If you’ve been following my reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve kept a 42" Hitachi plasma on hand as a reference. The 42HDX61, reviewed in Issue 60, has provided much enjoyment and helped to keep things in perspective when three “bargain” plasmas came in for review in Issue 62. While the 42HDX61 is not “the best” plasma display in every category, it’s certainly right up there in every important way except for black level. With the 42" model still on hand, I was excited about comparing it directly to Hitachi’s newest 55" model, which has completely new “glass,” utilizing a very different technology. While Hitachi’s 42" plasmas use ALiS panels (1024x1024 pixels), the 55" models use WXGA panels (1366x768 pixels) made in a new factory co-owned by Hitachi and Fujitsu (Hitachi being the majority owner with an 80% share). Hitachi claims these new panels have less “dead” space between pixels, which makes for a smoother image and a less noticeable pixel structure.
The 55HDX61 is Hitachi’s top-of-theline Director’s Series plasma. These sets are optimized for the home-theater experience and could initially appear less dynamic than lesser sets, because Hitachi has intentionally limited light output to what the panels can display without crushing whites. The Director’s Series sets also feature a “Deep Black Screen,” which greatly reduces room reflections from ambient lighting. A totally non-reflective black trim subjectively enhances screen contrast even more. In general, the Director’s Series sets are high end all the way, with advanced features and styling that set them apart from the bargain-basement plasmas that seem to be springing up everywhere.
It would be hard to find a feature that’s missing from the 55HDX61. All source connections are made to the external audio-video control box (AVC), which greatly simplifies custom wall-mounting and wiring. Twin HD-compatible component and HDMI inputs (the latter still rare these days) are included, but in an unusual configuration. Video Inputs 1 and 2 each have an HDMI and component input, but priority is given to the HDMI source if it’s active. So, if either HDMI connection is used, the HDMI source must be turned off for the component input to become active. Not exactly convenient.
CableCARD allows digital cable reception without the cable company’s box, greatly simplifying channel organization and selection. And, of course, there’s a built-in tuner for both analog and digital HD over-the-air reception. A USB input allows you to show digital photos on-screen. And AV NET IV, with learning capability, allows full on-screen remote control of your entire system. Additionally, an RS232 interface allows two-way communication between the TV and thirdparty whole-system controllers. Two remotes, including one that’s small and simplified, are supplied. Even a powered base is available, allowing you to rotate the set with the remote control. These are all features that you won’t find on cheaper plasmas.
Hitachi’s 10-bit video processing is advanced as well, and the results are increased definition, fewer artifacts with all sources, and better overall performance with standard-definition (low-resolution) cable or satellite broadcasts. DYNAMIC HISTOGRAM PROCESSING dynamically processes contrast, gamma, color, and sharpness in real time to give improved depth, detail, color, and impact.
Hitachi’s remote control and menu system on the 55HDX61 look the same as those of the 42" set, but their operation feels a bit different. With the 55" set, I noticed an annoying lag to button pushes that wasn’t there with the 42". I tried the remote from the 42" set with the 55HDX61, but the lag and vague communication persisted. Aside from this, the menus are well laid out, and two separate picture adjustment memories (DAY and NIGHT) are provided for each input.
Right out of the box, the 55HDX61 looked impressive. The big 55" screen dwarfed the superb 34" Sony CRT set reviewed elsewhere in this issue and even humbled the 42HDX61. Over and over I found that my attention was drawn to the bigger screen, even when the picture on it was technically less perfect. Let me emphasize: If you’re shopping for a flat screen set, pick a 50–55" display if you can afford one. The viewing experience is simply much more involving than with smaller displays.
The 55HDX61 will immediately strike you as incredibly sharp. Resolution is excellent, but Hitachi has also provided a great deal of edge enhancement to trick your eyes. With some sources, especially DVD movies, this isn’t all good. Nevertheless, you’ll see detail on this set that’s missing from others. David Letterman’s cup (HD over-the-air), which usually shows up near the right edge as you face the screen, has some writing on it that simply wasn’t shown at all with the 34" Sony direct-view. With the Hitachi, you could almost read it. The combination of high resolution, vivid color, and large screen size helped this set achieve the most convincing “you are there” illusion I’ve yet seen on a plasma display, at least with bright HD program material. The illusion was significantly better than with the slightly brighter 42" Hitachi, and, once again, size had a lot to do with it. Hitachi’s dynamic video processing could have helped as well, though devising a test to determine its effectiveness would be difficult.