When I first saw the AX900 at CES 2014, it was a prototype panel in a dark room. During that demo, I saw a TV that appeared to outperform any LCD-based TV I’d seen up until that time, matching the picture quality of the reference plasma sitting next to it from every angle.
My second encounter with the AX900 was in September 2014. I flew to L.A. for its public unveiling, and I saw another demo that put its image quality and screen uniformity up against another reference plasma, as well as a professional-grade OLED monitor used for movie mastering.
It’s an unusual time in the history of televisions, with a battle brewing between OLED and LED-lit LCD. While emissive OLED displays promise unbeatable blacks, most TV makers are working with LED-LCD technology to minimize the inherent limitations of transmissive displays.
The best way to combat the poor native contrast of LCD panels is with a full-array local-dimming (FALD) backlight. However, some LCDs have another issue—limited viewing angles. Vertically aligned (VA) LCDs have a viewing cone within which saturation and contrast are optimal. Outside of that cone, VA panels quickly lose contrast and/or color saturation.
In-plane switching (IPS) LCD panels (as found on the AX900) offer wider viewing angles. But there’s a catch—the native contrast ratio of IPS panels is very low. Typically, an IPS panel will have less than a quarter of the native contrast of a VA panel.
One way to compensate for the reduced contrast of IPS is to use a FALD backlight, and that’s what you’ll find in the AX900. Is it enough to compensate for the intrinsically weak contrast of IPS?
Panasonic’s AX900 is a flat, 120 Hz, FALD, IPS, UHD/4K LED-LCD with HDR and ECG—gotta love those acronyms! All that stands for flat-screen (as opposed to curved), 120 hertz refresh rate, full-array local dimming, in-plane switching, ultra-high definition/4K, light-emitting diode liquid crystal display—with high dynamic range and extended color gamut! It comes with a satin-finish, anti-reflective screen.
The focus of this review is image fidelity, and the many facets of picture quality that combine to make a great TV. The AX900 includes a healthy selection of preset modes, including THX Cinema and THX Bright Room. It also includes Professional 1 and Professional 2 presets that allow you quickly achieve superbly accurate ISF calibration results.
In North America, Panasonic only offers the 65-inch TC-65AX900, which is the model I review here. A 55-incher is available in some other regions. It’s not new to the market—it launched back in September 2014—and it’s not easy to find; in fact, the AX900 is only available by special order in the US.
Perhaps the most important feature of the AX900 is tremendously accurate color and grayscale performance. The TV uses a 3D LUT (look-up table) containing 8000 points of reference for accurate color and grayscale rendition. Professional movie- and video-production facilities use displays that employ 3D LUT technology whenever color accuracy is an absolute requirement.
Because color fidelity is central to the AX900’s design, it offers a wide variety of tools to help tune it for best performance. It supports automatic calibration, and it offers a tablet/smartphone app designed to make calibration easier and more accurate—for example, the app eliminates the need for on-screen menus that can skew meter readings.
An expanded color gamut encompasses 98% of the DCI-P3 standard used in commercial cinema. Unlike a number of other TV manufacturers, Panasonic did not use quantum dots; instead, the company employed phosphor-doped blue LEDs to achieve nearly complete coverage of the DCI-P3 gamut.
The feature list includes passive 3D, which displays 1080p for each eye without the loss of vertical resolution associated with 1080p passive 3D. The TV includes two pairs of polarized glasses.
Grayscale gets equally fastidious treatment; the AX900 was the first consumer TV to offer BT.1886 gamma as a built-in option. With BT.1886, you get better differentiation between the darkest shades of gray, not to mention adherence to an adopted standard.
The AX900 renders deep shadow gradations with great accuracy and features BT.1886 gamma. The blacks themselves are not all that dark.
All four of the TV’s 18 Gbps HDMI 2.0 ports support HDCP 2.2 copy protection. Even better, it can accept and display UHD/4K content up to 2160p/60 4:4:4 with its DisplayPort 1.2 connection.
Additional connectivity includes Wi-Fi , an Ethernet port, three USB ports, Bluetooth, and an SD card reader. There’s one coaxial connection for antenna/cable, as well as one set each of component and composite analog-video inputs—both with 2-channel analog-audio inputs.
A view on the AX900’s inputs, including four HDMI 2.0 ports with HDCP 2.2 compatibility.
Audio outputs include audio return channel (ARC) via one of the HDMI 2.0 ports and an optical digital-audio connection.
On top of the TV, there’s a 1080p video camera that offers webcam-like functionality. The camera also works with the AX900’s facial recognition functions—the TV can recognize who is watching and switch to a customized profile for that viewer.
Panasonic provides two remotes with the AX900 as well as the aforementioned app for smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, the TV offers voice recognition and gesture control.
The infrared remote is quite decent. The buttons are large, clearly marked, and backlit. The channel and volume buttons are right in the middle and very easy to find by touch alone. It also includes a D-pad for menu and app navigation. Overall, it is a solid remote.
The Touch Pad Controller is a smaller remote that connects to the TV via Bluetooth. It is sleeker than the IR unit, but it’s not necessarily any easier to use. The touchpad makes web surfing with the TV’s built-in browser a lot easier. In addition, if you prefer swiping to clicking, it’s the remote for you. A built-in microphone works with voice control and search.
The AX900 comes with two remotes.
Finally, the control app—called TV Remote 2—provides a highly intuitive interface for controlling the AX900. One of its most notable features is a touch-enabled graphical interface for making calibration adjustments. You can use it to adjust settings without calling up on-screen menus that can interfere with measurements.
The AX900 offers Panasonic’s My Home Screen interface, which I found more of an annoyance than anything—I’m not interested in a TV that tries to be a smartphone. Regardless, the interface lets you access the AX900’s built-in apps, which include 4K-enabled Netflix and Amazon.
The menu system on the AX900 is deep, with controls for a plethora of features. It’s easy to navigate, but there’s nothing new about it.
When the box with the AX900 arrived, it’s sheer size was intimidating. As it turned out, the extra space was for an included pedestal that—due to its weight—required an extended-length box.
The TV arrived unharmed, and I was able to unpack it with ease. However, when it came to the assembly, I had to ask for help. A 65-inch AX900 is too big and heavy for one person to set up on their own. You should not hang any TV by yourself, and even if you use the stand, this TV requires two people to assemble—it weighs 143 pounds! That is quite a bit heavier than many other TVs of a similar size, but there is a reason for the heft—it keeps the TV stable when it’s on a stand.
Panasonic wanted to make sure that a small child could not easily tip over an AX900 sitting on a TV stand. The solution was a heavy pedestal that attaches to the back of the TV. It would take an adult considerable effort to tip the whole thing over. 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.
After assembly, I reset the TV to factory defaults and spent a few weeks living with the AX900 as if I was a regular consumer, with no interest in AV geekery such as 10-point calibration and 3D LUTs. I simply used its built-in modes—I even used vivid mode to watch part of the Super Bowl—an experiment I will never repeat.
The cool thing about the AX900 is that it’s incredibly accurate right out of the box. In fact, it’s pre-calibration color fidelity matches or beats the post-calibration results of some other TVs I’ve measured. It’s not perfect, but it’s a tremendous starting point. In a side-by-side comparison with my fully calibrated reference—a Samsung PN64F8500 plasma—some hues looked a bit off.
Despite the out-of-the-box color accuracy, proper calibration performed wonders for the AX900. I used a pair of meters from Colorimetry Research—the CR-100 colorimeter and the CR-250 spectroradiometer—to calibrate the Professional 1 and ISF Night modes, as well as the Monitor mode. I also looked at the THX Cinema mode, which benefited from a slight tweak to the 2-point grayscale controls.
Monitor mode was of particular interest because it resulted in the most accurate calibration of any mode found on the TV. It dispenses with all processing, including adaptive backlight control (i.e., FALD). Post-calibration, A CalMan 5 Color Checker sweep showed an average delta E of 1.2, and a maximum reading of 3.8. Native contrast measured 1043:1, which is unsurprising for an IPS LCD. I got a reading of 0.032 fL for black, and a peak-white level of 33.4 fL. In an effort to emulate plasma settings, I lowered the peak brightness to 26.4 fL—I saw a corresponding drop in black levels and a slight (but largely inconsequential) increase in delta E.
Monitor mode was highly accurate and free of extra processing, but the IPS panel’s modest native contrast ratio worked against it.
Although there’s something to be said for Monitor mode—I performed an Adobe RGB calibration to experience Photoshopin all its 4K glory—the modes of greatest interest to TV and movie viewers are Professional 1 and 2, which correspond to ISF Day and Night modes.
The best thing about the Pro modes is support for AutoCal in CalMan 5 Pro. It’s fast, hands-off, and accurate. With the right software and hardware, the AX900 essentially self-calibrates, and it’s capable of such accuracy that you can ask AutoCal to aim for extremely tight tolerances—delta E under 1.0—with rapid and consistent results. A 10-point grayscale adjustment clocked in at two minutes and forty seconds using the CR-100 colorimeter and a DVDO AVLab TPG 4K pattern generator. Warning: The cip is only slightly more exciting than watching paint dry.
Calibrating the AX900’s grayscale using AutoCal took 2 mins 40 secs using CalMAN 5 and the CR-100 meter.
Thanks to automatic calibration, I achieved a perfect picture (in terms of color and grayscale) in record time. For gamma, I used the BT.1886 option. The AX900 is the first consumer flat-panel display to incorporate BT.1886, as well as first LCD-based TV to feature accurate gamma tracking (with BT.1886) when local dimming is activated. The standard is also the default gamma target for BT.709 calibrations in SpectraCal’s CalMan software. It offers the specific advantage of rendering dark shadows with improved clarity versus other gamma functions. Most importantly, it provides a standard that is enjoying rapid adoption.
I used the AX900 in conjunction with an Atmos-enabled 5.1.4 system, including a Pioneer Elite SC-85 AVR and Goldenear speaker system. A single HDMI cable provided all the connectivity I needed thanks to the ARC (audio return channel) function of the HDMI 2 input.
An Oppo BDP-103 served as my primary source for HD material, both Blu-ray and streaming. A DIY PC with 4K capability offered an opportunity to experience 4K image editing.
Finally, a Wi-Fi connection provided enough bandwidth to feed the set’s 4K-capable apps.
For an LCD TV, the AX900’s performance was excellent—especially when it came to displaying vivid, accurate colors. Even so, there’s the pesky issue of the reference plasma that sat beside it for the duration of the review—the problem is that reference-quality emissive displays trounce transmissive displays when it comes to black levels. In a dark room, even the best LCDs fail to keep up with emissive displays—especially OLED.
Because it can’t compete with the native contrast of reference plasmas or OLED displays, the AX900 is not a TV for the video buff who prizes deep blacks over other image-quality attributes. Instead, it is a specialized display for color fanatics who prize accuracy and adherence to color standards—it’s a TV for hardcore color geeks.
In my entire time with the AX900, I never saw it beat the F8500 in terms of black levels—it came closest when ambient light masked its grayish blacks. In a dark room, there was never any contest—the plasma’s blacks were deeper and more uniform.
Measuring contrast on a FALD LCD display is tricky if local dimming is activated.
But, when it comes to adhering to the BT.709 color standard, Panasonic’s top LCD is a champion thoroughbred. As long as there was some ambient light to hide the weak blacks, the AX900’s fidelity made viewing colorful content a compelling experience—I often wound up marveling at the delicate rendition of subtle hues.
Fury—the World War II movie starring Brad Pitt—looked amazing when played from a Blu-ray on the AX900. It took full advantage of the TV’s BT.1886 shadow rendition to present dark foggy scenes with verisimilitude—in other words, it excelled at making mist look realistic.
The Panasonic was at its best when it showed 16:9 content in a room with moderate ambient light. However, even with some room light, letterboxed content suffered from the TV’s relatively high black levels. Although the AX900 offers a “dimmer” option for the letterbox bars, it made little difference versus the default “normal” setting. With 16:9 content, it was much harder to spot the weak contrast.
Some FALD LCDs use vertically aligned panels to improve contrast and saturation when viewed on-axis. The AX900’s IPS panel sacrifices some head-on viewing performance for the sake of improved off-axis viewing performance versus VA panels. Its sweet spot is sufficiently wide that everyone sitting on a sofa can enjoy the same viewing experience.
While dark rooms pose problems for the AX900, bright rooms do not. It’s more than bright enough for sun-drenched living rooms; I measured 65 foot-lamberts of output when I pushed the contrast to the maximum in ISF Day mode. With vivid mode maxed out, I measured a peak luminance of 182.9 fL, although that’s not useful for much of anything.
One huge benefit of the AX900’s brightness was its stunningly crisp and bright 3D playback. The glasses even help make blacks look a bit darker, but mostly it was a pleasure to see flicker-free 3D with almost no ghosting. I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 3D on the AX900, and it was the best-looking rendition of the movie I’ve seen.
LCDs are not known for their motion-rendering capabilities—at least not without a helping hand. Yet, when I watched action movies—sans motion interpolation—I could not help but be impressed with how clear action scenes looked on the AX900.
For a reality check on motion performance, I ran some motion tests on testufo.com and found that—subjectively speaking—the F8500 was slightly better at rendering motion, but not by much.
When I watch content on a FALD display, the last thing I want is to see the algorithm at work. Fortunately, the local dimming used by the AX900 errs on the side of caution—it’s rare to see significant blooming. Instead, black levels tend rise and fall smoothly and evenly. With some other FALD implementations, I can see the zones flickering away. Even with the Adaptive Backlight Control set to “maximum,” the AX900 kept a lid on the machinations of its LED-backlight array.
With the Adaptive Backlight Control set to the BT.1886-friendly “minimum,” it was practically impossible to spot it working. But the cost was a black level that simply can’t compete with a reference plasma. Nothing hammered that point home quite like The Dark Knight in a dark room—the PN64F8500 had the AX900 beat when it came to contrast, and it managed to handle deep shadows without crushing detail.
Screen uniformity was good—but not perfect. During some scenes of real content, I could spot slight vignetting. It was no worse than other FALD LCDs I’ve seen, but it was there.
The AX900’s performance as a jumbo computer monitor earns it my highest praise for that application. When I calibrated to the Adobe RGB color space—which is quite similar to DCI-P3—I was rewarded with a 4K view into my photos that beats what I’ve seen before. Viewed in UHD resolution with extended color gamut, the rich color and fine detail of high-resolution photographs looked utterly stunning. Even more so than the TC-AX800U I reviewed a few months ago, the AX900 is a dream computer monitor for professionals who work with color.
I do not yet have a device to measure input lag, but I can tell that the AX900 is not the optimum TV for gamers. I found the best tactic for lowering latency was to invoke the “1080p Pixel by 4 Pixels” mode, which bypasses upscaling and assigns each incoming 1080p pixel to four adjacent pixels on the display. However, I cannot quantify the effect of various latency-reducing approaches with measurements, so I’m going to let it be. Reports from other reviewers indicate that the AX900 has an intrinsic lag that exceeds what you find on most TVs.
Naturally, I tested the quality of Netflix UHD/4K with House of Cards, and I synchronized a 1080p stream on the F8500 plasma to compare the quality. There was no question that the UHD/4K stream looked sharper than the 1080p stream, and it was free of banding artifacts. As long as I left the lights on, the AX900 looked better overall.
The AX900 streams Netflix at 2160p resolution
I continued the House of Cards comparison by playing a Blu-ray on the plasma versus the 2160p stream on the AX900. That closed the quality gap considerably. During scenes with a lot of motion, the Blu-ray matched the UHD stream. Nevertheless, during static scenes, UHD/4K managed to eke out more micro-detail in textures, and the difference was tangible from about a seven-foot viewing distance or closer.
Without a doubt, the AX900 is one of the most competent LCD TVs I’ve had the pleasure to use. However, it falls short of emissive displays when it comes to contrast—it cannot come close to OLED or even plasma, especially in a dark room. Yet contrast—important as it is—is only part of the picture.
So far, I have yet to see a consumer-oriented OLED that exhibits the color accuracy of the AX900. Moreover, I have yet to see an LCD TV that offers such well-rounded performance. It compensates for its shortcomings in contrast by outperforming in other picture-quality parameters.
Is the AX900 the best 65″ TV for a typical videophile? Probably not, unless their hobby is making movies or TV shows—as opposed to watching them. For many videophiles looking for a 65-incher, Panasonic’s upcoming TC-CX850 promises similar overall specs, a vertically aligned LCD panel (for higher contrast when viewed head-on) plus support for HDR. Let’s face it: If you crave crispy contrast above all else, you won’t do better than an OLED.
Nevertheless, the AX900’s use of a 3D LUT makes it a unique and highly capable display. If you need to trust that the colors you see on a TV are accurate, and you want that TV to offer wide viewing angles as well as UHD/4K content compatibility, Panasonic’s current flagship LCD—the TC-65AX900—might just be the right one for you.