Sony PFM-50C1 plasma display Page 3
Switching over to the Panasonic DVD-RP56 DVD player in 480p mode made a noticeable improvement in all of these areas, so even a modest scaler with a good deinterlacing-and-motion-compensation chipset is a worthwhile investment with the PFM-50C1. At least use a progressive-scan DVD player, if possible.
Most HDTV programs looked a lot better, and no wonder—the resolution of 720p material almost exactly matches the panel's native resolution. I couldn't get the panel to map 720p 1:1, though; avoiding vertical rescaling from 720p to the native 768p would have resulted in a slightly sharper image with thin black bars around it. The Cinema Drive circuit is disabled with HDTV movies, which are also subject to 3:2 pulldown.
I tried the PFM-50C1 with its Color Correct feature switched on and off. Once I'd achieved a good gray scale and correct white balance, Color Correct didn't make a whole lot of difference, so I left it off.
The quality of the PFM-50C1's blacks ranged from average to slightly worse than average relative to several other plasmas I've reviewed, including recent 50-inch models from Panasonic and Fujitsu. In scenes with low to medium luminance levels, the PFM-50C1 had slightly flatter contrast and slightly subdued colors. And when watching movies with high-contrast nighttime scenes (such as Men in Black), smooth gradations from low levels of gray to black in the film exhibited a mottled or "mossy" effect instead of a smooth ramp into deep shadows. This effect was also present with filmed HDTV programs such as CSI and Alias. Both shows have plenty of low-light scenes that will give this panel problems.
False contouring is the tendency of shadows to "stair-step" instead of fading smoothly from dark gray to black. The Fifth Element has several scenes that reveal this artifact. Any of the sequences in deep space will do the trick. Pay particular attention to areas around bright objects against a dark sky, as well as really low-level shadows. The president's council chambers are also a good place to spot false contours on clothing as characters pass in and out of shadows. At very low levels of luminance (under 2.8 foot-Lamberts) the PFM-50C1 clearly exhibited this problem, as it did in the low-light and nighttime scenes from Alias. The false contours on Jennifer Garner's face as she moved in and out of the light were particularly annoying.
For comparison, the Sony's darkest blacks were noticeably less deep and rich than the best I've seen (and measured) on the latest Fujitsu (PDS5002) and Panasonic (PT-50DP3) plasmas. False contouring on both of the latter ranged from barely perceptible (Panasonic) to not visible (Fujitsu). Pioneer's 50-inch and 43-inch monitors typically produce black levels in the same range as the PFM-50C1, but are almost completely free of false contouring artifacts in low levels of gray. [I did observe a trace of false contouring when I reviewed the Fujitsu in our February 2002 issue. It was rare enough not to be troubling, but it's safe to say that no plasma we have yet seen is totally free of this effect. It's a limitation of the 8-bit color depth of all current plasma designs.—TJN]
The Sony PFM-50C1 gets high marks for its fast and intuitive menu/remote design, as well as for its format flexibility and direct input switching. Areas that need improvement include black levels, deinterlacing, and pixel scaling. The addition of an expansion slot would permit the use of aftermarket deinterlacing and motion-compensation boards, a trick that Pioneer adopted last year. (Pioneer's expansion slot supports boards by Faroudja/Sage, Altinex, and Aurora Multimedia, among others.)
If you have a 480p DVD player, leave it in that mode with the PFM-50C1, and use a separate scaler to clean up your other sources, such as cable, DSS, or S-VHS. The improvement is well worth it.