A Hitachi Bargain to Believe In

Don't let the price tag on the Ultravision P50S601 plasma HDTV make you nervousit's a handsome set that delivers the requisite bells and whistles

Editor's Rating:

The Good: An inexpensive, full HD set with great color detail and a motorized swivel stand

The Bad: Oddly placed inputs for components; awkward remote layout; heavy with stand attached

The Bottom Line: Hitachi delivers one of the cheapest full HD sets on the market

With the exception of Panasonic, plasma TV makers have been struggling with declining market share against an onslaught of competition from high-definition LCD televisions. To better compete, many have rushed to upgrade their technology to display so-called "full HD" resolution despite the added cost and the limited options for delivering such content to these sets (mostly Blu-ray DVDs and PlayStation 3 games).

One such manufacturer is Hitachi, whose Ultravision P50S601 boasts one of the most robust feature sets available in a television today. Even better, it sells for bargain prices now ranging from $1,500 to $2,000. While Hitachi is likely selling the set at a loss, and consumers are wise to be leery of tech bargains that sound too good to be true, don't let this one scare you off: The Ultravision performs beautifully.

Judging By Its Cover

Like many TV makers, Hitachi has designed a shiny black rectangle that is elegant in its simplicity. It stands out a bit in that it eschews the usual tags that adorn rival TVs, reminding you that you've paid for an "HDTV" set with "Dolby Digital" sound. Thankfully, these are tucked out of sight on top of the set. The only tags on the front are a "Hitachi" label below the screen and an "Ultravision" label to the left. Tiny indicator labels for power, standby, and power save buttons are also located on the right front.

The set's two speakers, which deliver surprisingly rich sound, are built into the bottom and cannot be removed. Between the speakers is a narrow push-release panel that hides two quick access ports: one to hook up a game console or another device that uses an HD multimedia input (HDMI), and one for a VCR or other device that uses an analog composite video connection. This front panel also houses controls to adjust TV settings without the remote control. Personally, I didn't like this arrangement, since opening this panel mars the otherwise clean lines of the front of the set. Most users would be better served if the HDMI connector had been placed on the rear with the other inputs.

On the back, you'll find two other HDMI inputs; two component inputs for connecting cable and satellite boxes and other HD sources; and two additional composite and S-Video connectors for analog equipment. There's also a digital and analog audio output to feed the sound to a stereo system; a connection for home-control systems such as Crestron Electronics; and a port for direct cable feeds and over-the-air digital broadcasts.

Finally, there's a connection for a nifty remote-controlled TV stand that swivels the screen in whatever direction you'd like while you remain seated. The stand boosts the weight of the TV to 105 lbs., but I'm not complaining.

A Bit of Clutter

The remote itself has pluses and minuses. It would be better if it was backlit to help you see the keys in the dark. The bottom has rocker switches for volume and channel-changing, as well as buttons to mute and return to the prior channel. The top features buttons to adjust the picture settings for day or night viewing, and a picture-aspect control button with four configurations for HD programs and six for standard definition. But the remote gets more complicated in the middle, where there's a ring of eight buttons for functions such as cycling through your assorted inputs. An inner rocker ring lets you adjust the stand swivel or navigate the menu, and then there's a select button. It's all a bit cluttered.

One odd thing is that the company bills the P50S601 as "1080-interlaced," or 1080i, which technically does not offer full HD resolution that rival "1080 progressive" sets promise. But with a native resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, the Hitachi set appears to offer full 1080p. In any case, I hooked up Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 3 and set it to the full output resolution of 1080p, and it worked fine.

Practically Picture-Perfect

Color reproduction was superb, with deep blacks and bright, vivid colors that place the Ultravision in the market's upper ranks. When I tuned into daytime television shows broadcast in HD, the skin tones of soap opera actors looked natural and clear, while every blemish and fake set was revealed for what it was.

I've generally found plasma TV makers do a better job than LCD makers at up-converting analog video to HD resolution, and the Ultravision was no exception. It offered pictures akin to standard DVD quality, with no noticeable artifacts introduced by the processing technology.

To test the set's full HD prowess, I cued up the opening scene of the Warner Bros. movie 300—a gritty, inky sequence that can showcase how well a TV handles black levels and the gradations of detail within the blacks. A scene with a wolf jumping out reproduced beautifully, with individual hairs showing clearly in the flashing light of the scene.

I also sat down for a few minutes of the Miramax Oscar-winning movie No Country for Old Men, watching it on a Blu-ray equipped PS3 in a room lit by afternoon sunshine. This is the scenario in which plasma sets tend to perform poorly, but Hitachi's anti-reflective, high-contrast screen worked pretty well. Standing up close, I did spot a slight graininess during scene transitions from dark to light. But when I sat farther away, the effect was negligible.

Hitachi has struggled to build its brand in the U.S. against manufacturing powerhouses such as Panasonic, Sony, Sharp, and Samsung. But anyone purchasing the Ultravision P50S601 will be pleased to give the set a place of pride in the home.

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