Panasonic TC-65AX800U LED-LCD UHDTV Review

2014 is the year 4K took over the high end of the TV market, and every major manufacturer now has something to offer. Last year, Panasonic was riding high thanks to the positive reviews received by its plasma panels. Now, the company concentrates its engineering efforts on making high-performance LED-lit LCD TVs.

When I first saw the AX800U in New York City at a Panasonic press event, I was very impressed by its picture quality. In addition, I was happy that it was flat! At the time, I wrote that its picture quality competed favorably with plasma. That observation provoked a critical response from numerous AVS Forum members, who correctly pointed out how difficult it is to draw accurate conclusions about a TV’s image quality at a PR event. I agreed with the criticism and resolved to perform an in-depth review of the AX800U, so I contacted Panasonic and asked if I could borrow one for a few weeks.


At a Panasonic press event, the AX800U looked exceptional playing UHD/4K demo footage.

Happily, Panasonic agreed and loaned me a TC-65AX800U. I spent over a month and a half living with it—using it as my primary display on my PC for work and for play—to get a feel of what it’s like to live with a UHD/4K TV.

Before I get too deep into the review, I want to address the debate over plasma vs. LCD image quality. When I made the claim that the AX800U beats plasma, it was a conditional statement. Depending on the viewing position and viewing conditions, it’s entirely possible for a high-end UHD/4K LCD to beat a reference-quality plasma HDTV’s image quality. All you have to do is make sure there’s some ambient light in the room, view it head-on, and provide it with native UHD/4K content—that doesn’t include too much motion.

To beat a reference plasma’s image quality with an AX800U, it’s necessary to make the most of a UHD/4K LCD TV’s strengths. Namely, you need to take advantage of the extra brightness and resolution it offers. Likewise, it’s easy enough to beat the image quality of an LED-lit LCD UHD/4K TV with a reference plasma—all you have to do is watch content in a nearly or totally dark room and make sure you don’t sit so close to the TV that you can see individual pixels.

The bottom line is this: The superiority of one TV over another greatly depends on what you watch and how you watch it.

Features

The TC-65AX800U is a THX-certified LED-edgelit LCD UHD/4K TV. It can accept and display UHD/4K content up to 2160p/60 4:4:4 thanks to its DisplayPort 1.2 connection. (The panel itself is 8-bit, so greater bit depths are moot.) Its refresh rate is 120 Hz with motion interpolation and pseudo local dimming that help improve contrast and motion resolution. According to Panasonic, the AX800U can render 98% of the DCI color gamut, which is what’s used in commercial cinemas, and well beyond the BT.709 color gamut used by broadcast TV and Blu-ray.


The AX800U possesses an expanded color palette that covers 98% of DCI and 100% of BT.709 gamut

The AX800U comes packed with smart-TV features, including a suite of apps that handle everything from streaming movies to creating slideshows to managing multiple calendars. It’s also equipped with a built-in camera and microphone that add voice control and facial recognition to the TVs capabilities, although I wound up turning those functions off.

Normally, I skip the smart features on TVs because I prefer to use third-party devices such as Roku, ChromeCast, and Apple TV versus a TV maker’s proprietary apps. However, built-in apps are a crucial feature for this generation of UHD/4K TVs, since they offer a way to access UHD content. The set-top boxes don’t offer UHD/4K yet, so built-in apps are key. For the TC–65AX800U, the most important UHD/4K apps are Netflix and Amazon. Unfortunately, those apps were not yet UHD/4K-enabled when I reviewed the TV. Panasonic announced upcoming support for UHD/4K via those two services in a September 4 press release, but it did not include a specific date for that update.


Panasonic included a full suite of apps on the AX800U.

Inputs and ports include three HDMI 1.4, one HDMI 2.0 (2160/60p capable) input, one DisplayPort 1.2 input, one antenna/cable input, one set of analog component-video inputs with 2-channel audio, one composite-video input with 2-channel audio, Ethernet, WiFi, and three USB ports. Outputs include audio return channel (ARC) via one of the HDMI 1.4 ports or the HDMI 2.0 port and an optical digital-audio output. The TV is HDCP 2.2-compatible, and even offers the option to switch between HDCP 2.2 and HDCP 1.4 via its menu.


A look at the inputs on the TC-65AX800U.

Finally, the AX800U features active-shutter 3D and comes with two pairs of glasses.

Ergonomics

The AX800U is quite easy to use for such a feature-rich TV, but one convenience I did not appreciate was the info bar, which would cause the TV to turn on at awkward moments. It was too easy to trigger; the TV would repeatedly fire up while my wife Danya and I were chatting or listening to music. It grew tiresome, so I disabled the function. I figured I could handle turning the TV on the old-fashioned way—when I wanted to.

The AX800U includes two remote controls as well as an app for iPad and Android tablets. The most traditional remote is a large wand-style unit with oversized backlit keys. It’s as large as many universal remotes, but it only controls the TV itself. Nevertheless, the large backlit buttons and uncluttered layout make it easy to use.


The two remote controls that come with the AX800U.

The touchpad remote was not my favorite interface for the TV, though it has its charms—including a built-in microphone for voice search. Also, if you do use the TV’s built-in apps, the touchpad remote it can be a bit less cumbersome than using the arrows on the wand remote.

If the TV is not wall-mounted, it requires a surface that is at least as wide as the TV itself (58 inches). In this case, the TV uses a heavy pedestal for stability, which makes it quite a handful during setup.

Setup

A 65-inch AX800U is too much TV for one person to set up on their own. I hope it’s understood that you should not hang a heavy TV by yourself; however, even if it is going to sit on a stand, this TV requires two people to put together. Its shipping weight is 160 lbs, and assembled with its stand, it weighs 130 lbs. That’s considerably heavier than most other TVs of a similar size, but there’s a good reason for it.

Panasonic wanted to make sure a small child could not easily tip over an AX800U sitting on a TV stand. The solution was a 40-pound pedestal that attaches to the back of the TV. It would take an adult considerable effort to tip the whole thing over, and the result is considerably sturdier than most other freestanding TVs. The only downsides to this design are that the pedestal takes up some space behind the TV, and it makes the TV quite difficult to move because of the extra weight.


The pedestal that keeps the AX800U in place. It weighs 40 pounds.

When I first turned the TV on, I noticed patches of mild discoloration when displaying a uniform white field on the screen-there was a magenta tint to them. I remembered reading that a gentle rub with a soft, clean cloth can help with uniformity issues on some LCD screens. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I gave it a shot. To my surprise, the light rub, similar to how I’d go about cleaning the screen, worked perfectly—uniformity was notably improved, and the issue did not reappear. I mention the issue because it was a part of my experience, but it’s also an anomaly. The threads where I read about the screen rub trick discussed different TVs from numerous manufacturers—it’s not an AX800U issue.

Initial system setup of the AX800U included the creation of a personal profile, which involved setting up facial and voice recognition. A built-in webcam took my mug shot, and I used the touchpad remote to register my voice with the system. I also registered the streaming apps I planned to use in my testing—Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu.

Performance

I started by setting up the AX800 next to my reference TV, a 64-inch Samsung F8500 plasma. I performed a full 10-point calibration before going any further, using CalMan 5 and a DVDO AVLab TPG UHD/4K pattern generator. I also took the opportunity to update my calibration of the F8500—to account for any drift—before performing any direct comparisons.

As part of my calibration, I turned off the majority of the AX800U’s image-processing features, especially noise reduction, color remastering, motion processing, and sharpening. I used Professional2 picture mode and aimed for a gamma of 2.2 and 35 foot-lamberts of peak brightness, my preferred settings for viewing in a dim room. The AX800U responded very well to a 10-point calibration, achieving delta-E numbers well below the threshold of human perception. In fact, it calibrated about as accurately as my F8500, and when viewed head-on, its post-calibration image quality was exceptional. I would trust this display for performing critical color adjustments in Photoshop.


I was very pleased with the AX800U’s post calibration accuracy. Calibrated with CalMAN 5.


The AX800U is capable of achieving excellent color accuracy. Calibrated with CalMAN 5.

The AX800U provides only one HDMI 2.0 input, but it also includes a DisplayPort 1.2 connection. That was the key to getting the most out of the TV using my PC, since it supports 2160p/60 4:4:4 video signals, which was great for viewing photos and playing video games. Because of that, I used an AMD Radeon R9 280X video card as my primary UHD/4K source.

For 1080p content, I relied on my Pioneer Elite SC-55 AVR and the various peripherals I have connected to it: Google’s Chromecast, a Sony Vaio laptop with an SSD drive, a 1080p connection to my PC, a Panasonic DMP-BDT460 Blu-rayplayer with UHD/4K JPEG playback—which I had in for review—and a Sony BDP-S5100 Blu-ray player.

The AX800U performs very well when you respect the limitations of LED-edgelit VA (vertically aligned) LCD panels. The most glaring weakness is a relatively narrow optimum viewing angle, especially when compared to plasma—there’s perhaps a 25-degree viewing cone where image quality is excellent, although image quality is still very good if viewed from a bit wider angle.

The AX800U looks the best, by far, when viewed head-on. Sitting centered on the screen in a dimly lit room, it delivered an image that looked remarkably like the F8500 plasma next to it. When I fed it UHD/4K content and sat close enough, it looked better than the 1080p plasma. However, if I moved just a bit off-angle, saturation and contrast both dropped; the illusion of depth was lost. In addition, in a completely darkened room, the plasma’s superior black levels helped it pull ahead of the AX800U—even when viewing the Panasonic head-on.


In this viewing angle test from lagom.nl, if you can see the text in the white field, it means there is a shift in gamma.

The AX800U does not have the ability to reproduce the ultra-deep blacks seen in some FALD (full array local dimming) LCD UHDTVs. It’s no slouch when it comes to black rendition, it’s just not one of the elite—no pun intended—TVs in that category. However, it’s implementation of local dimming is very stealthy, working behind the scenes without calling attention to itself, unlike a number of other UHDTVs I’ve checked out this year. In many ways, I prefer Panasonic’s approach—it might not read as well in the specs, but with real-life content, it looks more natural than aggressive FALD algorithms.

I have no need to watch a TV from an obtuse angle, so I stayed nice and centered and enjoyed the AX800U’s excellent detail rendition and color accuracy as I worked with high-resolution photos in Photoshop. It’s easily the finest computer monitor I’ve ever used in terms of size, resolution, and color quality. I also appreciated LCD’s resistance to image retention/burn in whenever I used the AX800U; I save my plasma for movies/TV/video games due to image-retention issues when I’m in the Windows desktop.

Viewing still photos was a particular highlight of the UHD/4K experience. Danya and I both take photos as a part of our jobs, and we have a number of large-sensor cameras, equipped with prime lenses, that produce very sharp images. Thanks to the 65-inch AX800U’s combination of screen size and high resolution, we could finally see our own photos in all their glory. Still photos represented—by far—the largest collection of UHD/4K content that I had access to.

I’m a fan of video gaming, and especially car-racing games. Although my video card supports 2160p/60, my computer wasn’t too happy about rendering 3840×2160 graphics at the frame rates needed for smooth gameplay—with Need for Speed: Most Wanted, I was limited to around 20 fps. However, I found that using 2560×1440 resolution for gaming was a great compromise—I achieved fast frame rates (40-60 fps) along with sharper graphics than 1080p (1920×1080).

I wish I could report on how UHD/4K Netflix and Amazon streaming looked on the AX800U, however those apps were not working during the time I had the TV. Instead, I relied on YouTube via my PC for 2160p video. Panasonic included a dedicated UHD/4K app with the TV, but it turned out to have the same selections as YouTube, so I stuck with my PC-based UHD/4K solution. I was impressed with some of the fine details I saw while watching several promo clips for Assassins Creed that include footage of Parkour stunt runs in various cities. It made me wish for access to high-quality cinematic UHD/4K content.


I watched UHD/4K streaming content on YouTube.

The largest library of HD content out there is on Blu-ray, so I spent plenty of time watching some of my favorite movies on the AX800U. I checked out the Oscar-winning film The Artist as a black-and-white torture test—it stayed neutral gray from beginning to end, with no discoloration in highlights or shadows.

The Need for Speed film looked fantastic in pristine digital color; it’s my new reference for fast-moving, ultra-sharp cinematography, especially since the stunts are real and not CGI. There were moments when the F8500 looked a bit crisper during the most complex action, but the AX800U looked as good—or perhaps even a bit sharper—a solid 90% of the time. While I still prefer my plasma for how great it looks in the dark, I cannot deny that UHD/4K upscaling can, on occasion, look a bit better than native 1080p.

Gravity 3D is a tough test for any display, one that the plasma excelled at and the AX800U struggled with a little bit. For one thing, emissive displays do outer space better that transmissive displays—it looks a lot more convincing on an OLED or a premium plasma than it does on any LCD-based TV. Furthermore, LCDs that use active shutter glasses for 3D tend to suffer from a bit more crosstalk than plasma, and that turned out to be true for the Panasonic. It was good 3D, but I’ve been spoiled by the passive 3D on my Vizio M3D550KD (although that suffers a loss of resolution) and the impeccable 3D presentation of the F8500. The AX800U offers totally usable 3D, but if you plan to spend most of your time wearing glasses to watch a movie, it might not be the ideal TV for you.

Ultimately, I watched several dozen movies on the AX800U. It can really flatter some material, especially if it’s presented in 16:9 format. Perhaps the biggest weakness of the AX800U is its inability to darken its letterbox bars to a significant degree. It has a feature that claims to do just that, but I saw little change when turning it on and off. The letterbox bars on the AX800U are definitely darker than those on my Vizio, but they are no match for what a good plasma can do. Moreover, I’ve seen some FALD-equipped TVs that manage to pull off the black-bars trick much more effectively.

My AVR has dual HDMI outputs, so I sent the same picture to my F8500 plasma for comparison. Most of the time, the picture quality between the two TVs was a draw, as long as I stayed on-axis with the AX800U.

The AX800U handles Blu-ray video with aplomb. While upscaling can’t add detail that doesn’t exist, it does appear to result in a slightly sharper rendition of the same scene versus how it looks in native 1080p. It also makes the pixel structure of the TV—aka the screen door effect—invisible to viewers sitting at the close end of the THX-recommended viewing distance for HD/1080p content.

Like all LCD-based TVs, the AX800U has to perform a few tricks to get above 300 lines of motion resolution. Panasonic uses a combination of BLS (backlight scanning) and frame interpolation to increase the clarity of fast-moving imagery, a process it calls 2400 BLS. While it’s effective at increasing motion clarity, Panasonic’s approach also tends to smooth out motion. At its least aggressive setting, it managed to crisp up video without producing an obvious SOE (soap opera effect), but it would be nice if the AX800U could engage BLS without any frame interpolation. I used testufo.com to compare motion resolution between the AX800U, the F8500, and the M3D550KD—the plasma clearly outperformed the two LCDs, as expected. With motion processing turned on, the AX800U performed a lot better, rendering sideways-scrolling photos as clearly as the plasma. I can see the feature’s usefulness for watching sports.

What does all that mean? If you are a video purist, you’ll probably cringe at what you need to do to get the most out of this UHDTV. Namely, you will have to accept the use of local dimming, frame interpolation, and upscaling. You’ll also need to perform a proper calibration to get the best picture quality. Of course, the AX800U tantalizes anyone who possesses it with a plethora of image-enhancement functions. Sadly, I did not find any that offered a visible, tangible benefit over and above what’s gained from calibration and the judicious use of the features I just mentioned.

While upscaled Blu-ray tended to look great on the AX800U, even when compared to a reference-quality plasma, streaming content looked a bit worse for wear. It is definitely content-dependent—I’ve seen some very clean HD streams and downloads, but blocky artifacts in deep shadows are par for the course when it comes to online delivery.

For some reason, the artifacts that tend to plague streaming content looked considerably more objectionable on the AX800U versus the F8500. From what I’ve read, that is probably because the plasma dithers gradients, which helps hide those artifacts. Whatever the cause, I found that the AX800U was too revealing of flaws in the deepest shadows. In the same way that high-resolution speakers reveal flaws in poorly recorded music, the AX800U reveals flaws in poorly compressed video—more so than my reference TV. Again, I’m left wishing I could have seen UHD/4K streaming on the AX800U. When I get a chance to do so, I’ll update this review.

Conclusion

With plasma panels riding off into the sunset and curved screens on the rise, it’s nice to see Panasonic hit a price/performance sweet spot with the $3000 TC-65AX800U. Even if the AX800U were only a 1080p HDTV, it would be worth consideration, because its overall image quality is top-notch for an LED-edgelit LCD TV of that size. Of course, since it’s a premium LCD offering and the year is 2014, it is a UHDTV. As long as you understand what LCDs excel at, you’ll find a lot to like about the AX800U’s image quality. It’s a reminder that Panasonic is an engineering-first company—not as concerned with making an artistic statement as some of its competition. Instead, the company made a TV that is easy to calibrate to near-perfection and looks great playing a wide variety of content.

At its current price, the AX800U is a genuine bargain for the level of performance it achieves. Even if you ignore UHD/4K content altogether, Panasonic’s assiduous approach to color fidelity pays dividends—you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more accurate LED-lit LCD TV for your money. The TC-65AX800U is available directly from Panasonic, as well as at from Best Buys Magnolia stores.