Pioneer is like a reclusive novelist: not a squeak for ages and then suddenly a gem appears. We proclaimed its last effort, the PDP-434HDE, as a king among plasmas, so it's fair to say that we took delivery of the brand's latest 50in model, the PDP-504HDE, with more than a tingle of anticipation.
And this tingle only grew once we clapped eyes on the thing. It is absolutely, stunningly, outrageously gorgeous - a vision in glossy black and metallic silver.
Connections come courtesy of a separate multimedia box - and there are bags of them. The biggest highlight is undoubtedly the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI), making the PDP-504HDE one of the very few screens to carry this up-to-the-minute, utterly pristine digital video and audio input. As well, as providing top-notch images from a compatible DVD player, this connection means that the Pioneer should be able to display Sky's high-definition service when it begins broadcasting in 2006. There are also Scarts and progressive scancapable component video inputs, plus a multi-format PC card slot so you can use the screen to view your digital camera pictures.
The PDP-504HDE's healthy stock of features includes MPEG noise reduction for reducing digital blocking artefacts, a contrast booster and various picture-inpicture modes. Pioneer's quoted specs of 1,000cd/m2 brightness and 1,100:1 contrast also bode very well.
At first, however, these specs don't seem to translate into particularly awesome pictures. The brightness levels are okay, but the black level response doesn't appear especially inspired. Thankfully, though, after a bit of judicious tweaking, we turned these so-so first impressions into very, very good ones...
The most startling strength of the PDP-504HDE's pictures is their utter cleanliness. No other screen we've seen dispenses so well with the traditional plasma problems of dotty noise in dark areas, colour banding and trailing dots over motion. This works very well with the dark tones of Donnie Darko's action sequences - such as when the aircraft engine crashes through Donnie's ceiling, crushing his bed and destroying the house.
During daytime scenes from our test disc the Pioneer's colour tone is excellent, giving terrific vibrancy to bright, colourful scenes around Donnie's school prior to him scrawling 'they made me do it' on the forecourt after the flood. And as Donnie sits in the hills staring at the time hole, the detail on show is amazing.
What's more, the longer you watch the PDP-504HDE, the less of an issue the black level response starts to become. This is because the screen makes up for at least some of its contrast shortage with its amazing talent for eking out subtle colour gradations, no matter how dark their hue.
The HDMI input warrants a mention too, since its all-digital signals really do help the picture look even sharper, with richer colours and more accurate edges.
Pioneer is best known as an audio company, so it's only fitting that the PDP-504HDE is no slacker sonically. It's not as assured as the Hitachi (see p29) perhaps, but still very fine thanks to a rich, rounded tone, decent amounts of bass and plenty of breathing room for action scenes.
Although we'd have liked a touch more black level and a slightly smaller price, the PDP-504HDE is unquestionably one of the finest, most attractive and most technically assured super-sized plasmas known to man. There's a new king in town.