Plasma televisions, while still the finest made in the eyes of purists, are rapidly losing ground to LCD-based models, say analysts and industry observers. That's because Liquid Crystal Display TVs have plunged in price and innovated their way to near-parity with plasma in terms of image quality.
"If you're a videophile, you're still absolutely more into plasma than LCD, and plasma will still be the predominant choice for video enthusiasts and sports and movie buffs for the next couple of years," said Suave Kajko, publisher and editor of Canada HiFi magazine. But for most consumers, "LCDs are blowing plasma out of the water," said Megan Pollock of the Consumer Electronics Association.
Even newer technology is emerging that could best both LCD and plasma, known as OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode).
Sony's pioneering XEL-1 11-inch OLED model, which lists for $2,500, "produced the best picture I've ever seen," Kajko said. But OLED manufacturing capacity is currently limited, so for at least the next few years, "the battle is between LCD and plasma," Pollock said.
Plasma's early lead
Those two technologies have been rivals since roughly 1998, when together they started encroaching on the market held largely by analog TVs built around the cathode-ray tube.
That late-19th century technology formed the heart of TVs from their infancy in the late 1920s. The sole alternative was the analog rear-display TV, whose hulking faux-wood cabinets once projected big, blurry images in bars and rec rooms. It has virtually disappeared.
Digital TVs using plasma or LCDs initially made up a tiny fraction of the market. Even in 2005, only 2 million of the 31.1 million TV sets sold in the United States used LCDs, said Riddhi Patel, an analyst with iSuppli. Another 4 million used plasma, the rest being analog.
Since then, plasma and LCD models have jointly vanquished analog models. At the same time, competition began developing between the two victors. Competition? More like a religious war, to judge by the vociferous user comments and discussions on sites like Cnet.com and Amazon.com.
Early on, plasma sets had the buzz as providing an unparalleled image. They were the prestige sets to buy, even at $8,000 to $10,000. But over the last five years, LCD TV growth has hugely outstripped that of plasma sets in the brisk American market.
A change in the market
In 2006, of the 33.2 million sets sold in the U.S., 10.3 million were LCD and 3 million were plasma. By 2008, of 31.1 million sets sold, 24 million were LCD vs. 3.5 million plasma. This year will show the first decline in plasma TV sales: an estimated 3.3 million sets, versus nearly 30 million LCD sets.
Some makers are getting out of the plasma business entirely. Pioneer — never a big-volume seller in the U.S. but hailed by reviewers for making the finest big-screen TV yet, the plasma-based Elite Kuro — is bailing on plasma at the end of 2009, a company spokesperson said. (Some Elite Kuros remain available, with the 60-inch model selling for about $5,800.)
Vizio, which sells the most LCD-based TVs in the U.S., "made a concerted effort to sell plasma last year with a 32-inch model," said co-founder Ken Lowe. But it couldn't compete with 32-inch LCD models, especially in terms of power consumption, Lowe said, and Vizio abandoned the plasma market in early 2009. Fujitsu has reportedly left the plasma market too.
Why are LCD sets increasingly outselling plasma?
The biggest reason may be price. It's dropping rapidly for LCD TVs, while prices for plasma sets remain relatively static.
Industry-wide, a 50–inch full high-definition LCD set now costs roughly 10 percent more than a plasma set, said Samsung U.S. senior vice president John Revie, whose company makes both kinds of sets. That's because larger LCD sets cost more to manufacture than their plasma counterparts with big screens.
Crossing price barriers
Still, plasma remains far cheaper than LCD in some instances. Amazon.com's best-selling 42-inch plasma TV, from Panasonic, sells for $900, while a feature-comparable 40-inch Samsung LCD model sells for more than $1,600, said Amazon.com vice president Paul Ryder.
LCD TV prices have fallen so sharply because there's a large supply of makers and materials, said Tim Alessi, a director at LG Electronics USA, which makes both plasma and LCD TVs.
Shane Buettner, editor of Home Theater, said the LCDs' price cuts overcame differences in image quality.
"LCDs crossed enough price barriers quickly enough that consumers got over the fact they didn't have the same image quality as plasma, and that shift has been pretty dramatic over the past three to five years," he said.
But must viewers sacrifice image quality?
Today's TVs are extremely sophisticated in their inputs, adjustability and features, and few viewers will bother to tweak them for maximum performance. But even out of the box, LCDs now near or equal plasmas.
That's because of much recent innovation in LCD technology — more than in plasma.
Both types of TV are adding features such as access to online streaming movies from Amazon or Netflix and online widgets from Yahoo that provide weather and headlines.
But while the basic technology of plasma remains unchanged (arguably because it was already excellent), that of LCD TVs is improving (arguably because it had to).
Most notably, until recently, LCD TVs were backlit by fluorescent lighting. Within the last year, makers have begun shifting to using LEDs (light-emitting diodes) for backlighting.
LED lighting "allows LCD technology to display a very deep black, which can't be done with fluorescents, and it also allows a huge improvement in contrast ratio," said Canada HiFi's Kajko.
More recently, the LCD TV market split again, this time between fully LED-backlit, in which portions of the screen can turn off completely and so produce deeper blacks, vs. side-lit LED, which yields thinner sets but grayer blacks, said Amazon's Ryder.
The motion blur and flicker once endemic to LCD sets has been reduced by refresh rates of 120 and even 240 hertz, said iSuppli's Patel. And displaying full high definition at 1080p (an image 1920-by-1080 pixels at a frame rate of 23.98 frames per second), is widespread among LCD sets but still lagging in plasma TVs, Patel said.
Better energy consumption
Energy consumption is another area where LCDs prevail. Even the Plasma Display Coalition, a trade association, concedes plasma sets consume 20 percent to 30 percent more power than comparable LCD sets. In California, that could prove a challenge once the state’s power-consumption standards are imposed in 2011.
Of all the TVs certified by the federal EPA's Energy Star program, 400 to 500 are LCD-based, compared to 60 or 70 using plasma, said coalition president Jim Palumbo.
Even among the most devoted aficionados — those installing custom viewing rooms and home theaters — plasma is losing popularity.
In 2000 it was clearly the preferred technology, but plasma sets in the first half of 2009 made up less than half of those installed by the 3,500 members of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association.
The consensus seems to be that plasma will continue to have a place for at least the next few years, aided by the move to larger-size sets. This year, only 47 percent of all the TVs sold in the U.S. were 36 inches or under, down from 69 percent in 2006. More 50-inch sets will be sold this year than any other size, said iSuppli's Patel.
That expansionist trend favors plasma TVs, which remain inherently difficult to build in sizes smaller than about 42 inches, said Home Theater's Buettner. In contrast, LCD technology can scale up or down, making it usable on TVs that are 14 inches, 60 inches and everything in between.
Every four years, a new set
What to choose? Amazon's Ryder advises buyers to first determine how they'll use their TV, where they'll put it (on a wall or on the floor), what size they want and what type of programming they'll be watching most.
Pick a plasma model for sports or other fast-moving images — so long as you can deal with its higher energy consumption. Otherwise choose LCD if you don't mind paying a bit more.
Whatever choice you make, odds are it won't be forever: The average American buys a new TV every four years, says the Consumer Electronics Association.