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.