Is a Plasma TV still worth considering?

Plasma television sales started their decline in 2006, reaching a record low in 2009 when according to DisplaySearch, these fell to 14.8 million units worldwide from 15.1 million in 2008. This was the result of a surge in LCD TVs sales.

Eventually, the bad economic times that followed brought a wind of change towards end 2009 for plasma TV sales that resulted in a consistent positive trend in sales of plasma TVs worldwide; this lasted till mid-2011, when the price gap between plasma and LED TVs fell to under 9% for 42-inch 1080p HDTV sets.

Things for plasma TVs worsened in 2012; 2012 brought a striking market change in consumer behavior as more buyers started preferring LED TVs over plasma despite plasma’s ability to deliver a superior picture for less. As explained in our article Plasma Television: Are we witnessing the end of an era?, the result is a shrinking market share that is making it difficult for TV makers to sustain this technology.

Flat-panel TV Invasion: A change in trend

Samsung PN51F5300 51-Inch

It is estimated that around 98% of all TV sales world-wide are flat-panel TVs. 42-inch and 50-inch sets have become truly affordable with name-brand 42-inch 720p cheap plasma TVs selling for $450. A case in point is Samsung latest entry-level 720p plasma TV for 2013, the PN43F4500, which at present is selling on amazon for $400!

Even entry-level 50-inch 1080p plasma HDTVs are equally affordable with prices for 2013 hovering at around $650. Typical within this price bracket are the LG 50PN6500 and the Samsung PN51F5300. OK, at this level, you would get neither Smart TV nor 3D; instead, at $700, the Panasonic TC-P50S60 gives you reduced online support via its ‘Online Movie’ feature and a functional web browser.

Mind you, we did not see any major drop in HDTV prices so far over 2012 prices. In addition, the price difference between plasma and LED TVs is practically disappearing at all except the larger 60-inch-plus screen sizes where price difference between similar-featured plasma and LED TVs stands at a few hundred dollars.

This disappearing price gap between the two display technologies explains the slowing down in plasma television sales that started towards end-2011, and that continued in an unprecedented manner during 2012. According to NDP Display Search, world-wide shipment of plasma televisions during 2012 fell by over 23% Y/Y compared to a less than 1% reduction for the first time ever in global shipment of LCDs TVs (CCFL + LED TVs); this sharp fall followed years of continued decline in the plasma TV market share, contrasting heavily with the continued dominance of LCD TVs.

Plasma Televisions Sales: A recovery that did not last for long!

The recovery in plasma television sales registered towards end 2009 did not make up for the drop in sales during the rest of 2009. However, this positive trend continued till mid-2011. Following the global drop in flat-panel TV sales during 2011, shipment of plasma TVs during 2011 registered a drop of over 2 million units over 2010, falling to just over 17 million units fin 2011.

Some may argue that these plasma television sales represent just a small fraction of the more than 200 million CCFL and LED LCD TVs shipped during 2011. Yet one has to take into consideration that plasma TVs cover a rather restricted range of screen sizes, from 42-inch to 65-inch. Within this screen range, plasma’s main advantage comes into play at the larger 60-inch plus and at the 720p entry-level category.

It is at these extreme categories that plasma offers the best bang for your buck. In truth, this plasma price advantage has always been there, however, the bad economy seems to have helped plasma television sales at these screen categories as more consumers became less willing to spend more than needed on their TV purchase.

What caused this positive trend?

Consumers continue to prefer larger displays even at tough economic times. But the purchasing power of most consumers is less, making consumer purchases more price sensitive. This partly explains the sustained level of plasma television sales that followed since last quarter 2009.

We say ‘partly’ because while the cheaper price was a main contributor towards this increase in plasma television sales especially at the larger screen sizes, it surely was not so much of an advantage over LCD at the smaller 42 and 50-inch HDTVs. Suffice to note that at the 1080p 42-inch+ category, price difference between plasma and LED TVs has since 2012, practically vanished.

There is one exception here; this concerns 720p HDTVs. These are still readily available from all major plasma TV brands; being available from major brands help consumers feel more comfortable about their purchase at this budget category.

A typical 42-inch 720p plasma TV presently sells for less than $450; despite being entry-level, these cheap plasma TVs still represent a most compelling TV option thanks to the latest more energy efficient and faster display panels, more than adequate connectivity, superb contrast, and solid overall performance for the price.

In contrast, 720p LCD TVs are practically non-existent at these screen sizes, making the more expensive 1080p LCD TV the only available alternative. The irony is that as further explained in our HDTV Formats Guide, the benefit of the higher 1080p pixel count at anything smaller than 55-inch screens, is practically impossible to perceive!

At the budget category, plasma is the only available 720p HDTV option – delivering the cheapest HDTVs at the 42-inch and 50-inch categories.

And at the high-end category… well, videophiles and informed buyers keep affirming that premium plasma HDTVs deliver the best picture on the market – better than any high-end LED LCD TV.

Plasma Televisions have still a lot to offer, but…

There is no doubt that plasma televisions still have a lot to offer to the HDTV community. When in 2008, market analysts started proclaiming the end of the plasma TV era, we stated that it was too early to determine if plasma will succumb to the LCD competition; at the time, the buzz word was LED LCD TV. To a certain extent, the same applies today even though as things stand, the future of plasma TVs looks hazier than ever.

The problem for anyone who cares about picture quality is that the latest LED HDTVs are in no way better than plasma. In some areas like power consumption they are; but if you are after pristine picture quality, nothing beats the best plasma HDTVs. And by best, we do not mean flagship HDTVs; the mid-range Panasonic 55-inch TC-P55ST60 ($1,350) plasma TV has been rated in many TV reviews as a superb performer irrespective of the price.

This re-affirms our belief that despite consumers continue to prefer LED TVs over plasma, plasma is still a most valid big screen TV option. Rather, the problem for all those concerned about picture quality is that there is no real alternative affordable display technology yet to plasma; LED LCD TVs are affordable but they do not match plasma’s superb picture quality.

Some may start looking at OLED TVs. But apart from the fact that this new technology has still to prove itself in particular when it comes to long term display performance stability, 55-inch OLED TV sets are expected to sell at three times the price of a high end 65-inch plasma TV! In other words, while OLED display technology has the potential to deliver a superior picture, it is still a long way from delivering an affordable big screen TV option for home entertainment.

Why Plasma’s superior picture and price advantage are not enough for plasma televisions to maintain sustainable sales levels?

Picture Quality

For sure, the latest flat-screen plasma HDTVs are capable of delivering a great picture at a price that offers more value. Rather, 2013 plasma TVs have so far registered a marked improvement over the already superb picture quality registered by plasma TVs during 2012. This contrasts heavily with the rather negative trend in picture quality we have seen during 2012 from LED TVs.

In this respect, plasma has reached what can be defined as the pinnacle in picture quality, something no LED TV has achieved so far.  Videophiles and informed buyers continue to choose plasma over LCD when it comes to a big screen TV for home theater use; for home theater enthusiasts, plasma TVs still deliver the best cinematic picture quality.

Plasma TVs have an edge over LCD and LED TVs when it comes to shadow detail and deep shade of black. A deep shade of black is extremely important as it improves the realism of dark scenes while making colors look richer and more saturated. Plasma TVs also support a wider angle of view, meaning they do not suffer from the same image degradation as you move away from the normal to the screen of an LCD or LED TV. Furthermore, they render fast moving action better.

The problem for plasma TVs is that the edge in picture quality alone is not enough for plasma television sales to survive the LED TV threat. While there is no doubt about plasma’s superior picture quality, yet as things stand today, the difference in picture performances between the latest LED TVs and plasma televisions is often difficult for the ‘untrained’ eye to perceive especially when taking the best seat.

In addition, most HDTV buyers are not so much after superior picture quality inasmuch as a large TV with a slim profile. This explains why the majority of HDTV buyers simply opt for what is perceived as the latest ‘slim’ HDTV technology, LED TV – often thinking that plasma is obsolete.

Price Advantage

In a similar manner, the plasma price advantage at entry level and 60-inch+ HDTV categories is not maintaining the desired level of sustainable plasma television sales. As further explained in our article, Panasonic has already announced it stopped its entire R&D on plasma display technology. And the rather reduced lineups from both Samsung and LG seem to suggest that things with these TV makers are also moving in a similar direction.

The problem for the end consumer is not so much the absence of plasma’s price advantage, inasmuch as plasma’s absence from the HDTV market would surely lead to a surge in LED TV prices. Plasma’s presence has so far helped force LED TV manufacturers cut their prices, to the point that the price gap at the more popular screen sizes where collision between the two technologies occur (50-inch and 55-inch), has become non-existent. With plasma out of the HDTV market, the LED TV industry would not have any real technology competition against which to compare itself in terms of pricing and picture quality.

The Bottom Line

Plasma display technology may be approaching the end of the line, but there is no real affordable alternative yet to anyone seriously concerned about picture quality. In other words, plasma HDTVs still have a lot to offer in terms of picture performance till a better display technology emerges at a comparable price; it will surely be the consumer who will be the main loser if plasma TVs were to reach a premature death at this stage.

Luckily, plasma TVs have reached the peak in picture performance. If you are in the market for an HDTV, we say do not hold back to a plasma TV; it may be your last change to enjoy what the best in TV display technology has to offer today!

It will surely take a few more years before a suitable alternative display technology capable of the same superior picture quality becomes available at the present plasma TV pricing.

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