And the answer is . . . Pioneer Kuro 50-inch PDP-5020FD plasma.  Yes, I looked, I compared, I chose, just as each and every one of you will do when it’s time to get a new set.

The difference between what you may do and what I did is that I have the opportunity to work directly with most of the manufacturers who are only too happy to cooperate with me in my work.  They provide all the information I need (which is, for the most part, readily available to all consumers through company websites).  They answer my technical questions.  They even provide me with products to try with my family here at Gadget Central.  And yes, they also collect them for return, all at their expense.

I’ve been using a top-tier 37-inch Sharp Aquos top-of-the-line model for a couple of years.  Sharp makes excellent LCD sets, as do others.  I’ve waited to buy my own until now.  Why?  I wanted to wait for a time when prices would come down and the industry would provide better products – you know, more for less.

Of course, if I chased that more-for-mess mantra, I’d never have taken the plunge.  There is always more for less as time goes along, but, then, without stopping to push the GO button, I’d be missing out on all the cool High Def programming.  Alas, I plunged, and I could not be more pleased.

I’ve sampled LCD and plasma TVs from many of the makers – Panasonic, Samsung, LG, Vizio, Sharp, Sony, and many others.

I made the choice for plasma, Pioneer in particular after having a proof-of-concept borrowing experience.  Pioneer loaned to me, at my request, a sample of the set I just purchased.

But isn’t the market trending strongly toward LCD technology with fewer plasma sets from which to choose?  And Pioneer and Vizio announced just yesterday that both are exiting the plasma TV business.  Pioneer is out in March 2010 and Vizio is not bringing in any new plasma models.  Isn’t that a sign that LCD is better?

In a word, no!  The best plasma beats LCD by every measure, except where it counts – consumers perceive in well-lit retail environments that LCD TV images look somehow better than images on plasma sets.  Yet, get them properly set up at home and side by side, and the perceptions change for most viewers.   Of course, average consumers do not purchase one of each, take them home and side-by-side compare.  I have that comparison privilege.

The best LCD sets today do not exhibit the picture quality of the best plasma sets today.  Whoa, hold on for a minute!

Without exception, visitors to Gadget Central have commented about the outstanding images on the Pioneer like no other set they’ve seen here.  WOW is a frequently used term.  That’s anecdotal, of course, but I don’t need a lab full of test equipment to gauge popular opinion in my own home.  These are the candid comments from non-techies.  I’d say there is something to learn from those comments!

Some would argue that plasma also costs more.  In most cases plasma sets do cost more than same or similar size LCD sets, also with similar high- or low-end features.

So, why plasma and why this Pioneer PDP-5020FD?  I figured it this way.  Tough times are upon us.  Chances are we will be in a position to go out less for our entertainment enjoyment for some time to come.  Since we will be “stuck” at home more than before and for the foreseeable future, I want to get the most out of home entertainment, within reason.  I want to get the most for my money, the most enjoyment.

We like watching TV shows and movies at home on standard DVD and Blu-ray as well as through streaming Netflix, even in HD, from our Roku box and TiVo Series 3, so having a display that makes me deliriously happy each and every time I watch movies and TV shows in HD is a good thing.  This Pioneer, like no other for the money I have seen does just that.  Remember, it’s not just good but spectacular.  The price differential between good and spectacular is the topic of discussion.  I contend that it is worth the difference . . . for me and, reasonably, for many of you.

Blacker blacks. When I see a dark area with someone wearing a black suit on my Pioneer plasma, I can still make out the contours and subtle shading of wrinkles and folded lapels, for example.  Colors POP off the screen.  There are NO motion artifacts on plasma sets.  Smoooooth action scenes. Sharp, precise visuals like on no other set I’ve seen for the money.  I watch and compare what is, arguably, the best HD TV program produced – Discovery HD channel’s broadcast of the multi-part series, Planet Earth.  I’ve saved them all in HD on my TiVo to be viewed on every set I try.  These magnificent programs simply look superior on my Pioneer Kuro.

What’s the cost?  Last week when I ordered my set, it was on special sale from Costco.com for $1999.99 after $500 instant discount, plus delivery inside my home to the spot of my choice, plus tax, for a total just over $2300.  Ordered online during that sale, which ends March 8, 2009, I just could not beat the price.  Costco provides a two-year warranty.  Pioneer’s own warranty is, as from other makers, one year.

For $2000, I am sure I made the best choice.  Had it been $2500, I’d have made the deal, too.  I figure it this way – this purchase should last 10 years.  That’s only about $200 to $250 per year over the expected life of this set, and it may last longer.  It will likely last longer.  I could find plasma sets costing more and with even better specifications and a slightly better picture, such as Pioneer’s Elite series, but the cost put those models out of contention.

Plasma sets no longer suffer from the ills of the early days, including the likelihood of image burn-in from a too-long-on-the-screen static shot and premature failure (Pioneer is a well-respected maker with an excellent track record).

There are four state-of-the-art HDMI connections available to carry video and audio, including High Def – I connect one from TiVo, one from Blu-ray, one available for High Def camcorders and one remaining terminal available for video game systems and other goodies.

There is a full complement of additional inputs AND an optical audio output to take all the audio piped through the set to an outboard audio processor.  Currently, I have the optical and the analog audio out connected to my SLIMstage (read my review).  Pioneer supplies its own “sound bar” that attaches snugly under the set and features SRS technology audio enhancements, but I prefer the SLIMstage.  Other choices include your own surround sound system and wireless speakers or with wires to front and rear speakers and all the complexity of setting it up and operating it.  Or, you could opt for one of the growing number of “sound bars” like mine.  I’ve not tested it yet, but I like the idea of what Vizio has just introduced, a sound bar surround sound system that includes a wireless subwoofer for only $349!  I’ll let you know more after I’ve tried it myself.  Shop for others. The idea is that you can get rich simulated yet pleasing surround sound without the complexity of wires and speakers and a big expense.

There is also a port for connection to a computer, which I have not tried.  I did, however, plug in a USB thumb drive loaded with photos for a slide show.  I used that USB port to perform a firmware update to the set, too.  It’s always a good idea to check the manufacturer’s site for any updates! The set is also equipped with an Ethernet cable to use its Home Media Gallery feature, which I also tried.  This feature allows connectivity with Windows PC audio and photo content as well as my Macs’ audio and photo files.  Without wireless capability, I am not interested in this.  However, I successfully used my old Microsoft Xbox Wireless Ethernet Adapter (1,2,3,4).  My Pioneer, as well as the other current Pioneer plasma TV models, are all relative energy misers, all qualifying for the ENERGY STAR designation.  Learn more about plasma TV technology here.  They do tend to use more electricity than certain other LCD sets, but that difference, in dollars and cents over a year’s time I do not think is significant.  ALL big flat panel sets radiate warmth. None are cool zones.

Inside, the Pioneer contains TV tuners to grab over the air signals via your own antenna for both analog and digital signals.  In addition, there is a Clear QAM tuner that allows display of cable programming when your cable company delivers signals that do not need to come from an attached cable box.  This is known as cable in the clear.  Most consumers use a cable box, satellite box or antenna.  Mine is connected via HDMI to my High Def TiVo and also to the raw cable connection.

In the event I am recording on both internal TiVo tuners and I would like to watch another channel that is one of those in-the-clear stations, including network High Def broadcasts, I can still do it.  I also have available a coax connector that is connected to my big antenna for over-the-air reception, yet another way I test my sets.

What does the future hold?  I still believe that plasma TV technology is best for most users TODAY.  If the viewing area is bathed with direct sunlight on the area of the TV screen, LCD is probably the best bet, but most consumers do not have this unfortunate situation.

On the other hand, most consumers seem to not care as much as I.  The proof is in the sales numbers, which reveal that even in households with annual incomes exceeding $200,000, the average price paid for a new TV is in the $1500 range.  This suggests that most consumers are not that into what many call the best technology.  In fact, few consumers opt for plasma. Again, this does not mean that LCD sets produce a better picture.

What’s more, LCD technology is improving.  This year will see more 120Hz and 240Hz sets.  This is the technology, needed in LCD sets and not plasma sets, that reduces the smear effect in area of fast motion on the screen.

More LCD sets, and at a higher price, will have LED backlighting instead of conventional fluorescent tube backlighting.  LEDs can provide a wider color gamut and can offer on-screen areas of local dimming, contributing to a better-looking image.

Additional value will be added to all sets’ technology with the widespread inclusion of at least limited wireless Internet connectivity, allowing the user to go directly to sites including Netflix and Blockbuster for instant movie streaming as well as YouTube and more.  Today, I get Netflix and much more directly through my TiVo box, wirelessly, of course, and independent of the display to which it is connected.

What does all this mean to the consumer?  It’s what I always say – If you can’t see or hear the difference, don’t spend the money. For my money, I can see a dramatic difference, so I chose Pioneer Kuro. If you’re on the other side of this equation, get what looks good to you and for the best price.  I would be remiss without mentioning an honorable second choice, indeed, a first choice for some consumers looking for plasma TVs.  That choice is Panasonic’s TH-50PZ850U.  This Panasonic model is frequently compared with my Pioneer model.  It’s on its way out, I believe, making room for the 2009 models.  Still, Panasonic is a formidable competitor.

And there’s one additional and very important consideration – size.  Throw out your old notion of the distances from which to view these big screen TVs.  It’s not the same as with old tube-type TVs.  Because we can see so much detail in these astonishing High Def pictures, a larger size screen at closer range is in order.   If your eyes are as little as five feet away, a 42-inch screen is NOT too large. Sitting as little as six feet away qualifies the viewer for as much as a 50-inch screen without eye fatigue or strain.  If you sit from as little as 7.5-feet away, you could do well with up to a 60-inch screen.  Those of you fortunate enough to sit at least eight feet away, up to as much as 16 feet would do well to consider a 65-inch display.  Were I you, I would choose a screen size with the minimum viewing distance in mind.  You’ll appreciate the clarity and sharpness of what you see, even if you do not see a worthwhile difference between higher priced and cheaper sets, between plasma and LCD technology.  In other words, don’t fear the big screen.  It’s just a better viewing experience and if your aim if maximum enjoyment for many years ahead, go BIG and enjoy it that much more.

Remember, as we move along in time, more and more programming will be available in glorious HD.  Watching the non-HD cable channels below channel 100 will never look as good on a new digital HD TV as they did on a very good old analog picture tube TV.

Finally, there is the 720p versus 1080p consideration.  Do not let the numbers confuse you.  The best broadcast signal today (and this will change at some time in the not-near future) is 1080i.  Blu-ray DVDs and players output in 1080p, the top resolution available today.  You will see some sets costing less that are “only” 720p resolution.  The Fox TV network, for example broadcasts in “only” 720 resolution.  So, when watching auto races, baseball and other sports, as well as any other High Def programming on the Fox network, it’s 720p.  I can tell you that 720 looks pretty fine, too.  If the screen size is 37-inches or less, perhaps up to 42-inches, the difference between 720p and 1080i or 1080p is not that noticeable to most viewers, even to my eyes.  On a larger size, such as 50-inches and up, I can see a difference between 720p and 1080i, but your eyes might not.  That difference is more apparent when watching a Blu-ray DVD on a large screen.  1080p just looks better in my view on a good 1080p-capable large screen than one that is only 720p.  You’ll have to decide for yourselves on this point.

This June 12, 2009 the final, final date for our national transition to digital TV is the date that means nothing to cable and satellite TV viewers!  You do not need a new TV at that time nor do you need a converter box.  You’re all set with what you already have.  However, more channels on cable and satellite will inevitably be transitioned to High Definition and not just digital TV.  Your new TV will show these new HD channels in all their glory, so why not get something you will love and not just like?

That’s it.  I found the Pioneer Kuro 50-inch plasma PDP-5020FD to be the best performing, most pleasing TV for the money, so I bought it!  And now, it’s time to take a break.  I’m going in from my office to watch our new Pioneer Kuro 50-inch plasma TV.  I love my new Pioneer!

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