As someone who reviews monitors, TVs and projector screens for a living, it's little wonder that I'm a die-hard videophile. This invariably means that I have always been a big fan of emissive displays, whereas modern transmissive/reflective (LCD) technologies haven't exactly managed to enamour me. If that sounds Greek and Bhojpuri to you, emissive displays are your plasma, OLED and CRT panels where the pixels themselves generate light. Transmissive panels, on the other hand, are LCD panels that require some sort of backlighting to reproduce images. Unfortunately, life isn't fair and like all awesome things from the past, the Cathode Ray Tube (CRT)—the best emissive display technology out there, now lies dead.
Plasma TVs too have been dying a slow death, especially with major plasma players Pioneer and Panasonic having already pulled out of the race. And that's a pity because plasma panels offer considerably better fidelity than any transmissive display. What's more, they do it while being cheaper too. So if you're the kind that thinks that your spanking new LED-backlit LCD TV is the shit just because it's expensive, think again because here are five areas where plasma TVs are better than LEDs and LCDs.
(1) Reproducing darkest blacks
Because transmissive/reflective displays depend on separate backlighting, they suffer the most in accurate rendition of blacks. That's why black crush—the inability to render black detail—is synonymous with LCD/LED televisions. Plasma panels, however, face no such issues. This is because being an emissive display, when the pixel is off, it's truly off in a plasma panel. Since there isn't any annoying backlight behind the darkened pixels, this allows much better black detail. Even full-matrix backlit LED TVs that incorporate local dimming tend to suffer from the irritating halo effect in the darker scenes. In a nutshell, plasma panels have none of the washed out dark scenes that LED and LCD TVs suffer from.
Being a transmissive display technology, LCD/LED panels have issues with blacks and accurate colour reproduction
(image credit: tv09.org)
(2) Vivid colours with better saturation
The fact remains that even a relatively cheaper plasma television will provide better fidelity than a more expensive LED or LCD TV. A part of this also depends on the image processing circuitry, but plasma panels are generally better due to the way they handle the sub-pixels. Having individual pixels that generate their own light and colour through phosphors in a plasma panel is a much more elegant approach to image reproduction than the LCD display's method of using the liquid-crystal filter to block light and reproduce colours. Because plasma panels can control the brightness and hue of each pixel much better, they are capable of richer, more saturated colours with excellent contrast levels. All that simply translates into improved image fidelity over its LCD/LED counterparts.
(3) No motion blur thanks to a faster response time
One of the greatest drawbacks of LCD technology is the slow response time of the pixels. This is the time required for a pixel to change from grey to black and white to black states. LCD panels employ liquid crystals to modulate the flow of light. Because these crystals can't open/close and change states fast enough, the pixels cannot refresh quickly enough to prevent moving images from appearing blurred. On the other hand, it takes virtually no time for the phosphors in a plasma TV to decay once the pixel is turned off. Although higher end LCD televisions incorporate interpolated refresh rate gimmicks and overdrive to mitigate the problem, these solutions have their own associated issues and still cannot match a plasma in terms of response time.
(4) Excellent viewing angles
Although LCD technology has vastly improved from its initial state plagued with pitiful viewing angles, the real world performance still isn't nearly as satisfactory. This has much to do with the fact that the LCD panel displays colours by blocking and varying the intensity of light using liquid-crystal filters. Since there's a distance between the backlight and the liquid-crystal filter, the light cannot be seen uniformly when the panel is viewed from extreme angles. This is precisely why LCD/LED TVs lose contrast and gamma uniformity even with slight changes to the viewing angles. However, this isn't an issue for plasma panels since they have pixels that emit their own light. Needless to say, the cheapest of plasma panels therefore tend to have much better viewing angles than expensive IPS LCD panels.
Backlight bleeding is a major issue with LED/LCD TVs
(5) No backlight bleed
Backlight bleed is the bane of LCD/LED televisions and is evident in varying degrees in all specimens irrespective of the price. This has much to do with the fact that the means employed for uniform backlight diffusion in LCD panels don't really work as intended and certain fit and finish issues that cause backlight leakage. This leads to conspicuous bright spots in the picture that can be extremely irritating when watching movies with a large proportion of dark scenes. Since plasma TVs don't need backlighting, they don't suffer from this issue at all.
Having said all this, plasma technology does have its share of issues. Although image burn-in issues have been solved, most plasmas can show signs of image retention if you accidentally leave the picture paused overnight or if you play video games featuring a persistent HUD. This isn't a real problem because the image retention is temporary and vanishes in a matter of minutes, but it's an issue nonetheless. Power consumption is another major gremlin because the technology consumes a lot of electricity to ionise the gas within the cells to reproduce images. Then there's the fact that you cannot place a plasma TV in a room with many windows spewing direct sunlight without purchasing the higher-end models that incorporate anti-glare coating. Additionally, ambient light becomes an issue because plasma panels cannot match the daylight performance of LCD TVs because of their inherently lower picture luminosity.
To put it in a nutshell, you still need LED TVs, say, for your daily dose of Saas Bahu shows, when picture quality isn't paramount and factors such as power consumption and daylight performance take precedence. However, for those who primarily need a TV for watching movies or playing video games, nothing beats a plasma TV.
Cover image credit: Warner Bros. (Matrix)