The NEC PlasmaSync 42XR4 is the company's best plasma screen to date, improving on picture quality in all departments over its predecessors. It lacks Scart sockets or any sort of built-in tuner but is a strong contender as a dedicated movie or sporting screen
If you catch us referring to NEC's PlasmaSync 42XR4 as a 'TV' anywhere in this review, feel free to give us a rap on the knuckles -- the 42XR4 carries neither Scart sockets nor, more tellingly, any sort of built-in tuner -- analogue or digital. This lack of a tuner makes it a screen only rather than a TV, and so it's arguably of much greater use to someone looking for a dedicated movie/sporting event screen in a second room, rather than someone wanting a straight swap for an existing main TV.
With no Scarts, even getting a Sky receiver to work effectively with the screen, will require you to invest in a separate, powered RGB Scart-to-component video adaptor. Just as well, then, that this £2,450 screen's apparent disregard for standard definition is accompanied by plenty of interest in all things high def.
NEC's tendency to focus on the plasma screen rather than TV market has generally meant that the company hasn't put much effort into making its plasmas look very living-room friendly. But here NEC has at least tried to up the style ante by combining a svelte but robust black screen surround with a stylish reflective strip along the lower side. The result is no Heidi Klum, but nor has it been within a mile of the ugly stick.
As we've said, dominating the NEC's connections are two things that actually aren't there -- an aerial connection and a Scart. But you do get two HDMI inputs and two component video inputs for analogue and digital high-definition connection respectively, together with a VGA PC port. The two HDMI jacks can also be configured to take PC feeds if you fancy some digital computer action. We should also point out that although there's no way of getting a tuner built into the 42XR4, you can at least buy an external one from NEC for an extra £180. On the subject of 'additional extras', you should note that in its basic £2,450 configuration the 42XR4 only comprises the screen. If you want to add NEC's own speakers and basic desktop stand you're looking at a total cost nearer £3,250 -- and that's before possibly adding a tuner module.
Neither the 42XR4's onscreen menus nor remote control are much like those you'd expect to find on a normal, home-targeted plasma TV. The onscreen menus are rather bland, overlong and prone to jargon, while the remote control is unusually sparsely populated with buttons. This lack of direct function buttons means you'll end up spending more time with those unhelpful menus than you'd ideally like.
The 42XR4's features come in two flavours -- those you can mess about with yourself, and those you can't. Particularly important among those you can are a selection of picture presets that helpfully includes two Theatre options, suggesting that despite its lack of TV functionality, the 42XR4 has at least some interest in making films look good. We also got some mileage out of a video noise reduction routine, and gamma adjustment options that prove pretty helpful when it comes to getting the right combination between blackness and shadow details in dark parts of the picture.
People prone to arguing with other family members about what to watch will be pleased to hear that the 42XR4 has a picture in picture system capable of showing two high-definition sources simultaneously. And if you're feeling brave and have a spare half an hour you might also get some joy out of an expansive colour fine tuning system.
And behind the scenes -- the 42XR4 treats us to a bonded colour filter design for the screen glass that reduces plasma's potential for seeing 'ghost' secondary images when viewing off axis. Crystal Clear Driving, meanwhile, reduces false contouring and increase brightness, while a proprietary Capsulated Colour Filter technology improves the screen's white balance and make colours generally more vivid.
Advanced Intra Field Noise is on hand to fight plasma's traditional problems with noise between frames of motion, and a 'fluid orbiter' does a good job of protecting against screenburn by moving the image around in the screen frame so subtly and smoothly that you it doesn't disrupt your viewing.
In the specifications, compatibility with the 720p and 1080i HD formats combines with a native resolution of 1024x768 pixels to earn the 42XR4 the AV industry's HD Ready badge of honour. If, incidentally, you're puzzled by how a widescreen TV like this NEC can boast an apparently square, 4:3-ratio 1024x768 native pixel count, it's because the set's pixels are stretched horizontally to fill the widescreen shape -- a process that's reckoned to make it easier for plasma screens to deliver more natural colour balances.
The 42XR4's video pictures are much better than we'd expected from something not designed to be a fully functioning TV. In fact, they're also better than we'd expect given our experience of most previous NEC plasmas.
Especially impressive is the lack of most types of noise in the picture. For instance, objects move across the screen without suffering plasma's common fizzing dot noise, edges look crisp without shimmering, and colour blends look smooth and believable rather than striped and blocky as they still can on some plasmas. The screen also does a surprisingly clean job of upscaling standard-definition sources to fit its high-definition resolution.
The 42XR4's colour tone is more natural, and the black levels are deeper and richer than anything NEC has managed before. Fine detail levels, meanwhile, are exemplary by any standards.
However, while colours look natural they also lack vibrancy compared with our favourite plasmas. Black levels, too, while groundbreaking for NEC and deep enough to ensure that most viewing is never less than enjoyable, are still bettered by some recent rivals. This impression isn't helped by the fact that one plasma noise type the NEC doesn't handle well is green dot crawl over dark areas.
If you invest in NEC's own speakers for this screen, you'll be rewarded with a generally high performance standard, with plenty of bass, an open mid-range and natural, clear trebles. Whether even this performance justifies the high cost of these additional speakers is another matter.
The cost of the 42XR4 is an important factor in our tests. While as a sub-£2k screen it might have tickled our fancy, at £2,450 minimum it struggles to be truly competitive in today's cut-throat marketplace.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield