There was a time when most high-end plasma TVs used to come with an external AV box. Taking all the ins and outs and itself connected to the screen with one cable, the idea was that hanging the TV on a wall suddenly became a clean process with less wires to hide. Those days are now over, because this is one of the last plasma TVs to have such a feature.

External AV boxes have been dropped on the forthcoming seventh-generation Pioneer plasmas and on this, the most basic of its sixth-gen range, there's not even a digital TV tuner. If that makes you wince, instead opt for Pioneer's PDP-436XDE, an identical- looking TV with digital TV capabilities added on for an extra £300. That's not the only difference.

While the PDP-436FDE is HD-ready, it only has one HDMI, so if you've got a HDTV subscription, forget about hooking up a HDMI-equipped DVD player. There's no way of connecting a PC, nor is there a card slot for inspecting pictures from a digital camera.

Outwardly light on features it may be, but the PDP-436FDE's innards have plenty to impress. A claimed contrast ratio of 3,000:1 and PureBlack technology for increasing black levels should be key to picture quality, but it's more the construction of the panel itself that marks this out as a special plasma TV.

The screen's Deep Waffle Rib is designed to stop light seeping between pixels, while its Direct Colour Filter system does away with a glass panel to reduce reflections, double images, and the set's overall weight. The latter is becoming popular with other manufacturers.

Cutting edge

Apart from skimping on a few features, this Pioneer should still be a considered cutting-edge plasma TV. Some high- definition footage reveals an immense amount of detail and plenty of brightness, with picture noise kept well below visible levels. Brilliant, but what about standard- definition? A spin of our Kill Bill: Vol. 1 test DVD proves that Pioneer is still one of the leaders of plasma technology.

Last of a breed There's lots of detail and subtlety in the darkness and shadows, something that's only seen elsewhere on Panasonic's plasmas. The absence of any picture noise is also impressive, as is the high level of detail and clarity.

Skin tones look natural while exterior footage shows colour as vibrant as any TV has done before.

Having seen a few of Pioneer's sixth-gen models and almost got used to its stunning pictures, it's a pleasure to hear its speakers again. So often a large TV's audio system disappoints, but although they're optional, Pioneer's hi-fi grade speakers border on the sublime.

So powerful, bassy and concise they are that dialogue, high-octane soundtracks and music are delivered with perfection. Why can't any other manufacturer get close?

We wouldn't whole-heartedly recommend the PDP-436FDE, but that's only because of its relatives. The lack of digital tuner and sole HDMI means it compares poorly to its XDE sister - the PDP-436XDE - but with Pioneer's seventh-generation range about to hit the shelves, bargains could be about to be had.

If you can find the PDP-436FDE for under £2,000 you can rest assured of possessing one of the finest plasma TVs around, with the double whammy of perfect pictures and sound. What Plasma & LCD TV Staff