Hitachi's latest 42-inch plasma, the 42HDT50, has a high resolution of 1,024x1,024 pixels and a boatload of features, including an outboard A/V control center. Unfortunately, at a time when good 42-inch models are available for as little as $3,000, Hitachi is asking for $6,000. Budget-conscious buyers will steer clear, but those with deep pockets will get a beautifully designed panel that delivers on performance and convenience.
The simple yet elegant HDT50 is really eye-catching. It sits on a silver stand that swivels left and right--quite handy if you have multiple seating locations. The screen's frame is glossy black on all sides except the bottom, which is silver. The only connections on the panel itself are the AC power cord and the subwoofer output. All the A/V hookups are conveniently housed in a separate, VCR-size controller, which attaches to the main unit via a single cable. You can hang the pair of matching speakers to the sides of the display.
The silver remote is rather large, but it's logically arranged, and using the clickable thumb joystick was a cinch. Almost every key is backlit, and we really appreciated having direct access to all inputs. You can program the remote to control other gear. Navigation proved simple in the set's logical and easy-to-understand text-based menu system.
The HDT50's coolest feature is Hitachi's Day and Night picture modes, which replace traditional modes such as Sports and Movie. Instead, each input can store one set of parameters for the day and another for the night. For instance, you can increase contrast and brightness to successfully compete with ambient daylight. This system takes independent input memory to a new level, and we applaud Hitachi for its innovation.
Other conveniences include a split-screen mode that works with HDTV sources; a dual-tuner PIP/POP mode; six aspect ratios, including HD Zoom; and four color-temperature presets, among them Black & White. On the audio side, the HDT50 sports MTS/SAP with Dbx, TruBass by SRS, and 20 watts of amplification for the external speakers.
All A/V sources connect directly with the external controller, which has an ample number of inputs: one for DVI transmission with HDCP copy protection, two sets for component video, three for A/V with both composite and S-Video, two for RF, and one for 15-pin VGA computer hookup. The video inputs have their own stereo-audio ins, as well. The controller sends all information to the panel via a 10-foot cable that terminates in a DVI connector and a proprietary audio plug.
Overall, we were happy with the HDT50's performance. Its color decoder accentuates reds too much at the factory default settings, but you can fix the problem in the user menu if you know what you're doing, and the end result is extraordinary color saturation. Blacks weren't quite black, and we saw some noise and artifacts in darker scenes. But black reproduction is plasma technology's biggest challenge in terms of picture quality, and the HDT50 managed it better than many 42-inch sets we've seen. And its video processing is quite good; 3:2 pull-down was evident in the opening sequence of Star Trek: Insurrection.
At the Standard color-temperature setting, the precalibration grayscale measured impressively close to the 6,500K ideal: 6,450K at a light intensity of 20IRE, and 6,000K at 80IRE. After calibration, the numbers changed to 6,800K at the bottom of the scale and 6,450K at the top.
We watched 720p DVD material on the calibrated set using the V Bravo D1 scalable deck as a source. Except for very dark material, the results were excellent. Take, for example, chapter 6 of Charlotte Gray. At the beginning, which is quite dark, we saw some low-level video noise, and false-contouring artifacts showed up as gradations and pools of deeper colors. In the following brighter scenes, though, these problems weren't nearly as annoying.
We calibrated the set separately for HD sources using the 720p D-VHS version of Digital Video Essentials. The NASA shuttle launch and the restaurant sequence looked splendid after we'd tweaked the panel for 720p.
The HDT50 compares favorably with Sony's KE-42TS2, which has the same list price and is available for $4,999 on the Web. Hitachi, unlike Sony, provides an adjustable color decoder, and the HDT50 outperforms the TS2 in the key area of color saturation.