In the past, Pioneer's line of plasma TVs has performed well in our tests, but they failed to eclipse the picture quality of the best plasmas. This year, however, starting with the 43-inch PDP-436HD, we noticed a marked improvement in Pioneer's performance, especially in the panels' ability to produce a deep colour of black. If you're looking for a fully featured 50-inch plasma and can afford to pay a few extra bucks, the Pioneer PDP-506HD comes highly recommended.
The Pioneer PDP-506HD looks as sleek and high-tech as any plasma on the market, with a thick, glossy-black frame surrounding the screen. The screen itself is also quite dark when turned off, so if you mount it on the wall, it will look like a large dark monolith. When table-mounted, on the other hand, the set gives you a two-tone look, thanks to the included silver stand. The panel itself measures 122.4cm by 9.1cm by 71.9cm (WDH) without speakers and stand.
Pioneer includes matching detachable speakers (pictured) with the PDP-506HD, but the most notable addition to the standard plasma package is the separate media receiver. This component-size silver box (42cm by 30cm by 9.1cm, WDH) houses all of the connections as well as the plasma's tuners. The idea is that you connect your gear to the media receiver, then you have to run only one cable -- a proprietary, 3-meter digital A/V/control umbilical -- into the back of the panel itself, though the media box and the TV still require their respective AC cables. Longer umbilicals are available for installations that need them.
The remote is the familiar Pioneer design that hasn't changed in several years, and thankfully, it is fully backlit for use in darkened environments. Despite the numerous buttons, we found the large, rectangular unit well laid out. The keys are grouped in such a way that your thumb can reach the most important keys (Menu, Volume, Channel) easily. The remote is universal and capable of controlling a wide variety of other A/V components. For the most part, Pioneer's onscreen user interface is equally well thought out, although we were annoyed that we had to go into the menu system to enable the HDMI connections. In our view, HDMI should be engaged by default.
The feature package of the Pioneer PDP-506HD is pretty impressive, but we'll start with the basics. This panel has a native resolution of 1,280x768 pixels, which is plenty to resolve all of the detail of 720p HDTV sources. All sources, including high-def, computers, DVD and standard TV are scaled to fit those pixels. Most other 50-inch plasmas have resolutions of 1,366x768, but in our tests, we didn't miss the extra few pixels.
It offers a generous selection of aspect-ratio options -- five with standard-def sources and four with high-def. There are several colour-temperature settings available, with Warm being the closest to the broadcast-standard colour temperature of 6,500 Kelvin. There's a User picture mode that lets you change controls such as contrast and brightness to optimise the picture for various sources, and you can save different settings for each input. There are also three adjustable global modes that apply to all inputs, as well as a Dynamic mode that has fixed presets.
We found that the CTI (Color Transient Improvement) feature is exactly the opposite of its name -- it reduces colour resolution and should be turned off for all inputs and sources.