Plasma TVs can claim only about 5 percent of the flat-panel TV market, and Panasonic's decision to stop making plasmas next year is a nail in the coffin of this technology. But most professional reviewers and many AVS members maintain that plasma produces superior picture quality compared with LCD TVs, especially in rooms with subdued lighting. And this year's models perform better than ever—finally rising to the level of the fabled Pioneer Kuro—so now might be the perfect time to snag one of the best plasmas ever made and enjoy a stunningly good picture for years to come.
Unlike LCD TVs, plasmas are relatively simple, and they don't suffer from display-based motion blur, off-axis performance problems, or high black levels, all of which LCDs must counteract in some way. Most plasmas provide so-called "smart TV" features, which include access to various online-content sources as well as content stored on computers and other devices connected to your local home network via the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) standard. And whereas LCDs can offer 3D using active-shutter or passive glasses, plasmas can use only active-shutter glasses, which give you full HD resolution (1920x1080) for each eye. However, some viewers find active-shutter glasses more uncomfortable than passive glasses on LCD TVs, which give you only half vertical resolution for each eye (1920x540).
Also, while there are now several LCD TVs with Ultra High Definition (UHD) resolution—3860x2160—there are no such plasma TVs. This is not a big deal in my book, since there is virtually no native UHD content available to consumers, and many of the parameters of UHD have not been settled yet, so any UHDTV you buy today will likely be obsolete in a couple of years.
The plasma TVs in this buying guide were selected as the best models available in 2013 by consulting various review outlets such as CNET and Consumer Reports as well as AVS reviews and owner threads and a special call out to members for their top picks.
You'll notice an "xx" in the model numbers below; this is a placeholder for the size of the screen. For example, the TC-P50S60 has a 50-inch screen, measured diagonally.
The S60 is a basic plasma TV with no 3D capability that still produces a superb picture with deep blacks, great shadow detail, accurate colors, and excellent off-axis performance and uniformity. Like most plasmas, the picture quality deteriorates somewhat in very bright light, but at these bargain-basement prices, that's easy to overlook, especially if you can close the drapes or you watch mostly in the evening. Its basic "smart TV" functionality is fine as far as it goes, but a Blu-ray player or media-streaming box will provide more online content.
Scott Says: If 3D isn't important to you and saving big bucks is, this is a no-brainer.
The ST60 is Panasonic's least-expensive 3D-capable plasma, and it's a fantastic 2D set as well, with deep blacks, superb shadow detail, accurate colors, and great off-axis performance and uniformity. It even stands up to room light fairly well, and a solid suite of "smart TV" apps brings online content home. This is the first TV to achieve a perfect 5-star rating from CNET.
Scott Says: If you enjoy 3D and online streaming without spending a fortune, this mid-priced plasma is a terrific value.
One step down from Panasonic's flagship, the VT60 is superb in every way; in fact, CNET declared, "This plasma picture finally challenges Kuro." Super-deep blacks, great color, excellent shadow detail, great off-axis performance and uniformity, voice-activated control, touchpad remote, onboard camera for Skype and such, and surprisingly good sound quality for a TV all make this a killer plasma. It's expensive, but definitely worth it.
Scott Says: With all this set has going for it, what's not to love?
If there's one plasma that can go head to head with Panasonic's flagship ZT60—and even beat it in at least one respect—it's the Samsung F8500. This top-of-the-line flat panel can pump out more light than any other current or past plasma, and it offers superb performance in all other areas as well—deep blacks, great shadow detail, accurate colors, excellent off-axis performance and uniformity, great 3D, industry-leading "smart TV" functionality, and touchpad remote as well as gesture and voice control. Even better, it's a bit less expensive than the ZT60.
Scott Says: If you want the superior picture performance of a plasma in a brightly lit room, there's nothing better on the market. And it works great in the dark, too.
The ZT60 is nothing short of astounding, with even deeper blacks than the VT60, great shadow detail, highly accurate colors, superb off-axis performance and uniformity, great 3D, excellent video processing, lots of "Smart TV" apps, and better ambient-light reflection rejection than the VT60. It can't stand up to as much room light as the Samsung F8500, but other than that, it's a worthy contender for Best Plasma Ever.
Scott Says: If you've got the bucks and a hankering for the best plasma money can buy, this is it.