You've heard the rhetoric before -- plasma for everything above 42 inches and LCD for everything below -- and so it takes a product such as this unusual NEC television for us to revisit our ways.
The NEC PXT-32XD3 is the smallest plasma we're ever likely to see in Australia, and it could be the bargain of the year given its feature set. Let's see what it's like ...
The 32XD3 is a wholly-black TV -- none of the tired, two-tone look for NEC. The whole unit is finished in black gloss -- including the colander-like grill. On the right hand edge of the TV are some cheap-looking silver buttons that perform the usual televisual functions (channel, volume etc). Unfortunately there's no front- or side-mounted AV connectors which could make it more difficult for connecting consoles or a camcorder.
The remote is an odd one. There are loads of button with mysterious titles such as PSM, SSM and ARC. Only with some experimentation did we work out that these control Picture, Sound and Aspect Ratio respectively. Here's a hint to the engineers: how about the more straightforward PIC or SND instead?
Of course, one of the best features of this TV is its price -- and with discounting you should be able to find it for around AU$900. No brand-name 32-inch LCD can get anywhere near this figure -- the cheapest we've seen is around AU$1200.
The NTSC origins of this television are telling when you look up its resolution: 852 x 480. While this is standard definition in other parts of the world, it isn't here. This means that every source you play through the TV will need to be scaled down, which could lead to some image problems if the scaler isn't up to the task.
The plasma also includes an HD tuner, which may seem unusual for a 480p television. However, this will come in handy for receiving the growing tide of HD-only programming -- especially with the number of major sporting events scheduled for broadcast in HD this year.
For a budget TV, the number of inputs is encouraging with two component connections, a VGA connector, S-Video, two AV and a 1080p HDMI input. That's right, the NEC will accept full-HD signals and downscale them to the native resolution of the TV.
Given the NEC's novelty of a high-def tuner, we plugged the antenna in immediately after pulling the TV out of the box and fired up some daytime telly. We found the channels had been pre-tuned (possibly by an NEC technician) and saturation was jacked up to the max, with both red and green too high. With some calibration, we found that black levels, and colours, became much more natural and even made Ten's gaudy Ready, Steady, Cook watchable. We did initially see some smearing, and some aliased and ringing edges, but after watching other formats found this was likely the program material. Switching to HD, the documentary series Twister Sisters looked impressive with good dynamic range, detail and colour.
One thing that was immediately apparent was that the sound is dreadful. Voices sound spindly and music is sapped of energy. Though the unit features stereo speakers, you'll only hear a stereo image if you sit dead between them. And we mean you'll need a ruler. Sit in any other position and you hear a strange phasing effect and the sound appears to shooting out the side of the monitor -- even though speakers are front mounted. Using the aforementioned "SSM" button brings up an unintentionally hilarious array of sound modes which simulate different environments. Neighbours in 'Cave' mode, anyone?
As you'd expect with a low resolution screen, there's some flyscreening effect but this is only visible from 1m or less. CRT's are usually much worse than this. The other problem is how it displays some images: fine colour gradations or where one colour blends into another -- areas of sky are an example -- tend to get ugly, cross-hatched noise in them. While this isn't visible from more than about a metre, it's a problem similar-sized LCDs don't have. This was evident on DVDs and Blu-ray material alike.
Apart from this sometimes-distracting effect, however, DVD and Blu-ray looked very good. For example, the opening shot of Kong's Last Stand (King Kong Chapter 48) was beautiful -- with the dark-yet-detailed King juxtaposed against the pink and orange morning sky. There were no "ringing" or buzzing artefacts as we've seen on other plasmas but the clouds did show some cross-hatching effects up close.
Switching to Mission Impossible 3, some of our judder tests showed that the TV coped well with not too much jerkiness. This is impressive for a budget TV without anti-judder support. Skin tones weren't as impressive, though, with some very obvious crosshatching visible from metres away on moving faces. Also, there wasn't as much detail as expected in facial close-ups -- but this is forgiveable for such a low-resolution TV. One side effect is that MI3 wasn't as grainy as when viewed on a full-HD TV such as our.
Connecting a computer showed that the VGA mode is not the 32XD3's strongest asset. Text was barely readable with marked distortion. The resolution was also autodetected and limited by Windows to 1024 x 768.
At AU$900 the NEC 32XD3 may have some issues, but when viewed in the context of its LCD competition, the picture quality is mostly strides beyond. If you're looking for a cheap TV then this unit represents a good buy.