Panasonic Plasma vs. Sharp LCD TV Review

 

 

 

Models:
Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY / TH-37PD25UP - See Note
Sharp LC-37G4U LCD

Description
37" Plasma TV, Widescreen 16:9 Format
37" LCD TV, Widescreen 16:9 Format

Resolution Plasma Television: 854 x 480 (WVGA)
LCD Television: 1366 x 768 (WXGA)

Reviewer: William Becker

The Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY is Panasonic's sixth-generation professional plasma display unit. It replaces the 37PWD5UZ, and is, without question, Panasonic's best 37-inch plasma monitor yet. Not only has Panasonic upped the stated contrast ratio on this unit to 4000:1, it has also doubled the TH-37PWD6UY's gray scale from 1,024 (the industry standard) to 1,536. The TH-37PWD6UY plasma display also features a newly developed plasma panel structure, which utilizes wall-like ribs around each pixel element to boost total light emission.

The Sharp LC-37G4U 37-inch LCD TV is designed by Toshiyuki Kita, an internationally renowned product designer, and manufactured in Sharp's brand-new, state-of-the-art LCD glass factory in Kameyama, Japan, which came online in January 2004. This LCD display features Sharp's new Quick Shoot video circuit, which is said to achieve sub 16ms response times—among the fastest in the industry—and minimize motion lag in fast-moving scenes. The LC-37G4U also utilizes Sharp's proprietary Advanced View/Black TFT Panel with anti-glare coating for increased brightness levels and viewing angles.

This head-to-head test is being conducted using two of the best-performing displays from their respective categories.

Note
The Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY is the professional version of the TH-37PD25UP consumer model plasma television. As such, the TH-37PWD6UY does not come with a tuner or built-in speakers. The TH-37PD25UP does. Aside from some basic aesthetic differences, though, these plasma TV models are identical: They both have 37-inch screens, 856 x 480 resolutions, and identical pictures. The Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY (professional model) will be used in Picture evaluations. The TH-37PD25UP (consumer model) will be used for Other Considerations and Value judgments, as the Sharp LC-37G4U includes a tuner and speakers, too.


Sharp AQUOS LCD TV vs. Panasonic Plasma Display

The Panasonic Plasma displays excellent, realistic color with high detail.

PICTURE

Panasonic Plasma TV: 96/100

These televisions were tested right out of their boxes, at their respective factory settings. What one usually expects to see right out of the box is eye-popping, cartoon-ish coloration and an extravagantly bright picture. Not so with Panasonic's 37" plasma display. Right out of the box, this Panasonic's coloration was spot-on. Based on picture test material from Video Essentials, we found no reason to adjust the COLOR or TINT settings from the median factory presets (0 on a scale of -15 to 15 for both). And, since realism is the standard for high-end image reproduction, Panasonic's plasma monitor scored very high marks in the picture department, as it produced some of the most realistic looking images we have seen coming from a fixed-pixel display, period.

The Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY plasma TV is an excellent example of plasma's ability to replicate extremely black blacks. One only has to look at the intense blackness of the letterboxing on this Panasonic plasma screen to recognize that much. The black levels on this Panasonic plasma display are stellar, as is its dark material detailing. One of the keys with dark material detailing is achieving a truly variegated gray scale, one that allows for minute distinctions among shades of gray. This Panasonic plasma display achieves just the right mix of truly deep blacks and subtle gradations of black (which are technically gradations of gray, only they don't look that way on the screen). The TH-37PWD6UY plasma monitor employs fully 1,536 levels of gray, and this translates into extra-sharp, extra-detailed shadow detail, which is especially noticeable in a darker film like Veronica Guerin, one of the films we screened for this review.


Panasonic Plasma TV Review

The Panasonic Plasma excels even in dark scenes.

Head to head, the plasma display fared better in the viewing angle department than did LCD monitor. One can just about watch good plasma display units sideways! The Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY plasma screen TV had astoundingly obtuse viewing angles, which I would estimate at 170°, maybe more.

The scaling and processing demonstrated by the TH-37PWD6UY plasma television was impeccable. Naturally, a plasma unit of this resolution (i.e., 854 x 480) displayed progressive-scan DVD signals marvelously. After all, the resolutions do match up perfectly. The Panasonic plasma monitor performs well with other signals, too. The unit displayed data signals well and is capable of displaying them up to a UXGA resolution (i.e., 1600 x 1200). But we preferred the clarity of text and graphics as displayed at 800 x 600, or SVGA resolution. Moreover, the new Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY upconverts satellite and cable signals to progressive-scan quality, which is a real advancement over regular, interlaced TV signals. This Panasonic plasma display evidenced great engineering when it came to its electronic "insides"-i.e., its processing and scaling circuitry.

The Panasonic plasma TV we tested displayed a picture with no noticeable ghosting or pixelation. Hence Panasonic's considerable reputation for image fidelity. This plasma unit also displayed the race scenes from Seabiscuit true, with no noticeable pixelation around the horses' galloping legs

Sharp LCD TV: 92/100

As for the coloration on the 37G4U LCD monitor, we were generally pleased with it, despite the fact that the display's white balance leans toward pink, lending warmth to flesh tones. Such tendencies bother some people. Fortunately, this Sharp LCD TV's TINT function can be adjusted. With the TINT bumped up to 4 (on a scale from -30 [red] to 30 [green]) and the COLOR set at -2, the Sharp 37G4U was very acceptable in color performance.


Sharp LCD TV Review

The Sharp LCD TV provides saturated color and good black levels for an LCD display.

The black levels on Sharp's 37G4U LCD TV were surprisingly good for an LCD display, particularly one of this size. At 37 inches, this Sharp LCD display is fairly sizeable, certainly large enough to be the principal display in a home theater environment. The problem is, the larger LCDs get, the lighter their overall brightness levels and contrast ratios get. And so it is with the Sharp 37G4U LCD TV: Its brightness levels simply could not match up to those of a well-made plasma unit, though, in general, the Sharp's black levels were above-average for an LCD. In fact, one might not notice any particular deficiency in the blacks unless you were watching the very same material side-by-side on a plasma display (which we were).

Sharp does a couple smart things to enhance the black levels on its 37G4U display. First, they include a first-rate anti-glare/darkness-enhancing coating on the LCD screen to counter excessive light emissions, which tend to dull blacks on the screen. Second, Sharp enables the user to adjust the intensity of the backlight powering his or her unit. Since LCD technology operates by blocking, rather than reflecting or emitting, light, the ability to manipulate the amount of light that has to be blocked in order to generate deep, rich blacks greatly enhances the prospects of obtaining decent-if-not-good black levels from this unit. We found that backing off the BACKLIGHT setting on the Sharp 37G4U LCD TV helped it to generate deeper blacks.

The Sharp 37G4U LCD TV, on the other hand, dimmed considerably when you got about 60° or 65° off its central viewing axis. While it is possible to see the picture on Sharp's LCD monitor from the side, we found that, realistically, the LCD screen had a viewing angle of around 125° to 130°.

Given the Panasonic plasma's performance in the scaling/processing department, we had our concerns about the Sharp when it came to displaying a non-native resolution like 480p at its native resolution of 720p. But all these misgivings were allayed as soon as we popped Veronica Guerin in our Sony DVD player. The opening scene, where the camera floats over Dublin's port as a shipment of heroin comes in from sea, literally shone with detailing. This was also evident in the characters' faces throughout the movie. This suggests that the Sharp 37G4U has excellent scaling technology, because its 720p signal looked as good as Panasonic's 480p signal.

As with the Panasonic plasma display, the Sharp LCD display did not show much in the way of false contouring, pixelation, or ghosting. We were especially pleased with the Sharp LCD TV's handling our Ultimate DVD test disc and its torturous Rodeo Clown sequence. Even with the unpredictable bucks and head thrusts of a raging bull, the Sharp kept its cool, depicting no ghosting or pixelation that we could detect.

The only thing we noticed with respect to the Sharp's handling of action scenes was an ever-so-slight fuzziness that appeared as the scenes changed repeatedly. This will hardly be distracting to the average viewer, though real video sticklers will notice this—and probably complain about it.

We were pleased with the 37G4U's handling of 720p HD signals, which it readily upconverted to its native resolution of 768p. HDTV signals on the Sharp LCD TV looked stunning, deep and full of detail! Even with a 1080i video signal, which had to be de-interlaced and re-scaled, the Sharp did not miss a beat. Likewise with its handling of computer signals via its DVI-I input: The 37G4U displayed XGA (1024 x 768) data signals with extraordinary clarity and sharpness. Both graphics- and data-intensive applications looked good on the screen, though the Sharp LCD's real strength is its ability to display letters and numbers with perfect geometry and precision for long periods of time with no burn-in. The Sharp 37G4U LCD monitor bests the Panasonic plasma display performance-wise with graphics and data signals.

Picture-wise, these are both good performers. The Panasonic TH-37PWD6UY plasma display edged out the Sharp LCD display in three of the four major categories-color fidelity, brightness, and viewing angles-though not by much. To our eyes, Sharp's LCD TV tied Panasonic's plasma TV in the signal processing/scaling department. The Sharp LCD monitor had the edge with data signals. LCD technology has clearly come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, all the way to becoming a genuine rival to plasma technology, at least in the under-40-inch category.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Both the Panasonic plasma TV and the Sharp LCD TV ran quietly—almost silently—throughout our tests. We were hard-pressed to hear it from even a foot away, let alone from the six to eight feet of viewing distance recommended for 37-inch displays like these. Even Sharp's set-top box ran whisper-quiet.

As for the dimensional component of the Plasma vs. LCD showdown, we'll have to call it a toss-up as well. Both the Panasonic TH-37PD25UP plasma TV and the Sharp 37G4U LCD TV have depths of 3.9 inches with their speakers attached. Both had more than adequate audio systems of 16W and 20 W, respectively. Neither display is going to win any home-theater audio awards, but neither one is going to disappoint the casual viewer, provided he or she has realistic expectations for what a built-in, mock-surround-sound audio system can do.

Panasonic Plasma TV: 92/100

The Panasonic TH-37PD25UP features an enhanced jack pack, which features front and back inputs: 2 component video inputs (back); 3 S-video inputs (1 front, 2 back); 3 composite video inputs (1 front, 2 back); HDMI interface (back); VGA input (back); PC audio input (back); 5 RCA-type audio inputs (back). This plasma display also includes a Memory Card slot. In short, Panasonic's plasma display will not fall into obsolescence any time soon.

But its picture will fade over time. The half-life on this well-made plasma TV is 30,000 hours, after which time the screen will be half as bright as it was out of the box. The decline in screen brightness will probably be imperceptible, since it occurs quite slowly over time. Burn-in, on the other hand, will be quite noticeable, if one fails to take some common-sense precautions against it. Although most of the big-name manufacturers have taken great steps to ward off burn-in in their plasma TVs, the possibility of burn-in occurring on a plasma screen persists. Which makes this plasma a less-than-stellar candidate as a working computer monitor. Reasonable care is more than enough to prevent burn-in in the first place, but there is nothing like immunity—especially if one intends to have his or her flat panel TV double as a computer monitor.

So, while the Panasonic plasma is a more-than-adequate television, it is probably a bit less versatile than the Sharp LCD is, which is one reason why the Sharp gets the nod here.

Sharp LCD TV: 94/100

The Sharp 37G4U LCD TV matches up nicely with the Panasonic TH-37PD25UP plasma TV, input-wise. The Sharp has all rear-facing inputs, in similar quantities as the Panasonic: 2 component video inputs, 3 composite video inputs, a DVI input, an HDMI interface, 3 RCA-type audio inputs, and a PC audio input. The only difference between these two units is that the Panasonic plasma display has 3 S-video inputs, whereas the Sharp LCD monitor only has only one. (There is a corresponding disparity in audio inputs, two less on the Sharp LCD TV since it has two fewer S-video inputs.) All things considered, these flat panel displays tie one another in the connectivity department.

Where the Sharp LCD really outpaces the plasma, though, is in the screen integrity/longevity department. The single greatest distinction between plasma and LCD displays—besides picture quality and coloration—has to do with the imperviousness of LCD screens to burn-in and the renewability of their picture elements. The florescent bulb that powers the Sharp's picture should realistically last about as long as the plasma TV's half-life, 30,000 hours. The bulb may not burn out for a few thousand more hours, but its white balance will probably have changed enough and the bulb itself will probably have dimmed dramatically enough to merit replacement. Whereas one would have to replace an entire plasma TV in such instances, one only has to replace the bulb in the Sharp LCD. The Sharp LCD TV can be returned to "like-new" performance levels with a simple bulb change out, which Sharp's Service Center assured us can be done by the user him- or herself. Thus, the Sharp Aquos line has a big advantage over Panasonic's plasma line when it comes to performance over time.

A well-made plasma may have a slight edge, picture-wise, over a similarly well-made LCD display, but users can count on their LCD TVs to continue to perform, given a minimal investment (around $270 for a new lamp), indefinitely.

VALUE

Panasonic Plasma TV: 94/100

Between the Panasonic TH-37PD25UP plasma display and the Sharp 37G4U LCD display, the real value has to be the Panasonic unit. The prices of both these flat-panel TVs reflect the cost of tuners and speakers as included with the units. In this scenario, we had to give the Panasonic plasma the nod: For a street price of around $2600 for the Panasonic plasma TV, one saves about $1400 over the comparably equipped LCD TV (which has a street price around $4000). Simply put, the Panasonic TH-37PD25UP is an excellent value. The disparity in price has very little to do with the quality of the additional features, the tuner and speakers, when you consider the fact that the Panasonic plasma comes with a 16W sound system (versus a 20W sound system on the Sharp LCD, which, to our ears, sounded no better or worse than the 16W system on the Panasonic), and an integrated NTSC/ATSC tuner (versus a set-top box containing only an NTSC tuner with the Sharp). One simply gets more for his or her money, picture-wise, with plasma display technology, mostly because LCD glass screens still cost more to produce—especially in larger sizes—than plasma screens do.

The Panasonic might have scored higher if it had been an HD-ready unit. Even with just an 854 x 480 resolution, this plasma TV seems like a steal. After all, it is an enhanced-definition television.

Sharp LCD TV: 88/100

Although the Sharp 37G4U LCD television is a good unit, its price seems a bit high for a 37-inch widescreen display, high definition or not. This really goes to show how expensive LCD screens can get when they approach HD-quality pixel counts, as this one does.

In a head-to-head competition, Panasonic's TH-37PWD6UY and TH-37PD25UP plasma TVs bested their flat-panel display cousin, the Sharp 37G4U LCD TV. Plasma technology's margin of victory has shrunk over time, except where price/value is concerned.

OVERALL RATINGS (with Picture double-weighted)

Panasonic Plasma TV: 93.75/100
Sharp LCD TV: 91.5/100





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