Virtually everyone at one time or another has seen a plasma display at their local A/V retailer and become completely awestruck by the futuristic design. A little thicker than a painting, a plasma screen hangs on your wall like a piece of art. It takes up no floor space, thus broadening your decorating options. These elements are undeniably cool and make plasma screens objects of desire. When discussing video displays with your friends, its inevitable that the subject of plasmas come into the equation, usually with the conclusion that they are still too expensive. The question remains, Is this technology relevant? Plasma displays differ greatly in price and performance.
The Runco plasma display begins its life as a NEC panel (the panel is a plasma being the equivalent of a picture tube in a TV set), then goes to Runco to be made into the PL-61cx. This is accomplished with the addition of a PFP controller and several tweaks to the panel, including revised firmware. Runco does not manufacture plasma displays; they simply make them look better.
The Runco PL-61cx is the largest direct view monitor currently available to consumers. At 61 inches, its a display that is dramatic enough in size to be taken very seriously in upscale home theaters. The Runco PL-61cx measures 59.5 inches wide by 36.12 inches in height, is a mere five inches thick and weighs a surprising 140 pounds. Its retail price is $29,995.
Plasma displays utilize a technology that combines the use of traditional phosphors and gas. The gas pockets are sandwiched between two layers of glass. The gas is divided into small cavities, one for each pixel. Each pixel has its own electrode that activates the gas. When a charge is applied, the electrodes cause the gas to change plasma states, producing ultraviolet light, thus reacting with the red, green and blue phosphors in each pixel, producing the image displayed on the screen. Plasma screens differ from traditional displays in that the image is not scanned across the screen; instead, all pixels are scanned or lit up at once. This technology provides images that are inherently sharper, brighter and more consistent across the image than many traditional video displays.
In general, plasma screens have other advantages, such as wide viewing angles, perfect linearity, brightness, drift-free convergence and, of course, the thin physical width which allows unprecedented installation flexibility. When compared to most rear-projection TVs, plasma displays can be viewed from a much wider angle and with more ambient light, although darker rooms are still recommended for high-performance viewing.
The consistent knocks on plasma displays are poor black levels and false contouring. Poor black levels mean reduced detail in shadows and dark scenes. False contouring is when colors are displayed slightly different than intended. This is the result of most plasma displays being eight-bit devices, or 256 (two to the eighth power) shades of each primary color. This means that if any color falls between one of these 256 gradations of color, it is changed, or contoured, to the nearest of the 256 gradations.
As different and exciting as a plasma panel is, it has several things in common with the traditional television tube. Like a traditional CRT television, a plasma panel is brighter and has a wider viewing angle than any of the rear-projected models.
There is debate as to the life expectancy of plasma panels. According to Runco, the panel used in the PL-61cx has a life of 30,000 hours until there are noticeable degradations, ending the panels useful life. This equals over twenty years of use at four hours a day.
The Runco PL-61cxs nearly $30,000 price tag makes it the most expensive plasma display on the market. To soften the blow, your 30 large includes both the 61-inch display and a PFP controller, saving you several thousand dollars on an outboard scaler (also known as a video processor, formerly known in a past life as a line doubler). The controller utilizes Runcos proprietary ViVix technology to scale incoming signals to match the displays 1366 by 768 resolution, pixel for pixel. The PFP unit acts as a controller as well as a scaler, simplifying use of the plasma. Once set up, the panel can be completely controlled by the PFP. The control unit contains all of the features one expects to find on a display device: brightness, contrast, color, aspect ratio, and so forth.
As well as its price, the PL-61cxs 1366 by 768 resolution is the highest of any plasma on the market. With its high resolution, it can display all popular HDTV formats: 1080i, 480p and 720p. Not all digital video sources can make this claim.
The PL-61cx is sold as a system, designed to be connected to the PFP controller, with all inputs routed through the PFP controller. The PFP unit features attractive silver and black industrial styling, and can be rack-mounted remotely. The PFP has component video input, composite, S-Video and computer/HDTV inputs, featuring 10-bit processing, and also has a pass-through feature for those who want to experiment with other scalers. The PFP takes the incoming signal, routes it through its 10-bit processor and de-interlacer, and then the signal is scaled to the displays native resolution of 1366 by 768. The PFP is connected to the plasma panel via a five-connector RGB cable for the video signal, and a RJ-11 comlink cable for control functions. This signal path is said to produce the best image with the least amount of artifacts of any plasma on the market. The 10-bit processing reduces false contouring and provides four times the number of color gradations as those of an eight-bit processor. There is no tuner in either the display panel or the PFP controller, so an external tuner such as a satellite or cable box is necessary.
The PFP offers the user a choice of how to handle 4:3 images on its 16:9 display. As the plasma panel utilizes phosphor, displaying a 4:3 image on a 16:9 screen can lead to uneven wear if not addressed. The first choice is to create gray bars on the sides of 4:3 images. The second and more popular option is Runcos Virtual Wide aspect ratio, which converts a 4:3 image into a 16:9 image that fills the entire screen. Many other companies have tried this squeeze play with other plasmas, with results that are usually pretty dreadful, often rendering the images unwatchable. The Runco Virtual Wide operates by using a combination of stretching, cropping and re-scaling that produces a picture that is remarkably watchable for those who are not satisfied with the cropped sides.
The PFP and display can be controlled by the supplied IR remote or easily integrated into a home automation system via its RS-232 port.
Setup was extremely easy. I showed up at Genesis Audio and Video in Irvine, California, and the staff demonstrated the panels connection. Most users will not install the unit themselves, as Runco requires that a certified technician install all of their products. Average installation time is said to be one-and-a-half hours. After installation, the Runco plasma, like any display device, should be calibrated to obtain the best image quality.
The PL-61cx can either be wall-mounted or using a table mount, placed on top of a sturdy flat surface. And yes, you can even mount it horizontally, for example, under a glass tabletop or on your ceiling.
All my viewing was done in a semi-darkened room at Genesis Audio and Video. There was some light coming in from the windows behind me, yet Runcos anti-reflective coating kept the lights effects under control. My viewing position was just over 10 feet away. When I moved up a couple of feet, the image became less film-like and more pixilated. At 61 inches, you want make sure that you are not sitting right on top of the screen in order to get the smoothest picture from your set.
When I first entered the room, the PL-61cx was being used to display high-definition television via DSS and was set to the HDNet channel. I sat and watched an NHL hockey game for a bit before moving on to DVDs. As an owner of an eight-inch CRT projection system, I must say the 1080i image was truly impressive. There was plenty of brightness, which is needed to display the image with vast areas of white, and no visible motion artifacts. I went through several standard 4:3 ratio television channels as well. The Virtual Wide mode worked well, as I preferred it to having gray bars on the side. Lets face it, most of us would rather view as large an image as possible, even if there is some cropping required. I noted a few artifacts when channel surfing that may have been related to the scaler, but they were minor and never obtrusive.
I moved over to DVDs fairly quickly, the first one being the Superbit edition of The Fifth Element (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). In the scene where Milla Jovovichs character is being magnificently recreated from DNA, the gold foil in the walls was believably reproduced with a great amount of detail. The image was extremely vibrant and the image seemed as though it was ready to literally jump off the screen. When the commander character approached Jovovichs character, I noticed a slight jagged edge in the air vent. Otherwise there were no visible non-film-like artifacts.
I then placed Harry Potter and The Sorcerers Stone (Warner Home Video) into the DVD player and moved to Chapter 4 and the introduction of the giant Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane). This scene is dark and gave me an opportunity to see how the PL-61cx handles tricky shadows. The shadow detail was much better than I expected, but was still a bit shy of a really well-done, professionally set-up CRT projector. I was able to make out most of the details and could even discern the patchwork of Hagrids coat. I confirmed this by watching Chapter 22 of Heat (Warner Home Video. This is the scene where Robert DeNiros bank robber character steps outside and into the shadows of a corner as the SWAT team watches from across the street. I was able to discern DeNiros facial detail but was unable to make out anything else. With my CRT projector, there is additional information that can be seen. The Runco PL-61cx produces black detail better than any panels produced a mere year ago, yet this remains a weak spot in an otherwise stunning technology.
I then moved to Roy Orbisons Black & White Night (Image Entertainment DTS). The PL-61cx handled black and white very well. I have noted that some other displays put a slightly colored tint to black and white sources, despite calibration. Not so with the PL-61cx. Again, I noticed the occasional jagged guitar string, but no other scaling artifacts were visible.
I next looked at Desperado (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). All I can say is that the 10-bit processor works wonders. Salma Hayeks flesh tones provided a good view of the PL-61cxs color balance, as well as an accelerated heartbeat. Note to readers: no matter what source material you are watching, it is always a bad idea to drool on a plasma display.
Lastly, I watched a bit of The Patriot (Columbia/TriStar Home Entertainment). Again, the Runco did a great job of color reproduction. A large amount of this film takes place outdoors in fields. The colors were beautifully rendered and not overdone. Colors that could have looked muted, such as the red coats of the British soldiers, were not exaggerated and over the top - they looked as they should. In Chapter 24, there is some smoke that drifts across the screen, a nightmare for most scalers. The Runco amazed me with its detail. I have seen this same scene on some lesser plasmas at electronics stores and the smoke looked more like cotton balls or bits of Kleenex. Here it looked like smoke.
How To Hide Your Plasma Vision Art
Plasma displays impact a homes interior much less than most other sets, yet some people dont want any TV to be a part of the décor unless the set is actually on. If this is how you feel, you might want to consider a new system called VisionArt. VisionArt is a device that disguises a plasma screen as a piece of artwork when not in use, revealing it only when the screen is in operation.
The easiest way to describe the VisionArt system is as a picture frame with a motorized, retractable canvas that rolls up into the frame when the plasma display is in use. When the plasma is not in use, the picture is unrolled and the artwork is displayed, hiding the blank plasma screen. The roller mechanism can be activated by several different remote systems. Custom installers will have no problem integrating the VisionArt with just about any control system.
The VisionArt uses a giclee method to reproduce over 300 pieces of available art. According to VisionArt, the original artwork is digitally scanned and reproduced at a resolution of four million dots per inch. This process also allows you to have your own art scanned and reproduced if the art in the catalog is not to your liking. In addition to the 300 pieces of artwork, VisionArt also has numerous frame variations to choose from. The current production models operate smoothly and quickly, hiding or exposing the plasma display. When properly installed, one would be hard-pressed to differentiate between the VisionArt and any other piece of artwork on your wall. The VisionArt doesnt come cheap, however. Depending on size, frame choice and artwork selected, the price can range from $7,000 to $9,000. Thats not too outrageous for artwork in a high-end living room.
Plasma displays are not for everyone. They are expensive and have characteristics that need to be considered, as with any big-league home theater display device. A very relevant concern to most potential purchasers is whether the price of plasma displays is going to drop any time soon. It is my opinion that the displays cost, which is price-driven by demand and worldwide manufacturing capacity, will stay stable for some time to come.
All plasma displays suffer from reduced black levels. This is not always especially evident, as your eyes adjust to the deficiency. Eyes can be tricked into perceiving dark grays as blacks when viewed with bright whites. Plasma displays arent the only display devices to suffer from this condition. Both DLP and D-ILA projectors are known for reduced black levels, as well as lower contrast levels.
Although the PL-61cx is a direct-view display, it should be viewed in limited light. Just like direct-view CRT displays, a plasma display will become washed out if viewed in either direct or indirect sunlight.
Dollar for dollar, you can get about twice the screen size for about half the money with high-end DLP and D-ILA digital video systems than you can from a Runco 61-inch plasma display. At the same time, a 61-inch plasma display fits in places that many other screens do not. Big projection systems also require more effort to get all fired up and working. With Runcos plasma, ease of use is more like that of a traditional TV set. In a perfect world, you would have both the D-ILA on a 120-inch screen for nighttime viewing and the Runco 61-inch plasma behind a TechArt for more casual viewing.
The Runco PL-61cx is a product that I would love to own, a sentiment I imagine that many (if not all) others share. I would love to finish this review by saying that I was so impressed that I bought the review unit, but that is simply impossible for my budget. No other display device is like plasma. The Runco is absolutely the best that I have seen so far, and I have seen quite a few recently.
The PL-61cx has the added benefit of being able to be upgraded through the PFP unit as video-processing technology improves, ensuring that owners can take advantage of future improvements. This is a major perk on such a large investment. The Runco PL-61cxs images are bright and very well detailed. In a direct comparison of comparably-sized plasma displays, the burning question is whether Runco's improvements warrants the significant cost, the answer is absolutely without a shadow of doubt - assuming you have the cash. When compared with other plasma displays of equal size, the Runco PL-61cx provided greater detail, less noise, less motion artifacts, and a more beautiful picture. This plasma is perfectly suited for those who have a taste for the best and a budget to match.