I have the urge to pick at an old wound: the notion that there might be a better HDTV than Pioneer’s now-age-old KURO plasmas. I can feel the negative tweets and the outraged forum posts being written already, as the enthusiast AV crowd tend to cling to past technologies like really cool, broken-in t-shirts. You know what? At some point that t-shirt is going to wear out and you are going to need something new. Thankfully, despite constant conjecture that the company will exit the plasma market, Panasonic has been inspired to make a new product, the new ZT Series.
LED-based LCD TVs have lots of advantages – including lower-than-average power consumption, a slim form factor, and bright whites – but they simply don’t make the inky blacks that we see today from a top-performing plasma, nor do they have the screen uniformity found on a plasma set. Simply put, right now plasma HDTVs perform better in moderate to dark rooms when compared with the best LED/LCD HDTVs. If you are going to go plasma, Panasonic has three levels for you consider: the entry-level ST Series, the formerly top-of-the-line VT Series, and the absolute top-of-the-line ZT Series. The 2013 models have all gotten significantly better in terms of performance. Adrienne Maxwell and other reviewers have suggested that the entry-level ST60 bests 2012’s VT plasma offerings. With a calibrated 60-inch Panasonic ST60 in my master bedroom, I can vouch for its performance. Combine the performance with its $1,500 asking price, and the ST60 is a downright five-star steal. The Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 is designed for a different customer: the extremist who wants the best video image that money can buy right now.
The Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 is a $4,010, 65-inch 1080p HDTV that’s loaded with features. This plasma is not LED-thin, but it’s pretty svelte compared with other plasmas on the market today. The “glass” is all one piece with no raised bezel, which makes for a seamless viewing experience. There is a silver accent around the outside of the set that visually makes the TC-P65ZT60 look a little more stunning on the wall, but it also draws your eye away from the image at some level. The TC-P65ZT60 comes with two remotes. One is the standard IR TV remote that is rectangular in shape and not bad ergonomically. Panasonic also offers a smaller, simpler Bluetooth-based Touchpad Controller that includes a wheel-like controller for navigation. You can speak into this remote like Siri on your Apple iPhone to control TV functions, but I didn’t find this function to be all that useful, especially since I couldn’t use it to control any of my sources, including DirecTV’s Genie. It’s a neat idea, but not one that I could make do anything meaningful for me in my user experience.
The TC-P65ZT60 uses what the company calls its “Studio Master Panel,” which is its best glass made today. Panasonic has removed the air layer between the panel and the front glass and has worked extensively to reduce external light reflections and improve bright-room performance, which is one of the standard knocks on plasma HDTVs. During mid-day hours, the sun just pours into my current room, and the TC-P65ZT60 can keep up nicely in many ways, just as well as a 70-inch Sharp edge-lit LED did during its brief stint in my living room while waiting for the ZT.
Plasmas get a lot of love for their deep, rich blacks, and the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 deserves kudos in that department, but the company has also made some pretty significant improvements in the color department – a topic that is quite hot in the world of Ultra HD these days. Before you pop for a UHD set, know that the ZT Series offers 30,720 gradation steps with 98 percent of DCI color space. This is pretty damn strong for a 1080p HDTV. Additionally, Panasonic claims better color purity out of the red phosphor in the ZT Series. The colors on the set, especially when professionally calibrated, were not Vegas over-the-top saturated, but offered a more subtle level of excellence, especially in background images and other fine details. We’ll get into that more in the Performance section.
The TC-P65ZT60 is an active 3D HDTV, as you might expect. Panasonic went so far as to make sure that the set meets all current THX video standards in terms of both 2D and 3D standards for brightness, sharpness, color reproduction, and gamma. This means the image will look very good without much adjustment required. Realistically, though, if you are spending $4,010 on this type of set, you are paying a significant premium to get the nth degree of performance from your HDTV investment. Anything less than an ISF or THX calibration, complete with a top light meter by a highly trained professional, seems like a bit of a waste.
The TC-P65ZT60 is a full-featured HDTV, with all of the smart TV applications that you’d expect. Unlike my Sharp and a recent Vizio that I had in my house, the Panasonic rocks CinemaNow, which is important for me, as my wife works for CinemaNow’s parent company and I therefore have a free subscription. This provides me with lots of content; for those who buy their sets via Best Buy or Magnolia, it’s likely the best of the streaming services. Don’t worry if you want to use other apps like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and VUDU – they are here, too. Streaming content isn’t what I choose to use to evaluate a top-performing plasma; however, if you want to dial in a quirky movie like Jiro Dreams of Sushi (a documentary about a Michelin three-star sushi joint located in a subway station in Tokyo), it’s just perfect. Panasonic allows you to get into all sorts of customization for Twitter, Facebook, the Weather Channel, Skype, and much more. The TC-P65ZT60 has built-in WiFi. While my current system has my Internet router right in my Middle Atlantic equipment rack, providing a strong WiFi signal, I would still recommend a hardwired connection for best performance. In our pending new home, we will run hardwired Internet to every HDTV location, so that we can take advantage of features like the TC-P65ZT60’s ability to access LAN (local area network) devices. If you have home movies, your music collection, and/or other media stored on a small, fast hard drive somewhere in your home and connected to your network, the TC-P65ZT60 can access them via DLNA. Additionally, make sure you have an ARC (audio return channel) setup for your AV rig, so that you can send audio from the TV to your receiver or AV preamp. Consider the TC-P65ZT60 to be a source, as well as a display.
Setup & Calibration
David Abrams from AVICAL was hired to come in and calibrate both the TC-P65ZT60 and the TC-P60ST60 in my master bedroom. He used Calman software and a $19,000 light meter for his work, and the results were pretty eye-opening. Overall, the TC-P65ZT60 didn’t need crazy work in the calibration department; neither the grayscale nor the color points were too far off the mark in the Cinema picture mode. Still, there were benefits to be gained from Dave’s calibration of an ISF Night Mode, eking the various parameters even closer to reference standards. For those who would like to see the numbers, we’ve included the pre- and post-calibration results.
Click on the images to the right to enlarge them.
To my eyes, the overall image looked much more coherent when Dave was done. Colors were subtler, and blacks were a little deeper than the already-deep black that you get out of the box. If there was ever an HDTV that you would spend the money to haveprofessionally calibrated, it would be the TC-P65ZT60 – not because it comes jacked out of the box, but because the reason you buy the ZT over the ST or, more specifically, the VT Series is that you want the best 1080p HDTV image that money can buy. You need the real-deal-Holyfield calibration to get that level of performance from any top HDTV that you are going to buy. Not even those $20,000-plus Ultra HD sets come “right” out of the box today.
Read about the performance of the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 on Page 2.
The Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 is a killer HDTV for both movies and television. Personally, I watch a lot of sports in my spare time, with the 2013 British Open Championship being one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. Lefty Phil Mickelson took it to the field with a stunning final-round 66 that was breathtaking for golf fans. On the TC-P65ZT60, the subtle shades of Muirfield’s brown and light green grasses were represented with subtle accuracy and a great overall tone. When ESPN (in 1080i) zoomed in on putts from players like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan, you could see the actual grain on the greens. You could see, despite the somewhat overcast weather, the fine details of the marking on the players’ golf balls and the texture on the back of their putters. This is the best of what we love about HDTV, and with the TC-P65ZT60 you are seeing it about as well as you can on any flat HDTV.
One of the Lexus commercials that ran during the event was set in a dark, nighttime environment. It’s almost cliché to gush over how black the blacks looked (man, they are beyond-Kuro dark), but in comparison with my larger 70-inch Sharp LED, the brightness uniformity was also spectacular. Other than the time that I spent with the Samsung 85-inch UHD set, I may have never set eyes on better brightness uniformity out of a flat HDTV than what I saw on the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60.
I am likely the wrong person to ask about 3D performance, as I physically react poorly to 3D with any long-term exposure to the technology. I did fire up Avatar in 3D (which you can now get without the purchase of a Panasonic HDTV) in my Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player and donned the active glasses that come with the TC-P65ZT60. The glasses are made of plastic and look pretty dorky. I found them a bit uncomfortable, but that could just be a matter of personal reaction. Due to the lower light output of the active 3D technology, the 3D image wasn’t as bright or vivid as the 2D version of the movie. I personally prefer passive 3D through the new crop of Ultra HD TVs, which offer better brightness than active 3D displays and improved detail over 1080p passive 3D TVs.
Switching to movies, the flight scene in Argo offers a lot to look at and appreciate with the TC-P65ZT60. While the sequence is action-packed, you also get a chance to see the subtlety of the makeup on the actors who are dolled up in 1970s attire. The TC-P65ZT60 is able to resolve a very film-like presentation of the movie. The subtle details of the colors reminded me more of my former fully calibrated JVC D-ILA projector than any other flat HDTV that I’ve seen to date. When the jet takes off out of the Tehran airport, you can see the explicit detail on the buildings when viewing the plane from the ground-up perspective. Mere seconds later, as the plane is heading out of the city, you get to see the incredible contrast of the TC-P65ZT60 with the white, snow-capped mountains in the distance. With a properly calibrated Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 in a moderately darkened room, I fully enjoyed a believable theatrical experience right in my living room. This is why you spend the extra money on the ZT over the ST, VT or other plasmas on the market today.
The dusty motorbike chase scene that opens Skyfall proved a nice test of the TC-P65ZT60. This state-of-the-art blockbuster film brings the most demanding content one could ask to see reproduced. Daniel Craig as James Bond flies through the city zipping around on the rooftops of ancient buildings while chasing bad guys. The scene’s pale look at times contrasts interestingly with the closer shots, which show incredible detail in the buildings. The incredible train fight scene keeps the party going with vivid detail being resolved when looking at both the top of the train and even the background landscape. As the director flips back from the offices in London to the action at hand, you can see how fast and versatile the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 can be. The color and tone of the scene changes back and forth, from dusty and sunny at the train fight, to dark, dreary and tremendously resolute at the office. The last zoom-in on the conference-call speaker shows incredible detail on the speaker and the external microphone. Overall, the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 was able to keep up nicely with the changing landscape.
The first season of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, ripped from DVD onto my Kaleidescape server, was in some ways the most impressive content that I watched on the TC-P65ZT60, in that the internal scaler took the less-than-perfect signal and made it look pretty damn good. In the episode where Liz Lemon gets a sexy new dress and Jack stays to destroy the staff (other than Kenneth) at poker, the color resolution was fantastic. Tracy’s bright red sweater looked notably better on the ZT than on other sets, including the ST Series and my older Sharp 70-inch LCD.
The fact that the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 doesn’t have an RS-232 connection for system control is hard to explain. People who buy this type of high-end video display are the most likely to use top-level AV system control, such as Control4 and Crestron. In my case, I had to control the TC-P65ZT60 using a clunky, glued-on, light-emitting IR emitter, which is so 1992 in terms of high-end custom installation. Has the IR emitter fallen off yet? Why, yes, it has, mainly because my 15-month-old was picking at it because it’s perfectly in his reach. An RS-232 connection is the custom-installation industry’s reference standard for system control, and an HDTV that’s trying to be the best money can buy skipped including a $4 part. That’s a major oversight.
The form factor of the TC-P65ZT60 is quite nice, far improved over recent plasmas and night-and-day better than the old-school Pioneer KURO sets. However, I am not a fan of the silver band around the outside of the set. It draws your eye to the edge of the set, which is fine when the TV is off, but an unnecessary distraction when the sucker is on. This isn’t the best industrial design that you can find in today’s high-end HDTVs. Even Vizio’s much less expensive M-Series sets have slicker IDs.
Someone buying a $4,010 65-inch plasma HDTV would, we hope, have an audio system that can keep up with the stunning image that you see on such a set. If you are planning on using the internal speakers, don’t expect much.
Comparison and Competition
Pioneer’s defunct KURO HDTVs have been mentioned before in this review, and the TC-P65ZT60 is a set that actually packs the performance to clearly best what many videophiles proclaim as “the best.” The Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 might not have the energy-slurping power supply of the KURO, mainly because of California state laws and EnergyStar rules, but other advances in plasma technology and a far more robust set of features give the new ZT plasma a definite advantage.
The biggest competitors for Panasonic’s TC-P65ZT60 are the company’s own VT and ST plasmas. The 60-inch TC-P60ST60 that I have in my master bedroom can do 95 percent of what the TC-P65ZT60 can do for just $1,500 retail. Which one is the better value? The ST is, without question. The question I ask you is, are you willing to pay for the nth degree of performance? If not, go with one of the lower-priced models, and you won’t be disappointed. For my main rig, $4,010 was a hefty investment, but it was nothing compared with what top plasmas cost a mere five years ago.
The pink elephant in the room is Ultra HD. The sets are at Magnolia and other top specialty stores. The problem is that, at this point, there is: a) no broadcast standard for UHD and b) no Blu-ray standard for UHD. Sony offers a server that can pipe UHD content into the company’s own UHD sets, which holds promise, as does the pending RedRay media server. At this point, unless you are a 3D junkie, the fact that Ultra HD can’t support 10-bit color and has no meaningful standards makes current HDTVs like the TC-P65ZT60 the state of the art. Will 10-bit color and a 4x1080p resolution blow what we have now out of the water? You bet it will, but that someday isn’t quite here yet.
Top-shelf LED/LCD TVs offer a better form factor than the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 and equal if not better feature sets, especially Samsung‘s Smart TV service. These LCDs are also better for bright rooms. However, in the areas of brightness uniformity, black level, and color accuracy, the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 is pretty much as good as you can get.
Right now, even with Ultra HD arriving on the market, the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 is the best HDTV that money can buy. Is it a great value? Not really. Neither is an ML63 AMG Mercedes, but it sure is cool to have 560 horsepower in an all-wheel-drive SUV to take to the grocery store. Does everyone need such an SUV? No. It’s for extremists, as is the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60. The smart money is on the ST and VT Series of plasmas, but they just aren’t quite as good as the TC-P65ZT60.
Ultra HD is coming and is going to be really cool in the coming years but, between now and then, if you want the best flat HDTV that money can buy for both television watching and movie playback, you simply can’t miss auditioning the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60. Even uncalibrated, it’s a show-stopper. The peepshow-like booth at the 2013 CES tradeshow had industry insiders drooling over how good the new ZT series Panasonic plasmas would be. They were right, as the production models of ZT Series are just fantastic.