Panasonic has just released its first truly HD Ready Viera LCD TV, the 32in TX-32LXD500. But 32in simply won't be big enough for everyone, so we've got our hands on Panasonic's first HD Ready plasma TV: the 37in TH-37PV500.
Aesthetically, the TH-37PV500 is simply gorgeous. In fact, the Viera range's signature glossy-black screen surround, silver trim and stunning optional slimline floor cabinet look even better at this bigger screen size.
The good times continue to roll with the screen's connections - not least because they include an HDCP-enabled HDMI jack - stage one of the TV's journey to HD Readiness, as laid out by AV industry body EICTA.
There's also a component video input for analogue HD and prog-scan footage, three Scarts,a 15-pin D-Sub PC jack and even a front-mounted slot for an SD card for playback or recording of digital stills or MPEG4 movies.
Two more key factors confirm the TH-37PV500's HD Readiness: its native,widescreen-oriented XGA aspect ratio and its ability to accept all the key HD formats. There is one slight oddity about the TH-37PV500, though: its basic pixel resolution is 1,024 x 720, which actually works out to a 4:3 aspect ratio. So how come the screen is 16:9? Because Panasonic has built it using a unique asymmetrical cell structure that makes it possible to lengthen the cells in the horizontal plane.
Behind the scenes
When it comes to features, the TH-37PV500 has much more going on behind the scenes than it does 'front of house'. Leading out a plethora of new 'background' technologies is the new Viera colour management system, which claims to deliver an astounding 8.6 billion colours. It does this by combining a claimed 2,084 shades of greyscale gradation with a new system that controls the brightness level of each individual pixel as well as its colour tone.
Panasonic's long-respected Real Black Drive for boosting black levels has also been tweaked with the addition of a new black filter. Plasma's traditional problems with showing motion are addressed by a new motion-sensing circuit that detects potential trouble spots and 'processes out' the noise before it can appear.
Panasonic also claims to have increased the brightness of its eighth generation plasma panels by 10 per cent and the introduced a new sub-pixel control system to reduce the appearance of jaggedness around curved edges.
The most interesting 'front of house' feature on the TH-37PV500 is its built-in Freeview terrestrial digital TV tuner. What's more, this is backed up by full support for Freeview's new seven-day Electronic Programme Guide and an MPEG noise reduction circuit for processing out the digital blocking artefacts that plague so many Freeview broadcasts.
The TH-37PV500's pictures are quite possibly the best and the most consistent we've seen on any plasma TV. Ever.
For starters,there's the TV's absolute best point,its contrast. At the higher end of the contrast spectrum,the screen delivers perfectly judged peak whites, without a trace of glimmer,overexaggeration or unnatural tone. But it's at the lower end where things really get spectacular,with the TH-37PV500 serving up stunningly profound black levels that betray not a hint of the grey wash or green/blue tone that disfigures dark picture areas on so many rival screens.
These immaculate black levels have a profound impact on the picture as a whole. For instance,they make the picture look exceptionally solid, thanks to the deep foundation they provide to the rest of the colour spectrum. Also,since the TH-37PV500's exceptional greyscaling subtlety ensures that even the darkest corners still have texture and detail rather than looking like black holes, the blacklevel response helps pictures look terrifically three-dimensional.
Then there are the colours. With no horrible low-contrast grey mist to get in their way, the TH-37PV500's colours are free to leap out with the sort of dynamism and vibrancy that precious few other manufacturers can even dream about.
The fact that the TH-37PV500 retains texture and detail amid its darkest corners also enhances the impact of the screen's fine detail response. We were slightly concerned that the lack of vertical pixels versus other HD Ready screens might be a problem, but the TH-37PV500's picture looks pin sharp - even with 1080i HD sources. If the unusual pixel structure causes any problems, it's in the very slight and irregular appearance of a sort of 'wire mesh'effect over certain monotone backdrops, but it's barely worth mentioning.
No colour banding
The last two picture strengths to cover are the screen's lack of picture noise and its consistency. The former means there's practically no sign of the traditional plasma problems of colour banding, dot-crawl, grey pixel fizzing in dark areas or tizzing over horizontal motion. The latter means that the TH-37PV500 looks pretty much equally assured with every source we tried it with, from standard digital TV tuner images to fully-fledged 1080i HD.
After all this it almost seems unfair to have to report that the TH-37PV500's sound is excellent, too. Its speakers seem far more powerful than most, but critically this power is delivered without accompanying cabinet rattles or speaker distortions. The result is serious volume spread across an open, wide soundstage, underpinned by plenty of fully-rounded bass and cutesy treble details, with an unusually wide midrange that completely avoids harshness or muddiness.
There really isn't anything seriously bad to say about the TH-37PV500. If this is typical of the sort of TV standards the hi-def age is going to produce, then the next few years for AV fans could prove very happy ones indeed. John Archer