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Buying a Discount Plasma TV

Reviewer: Paul Doran

We've seen a lot of interest lately in the bargain-basement Plasma TV models from buyers new to the HDTV market. Manufactured by names like Vizio, Maxent, and Akai, the discount Plasma TV brands rely on low cost parts and high sales volume through discount retail chains and "buyer's club" markets like Costco and Sam's Club to turn a profit in the plasma TV market. Here at Plasma TV Buying Guide, we must admit that a 50" HDTV Plasma in the $2,000 price range definitely caught our attention, but having tested and reviewed a number of these off-brand products over the years, we can't help but be skeptical.

WHAT ARE YOU GETTING FOR YOUR MONEY?

First of all, let's take a closer look at some of these bargain HDTVs and see what we're really getting for the money. The Vizio P50 50" HDTV Plasma, available for around $2,000 at Costco, has an updated look and a decent feature set including table stand and speakers, PIP and HDMI digital input. Since our last Vizio Plasma TV Review, Vizio claims improvements in key areas of specs and performance, including richer color depth and better contrast. But while the numbers look impressive, our experience with the Vizio plasmas begs to differ.

For example, our review of a 42" HDTV plasma from Vizio rates at 82 on our review score scale. Compare that to the average score for a Panasonic Plasma Review, weighing in at 97, and you see a remarkable difference: since our review score scale ranges from 70 to 100, the 15 point difference indicates a 100% improvement in overall quality. The Vizio would have to be quite a steal to make up for what it lacks, but is it? To compare prices, we restricted our search to only, we found the Panasonic TH-50PHUK, one of the best 50" HDTV plasmas we've ever reviewed, for around $2,400. Keep in mind that a high-quality plasma like Panasonic has 10-year lifespan: that's a difference of only $40 a year when factored over the life of the TV. Given the build quality and quality control we've seen in the lower-tier plasmas over the years, you'll be lucky if your new Vizio plasma lasts even half that long.

What's more, one of the major online dealers we surveyed regularly offers a free 4 year extended warranty with it's authorized Panasonic Plasma products—a significant $300 value. Considering the added value and peace of mind given by an extended warranty plan, the discount Vizio TV really falls by the wayside.

The same holds true for the other "discount" brands: We reviewed a 50" Akai plasma last year, which rated a disappointing 77.25 on our review scale. On our 70-100 scale, that amounts to a failing grade. We'd be hard pressed to recommend a product like this at any "bargain-basement" price; it's just not worth it.

"DISCOUNT" PRODUCTS, BUT NO DISCOUNT PRICES

As we looked into the bargain-level HDTV displays, we started to wonder: if we can find an industry-leading brand like Panasonic for a few hundred dollars more than the Costco Vizio plasma, what's going on with their pricing schemes? The discount clubs like Costco and Sam's Club don't just sell the "cheap" models, they carry the big names like Panasonic, Sharp and Sony too. Taking a hard look at price comparisons among the trusted manufacturers, we were surprised at what we found.

We were surprised to find the new Panasonic TH-58PX600U plasma TV listed among Costco's product offerings. This a top-quality, state-of-the-art 58" HDTV plasma with all the trimmings, not some bargain-basement model. We've found the 58" model on offer at authorized internet dealers for around $3,900, in stock and fully covered by the manufacturer's warranty. Costco's "discount" price? $4,699. That's about $800 more!

Thinking this surely was a one-off discrepancy, we looked into other models by the top-name brands, but over and again we found the same result: Sam's Club, for example, offers a Sony KDL-46V2500, a next-generation flat panel LCD HDTV, for $3,299. Again, we made some calls to online, and found a remarkable deal: the same Sony 46" LCD TV, from an Authorized Dealer, for only $2,599! To top it off, we found a dealer offering a 4 year extended warranty—a $350 value—for free.

Again and again, the prices we found at the "discount" chains left a lot to be desired. If you're in the market for a truly top-of-the-line HDTV experience, save your money and do some shopping around! If you're dreaming of that eye-popping 65" flat panel screen, you'll pay too much at Costco: $900 more for a Panasonic TH-65PH8UK 65" plasma, and an astonishing $6,000 more for a Sharp 65" LCD screen!

It really makes you wonder: if the big discount chains are charging hundreds of dollars too much on the Sony, Sharp, and Panasonic HDTVs, how much are they marking up that "discount" Vizio or Maxent plasma? Even if you're willing to trade off the quality of a top-name plasma or LCD flat panel TV for the lower-tier offerings, we feel you could surely do better taking your business elsewhere.






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