HDTV Cage Match: Sharp Aquos LCD vs Pioneer Elite Plasma


You might have noticed, but the Giz gang and I are starting to do head-to-head comparisons of gear inspired by all those Macho Man vs. Ultimate Warrior matches we grew up with. Here's my offering: Big, beautiful, flat panels, faced off, side by side.

By reputation, Sharp and Pioneer are near the heads of their classes. So if I had $5k to burn, I'd have considered either the ultra tweakable 50-inch Pioneer Elite Pro-1140HD, or the top-line 52-inch Sharp Aquos LC-52d92u LCD with a gonzo 15,000:1 contrast ratio. The Pioneer was the top-rated plasma by Consumer reports, while the 92 series Sharp is the successor to their top rated LCD. The Plasma is actually the one Walt Mossberg went with as a personal set, and its relatives, the 50-inch PDP-5070HD, and the Elite Pro-940HD are both highly regarded. This is the bigger, better combination of those two sets. A hard decision, and no one's really spent much time comparing them both.

So I tested them by spending a few weeks living by them side by side, through hours of HD movies, TV, games, test discs, regular TV and just about everything a geek can throw at a set.

What I found is that I prefer the newer, slightly more expensive Sharp LCD. But while testing, I couldn't forget that the aging Plasma tech in the Pioneer is on its way out. Tomorrow, the company is unveiling sets and full details on the new plasma technology built from the ground up. From what we've heard at CES, LCD and plasma competitors are going to have a nasty time pacing the new Pioneer gear coming later in the year.

But back to the sets at hand. Side by side, calibrated and uncalibrated, the Sharp never failed to be the TV my eye was drawn to using HD sources.

The Sharp has, what other reviewers at PC Mag and CNet claim are extremely deep blacks. In fact, they're the deepest black levels of any set I've ever seen in person. (Maybe that newly crowned Panasonic Plasma Gary Merson reviewed last week is deeper, or those LED backlit displays from Samsung we saw at CES.) It's got a powerful "5-wave" backlighting that is blindingly bright. Combine that with a 4ms response time and 120Hz refresh rate that interpolates the frames in between your average 60Hz signal, and you've got a bunch of powerful stats that amount to a powerful picture. I turned off the black level enhancement (doesn't need it and it washes out the grays.) That gave it much better shadow detail, even if not as good as the Pioneer. Before and after calibration with SpyderTV I found it blue/cold before tweaking white balance. But the colors were better out of the box. Yes, better.

One problem well documented with Sharp LCDs on the forums is banding. I saw a vertical band when looking at black screens, but it never bothered me while I was watching content. Edge enhancement was also a little over the top, but that's easily reigned in using the menus by turning it way down.

Here's more Sharp advantage: Res. Although some reviewers would say it doesn't matter as much as color accuracy, the Pioneer is a 1365x768 display, while the Sharp is a true 1080p panel. Even from 10 feet, it made a difference to my senses when viewing hair, fur, focused areas vs soft focused in depth of field, textures, leaves on forests, watching Casino Royale on Blu-ray and the BBC's Planet Earth documentary. This much I noticed, watching them side by side using a Gefen HDMI splitter. And the Pioneer only accepts up to a 1080i source. That's something I observed, but truly, I couldn't condone using a TV set that only takes advantage of 2/3 of the available resolution, in theory or practice, when there are higher res sets at the same price.

So why is the Pioneer only a few hundred dollars less in MSRP? It's not as bright. And it's not as contrasty. But when it came to scenes that required a delicate touch, with lots of skin tones or shadows, the Pioneer had a slight (so slight as to be overlooked) performance edge compared with the LCD. That's Pioneer's reputation, and I've confirmed it during testing. It needed a bit more calibration to get looking good (it shipped with a greenish hue that I removed with the R/Y/G/C/B/M settings) but I was able to match the two screens up color-wise without much headache. The Pioneer Elite is ultimately far more tweak-able, and I have no doubt that a pro could use those controls to give the Pioneer a more balanced and color-accurate picture.

But again, because of lower contrast and backlighting, the Pioneer could never look as good during scenes that were supposed to be bright and energetic. It was as if I was looking through a screen door, or a haze. That's not the Pioneer's flaw—that's the Sharp's pixel-per-pixel mapping on HD sources, along with better contrast and brightness. Doing SD and HD tests using HQV's Silicon Optics Blu-ray and DVD discs, the Pioneer did a bit better at deinterlacing and jaggies. (Other sources have reported that the Sharp's standard definition upscaling to be subpar—I found it to be merely fair, using HQV SD test disc and watching DVDs like The Life Aquatic. Standard def sources really looked oversaturated and blown out at times. Things should be consistently better for a set of this caliber. )

The Pioneer also had a noisy picture and generally graininess going on at all times, compared with the smoothness of the Sharp. That was annoying to the eye, but even the SpyderTV calibration colorimeter had to resample several times after complaining of an unsettled image. The monitor also overscanned (cut off some of the image). Many of the endless settings were lost on me—check the spec page for an unending list of technical features.

That said, the Pioneer has a few extra perks: It has a cablecard slot, an Ethernet port, and can act as a media extender using a Windows machine (DLNA/Plays for Sure). The UI was fair, but not great, but its reported that the system can play back XViD movies along with the standard Windows Media Video files. And unlike the 120hz Sharp, the TV can accept a 1080p/24hz signal, which matches film's frame rate for jutter-free motion (as long as your HD disc player supports it). It has two HDMI ports plus a VGA port, vs the three+DVI in the Sharp, along with various analog inputs. The Pioneer's speakers required 16 screws to fasten to the chassis, and once they were attached, you lost access to the side mounted ports and controls. Not a good design.

I've included links to spec sheets if you're looking for more, and I find that the pro reviews throughout the Web are good, but the owner forums can give you a glimpse into what it's like to actually put money down for one of these sets.

For now, the Sharp is the favored set. Even if that is only until Pioneer's new tech is fully unveiled.

As you flip through the image gallery, note that some of the screenshots are of a single TV. The Pioneer always has a blue LED on the bottom left of the frame, and the Sharp has a blue LED on the bottom right of the frame. Photos were taken with uncalibrated sets, with similar camera exposure. Calibrating sets helped color, but the overall brightness, contrast, and detail were similar before and after calibration. And of course, photos are never going to show you what a TV looks like in person, so take these shots for what they're worth. You can definitely see the loss of resolution on the Pioneer, and the sometimes lesser shadow detail on the Sharp.

More fights between big TVs, as they land at Giz HQ.

Pioneer Elite Pro-1140HD [Pioneer]
Sharp Aquos D92U Owner's Thread [AVS Forum]
Sharp LC-52d92u 52-inch LCD [Sharp USA]
Pioneer Elite Pro-1140HD Owners Thread [AVS Forum]

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