Let's admit it: this 61-inch plasma screen will remain the guilty pleasure of the dedicated hardcore cinema fan or those with a massive disposable income. Still, it's remarkably cool, and even if you don't intend to spend such a huge amount of money on a television, it's always interesting to know what's out there. You can also take comfort from the fact that only a year ago, a much lower quality plasma screen from NEC would have cost you over £10,000, so the rate of depreciation favours the consumer.
The 61XR3's main strength is its picture quality, which surpasses anything we've seen on the plasma market. Ironically, it's better with standard DVD sources than it is with high definition. We've never seen such enjoyable results from DVD on a plasma -- it miraculously handles low-resolution sources on its massive screen while keeping the detail intact. HD content is still impressive, but perhaps not quite as good as it should be, showing noise where it should be as clean. While this won't worry the majority of people for the time being, we can't help but be slightly disappointed, particularly with the set's HD bias. If you're desperate for a big screen, there may be more economical ways to do it -- namely projection technology -- but for everyday television on a massive scale, the NEC 61XR3 has no equal.
The design of the 61XR3 is stunning -- the frame around the screen is thin and minimalist, focusing attention squarely on the massive screen itself. The NEC logo features at the bottom, but it doesn't have the mass of logos that adorn most other screens. There are some picture processing features but they're not used to sell the screen. Admirably, NEC's USP is that this is a pure performance television -- you don't even get any speakers -- so there are none of those pointless Virtual Dolby modes to shout about.
If you do decide to plump for the optional speakers, they sit on either side of the screen, matching the height of the main unit exactly. While it's unlikely that someone spending £8,000 on a plasma wouldn't have a surround speaker system, we tested the standard NEC ones to give a fair appraisal of the whole package. They retail for around £500 though: nothing short of a rip-off.
Slightly spoiling the design is the fact that all of the connections are located on the side of the display. It's a strange but understandable design choice that stems from NEC tailoring each television to worldwide territories, changing connection boards accordingly. You're likely to have a lot of wires poking out and becoming a bit of an eyesore. However, the television's greatest fault is the omission of an RGB Scart input -- the connections favour high definition. While the allocation of two sets of component inputs and a HDCP-compatible DVI input is excellent, it's slightly premature. Even at the high end, people still use devices with a Scart connector (such as Sky, FreeView, VCR or games console) and will have to make an image quality sacrifice by stepping down to S-video or composite connections.
Other aspects of the design echo NEC's original plasma origins as a business supplier. The remote control is one of the most basic we've ever seen, although each input has its own designated button to make navigation faster. Rather confusingly you have to select whether your input is a standard interlaced signal or a progressive feed, as opposed to the television working it out for itself. The menu system is also very basic, and while you can mess around with quite a few picture and audio settings, you won't discover new options to tinker with weeks or even days down the line.
The features list on the 61XR3 is small. This is a pure performance television with very little in the way of bells and whistles. The menu system is very easy to navigate because there isn't much to adapt and change. This is not to say that it's missing anything important, but is more to do with its having been stripped of all unnecessary options.
For example, you can change all of the usual aspects of the picture including brightness and contrast, in addition to adjusting the colour temperature and adding noise reduction. You can tweak this to your heart's content and then set up to six different presets -- one for films and one for TV, for example. There are also a few pre-programmed settings that you can choose between, although these are limited to the unimpressive Theatre and Bright, with Normal and Default if you like to keep things simple. We have to admit that, out of the box, the picture quality was superb anyway.
Colour fidelity is something that NEC is understandably proud of, with some of the company's best advances made in this area. The Capsulated Colour filter delivers much more natural colour by improving the contrast. Plasma pictures often have a washed-out quality but that doesn't happen here. This particular feature gives greens and reds a vivid yet natural quality. Gamma-12, meanwhile, presents smoother images and reduces distortion, which is useful when you're using a progressive scan feed. However, the picture technology is less effective when it comes to handling high-definition pictures. There was an intrusive, grainy quality to our test material that strangely wasn't as big a problem on standard material. As a rule of thumb, you might want to ensure that Noise Reduction is implemented, as it lessens the impact.
Whilst the connections are geared heavily towards high definition, ironically picture quality is comparatively better from standard definition sources. We were amazed by the clarity it offered from our Star Wars Episode II test disc -- no wonder Pioneer has started using NEC panels for its flagship plasma products. The 61XR3's ability to hide the MPEG artefacting, something which would normally be expected as a weakness from a display this big, is a revelation. Motion is smooth with only a tiny amount of blockiness (something which is perhaps inevitable due to the fact that you're forced to use a component feed). Stay at least 8m away from the screen, and not only will the screen still fill up much of your peripheral vision, but there's a definite cinematic quality to the pictures, something we never thought we'd find ourselves saying about a plasma TV.
The aural experience is perhaps not as important because the speakers are not included as standard. They provided a good amount of detail, but didn't go very loud. Spend your money on a home-cinema system instead.
Edited by Mary Lojkine