The AX800 Series is Panasonic's current top-shelf LED/LCD line, although that honor will soon transfer to the new AX900 Series. Both series offer a 4K Ultra HD resolution and a host of advanced features; whereas the AX800 uses edge LED lighting with local dimming, the AX900 will employ a full-array LED backlight with the company's most advanced local dimming technology. Panasonic sent me a sample of the 65-inch TC-65AX800U, which currently retails for $2,799.99. A 58-inch model is also available for $1,999.99.
In addition to its 4K resolution and edge LED lighting, the TC-65AX800U sports THX 4K certification, 2400 BLS (backlight scanning) to reduce motion blur and film judder, active 3D capability, the company's Touchpad remote with voice control, and the Life+Screen Web platform with built-in WiFi. Let's dig in and see what this guy can do.
Setup and Features
When the TC-65AX800U showed up on my doorstep and my husband and I tried to move it down to the theater room, I was shocked at how heavy the box was. I felt like I was moving an old-school 65-inch plasma, not an edge-lit LED. The gross weight of the package was 158.8 pounds! Upon unpacking the box and picking up the TV stand, I discovered where all the extra weight was to be found. The 65-inch panel weighs about 90 pounds; the included stand weighs 40 pounds. That's because it's not a traditional stand design in which the TV is essentially placed on top of the stand; instead, the TC-65AX800U panel attaches to the front of this giant block of heavy plastic (which is about a 14-inch square), and the stand works like a ballast to keep the panel upright and stable. Along the bottom of the TV panel is a U-shaped silver frame that elevates the screen about two inches above the tabletop, and the stand design also causes the TV screen to tilt back ever so slightly. The screen itself is surrounded by about a half inch of black bezel, and the TV features two tiny front-firing speakers and a rear-firing woofer.
The connection panel includes four HDMI inputs, but only one of them is an HDMI 2.0 input with support for 4K/60 input and HDCP 2.2. copy protection. That HDMI input is located on the back panel, while the three HDMI 1.4 inputs run along the side panel. Thankfully, ARC is included on the HDMI 2.0 input and one of the HDMI 1.4 inputs. Panasonic also includes a DisplayPort connection for 4K/60 content. Other connection options include an RF input, a shared component/composite input, optical digital and stereo analog audio outputs, three USB ports for media playback and peripherals like a Web Camera, an SD card slot, and an Ethernet port for a wired network connection. There's no RS-232 or IR ports for easier integration into an advanced control system.
As you would expect from a top-shelf TV, the TC-65AX800U offers the full arsenal of advanced picture adjustments, beginning with 10 picture modes--including THX Cinema and THX Bright Room modes, plus two Professional (isfccc) modes. Advanced picture adjustments include: 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; four color gamut options (Native, Rec 709, SMPTE-C, and EBU); 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. In the two THX picture modes, you cannot access the Pro menu where the advanced white balance, gamma, and color gamut options reside. The TV's local dimming is controlled by the Adaptive Backlight Control, with options for off, min, mid, and max. You can also enable a Letterbox function that is designed to further darken the top and bottom bars when watching 2.35:1 movies on this 16:9 screen. 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 or Soap Opera Effect) you get with film sources. This TV does not include a blur-reduction option that does not employ frame interpolation.
Unlike the AS650U we recently reviewed that had passive 3D capability, this TV uses active 3D technology, and Panasonic supplies two pairs of lightweight active shutter glasses. You can configure separate picture modes for 3D content and employ 3D depth adjustments, left/right swaps, and diagonal line filtering. You can also choose between three different 3D refresh rates: 96 Hz, 100 Hz, and 120Hz (default).
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, as is a Digital Remaster control designed to compensate for compressed audio to produce a better listening experience. The quality of the small speakers is, not surprisingly, a bit lean and hollow-sounding in the vocals. It'll get the job done, but we recommend you at least consider adding a soundbar or 2.1-channel system to help flesh out the audio.
The TC-65AX800U 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 enables the remote's built-in microphone that allows you to search for content within the smart TV service, as well as 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 screens replicate the IR and Touchpad remote layouts, and a virtual keyboard allows for faster text entry 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 TC-65AX800U also supports screen mirroring with compatible mobile devices.
Panasonic has completely revamped its Web platform for 2014, replacing the Viera Connect system with the new Life+ Screen service that offers more personalization and customization than its predecessor. I recently did a full write-up on Life+Screen as it appears in the TC-55AS650U, and the functionality should be the same in the AX800. You can get all the details here.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
We begin all of our display reviews by measuring the different picture modes as they are right out of the box, to let you know which one provides the most accurate picture with the least effort on your part. As I mentioned above, the TC-65AX800U has 10 picture modes, and I'm happy to report that a number of them are close to reference standards from the get-go. The THX Cinema, THX Bright Room, Home Theater, Cinema, Monitor, and Professional modes all have very good color accuracy and white balance, with Delta Errors under six (and often under three) for color points and gray scale. The differences between the modes are primarily in gamma and light output, as they are all intended for different viewing environments. Technically, the THX Cinema and Cinema modes are the most accurate out of the box; they're numbers were nearly identical, with the THX Cinema mode having a slight edge in gray scale accuracy and the Cinema mode having a slight edge in color accuracy and a more theater-friendly gamma average. The Cinema mode had a maximum gray scale Delta Error of 3.69, a gamma average of 2.35, brightness of 34 ft-L, and all six color points well under a Delta Error of three. (See How We Evaluate and Measure HDTVs for an explanation of these measurements.) This mode will serve as an excellent choice for someone who wants an accurate, well-balanced image for a moderate to dark viewing environment.
Those who are willing to invest in a professional calibration will enjoy excellent results, as the TC-65AX600U can be fully calibrated to a high degree of accuracy. Without too much effort, I was able to calibrate the Professional 1 picture mode to a maximum gray scale Delta Error of just 0.9 and a nearly perfect red/green/blue balance. The 10-point gamma adjustment allowed me to dial in 2.2 across the board; I could've easily dialed in 2.4 for a completely darkened theater room, as well. Likewise, in the color department I was able to eke all six color points very close to the reference Rec 709 standards, with blue being the least accurate with a Delta Error of 1.1 (anything under three is considered imperceptible to the human eye).
I set the Professional 1 mode's image brightness to 40 ft-lamberts (with a 100 percent full white field), which falls right in the middle of the ISF recommendations for dark and dim rooms, which is how I do most of my viewing. If you plan to use the TC-65AX800U in a brighter viewing environment, it can put out a lot more light. At the maximum backlight setting, the Professional 1 mode served up 78 ft-L. I got the most light output (105 ft-L) in the highly inaccurate Vivid picture mode, while the THX Bright room mode measured about 54 ft-L at its default settings. The TC-65AX800U's screen is reflective, but it's at little more diffuse than the screen on my reference Samsung UN65HU8550. The Panasonic screen did a good job of rejecting ambient light to improve the black level and contrast for daytime viewing. Brighter sports and HDTV shows looked fantastic, with excellent detail, neutral skintones, and rich but natural color.
Next up was an evaluation of the TC-65AX800U's black level. With my favorite black-level demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy (chapter one), Flags of Our Fathers (chapter three), Gravity (chapter three), and Pirates the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (chapter four), I found that the TC-65AX800U's black level was good but not exceptional. The overall image contrast was solid when viewing these dark scenes in a dark room, and the TV did a good job rendering fine black details; however, in a head-to-head comparison with the Samsung UN65HU8550 (which is also an edge-lit UHD TV), the Panasonic couldn't quite keep pace in rendering the darkest portions of the image. And neither of these edge-lit displays could keep pace with the less expensive Vizio M602i-B3 1080p TV that uses a full-array LED backlight system when it came to reproducing the darkest blacks in tandem with bright whites.
The TC-65AX800U offers several picture controls to help you tweak the quality of dark scenes. Of course there's the adjustable backlight; I tried turning it down to about 25 percent, which improved the black level slightly but also robbed the image of too much brightness. The Contrast A.I. function in the Pro settings menu can also be configured to make the black level a little darker, but it crushes fine black detail in the process. The Adaptive Backlight control is interesting in that it doesn't just make the black level darker with each step from minimum to maximum. The mid and max modes produce the darkest looking blacks, but they also seem to artificially force more brightness into the scene's bright elements. This can give the image more contrast when there's a mix of dark and bright elements, but at times it introduced noise into very low-light scenes and altered the color of black. At the end of the day, though, none of these tweaks allowed the Panasonic to outperform the other displays I had on hand in black-level performance.
In the processing realm, the TC-65AX800U produces a nicely detailed image. Its 4K upconversion of 1080p Blu-ray discs produced a similar level of detail as the Samsung UN65HU8550 TV and Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, and the picture was generally clean, keeping digital noise to a minimum. The TV correctly detects the 3:2 cadence in 480i/1080i film sources (although it's a little slow in doing so), but it did not properly handle the video-based tests or other assorted/difficult cadences on the HQV Benchmark and Spears & Munsil test discs, so jaggies and other digital artifacts may be visible in non-film-based sources. As for motion resolution, even with the Motion Picture Setting turned off, the TC-65AX800U performed solidly with the HD resolution test pattern on the FPD Benchmark disc, producing some clean lines to HD720. With Motion Picture Setting enabled, I saw clean lines to HD1080, although the motion resolution wasn't as crisp and razor-sharp as I've seen from TVs that offer a black-frame insertion mode. For those who do not like the smoothing effects of frame interpolation (i.e., the Soap Opera Effect), the Weak Motion Picture Setting is fairly subtle, but ultimately I preferred to just leave the function off.
3D content looked very good on this active 3D TV. The TC-65AX800U has ample light output to offset the brightness that is sacrificed through the active-shutter glasses, and the TV produced a clean, sharp 3D image with none of the visible line structure of a passive 3D display. I saw only an occasional hint of crosstalk in the 120Hz 3D mode.
Finally, we come to 4K UHD content...and well, there wasn't much to see. Panasonic recently upgraded this TV to support HEVC decoding and, consequently, Netflix Ultra HD streaming. I signed in to Netflix through the Life+Screen Web platform and was immediately greeted by the Ultra HD menu, so I knew the update worked. I had no issues streaming Ultra HD scenes from Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and they all looked clean and well detailed, but there was one problem. You can't enable the Adaptive Backlight when playing Web-based content. That means no local dimming with Ultra HD streams, which means the black level wasn't as good and the lack of screen uniformity was more obvious.
Using the DVDO AVLab TPG pattern generator, I confirmed that the TC-65AX800U's HDMI 2.0 input can accept a 4K/60 signal (at 4:2:0), and it correctly reproduced the 4K test patterns to show all the detail. In terms of future compatibility, I measured the TC-65AX800U's Native color gamut to see how close it could get to the Rec 2020 standard. The Native mode can produce a much wider gamut than the Rec 709 mode--it can't make it all the way out to the green point of the Rec 2020 UHD standard (it's about halfway there), but the other color points are close, so it can capture more of the possible colors in future Rec 2020 UHD sources. There is no confirmation as to whether this panel supports 10- or 12-bit color, though.
As I said above, the black level was solid but not quite on par with the better HDTVs I've tested. More of a concern for me was the lack of screen uniformity in this edge-lit LED/LCD. My review sample had several noticeable patches of brightness that were clearly evident with an all-black image. The Letterbox control helped hide them and keep the black bars dark in 2.35:1 movies; however, I could still see the lack of uniformity in some dark scenes. And, since the Adaptive Backlight does not turn the LEDs all the way off during all-black scene transitions, I often noticed the patchy quality during those transitions.
I find the physical design of this TV and its stand to be a real head-scratcher. TV tip-overs are a concern (I even wrote a story about it), and I agree that manufacturers should be mindful of the stability of their TV stands. But the TC-65AX800U's stand is comically heavy, it adds 14 inches of depth to the equation, and it just makes the whole package unwieldy. Why sacrifice picture quality by using an edge-lit LED/LCD panel only to eliminate any potential gains in weight and depth by designing such an odd stand? If I were to buy this TV, I would definitely look at wall-mounting options instead.
The TC-65AX800U only has one HDMI 2.0 port that can accept a 4K image at 60 Hz. Yes, it has a 4K/60-capable DisplayPort input that could be beneficial to computer users, but it's unlikely that DisplayPort will be the input of choice on a future 4K Blu-ray playback device, as HDMI has established a pretty strong hold on the market.
In the realm of UHD content, we're probably a year away from seeing 4K Blu-ray players for sale, and Panasonic does not offer a 4K movie server to mate with this TV, the way Sony and Samsung do with their UHD TVs. That means your only source of UHD content for this TV right now is Netflix, YouTube, and whatever other streaming services choose to add 4K content in the near future.
Comparison and Competition
Here are a few 65-inch UHD TVs that compete with the TC-65AX800U. I compared the Panasonic directly to the Samsung UN65HU8550 edge-lit UHD TV and preferred the latter's black level, screen uniformity, Web platform, and design. LG offers the 65UB9500 edge-lit LED/LCD with dimming, which uses an In-Plane Switching panel for a wider viewing angle and features the webOS platform. The Sony XBR-65X900B is another edge-lit LED/LCD model that carries a higher price tag; it also has a distinctive design and has received some highly favorable performance reviews. Vizio's P652ui-B2 full-array LED model carries the lowest price point, but early reviews have been lukewarm.
The week I received the TC-65AX800U review sample, Panasonic announced the upcoming availability of the AX900 Series. Figures, huh? While the AX900 still isn't available as this review goes live at the end of December, I still have a hard time recommending the AX800 when I know what's on the horizon. The TC-65AX800U does a number of things well: It's a very accurate TV for color purists, it has excellent light output and good image contrast in both a dark and bright room, its black level is solid, and its price is competitive for a 65-inch UHD TV. However, it falls short in delivering the black level and screen uniformity I demand of a higher-end panel, its UHD input options are limited, and I personally don't care for the physical design. At least on paper, the AX900 seems to address all of those concerns. It has four HDMI 2.0 inputs instead of one, it has a more traditional aesthetic and stand design, and most importantly it has a full-array LED backlighting system. If the AX900 can retain all the good performance traits of the AX800 and add in the better black level and screen uniformity, then it will be a much more desirable choice for the true theaterphile.
• Visit our Flat HDTVs category page for similar reviews.
• Panasonic Debuts AX900 and AX850 4K Ultra HD TVs at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Panasonic Life+Screen Web Platform (2014) Reviewed at HomeTheaterReview.com.