A couple of days ago, I visited Tom Norton, senior video editor of Home Theater magazine, to take a side-by-side comparative look at three plasma TVs he had in for review—the Panasonic TC-P65ZT60, TC-P65VT60, and Samsung PN60F8500—sitting next to his 60" Pioneer PRO-141FD Kuro. Actually, he couldn't fit all four TVs next to each other in his flat-panel room, so we started by looking at the two Panasonics on either side of the Pioneer, after which we swapped out the ZT60 for the Samsung. All sets were fed the same signal from a Panasonic Blu-ray player through an Accell HDMI switcher/splitter. Of course, all sets were fully calibrated with a peak white level of around 35 foot-lamberts.
The first clip was one of the only really dark scenes from Avatar, when Jake is stranded in the jungle and must fight off the viperwolves before Neytiri saves him and then discovers he is chosen of Eywa. I was struck by how close the three images were—color, overall detail, contrast, and shadow detail were nearly indistinguishable.
Next up was a demo disc made by Pioneer to demonstrate the black-level performance of the Kuro. All three panels exhibited superb blacks, with the two Panasonics being slightly deeper—finally, the mighty Kuro has been surpassed, if only by a smidge. In the shots with human beings, the skin tones on the Kuro were a bit warmer—i.e., redder—than the Panasonics, which I actually preferred.
The Panasonics' black levels were confirmed in Oz The Great And Powerful during the transition from black-and-white 4:3 to full-color 2.40:1. In that transition, the 4:3 image has black bars on all four sides, and the right and left edges expand outward until the image is 2.40:1, leaving black letterbox bars above and below on the 16:9 screens. Those black bars literally disappeared into the darkened room on all three sets. The black-and-white shots looked ever so slightly sepia on the Pioneer, whereas the Panasonics were truly black and white. But when the image became full color—and it is riotous color in this movie—all differences vanished, except for the slightly warmer skin tones on the Pioneer.
Finally, we looked at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1; specifically, the mostly dark scene in which Harry, Hermione, and Ron assume fake identities to infiltrate the Ministry of Magic. Here again, all three sets performed exceptionally well, with the Panasonics beating the Pioneer in the black department by a whisker. Shadow detail was excellent on all three.
Then, we pulled the ZT60 our of the way and put the Samsung F8500 in its place, playing some of the same clips. Right away, it was apparent that the Samsung's black level was higher than the Panasonics' and the Pioneer's—not that it was objectionably high, mind you, but it was slightly higher than the others by direct side-by-side comparison. Tom said he had measured a black level of 0.0017 foot-lamberts on the F8500, while the Panasonics and Pioneer were in the 0.0012 neighborhood. Also, the blacks appeared to be a bit crushed on the Samsung during the Harry Potter clip, and skin tones were even a bit paler than they were on the Panasonics.
Of course, very few shoppers ever get to compare TVs in this way—fully calibrated in a totally dark room side by side—and taken separately, each of these flat panels is a superb performer that no one would be disappointed with. And the differences I saw were miniscule. But seeing them like this, I would choose the ZT60 or VT60, depending on my budget—the ZT60 is only $500 more than the VT60. They looked as close to identical as makes no difference, though Tom did discover an error in the color decoder of the VT60 that was not present in the ZT60. You can read all about that when Home Theater publishes Tom's review; meanwhile, you can read his review of the Samsung PN60F8500 here