I've seen the Pro-FHD1 three times now, at two different stores.
First I should say that I can't really offer any more than an in-store "impression" at this point...just like most people here. Admittedly I have less zeal these days about really putting most plasmas through their paces. For years I had been auditioning all the 50" plasmas because I figured my upgrade would be from my 42" ED panel to a 50." However, these days I'm focused either on bigger plasmas (the upcoming Panasonic 1080p 65 inch) or projection, for my new HT room. But if I get the time perhaps I'll do a more in-depth look at the Pro-FHD1. For now, and for what it's worth, here's what I saw.
I first encountered the Pro-FHD1 playing in the super-secret-back-room of our local Bay Bloor Radio store. It's a great room because it's fairly small, dark walls and it's simple to control the light dimmers to achieve any lighting conditions. In the same room are the Panny 58" plasma, the Sharp 57" LCD, the Pioneer 50" plasma (I think it's the 5060) and a JVC RPTV. The Pro-FHD1was playing within a few feet of the (non-1080p) Pioneer 5060, which was nice. Unfortunately there was some interference in the image of the 5060, as the picture would blip white noise in sections of the image, intermittently.
All displays were playing a PBS HD feed about "Great Train Rides" (Valerie Pringle ushering the viewer through various train rides). First impression of the Pro-FHD1: Smoooooth, clear, sophisticated, intoxicating (sounds like a wine add, huh?). The difference between the 1080p Pioneer model and non-1080p displays was somewhat subtle, but very welcome. And it grew on me the longer I watched the Pro-FHD1. Having compared 1080p displays to 720p displays (e.g. projectors, rptvs, LCD flat panels etc) before, I've always been left with the impression that it's not so much additional detail that strikes me in 1080p models, so much as how detail, especially fine detail, is presented. This seemed generally true of my first encounter with the Pro-FHD1. The other 5070 Pioneer plasma beside it seemed in hype-picture mode, with the sharpening/contrast turned up somewhat. So, surprisingly, it actually sometimes appeared sharper than the Pro-FHD1. But the Pro-FHD1 had a certain quality the non-1080p model just didn't quite have: a creamy smoothness to the image. The noise was very low, in terms of picture processing. But the sheer resolution and pixel density of the Pro-FHD1 removed any nagging trace of "pixels" making for a more realistic, continuous "transparent" looking view into the image. It was just that much more believable due to that quality.
I took whatever opportunities I could to try and spot resolution differences. When people on screen were wearing tiny bits of jewelry, or textured clothing etc, I'd compare the two Pioneer plasmas. Most of the detail was there on the lower-res model. But when I moved close enough to really see the detail of the jewelry the pixel structure would become evident, breaking up the detail somewhat, making it look more "video." Whereas on the Pro-FHD1 the tiniest details
were smoothly, naturally rendered very realistically. Moving closer to the lower-res model had the effect of feeling more and more like moving closer to a video display (because of the lower res and visible pixel structure), whereas moving closer to see fine details on the Pro-FHD1 was more like moving closer to object in real life, the way the image remained seamless and resolved as I moved closer. Very cool, and it's an effect I always appreciated with displays like the Sony SXRD RPTVs, with their 1080p res and high fill factor. These displays sure let you get closer to the image.
In fact, I found myself drawn to view the Pro-FHD1 closer than I ever have felt comfortable on other plasmas. It sort of made me want to sit closer to the image 1. to drink in all the detail and 2. because the image continued to look so inviting even closer up. I'd say I tended to sit between 5 and 7 ft away, average of 6 (I'd guess).
The creamy, transparent smoothness of the image was immediately apparent, but the fineness of detail grew on me as I watched. In that way I found it much like my first exposure to HD-DVD. The first time I saw HD-DVD on a 37" LCD display I saw close ups of people and thought "Hmm, that looks pretty sharp." But then again, close-ups look quite sharp on 720p and even my ED display as well. What became telling with HD-DVD was how the sharpness extended "past" the actors faces into the back ground. Unlike DVD where details grow softer and blockier the farther away they are, on HD-DVD it was like gaining an added depth of field, where the focus now extended waaaaay into the distance. And the sharpness, unlike DVD, held throughout all shots, from close up, to medium shot, to far shot, to distant panorama...there was always a sense of peering into the image as one might real-life.
That's the kind of impression I got with the Pro-FHD1. Although that PBS documentary was of variable quality, some shots looking great, others very soft, the over-all impression was of the continuity of the sense of looking at real details out into the horizon, with nothing, not tiny tree tops, not teeny buildings, not markings on roads...nothing breaking up into video pixels. Which, while ultimately a somewhat subtle difference, for me held a big subjective effect in terms of increasing the feeling of realism.
But since that HD program was off a station, and of variable quality, I wished I could see the Pro-FHD1 with a truly great, uncompressed HD source. Perhaps at the next store....
Today I stopped in at Brentview Electronics in Toronto. It's small, but a high-end store in terms of the displays and services offered. For anyone in or near Toronto I can recommend Brentview as a place where the sales people are actually knowledgeable, helpful and not pushy at all. And they have been very accommodating to me over the past few years - whenever they get a new display in (and they are always first with Pioneer products), they've let me put them through the paces. Highly recommended. Anyway...onward...
They had the Pro-FHD1 set up, right above the Pioneer 5070 model. Very convenient. First I just viewed the Pro-FHD1 on it's own. And yes they had a discrete Hi-Def source! Unfortunately it was....Blu-Ray. Anyone who has followed the current HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray drama should understand why I say "unfortunately," as the initial Blu-Ray releases have been the subject of wide-spread disappointment, being generally softer and more artifact-ridden than the HD-DVD discs.
And the only Blu-Ray disc they had to play was, again, unfortunately The Fifth Element, which is derided as a particularly disappointing Blu-Ray transfer - looking too soft, from a fairly untidy looking (scratches, dirt) master print. And it just wasn't too spectacular, playing on the Samsung Blu-Ray player to the Pro-FHD1. In fact when the first desert scene came on I was quite surprised how substandard and soft it looked. Later images looked better, and I could see more detail than in the DVD version. However, it was a little soft and noisy over-all. It didn't have that "I can't look away" riveting quality at all.
So we put on some broadcast HD - the HD loops on Rogers digital cable. And we turned on the 5070 model below it. That was more like it. I've seen those loops more times than is mentally healthy and I can say I've never seen them look better. There's even this football game that I've always derided because it has always looked some what soft, artificially colored and artificially contrasty (as in "why the hell would anyone choose this crap as HD demo material"?). But on the Pro-FHD1 even THAT HD looked spectacular. The image looked "tighter" and more resolved than I'd ever seen, and that football game footage finally had the riveting quality of realism I didn't think it had. That goes for some other loops that had always looked soft and unspectacular (like the people doing the biking "spinning" class...ugh). On the Pro-FHD1 that footage finally looked "wow" in terms of it's clarity, whereas on the 5070 it still looked kind of "meh." The Pro-FHD1 presented the image in a clearer, more three-dimensional way.
And good HD images, such as the Rose Bowl Parade looked as I've never seen it before - individual faces in the crowd etc. There were a few shots I waited for that I've seen so many times on other displays, particularly plasmas, like this dude riding a white horse by the camera. Well, the Pro-FHD1 rendered that shot with a life-like purity, smoothness and fine detail that I've never seen before. It really felt like peering right at a real horse, like I could feel the texture of the fur. Spectacular.
The 5070 below it looked pretty good too, but I couldn't help feeling it wasn't looking as sharp and precise as it could. I played with picture settings and brought it a little closer to the Pro-FHD1 in terms of contrast and a bit more clarity, but never achieved the same look. I started to wonder if it was something about the connection, or if in fact staring at the Pro-FHD1 had actually begun to spoil me in terms of fine resolution. I still don't know.
One thing consistent in both stores is that the Pro-FHD1 appeared to have lighter or higher black levels than the lower-res Pioneers. Since I didn't play with picture settings on the Pro-FHD1 I can't report why this was so. However, the Pro-FHD1 was also rendering better shadow and high-light details over the lower-res models. Again, can't be definitive without more extensive fiddling. However, the salesman said he'd been given a demo of Blu-Ray on the Pro-FHD1 at Pioneer headquarters, with a (I think it was) Pioneer elite non-1080p model beside for comparison. (Viewing Chicken LIttle, Robots etc). The salesman reported he felt the black levels were darker on the Pro-FHD1. So...who knows?
Okay, outta that fine establishment, to the finale....
Back to Bay Bloor.
And what luck! This time they are running a dedicated feed to the Pro-FHD1. They were using the Sharp Aquos demo, right off a hard drive. This is a beautiful bunch of pristine HD footage of nature scenes - insects, birds, reptiles, underwater, flowers etc. I've seen it several times run on the Sharp 65" plasma and it looked spectacular. And on the Pro-FHD1?
Mouthwatering. Yep, any softness I saw in previous Pro-FHD1 encounters was due to the source, as this demo material amply showed the absolute clarity and resolution of the Pro-FHD1. It was (almost) rock-solid images, with (almost) life-like clarity. Super sharp and super smooth. Looking at tiny undersea critters had the peering-into-an aquarium vibe - again, aided by the transparency afforded by the lack of pixel structure and fine resolution. The tiniest bits of wing structure of dragon flies, shots of flowers with a forest slightly out of focus behind them was amazingly realistic and dimensional, not to mention richly colored and detailed. Watching long shots of wind billowing snow crystals over the crest of a mountain had a luxurious resolution and effortlessness that was hypnotic. Once scene following a turtle underwater over detailed, moss-ridden rocks, under lilly-pads, was hallucinogenic in it's realism. And, again, I could move right in close to increase the effect, paying little penalty in video quality for doing so.
Any down sides?
Nothing major that I could see (depending on whether those black levels really are higher than the lower-res panels or not. The Panny 58" plasma right near the Pro-FHD1 had decidedly deeper looking black levels). In examining details closely on the Sharp Aquos demo feed, there were some oddities, like some substandard looking de-interlacing - a bit of break up on diagonal lines and such. And when I moved closer to examine the scales of a chameleon on screen, I'd note that his scales blurred with that reptiles movement, even though it was rocking back and forth fairly slowly. Could be in the source, though.
As I mentioned, I'd seen this same footage on the 65" Sharp LCD. Some images on the LCD had a palpability, in terms of ultimate clarity and reach-in-and-touch-it sensation, that the Pro-FHD1 didn't quite re-create. However, on other shots I had the feeling the Pro-FHD1was rendering a richer, finer color palette.
Hard to tell without a side-by-side. (It's safe to say though the Pro-FHD1 has better black levels and viewing angles over the Sharp LCD).
And, having run into the room with the Sony SXRD 1080p RPTV, that display continues to really impress me. It shows less noise than almost any plasma out there, with incredible color detail and fine resolution. I think it may still show even a tad more color detail (although not as much "punch") as the Pro-FHD1. And at least matches the resolution of small details of the Pro-FHD1.
However, the dreaded "Silk Screen Effect" (where you see the sparkly screen structure overlaying the image) kept frustrating me and pulling me out of the image on the SXRD. Viewed on their own, I find the Pro-FHD1 gives me the more consistent life-like vibe, due to lack of Silk Screen Effect, and it's denser-looking non-projected image.
So my thoughts so far are: 1080p plasma is here and it's definitely a welcome move in the plasma world. The differences I've seen between the Pro-FHD1
and it's lower-res siblings are definitely on the videophile, subtle end of things. But, as many owners of 1080p displays will tell you, even if it doesn't knock your socks off at first, the differences in higher resolution/higher pixel density grows on you with viewing, and soon you are craving it and becoming less tolerant of lower resolution. Other displays that once looked as impressive as you've ever seen start to look a tad more crude and video-like.
Is it worth paying for over the same size lower-res plasma? That is of course any individual's call. In general, I feel like saying "no," because the step up to 1080p is, objectively, subtle and the price difference between the Pro-FHD1 and lower-res models is, objectively quite large at this time. But if you are looking for the type of subtle refinements in the image I've described you may, like me, find the subjective advantage feels quite significant. After all, some of us were buying 42" ED plasmas not long ago, for the same price as the Pro-FHD1! Ya pay being on the bleeding edge.
As I mentioned, I'm not looking for a 50" panel for my next purchase anyway - I want bigger. And viewing the Pro-FHD1 right beside the Panasonic 58" plasma made for a fairly instructive lesson in the advantages of size. Even given the Pro-FHD1's resolution, 58" of plasma was still very compelling. But I have to say it's made me all the more excited to see the Panasonic 65" 1080p model. 65" of ultra-smooth 1080p image quality could be heaven.
And viewing the Pro-FHD1 50" model pushes home to me that you really want to sit quite close to enjoy the benefits - closer than most of us are likely to sit.
The Pro-FHD1 still DOES look exceedingly sharp and engaging even from between 8 and 12 feet too, so it's not a total waste at those distances. But you really want to be close to see all you paid for. My feeling is that 65" should provide an even more spectacular image experience, and place all that glorious 1080p detail within easy eye-reach and sane seating distances.
But right now the Pro-FHD1 is king of the hill in terms of producing some images the likes of which I've never seen before on plasma, and doing it's part to move plasma to the next level of image naturalness and realism.
(Sorry for the length)