Panasonic Beats Plasma Picture Quality with TC-AX800U Series

 * OK, it beats plasma under certain conditions…
If there’s one company that continues to cater to videophiles obsessed with image quality, it’s Panasonic. While many people lamented the loss of the reference-quality VT60 and ZT60 plasmas, Panasonic clearly saw a need to move on to UHD-resolution LED-lit LCDs. At CES 2014, I saw the first fruits of its labor—what the company calls “Studio Master Drive.” I contemplated the title of this post for hours; I know it’s going to ruffle some feathers, but I’m convinced of the validity of what I saw. Yesterday, I went to Manhattan to attend a press briefing that covered the 2014 Viera TV lineup. When I arrived, I was surprised to find that I was the only person in the room who was not from Panasonic. It was an exclusive presentation; I did not have to share the room with any other press! I seized the opportunity to discuss what AVS Forum members overwhelmingly want out of their TVs. I mentioned that those priorities include deep blacks, high motion resolution, wide viewing angles, a flat screen, high contrast, saturated colors, and full compatibility with the latest HDMI standards and codecs. A reasonable price is a bonus.

Update: I posted a review which offers a more accurate and detailed overview of the AX800U: Panasonic TC-65AX800U LED-LCD UHDTV

The Panasonic reps joked about being a company full of engineers, not marketing types. Well, it was only half-joking, because the contrast between Panasonic’s NY event and the Samsung event I attended a month ago was stark. Whereas Samsung invited hundreds of reporters to the Guggenheim in Manhattan to discuss the added-value and artistic merit of curved-screen LED-edgelit LCD TVs, Panasonic was talking to me directly about how its THX-certified TVs exceed the Rec. 709 color gamut by 122%. The company detailed how the inclusion of a DisplayPort UHD/4K 60p input provides a low-latency hookup for PC gamers. There were a few moments when I had to endure demonstrations of smart features—face and voice recognition, for example. Somehow, I managed to survive that part—I cared much more about the inclusion of HDMI 2.0 with support for 4:4:4 color and UHD/4K 60p.

Project Cars, a driving game, showed off what UHD/4K can do for gaming. It looked real. One feature that stood out was built-in calibration software that’s fully controllable from an iPad. It was quite a trip to see adjustments show up on-screen in real time—quite a contrast to the TVs I worked on when I took the THX video-calibration class last February. 

The AX800U even has built-in software to assist with calibration. It allows real-time adjustments using an iPad or Android tablet I looked closely at the image on a TC-65AX800U ($4500) displaying native UHD/4K footage. It was a sunny day; huge windows flooded the room with ambient light that matched what I’ve seen in modern living rooms. In such bright light, the TV’s picture was gorgeous; to be frank, it looked as nice as the LG UHD/4K OLEDs I saw at CES. Color saturation was exemplary, as was screen uniformity. Off-angle viewing posed no problems whatsoever within a 90-degree cone, however the viewing angle for plasma-like performance is narrower. In a bright room, viewed from a reasonable angle, Panasonic’s (current) best LCD offers an image that’s competitive with OLED TVs I’ve seen.

Room reflections notwithstanding, the AX800 maintained image quality when viewed off-axis

However, I know that AVS Forum members do not buy plasmas for bright-room viewing. Thankfully, Panasonic also had a TC-AX800U in a totally blacked-out space along with two more TVs. To the left of the AX800U, there was a TC-P65ZT60. To the right was a TC-L65WT600 (last year’s flagship LCD), and all three TVs were the same distance from—and facing toward—the spot where I was standing. I’d seen a similar demo at CES, but this time, Panasonic used footage from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Panasonic wanted to show off the AX800U’s capabilities using challenging footage from a well-known movie played at 1080p from Blu-ray. The movie is full of dark scenes that contain a ton of shadow detail. In a black room, the ZT60 edged out the AX800U in terms of ultimate black levels, but the difference was tiny. When it came to detail rendition, I saw no real benefit to the UHD/4K upscaling on the AX800U; however, it was at least as sharp and detailed as the ZT60. Aside from that, the AX800U looked better. Deep shadows contained more color and more definition than what the ZT60 was able to muster. When scenes got bright, the ZT60 fell behind in terms of contrast. Both TVs looked far superior to the WT600.

Panasonic’s ZT60 is on the left, the AX800 is in the center, and the WT600 is on the right

After yesterday’s experience, I’ve become a believer in LCD’s ability to perform well. According to Panasonic, an 85-inch version of the same panel will come out in less than a year, potentially as early as this fall. The company has delivered on its promise to preserve plasma image quality as it transitions to an all-LCD lineup. It’s engineers managed to distill what was great about its 1080p premium plasmas and put those qualities to work in a LED-lit LCD TV. Stay tuned for an upcoming report in Latest Industry News about Panasonic’s entire 2014 TV lineup. It’s time to start the debate, which centers on a simple premise—that well-implemented LCD can look better than plasma in both dark and bright environments; it can even compete with OLED picture quality when viewed in a bright room. Based on what I saw, Panasonic has pulled it off.