If you follow the TV business at all, you've likely already heard a lot about the Panasonic VT50. The company's top-shelf 2012 plasma series has earned accolades from most every major CE publication as being one of if not THE best-performing TV since the Pioneer KURO era. Well, I didn't want to take anyone else's word for it. I wanted to see this baby for myself, and Panasonic kindly obliged with a review sample of the 65-inch TC-P65VT50. (The series also includes a screen size of 55 inches.)
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As the top-tier model in the line, the VT50 is loaded with the finest performance technologies and features that Panasonic has to offer. On the performance end, the THX-certified VT50 uses the Infinite Black Ultra panel with an improved Louver filter, offers 24,576 shades of gradation, employs 2500 Focused Field Drive technology to improve motion resolution, and includes ISF calibration controls. As for features, this is an active 3DTV with a built-in RF emitter, but Panasonic does not include any pairs of 3D glasses in the package. The TV includes Panasonic's VIERA Connect Web platform, has built-in WiFi, and offers DLNA media streaming. The 65-inch TC-P65VT50 carries an MSRP of $3,699.99.
Over the course of the past year, I've reviewed two other plasma TVs: Panasonic's step-down ST50
and Samsung's PNE7000
. Both TVs proved to be very good performers that earned high marks, and fortunately I still had both TVs on hand when the VT50 arrived, so I was able to do head-to-head comparisons. Would the TC-P65VT50 live up to the hype? Would its performance really be that much better than other worthy, lower-priced plasma offerings? In a word, yes.
Setup & Features
The VT50 offers all of the core features found in the ST50, and it adds some higher-end options. Rather than repeat myself, I'm going to direct you first to my review of the TC-P55ST50
to get a rundown on the basics; here, I will focus on what the higher-end VT50 adds to the equation.
In the area of design, Panasonic's plasma line got a makeover this year, and the VT50 is the most stylish of them all, featuring a single sheet of glass with no raised bezel. About one inch of black border surrounds the screen. The cabinet has a glossy black finish with a silver accent strip that runs around the frame. The matching silver stand is probably the weakest link, design-wise; it looks pretty boxy and does not swivel. This 65-inch TV weighs 93.7 pounds (without the stand) and measures 35.1 (H) x 59.1 (W) x 2 (D) inches. As with the ST50 model, Panasonic has reduced overall cabinet depth by redesigning the TV's speakers: The new 8-Train system features eight dome-type microspeakers run along the bottom of the front panel, plus a 20mm-thick subwoofer mounted to the rear panel. New "sound lifting" technology is designed to more effectively redirect the sound to the center of the screen.
Compared with the ST50's connection panel, the VT50 offers an additional HDMI input (four total), an extra USB port (three total), and a PC input. There's still no RS-232 or IR port for connection to an advanced control system. The TC-P65VT50 comes with two remotes: the standard-issue IR remote that accompanies all Panasonic TVs and the Touchpad Controller that's only available with the VT50. This little controller combines a round touchpad with nine hard buttons, including power, volume, channel, exit, return, VIERA Tools, and VIERA Connect. The touchpad can be used to navigate menus and is especially helpful for Web browsing; you can adjust its speed/sensitivity via the TV's setup menu. The Touchpad Controller communicates with the TV over Bluetooth, so line-of-sight is not necessary. The TV's built-in Bluetooth also allows for the addition of a wireless keyboard or wireless headphones, options you don't get with the ST50.
The TC-P65VT50's setup menu includes a lot of advanced picture adjustments that are absent from the ST50, starting with two THX picture modes: THX Cinema and THX Bright Room. The THX modes are designed to provide the best, most accurate image out of the box, without requiring a lot of adjustment on the part of the end user. Panasonic does allow you to fine-tune basic picture controls like contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness, and color-temperature presets within the THX modes (something LG doesn't allow with its THX modes), but neither mode really required much tweaking to produce an attractive image for its respective viewing environment. Those who would like to perform a more advanced calibration must use the Custom picture mode in order to access the Pro menu. The VT50's Pro menu includes more options than the ST50's. Both have RGB high/low controls for white-balance adjustment, but the VT50 adds a 10-point RGB system and full color management to adjust the hue, saturation, and luminance of all six colors. Both TVs offer six gamma presets, but the VT50 adds a 10-point gamma detail adjustment. The VT50 also adds a 1080p Pure Direct mode that enables support of a 4:4:4 video signal with 1080p HDMI. Both TVs include Panasonic's Motion Smoother function, designed to improve motion resolution and reduce film judder using frame interpolation. The ST50 can output 24p Blu-ray sources at either 48Hz or 60Hz; the VT50 adds the more desirable 96Hz option (for 2D content only) that shows each film frame four times to produce slightly smoother, less-juddery motion. As I mentioned above, the TC-P65VT50 is ISF-certified; however, to calibrate ISF Day and Night modes, you'll need to hire a professional calibrator who can access the service menu, since those modes are not available through the main menu.
In terms of 3D picture controls and audio adjustments, the VT50 includes all of the same options found in the ST50. The VT50's THX certification also applies to 3D, so you do get a special THX 3D picture mode.
To get more details on Panasonic's VIERA Connect Web platform, check out my separate review
. The VT50 upgrades to a dual-core processor that allows for faster performance than the ST50, especially in the loading of Web pages. The dual-core processor also allows for multitasking: When you're in the VIERA Connect system, a quick press of the remote's VIERA Tools button will reveal all of the apps that are open and allow you to quickly and easily jump between them. With the ST50, you have to quit out of one app to launch another. It's worth noting that the VT50's Web browser also supports Flash, whereas the ST50's does not.
Of course, I had to start with a black-level comparison. Ever since Panasonic acquired patents and engineers from Pioneer's KURO division, we've seen incremental improvements in the company's plasma black-level performance, with the VT50 reportedly being the best to date. I began by comparing the VT50 with the lower-priced Samsung PNE7000
, and really there was no comparison. Even with brighter HDTV content in a dim room, I could see that the Panasonic held an advantage in black level and contrast. When I moved to a completely dark room and ran through my standard DVD/Blu-ray black-level demos, the VT50 served up noticeably deeper blacks and better overall contrast. Even when I turned down the Samsung's Cell Light control to its dimmest level (thus robbing the image of brightness), the PNE7000 could not equal the VT50's depth of black.
Read more about the performance of the TC-P65VT50 on Page 2.
Next, I switched to a comparison between the VT50 and the ST50, which uses Panasonic's step-down Infinite Black Pro panel. The competition was a little tighter here; the ST50 held its own in both black level and contrast in many dark scenes; however, in the darkest demos from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal), Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista), the VT50 still prevailed, revealing deeper shades of black, better contrast, and more accurate gamma with outstanding black detail. Quite simply, the TC-P65VT50 produced the richest, most saturated, dimensional film image I've seen from a TV in a long time.
Although I no longer had in my possession any of the LED/LCD TVs I've reviewed this year, I can offer an indirect comparison. The TC-P55ST50 was the first TV I reviewed in 2012 and has served as my reference for every TV that passed through my doors this year--including the Samsung UN55ES8000
, LG 55LM6700
, and Sony KDL-55HX750
. The ST50 bested every LED/LCD in its black level and contrast. Some LEDs came close in black level, but only when you severely limited image brightness by turning the backlight way down. The ST50 was previously unrivaled in its ability to simultaneously keep dark objects dark and bright objects bright, and now here we are with the VT50 clearly outperforming the ST50. Of course, you can also add in the fact that this plasma TV has a much wider viewing angle and far better screen uniformity than any LED/LCD I saw this year.
The TC-P65VT50 doesn't just excel in black-level performance. When I switched over to daytime viewing in a brighter room, the TC-P65VT50 again outperformed the ST50 and PNE7000. The VT50 did a much better job rejecting ambient light off the screen to help blacks retain their darkness, so the bright-room image had far better contrast--the picture looked crisper, richer, and more saturated than either of the other plasmas. To accomplish this, the VT50's screen does have to be reflective, and in that respect the VT50 and ST50 were comparable in their level of reflectivity--that is to say, I was aware of some room reflections, but the screen is a bit more diffuse and less mirror-like than many of the LED/LCDs I've reviewed. Of the three pictures modes I used--THX Cinema, THX Bright Room, and a calibrated Custom mode--the THX Bright Room mode was, not surprisingly, the brightest option for daytime viewing. The Custom mode's light output (at the "mid" panel brightness) fell in between the two THX modes.
Now let's talk about color. Even with virtually no adjustment of the THX Cinema mode, the VT50 served up a very attractive image with natural colors and a generally neutral, even color temperature across the board. Comparing the VT50's THX Cinema mode to the ST50's Cinema mode (no THX mode available), the color points were close, but the VT50's reds and greens looked more accurate to my eye. In terms of overall color balance and color temperature, the ST50 puts more emphasis on green and dials back the red. This does ensure that skintones are absent of virtually all traces of red, but I also think it makes the picture look just a little flat and sterile. The VT50, on the other hand, appears to have a slightly warmer-than-neutral color temp (in the Warm2 preset) with less green emphasis. I found its picture to look richer and more inviting, but there was more red in skintones as a result. (In terms of color, the Samsung PNE7000's Movie mode was closer to the VT50 than the ST50.) I then switched to each TV's Custom mode, did a more advanced calibration, and compared the images again. The ST50's limited adjustments allow for some improvement to white balance and gamma, but the result doesn't equal the level of precision and accuracy you can get with the VT50 through its numerous advanced controls. While the VT50's THX modes look very good, calibration can yield excellent results in color temperature, color balance, and color accuracy.
Despite having a 10-inch-larger screen diagonal than my ST50 sample, the 65-inch TC-P65VT50 didn't lose a beat in the detail department. HD images looked just as crisp, with the finest details readily apparent. The VT50 also does a solid job upconverting SD sources to produce a respectably detailed image on its large screen, and it passed the film-based deinterlacing/processing tests on the HQV Benchmark DVD and the real-word scenes from Gladiator (DreamWorks) and The Bourne Identity (Universal). The TV failed the video-based test on the HQV disc, but it did a fine job with a video-based pilates DVD I use to check for artifacts in video-based signals. This plasma TV's motion resolution is very good: The VT50 showed clean lines to HD 720 in the Motion Resolution pattern on the FPD Benchmark BD, with some clean lines at HD 1080, too. Turning on Motion Smoother revealed more lines at HD 1080, but it was not a significant difference. Motion blur isn't as big an issue with plasma as it is with LCD, and Motion Smoother isn't a necessity unless you like the smoothing de-judder effect it offers with film sources (I don't).
One of my few performance complaints with the ST50 was that the picture had more digital noise than I'd prefer. The VT50 is capable of rendering more shades of gradation (24,576 shades versus 12,286 in the ST50), and I did see improvement in this area. The VT50 showed less noise in solid-colored backgrounds and light-to-dark transitions. In my black-level demos, the VT50 also had a little less noise in black areas, perhaps due to its more accurate gamma. With that being said, the VT50 wasn't perfect in regards to digital noise. In my two favorite gray-scale demos--chapter 10 from Ladder 49 (Buena Vista), in which Joaquin Phoenix moves through a smoke-filled room, and chapter five of Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount), in which the soldiers sit on the ship's deck on a dark, foggy night--the VT50 still showed some faint color shifting in the mid-gray region, and the smoke in Ladder 49 looked a bit digital. The TV's performance in these scenes was better than that of the ST50 but not as clean as the Samsung PNE7000.
The TC-P65VT50 also offers very good performance in the 3D realm. 3D images had great depth and detail, with good overall contrast and brightness--although it can't compete with the best LCDs in terms of light output. When the VT50's 24p mode was set for 60Hz, I saw quite a lot of crosstalk in Blu-ray 3D demo scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks), Ice Age 3 (20th Century Fox), and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Buena Vista). However, when I switched to the 96Hz mode, the crosstalk all but vanished, and the result was a much cleaner 3D image.
As I just mentioned, the VT50's picture may be a little noisier than some of its competitors; LED/LCD TVs often do a bit better in this regard. I will also point out that a plasma display can't get as bright as many LCD TVs, and the screen is reflective, so this TV may not be the best choice for daytime viewing in a very bright room with lots of windows and direct sunlight. I could occasionally hear a soft buzz emanating from the VT50's backside during very bright scenes; it wasn't as noticeable as the buzz coming from the Samsung PNE7000, and it never detracted from the viewing experience when I had the TV volume turned up.
Given Panasonic's strong commitment to 3DTV, I find it odd that the company still refuses to offer 3D glasses with their higher-end TVs. The lower-priced Samsung PNE7000 comes with two pairs of active 3D glasses, but Panasonic doesn't even offer one pair. I get that the company needs to generate a profit, but I highly doubt 3D glasses will be the difference maker in that regard. The TC-P65VT50 omits a few other features found in some high-end TVs, like a built-in camera, facial recognition, and voice/gesture control. Frankly, I didn't miss them.
Plasmas consume more power than comparably sized LCDs, although they've gotten a lot better in recent years. This TV does not have EnergyStar 5.3 certification. Its Energy Guide sticker claims an estimated yearly energy cost of $32.
Finally, while I found the Touchpad Controller to be more responsive and intuitive than the "high-end" touchpad/motion controllers offered by Samsung and LG, the absence of a Menu button is a glaring omission that makes it impossible to use the Touchpad Controller as the primary remote. The controller also lacks color A/B/C/D buttons, which are often required to navigate the VIERA Connect platform. I still think the VIERA Remote iOS/Android app is your best control option, if you own a smart phone or iPod touch.
Competition and Comparison?
The VT50 Series is the most expensive in Panasonic's plasma line. The street price of a 65-inch ST50 is currently more than $1,000 less than that of the TC-P65VT50. The question many of you might be asking is, does the VT50's performance merit the price increase? In my book, absolutely. I certainly haven't reviewed a TV this year--or any recent year, for that matter--that rivals the performance of the TC-P65VT50. The ST50 may be the more logical recommendation for the vast majority of consumers, as it offers very good performance for a great price. For the more discerning TV shopper, however--someone who demands the best that the market has to offer right now, who craves that extra level of color accuracy, black-level performance, and image contrast--the VT50 is the choice for you.
Going further, while the TC-P65VT50 may be expensive for a plasma, it carries a lower price tag than many 65-inchers in the LED/LCD space...and performs better. OLED could be a performance game-changer when it finally arrives, but the first TVs are limited to a 55-inch screen size and an even higher price tag. Other publications have suggested that the closest performance contender right now is the Sharp Elite PRO-X5FD; I haven't personally reviewed that TV to offer a comparison, but I can say that the Elite is more expensive (the 60-inch PRO-60X5FD has an MSRP of $5,999) and it's still an LCD TV, which means at the least a limitation in viewing angle that you don't get with this plasma. Ultimately, the VT50 still offers an excellent performance-to-cost ratio within the high-end category, and it earns my strongest recommendation.