It's been said that you don't miss something until after its gone. Well, it's been awhile since I've spent considerable time with an HD plasma and I must say it wasn't until the LG 50PZ550 arrived on my doorstep that I realized how much I missed having a quality plasma display in my home. The whole world may be turning to LED backlit LCD HDTVs but that doesn't mean there still isn't an argument to be made for the technology that started it all - good 'ol plasma. For instance the LG 50PZ550 reviewed here isn't just your run of the mill plasma, it's a 3D capable, Internet ready 50-inch beauty that just so happens to not cost a fortune. In fact the 50PZ550 lists for $1,299 though its street price is often lower - much lower. Having just finished reviewing some of the best LED-based HDTVs available today, how would the LG stack up?
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The 50PZ550 is one of the more stylish looking HDTVs I've seen, with its minimal bezel and smooth, high-gloss piano black frame. It's outward appearance is that of a finely tailored suit, one that exudes quality and class as opposed to showcasing cost cutting measures, such as using cheap plastics like so many of today's HDTV displays. The 50PZ550 itself measures 46 inches wide by 28 inches tall and two inches deep without its stand. With its included table stand the 50PZ550's height increases to 30 inches and its depth to 11 inches. As for the 50PZ550's weight, it tips the scales at a hefty 60 pounds without its stand and 65 pounds with its stand.
The front bezel is void of any "visible" hard controls; instead all hard controls are touch-based and are located along the bottom right edge of the 50PZ550's bezel. The 50PZ550 has three 3D compliant HDMI inputs located around back accompanied by two component video inputs as well as a host of legacy inputs for both audio and video. The 50PZ550 has RS-232 support as well as an Ethernet port that allows the 50PZ550 to connect to the Internet. There's a Wi-Fi adaptor that can be had as well, though it is sold separately. Along the left side of the 50PZ550 you'll find an additional HDMI input as well as two USB 2.0 inputs and an AV input.
The 50PZ550 has a native pixel resolution of 1920x1080 with a reported contrast ratio of three million to one with a refresh rate of 600Hz. The 50PZ550 is ISF certified and comes with two ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) pre-calibrated picture modes, "Expert 1" and "Expert 2," which I'll talk about later. The 50PZ550 even goes so far as to embed various calibration patterns and tests in the 50PZ550's menus so you can further calibrate its image without having to rely on expensive calibration tools or discs. Another notable image feature includes the 50PZ550's "Just Scan" mode, which preserves the entire image, presenting it pixel for pixel on the screen versus cutting off the side one or two percent as with other HDTVs. Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't discuss the 50PZ550's 3D capabilities, for it is, after all, a 3D-capable plasma. Unlike some of LG's newer 3D HDTVs, the 50PZ550 is not a passive 3D display - instead it relies on active shutter glasses, which sadly are not included in the purchase price. Though depending on where you do your shopping, there are several deals to be had with regards to free 3D glasses with purchase of any LG 3D HDTV. LG will also convert 2D images to 3D as well, though obviously the effect won't be as good or convincing as native 3D content.
With the buzz among HDTVs being LED, it's important to point out that while the 50PZ550 doesn't employ any sort of LED back or edge lighting, it's not a pig on power the way older generation plasmas were. The 50PZ550 draws a scant point two Watts in standby and up to 149 Watts when on. In comparison, a comparably priced and sized LED HDTV from Sharp draws 180 Watts when on. It appears you don't have to go LED in order to go "green." The 50PZ550s is Energy Star rated and even features an APS (Auto Power Saving) picture mode as well as an Intelligent Sensor Mode to maximize the 50PZ550's energy saving potential.
Which brings me to the remote. The 50PZ550's remote control is a long, narrow wand that is cleanly and clearly laid out and features full, push button backlighting. There aren't any direct controls for source selection such as HDMI 1 or HDMI 2, but everything else is present and accounted for, making it easy to use and live with day-to-day. I generally hate remotes but the 50PZ550's remote isn't bad.
Unboxing the 50PZ550 is easy enough for one, though removing it may require a helping hand - though if you've been eating your Wheaties you can probably manage solo. Once out of the box you have to decide whether or not to put the 50PZ550 on your wall or on its included table stand. Since my time with the LG was limited, I opted for the table stand which was easy to assemble and attach to the bottom of the 50PZ550 itself. I placed the 50PZ550 dead center of my Omni+ Vent home theater cabinet that houses my reference gear consisting of an Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp, Parasound 5250 v2 multi-channel amp, Sony universal 3D Blu-ray player, Dish Network HD DVR and AppleTV. I normally connect all my sources direct to the display for any HDTV review. This time I didn't; instead I relied on a single HDMI cable from Transparent to carry the signal(s) from my Integra processor to the LG 50PZ550. To ensure the Integra wasn't altering or enhancing the image, I turned all of its video processing to "through." Out of the box to ready to watch took about 30 minutes, give or take, but that didn't include calibration.
I went into the 50PZ550 review with high hopes, for I knew it was an ISF certified set. Not wanting to be swayed by its factory settings, I didn't allow myself to look at the ISF picture modes, instead opting for the 50PZ550's "standard" picture mode as my jumping off point for my own calibration tests. Using both my Digital Video Essentials (DVE) disc on Blu-ray as well as my Monster Calibration Disc on DVD, I was able to dial in the 50PZ550's image quite nicely with very little effort. Upon completion of my calibration test, I checked against the 50PZ550's ISF factory settings and found that I was within one or two clicks of their settings, leading me to believe that any casual viewer could pop the 50PZ550 into either of its two ISF picture modes and be good - no additional calibration required. Of course, those looking to extract the last ounce of performance from the 50PZ550 will be able to do so, for the level of control provided to you by the 50PZ550's on-screen menus is staggering.
I did demo the 50PZ550's included calibration tests and patterns and found them to be quite useful, though not quite as exact as some of the tests found on any DVE or professional calibration disc. I should also point out that for the duration of my review I left all of the 50PZ550's energy saving settings off to ensure maximum image performance 100 percent of the time.
I should also mention that the 50PZ550's on-screen menus are a breath of fresh air and an absolute delight to use. Even the 50PZ550's Q.Menu or quick menu is highly functional and intuitive. I thought Samsung had the best OSDs on the market but I think that title now goes to LG, for I found nothing objectionable about the 50PZ550's menus.
Normally I don't dive right into the 3D content but since I generally don't care for 3D, especially active 3D, I thought it best to get it over with. I started with Disney's Tron: Legacy on Blu-ray 3D (Disney). The 50PZ550 doesn't normally include 3D active shutter glasses but the folks at LG included a pair in the box for this review - if only they would do the same for you. I powered up the glasses and waited a few seconds for the 50PZ550 to sync up before proceeding with the film. Upon insertion of a 3D disc you're prompted by not one, but two on-screen warnings. The first alerting you to the fact that you're about to watch a 3D movie and the second, warning you that you could experience some discomfort and should cease watching should you become disoriented or sick. I don't remember 2D coming with any warnings. What would a 2D warning look like - warning you you're about to enjoy your show? Well, not one to heed warnings, I proceeded with Tron: Legacy and you know what? I'm glad I did for the 50PZ550's 3D performance was ... good.
Read more about the performance of the LG 50PZ550 3D Plasma HDTV on Page 2.
Tron: Legacy in 3D, using active shutter glasses, was actually enjoyable for me - and I hate 3D. The 50PZ550's active 3D presentation felt more like a passive 3D one, for I could detect no flicker, ghosting or any of the other maladies I've come to associate with active 3D demos. Upon inserting a 3D disc, your previous picture settings are overridden and switched to a "vivid," due to the fact that 3D content cuts down on any display's brightness. In the case of the 50PZ550, its "vivid" setting wasn't atrocious. Furthermore, you could still switch the 50PZ550 into other, more pleasing picture modes such as "standard" or "cinema" when viewing 3D content, though sadly ISF's "Expert 1 and 2" were out.
Still, in "standard" mode the 50PZ550's 3D image was nicely defined with strong contrast and sharpness in all but the absolute darkest regions of the image. Edge fidelity was strong and remained steadfast in the face of rapid motion, be it on screen action or camera movements. Colors were nicely saturated with little visible "shimmer," which can happen with some 3D sets be they active or passive. LG warns that you should sit at least two-meters (six feet) away from the screen when watching 3D content, which I agree with; however you can also sit too far away. There seems to be a limited "zone" where everything comes together and works in perfect harmony with regards to the 50PZ550's 3D performance - in my room that was between seven and nine feet. If I exceeded nine feet, things got a little wonky and the 3D effect began to break up, producing some minor ghosting and noticeable flicker when viewing action sequences. The same was true if I sat too close. Another thing I noticed about the 50PZ550's 3D performance when compared to other 3D sets that I've reviewed is it tended to favor depth over extension. What I mean by that is some 3D displays keep the action closer to the screen plane whereas the 50PZ550's 3D image seemed to recess for days.
LG's active shutter 3D glasses weren't as comfortable as, say, passive 3D glasses. For my temples and ears the LG active shutter glasses were far superior to both Samsung's and Panasonic's offerings, allowing me to watch Tron: Legacy from start to finish without strain.
Wanting to make sure what I experienced with Tron: Legacy wasn't a fluke, I cued up Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D on Blu-ray (Sony).
With less CG imagery to "hide in," the 50PZ550's 3D performance on Afterlife was again quite enjoyable and in some instances even better than Tron: Legacy. The wide shots of Arcadia, Alaska were breathtaking to behold in 3D and lent a true sense of scope to the image, not to mention isolation. Colors were more natural with Afterlife and again showed little signs of shimmer. Edge fidelity was again crisp and in some instances too crisp giving foreground elements, especially actors sharing a rack focus, a bit of a cut-out look, though every 3D set I've demo'ed is guilty of this. Motion was smooth and possessed little to no flicker and when viewing in a completely darkened room I could detect zero ghosting or double imagery. Contrast was solid but not what I'd classify as wholly nuanced while black levels were good for 3D. As with Tron: Legacy, I was able to watch Afterlife in its entirety without strain or fatigue, which is the highest compliment I can pay any active 3D display.
Satisfied with the 50PZ550's 3D performance, I decided to see what it was made of using one of my favorite torture tests, David Fincher's Se7en on Blu-ray (New Line Cinema). With the ISF "Expert 1" picture mode engaged, the 50PZ550 didn't disappoint. Obviously Se7en is a dark film so immediately I was drawn into the 50PZ550's black level performance which I must say is phenomenal to a point - that point being contrast at the extremes. In the darkest regions of the image, like what you'll see in the gluttony scenes, the 50PZ550's blacks proved to be deep and rich though they lacked that last ounce of detail and contrast at the extremes. Was it distracting? No, in fact I'm willing to bet few would even notice or see it as an issue, but I've seen this film countless times and in some instances in professional settings and know there is more in the darkest recesses of the image than what the 50PZ550 always showcased. Still, minus a little low light contrast and black level detail at the extremes, the 50PZ550's black level performance was solid, possessing inky blacks that were nicely detailed and rich with texture. While Se7en's color pallet is a bit subdued, it never felt anything but natural. Through the 50PZ550, skin tones were lifelike and natural in their rendering, possessing film-like like texture and detail versus artificial sharpness. Highlights, especially the bright often blown out beams of the detectives' flashlights, were rendered faithfully and without bloom or coloration. Motion was smooth as silk and produced no noticeable artifacts even when panning by or shooting through sharp, contrasting lines and textures. Plasma displays have their own unique noise structure, which in cheaper plasmas can become distracting; not the case with the 50PZ550, for from my viewing distance of say, nine feet I couldn't detect any display noise in even the hottest of highlights.
Next, I cued up the romantic comedy The Switch on Blu-ray (Lionsgate) starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman. The Switch isn't what I'd call a visual tour de force for it doesn't rely on a lot of heavy color correction or wiz-bang camera trickery; instead it opts to be as "real" as possible. One of the nice things about this particular film is its use of shallow depth of field whereby the subjects in the foreground stand out in stark contrast to the often-blurry background. This is a great way to test any HDTV's edge fidelity, detail and texture, which I'm pleased to say the 50PZ550 passed with flying colors. Everything about the 50PZ550's image was sharp and focused without feeling "enhanced" or appearing unnatural. The depth to the 2D image was phenomenal and reminded me of my earlier 3D demo of Resident Evil: Afterlife in many respects. Likewise the 50PZ550's accurate colors proved to be equally stunning, especially in the skin tones of the beautiful Jennifer Aniston. Black levels were deep with solid texture and contrast throughout, though in all fairness The Switch isn't Se7en in terms of its use of blacks. Motion was again smooth and artifacts and noise, including plasma noise, were virtually non-existent.
I ended my evaluation of the 50PZ550 with a special one-off demo, which is a two and a half minute trailer in 1080p of my film, April Showers, taken straight from the 4K digital master and encoded in Divx - yes the 50PZ550 is Divx compatible. I loaded the file onto a USB flash drive and inserted it into the side of the 50PZ550 via one of its two USB 2.0 inputs. Selecting the appropriate USB drive, the 50PZ550 immediately recognized the file and played it without hesitation once selected. There is a wide shot where a group of students are walking into their school which is immediately followed by a rack focus between our two love interests played by actress Ellen Woglom and actor Kelly Blatz. The detail in the wide shot was presented in its full glory through the 50PZ550 and in my eyes diminished little in terms of quality from that of the 4K master. In the subsequent rack focus shot, Woglom's blowing wisps of blonde hair retained their fidelity as they drifted between the dark, lush vegetation behind to the open, bright sky above - a testament to the 50PZ550's phenomenal contrast. These are two shots that I often use to check an HDTV's performance, for I know precisely what they should look like and how they should react and the 50PZ550 passed the test beautifully. Sadly, this demo doesn't exist anywhere but in my own home, for the image quality of the home video release of the film suffered a little at the hands of some invasive compression.
The 50PZ550 is a wonderful plasma, especially when you consider its asking price and feature set. That being said, there are a few small items that I took issue with during my time spent with the 50PZ550.
I don't like that everything about the 50PZ550 seems to be à la carte when it comes to its two biggest features, 3D and Internet connectivity. Most HDTVs with Internet connectivity at this price have Wi-Fi built in but the 50PZ550 does not. You can hardwire the 50PZ550 to your network via its Ethernet port or you can pop for an optional Wi-Fi adaptor, which only drives the cost of ownership up. Likewise with regards to the 50PZ550's lack of 3D active shutter glasses included with purchase. In today's highly competitive HDTV marketplace these are items that have to be included in order to win favor with consumers, for no one likes to get to the counter only to find out they need to buy more stuff.
When and if you connect the 50PZ550 to your home network, the lack of Apps may be a bummer though the main three - Netflix, CinemaNow and Vudu - are present as well as a few others such as YouTube and Picasa. Those of you more familiar with Samsung's or Vizio's Apps will undoubtedly find the 50PZ550's somewhat of a letdown. Personally I don't feel the need to Tweet or Facebook while watching my favorite Blu-rays so this is a non-issue for me and perhaps for you too.
While the 50PZ550 is proven to be as energy efficient as many of its LED based competitors, there's nothing efficient about the way it builds up heat. The 50PZ550 can get real hot, real fast. Not too hot as to cause damage to you or the 50PZ550, but its heat issue is definitely worth noting - especially after long viewing sessions.
In brightly lit rooms the 50PZ550's screen can and does become more than a little reflective which degrades the image a bit and in the case of 3D completely destroys it. This isn't a knock against the LG specifically, for a lot of HDTVs suffer from this same ailment but nevertheless it's something to keep in mind if you're planning on installing your 50PZ550 in a non-light controlled environment. However, the 50PZ550's 3D performance is best in a completely darkened room.
Competition and Comparisons
There are a number of 3D HDTVs on the market today though fewer and fewer of them seem to be of the plasma ilk. That being said, the 50PZ550 does not exist on an island for it goes head-to-head with plasmas from the likes of Samsung and Panasonic.
Panasonic offers their ST30 Series of plasmas, which can be had in a variety of sizes ranging from 42 to 65 inches and, on paper, put up similar if not identical specs to that of the 50PZ550. The comparable ST30 3D plasma from Panasonic lists for $1,499.95, which is a little more than the 50PZ550, though like the 50PZ550 the Panasonic doesn't come with the necessary active shutter glasses.
As for Samsung, their PNC8000 Series comes in a wide variety of sizes just like the LG and Panasonic and features, again, very similar specs and features though the 50-inch model lists for around $1,699 and like the LG and Panasonic does not come standard with active 3D glasses - making it the most expensive of the lot overall.
It never ceases to amaze me when I look back and see just how far we've come in terms of technology and performance in such a short amount of time. The LG 50PZ550 3D plasma has arguably one of the best images I've seen from not only a plasma display but any HDTV period, yet it doesn't cost you an arm and a leg to obtain it. The 50PZ550's 3D capability (which I actually liked), ISF certification and Internet connectivity only sweeten what I consider to already be a pretty sweet deal. Granted, the 50PZ550 doesn't have Wi-Fi built-in nor does it come with active shutter glasses but at its current street price, which is far below its MSRP, I'm not sure I care for the 50PZ550's overall value is simply incredible.
If you're in the market for a large, affordable 3D HDTV and aren't dead set on it having to be an LCD or LED LCD display, I strongly urge you to take look at the 50PZ550 or its larger sibling the 60PZ550, for both are definitely worth it and will probably save you a lot of money in the process.
• Read more 3D HDTV reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com's staff.
• See other reviews in our Plasma HDTV Review section.
• Search for a 3D-capable Blu-ray player in our Blu-ray Player Review section.