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Panasonic TH-50PZ800U Review



panasonic-pz850
Introduction

Panasonic has been one of the major plasma manufacturers for years now, and many people swear by them. It’s not hard to see why, as they are consistently rated very high, bested only by Pioneer’s plasmas. For many people, Panasonic plasmas offer the best value, providing many of the features and performance of Pioneers, with more down-to-earth pricing.

This year’s Panasonic TH-50PZ800U is a 50-inch, 1080p plasma with a THX mode that offers set-and-forget performance and processing, essentially eliminating the need for calibration. The THX mode sets all the TV’s parameters such that they meet or exceed the requirements for certification from THX, including contrast and color accuracy. Getting your TV calibrated by an ISF professional can cost quite a bit, and while the THX mode isn’t perfect, it’s close enough that it does add quite a bit of value. This mode is essentially what separates the 800U from its lesser stablemate, the TH-50PZ85U, which can be found for a few hundred less.

Design

The TH-50PZ800U is undeniably Panasonic in terms of its looks, but in this iteration, Panasonic has outfitted its THX baby with a big pane of glass that covers the screen as well as the bezel – something Apple calls “edge-to-edge glass.” This really lends a high-end look to this HDTV, and though you’d expect a large pane of glass to be, well, glossy, the antireflective coating on this one cuts the shine down quite a bit.

There is a set of inputs hidden behind a door front and center, and so long as you keep it closed, it’s not a problem, but if you decide to use it, it adds quite a bit of clutter. This panel would have been more attractive, and perhaps more useful if it were on the side of the TV, which is where Samsung, Pioneer and many others put it.

While you can’t tell at all by looking at it, the stand does swivel. Swivel is necessary in many LCD TVs because the contrast can change with viewing angle, but even in a plasma where such behaviour is not present, a swiveling stand is useful for when you’d like to vary your seating position, or to avoid glare from a window.

Panasonic’s remote are usually very well-designed, and this one is no exception. Good feel in the hand, and a nice layout leave little room for complaint, other than the lack of a backlight. That’s not something essential, especially these days when there are so many components, but with a TV this price, I don’t see why they just don’t include it.

Features

The GUI Panasonic uses is easy to read and understand, and attractive in a minimalist sort of way. It’s laid out quite well, and there is an advanced setup behind the basic menu structure, which is a layout I like. It’s better than the Pioneer, but slightly behind the Samsung plasmas in terms of overall usability. This is really nitpicking though, as this year, all three major plasma brands have decent GUIs.

With the TH-50PZ800U, you probably won’t need to use the GUI that much, as once you activate the THX mode, you won’t need to do much else. This greatly simplifies the setup process and makes it easy for those who don’t want to bother with calibration (either themselves or by a professional). Once activated, it will come very close indeed to the NTSC color standard, with excellent shadow detail and an acceptable black level.

THX certification may seem like a gimmick, as you can find speakers and other components that are also THX-certified, but at least for the moment, it still does represent a quality standard. It’s nice to see that the THX mode is not locked and you can adjust the picture further, and each input can have different settings.

In total the TH-50PZ800U has four HDMI inputs, which is as much as can be expected today. With HDMI A/V receivers now becoming commonplace, four inputs on the TV is almost overkill, but nice to have anyway. There is also a composite input, two component video inputs and a VGA input, which I think should be eliminated. Modern computers tend to use DVI, and with a DVI-HDMI cable, can be connected to this HDTV and display a better image than with VGA. I like that there is still a composite input in the back, many manufacturers are only including them in the side/front panel, and if you have a legacy device connected permanently, the wires hanging out visibly can really detract from the overall look.

The speakers on this TV are well hidden, and perform about average for a TV in this size and price class. Not that much can be expected of built-in speakers, but if you need to use them, they will suffice.

The TH-50PZ800U includes an extensive set of video processing features, which we’ll look at in further detail in the performance section.

Performance

If this TV had one drawback, one thing that would hold me back from buying it myself, it’d be the black level. While other aspects of picture quality are more than up to snuff, if Panasonic were able to somehow improve black levels to the level of the Kuro and still maintain the price within reason, this would probably be as perfect a TV as can be. The black level was about 0.015 foot-lamberts, hardly amazing since the first and second generation Pioneer Kuro, as well as the Samsung A650-series LCD TVs beat it. It was better than Samsung’s competing 550- and 650-series plasmas though, which have black levels around the 0.030 foot-lamberts mark. That puts the TH-50PZ800U solidly in the middle.

In THX mode, this 800U showed excellent shadow detail, about equivalent to the first-generation Kuro, and only slightly behind the second-generation model. When watching I Am Legend on Blu-Ray, we noticed a lot of details that weren’t as clear on lesser sets, especially in indoor scenes. It was alarming at first that gamma was not adjustable, but it turned out that it was spot on, so no adjustment would have been necessary anyway.

Contrast was vivid and punchy without being too much so, and there were moments when watching even 720p video, that we experienced the “looking-out-the-window” sensation that the best displays often provide.

Perhaps its strong suit, color accuracy is superb in THX mode with this set. It easily beats most other TVs, and matches the best in this area. Greens are a primary color that plasma TVs have long had trouble with, showing them as being too neon or yellowy, but the TH-50PZ800U had no such issues. Our litmus test for greens is of course; Lost on Blu-Ray, and the various greens in the jungles of Oahu certainly came across as realistic and believable.

The TH-50PZ800U easily passed all the processing tests with ease, and displayed standard definition signals very well. None of the telltale signs of bad deinterlacing can be seen– a 1080i recording of Dexter we had was deinterlaced and played back perfectly, with no differences from 1080p video. The image appears a little softer than the Pioneer PDP-5020, which is also a 1080p 50-inch plasma, but it wasn’t really an issue.

This set has a 24p mode for Blu-Ray film sources, and we tested it with various film-based Blu-Ray sources. When in the 24p mode, the TV sets itself at a 48 Hz mode, meaning that it takes the film source and simply doubles the frames. The problem with this is that the human eye usually needs to see 60 fields or more per second in order to not notice flicker, which in the case of this TV, is ever present in 24p mode. It’s to the point that we essentially could not use it, being hard on the eyes and eventually causing a few of us headaches. This is one area where 120 Hz LCDs have a serious advantage in dejudder processing, and even the 72-Hz mode in the Pioneer PDP-5020FD does a far better job.

Like other plasma HDTVs, uniformity isn’t an issue with the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U. There are no bright spots or hotspots of any kind, and the image doesn’t change with viewing angle at all, again typical of plasmas. Even standing at a 170-degree angle from the TV, color and contrast are the same as head on. This is an area where plasmas are still superior to LCDs.

This is a personal preference, but I like the look of a glass screen on a TV. I even prefer glossy to matte on LCDs, because it increases the perceived contrast, and looks good doing it. The only problem is of course, glare and reflections. The Pioneer second-generation Kuro has an even better antireflective coating than the first-gen, which is great, because you can appreciate the look of the glass, and not have to pay the price for it. This Panasonic set, with a pretty dull antireflective coating, doesn’t do as good a job as the Pioneer, and is about equal to the Samsung plasmas.

In a bright environment, the brightness of the image holds up quite well; again not as good as the Pioneer, but slightly better than the Samsung, and miles better than other plasmas, especially second-tier ones.

When connecting a PC to the TH-50PZ800U, using the VGA port will not provide as sharp an image as with DVI-HDMI, naturally, but will also introduce a little bit of noise in dark or black areas. It’s not that noticeable unless you’re very close to the TV, but nonetheless, it’s there. Over DVI-HDMI however, the image was pristine. We noticed a little bit of image retention, but it went away after a short period of time. This is also behind the Pioneer PDP-5020FD, which has no noticeable image retention, but far better than the Samsung A550 and A650 plasmas, which have a noticeable amount of image retention (not to be confused with burn-in, a permanent form of image retention). So, while I can’t recommend using this display as a monitor to display static images on (even web surfing), I can recommend it for a media-centric HTPC setup that would essentially play video.

The Good: Amazingly accurate color, good contrast, good video processing, superb THX mode, good connectivity, no calibration needed, good value.

The Bad: Heavily-coated antireflective screen not as effective as it should be, black levels could (should) be better, 24p mode is unusable, noise over VGA connection, front panel inputs unsightly when connected.

Overall: A hassle-free way to get near-perfect picture from one of the leaders in plasma technology, with very few shortcomings, and a decent pricetag.

Buy the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U at Amazon.

2 Responses to “Panasonic TH-50PZ800U Review”
Dodgeblogium » CoTVing into CPAC - February 25th, 2009 at 6:22 pm

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