Product Review

NEC 42XR4 42" Flat Panel Plasma TV

Part I

April, 2006

Ofer LaOr




● 42" Diagonal Plasma Flat Panel Display

● Resolution: 1024x768

● Formats Supported: 480i, 480p, 525i, 525p, 540p, 625i,
    625p, 720p, 1035i, 1080i,1080p

● Inputs: Two HDMI, Two Component Video, S-Video,
    Composite Video, D-Sub, Two Analog Audio

● Viewing Angle: 1600

● Internal Stereo Amplifier (8 Watts x 2); With Speakers

● Dimensions: 24" H x 40.2" W x 3.9" D

● Weight: 60 Pounds

● MSRP: $3,995 USA



The 42XR4 is NEC's second try at a 42 inch HDTV plasma (XGA resolution = 1024 by 768), and a quite interesting display for me to test.

Traditionally, NEC Plasma Display Panels (PDP) focused on industrial markets like exhibitions, airports, fast food restaurants, etc. They looked like an industrial display - a simple grayish or silver bezel - and behaved like it too.

Their features allowed one to set up the PDP in "retina burn" mode that would actually compel one to wear sunglasses when too close to the display. This is in complete contrast with PDPs like Panasonic or Pioneer who targeted home theater audiences, forcing the displays to be a bit more protective of the panel from misuse.

Because the panels were intended to be in use primarily in bright environments, NEC PDPs were designed to be bright, with far less emphasis on contrast ratio and black levels.

NEC plasma facilities were purchased by Pioneer last year, and the factory now produces panels for both companies. Pioneer apparently had the idea that NEC would continue to concentrate on the industrial markets, while Pioneer could quietly center on the consumer business.

The NEC 42XR4

The first thing one sees when first viewing the 42XR4 is that NEC has completely turned around and changed their PDP business strategy. The display has deeper blacks than any previous NEC plasma. It is surprisingly BLACK.

Another big surprise is the outer bezel design, which is more stylish than any other NEC display a thin silver stripe surrounding a stylish black bezel. NEC finally discovered that consumers often weigh in the look and style of the display when making purchasing decisions.

The deep blacks measured quite high:1200:1 on the panel itself, translating to roughly 4000:1 in "plasma manufacturer marketing speak", owing much of the contrast ratio to the deep blacks, rather than brighter whites.

Blacks are a really tough nut to crack for flat panel displays, but dark grays are also a major issue. For example, 10,000:1 panels usually do blacks (0 IRE) quite well, but fail miserably with dark IREs (< 20IRE) usually tinting greenish or red and producing a grainy and unacceptable image. When shopping for panels, one should always try to see how the panel behaves with very dark grays and blacks, preferably in a dim or no light environment. In any case, this is not the case with this panel, which produced quite balanced grays even with very low IRE levels.

However, this does not come without a price. The display flickers and grains quite dramatically on normal content. This is a side effect of the "time modulation" process that plasmas use to produce mid-tones. A plasma pixel can only be turned on or off, it cannot produce intermediate shades like an LCD can. To produce those intermediate shades, plasma pixels blink, e.g., turned on roughly 50% of the time to produce 50% of a particular shade. The eye filters this blinking (in theory), and this produces a "time modulation" version of mid-tones.

This technique is very complex and requires complex timing and electronics to work correctly. A change in the blinking behavior can cause increased grain and video noise on the image. Both grain and noise are visible on the 42XR4. At a distance of about 7 feet, I can still see this noise, but beyond that distance, the issue slowly disappears. If you are planning on using the display at a smaller viewing distance, I would recommend against it.

Connectivity wise, the 42XR4 is somewhat different from previous NEC models like the 42XR3 or 42VR5. Gone are the old 5xBNC RGBHV connections, and these are replaced with a single VGA connector (which can double as a SCART/RGBcvS through a special cable or adapter). The display contains two component inputs, a composite and S-Video input, and two HDMI connectors. There are also several sets of audio inputs (for such things as connecting a DVD player with a DVI output where the audio has to be connected separately).

Each input includes a stereo RCA connection for audio, whereas the display can decode the audio stream from the HDMI inputs (I believe this is restricted to stereo only), or use the stereo input for input 3. Of course, none of these audio inputs are serious replacements for routing the audio directly through your receiver, and such a connection is strongly discouraged.

Click Here to Go to Part II.

Copyright 2006 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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