After considering his options for a sub-$1000 HDTV that's good for watching movies, Mark Henninger decided to buy a 60-inch plasma. What led him to invest in a TV technology that is on the decline?
I pity the typical TV buyer who walks into a store unprepared for battle. Figuring out what's important and what's marketing hype is quite challenging, even for people who know the industry well. I'm very grateful for the knowledge I've gained as an AVS member—so much so that I have a piece of advice for TV shoppers: Ask your salesperson if they are familiar with AVS Forum; if they say "no," politely tell them you'd prefer another salesperson.
A few weeks ago, I attended a press event held by Panasonic, where I saw a demo of the company's latest UHDTV, the AX800U. Based on my observations, I gave the article a provocative headline: "Panasonic Beats Plasma Picture Quality with TC-AX800U Series." In the ensuing discussion
in that thread's comments, I encountered a lot of resistance to my assertion. The conversation got me thinking about my own viewing habits and needs, which led me to realize that I needed to pick up a plasma TV.
I don't have enough disposable income to justify the purchase of a reference-level plasma like the Samsung F8500 or Panasonic's discontinued ZT60—which currently sells for considerably more than the original MSRP. Still, I wanted a TV that could offer a significant serving of what makes plasma a pleasure to watch. I chose Samsung's F5300—a "dumb" TV with no smart features. It is not the sort of TV that's going to get a videophile too excited; even so, it does give an object lesson in the advantages plasma can offer for dark-room viewing of cinematic content.
Before I committed to the plasma purchase, I sent an email to a very well-known TV reviewer and asked, "For a 60-inch TV under $1000, Vizio E or Samsung F5300?" The reply I received was, "Vizio E all the way." At that moment, I knew that plasma was essentially a dead technology, so what did I do? I went out and bought the F5300 from my local Best Buy.
The mere act of buying a 60-inch plasma and bringing it home illustrated why TV manufacturers and retailers probably want the technology to disappear. The box the F5300 comes in is too tall to fit upright in an SUV, and you cannot transport plasmas with the box lying flat—I had to get a van! It's evident that lighter, less fragile LCDs offer an advantage in terms of warehousing, shipping, and handling—qualities that must appeal to big-box retailers. Still, I was after a first-class dark-room viewing experience at a budget price, and for $800, the F5300 offered the most screen real estate per dollar than other TVs that I'd consider acceptable for critical viewing.
The F5300 required a van to transport
, on Flickr
After I had my TV home, I prepared to break it in prior to calibration. As a rule of thumb, it's a good idea to put 100 hours or more on a new plasma before attempting a calibration. However, I had an issue: The bottom of the screen had a pinkish hue to it. After about 120 hours of break-in, the hue was still there. I decided that the best approach was an exchange, so I lugged the whole thing back to my local Best Buy and exchanged it. To the store's credit, the exchange went smoothly and quickly.
, on Flickr
The replacement panel did not have any issues, which serves as a reminder that TVs are not all the same—there is variation from one panel to the next; in fact, I've seen it referred to as the "panel lottery." I started the break-in process all over again.
The F5300 may be short on smart features, but it includes a full 10-point grayscale calibration option. That's the key to performing a highly accurate calibration, and I was excited to see it included in such a stripped-down model. I have not yet performed a 10-point calibration on the F5300—for now, the 2-point method yields a very accurate, natural-looking result. When I get to about 200 hours of use, I'll see if I can get anything more out of the TV using the 10-point method.
Even though my new plasma is a bargain model, it manages to achieve picture quality that makes my other HDTV look inferior—but only under controlled lighting. In a room full of ambient light, the F5300 lacks the "pop" of an LCD or of a top-tier plasma like the ZT60 or F8500. In fact, in a bright room, my 2012 Vizio M3DK550D looks quite a bit crisper than the F5300. With controlled lighting, however, the tables are turned, and the plasma struts its stuff compared to my edgelit LCD—colors are richer and contrast is better. In addition, regardless of the lighting conditions, the Samsung F5300 beats my Vizio M when it comes to viewing angles and motion blur. At night, watching Vudu HDX or a Blu-ray, the F5300 provides a very satisfying experience.
One of the factors that pushed me to buy a plasma is watching movies in the dark. I grew tired of my Vizio's distracting edgelit artifacts and yearned for a movie-watching experience that allowed me to stay in the film—to achieve immersion—even when a dark scene played. For the past few months, I've watched various scenes from Gravity repeatedly, on many different displays. My Vizio M is incapable of putting on a good 2D presentation of the film; sometimes it looked like there was a search party just off screen, shining flashlights all over the place. The Vizio did much better showing Gravity in 3D, but I've grown tired of 3D viewing, and I find that accurate color combined with excellent contrast provides its own sort of 3D pop that is non-fatiguing and doesn’t require glasses—and works with any movie.
I'm just getting started with my new plasma, but so far, I'm blown away by what the technology offers at that price point. I've seen LCDs that beat it, but none that offers the same dark-room viewing experience for anywhere near the price. A plasma's rendition of dark scenes is visibly superior—there are no blooming or flashlighting artifacts with plasma, whereas with inexpensive LCDs, I can still see the local dimming at work—even in the 2014 M series Vizio I checked out last week
, I could see its backlit-LED local dimming working in the background. In a brighter room, I'd go for a current-generation LCD in a heartbeat, but in this case, I wanted an affordable TV to dedicate to watching movies and TV in a darkened environment. To this day, plasma is the most appealing option for that application. I do wish that I'd had the foresight to buy a Panasonic ST60 last year; c'est la vie. If anything, I can see how the F5300's extreme value proposition made it the "last plasma standing" on Best Buy's showroom floors.
In the coming weeks and months, I plan to take an in-depth look at some of the latest LCD HDTVs and UHDTVs. When I do, those TVs will have to go up against my much less-expensive plasma, and I can already predict that many will fail to match the overall image quality of the F5300, at least in a dark room. While the F5300 is certainly not a "reference" plasma, it's still a very compelling performer for videophiles on a budget. The ability to produce a bright, sharp, punchy, and color-accurate image at such a low price is why I bought a plasma display even though it's 2014—the year UHD/4K LCDs took over.
Update: After more than one hundred hours of use, my replacement F5300 shows slight signs of a magenta cast near the bottom of the screen. It's quite similar to what I saw on the first model, but much milder. Even so, it's a visible defect that I did not see on the store's display model. Therefor, I've contacted Samsung for service. A technician is coming on Friday, June 20—it's time to find out if Samsung's service is as good as I've read/heard it is.
Update 2 (6/27/14): Service did not go well. I'll summarize the entire experience soon.
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