The ST50 is Panasonics new mid line plasma, and the latest evolution of plasma performance as manufacturers struggle to bring back the glorious performance of the last Elite Kuro. The Elite has returned, though its LED technology bears no resemblance to the original. Despite the reemergence of the Elite, many, if not most, home theater enthusiasts feel that plasmas still produce the most natural, lifelike image.
Last years ST/GT/VT30 line showed glimpses of greatness marred by some quirky and unusual behavior and black levels that, excellent as they were, still did not match the level of the all time great. While the words sleek and 3D apply to the ST50 as well as last years models, it would be far more impressive if the likes of magnificent or stellar could finally be included.
When I arrived at Cleveland Plasma to evaluate the TC-P55ST50, I was struck by the effectiveness of its screen filter at minimizing reflections and staying dark even with the room lights on. Though reflections could still be seen, they were quite unobtrusive and muted without any sensation of smearing. While no plasma can compete with an LED in very bright rooms, in moderate lighting the ST50 is able to maintain its contrast and picture quality extremely well.
The firmware updated from 1.07 to version 1.09 after connecting the ST50 to the network, and then I used some familiar Blu Rays to check out the picture before any calibration adjustments were made other than changing picture modes. At this stage of the evaluation, the room lighting was moderately dark.Before calibration:
Standard: The ST50 is shipped in this picture mode, presumably to comply with Energy Star requirements. Any one who sees the ST50 in this state is in for a tremendous letdown. The overall image was very dim and lifeless. Dark images in the picture sunk down into the black background, leaving black hair and suits looking like blobs of tar. On the other hand, colors were disproportionately bright, making people look sunburnt and colored objects too rich. Thankfully, even in this sad, deplorable state, the ST50 showed some slivers of greatness: the blacks and picture depth both looked very promising.
Cinema: Switching to Cinema mode brought many great qualities to the ST50s image. No longer did dark objects sink down into a black blob; dark images were now easy to distinguish, and overall image brightness was excellent. In fact, Cinemas handling of dark objects in the image leaned toward the light side of neutral, though most viewers will not find that objectionable. This could lead to a slightly washed out look. The ST50 now had excellent pop and excitement in the image, thanks to what appeared to be outstanding contrast. Colors looked quite natural, though some things had a subtle greenish cast.
Game and Custom: The picture in these two modes appeared to be very similar. The first thing that struck me was that colors looked hot and over the top, yet skin tones lacked richness. The overall image seemed slightly garish and enhanced, and the picture was nice and bright. The picture lacked warmth but had plenty of excitement and pop. Shadow detail and dark images were too dark, though not as much as in Standard mode.
Vivid mode was not evaluated, but in a nutshell it takes garish and overexposed to a whole new level and is not recommended.
All modes appeared to have the infamous soap opera effect, which smoothes out pans and motion to the extent of giving movie motion a fake, artificial look.Calibration:
I calibrated Cinema mode first, going into the service menu to adjust grayscale. However, there is no adjustment for gamma (brightness of mid tones) in Cinema mode in either the service menu or user menu, and measurements showed the gamma was not ideal. This gave Cinema mode a slightly washed out look, robbing it of depth and dimensionality.
Custom mode was next, and in that mode gamma and light output could both be improved over Cinema mode. Although I calibrated to a very bright maximum light output of 54.7 fL measured with 10% windows, it appeared to still have room to go higher for calibrations in bright rooms or for customers who prefer brighter images. This is outstanding and greatly increases the ST50s versatility and appeal. Black level measured an excellent .0049 fL, and the modified 3x3 checkerboard ANSI contrast measured 5187:1 (black .0043, white 22.18 fL). These are all outstanding for a 55 plasma. As with some other recent plasmas, there was a slight displacement of colors, reminding me of y/c delay from back in the CRT days. This smeared color transitions slightly.
When I reviewed the ST30 last year, I had found it necessary to go against the measurements and apply a green tint correction for realistic flesh tones, and there were other quirks and strange behavior evident. After calibrating many ST30s, I found this behavior to be present with some units but not all. Unlike last years models, I found the ST50 not to be finicky or quirky, and calibration was straightforward with no surprises.
There was no 10 point white balance /gamma adjustment, though the results after calibration were good enough that the addition of that control would have been only a slight refinement. Likewise, there was no CMS adjustment, though the color gamut measurements were so good that the small improvements allowed by a CMS adjustment would most likely not be visible.
There is a selection for 1080P/24 Blu Rays to be displayed at 48 Hz or 60 Hz, and as usual I found the 48 Hz setting to have too much flicker. Motion with Blu Rays was good even in 60 Hz mode, however. There was a different selection for Motion Smoother, and I found that it should be either turned off or to its lowest setting depending on the viewers preference. Its lowest setting eliminated some choppiness without adding artifacts.
Before and after measurements can be seen in the attached calibration reports.After calibration (Custom mode):
The colors were rich but natural with my familiar demo material, and pop and excitement were excellent. Shadow detail was perfectly balanced; dark images looked neither too dark nor washed out. Now if someone was wearing a black suit, it looked black, but the texture, wrinkles, and material were still distinguishable. Black hair looked perfectly natural, with strands and detail visible where appropriate. Speaking of natural, skin tones were superb. Scenes where I have come to expect slightly ruddy looks because of the indoor lighting were reproduced just as expected, and there was no chronic sunburn in faces. The image was stable for a plasma, with no visible pumping or shifting of blacks. Clouds were pure and smooth, with none of the contouring that could mar otherwise great plasmas in the past, like Panasonics VT25. Blacks were very deep, and most of the time black bars were dark enough that they blended in with the bezel. It was only in dark scenes where blacks appeared anything but black, and even then any illumination was slight. There were times initially when I felt the image was just a bit grainy, but after more viewing I believe the display was just passing along an accurate picture without adding any noise reduction.The Dark Knight
was vibrant, with tons of pop. The hockey movie Miracle
on SD DVD showed its transfer to be very grainy, though the hockey scenes were stable with no signs of the dirty screen effect.
This is an outstanding plasma, and a definite improvement over the already good ST30 I reviewed previously. I am happy to see such an improvement in dynamic range: blacks are blacker, and whites can be brighter. Add the superb color, detail, and depth, and the ST50 comes out the Middleweight picture quality champion!
CP Review Pan 55ST50 Custom.pdf 264.6474609375k . file
CP Review Pan 55ST50 Cinema.pdf 264.6103515625k . file