Every once in a while, a product comes along that offers a level of performance, features, and styling at a price so low, it practically takes your breath away. The Vizio P50 HDM fits this profile to a T. This 50-inch plasma monitor sells for under $2000 at big-box retailers. As I write this, the Vizio is the least expensive 50-inch plasma panel on the market, and by a wide margin; the circulars in a recent Los Angeles Times indicate that name-brand 50- inch plasmas now start at $2999. But don’t let the Vizio’s low MSRP of $1999.95 fool you—this is not some generic, stripped-down clone.
For example, rather than the noname video processing circuit you’d expect at this price point, the P50 HDM incorporates an upscale Faroudja DCDi processor. This highly regarded chipset effectively deinterlaces and scales incoming 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i video signals to the panel’s native 1366x768 resolution. The efficacy of this processor is nowhere more evident than on the long traveling-pan sequence that opens Star Trek: Insurrection. On the Vizio, this torture-test scene was rendered with smooth, jaggy-free arches and diagonals.
The Vizio also features a surprisingly comprehensive video-input suite. There are two HDMI inputs, which accept all the SD and HD video-signal formats, including 480i. These digital inputs are compatible with HDCP copy protection and should work fine with an HD DVD or Blu-ray player. There are also two component-video inputs, a single RGB input, and two 480i-only inputs with composite-video and S-video jacks. All the video inputs, even HDMI, are accompanied by analog L/R audio jacks. In fact, the only input conspicuous by its absence is one for the front panel.
Look and Feel
The P50 HDM ships with a tabletop stand, but you can also hang the set on a wall using an accessory mounting bracket. The Vizio Web site lists two options: the tiltable VMT42-55 ($149.99) and the fixedangle VMF42-55 ($99.99), which enables you to hang the monitor flush to the wall. There is certainly nothing cheaplooking about the cabinet styling or materials, and the overall build quality seems fully on par with any mainstream brand. The screen is surrounded by a slim, gloss-black bezel, which looks great but can reflect ambient light. The actual display-panel surface is also quite shiny, so you’ll want to turn off any ambient lighting to prevent annoying reflections. The preprogrammed universal remote is clearly labeled and logically laid-out. It’s not illuminated, but that’s easy to forgive considering the set’s price. The usual sequential INPUT but-ton is supplemented by a row of quickaccess buttons that call up the AV, ANALOG HD (component), and DIGITAL HD (HDMI) inputs; for example, you push the AV button once for AV1 and again for AV2.
The onscreen user-menu system is straightforward, though some adjustments require overly complicated button- push sequences. A graphic slider replaces the full menu display when you are adjusting an individual video parameter such as BRIGHTNESS, CONTRAST, and so on. The slider is larger than it needs to be, but not so large as to interfere with most test patterns. On the other hand, the service menu is among the worst I’ve seen. This won’t affect most consumers, but technicians will likely gnash their teeth if they go in and do a full calibration. My only real complaint about the Vizio has to do with its rear-mounted cooling fans, which were annoyingly loud on my early-production review sample. Fortunately, this flaw seems to be a sample-to-sample problem, rather than something endemic to the P50 HDM.
The P50 HDM needed only a minimum amount of front-panel tweaking to look remarkably good right out of the box. Simply select the MOVIE picture mode, then adjust the BRIGHTNESS setting to 41 or 42, CONTRAST to 40, and SHARPNESS to no more than 11. This will get you into the ballpark for component- video and HDMI sources; composite-video sources such as VCRs and the like might require additional adjustments to look their best. Just remember that you need to repeat the adjustments for each input you use.
Well-transferred DVDs looked fantastic on the P50 HDM. The set produced a beautifully detailed image, with plenty of light output and impressively deep blacks. Having just finished a review of the very expensive NuVision NVX37HDU LCD TV (see Issue 68) that simply couldn’t do black, I was delighted by the Vizio’s ability to render critical shadow details in the nighttime scenes that open The Bourne Identity.
The Vizio also showed off HDTV to excellent effect, and in those rare moments when my Adelphia cable service was not compressing the signal to within an inch of its life, the picture was quite capable of drawing me in with the almost magical sense of detail and depth that only high-def can create. It should go without saying that this is hardly the ultimate HD display—the advent of 1080p products means that no 720p or 768p device need apply for that title. And yes, there are 720p plasma displays that will render HD signals with better detail than the Vizio, but you’ll pay dearly for a marginal improvement. I suspect that the vast majority of people buying this TV will be experiencing HD for the first time and that they will be bowled over by how good it looks.