Samsung PN50A550 Plasma HDTV Page 2
The PN50A550 includes a Blue-Only mode, which is unique in my experience with HDTVs. It turns off the red and green phosphors. This lets you set the Color and Tint controls much more accurately than by using a blue filter.
An Edge Enhancement control offers only two options: on or off. For me, it produced no useful enhancement, and I left it off.
The set offers picture-in-picture, but since there is only a single over-the-air tuner, you can’t receive two channels side by side unless one comes from outside the set.
Burn-in can be an issue for a plasma display. Burn-in happens when you leave a stationary image (or a stationary feature in a moving image, such as a scoreboard in a video game) on the screen for an extended time. It can also result from watching nothing but images that don’t fill the screen without an equal or greater diet of full-screen use. Samsung provides several features that can minimize the chances of permanent burn-in and clean up temporary burn-in (better known as image retention).
The remote control is a new design. It’s backlit (hooray!) and nicely configured with large, easy-to-find buttons. But it does not offer direct selection of inputs.
The PN50A550 accepts inputs up to 1080p on HDMI (1080i over component) at either 1080p/60 frames per second (hertz) or 1080p/24 fps. Unfortunately, it converts the latter back to 1080p/60 prior to display. This adds 3:2 pulldown, which negates the benefits of smoother motion benefit on 24-fps material.
The Samsung PN50A550 has the smooth, lag-free motion and superb off-axis performance I expect from a plasma display, and it excelled in other areas as well. In fact, while it doesn’t come close to matching the peak brightness of most LCD flat-panel sets, its overall performance, for me, exceeded that of any LCD I have tested, apart from Samsung’s LN-T5281F. The local dimming in the latter set produces black levels that run circles around other flat panels on the market—with the only possible exceptions being the Pioneer KURO plasmas.
With only a single slip (a fair result on the waving-flag test), the Samsung turned in good to excellent scores on all of my high-def and standard-def deinterlacing and scaling tests, including proper handling of 3:2 pulldown at 1080i.
The Samsung’s reproduction of detail could hardly be better on a set this size. Even with standard-definition material, it revealed shot-to-shot focus differences, such as in Stargate: The Ark of Truth. Some close-ups in this direct-to-DVD movie almost looked like high definition; others clearly did not.
The best high-definition material was pristine. Whether the source was the eye-grabbingBabylon scenes from Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, the crisp and colorful battle in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or the simpler but no less impressive eye candy on Hidalgo (to name three of the best-looking Blu-ray Discs I’ve seen recently), there was nothing to complain about in the Samsung’s superb resolution—and a lot to love.
Apart from what appeared to be a subtle red push, fleshtones looked fine. The Blue-Only mode, together with a color-bar pattern, helped improve the push by promptingme to turn the color down a few steps. Green foliage, while not perfect, was a little more natural looking than it is on most modern HDTVs. Even before I tweaked the Samsung’s Color Space controls, the set’s colors looked evenly balanced and fully believable.
However, I was disappointed by the Samsung’s black level and shadow detail. They’re merely average for a flat panel—nearly the same as on the last Samsung plasma I reviewed and not much better, on measurement, than many LCDs. To its credit, this set has less of what I call the “gray-fog effect” on dark, low-contrast scenes than LCDs normally exhibit. It also did OK on dark scenes with bright highlights, which are more typical of dark scenes than those with uniformly low contrast. But it performed no miracles here; this is the PN50A550’s only significant weakness.
But how did Samsung come up with its extremely high specified contrast ratio (including 1,000,000:1, dynamic)? It turns out, they did it with a little sleight of hand. If you switch to the Dynamic mode and put up a full-screen black image, the black level reads a mediocre 0.025 foot-lamberts, similar to what you’ll see in the normal contrast-ratio results in the Measurements text. But after about five seconds, this grayish-black image turns completely black, and the black level becomes unmeasurably low. It appears that when the set senses full-screen black from the source in the Dynamic mode (but not in Movie or Standard), it shuts down the drive to the panel after a few seconds. This produces a full black and therefore a mathematically infinite contrast ratio. But you’ll never see contrast this high on real program material.
Finally, the PN50A550 is no light torch. Even a cheap LCD will win this race. Nevertheless, it was plenty bright for normal viewing with a Contrast level of 85 and a Cell Light level of 6. You can turn the set’s Contrast and Cell Light controls nearly all the way to their maximum in Movie mode without noticeable peak white clipping or other image degradation.
From the evidence of three recent Samsungs I have reviewed (two plasmas and the 81 Series LCD with local dimming), it seems clear that the company is putting most of its black-level eggs into the LCD basket. That’s probably a good bet, since LCDs are now significantly outselling plasmas.
In this respect, Samsung is in direct opposition to Pioneer, which has championed great plasma black levels. I compared this Samsung side by side with a Pioneer Elite PRO-110FD plasma, which will be replaced by a new model by the time you read this, or shortly after. The Pioneer was just a hair sharper, although I never would have guessed it without a direct comparison. But the biggest difference was in the blacks. It was no contest there, with the Pioneer winning that race.
It’s no contest in price, either. The Pioneer is more than twice the Samsung’s price. With superb resolution, excellent color, uniquely useful color adjustments, and first-rate video processing, the Samsung PN50A550 offers a good bang for your buck.
First-class video processing
Mediocre black level and contrast ratio