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Editor's note: The score for this television was adjusted downwards from 9.3 to 9.0 on 21 November 2006 to correctly position the PDP 436SXE in this rapidly improving market.
As the name suggests, Pioneer has been leading the way in plasma development for years. But, surprisingly, this is the company's first screen to integrate all features within a single 'one-body' unit, without an accompanying media box. All connections, processing, TV tuners and speakers are conveniently accommodated within the screen. It's by no means a new concept but with the 436SXE, Pioneer seem to have perfected it.
The beautifully constructed design features a future-proof specification, including integrated Freeview and high-definition compatibility. This is one of the best performing plasma screens we've reviewed -- Pioneer has used a range of state-of-the-art technologies to create images with amazing depth, detail and colour intensity across any source.
Our single gripe is that connections could be more extensive, with only one HDMI input and no VGA PC terminals. But, if performance is a priority, look no further.
Despite carrying similar design characteristics typically featured in most modern plasma displays, it's obvious the instant you unpack Pioneer's latest 436SXE that more care has been taken in the construction.
The heavily glossed black frame is flawlessly finished -- rounded at the edges with a slimline speaker system integrated across the base. Even the rear panel is encased in a metal chassis.
Although all connection bases are covered you might expect a screen of this distinction to include more numerous options. The spacious rear panel does support three Scarts, two of which are RGB-enabled for the highest level of performance. We were surprised to find only a single set of component inputs though, and just one HDMI digital video input.
HDMI has been described as 'the digital Scart' and appears destined to be the preferred AV input for the future. It allows the direct transfer of both digital video and multi-channel sound signals in a single cable, and without unnecessary conversion between analogue stages there's no signal degradation so performance is improved.
Sky's HDTV receivers will use HDMI to receive high-definition broadcasts and you can also watch upscaled images from a digitally compatible DVD player. Herein lies the problem -- if you own both a set top box and DVD player with HDMI you'll be forced to switch between a single input. The latest flat screens are arriving with dual HDMI inputs so its exclusion is surprising, as is the absence of a VGA PC input. Media centre owners and high-definition gamers will have to use an adaptor cable -- another expense.
Still, there is an optical digital audio output that can be used to send sound signals to an external home cinema receiver. And the front panel conceals a set of standard AV inputs that can be easily accessed to make temporary connections for devices like a camcorder or games console.
The accompanying remote is suitably stylish but oversized for the number of controls it accommodates.
Pioneer has an outstanding plasma pedigree and the 436SXE represents the sixth generation of its screens, although it's the first to arrive fully integrated within a single unit.
Previously, screens were accompanied by a separate media box that made wall-mounting options simpler. But now all connectivity, video processing, TV tuners and speaker systems have been installed into the screen itself for convenience. The high-resolution panel is compatible with all high-definition content from sources including Sky's HD set top boxes and compatible DVD players. And there are separate analogue and digital TV tuners as well as a CI slot providing limited subscription channels from TopUp TV.
This future-proof specification is supported by some advanced plasma technologies that complement the stylish design with exceptional performance. At the forefront is Pioneer's unique Pure Black panel, which enhances colour discharge in plasma cells to create purer colours and incredible contrast using the deepest blacks. And contrast is encouraged again using a special filter in the screen that eliminates light reflections, even in bright rooms.
The Pure Drive2 video-processing system has won numerous plasma technology awards and uses several state-of-the-art digital processing and noise reduction systems to produce immaculately clean images.
All this technical innovation leaves many advanced settings to contend with, but the stunning menu system offers an easy escape route, using various preset modes. If you're a serious enthusiast, you can control every element of the picture using ProAdjust. Here you can access an abundance of image enhancements and noise direction systems, and fine tune every aspect of the picture. It may take a trained eye to discern the effects of all adjustments, but few screens offer such complete control. Incorporating more short cut keys, though, would be useful.
The picture performance of the 436SXE shows just how far plasma screens have evolved in recent years. Whether you're watching TV broadcasts, analogue or digitally induced DVDs, the screen sets a new standard for image quality -- provided you are far enough away.
The deepest black levels create images with amazing depth and a sense of realistic perspective that at times feels like you're looking out a window. The detail in tones and textures is remarkable, with smooth gradations leaving little unresolved, even in dark scenes. Every colour is accurately reproduced with excellent balance between superficial and natural shades. Digital disturbances, like background noise or motion streaming, are kept to an absolute minimum. In fact, the picture is so impressive you'll need to be extremely cynical to find any flaws at all.
Sound performance is just as impressive, especially as it's from a set of integrated speakers. There's enough detailed expression in the midrange to enliven everyday TV programmes while low frequencies carry ample weight and authority to supplement explosive film scenes.
Pioneer's 436SXE is reasonably expensive but it is a vanguard of unmatched technology and performance -- the best large screen plasma display yet.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield