Hitachi UltraVision 42HDX60 Plasma Monitor
By Ron Goldberg
The plasma market has become so crowded with cut-rate panels that it often becomes difficult to separate the technological wheat from the chaff. Hitachi's new 42HDX60 positions high-end engineering and a rich feature set as the cornerstones of its value proposition. From the perspectives of performance and convenience, it's not likely to be confused with many products in its class.
The 42HDX60 is part of Hitachi's "Director's Series," and is the flagship PDP in its size category. The 42-inch panel features 1024 x 1024 resolution, and is designed as a two-piece system. The accompanying "Control Center" is an outboard component about the size of a set-top box that includes two NTSC tuners, handles scaling, switching and processing, and connects to the monitor with a single cable. The Control Center accepts inputs from five A/V sources via 3 component video connections, a DVI port, RGB input and three analog S-video/composite connections. External gear can be operated from a single remote via Hitachi's "AV NET" control system. A second, simpler remote for every day use is also provided. The Control Center can output 20 watts of SRS TruBass-enhanced stereo audio (not surround) through a pair of slim, side mounted stereo speakers that Hitachi provides with the unit. While in most situations the customer will opt for an outboard audio system, Hitachi provides enough audio oomph here so that this system can be self-contained, as in a bedroom.
Two features bear particular mention. The first is ALiS—Alternative Lighting of Surfaces—a technology co-developed by Hitachi that displays continuous vertical channels of phosphor material within the pixel grid. With ALiS, entire video fields are displayed at once, even from an interlaced feed. The system, which is now in use by other brands as well, minimizes interlaced artifacts, eliminates visible grid patterns and also reduces energy consumption, which has the happy effect of making the product last longer. The second feature of note is Hitachi's VirtualHD technique, which upconverts incoming signals to 1080 progressive. According to Hitachi, VirtualHD 1080p offers several benefits over conventional 1080i processors, even when the final display is 1080i. The 1080p processing operates at twice the vertical resolution, meaning that for every incoming (non-1080) signal, the processing calculates both the odd and even 540 fields, as opposed to conventional processors, which are limited to calculating only one 540 field for each 1/60th of a second. The advantage of the higher vertical resolution can be seen as reduced "stair-stepping," because the interpolation is more precise.
For conventional video source material, the additional data generated by the 1080p processing is used to check for noise in both the black and white and color domains. According to Hitachi, the technique is also more precise for converting 480 sources to match the 1080 display, with the same advantage to calculating discrete 540 odd and even fields. For film based sources, the VirtualHD circuitry provides 3:2 film correction and a "motion adaptive interpolation" feature that references 26 points in time to ensure picture in-tegrity during quick motion. The monitor is framed with a very slick-looking titanium finish, dark enough to be unobtrusive, light enough to have the requisite "modern" edge. The screen itself has a deep black look, and is relatively non-reflective—in all, the package is quite handsome. One feature that's noteworthy is the included pedestal, which features a motorized swivel function, accessible from the remote. I thought this was a superfluous feature until I used it. In my living space, the dining area is off to the side of the home theater seating and screen. With the touch of a button, I was able to face the plasma toward the dining room table, where we could watch the baseball playoffs and enjoy the game-time victuals without moving the food to the screen area. For some customers, this will be a real selling point—if you don't mount the display on the wall, you can effectively have the screen face several seating areas.
SOFTWARE AND CONTROL
In terms of configurability, the 42HDX60 is a real pleasure. Each of the inputs can have its own memorized picture settings, and there are plenty of picture tweaks for the enthusiast. In addition to the usual criteria, there are four color temperature settings, including one for black-and-white material; extensive color decoding and management options, adjustable black-level enhancement, a three-way automatic contrast mode, a day-night room illumination setting, and variable video noise reduction. There are six different aspect ratios for 4:3 and 16:9 material, and the two internal NTSC tuners allow for a variety of PIP and POP functions.
The menu system is legible and easily navigated through a small thumbstick on the main remote control. Selecting a menu class brings up the sub-classes and choices, and navigating your way backward or forward through the settings is an intuitive and consistent process. Especially thoughtful is an on-screen reference readout of each input's picture and sound settings as you're making changes. Whoever is making adjustments to the picture and sound can immediately see (on each input) what the values were before the new adjustments were made. Some customers object when the installer locks them out of the ability to make any preferential settings. The 42HDX60's indicators let them tweak to their heart's content and easily return to the original values.
The actual remote system is also very nicely designed, with clear, logical function layout. The AV NET system includes codes for many popular components, but many higher-end brands that might logically accompany a monitor of this one's stature are conspicuously missing from the code list, and the remote cannot learn new codes. In fairness, most custom install jobs that would include a monitor like the Hitachi will have a third-party remote in any case, but it seems a shame to put this much effort into a good remote and remote system, only to have codes for brands like Broksonic and Soundesign instead of Lexicon and Rotel. The addition of a second "EZ" remote is a nice touch, and it might even end up as a favored accompaniment to a more complex universal remote in day-to-day operation.
In designing the 42HDX60, Hitachi has clearly aimed its sights high in terms of what's possible from a 42-inch PDP, circa 2003. There are so many preference adjustments available that it's difficult to describe the picture potential in its entirety. Using standard NTSC setup adjustments, the monitor exhibited smooth, supple, film-like pictures with almost no visible artifacting. On every digital source, the picture was exceptionally satisfying, with excellent black-level performance, great detail and outstanding color. The 1080i content was everything for which a viewer could hope. On the D-VHS release of U-571, you can feel the ocean around you—every bubble and swirl is vividly present. On Ice Age, every strand of digital fur was clearly to be seen. DVDs are similarly well-served on the Hitachi, as the VirtualHD circuitry helps present a picture that's admirably film-like. The amount of detail, and the uniformity of difficult tasks like object edges, are both dramatic on this set. Put this unit side by side with a lesser panel, and it won't be hard to see the difference.
Analog source material through the analog (S-video) inputs was less impressive than the digital. While color and sharpness were still first-rate, the black-level tracking wasn't nearly as good as on the digital inputs. More so than almost any other digital display I've seen, the 42HDX60 is unforgiving to poor source material. For better or worse, analog VCRs, cable boxes and laserdisc players still play a big part in many, if not most, home theaters. Living with a display like this one will likely spur many customer upgrades to digital cable, satellite and D-VHS, just as a pair of high-end speakers will often spur an upgrade in amplifier or source components.
At a time when many manufacturers—not to mention un-named OEM suppliers—are flooding the market with cheap(er) plasma panels in an effort to satisfy demand, many in the trade are already reluctantly getting used to the idea of "cheaper, not better." In particular, there are some pretty lame 42-inch panels out there, incapable of HDTV resolution, indifferently designed and manufactured, meant to sell at Wal-Mart or Internet prices. Hitachi has clearly taken a different route with the 42HDX60, designing and positioning it as a premium product, with all that implies.
From a performance standpoint, this unit can rightfully be compared to the best panels in its class—the Runcos and Pioneers of the world. From the consumer's standpoint, the Hitachi is capable of satisfying both videophiles, with its wealth of technologies and tweaks, and mainstream households, with its switching and self-contained audio capabilities, not to mention the swivel base, which in the right situation, would be a major selling point. From the C-tailer's perspective, the Hitachi offers a trusted, supported brand that is protected from Internet and other cut-rate sales.
In this day and age, the plasma market has already divided itself into two camps — the good ones and the cheap ones. While Hitachi clearly has the clout and resources to compete on the low end, it has taken the high road with the 42HDX60, and offered a no-compromise product that looks great and has just about every feature a consumer could ask for (and then some). If you've been looking for a plasma brand that you can take seriously, and that takes your customers seriously, Hitachi has made a very compelling case for itself with this product.
Hitachi 42HDX60 42-inch Plasma Display
High-end picture quality
Comprehensive feature set
Unique motorized swivel base