Its pictures are beset by a whole raft of problems that actually conspire to make that £650 price tag look anything but a bargain. For starters, the set’s black level response is strikingly poor by plasma standards. That 10,000:1 claimed contrast ratio starts to look frankly laughable as the dark backdrop to Berlin factory assault sequence in Mission: Impossible III on HD DVD disappears under a wash of grey mist. In fact, achieving anything like a true representation of black on this TV is far more impossible than anything in the film!
Inevitably this greyness over parts of the picture that should be black also serves to hide background details in dark scenes, reducing their depth and sense of scale. We wouldn’t quite go so far as to say it’s bad enough to turn Gears of War on the Xbox 360 into a 2D scroller rather than a 3D shooter, but, well, you get the idea.
The other really major problem with the 42PF5521D is that its colour reproduction is well below par. In place of the vibrancy we always get with LCD and are increasingly expecting from plasma too we get a really drab palette that just doesn’t grab your attention and draw you into the action. It doesn’t help, either, that many of the tones on show look anything but natural. For instance, during dark scenes actors more often than not seem like they’re about to throw up, such is the odd pallor of their skin. Also, reds look orange and rich greens look, well, just weird, frankly.
And there’s more. During the fight between Smeagol and a friend for the Ring in The Two Towers, you can clearly see pronounced dithering noise over the ridges and peaks of the characters’ faces. This is an old-school plasma problem that we really don’t expect to see so obviously these days.
The final big disappointment of the 42PF5521D is that its pictures don’t even look sharp with HD material. In fact, at times even pristine HD sources like Pirates of the Caribbean on Blu-ray look more like upscaled standard definition than true HD perfection.
With the brash silver speakers on the 42PF5521D proving to be far less powerful than they look, producing a tinny, unconvincing soundstage, is there actually anything good we can say about the 42PF5521D at all? Only this: that it’s quite good at upscaling standard definition sources to fit its 1,024 x 1,080 resolution, leaving them looking cleaner and smoother than is common. Woo.
Once upon a time many years ago the 42PF5521D’s performance might have been acceptable on a budget product. But today, with new plasmas from Panasonic and especially Pioneer setting new performance benchmarks on what feels like an almost weekly basis, the 42PF5521D simply isn’t good enough – at any price. And not for the first time we’re left thinking that it’s high time ALIS was put out to grass.