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The Darker Side
Plasma HDTVs are renown for their deep blacks and accurate colors. While LCDs often have a washed-out look which washes away the details in shadows, plasma HDTVs are able to depict the slightest changes in texture even in pitch black scenes. This makes them preferred by many home theater enthusiasts.
Buying a good plasma television is important, however, both for reasons of reliability and for picture quality. As with any product, it can be tempting to buy a generic brand. But, plasma technology in particular has been focused on by some specific companies which have put a great deal of money into researching ways to obtain the best picture. The three brands below make excellent sets across a variety of price points.
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Samsung is quickly becoming one of the premier household electronic brands. They make everything from cell phones to laptops, and, while Samsung has not excelled in every market it has entered, it has done extremely well with HDTVs. Most of the public attention on Samsung has been in regards to their LCD HDTVs, which have consistently provided sharp, vibrant pictures. This is a function of public perception, however, as consumers do tend to purchase LCDs far more often than plasmas. Samsung's plasma HDTVs are also excellent and well deserving of praise.
Generally speaking, Samsung's plasma HDTVs are above average. Their color accuracy is quite good, but Samsung seems less eager to offer 1080p resolution in smaller plasma HDTVs. This is fine for most eyes, but something to keep in mind. Samsung's quality control reputation has been extremely good. The picture quality of Samsung plasmas is probably their weakest spot, although that is only relative to extremely stiff competition from Pioneer and Panasonic. Samsung sets tend to make up for this with affordability. As a result, Samsung plasmas are likely a good choice for those who want a good plasma set on a budget.
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Perhaps no other brand has as trusted a reputation as Panasonic. The company has been making HDTVs for years and is largely responsible for the continued availability of the the plasma HDTV despite the product's focused nature in comparison to competing LCD products. Take a look at any editor's choice list from any website or magazine interested in HDTVs, and Panasonic sets are sure to be on it. For most buyers, a Panasonic set will provide the best picture possible.
That aside, Panasonic sets are also notable for their affordability. Panasonic's 42" plasma HDTVs are incredible values, as they can be purchased for under a thousand dollars. Similarly sized LCDs are certainly available, but they will not be able to match these low-cost Panasonic plasmas when it comes to displaying darker images.
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Pioneer's name makes sense when it comes to HDTVs, as Pioneer has indeed been one of the pioneers of plasma HDTVs and HDTVs generally. Considering the similarity in the names and the focus on plasma both Panasonic and Pioneer display, it is easy to get the two mixed up. That said, Pioneer's plasmas are a cut above. Not just above Panasonic, but above anything else on the market. Pioneer's plasma HDTVs have repeatedly been cited as the best HDTVs that money can buy. If you're looking for the Ferrari of HDTVs, this is it.
It is a shame, then, that Pioneer recently announced its departure from the market. Apparently, the critical reviews of Pioneer's sets did not translate into profits. The good news for today's buyer is that Pioneer has not yet fully exited the market and likely will not be fully withdrawn for another year. Pioneer's sets are still sold and discounts may start to become available. This would be good news, as Pioneer's quality has traditionally had a high price attached to it.
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Besides the brands listed above, there are two others to consider. The first is LG. Like Samsung, LG is a broad maker of electronics and is best known for its popular line of cell phones. With Pioneer leaving the market, there is certainly room for another company to step up. That said, reviews of LG sets have been mostly luke-warm. Panasonic and Samsung provide better entry-level options, and LG does not make HDTVs which are competitive with the best sets from any of the above companies.
The final choice is Vizio, the budget brand famous for marketing large, cheap HDTVs which aren't stellar but appear good enough for those looking to get an HDTV fix on the cheap. Vizio, like Pioneer, is also now exiting the market, and Vizio plasmas are already difficult to find in stores. This is likely for the best. Vizio plasmas were never competitive with the leaders in the plasma HDTV market.
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Samsung, Panasonic, and Pioneer are all great brands. The popular opinion is that Samsung is not quite as good as Panasonic, but the gap between the two has closed considerably in the last two years. Both brands offer numerous high-quality plasma HDTVs. Those who are looking for the best will want to buy a Pioneer, but the high cost of those HDTVs will likely ward off most buyers.