated to LCD for anything below 42in, Panasonic still has a new 37in plasma TV for our delectation. But is Panasonic right to keep championing plasma at this price point, or is it time to give up the plasma ghost?
The 37PX600 is hit and miss aesthetically. Our main complaint is that the silvery chassis looks a bit plasticky and cheap, while on the plus side, the cabinet-type stand option does a genius job of upping the set's sex appeal by exaggerating its slenderness.
Heading up plenty of good news when it comes to connections are two HDMI sockets, providing twice the digital connectivity of many rivals. Other highlights include component jacks, a D-Sub PC input, three Scarts (two RGB-ready) and an SD card slot.
This SD card slot marks a key difference between the PX600 and PX60 ranges, and allows the 600 models to play back digital stills or MPEG4 movies from an inserted SD card, or record MPEG4 movies for playback later in SD-compatible portable video devices. It's a pity the slot won't take other card types, but otherwise it's a great feature to find. We should note, too, that the HDMI jacks carry Panasonic's new HDAVI technology, enabling two-way, network-style communication between the TV and other HDAVI compatible Panasonic kit.
The list of other features begins with a built-in terrestrial digital tuner, complete with card slot for adding subscription services and fulsome support for the Freeview 7-day electronic programme guide.
Not surprisingly the 37PX600 also sports the same new V-Real picture processing engine found on Panasonic's lower-level PX60 plasmas. Able to handle 720p and 1080i picture sources in their native form, features subsumed within the V-Real umbrella include (deep breath): Digital Remastering for upconverting standard definition pictures to give them more detail; Gamma Control, where 11.5-bit video processing allegedly delivers 3,072 gradations steps and 29 billion separate colours; and a sub-pixel controller that processes the red, green and blue colours separately in each pixel to apparently make lines look sharper.
Other processing improvements for Panny's 9th generation screens include a colour management utility that works on the picture's colour and luminosity components separately to boost richness and tonal accuracy, and a contrast management system that automatically optimises contrast settings to suit the image.
There's also a new noise reduction system that apparently detects potentially troublesome motion patterns in a picture and applies noise-reducing countermeasures to them before any noise can appear.
Next we find the latest version of Panasonic's Real Black Drive system for improving black levels. What's more, this is now supported by a new Deep Black Filter system for cutting out unwanted light transmissions and external reflections. Cue the 37PX600's mindboggling claimed contrast ratio of 10,000:1. Our lab reading is a little more modest at 305:1...
Before we finally get to how all these features translate into picture quality, there are two more key differences we should cover between Panny's PX600 and PX60 models. First, the PX600s have full picture-in-picture facilities, rather than just picture and teletext. And second, the PX600s have a so-called Smart Sound Speaker System that uses separate woofer and tweeters to up the power handling from 20W on the PX60s to 31W here, while also boosting frequency response.
Pictorially the 37PX600 seems identical to the PX60 models. Which is no bad thing given how good the PX60's pictures are.
Particularly inspiring and making an immediate case for Panny's sticking with plasma at the 37in level are the 37PX600's black levels. They're in another class to those of any LCD TV we've seen, and also top any other brand of plasma TV we've seen. For instance, the grey mist that afflicts many fl at panel TVs is almost completely neutralised by Panasonic's black level technologies - as are practically all traces of plasma's common low-level green/ grey dot crawl problems.
The 37PX600's black levels also benefit from some outstanding grey scaling subtlety, which helps dark areas of a picture look every bit as solid, detailed and three-dimensional as the bright bits.
The set's colour response is also first class, treading perfectly that narrow line between eye-catching vibrancy and natural tones.
Yet more good news comes from the 37PX600's motion handling, which avoids both the dotting noise still common to many plasma TVs and the smearing that to some extent besets even the very best quality LCD TVs.
A final hugely impressive aspect of the 37PX600 is its flexibility, in that while it almost inevitably looks excellent with high definition, it also retains more quality than usual when showing standard definition.
Coming to us after a spate of extremely sharp-looking LCD TVs, though, we have to say that as with most plasma TVs, the sharpness of the 37PX600's HD pictures can only really be classed as very good rather than excellent. There's just not quite that extra sense of texture that the finest LCDs enjoy.
Our only other minor gripe would be that even with 3072 claimed colour gradations, colour blends still sporadically look a little stripey.
Moving on to the 37PX600's audio, the Smart Sound speaker system really does make a difference. For starters, the amount of detail audible is outstanding, as is the distance over which these details are thrown without the soundstage losing cohesion. Also hugely impressive is the amount of sheer power and bass churned out, especially as this is produced without causing the TV cabinet to rattle.
So is Panasonic justified in persevering with plasma as a 37in option? It sure is. Not necessarily because the 37PX600, superb though it is, is actually all-round better than absolutely every big-screen LCD we've seen, but because the strengths it offers are different - such as better black levels and better motion handling. It thus gives a prospective 37in TV buyer a whole extra set of choices to make - and it's our firm belief that if there's one thing consumers can never have too much of, it's choice. John Archer