Plasma has long being able to trade on sheer size as one of its major saving graces. But it might be about to lose that traditional advantage, as our test bench plays host to a 46in LCD TV from Samsung that outdoes many plasma TVs for size, and at just £2,300 also challenges them on cost. But can it challenge its plasma rivals on quality?
The LE46M51 certainly looks prettier than most of its flatscreen rivals. The high-gloss black screenframe is so alluring you just want to keep touching it, and it gets the perfect foil in the shape of a boldly-angled silver metallic strip along the bottom.
Connectivity is solid. There's the increasingly de rigeur HDMI socket, together with a component video input to complete the connectivity part of the HD Ready spec. Plus there's a D-Sub 'VGA' PC interface, two Scarts and the usual S-video/composite video/stereo audio standards. This is all fair enough, but I wouldn't have minded a second HDMI and third Scart, if I'm honest.
The LE46M51 completes its HD Ready quest via a native resolution of 1366 x 768, and compatibility with the necessary 720p and 1080i formats. It's a slight disappointment - but hardly a surprise - to fi nd that the HDMI jack won't handle a 1080p feed.
Looking deeper for features uncovers an immediate disappointment: the set doesn't have a digital tuner. Of course, anyone thinking of investing in a TV as big and expensive as this will most likely have some sort of separate digital receiver in their house - but I still can't help feeling that not having digital reception built in severely dents its cutting-edge credentials.
Features it does have, though, include Samsung's Digital Natural Image engine (DNIe) processing; a noise reduction option; a brightness sensor for making the TV automatically adjust pictures in response to the ambient light in your room; a suite of picture in picture tools, and a colour detail control that lets you tweak the picture's pink, green and blue saturations.
And so to the $64,000 question: does this Samsung big boy's picture quality give plasma a run for its money?
First impressions are quite good. For starters, the picture is brighter than I anticipated, driving bright colours off the screen with the sort of intensity that plasma technology seldom gets close to.
Colours are fully saturated, giving the picture immediate solidity and intensity, and, at this stage, black level seem fairly decent, in that it at least provides a deepish foundation for the intense colours to stand out against. However, my confi dence in its black level waned as time went on...
The screen is replete with fine detail and texture, which stands it in good stead with high-defi nition - especially HD games pumped out of an Xbox 360. Motion seems free of the tell-tale smearing associated with response time shortcomings.
However, the DNIe processing system doesn't always seem very comfortable with standard-defi nition. So where an SD source is grainy or rife with digital artefacts, the LE46M51 tends to emphasise that noise rather than tackling it. In fact, the TV even stressed the dot crawl in a couple of my high-definition movie tapes, as well as MPEG noise via an HDMI connection.
As for the black level issue I mentioned earlier, the more you push this aspect of the TV's performance with, say, a contrastrich movie like Terminator 2, the more you notice a) that dark parts of the picture actually look more blue-grey in tone than black, and b) that the blue-grey 'wash' curtails the reproduction of the shadow detailing that gives dark scenes depth.
Another problem I have with the LE46M51 is that it tends to slightly exaggerate white edges in a picture, making certain shots, like any of the outside of the Nostromo spaceship in Alien, look bitty and fractured.
A final niggle concerns colour tones, which can slide off message slightly when the source material is either noisy or particularly low lit.
The LE46M51's speakers aren't as constrained by their 'invisible' positioning as I might have expected - but they're certainly not completely unaffected by it either. So while there's a passable amount of bass and treble clarity, the sound doesn't drive out from the TV's body as well as we'd like, leaving action scenes sounding a bit flat. Voices, too, can sound muffled and 'mechanical' when appearing against a raucous backdrop.
In some ways I've perhaps been rather harsh on Samsung's LE46M51. You might argue that for such a ground-breakingly large LCD at such an approachable price, it's actually quite desirable. But I started out this review talking up the LE46M51 as a potential plasma killer. And if we see this argument through by considering the screen against a couple of our favourite plasmas, it just doesn't quite cut it.