I don't have loads of experience in this area, but from what I've seen, the plasmas blow away the CRT based sets. I looked at both recently showing a high definition feed of the Olympics and it wasn't even close.
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The CRT sets have better contrast giving them blacker blacks and whiter whites. This difference until now has been large, but the plasmas are closing the gap. The higher end plasmas now have excellent contrast, but still not quite as good as a high end CRT. The plasmas have more light output than a projection CRT so they do better in a room with lots of light. Plasmas can have problems with burn in if the contrast and brightness aren't set corrrectly. A CRT RPTV can have the same problem, but it's unclear if they are quite as vulnerable.
The main problem with plasma is cost. You can get a CRT RPTV with a picture that is very competative with plasma for much less money. I feel plasmas are the future because they are improving, the size advantage is a real plus and the cost will become more competative with CRT. The really good 50" plasmas now cost $10k plus. In three years or less it will be half that. When my Pioneer Elite 510 dies I'm sure I'll replace it with a plasma.
As a CRT HDTV(Sony 34XBR2 and 61HS10)and Plasma owner )Fujitsu 5001 and 6101). Let me say, there just ain't no comparison. With this caveat; it depends what source you are using. Egrady is correct about the limitations with contrast and burn in, though the Panasonic based (Fujitsu 50" being one of these) really have tremendously good contrast. The limitations here arise mostly because of the size. Detail really shows up on these babies. So if you are using SD signals or VHS, and are even a little critical, you might want to think again. I chose the Fujitsu's because they have the best on board scalers. (I also have a Faroudja NRS which doesn't actually improve much in relation to the AVM onboard). Even so with OTA or some Directv programming, it looks pretty bad. The picture just screams out at you because of the brightness and detail, thus good signals look awesome and poor signals look terrible. It's fun to go between rooms and check out the difference with the same programming. When folks come over and first see the CRT's with the HiDef signal they go "wow that's really clear" (being that few have seen a HD picture). But if they go into the room with the HD signal on the plasma, most are just speechless. Enough of this rambling. The bottom line is plasma is just untouchable for wow factor. Whether that wow stimulates you into spending the extra cash depends on your eyes. Don't take anyone else's words, definitely go to a vendor that has both. One very concrete thing I must say is don't buy that Sony. It's a piece of crap! That is the general consensus of those in the know (I belong to a plasma forum). In the 42 inch range, stick with the NEC42MP3 or one of the many 42" versions of the 4th generation Panasonic. They can generally be had for less money.......If you're getting a CRT go with the Loewe, or Princeton. The Loewe is actually the only truly flat CRT made. All others are actually just using flat fronted glass, with curved internals, which makes them extremely heavy and not as optically correct. In my opinion, the only tube that can rival the gas in glass.
The problem with plasma is that after about three year's use (if you use it a lot), it will be about 1/2 as bright. I do a lot of plasma displays for airport use (have used Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC, etc.) and after they've been on for 3 months you can see the difference if a new one is inserted next to an older one. They lose brightness over time due to the way they work.
I don't agree that the "wow factor" is all that great. If you compare a Pioneer Elite RPTV for sharpness, color, etc. it comes pretty close when you see it from its optimum viewing angle. Plasma has an advantage of a wider viewing angle, but, at this time, I'd rather have the the best RPTV in a larger size (60 or 70 inch diagonal), than a 50-inch plasma.
If you want to see the absolute best in either plasma or RPTV, go to a place that has the Pioneer Elite equipment, in either technology no other manufacturer can match the picture - however, they are also the most expensive.