Panasonic TX-P50VT30B £1800
15th Nov 2011 | 16:54
Is this the best home cinema plasma TV around?
Panasonic has done it. This 50-inch plasma TV is a true home cinema heavyweight, in every sense of the word. The Panasonic TX-P50VT30B's backbreaking setup, however, is worth it for one of the most delectable performances of the year in our test rooms.
The TX-P50VT30B is the TV screen that cements Panasonic's reputation as the king of 2D plasma, and a similar position awaits it for 3D trickery, too. It's obvious right from the start that this is something special; the build quality is second to none, and the use of a single sheet of glass across the front of a very slim panel puts is above the likes of Samsung and Sony in the style stakes.
Looks-wise, the only slight minus is the rather wide bezel around the picture, which stretches to an 'enormous' 45mm - not huge, admittedly, but nothing on the single-figure measurements of Samsung's LED TVs such as the UE40D5520.
That's plasma tech for you, but there are so many more pluses to recommend this screen above any other 50-incher.
Chief of which is the way the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B handles 3D images. The 3D technology employed here is of the active shutter variety; brands such as Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are fighting a rearguard action against LG's passive 3D system, which boasts multiple 3D glasses that cost just a quid or two, but the TX-P50VT30B is a reason in itself for the active shutter system's existence.
Built around the brand's hugely impressive Infinite Black Pro 2 NeoPDP plasma panels, other sizes in the VT30 line-up aside from this 50-incher include the 42-inch Panasonic TX-P42VT30B, 55-inch Panasonic TX-P55VT30B and 65-inch Panasonic TX-P65VT30B.
Going for between £1,500 and £4,000, in engineering terms these VT30 screens are the inheritors of both the engineering brilliance and praise thrown at Pioneer's illustrious Kuro plasmas of a few years ago.
The differences between this top-end plasma TV and those lower down the pecking order at Panasonic are initially merely aesthetic.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT30B's silver trimmed single glass pane design aside, the two pairs of 3D glasses in the box, a spruced-up remote control with backlighting and a slim 37mm depth - thinner than most mid-range LED TVs, but chubbier than flagship LED TVs - make this a standout screen in Panasonic's store cupboard.
To reach that slim depth has meant using a few proprietary ins and outs and an unusual connections layout, which means a plethora of adaptors in the box. A recessed side panel contains the meat; four HDMI inputs, a USB port, SD card slot and a Common Interface module.
On a rear panel are adaptor points for component video, composite video, Scart and analogue audio in and out, alongside points for Freeview and Freesat, and Ethernet LAN.
Unusually, there's a separate section higher up on the TV's backside that's home to two further USB slots, one of which is designed to take a Skype camera, which Panasonic sells separately.
Although almost all of the brand's output is fitted with a Freeview HD tuner, the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B comes with an additional Freesat HD version. It's good news for those who need it, although rather niche; of more worth is the bigscreen TV's ability to record broadcasts straight from live TV, as well as timed from the EPG to a USB-connected hard drive.
It's also a boon to find digital file support from a USB flash drive as well as from a DLNA-compatible networked PC (or Mac if you install a UPnP client), the latter enabled by an integrated Wi-Fi module.
Wi-Fi makes placement of the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B so, so much easier and will enable full use of the TV's impressive online dimension.
That Wi-Fi brain is also used to hook up the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B to broadband for Viera Connect duties. This online platform is now becoming a slick and powerful rival to the industry leaders - Samsung's stuffed, but rather amateur-looking Smart Hub, and Sony's arguably peerless Bravia Internet Video.
Viera Connect comprises eight dynamic app icons around a bigger, central window that plays, with audio, whatever live input you want - typically a Blu-ray movie or Freeview TV show. That makes it feel part of the TV as a whole rather than a separate service, but it's slightly hampered by the need for several screens; a bit like all those apps on a smartphone that can stretch to too many pages.
At least it can be customised, although most of the services are genuinely useful. Acetrax, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Skype (if you buy a camera/microphone), Facebook, Eurosport, Viera Connect Market and links to set up are on the default home screen. The second page is less essential, with Twitter joined by Screenrush, Euronews, Picasa, UStream, SHOUTcast and Dailymotion. Aupero, Chess Challenge, CNBC Real-Time, BBC News live feed and a weather service can be found elsewhere.
Image quality is bolstered largely by the use of a NeoPlasma panel sporting Infinite Black Pro, which represents something akin to the pinnacle of plasma innovation (as we'll see). It also has a High Contrast Filter Pro (to boost brightness in a daytime environment) and 600Hz Sub-Field Drive motion processing.
Ease of use
Panasonic has got its user interface to a good place; it's now of uniform design and contains plenty of easy-to-use menus. It's rather like a referee; if you don't notice him, he's had a good game.
One feature we like on the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B is the editable input changer. An old favourite feature of ours from several generations of Panasonic TV ago, the chance to delete unused inputs and a free-text option for renaming what remains is welcome; the end result is a simple list of live AV kit such as 'Sky', 'DVD' and Xbox'.
In our experience, it's this kind of simple customisation can really help less tech-minded users get to grips with modern TVs.
That's especially true on networked TVs such as the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B, where its online dimension is fairly simple to operate. Quick and slickly presented, Viera Connect has arguably too much going on in a single page, although most of the must-have services are upfront.
The new Viera Connect marketplace, meanwhile, is slightly better organised, with available apps in genre-defined folders, although any downloading requires an account to be set up.
Most of the extra apps here are regional delicacies (German football news, a Czech news service and something called Major League Baseball), although it's worth checking out the Games tab. In it are 17 games including - for the first time - paid-for titles such as Asphalt 5, Let's Golf 2 and UNO, all of which sell for €5.74 each. It's a first step towards what could be a genuinely exciting future for Viera Connect.
The streaming of digital music, photos and video from DLNA-compatible networked computers is slightly hit and miss. Accessed via Media Server on the Viera Tools menu, it's an inconsistent performance, files-wise. In our tests with a Samsung netbook running Windows 7 - a native DLNA server - we managed to stream AVC HD, AVI and MP4 files, while music was restricted to MP3, and photos to JPEG.
Before we move on to the iPhone app that's provided for operating the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B, consider its USB skills. Instead of Media Server, Viera Tools contains separate icons for music, photos and video if a USB stick is used.
Although it should be an identical performance, we had a few issues here, the upshot being that we could only get AVI video files to play; the TV didn't even recognise the rest of our motley collection. There is, however the added bonus of WMA support by the music player, but no support for track names, artists and so on.
The remote control is supposed to be a luxury upgrade from the brand's cheaper screens, but we didn't get on with it. Perhaps it was the availability of the exhaustive, ultra-responsive and free Viera Remote app on our iPhone, but the new design's buttons are too small.
The key Viera Tools button, for instance, is tiny and invisible, as is the command for firing up Viera Connect (misnamed Viera Cast here - the name of last year's online hub). What happened to Panasonic's reputation for making easy to use remote controls with huge buttons?
Granted, the remote is nicely backlit, but even the button that activates the subtle glowing red light - which we can see being popular in a home cinema blackout - is, ironically, difficult to find in the dark. At least the soft finish and weighting of the remote are an improvement.
Calibration-friendly settings are plentiful on the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B. As well as dedicated THX, ISF Day and ISF Night presets, the advanced picture menus include options for tweaking the settings.
Switch to one of the ISF modes and you'll find the opportunity to alter the white balance, gamma curve, the hue, saturation and luminance across the colour spectrum, as well as activate and calibrate processing goodies such as Intelligent Frame Creation (a frame interpolation feature that replaces judder with annoying motion artefacts), D-NR (noise reduction) and Resolution Enhancer (useful for DVDs and Freeview).
The Panasonic TX-P50VT30B's NeoPDP panel is indeed something special for both 2D and 3D.
Firstly, it handles motion exceptionally well; a scene from our test disc District 9 involving several fast-moving shoulder shots didn't show up any significant motion blur (but perhaps the odd artefact) while film judder wasn't evident either.
The lack of blur is critical, because it helps the HD images retain their maximum detail and full impact. All the while, the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B supplies pictures that swim in exceptional colour and high detail, although the overriding sense is one of crispness.
During a shot featuring both light and dark areas, the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B excels; peak whites revel in brightness while heavily shadowed areas of the image are deep, yet detailed. Take that, light-emitting diodes! Overall, we're happy to say that we've not seen pictures this good before.
It doesn't take much more than the opening sequences of Avatar before we realise that this is a truly special screen for watching 3D, too. There's really only one word to describe it: spotless. With no crosstalk or ghosting, we're left to enjoy the sublime depth, although there is the continuing issue of contrast.
The 3D glasses increase the depth of black, which is in theory very welcome. However, when compared to a 2D image, those 3D specs do remove some detail. During a shot of Pandora from space, the surrounding starlight doesn't look quite black enough in 2D, but it does contain a lot of faintly red-ish detailing of far-off galaxies.
Switch to 3D and the blackness gets more convincing but the galaxies completely disappear. This kind of crushing is to be expected, but the constant removal of brightness can be detrimental to the overall picture; it's an issue that needs some work if active shutter 3D is to advance.
Down the quality scale to digital TV and it's another batch of highly watchable pictures. Stretched to 50 inches, images from BBC Two's Autmnwatch Live are surprisingly enjoyable, although we did experiment successfully with the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B's digital noise reduction setting to smooth the edges and reduce some artefacts.
Finally, although we're assured over and again that screen burn is a thing of the past in the plasma world, we did notice the remnants of a Sky News logo in the top right-hand corner of the panel. Given that this particular sample has 'done the rounds' and clocked up hundreds of hours use, it's a fair assumption that image retention is an issue.
Our advice to counter this only very slight problem (it didn't affect our enjoyment and was really only visible on a blank screen) is to avoid leaving the TV on one channel for hours and hours at a time. Who watches Sky News all day anyway?
Sound and value
A slim fellow indeed, the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B nevertheless has relatively advanced audio chops. Two 6W speakers are supported by a 10W subwoofer, itself a rare thing on a flatscreen TV of any flavour. It helps to create something approaching acceptable sound; V-Audio Pro Surround does widen the soundstage and add some oomph to movie soundtracks.
Still, the sound definitely doesn't match the image magic, and we'll mention once again the rule of thumb that dictates spending at least the same amount on an audio setup as a TV.
Despite being twice as expensive as the brand's entry-level 3D plasmas, the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B isn't twice as good. It's all about build quality and ultimate picture performance, and it succeeds with both of those aims, but there are other options.
Samsung and LG make far cheaper plasma TVs, as does Panasonic itself, although none get close to the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B's performance.
With Philips and Toshiba also on the 'passive' 3D bandwagon, there's a battle on for the 3D living room, but for now it's active shutter 3D plasmas like the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B that are best suited to home cinemas.
Panasonic's flagship TX-P50VT30B plasma TV is for those who need not make compromises on price or performance - it's one of the most impressive flatscreen TVs yet.
The convincing blacks on show here lend tremendous depth, and there's a vibrant brightness in an otherwise black picture that screams 'home cinema'. Add the lack of judder and blur to decent audio, Viera Connect and a choice of free-to-air digital TV tuners, and the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B is quite a package.
A particularly dark 3D image is our main criticism, with other complaints including a slightly complex remote control, an inconsistent handling of MKV and AVI video files, and the ugly spectre of image retention.
There's online fun, access to free HD broadcasts and a sumptuous design, but at its core the Panasonic TX-P50VT30B plasma TV is the ideal option for anyone after home cinema-grade AV equipment.
An awesome performance with 2D and 3D Blu-ray (although there's room for improvement in the latter) assures it the love of home cinema aficionados, but it's also kind to poor sources, and a better value choice than bigger plasmas in the VT30 Series.