Panasonic TC-65AX900—a Revolutionary LED-LCD UHDTV

LED-FALD IPS LCD UHDTV—it may read like alphabet soup, but it adds up to excellent image quality as Mark Henninger saw in this press demo.

The demo took place in Universal City, home of Universal Studios.

My first trip to Hollywood was a memorable one, but not because I visited the usual tourist spots. I only saw the famous Sunset Strip on my way to and from Universal City, where Panasonic announced the US debut of the AX900. The company went out of its way to make its TC-AX900 demo worthwhile, and I left convinced that it succeeded.

Panasonic’s 65-inch TC-65AX900 is coming to the US this November, which is great news for videophiles looking for reference-quality performance in a flat-panel TV of that size. The LED-FALD LCD uses a refined IPS panel to achieve exceptional contrast and color fidelity, even off-axis. Although pricing is not set, Panasonic did say it will cost less than $8000.

The AX900 is a consumer TV with professional credentials. It is THX UHD/4K certified and achieves 98% of the DCI color gamut. It has no problem covering 100% of the BT.709 color standard used for TV and Blu-ray material, and it does so with high fidelity. In a nod to serious color geeks, the AX900 supports 3D LUT (look-up table) calibration, which provides the highest level of color accuracy.

Connections include four 18 Gbps HMDI 2.0 ports with HDCP 2.2 support, and it also includes a DisplayPort 1.2a input, which is great for connecting a PC or Mac with minimal latency. The TV decodes H.265 (HEVC) content and streamsUHD/4K from the cloud.

The AX900 is the first consumer flat-panel display to incorporate BT.1886, the International Telecommunication Union’s standard for gamma on professional mastering displays. It is also the default gamma target for BT.709 calibrations in SpectraCal’s well-known CalMAN software. BT.1886 offers the specific advantage of rendering dark shadows with improved clarity versus older gamma functions. Most importantly, it provides a standard that is enjoying rapid adoption. Additionally, the AX900 is the first LCD-based TV to feature accurate gamma tracking (with BT.1886) when local dimming is activated.

The inclusion of BT.1886 gamma is a pro-level feature, offered to consumers for the first time by the AX900.

Panasonic did not invite me to Hollywood to talk about smart features—the presentation focused squarely on image quality. I joined ISF founder Joel Silver, Tom Norton (Senior Editor at Sound and Vision), Chris Boylan (Editor in Chief at Big Picture Big Sound), and Gary Merson (aka the HD Guru) for a two-hour demo and Q&A session. (Unfortunately, our own Scott Wilkinson was unable to attend, even though he lives quite near Panasonic Hollywood Labs where the demo was held, because it was scheduled at the same time that he records the Home Theater Geeks podcast, and they had to tear down before he could get there.) Together, we were a rather critical audience. However, Panasonic was ready for us with a demonstration that provided a clear idea of how the AX900 might perform once it is in the hands of reviewers and consumers.

While we did not specifically test for halo artifacts at the demo, this shot offers a hint of how the AX900 (center back) performs, compared to the Sony XBR-65X950B (on the left) and the AX800U (on the right).

Speaking of manufacturer demos, I’d like to mention my article about the AX800U, where I declared it “beats plasma picture quality.” That was a provocative statement, but it was also conditional. Limited viewing angles and disappointing black levels during dark-room viewing resulted in a lot of pushback from plasma fans. I agreed with some of the criticisms AVS Forum members brought up, and I applied what I learned from that experience to this report. Even as I write this, I’m discussing this issue in the TC-AX900 anticipation thread.

As in many TV-manufacturer demos, Panasonic lined up several flat panels with the AX900 for comparison—one of which in this case was a Sony professional OLED mastering monitor. It’s small and very expensive, but it is widely accepted by many, including Joel Silver, as an accurate reference. Including a professional OLED monitor in a comparison was a brave and commendable move by Panasonic; it added a lot to the presentation’s credibility. The name of the game was figuring out which consumer TV came closest to that image.

Aside from the Sony OLED and the AX900U, the other TVs in the lineup were the AX800U, ZT60 plasma, and Sony’s XBR-65X950B. Only one TV in the room managed to match the Sony OLED on scene after scene, and it was not the ZT60. The AX900 managed to nail the contrast, hue, and saturation displayed by the Sony OLED with an uncanny degree of accuracy. Photos tend to exaggerate the differences between displays, so it’s quite surprising to see how the picture shown by the AX900 matches Sony’s reference OLED in the photo below.

Even viewed from an angle, the AX900 (behind the OLED) came closest to matching the reference OLED (in front of AX900).

It’s almost impossible for an LCD-based display to compete with OLED when it comes to the deepest black levels. That remained true with the AX900, but it had much deeper blacks than the other two LCDs. Even if the ZT60 and the SonyOLED beat the AX900 in the deepest-blacks category, the AX900 is (at least) in the same league as those TVs.

This slide illustrates the difference between Panasonic’s Local Dimming Ultra and standard local dimming.

The demo itself included a wide variety of content. It began with some UHD/4K eye candy, shown in vivid mode.Panasonic noted that this mode is how the TV will be set up for the retail environment. In other words, the company acknowledged the need to compete in the showroom with a sharp and vibrant image.

After that, Panasonic set the TVs to movie mode, and we watched a variety of 1080p content, including scenes from TheGrand Budapest Hotel. It was a serendipitous choice; I recently wrote a Blu-ray vs. streaming comparison of that movie, and I’m familiar with its color palette. Because the movie uses a 4:3 aspect ratio, it presents a challenge to both edgelit LCDs and FALD LCDs with low zone counts. In my opinion, the AX900 performed like an emissive display during that segment of the demo, and it would be easy to mistake it for a plasma. In fact, one of the other attendees told me—anecdotally—that people mistook the AX900 for a plasma when Panasonic showed a similar lineup at IFA 2014 in Berlin.

The final demo was a clip from Lawrence of Arabia. It brought everything together—color, detail, action—all rendered with fidelity that was in the same league as the two emissive displays in the room. The most surprising thing about the AX900 is how it maintains image fidelity when viewed from the side—in fact, it is perhaps the best-performing LCD I’ve seen in that regard. At extreme off-angles (60-89 degrees) the screen starts to dim a bit, but there’s no loss of saturation or color accuracy, and the image maintains its contrast. When it comes to viewing angles, it’s quite possible the AX900 outperforms the two OLEDs I saw at the recent Value Electronics TV shootout.

When I wrote about the AX800U’s US debut, I applauded Panasonic’s engineering-first approach to TVs. During the AX900 presentation, company reps discussed how the company has embraced that heritage, which runs deep. The AX900 is the result of two different teams working together. Engineers from Panasonic’s pro-video division teamed up with the engineers who created the Pioneer Kuro and ZT60 plasmas.

The result of all that teamwork is a TV that raises the bar for accuracy and image quality in a consumer LED-LCD HDTV.Panasonic paid attention to the details that matter instead of trying to bend its perfectly good flat TVs into a curve and call it “immersive.” Nothing immerses the viewer quite like great image quality. In my opinion, the curve remains an aesthetic gimmick, albeit a novel and attractive one.

I understand it’s imperative to step back and remember that Panasonic hosted the demonstration. Until the AX900 goes under the microscope, it’s risky to draw absolute conclusions. Still, what I saw was convincing enough that I feel good stating it is an engineering triumph.

I’m confident that further testing will show it is a significant leap forward in LED-LCD picture quality. I expect to take a much closer look at the AX900 very soon, with unfettered access in a dark room and my own copy of CalMAN, so stay tuned for that. I can’t wait to get my hands on it; the AX900 is a very exciting television.