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Pioneer PDP-80HD review: Pioneer PDP-80HD

Pioneer PDP-80HD

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David Katzmaier
David_Katzmaier.jpg

David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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12 min read

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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.

8.3

Pioneer PDP-80HD

The Good

This 50-inch plasma TV displays an exceedingly deep shade of black with excellent shadow detail; clean image with little noise; "smooth" video-processing mode removes most judder; excellent antireflective screen; sleek, minimalist styling; removable speaker; superb connectivity with four HDMI inputs and one PC input; CableCard compatible with TV Guide EPG.

The Bad

Expensive; inaccurate primary color of green; no user-menu fine color temperature controls.

The Bottom Line

The Pioneer PDP-5080HD produces the deepest shade of black--and thus one of the best pictures--we've ever tested.

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.

Design
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.

Features
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.

Pioneer PDP-5080HD
The Pioneer PDP-5080HD's main picture menu.

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.

Pioneer PDP-5080HD
In addition to the four HDMI inputs, PC input, and CableCard slot (not shown), the Pioneer's back panel includes a smattering of analog video inputs.

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.

Pioneer PDP-5080HD
The side panel includes a component-video input.

Performance
Simply put, the picture quality of the Pioneer PDP-5080HD is among the best we've ever tested. That's due mainly to the set's ability to produce a very deep level of black, which impacts many other areas of performance. We would have liked more control over color temperature, and we'd certainly like to see more accurate primary colors, but overall, those complaints aren't enough to spoil an excellent performance.

As always, we began our evaluation by adjusting the TV's picture to optimum levels for our completely dark theater. We attenuated light output to about 40 footlambert (ftl), which was just a bit lower than the set's level in Movie mode (a good sign). We appreciated that the Warm color temperature preset came relatively close to the standard of 6,500K, although it appeared a bit minus-green and plus-red overall. As we mentioned above, we really missed the ability to fine-tune the grayscale, and since the set lacked this ability in the user menu, we did not perform an "after" calibration (see the Geek box below). Of course, we're sure a professional can get the 5080HD a bit closer by accessing the service menu. For our complete user-menu adjustments for a darkened room, click here.

After setup, we sat down to compare the Pioneer PDP-5080HD side by side against some competing HDTVs we had on hand, including the Samsung HP-T5064 and the Panasonic TH-50PHD9UK--both equal-resolution, albeit significantly less-expensive 50-inch plasmas--along with the Pioneer PRO-FHD1, a 1080p 50-inch plasma from 2006 that currently costs around the same as the 5080HD. We also threw a 52-inch Toshiba 52LX177 1080p LCD into the mix for good measure. We chose to watch 300 on HD DVD, delivered by the Toshiba HD-XA2 at 1080i resolution.

Throughout the film's dark introduction, from the hill of skulls, to the boy's hunt of the black wolf, to the inspirational speech around the fire, it was quite obvious that the Pioneer produced the deepest shade of black in the room. The letterbox bars, the depths of the wolf's fur, and the shadows on the outskirts of the soldiers were inky and rich--as satisfying a representation of true "black" as we've seen on any non-CRT HDTV we've ever tested. The set's picture seemed to blend almost completely into the black walls of our theater. Our measurements backed up the evidence of our eyes; using the standard checkerboard contrast-ratio pattern, after calibration the PDP-5080HD delivered the deepest black we've ever measured (0.01ftl), and thus the highest contrast ratio (3,075:1).

Even with this deep black level, the Pioneer preserved all of the detail in the shadows, outlining the muscles of the fire-lit Spartans, for example, without losing any definition. We could have achieved an even deeper black by lowering the brightness further, but as usual, that crushed some detail in shadows. Dark scenes were also clear of discernible low-level noise caused by the display (called "dithering"; we're not talking about noise in the source, which was readily apparent on 300) from distances more than six feet from the screen, although the FHD1 looked cleaner in this regard. In short, the Pioneer PDP-5080HD does difficult dark scenes exceptionally well.

Moving on to color, the PDP-5080HD was once again helped by its deep blacks in delivering very impressive saturation. When the king approaches the assembled 300 in the field, the red of his cloak, the sunlit skin of the warriors, and the gold of the wheat looked powerful yet realistic. The delicate balance of the queen's face did have a bit too much flush, however, a result of imperfect color temperature. We also noticed the red of the cloaks appeared somewhat redder, and thus less realistic, than on the Samsung or the Pro-FHD1, due to the 5080HD's just-average primary color of red. The Pioneer's green is also quite yellowish--a common issue with plasmas--and while 300 lacks the give-away greens that illustrate this issue, we did notice a subtle yellow in other green-dominated scenes, such as the jungle during an episode of Sunrise Earth on DiscoveryHD.

In terms of video processing, the Pioneer did a fine job of deinterlacing 1080i content, passing the HQV test with in every Film Mode except Off (see the Geek box below). We recommend choosing Standard or Smooth for 1080i sources (Advanced is for 1080p/24 sources), depending on your preference. Smooth removes some of the slight full-frame choppiness or "judder" that can be seen in pans and other camera movement especially, which characterizes film-based material displayed on most HDTVs. We still saw some choppiness in HQV's very slow pan over Raymond James stadium with Smooth mode engaged, but it did smooth out faster pans quite noticeably. For example, during one of the Persian harem scenes, the camera moving over the bodies of the women and the grotesque hunchback stayed smoother than on the other displays--with the exception of the Toshiba, which, if anything, looked smoother still during motion. (Update 08-22-07) We also noticed that Smooth introduced some artifacts in certain scenes -- specifically, in a pan that follows a plane taking off during Flags of our Fathers, the tailfin became almost detached-looking and quite unnatural in Smooth mode, but was fine in Standard. We ended up liking Standard best, mainly because we're used to the film-based judder and found the smoothness a bit disconcerting. Having the option is definitely a great thing, however.

Advanced mode, for its part, was just as disappointing, as we found with the PRO-FHD1 at delivering the promised smoother picture. To test it, we switched to our Samsung BD-P1200 Blu-ray player (the Toshiba HD-XA2 isn't currently capable of 1080p/24 output) and checked out Aeon Flux and a couple of other titles. We saw more judder and choppiness in Advanced mode than either Smooth or Standard--with Smooth again living up its name the most. After Aeon narrowly misses face-planting in the razor grass, for example, the stone walls evinced more choppiness in Advanced mode as the camera rose to a more birds-eye angle than in the other two modes.

The Pioneer is also equipped with a Text Optimization option, which we left off for most of our tests in 1080i because it caused the set to fail the 1080i deinterlacing test. It did clean up tearing and jagged edges on some kinds of moving text, however, including an overlay from the HQV DVD, although the ticker from ESPNHD was unaffected. We recommend only turning it on if you notice that kind of tearing.

The Pioneer is equipped with an antireflective screen that did a very good job of attenuating glare in the room. It wasn't quite as effective as the matte, antiglare screen on the Panasonic TH-50PX77U, for example, but it was the best nonmatte solution we've seen, outperforming the antireflective screen of the Samsung, for example.

When we ran the PDP-5080HD through a battery of standard-def tests, courtesy of the HQV DVD played at 480i through the component input, it performed quite well. The set resolved every line of the DVD format (although the lines of horizontal resolution were less distinct than on the Samsung and the Toshiba), and the finest details in the stone bridge and grass scene looked as natural as we expect. The Pioneer did an excellent job of smoothing out jagged edges from diagonal lines, such as the stripes on a waving American flag. We also really appreciated the two kinds of noise reduction, each available in three strengths in addition to "off," because they went a long way in reducing--and in some cases eliminating--the moving motes of snowy video noise in the skies and sunsets from the disc. The Pioneer also effectively, if not as quickly as most other sets, implemented 2:3 pull-down detection in all of its video modes.

We also checked out the venerable pan from the beginning of Star Trek: Insurrection and, as usual, it provided a great comparison between video-processing modes. The Smooth mode again made motion seem significantly smoother, as if the moving camera was "on rails" compared to Standard mode and the other TVs in the room (the exception was the 120Hz Toshiba LCD, which looked smoothest and steadiest of all). The Advanced mode wasn't designed for 480i, and it proved it by introducing more judder and artifacts than the others. All three again successfully implemented 2:3 pull-down.

With PC sources, the PDP-5080HD delivered the goods, although naturally its 1,366x768 resolution wasn't as impressive as that of a 1080p panel. We achieved the best results when we connected our test PC via an HDMI input from the PC's DVI output, and set the resolution to 1,360x768; the Pioneer resolved every line according to DisplayMat and text looked crisp, although it was a tad softer than we've seen on some other displays. Using analog VGA yielded worse results. Yes, the panel resolved every line, but the lines on the horizontal resolution pattern flickered in the highest register, and we saw some flicker in backgrounds as well. Maybe a judicious tweaker could cure this issue, but nonetheless, we recommend going in digitally if possible.

TEST RESULT SCORE
Before color temp (20/80) 6,518/6,218K Good
After color temp N/A  
Before grayscale variation +/- 191K Good
After grayscale variation N/A  
Color of red (x/y) 0.659/0.329 Average
Color of green 0.268/0.641 Poor
Color of blue 0.148/0.059 Good
Overscan 3 percent Average
Black-level retention All patterns stable Good
Defeatable edge enhancement Yes Good
480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps Pass Good
1080i video resolution Pass Good
1080i film resolution Pass Good

Pioneer PDP-5080HD Picture settings
Default Calibrated Power Save
Picture on (watts) 330.6 228.56 253.72
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.31 0.21 0.24
Standby (watts) 22.95 22.95 22.95
Cost per year $114.34 $83.35 $90.99
Score (considering size) Good
Score (overall) Poor

8.3

Pioneer PDP-80HD

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8