“No one would buy a plasma TV anymore, would they?” Financial journalist Joe Kernen posed that question to a tech-stock analyst on CNBC’s Squawk Box program Monday morning. The analyst didn’t answer Joe directly, but instead started touting LED TVs—a marketing term for LCD sets that use LED backlighting—as the wave of the future. (The exchange happens around minute 3:30 of the CNBC video clip, embedded below.)
Well, I’d like to answer Joe’s question about plasmas directly, with a resounding YES! Many consumers (including me and a number of the experts who test TVs for Consumer Reports) have bought plasma TVs. I, for one, will vote with my pocketbook once again. I plan to buy a second plasma TV with a bigger screen (my current set is 42 inches, and my room is big enough for a 50-incher). As our tests show month in and out, the best plasma TVs have excellent picture quality, certainly as good as any LCD set’s and perhaps even better. In our judgment, and that of other experts in the field, plasma TVs can display depth and richness that result in a more dimensional, cinematic look than on most LCD TVs, including those pricey new LED-backlit models.
Plasma TVs also have advantages that no LCD can match. Perhaps the most significant is their unlimited viewing angle, which means everyone in the room can enjoy the same great picture quality from any viewing position. With almost all LCD TVs, the picture quality can be great from head on, but it deteriorates as you move away from dead center, so the screen can look washed out or dim, or colors can shift, sometimes dramatically. (For more, see "Viewing angle still the Achilles heel for most LCD TVs."
What about those new LCD technologies? They're not advances, but solutions to problems inherent in LCD technology. LED backlighting with local dimming address LCD’s difficulty displaying deep black levels, and 120Hz and 240Hz refresh rates are designed to minimize blur in fast motion. In both cases, LCDs are trying to catch up with plasma technology (which, in itself, is trying to match good old CRT technology, still the gold standard in both areas). The fixes to LCDs work to some extent, but they can introduce undesirable side effects. Local dimming, for example, can cause halos around objects, and faster refresh rates that are coupled with motion smoothing can give film programming an odd, unnaturally video-like look.
Oh, and let's dispel some lingering misconceptions about plasma. You don’t have to worry about a plasma set’s short life, high energy costs, or permanent burn-in. Those problems no longer exist. One caveat: It is true that plasma sets don’t look their best in very bright rooms where you can’t close blinds or dim the lights. In such settings, LCDs tend to hold their picture quality better and suffer from less glare, though some screens are quite reflective.
All things considered, it’s obvious (to me, at least, as a user and someone who looks at dozens of TVs every month) that you shouldn’t automatically think LCD when you’re shopping for your next set. But I’m sure plenty of LCD fans would disagree. Let’s hear it! —Eileen McCooey