Like it or not, Panasonic plasmas are gone, and we all have to move on. The company is now looking at an LCD-only future (at least in the immediate future, until OLED gains a foothold), and the big question is, can it really compete with the big boys of LCD in the market?
At the higher end of the price chain, Panasonic offers the THX-certified 4K AX800 Series that uses a full-array LED backlight with local dimming, designed and featured to go up against the high-end models from Samsung, LG, and Sony. We haven't had a chance to review that line yet, but some of the initial reviews look positive. [Editor's note, 10/19/14: Last week, Panasonic also announced the 65-inch AX900 and 85-inch AX850 Series of Ultra HD TVs, which will be available in November.]
Sitting below the AX800 are the AS680 and AS650 Series of 1080p LED/LCDs. These models use edge LED lighting and lack local dimming, so you can expect a drop-off in black level and contrast compared with the top-shelf line. The AS680 (which is only available in a 55-inch size) has a true 240Hz refresh rate, while the AS650 has a 120Hz refresh rate and employs Panasonic's "1500 Backlight Scanning" to further improve motion resolution. Otherwise, the two lines are identical. Both are 3D-capable and include the company's redesigned smart TV platform, called Life+Screen, with a host of streaming and connectivity features.
The AS650 Series is available in screen sizes of 50, 55, and 60 inches. Panasonic sent me the 55-inch TC-55AS650U, which currently carries an MSRP of $1,199.99.
Setup and Features
The TC-55AS650U has a sleek form factor, with only about a half inch of bezel around the top and sides and a two-tone aesthetic with black frame on the sides and brushed aluminum on the top and bottom. A pair of down-firing, 10-watt speakers is onboard, and the non-swiveling stand is essentially a three-sided piece of bent metal. I liked the minimalist look of the stand, and the TV felt sturdy in it. With the stand attached, the TV weighs 43 pounds, and the screen's depth is 2.2 inches.
The connection panel sports three HDMI 1.4 inputs (two down-facing, one side-facing, with ARC support on one of them but no MHL support), one component video input, one RF input for the internal ATSC tuner, and an optical digital audio output. The TV has built-in WiFi, or you can use the back-panel LAN port for network connectivity. An SD card slot is available for media playback, as are two USB ports that also allow for the addition of peripherals like a camera or keyboard. The TC-55AS650U has Bluetooth functionality to wirelessly connect a keyboard, mouse, or headphones.
The TC-55AS650U lacks the THX and ISF picture modes you get on the higher-end AX800 Series, but Panasonic has included all of the advanced picture adjustments we like to see, including: multiple color-temperature presents with two- and 10-point white balance adjustment; a full color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of all six colors; nine gamma presets (1.8 to 2.6), plus a 10-point gamma detail control; a 100-step adjustable backlight; noise reduction; and a game mode to optimize response time when playing video games. Panasonic's de-blur/de-judder control is called Motion Picture Setting, and you can choose off, weak, mid, or strong to set the amount of smoothness (i.e., frame interpolation) you prefer with film sources. This TV does not include a de-blur option that does not employ frame interpolation.
The AS650 is a 3D-capable TV. Unlike Panasonic's plasma TVs that used active 3D technology, the new LCDs use passive 3D, and two pairs of lightweight glasses (model TY-EP3D20) were included in the package. You can configure separate picture modes for 3D content and employ 3D depth adjustments, left/right swaps, and diagonal line filtering.
The Sound menu includes three preset sound modes and a user mode with an eight-band equalizer. Generic surround, bass boost, volume leveler, and boundary compensation controls are available. The AS650's sound quality is surprisingly good given its basic two-speaker design. Both dynamic ability and vocal clarity were above average for a flat-panel TV.
The TC-55AS650U comes with two remote controls: the standard Panasonic IR remote with lots of buttons and the smaller Touchpad remote that communicates via Bluetooth and has just 10 buttons around a large touchpad. Both models put black buttons on a black case and lack backlighting. One of the 10 buttons on the Touchpad remote is a microphone that is used to search for content within the smart TV service, but can also control basic TV tasks like mute, channel, volume, and input selection.
Panasonic also offers a free iOS/Android control app, called Panasonic TV Remote 2. The app has layouts that exactly replicate the IR and Touchpad remotes, as well as a keyboard to enter text during Web browsing and some (but not all) apps. You can Swipe & Share media content and Web pages directly from your mobile device, and the AS650U also support screen mirroring with compatible mobile devices.
Since Panasonic has completely redesigned its smart TV platform in 2014, we will cover the Life+Screen platform in a separate review that will post soon.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
The Panasonic TC-55AS650U took the open spot on my testing table right beside the Samsung UN65HU8550 UHD TV that I reviewed a few months back. With the Panasonic in its Cinema picture mode with no other adjustments, I couldn't help but notice how close its non-calibrated color temperature and color points were to the calibrated Samsung. I did some casual HDTV viewing comparisons in a daytime environment and found that both TVs served up pleasingly bright, natural-looking pictures. Okay, I thought, this lower-priced Panasonic is off to a good start.
And indeed, the measurements backed up my initial observations. When I fired up my X-rite i1Pro 2 meter, SpectraCal software, and DVDO AVLab TPG, I discovered that the TC-55AS650U's Cinema picture mode is very close to reference standards right out of the box. The red/green/blue color balance was good, the gamma average was 2.38, and the grayscale Delta Error was just 3.1 (anything under five is excellent; anything under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye). As for the color points, the largest Delta Error was with green, and it was only 3.3. Since the AS650 is a lower-priced HDTV, it's less likely that someone is going to pay extra for professional calibration; and honestly, with numbers this good, you really don't need to.
Of course, part of my job is to see what's possible through calibration, and the answer is that, thanks to the advanced adjustments included in the AS650U's setup menu, I was able to nudge this display even closer to reference. The 10-point gamma detail adjustment let me dial in a perfect 2.2, while the white balance controls further tightened up the color balance and brought the grayscale Delta Error down to 1.12. Likewise in the color realm, where the color management system helped me dial in nearly perfect color brightness across the board, with blue having the largest Delta Error at 1.2. (Wondering what all these numbers mean? Check out our How We Evaluate and Measure HDTVs article for an explanation.)
The TC-55AS650U is capable of high brightness. As its default backlight setting of 35 (out of 100), the Cinema mode measured about 47 foot-lamberts with a full white field. When I cranked that mode up to the maximum backlight, I measured 89.2 ft-L...and the Cinema mode is not even the brightest picture mode at your disposal. Needless to say, the AS650 has ample light output to produce a vibrant, engaging HDTV or gaming image during the day, even in a very bright room. This Panasonic TV didn't do quite as good a job as the higher-end Samsung UHD model in rejecting ambient light to improve black level and contrast during the day, but it was certainly fine in this respect. The combination of great light output, natural color, and a clean signal with very little digital noise made for some great Saturday/Sunday football watching.
For those of you who are sensitive to motion blur, the "Motion Picture Setting" control, which turns on the 1500 Backlight Scanning technology, does successfully reduce blur. In the motion resolution test patterns from my FPD Benchmark test disc, the AS650 could cleanly render all the lines at HD720 and some lines at HD1080, and the license plates on the moving cars were clearly legible. The image wasn't as crystal clear as I've seen from other blur-reduction technologies, but it was still good. I'm disappointed that there's no mode that allows you to address motion blur without adding "smoothing" frame interpolation, but at least the "weak" Motion Picture mode is very subtle in its smoothing of film sources.
Now let's talk black level, the area that endeared videophiles to Panasonic plasmas for all those years. As I said in the introduction, the AS650 is an edge-lit LED/LCD with no local dimming, and its black level is representative of that design. In other words, it's mediocre. In head-to-head comparisons with the Samsung UHD TV, the AS650's black level was nowhere near as dark at a comparable brightness setting - producing grayish blacks and an overall lack of saturation in my darkest demo scenes from Gravity (chapter 3), The Bourne Supremacy (chapter 1), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (chapter 4). Even when I turned the AS650's backlight all the way down to get just 11.8 ft-L of brightness, its black level still wasn't as deep as the Samsung's (which is also an edge-lit LED/LCD but uses local dimming).
Of course, the Samsung is a much more expensive TV. It should have a better black level, right? Luckily, a review sample of the Vizio M602i-B3 arrived as I was finishing up this review, so I was able to do a head-to-head comparison between the AS650 and a more comparably priced (in fact, lower-priced) LCD. Vizio has switched to full-array LED backlighting with local dimming for all of its 2014 LCDs, regardless of price; and, simply put, the M602i-B3 blew away the Panasonic in its ability to produce deep, dark blacks while retaining image brightness. It wasn't even close.
In terms of 3D performance, the TC-55AS650U's abilities were pretty much on par with other passive 1080p TVs I've tested. Its excellent light output allows for very bright, engaging 3D content, even during the day. There's none of the flicker associated with active 3D, so it's a comfortable viewing experience. But as usual, I was able to see the line structure created by the passive approach in solid colors and diagonals. I saw no crosstalk in my favorite crosstalk demo from Monsters vs. Aliens (chapter 13) - as long as I was sitting with the TV near my eye height. With many passive 3D TVs, if the TV is placed too high or you're trying to watch a 3D movie while seated on the floor, you will see a lot of crosstalk, and that proved to be the case here.
Speaking of where you sit, the AS650 uses an In Plane Switching (IPS) LCD panel, which gives it a much wider viewing angle from side to side so that you don't lose as much image saturation if you're room as a lot of seating areas that aren't right in front of the TV. With IPS panels, the up/down viewing angle is lessened, so again you don't want to put this TV too high up on the wall.
You can probably surmise from my discussion above that the biggest downside in terms of the AS650's performance is the lighter black level. This TV simply isn't the best choice for someone who does a lot of movie watching in a dark room. The menu includes an option called "Adaptive Backlight" that will automatically raise and lower the whole backlight based on the content being displayed; this does improve the black level a little bit in dark scenes, but only at the expense of image brightness.
On the plus side, edge-lit LED/LCDs often suffer from poor screen uniformity, where some parts of the screen are clearly brighter than others, causing the screen to look "cloudy" with dark content. Because the AS650's black level isn't all that dark to begin with, I really didn't notice any significant instances of poor screen uniformity, which is good because it's an issue I find very distracting.
The other performance concern is in the processing realm. The AS650 properly detected the 3:2 cadence in 480i and 1080i film signals, but it was slow to do so, so I saw a lot of jaggies and moiré in my demo scenes. The TV's processor also failed to properly handle video-based and other assorted cadences. Overall, I recommend you let your sources (Blu-ray player, etc.) handle the signal conversion from 480i/1080i up to 1080p.
Like most LCDs these days, the TC-55AS650U has a reflective screen, and its reflections were a bit more noticeable than the Samsung and Vizio TVs. You'll want to be mindful of where you position the TV in relation to lamps and windows.
Comparison and Competition
The Panasonic TC-55AS650U has a lot of competition around its $1,200 price point. You can get the 60-inch version of the new Vizio M Series that I used in my comparison for the same price or the 55-inch version for $850. Samsung's UN55H6400 edge-lit LED/LCD is also $1,200 and uses the company's Micro Dimming, which is an electronic form of zone dimming that's not as good as the real thing but is better than nothing. The UN55H6350 model omits the Micro Dimming and sells for about $1,000. LG's 55LB6300 carries an MSRP of $1,300 but sells for a lot less ($800 on Amazon); it also has an IPS panel, sports the new WebOS smart TV platform, and uses direct LED lighting with no local dimming. Finally, Sony's $1,300 KDL-55W800B is an edge-lit model that uses Sony's frame dimming to help with black level and screen uniformity.
It's also worth noting that the step-up TC-55AS680U, which is identical to this model except that it has a true 240Hz refresh rate, is currently available through Best Buy for a lower price of $800, which is a much better value.
Panasonic's TC-55AS650U 1080p LED/LCD can serve up a bright, clean, very natural-looking HD image with minimal tweaking required on the consumer's part. Just switch it to the Cinema picture mode and enjoy. Its lighter black level means it's not ideally suited for a home theater room or a situation where someone watches a lot of films in a dark room, but it's well suited as a living- or family-room TV that will see a lot of daytime use for sports, gaming, and casual TV watching. Its wider viewing angle is also a good fit for that type of room, and the TC-55AS650U is endowed with all the bells and whistles that we expect to see in today's smart TV systems.
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