Like a reliable striker, a good HD-ready plasma TV to build your team of home cinema components around doesn't come cheap. So it's a nice bonus that the latest such model from Panasonic, the TH-42PV500, also looks every bit the luxury living room accessory.
Equipped with a black frame around its 42in screen and a shiny silver finish, the TV itself is gorgeous, and the curvy floor-stand is the designer's final flourish, making this a bit of a masterpiece. But while Panasonic's Viera range of flat TVs is known for its style, it's what's under the bonnet here that really counts.
There are certainly enough connections around the back to impress us, including an HDTV-capable HDMI input, three Scarts (two of them RGB, for best quality from a current Sky box), component video inputs and a jack for hooking up a PC. There's also an SD card slot hidden away back there, which means you'll be able to record footie in the MPEG4 format, as well as showing picture files from a digital camera or recording still images from the screen.
The addition of a digital Freeview tuner adds to the Panny's versatility, and it's a virtue that's boosted further by the appearance of a slot that gives the option of upgrading to Pay TV services on the Freeview platform.
As with the Hitachi, Pioneer and Fujitsu in this group test, the Panasonic's digital input is, crucially, backed up by the required screen resolution to allow all flavours of high-definition footage to be correctly displayed in all their glory.
Talking of glory, it is Panasonic's picture processing talent that is the real backbone of its team of plasmas. Here, the built-in 'engine' includes motion sensors that help to smooth over any picture noise problems with speedy wingers or quick camera pans during a game, an MPEG noise reduction feature and the Viera colour management and 3D colour management systems - which speak for themselves.
In the black
How a screen performs with black levels usually serves to separate the mid-table from the top three, and here the Panasonic proves its championship credentials, producing some of the deepest and most detailed blacks we've come across. Colours, meanwhile, were vibrant and well saturated during a run-through of our test football footage, with any colour banding banished to the lower leagues.
The Panny also manages to keep a clean sheet, with virtually no picture noise on show. Jagged edges were non-existent, and fast play on the pitch looked very smooth. Finally, close-up shots, both of stationary players and of a game in full-flow, revealed immense levels of detail.
Happily, the majority of the TH-42PV500's talents extend to both its Freeview pictures and high-def footage. The only criticism we have is that we did notice a slight lack of detail in dark areas of HD images - but this was only occasional, and certainly not enough of a problem to outweigh the screen's myriad strengths.
The ever-fascinating musings of our footie footage's various commentators proved easy pickings for the Panasonic's audio arsenal. What's more, it was just as capable of resolving crowd noise, as well as presenting music and movie soundtracks without distortion.
This sparkling 42in set is a great example of the very latest that plasma can offer.