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The good: Deep blacks; clean video processing with 2:3 pull-down; independent memory per input when using different picture modes.

The bad: Less than ideal color decoding; no PC input; lacks picture-in-picture; can’t change aspect ratio with HD sources.

The bottom line: The only bang-for-the-buck competition facing the Panasonic TH-42PX50U plasma comes from the same company’s industrial model.

Panasonic has proven itself to be the hardest-punching heavyweight among plasma-TV makers, and this year it fights its title bout against itself. In one corner there’s the industrial lineup, typified by the TH-PD7UY series and our favorite 42-inch model, the TH-42PHD7UY. In the other corner there’s the consumer lineup, represented in 2005 by the TH-PX50U series and the model under review here, the TH-42PX50U ($3,000 MSRP). In a nutshell, the industrial models are all picture, and the consumer models make you pay a few hundred extra bucks for features such as, say, speakers, a tuner, and all the inputs you need. After evaluating the TH-42PX50U, we still recommend the industrial models if you’re just looking for the best picture you can get for the least amount of money, but the bout does go down to the wire. The TH-42PX50U is a solid performer in just about every performance aspect, and while it lacks some of the features and the connections found on more expensive models such as the TH-42PX500U and Pioneer’s PDP-4350HD, it’s a great bargain if you want speakers to go with your picture.

The look of the Panasonic TH-42PX50U is reasonably attractive and unobtrusive. With the speakers mounted below the screen rather than on the left and right sides, this panel’s footprint is smaller than most. A black bezel surrounds the screen–something we’re happy to see a lot more of, since black around the screen adds to the perceived contrast ratio of the picture and aids in improving real-world performance. The legs and the speaker grille below the screen are finished in silver.

Measuring roughly 42 by 28 by 4 inches without the included 12.5-inch-deep stand, the Panasonic TH-42PX50U is ideal for wall mounting if you want to install it on an optional bracket. It weighs 76 pounds, however, so we recommend you consult a professional installer for help.

Panasonic’s remote is a little different from last year’s models. It’s fully backlit in glowing red, which makes it much easier to use in a darkened home-theater environment. Unfortunately, it lacks direct-access keys for input selection. We found the internal menu system well implemented and fairly intuitive to navigate.

The 42-inch-diagonal screen of the Panasonic TH-42PX50U offers a native resolution of 1,024×768, which qualifies it as a high-resolution model by comparison with EDTV models such as the TH-42PD50U. That means you’ll see more detail with high-def sources, although you still won’t see all the detail inherent in 1080i and 720p HDTV broadcasts (more info). The TH-42PX50U scales all incoming material, including 1080i and 720p HDTV, DVD, and standard-def, to fit the available pixels. Note that unlike 2004’s TH-42PX25U, this year’s model can accept 720p sources.

The TH-42PX50U lacks a few features found on the 2004 TH-42PX25U and the 2005 step-up 42-inch TH-42PX500U. It doesn’t have picture-in-picture, so you can’t watch two programs at once. It’s also missing a PC-style VGA input, which makes connecting a computer more difficult. We were also disappointed to find that although it offers four aspect-ratio choices with standard-def, this panel can’t change aspect at all with high-definition sources.

Otherwise, the TH-42PX50U answers just about every complaint we had with the features of the TH-42PX25U. This model includes 2:3 pull-down in the video processing to help combat motion artifacts in standard-def sources (more in Performance) and offers a working approximation of independent input memories. The three picture presets, Vivid, Standard, and Cinema, can each be customized for contrast, brightness, and the like. They remain associated with the last-used input, so you can customize three inputs independently. The set also has selectable color temperature settings: Warm, Normal, and Cool. We used the Warm color temperature, as it was closer than the rest to the broadcast-standard color temperature of 6,500K.

The TH-42PX50U includes a QAM tuner for cable, a built-in ATSC tuner for receiving off-air HDTV broadcasts, and an NTSC tuner for regular antenna reception. The ubiquitous Digital Cable Ready CableCard feature is included as well, although you won’t get the TV Guide EPG found on the TH-42PX500U (not a big loss, in our opinion, since TV Guide is fraught with problems).

The connectivity suite on the rear panel is adequate, though not overly generous. The set lacks front or side-panel A/V inputs for convenient camcorder or video game hookup. One HDMI input, two component-video inputs, and a single RF antenna/cable input handle high-def sources. For standard-def there are two A/V inputs with S-Video or composite video, and a set of A/V monitor outputs with composite video only. Many competing plasmas, such as Pioneer’s PDP-4350HD, offer a second HDMI input, and as we mentioned there’s no PC-style VGA port.

Overall we were impressed with the Panasonic TH-42PX50U’s image quality. Its strongest suit, as we’ve come to expect from all Panasonic plasmas over the last few years, was the ability to produce a deeper level of black than other brands of plasma. The opening scenes from our black-level torture-test DVD Alien revealed those deep, inky blacks; they looked quite clean, with only a hint of low-level noise and artifacts. We saw some minor false-contouring artifacts in very dim scenes, but they were not nearly as bad as on most other plasmas. Good black levels are extremely important for home-theater viewing in dim light because they lead to better color saturation and a picture with more impact.

In terms of color accuracy, the grayscale in the Warm setting came fairly close to the NTSC color-temperature standard. Unfortunately, Panasonic has yet again changed its access to the service menu of its plasmas; as a result, we were unable to correct the grayscale through calibration. Color decoding, while not perfect, was better than on most of the plasma panels we have tested, with the exception of Panasonic’s own industrial models, which are dead-on accurate; however, you should set the color-management feature to Off, as it negatively affects the color decoding. The set’s video processing is clean and incorporates the all-important 2:3 pull-down processing for film-based video from standard-definition cable, satellite, and antenna sources.

After setting up the plasma with user-menu controls, we watched a variety of scenes from the Superbit version of the Vertical Limit DVD and came away highly impressed with the image’s color saturation and detail. The crispness and snap (the perceived contrast ratio) of the TH-42PX50U was far superior to that of the Philips 42PF9630A we had on hand, which has the same resolution but inferior black levels and video processing.

HDTV from our DirecTV HD satellite feed looked equally superb. Again, there was plenty of detail, and the picture did not appear soft, the way it does on some EDTV panels. Dark material in HD also looked clean, with plenty of shadow detail and a minimum of low-level noise and artifacts. With the notable exception of the industrial TH-42PHD7UY, the TH-42PX50U offers the best home-theater image of any 42-inch plasma in its class.


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