The arrival of any new generation of Pioneer plasma TV is a cause for excitement. After all, as well as being premium performers, their plasmas are traditionally loaded with all the latest high-tech features. And happily it looks like the first of the new sixth-generation TVs, the 43in, PDP-436XDE, continues that trend. With knobs on.
Despite an astoundingly long features list, the 436XDE is a surprisingly svelte, lightweight TV. And it's gorgeous, too, thanks to the simple opulent elegance of the gloss-black screen frame and unusually slender but well-built detachable speakers.
The only catch for some may be this model's use of an external AV receiver box. But this box is attractively designed in a high-tech kind of way, and means you only have to suffer a single AV cable going into the screen - very handy for wall-mounters.
The receiver box is very well connected, too. Highlights include not one but two HDMI inputs, a trio of Scarts, component video inputs, a CAM slot for adding to the TV's built-in digital tuner, an optical digital audio output, a subwoofer line out, a multimedia card slot and a 15-pin D-Sub PC jack.
A sixth-generation construction innovation is the 436XDE's plasma chambers, built using a new 'Deep Waffle Rib' structure. This design apparently reduces the potential for leakage of light and colour into adjacent cells.
Also new is a 'Crystal Emissive Layer' developed for the front of each plasma chamber. Pioneer claims this improves discharge stability, makes discharge response more efficient, and increases UV radiation - resulting in deeper black levels, higher brightness levels, and more energy-efficient operation.
Intriguingly, the 436XDE's native pixel resolution is 1024 x 768, a 4:3 ratio, even though the TV is clearly widescreen in shape. This follows Panasonic's practice with its 42PV500 of an asymmetrical pixel structure, using elongated pixel chambers that permit the accurate reproduction of a widescreen image from a 4:3 resolution.
The next 'layer' of improvements for the 436XDE mostly comprises image processing systems included under Pioneer's PureDrive II umbrella name.
The key areas of advancement are: enhanced noise reduction,with less artefacting and MPEG NR that doesn't reduce sharpness; a boosted tuner thanks to improved handling of tuner noise; a multi-step 3D Y/C PAL filter for boosting sharpness and clarity; exceptionally sophisticated colour management; enhanced digital colour transient improvement for clearer colour contours; and a wide variety of contrast-boosting measures including Dynamic Range correction, an automatic contrast limiter, and black level expansion.
One final sixth-gen improvement worth a mention is a new 'I-Clear Drive' system, which processes incoming signals more accurately to deliver subtler colour gradations and, as a result, a supposedly more three-dimensional picture.
Other more general features of interest include the option to run pictures in 75 or 100Hz; a Pure Cinema setting for enhanced NTSC playback; 1080p compatibility; support for the Freeview seven-day EPG; and onboard facilities for professional Image Science Foundation picture calibration.
It's also worth noting the software associated with the digital photocard slot is very sophisticated, even using scaling so that you can magnify parts of pictures without losing anywhere near as much image resolution as usual.
We seldom use the word perfect during our reviews - but there's no denying the 436XDE's pictures get seriously close. Their stand-out achievement is the black level response.
Perceived by us as a slight weakness of Pioneer's previous plasma screens, the black levels here are fantastic, plummeting convincing levels of black rather than bottoming out into grey, and containing terrific amounts of greyscale, gradation subtlety, and three-dimensional depth.
Pioneer's penchant for extremely natural but richly saturated colours continues with the 436XDE, only they're given added radiance by the new black level profundity, and improved brightness output.
There's no trace of those old-school plasma problems with fizzing noise/smearing over movement; grey/green pixel noise in dark areas; or colour banding.
Also strikingly absent are grain, dot crawl, contour 'shimmering', colour moiring - pretty much any sort of noise, in fact. Even the common plasma phenomenon of 'ghosting' during off-axis viewing is done away with by the 436XDE's Direct Colour Filter screen design (which reduces the layers in the screen glass).
Critically, the TV's exceptional freedom from noise is achieved without detriment to the picture's sharpness and fine detail. Indeed, HD footage looks arguably more textured and clear on the 436XDE than on any other plasma TV.
It's not just HD footage that looks great, though. Pioneer has worked hard on its analogue and digital tuners, with both looking in a different league to anything Pioneer's produced before. In fact, if there's another plasma TV that does a better job with such relatively low-rent sources, we haven't seen it.
The 436XDE's pictures are nearly flawless. The only negative point is that motion can look a bit stilted if you don't take care with the TV's many different progressive/scanning options. But is just a matter of setup, not an inherent, unfixable problem.
Depressingly for the competition, the 436XDE is also a hugely talented audio performer. The finesse in the soundstage is outstanding, delivering audio subtleties with favourite DVDs. Meanwhile loud volumes cause no distortion or cabinet rattle, vocals sound rich and crystal clear, trebles never sound harsh, and bass levels reach extravagant (but always well integrated and controlled) depths.
From the very first seconds of our test,watching the 436XDE was a complete, unadulterated pleasure. Colours, contrast, clarity and sharpness are all light years ahead of Pioneer's previous generation. The 436XDE has leapt right to the very top of the current plasma pile. Simply awesome.