Pioneer sent home cinema fans into raptures with last year's plasma televisions. These 43- inch and 50-inch screens were HDTV-ready, gorgeously styled and capable of creating an excellent image with traditional analogue sources like DVD players and games consoles, but it wasn't so much these aspects that appealed to the hardcore: they were more interested in the fact that these TVs were the first to come with an HDMI connection.
Coupled with a compatible DVD player, this connection is like an all digital Scart socket, with one cable carrying both video and audio information from the player to the screen. Because it is digital, there's no need to go through the usual process of converting the digital video data on the DVD to analogue, only for it to be converted back to digital data once it has been transferred to the screen. The upshot of this lack of conversion is a clearer, sharper picture with less video noise and digital artefacting; it's little wonder that film enthusiasts were so excited.
The new breed
So, as Pioneer unveils its new plasma models, has the company made any drastic changes? Well, as far as the 50-inch PDP-50XDE goes, not really: the screen gives a clear sense of having been steadily improved and tweaked rather than needlessly overhauled. On the outside, the silver and black styling might be a mite sleeker than that of the old model, but there's no great departure from what was already a very neat and tidy design; the option to mount the speakers either underneath or either side of the screen remains, for example.
The separate multimedia box looks slightly different from the previous one, but sports much the same set of connections, including that all-important HDMI socket. There's an optical digital audio output for connection to an amp, and a full complement of analogue inputs is also on offer, including three Scarts and one component video, so there is plenty of scope for hooking up all your AV items.
One notable improvement is the addition of a digital TV tuner. This means you get the benefits of Freeview without having to plug in an extra receiver box. Pioneer has also included a common interface card slot at the back of the multimedia box, enabling you to supplement the basic Freeview service with the Top Up TV subscription package.
Pioneer's 'Home Gallery' slideshow feature has been retained, with a memory card slot on the front of the multimedia box allowing you to view high resolution digital photos on the screen.
When it comes to the most important aspect of the television - picture quality - Pioneer's philosophy of evolution rather than revolution pervades yet again. The 1,280 x 768 resolution remains, but the designers have replaced the glass screen filter with one that is made from a less reflective film-like substance. This is the first plasma to feature such a filter, and the effect is a small but noticeable improvement in contrast, particularly in a well lit room.
A raft of minor image enhancement and adjustment features ensures that the picture quality remains high at all times, even when the screen is dealing with less than ideal sources such as Freeview. Digital TV is plagued with mosquito noise around most objects, and the screen does a good job of toning this down while maintaining detail. The one area where we feel the Pioneer is lacking is with its very dark tones. Dark areas have a tendency to become gloomy and undefined here, and screens like Philips' new range do a better job with this kind of scene.
With that said, as a home cinema screen you can't get much better than this when it's teamed up with an HDMI-outputting DVD player. Hooked up to the DV-868AVi, and benefiting from both the player's digital upscaling and its own Pure Cinema processing, the PDP-50XDE concocts an image of truly stunning clarity and crispness.
Colour reproduction is also first class: bright tones look vibrant, and the colour-banding effect that afflicts most screens of this type is replaced by even, steady transitions from light to dark. The screen also handles fast movement smoothly, without the side effects you often notice on other plasma panels.
Sound quality is also very impressive, thanks in part to the SRS technologies that Pioneer has licensed. They help to provide a nicely spaced soundfield, even if the speakers are placed underneath the screen.
All things considered, we have no problems in recommending the PDP-50XDE as one of the very best home cinema plasmas out there. It might not be a drastic departure from the previous model - but then again, it didn't really need to be, did it?