Editors' note July 18, 2008: Due to changes in the competitive marketplace, including the publication of the Pioneer PDP-5020FD review, this review has been modified to lower its rating from 8.7 to 8.3.
Black-level performance is one of the most important aspects of picture quality. When a display can produce a deep shade of black, it not only improves the realism and the punch of dark scenes, it also makes colors look richer and more saturated. So why did we like Pioneer PDP-5080HD so much? This 50-inch plasma produces the darkest shade of black we've ever seen or measured from a non-CRT TV, whether plasma, LCD, or projection. It also offers a "smooth" video-processing mode that works relatively well, one of the best antireflective screens we've tested, and numerous picture controls. We do complain about its less-than-perfect color accuracy and its incomplete color temperature controls, but those issues don't prevent it from earning our highest praise. The only real kink in the works is its high price compared to that of other similar resolution plasmas on the market. If you can stomach the extra payout, the Pioneer PDP-5080HD delivers a jaw-dropping home theater picture.
Pioneer also makes a 42-inch version, the PDP-4280HD. We won't review this model, but we see no reason to think its performance won't be on a par with its larger brother's. Pioneer also announced step-up Elite versions of its 2007 plasmas. This year the company is marketing all of its plasmas under the mini-brand Kuro.
Overall, we like the sleek, no-nonsense looks of Pioneer's plasma. The company framed the PDP-5080HD's 50-inch screen in glossy black with a minimum of adornments aside from the Pioneer logo. There's a band of silver along the sides, top, and bottom of the panel, but from the front only black is visible. The set includes a matching stand, and it allows the speaker bar below the panel to be completely removed, in case you want to use an external audio system exclusively. With speaker and stand attached, the panel measures about 48.2 inches wide by 31.8 inches high by 9.3 inches deep and weighs 88 pounds. Remove the stand and speakers and the panel measures 48.2 by 28.2 by 4.5 inches and weighs 76.7 pounds.
The hefty remote control is admirably laid out, with a central cursor key ringed by different size buttons that we found easy to navigate by feel. Although the buttons aren't backlit, they do glow in the dark, but that's not much help when trying to differentiate between the grid of similarly sized keys at the top of the wand. That group includes buttons for aspect ratio selection and picture mode, along with direct access to each of the TV's inputs--a great addition. The clicker can command three other pieces of gear.
We also found Pioneer's menu system easy to use and appreciated the text explanations for the many items. You'll have to burrow pretty far down to get to some of the more esoteric items, but that's about the only downside. The set was definitely designed with picture tweakers in mind; we loved the novel Before and After modes that let us compare the effects of picture settings, as well as the fact that picture parameter sliders were minimized discreetly into the upper left of the screen while being adjusted.
Like most 50-inch plasma TVs, the Pioneer PDP-5080HD has a native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. That's not as many as competing--and usually more expensive--1080p models, but at the 50-inch screen size, the benefits of 1080p are dubious for most sources (more info). As always, all sources, be they HDTV, DVD, standard-def, or computer, are scaled to fit the native resolution.
We did like selection of picture-affecting features, although there were a couple of missing links. The sheer number of picture memory slots is worth big kudos; in addition to the standard User mode that's independent per input, there are four additional picture memories that apply to every input and can be adjusted independently--although one, called Optimum because it senses room lighting and adjusts the picture accordingly, lacks Advanced picture adjustment options.
Among those advanced options, there's a series of modes we left turned off for critical viewing, including an Enhancer that controls edge enhancement, DRE picture, black level, CTI, and ACL (aside from Color Transient Improvement, the manual doesn't specify what those acronyms signify). We did appreciate the three gamma choices, as well as the three color-temperature presets. Of course we'd prefer to have some way to fine-tune the color temperature in the user menu with this set, but that useful feature (found on sets from Vizio to Sony) is apparently too good for the non-Elite Pioneers. That's a shame, especially considering how much the non-Elite PDP-5080HD costs. A Pure Cinema menu allows you to choose from among four video processing modes, and we'll get into detail about their effects in the Performance section below.
Under the Power Control menu, you'll find two levels of Energy Saver that limit peak brightness to cut down on power consumption. We tested only the more potent Mode 2 (see the Juice Box below), but we did appreciate having the extra option. To help prevent "image retention" (aka burn-in) there's an "orbiter" that automatically shifts the entire onscreen image a little at a time. And if retention does occur, you can fire up the "video pattern" to wipe a white bar across the screen for an hour and turn the TV off automatically afterward.
Like many new sets, the Pioneer PDP-5080HD has a mode that's designed to respond to the bars to either side of 4:3 broadcasts and automatically adjust the image. You can set this mode to simply display gray side bars (gray beats black for preventing burn-in) or stretch the image horizontally to fill the screen. This auto mode worked surprisingly well for us, through it was a bit disconcerting to see the picture suddenly stretch during 4:3 commercials, then return after a moment to wide-screen when the HDTV program resumed--and some items, such as ESPNHD's logo-filled side bars, "fooled" the mode into not responding. We still prefer adjusting aspect ratio manually and appreciate the four modes available with high-def sources and five with standard-def.
Conveniences are relatively plentiful on the Pioneer, beginning with a feature that's increasingly rare on HDTVs at all levels: CableCard. If you really want to ditch your cable box, getting a 'Card from the cable company and installing it into the 5080HD's slot lets the TV receive digital cable and cable high-def channels directly. To help you get over the loss of the cable company's EPG, Pioneer includes the TV Guide version that grabs its program information from the cable company itself or from an over-the-air antenna. We tried it with just an antenna (we didn't test CableCard), and it successfully found our local programs without a hitch. The PDP-5080HD also includes a picture-in-picture function with a side-by-side option, a Game Mode designed for gamers who might be sensitive to any lag between fingers and onscreen action (we didn't test it), and the requisite freeze-frame mode. Like many new HDTVs, the 5080HD can also control certain compatible HDMI devices via just the HDMI interface and the TV's remote.
The PDP-5080HD packs more inputs than just about any HDTV we've reviewed to date. The back panel also offers a PC input (1,366x768 maximum resolution); a component-video input; an AV input with composite and S-Video; a pair of RF inputs for cable and/or antenna; an optical digital audio output; a subwoofer audio and analog audio output; and an RS-232 port for use by custom installers to interface with whole-house control systems. The side-panel is also well appointed, offering another AV input with component- or composite-video, a headphone jack, and a USB port that can take thumbdrives and display digital photos or play MP3 files via the TV.