The power behind the panel


When it comes to the quality of plasma and LCD TVs, the delight is in the detail, writes Martin Boots.

Bevan Van Blerk, CEO of Bang and Olufsen Australia, would be very happy if people bought this company?s 65 inch Beovision 4 plasma. And priced at a smidge under $40,000, he doesn?t need to sell that many to keep a smile on his face.

The Beovision 4 is not, however, the world?s most expensive plasma. LG markets a gold-plated 61 inch version in certain parts of the Middle East that sells for around $480,000. Nevertheless, the price ratio between it and the $2,000 discounted models you see in the stores is greater than that between a Porsche and a Hyundai.

But while it seems that buyers can appreciate the value difference between prestige cars and the ones parked on my street, the same can?t be said of consumer electronics in general, and flat panel TVs in particular. Here, so much of the buying decision is about price and price alone, the thinking being that it?s just a TV, it just shows pictures.

And a car just gets you from A to B, but what if you care about the ride?

Why pay more?

Flat panel TVs are superseding tube-type tellies as the display of choice primarily because of their size – CRT tellies max out at around 82 cm whereas plasma starts at 106 cm. With plasma, and even with LCD, you can actually have a screen that approximates that of a commercial theatre, but in scale with your domestic living space.

Then there?s high definition. Conventional televisions just can?t muster the picture detail necessary to display HD video, be it from television broadcasts, games consoles or forthcoming DVD formats, and HD is the way of the future.

And for those who don?t know or care about high definition or large home theatre screens, there?s the style factor. Flat panels are TVs new black in TV; CRT is sooo yesterday.

I saw my first plasma in 1998. It was 42 inches widescreen, came with a massive TV tuner box, displayed a paltry 840 x 480 pixels and cost $24 000. Today, 42 inch plasma TVs from the better known brands and sporting 1024 x 768 resolution and built-in digital TV tuners cost less than $4000. Second tier brands are even less, while the ?yum cha? brands are less again.

It?s a similar story for LCD, and with current economies of production, increased factory output, and the mass market embrace of flat panel viewing, price erosion will continue to spiral.

Despite this, companies such as Pioneer, Fujitsu, Bang & Olufsen, Loewe and Metz do a nice business selling considerably costlier plasma and LCD TVs. Fujitsu?s 42 inch plasma is $6,500 and Pioneer?s 43 inch is $5500. Loewe and Metz sell LCD models for a premium over same sized models from other companies.

Rival plasma and LCD makers argue that you can get a lot for quite for a lot less than what these brands cost, so the question is why would you spend that much more?