The ninth annual Value Electronics HDTV shootout was a battle of heavyweight contenders. Ultimately, it was a tight three-way race between two Panasonic siblings—the VT60 and ZT60—and a new entry from Samsung, the F8500 plasma. All three of the primary contenders were 65-inch models, and unlike past shootouts, the results could not have been closer.Robert Zohn, founder of Value Electronics, greets the audience of enthusiasts.photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
There were more TVs in the competition, but they were LED-LCDs. Once the testing began, it was pretty obvious that the LED units could not compete against the plasmas in a plethora of image-quality tests.
The video source was an Oppo BDP-93 Blu-ray player, and the signal was distributed to each TV by a Key Digital 8x8 matrix switcher via 16-foot Key Digital Black Bull HDMI cables. And of course, each contender was fully calibrated to optimize its performance.Black level comparison, an Oppo BDP-93 provided the source signal.photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
Over the course of four hours on Friday May 10 and again the next day, the three top panels—the plasmas mentioned above—duked it out for the title "King of HDTV," while the three LED units sat on the sideline. When the dust settled and the votes were tallied, one plasma barely edged out the others: the Samsung F8500, crowned the new "King of HDTV."The newly crowned "King of HDTV," the Samsung F8500 plasma.photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
At least that's how the audience voted—the pros had a different collective opinion. Robert Zohn hosted the shootout at his Scarsdale, New York store, and three highly respected calibrators ran the show: Kevin Miller, David Mackenzie, and DeWayne Davis. Sadly, because I attended the shootout on Friday night instead of Saturday, I was unable to meet Dr. Larry Weber, the inventor of plasma displays.
The pros who ran the 2013 shootout know the capabilities of high-end HDTVs inside out. Interestingly, their collective vote for first place wound up being a tie between the two Panasonic plasmas, the VT60 and ZT60, while the F8500 came in second by the slimmest of margins. The pros seemed more concerned with ultimate picture-quality performance in a controlled environment, while the audience was clearly impressed with the revolutionary brightness achieved by the Samsung.
It is no secret that LEDs dominate the market for flat panels at this point; bright-room capability plays a major role in their popularity. Now, finally, a reference-class plasma panel can hold its own against LED panels when it comes to brightness. Despite their vote for the Panasonic units, the pros agreed that Samsung's achievement was extraordinary.
Even though the event was about choosing a new champion among 2013 flat panels, there was a fourth plasma in unofficial contention—a 50" Pioneer Kuro KRP500M with a mere 100 hours on the panel, professionally calibrated and fed the same signal as the rest of the televisions in the shootout. The panel itself belonged to the man responsible for the shootout, Robert Zohn. Although there was a small gash in the screen's filter, the calibrators in attendance vouched for its accuracy. More than once, the pros noted that the 500M represented what a properly calibrated Kuro should look like. The Kuro really did look fantastic; in a dark room displaying normal content, it was equal to the other top televisions, except for the smaller screen size.
Late in the evening, the event organizers asked a Samsung rep if he wanted the F8500 to participate in a black-level showdown between the ZT60 and the Kuro, and he agreed. Just before the lights were shut off, David McKenzie noted that the performance of the Kuro's filter in soft ambient light had already been exceeded by the new models. Indeed, the difference in black levels—viewed in dim ambient light—was rather obvious to the naked eye. Shortly afterward, the lights were turned off and a floating white logo over a black background went up on the screens.
After seeing that demonstration, I concluded that there is no longer any need to worry about whether plasma black levels are deep enough. All of the premium models featured the kind of deep, inky blacks that were once the exclusive domain of the Kuro. Even if the Kuro managed to measure the lowest in a dark room, the difference was so minor that it was hard to spot.All three 2013 plasmas performed well in black level and contrast tests, as did the "reference" Kuro.photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
There are limits to what the human eye can see in the dark. None of the plasma screens were truly black—to see what that looks like, I had to pull my Galaxy S4 smartphone out of my pocket and look at the 1080p OLED screen. When OLED finally shows up at a shootout in a full-sized set, it is going to mean hard times for the other two display technologies—at least in terms of pure performance. When it comes to price-performance ratio, plasma will likely remain at the top of the heap for at least a few more years.
Because human vision is limited, I brought my camera—a Sony a57—to the shootout. A modern DSLR is remarkably similar to a professional colorimeter, and it can act as a very effective light meter. Stick a lens up to dark panel and take a long exposure, and the result is a surprisingly accurate reading.
To the chagrin of at least one attendee, I used my DSLR to perform spot measurements of the black levels. I took a sample from each of the panels using the exact same exposure settings and then repeated the action two more times. The result was a comparison of black levels between the panels. To my surprise, the ZT60 looked darker than the Kuro, and the Kuro looked as if its black level was the same as the Samsung.
I showed my photos to Robert Zohn and David MacKenzie, who agreed it was a valid and interesting way to perform a relative comparison of black levels. The problem was the clear discrepancy between what my camera showed and the calibrators' claims about that particular Kuro's calibrated black level—that the ZT60 was not in fact "beyond the reference" in this regard, because the Kuro at least matched it.
The cause of the discrepancy was eventually discovered, and the explanation for the Kuro's brighter blacks turned out to be simple. According to DeWayne Davis (aka D-Nice on AVS Forum), it was discovered that the Kuro's brightness setting was set at +2 on Friday night, when it should have been +1. Why such an error occurred was not explained.
Apparently, on Saturday night, the Kuro performed as it should and matched (or beat?) the ZT/VT60 black levels. I can't confirm that. When I saw it on Friday, the audience all thought the Kuro had the deepest blacks, but it did not. To be more specific, I suspect that because the calibrators stated the Kuro had the deepest blacks—per the calibrated measurements—that is what the audience saw on Friday night, even though it was not true. Elegant proof that all the 2013 plasmas have such deep black levels, it takes more than a few minutes of scrutiny to spot any real difference. One attendee was rather incredulous, immediately criticizing both my DSLR-based measurement technique and what it revealed. Here's what my camera saw:The Kuro's blacks were measurably brighter than the ZT60's on Friday night, possibly due to an error in the brightness setting.
photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
Let's take a moment to discuss the LED televisions that were part of shootout, especially Sony's contribution, the XBR-65X900A—a 2160p 65" UHDTV. When I first arrived, all the panels were playing the typical eye candy one would see in a showroom. We were watching hyper-detailed scenes of panoramic vistas with tons of detail and popping color. Evidently, the upsampling algorithm in the Sony works wonders, at least with some of the source material. With relatively static imagery, I kept noticing the Sony was able to present more detail, especially from fine high-contrast details; think feathers, hair, ceiling tiles, food shots, and panoramic vistas. This resolution advantage was apparent, even when I was sitting 15 feet back—and it became even more apparent when I observed the televisions from a shorter distance.
The problem is that the extra detail displayed by the Sony only existed with static imagery. Motion resolution was notably worse on the Sony compared with the plasma sets. Cycling through motion-interpolation algorithms demonstrated that some were better than others, but the plasma panels enjoyed a clear advantage whenever there is movement on screen. That is the crux of the pro-plasma argument, and it was readily apparent on Friday night. It will be nice to see how the Sony performs with true 2160p content. The Sony was rated equal to the plasmas for bright room viewing; my guess is that UHDTV content would have pushed it over the top in that one category.
The other two LED panels—a Samsung F8000 and a Panasonic WT60—served as a demonstration of why LED technology is still inferior to plasma in terms of overall picture quality. This was especially true for dark-room viewing and watching Blu-ray movies, but also a number of other applications where image fidelity is a primary concern.
Both of the 1080p LED panels performed comparatively poorly in most of the image-quality tests. Furthermore, specific tests were not required to see that the black levels on Panasonic's IPS-based LED panel were abysmal, while the Samsung and Sony—which use VA panels—suffered considerably when viewed off-axis. The fact remains, LED fans have to choose between wide viewing angles and relatively deeper blacks.
Video from both nights of the shootout is available online, so if you want to see how the various HDTVs did in the tests, I suggest following this link to a recording
of Friday's shootout. Otherwise, you can wait for the publication of the calibration results.
It was a very enlightening experience, and I did not expect the results I got. When I first arrived, I actually thought the Sony had a shot, mostly because of the eye candy on display and the fact it was still daytime.
As the tests went on, I figured the ZT60 would probably tie the VT60. I did not perform any mental math before I ranked the TVs in each performance category. Only after I added up my own numbers did I realize the VT60 was my choice. In my own voting, I had the ZT60 and F8500 tied for second place. I attribute the difference to the slightly greater brightness of the VT60 versus the ZT60, which also improved its score in the contrast test.This was my ballot. The black-level tests were exhaustive, prompting me to reconsider my scores.photo ©2013 by Mark HenningerHere are the official final scores.
I am eager to learn what you think of this year's results. Samsung is a top company, and now it has the top-ranked HDTV (at least according to this shootout)—and it's a plasma. Are we about to see a plasma renaissance? In a past interview with a Samsung rep, the company was very bullish on the future of plasma because of the value it represents. In conversations with average consumers—folks who have no real knowledge of television technology—the overwhelming bias is toward the Samsung brand name, as well as brighter televisions. If anything can turn the tide in favor of the original flat-panel technology, the F8500 appears to be it.
Just one more thing. Please remember that this shootout was missing entries from Sharp, LG and Vizio. The newly crowned "King of HDTV" is the ruler of a rather small kingdom. At the end of the day, I went home to my Vizo Razor M3D550KD—a mighty fine-looking panel—and I think it'll do just fine for a little while longer.