One of the joys of the Kuro is that its blacks are so deep—in fact, it requires a very dark room to appreciate the way it renders shadows. Since plasma panels always maintain at least a nominal charge, they never achieve absolute black the way OLED can by totally shutting off. However, with the best plasma TVs, the deepest shade of gray essentially looks black, due to the limitations of human vision.
Panasonic ZT60 Plasma HDTV - Photo from Panasonic.com
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending an event hosted by Panasonic in New York City, a preview of its 2013 line of HDTVs, soundbars, HTIBs, Blu-ray players, and other products. The star of the show was a 60" ZT60 plasma panel, which was set up next to a 60" 2008 Pioneer Kuro in a blacked-out, light-controlled area. When showing typical demo footage, the panels looked very similar, but when the displays rendered relatively challenging scenes, it became quite clear that the Kuro's reign as the top-dog reference TV could be over.
Of course, this was a demo set up by Panasonic using what could be a specially tweaked pre-production unit, so the question remains: "Will a production ZT60 will beat a calibrated Kuro in a third-party test?" At this point, my money is on the ZT60, based on what I saw with my own eyes—and what my camera saw.
Modern DSLRs are not limited the way human eyes are, especially when it comes to low-light sensitivity. During the demo, I realized I would be better off taking photos, if I could find a way to capture what Panasonic was trying to show me. Fortunately, much of the demo consisted of still or very slow-moving images, making it easy to shoot at different shutter speeds. I set my Sony a57 to ISO 3200 and opened up the lens aperture to its maximum. I took some shots at 1/60 of a second (the duration of a single video frame) and others with approximately a half-second exposure to capture the deepest blacks on the screens as shades of gray. I'll show you some of these shots shortly.
This technique greatly exaggerated the differences in black level and shadow detail between the two sets, though of course, no one watches TV like this. To the unaided eye, the differences between the ZT60 and Kuro were subtle, and to one other attendee, not perceptible at all. That person will probably remain a skeptic.
Which isn't to say I'm not a bit skeptical myself. As I mentioned earlier, Panasonic set up the demo, and I don't know how—or even if—the two panels were calibrated. The Kuro was clearly brighter than the ZT60, which might have affected its black level, and there was a discrepancy in the color balance that is easily visible in the comparison photos.
Still, I was very impressed by the ZT60, which excels at rendering the most subtle details within shadows, and it exhibits super-deep blacks. In addition, the ZT60's screen is much darker than the venerable Kuro's when both sets are powered off. As a result, in a partly dimmed environment, the ZT60's blacks looked practically infinite in depth, whereas the Kuro really needed a totally dark room to achieve its "deepest black" effect. When I asked why this advantage was not mentioned, the rep told me a decision was made to highlight other features instead.
Another clear advantage displayed by the ZT60 was the issue of phosphor trails. Briefly, phosphor trails occur when the red, green, and blue phosphors get excited and then decay at different rates. Blue decays the fastest, green decays the slowest, and the end result is a yellowish "trail" that can sometimes be seen on the trailing edge of a fast-moving object.
In a brief demonstration of a fast, horizontally panning scene, the Kuro exhibited phosphor trails that were considerably more pronounced than on the ZT60. Unfortunately, there was no way to capture that particular demonstration with a still camera, and the circumstances of the demo require some degree of skepticism at any assertions made by the manufacturer, at least until proper third-party tests are performed. It is also worth mentioning that sensitivity to phosphor-trail artifacts varies—most people don't see them most of the time. That said, the ZT60 renders high-speed motion extremely well, with very high motion resolution and no obvious artifacts, unlike the Kuro used in this demonstration.
Unfortunately, in terms of plasma technology, this is likely the last of its kind to come from Panasonic. After a long conversation about different technologies and the future of flat panels, I am convinced the ZT60 is the final statement from the company that finally might have killed the Kuro.
Is there any ray of hope for plasma fiends? Yes. Plasma technology just might live on as a specialized, jumbo-screen 4K technology. Panasonic has already built a 152" 4K plasma, which can be custom-ordered for a cool half-million dollars. The company rep I spoke to confirmed that current 1080p plasma screen sizes are scalable to a 4K display by doubling the dimensions, without needing to invest in new technology. That means premium 4K plasmas between 84" and 130" are not a total impossibility. Plasma fans, you had better speak up now, if you ever want to see something like that offered as a product. Panasonic still denies it is getting out of the plasma game, and its forecasts show the large-panel plasma market remaining flat at about 11% of the total HDTV market, after recent losses in market share.
The event provided a tantalizing glimpse at an eagerly anticipated possibility: The ZT60's performance might establish a new reference for HDTV panels in the 55-65 inch size range. Unfortunately, I cannot take Panasonic's assertion that it has gone "beyond the reference" at face value, due to questions about the comparison itself. To make that sort of judgment, I will have to attend a properly conducted HDTV shoot-out, which should happen soon enough.
For now, as the following photos show, the two panels differed in terms of overall brightness and color balance. Despite the apparent flaws in the comparison, certain aspects of the ZT60's performance were clearly superior, especially the way it rendered details in deep shadows. In all of the images, the ZT60 is on the left, and the Pioneer Kuro is on the right.
Photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
This example of deep shadow detail rendition got my attention, prompting me to start taking photos of the comparison. The photograph I took was deliberately over-exposed. Playback was paused on a picture of black fur; even though absolute black is brighter on the Kuro, the ZT60 shows quite a bit more detail. The difference was a bit harder to detect with the naked eye.
Photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
For this image, I set the exposure so that the darkest part of the ZT60 shows up as true black. It appears that the deepest blacks on this particular Kuro were not as deep as those found on the Panasonic; discrepancies in calibration make it impossible to draw a proper conclusion as to the cause of that.
Photo ©2013 by Mark Henninger
A normal exposure of a uniformly lit scene provided a glimpse into how each HDTV rendered color and their relative brightness with respect to each other. The Kuro is clearly brighter, and the color balance exhibits a bias toward magenta. The moire patterns visible in the images are the result of interactions between the plasma grid and the sensor grid in the DSLR; both HDTVs displayed nearly flawless-looking video. Digital photographs have a tendency to exaggerate differences that the human eye compensates for naturally. On location, the calibration of both HDTVs looked very similar to each other.
Photos ©2013 by Mark Henninger
These two photographs were taken at two different shutter speeds. The top photo represents a normal exposure, which I targeted for 1/60 second. The bottom image was deliberately over-exposed. For this example, the video was not paused but the image on screen was motionless. The difference is not as dramatic as it was with the dog fur example, but the ZT60 does manage to render more details in the dark shadow gradients of the hair. Remember, to the human eye, the displays looked like they do in the upper image.
Edited by imagic - 4/10/13 at 5:03pm