65VT30 reviewed by Chad B and Comparison with Samsung PN-64D8000!!
Recently I had the opportunity to check out Panasonic's latest top of the line plasma, the 65" VT30, at Cleveland Plasma. The VT30 is a beautifully designed set, with a glass front covering the bezel and screen. Reflections are obvious and possibly distracting, though the screen does a very good job of remaining dark in moderate ambient light for a plasma. Sleek and super thin, the VT30 makes a positive impression right away.
The VT30 is the first plasma to feature- ahem- automatic calibration. I can hear the sales pitch now... "Yes, the VT30 actually will save you $400 bucks! Instead of hiring some high priced calibrator to tweak the picture, all you have to do is hook this baby to your laptop, and a few button clicks later you have a perfect picture!" All right, all right... It's not quite like that. Actually, the VT30's automatic calibration feature is really geared toward professional calibrators, intending to make their job more efficient and thorough. Working in conjunction with Spectracal's CalMAN Commercial (possible add ons for lower license levels are being reviewed by Spectracal) software and a meter, eventually the process will adjust the grayscale and gamma at 10 levels, among other things, and allow it all to be saved in a new ISF Day or Night picture preset that will be protected from accidental changes.
After a few setup questions, the VT30 is ready to rock 'n roll in the Energy Star rated Standard picture mode. Well, maybe rock 'n roll isn't the best analogy for Standard mode. Mildly irritating elevator music may be more descriptive. Standard mode is quite grainy and uninvolving, and with a maximum light output of 4.7 fL, it's pretty hard to see objects like snow capped mountains, a hockey rink, a car's headlights, or a blazing sun in the picture.
Thankfully, once a better picture mode like Custom, THX, or Cinema is selected, the VT30's picture quality starts to show hints of it's stunning potential. Untouched Custom mode, with my familiar 1080P/24 Blu Ray demo material, had lots of pop and excitement. However, colors were over the top and too rich, and the picture was still quite grainy. People looked like they suffered chronic sunburn. I saw some odd motion/panning artifacts, and pans had that infamous Soap Opera smoothness. Overall, Custom mode offered a picture that initially was vivid and eye catching, but eventually became fatiguing and unnatural.
Though I did not view demo material in pre-calibrated Cinema or THX mode, the measurements suggest that either mode should provide a middle ground between the bland look of Standard and the over the top look of Custom. However, both Cinema and THX modes suffered from an emphasis of green in the white balance, which is subjectively the most unflattering direction in which to err. A simple change from Warm2 to Warm1 in the picture adjustments should alleviate that problem and provide a good overall image.
The review unit was a bit green, though Chris had it running the break in DVD for about 35 hours before I arrived. Having downloaded the latest version of CalMAN, I got the TV interfaced with my laptop and calibration gear to check out the automatic calibration feature. Unfortunately, at this stage of it's development, the feature proved to be useless for the most part. It did open up a new picture preset called ISF Day (Night would also be available), but unfortunately the 10 point white balance and grayscale adjustment was not available to select; only the 2 point white balance adjustment was available. Also, far too many necessary picture options and adjustments were grayed out, making even a 2 point calibration far from optimal. However, I did have it try the automatic calibration. What I ended up with was an ISF Day mode with a peak light output of only about 28 fL and a pretty good white balance, but poor performance in other aspects of the picture.
I did a lot of experimentation in Custom mode, since it has a fantastic variety of adjustments in the advanced user menu. Unfortunately, some of those controls just did not work. Most of the CMS adjustments were non functional, though I was able to adjust the luminance (out of luminance, hue, and saturation) of each color. Even with the luminance adjustment, however, things were not as they should be. Setting the color at one video level resulted in color compression at other levels. I tried to minimize the effect with different combinations of the master color control and the luminance adjustments, but could not entirely eliminate it. I also experimented with different panel brightness settings, which has had an impact on color linearity in past Panasonic models, with no success. I concluded that the color was going to be compromised in Custom mode, but I continued on in the hope that other aspects of performance might make up for it.
The gamma adjustment in Custom mode did have a 10 point detail adjustment. However, after a while of experimenting, I found I really was not making the improvements I had hoped for. It was like trying to climb up a slippery slope; I seemed to make a couple step of progress here and there, but soon found myself not far from where I started.
The VT30's ABL (auto brightness limiter) was fairly aggressive, allowing very small white objects to be bright enough, but severely limiting larger bright objects. All plasmas have this to a certain degree to limit power consumption and protect the panel, though less ABL interference results in a better image. I found a new adjustment for video type in the VT30's menu that did seem to make the ABL less obtrusive when set to photo or video (default was off), with no apparent disadvantage. It did increase blue in the white balance by a tiny bit, but not enough to be visible.
I found Cinema and THX modes to be the best starting points for calibration. Cinema mode had slightly better gamma, but it's light output was more limited than THX. For moderate ambient lighting conditions, THX seemed the best choice, though Cinema may be slightly better for a totally dark room. Because of it's slightly better versatility, I concentrated my efforts on THX mode.
As with some past Panasonic plasmas starting with the V10, supplying a 1080P/24 signal and engaging the 96 Hz mode resulted in subtle measured changes to the picture relative to 60 Hz mode. 96 Hz mode reduced light output very slightly, degraded the gamma a bit, and reduced blue in the white balance by a few percent. All of these changes were very subtle, and are not cause for too much concern. Also like the V10, engaging 96 Hz mode did have a positive impact on what might be thought to be an unrelated but important picture aspect: black level and contrast. While the VT30's black level was too low for my meter to read reliably even in 60 Hz mode, I could see a slight improvement or darkening of the black level when engaging 96 Hz. 96 Hz mode did introduce a tiny bit of flickering in some test patterns, but it was so slight and infrequent that it did not bother me at all with video.
I found that all of THX mode's user menu picture controls were pretty close to optimal, though I did raise contrast and lower sharpness both by a small amount. The biggest improvement in THX mode came from adjustment of the grayscale in the service menu.
Maximum light output after calibration in THX mode was about 38 fL with my usual small (10%) test windows. That is adequate for a light controlled room, but on the low side for most living rooms. With larger measurement windows, the white balance shifted slightly (reducing green along with other changes) and light output reduced to 35 fL with 18% medium windows and 32 fL with 25% large windows. With a 100% full field, maximum light output dropped to just over 12 fL.
After all the technical tests were complete, I put my familiar demo material in the Blu Ray player and sat back to enjoy the picture.
Pans and motion were surprisingly good, even with the VT30 in 60Hz mode. I was impressed with the lifelikeness of the image. However, colors lacked a tiny bit of richness; skin tones were natural but a bit too polite. There was a good but not quite excellent sense of depth, and shadow detail was strong and neutral toned. Try as I might, I saw no traces of DSE (dirty screen effect), contouring, or fluctuating black bars. There was very good pop in a dark room, though the picture was not terribly exciting with moderate lighting. Overall, I thought the image was very good, though a little lacking in "Wow!" factor. Looking back through my notes and calibration data, I believe the blame for the lack of excitement can be laid at the feet of the not fully developed calibration adjustments. With black level and contrast this good, the image should be oozing with pop and excitement. However, the lower than optimal gamma, slightly uneven color luminance with red being low, and tame light output seemed to combine to rob the image of some of it's edge. These are all things that could be eliminated if only the VT30's calibration flaws could be corrected. In fact, Custom mode appeared to bring a substantial boost in excitement and verve to the table at the expense of color and overall picture accuracy. If Custom mode's (or the auto-calibration ISF mode's) calibration flaws are corrected with a firmware update, we'll have a TV to really cheer about. As it is, I felt it was very good, but not living up to it's full potential.
Comparison with Samsung PN-64D8000:
I just happened to have a similar sized and freshly calibrated Samsung sitting right next to the VT30, so I couldn't resist a quick face-off. 1080P/24 HDMI from the Blu Ray player was sent to a high quality HDMI distribution amplifier, and both displays were calibrated to around 40 fL peak light output give or take a few percent. The room was totally dark except for at the very beginning. The Samsung was evaluated with Cinema Smooth turned off since it degrades the black level. Both 96 and 60 Hz modes were sampled on the VT30.
Lights on, power off:
The VT30 was a little more reflective. Both plasmas stayed fairly dark, retaining good contrast with moderate ambient light.
Lights off, test patterns:
The D8000 looked brighter and a purer white when displaying a full white field.
Looking at a moving white bar, I was able to see slight signs of the DSE on the D8000: the movement of the bar caused the screen to appear to have dirty fingerprints or smudges on it. The effect was only noticeable with this test pattern.
With a very dark PLUGE image, I could see the VT30's blacks were just barely darker to the eye in 60 Hz mode. It was such a slight difference, though, that I would definitely not be able to see it except in this instance where they were side by side in a pitch black room. However, the VT30's blacks became slightly darker with the 96 Hz mode engaged, and the difference became easier to identify.
A gray ramp looked a little off-white on the VT30 and purer on the D8000. The optimal brightness setting floated by about 1 click worth on the D8000 depending on the picture content, though neither the D8000 nor the VT30 were rock solid.
Lights off, video material:
I saw that shadow detail was exaggerated but neutral toned on the VT30. Dark suits and hair were not quite as dark as I was used to seeing them, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your room lighting. On reference grade material in a dark room, it looked a bit on the washed out side of neutral.
The D8000's presentation was a little more exciting and detailed.
Because Cinema Smooth was turned off, the D8000's pans were a little herky-jerky. The VT30's pans and motion looked good in both 60 Hz and 96 Hz modes, though 96 Hz mode is more correct for most Blu Ray material.
The D8000's flesh tones were nearly spot on at first (just a tiny bit too pink), and with a slight tweak of the red CMS adjustment I was able to get incredible flesh tones. On the other hand, the VT30's flesh tones were a little less rich and a little too bland, though they were unoffensive. If you routinely find yourself reducing color, the VT30 would be more to your liking.
I looked very closely at the letterbox bars on a 2.40:1 movie and couldn't see any floating blacks on the VT30. However, there was some subtle pumping going on above black; a slight dynamic action in the grayscale and gamma as APL changed. That's not too uncommon in plasmas, but some are more stable. The D8000 was similar.
With bright images the D8000 came away looking purer and more detailed. For instance, clouds just looked more true to life on the D8000, and some of the daylight scenes in The Dark Knight had more detail and verve.
This is an excellent set, though it is hampered by non functional and not fully developed adjustments. For now, it produces a very good but somewhat unexciting image, though some firmware fixes could easily transform the VT30 into a jaw-dropping beauty.
I've been told ControlCAL has a profile for the VT30 with a working 10 point grayscale adjustment. I will edit this post with updates when I get to test any new software or firmware.