When you turn off the lights to watch a movie, you expect its letterbox bars and its other black areas to look, well, black. Sadly, you'll be disappointed by the majority of plasma and other nontube TVs, including bleeding-edge DLP, LCD, and LCOS designs. Among those technologies, only a few plasmas can rival traditional tubes in delivering realistic blacks and shadows. A prime example is Panasonic's least expensive consumer 42-inch model, the TH-42PA20U. Sure, at $4,499, it costs far more than the model it replaces (the excellent ), but the payoff is a bigger input selection, picture-in-picture, and a built-in tuner. Those mainstream features may not justify the high price of admission to everyone, so Panasonic also offers a stripped-down version, the , for a good deal less. No matter which of the two you choose, you'll receive a nearly tube-quality picture in a slim, swanky package.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
Panasonic really revamped the PD3-P's exterior to design the PA20U. The earlier model's plain, black body has been replaced by a fashionable silver finish and a pair of speakers to either side of the glass. The thin, black screen border and the subtle logo look quite classy, but we actually prefer the minimalist, unobtrusive style of the old set.
At 3.9 inches deep, the PA20U will fit nicely on the wall in the optional bracket; aftermarket versions start at around $200. And for more-conventional installations, Panasonic includes a matching swivel stand.
The set comes with a seriously beefy remote that can command other components. It has a big, well-placed cursor control and illuminated buttons. We found it easy to use, but smaller-handed people will have to stretch.
If, like us, you prefer the speaker-free, black look, investigate this set'sversion, also known as the TH-42PW6. This "industrial" model removes its high-end incarnation's speakers and has its own cosmetics, a lower price, a skimpier input selection, and a different menu configuration. Image quality should be identical.
This is an EDTV with 852x480 resolution, which means that the set has enough pixels to display 1080i and 720p HDTV material but not its full detail. Like all plasmas, the PA20U scales computer, HDTV, VHS, cable, and all other incoming video to fit the available pixels. Panasonic also sells a higher-resolution version, the TH-42PX20U.
This plasma has all the bells and whistles you'd expect in a high-end set. You basically get the works: picture-in-picture with side-by-side display of two sources, a pair of standard NTSC tuners, zoom, closed captioning, and sleep timers. On the audio side, the 16 watts of onboard power won't rattle your windows but is convenient if you don't want to fire up your full system. Rounding out your sound options are a simulated-surround circuit and the ability to even out sudden volume increases.
You'll also find a decent array of ways to tweak performance, including 2:3 pull-down; four picture modes; three color-temperature presets; and four selectable aspect ratios, which fit non-wide-screen material to the display. In 4:3 mode, you can adjust the color of the letterbox bars from black to gray, and the Just mode keeps the image's center somewhat normal-looking while still filling the screen. Your aspect options lose the Just setting with 480p material and disappear completely with HD sources.
The jack pack, which is bottom-mounted for wall-mounting ease, brings to bear an impressive connectivity selection. An HDCP-equipped DVI hookup enables digital transmission from DVD players and HDTV receivers. The two A/V inputs have S-Video, as does their front-panel duplicate, which hides beneath a flip-down door. Rounding out the ins are two for wideband component video and one for RF cable and satellite signals. You also get a monitor A/V output.
The PA20U produces some of the best pictures we've ever seen on a plasma display. Unlike many sets of its kind, this Panasonic can produce a deep, inky black and render subtle shadow detail. The panel's exemplary performance on darker scenes was nearly equal to that of tube-based TVs.
At the Warm color temperature, the PA20U's precalibration grayscale measured 8,000K at the high end and 7,600K at the low end. After a struggle, we were able to wrestle the respective numbers to 6,700K and 6,550K, which are much closer to the 6,500K ideal. And the grayscale's consistency at different light levels resulted in smoother, more-accurate color in all material.
We fed the TV our standard gamut of test scenes, and our only complaint was with the color decoder's tendency to accentuate red and suppress green. But then we discovered the HD color matrix, which greatly improved accuracy to give us rich, well-saturated colors on a par with the best we've seen from a plasma. However, the HD matrix works with only the component-video input.
Since the panel's native resolution exactly matches that of DVD, we weren't surprised that DVD material had plenty of detail. The PA20U flawlessly detected 2:3 pull-down cadence in Star Trek: Insurrection, with rock-solid lines during camera pans. Between our DVD player's interlaced and progressive-scan modes, the latter produced an ever so slightly sharper picture.
To test the PA20U with a variety of material, we checked out some sequences from Digital Video Essentials on DVD. The second montage's opening shot, a time-lapse view of day passing into night and back again over a mountain range, immediately impressed us. Unlike with the Samsung, for example, the darkness of the evening shadows was rich and true, and we could make out the sagebrush in the twilight. In one scene from The Professional, we inspected Leon's overcoat. It came out black instead of deep gray, and there was a full range of darker colors among the folds of wool. Gradations between different light levels also looked clean, with only minor banding and false contours.
Despite its relatively low resolution, the PA20U also did a remarkably good job with HDTV. We watched some baseball highlights from the past year on ESPN HD, and colors were a bit richer than with DVD, although the grass wasn't resolved quite as sharply as we would have liked. Again, darker parts of the picture looked terrific.