Flat-panel TVs are by far the most popular type of video display in home theaters everywhere. Yes, front projectors offer a larger, more cinematic image, but they account for a very small percentage of the display market.
As I write this in late February 2013, the 2012 flat panels have mostly been reviewed by the major consumer-electronics websites, and the 2013 models have not yet appeared in the market. So now might be a good time to snag a great deal on the best flat panels that last year had to offer.
I know what you're thinking—"Shouldn't I wait to see if this year's crop is much better than 2012?" You certainly could, but if you take that attitude regularly, you could wind up never getting anything at all, since there will always be a next year. Plus, it will be a few months before we see respected reviewers publish their findings of the 2013 lineup. Finally, with a few possible exceptions, the improvements from one year to the next are evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and the best flat panels of 2012 perform exceptionally well. Will the 2013 models perform even better? Perhaps a bit, but if you wait, you'll miss out on a great viewing experience until then.
To help you find the perfect flat panel for your needs, desires, and budget, I've compiled a summary of the 2012 models that were deemed superior by Cnet.com, HomeTheater.com, HomeTheaterHiFi.com, HomeTheaterReview.com, and SoundandVisionmag.com. They are arranged here by price in roughly ascending order, and all specified prices are full MSRP. However, you should be able to find most of these flat panels for substantially less, especially now, at the end of their lifecycle. The "xx" in the model numbers is a placeholder for the screen size.
Vizio Exx1i-A3 LED-Edgelit LCD
All the major sites that have reviewed the Vizio Exx1i-A3 LED-edgelit LCD flat panel concluded that it's an amazing value. Available with a screen measuring 60" ($1000) and 70" ($2000), it offers a large image for a surprisingly modest price, and so-called "smart TV" functionality as well. According to Cnet.com's review, "The Vizio E601i-A3 is the best value yet among big-screen LED TVs," while HomeTheater.com's review says, "Vizio...has clearly defined itself on value. That's exactly what you get here, together with the sort of flat-screen performance you couldn't dream of a few years ago—at any price." It's not the be-all and end-all in terms of black level and uniformity, and it doesn't do 3D, but at these prices, such limitations can be easily overlooked.
Samsung PNxxE550 Plasma
Fewer outlets reviewed the Samsung PNxxE550 plasma with 3D and smart-TV capabilities, which is available with a screen measuring 51" ($1200), 60" ($1920), or 64" ($2750). Those that did review the E550 found it to be an excellent value; as HomeTheater.com put it, "There may be no miracle here, but Samsung's designers have come close enough with the budget PN51E550 to make for a lot of very happy buyers." Cnet.com came to a similar conclusion, saying, "While not quite the best in its class, the Samsung PNE550 plasma still merits a look with its very good picture quality, sophisticated Smart TV platform, and attractive price."
Panasonic TC-PxxST50 Plasma
I have often recommended the Panasonic TC-PxxST50 to those looking for a relatively large flat panel without breaking the bank. Its four screen sizes (50, 55, 60, and 65 inches) range in price from $1400 to $3000, and that includes smart TV and 3D capabilities. Cnet.com was very impressed: "With flagship-level picture quality for a midlevel price, the Panasonic ST50 series sets the value standard among videophile-grade TVs." According to HomeTheaterReview.com, "Panasonic has set the 2012 bar high with the new TC-P55ST50. [It] serves up a very attractive HD image, with an excellent black level, good brightness and detail, and natural color." HomeTheater.com's review was equally fulsome: "With a remarkable price, superb 2D performance, and 3D that can only be bettered by spending a lot more (and often, not even then), this Panasonic is a no-brainer."
Sony KDL-xxHX850 LED-Edgelit LCD
One step below Sony's flagship XBR-xxHX950, the KDL-xxHX850 is available in only two screen sizes: 46" ($1600) and 55" ($2000). Despite being edgelit, it garnered high praise from reviewers. According to HomeTheater.com, "This is the first edge-lit LCD set I could live with without reservations...The KDL-55HX850 is too good a set to ignore." SoundandVisionmag.com came to much the same conclusion, saying, "Sony's KDL-55HX850 is unique in being the only edge-lit LCD TV that I could actually live with."
Panasonic TC-PxxVT50 Plasma
The nearly universal pick for best flat panel of 2012 was Panasonic's flagship TC-PxxVT50, available with a screen measuring 55" ($2500) and 65" ($3700). According to Cnet.com, "The Panasonic TC-PVT50 series represents the pinnacle of current flat-panel TV picture quality," while SoundandVisionmag.com concluded, "Panasonic's TC-P55VT50 is an excellent television, probably the best on the market. Its awe-inspiring contrast ratio, incredibly deep black level, and near-perfect color combine to produce one of the best pictures I've seen." HomeTheaterReview.com answered a question on the minds of many shoppers: "The question many of you might be asking is, does the VT50's performance merit the price increase [over the ST50]? In my book, absolutely. I certainly haven't reviewed a TV this year—or any recent year, for that matter—that rivals the performance of the TC-P65VT50."
Samsung PNxxE8000 Plasma
Samsung's 2012 flagship plasma is available in three sizes: 51" ($2200), 60" ($3080), and 64" ($3950). As SoundandVisionmag.com concluded, "Samsung's 60-inch E8000 model puts out a drop-dead gorgeous picture. Black depth is about as good as it gets with current plasma TV tech, and its color, while mostly accurate out of the box, can be dialed in near-perfect via the controls provided in Samsung's Color Space menu." HomeTheaterHiFi.com had a similar opinion, saying, "In the end, the Samsung PN51E8000 is a set that I would say is very close to reference quality, if not already there. The image is stunning, the measurements are fantastic, and the only LCDs that can come close to comparing usually cost far more."
Sony XBR-xxHX950 Full-Array LED-Backlit LCD
Sony's flagship XBR-xxHX950 is one of very few LED-LCD TVs that implement full-array LED backlighting with local dimming, which eliminates the uneven lighting of LED-edgelit designs and greatly expands the contrast in the image with super-deep blacks. This technology is also very expensive, as clearly demonstrated by the HX950's prices (55" for $3200, 65" for $5200). In fact, such high prices tempered what were otherwise superlative reviews; as SoundandVisionmag.com put it, "Technology is supposed to get better and less expensive with each passing year, right? Though the 55HX950's price ultimately seems too high for what you get, what you get here is undeniably good." Cnet.com said much the same thing: "Although it's priced higher and performs worse than the best plasmas, the Sony XBR-HX950 is still one of the top-performing LED TVs ever." HomeTheater.com was a bit more fulsome, saying, "Any way you look at it, the Sony XBR-55HX950 is a striking performer. From the deepest, darkest scenes in 2D and 3D to its bright, vivid 3D, it's definitely among the best sets I've yet had the pleasure of testing."
Sharp Elite PRO-xxX5FD Full-Array LED-Backlit LCD
There's expensive, then there's expensive! The Sharp Elite PRO-xxX5FD is the most expensive flat panel in the general-consumer market today, with two available sizes—60" ($6000) and 70" ($8500). Like the Sony HX950, the Elite uses full-array LED backlighting, and the results are stunning. In fact, HomeTheater.com concluded that it squeaks past the legendary Pioneer Kuro plasma, saying, "Is the Elite PRO-60X5FD the new all-time flat-panel champ? I'd have to say yes, by a nose," though it certainly doesn't beat the Kuro in terms of off-axis performance. Cnet.com didn't go quite that far: "The overpriced Sharp Elite LED-based LCD produces the second-best overall picture quality of any TV we've reviewed since 2008." Still, if you've got the dough and you need a super-bright TV, you can't do better than this.
If I had good control of room light, I would pick the Panasonic VT50 or, if money was tighter, the ST50. If room light was an issue, I'd choose the Sharp Elite (if money was no object), Sony HX950 (if money was only a bit of an object), or Sony HX850 (if money was more of an object). If money was a serious object, the Vizio Exx1i-A3 would be an easy choice.
Which flat panel would you pick? One of these, or something else?