Panasonic TX-P50VT50B £1799
10th Oct 2012 | 14:10
Is this the ultimate home cinema screen?
Panasonic should consider its flagship 50-inch TV blacklisted. Among home cinema aficionados the talk is always of the importance of a TV's ability to produce pure black.
And while there can be too much emphasis on this, there's no doubting how much more nuanced, detailed and believable a well-made film appears when viewed on a top spec plasma. And this 50-inch Panasonic VT50 Series plasma is exactly that.
We're not downgrading LCD or LED-backlighting, both of which have massively improved of late, but less than convincing purity of black, and even a slight bluish tinge to black on LCD TVs, means that plasma, for now, is king among AV perfectionists who want as near to total accuracy as possible.
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That those perfectionists often appear to have less regard for plot and character in films is immaterial. Because though plasma televisions do tend to treat high-octane action films such as Avatar and Tron particularly well, plasmas such as the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 work wonders on 'normal' movies and TV, too.
The traditional downsides to plasma technology are largely aesthetic and to do with wider bezels and fatter chassis, but on the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 we're struggling to see where the problem is.
A depth of 50mm (2 inches) isn't as slim as an ultra-expensive LED-backlit LCD TV, but it's fine by us. And a bezel measuring just 21mm (0.8 inches) - with a further 5mm (0.2 inches) around the visible screen - is instantly visually appealing.
But it's the 'One Sheet of Glass' design that stretches from corner to corner that's most arresting. The fine edging is finished off by a metallic trim that adds even more class to the glass.
Despite this plasma TV having best-ever good looks, it's the presence inside of what Panasonic calls the Infinite Black Ultra filter that makes this NeoPlasma unique, though the use of 2,500Hz Focused Field Drive tech is also a one-off.
As with many of Panasonic's plasmas, the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 also sports Active Shutter 3D compatibility, THX certification, Viera Connect smart TV apps, and both Freeview HD & Freesat HD tuners.
The 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50VT50 is accompanied in the VT50 Series by the 55-inch Panasonic TX-P55VT50 and 65-inch Panasonic TX-P65VT50. All of these televisions are unique, primarily for their use of that Infinite Black Ultra filter, though they also ship with two pairs of 3D specs and a touch pad remote.
Both of these use lesser-capable - though still mightily impressive - Infinite Black Pro black filters and 2,000Hz Focused Field Drive tech. Neither choice comes with 3D glasses included in the box.
So what is the Infinite Black Ultra filter in the Panasonic TX-P50VT50? It's all about contrast boosting - the bedrock of a good plasma picture - and, in this case, the lack of light.
Plasma panels are made up of cells that light up only when an electrical current is passed through; the Panasonic TX-P50VT50's success hinges on the use of a filter that blocks any external light from diluting the darkness that results from a cell not being lit while others around it are.
It's something LCD TVs can't do at all - they use a backlight that is always on - hence the birth of LED-backlighting, which essentially lessens those side-effects by using lots of little backlights.
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It's not necessary to get into the engineering politics behind Panasonic's claim that the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 offers a 2,500Hz Focused Field drive.
But know that it ought to enable this plasma TV to show a far smoother, more fluid moving picture than any TV yet seen - and primarily that means 3D that's more comfortable to watch.
However, the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 isn't just for AV nerds. There are plenty of apps on Panasonic's VieraConnect smart TV interface, including catch-up TV via BBC iPlayer, and movie streaming services Netflix, Acetrax, YouTube, Daily Motion, Vimeo, Viera 3D World and FetchTV.
Social media in the form of Twitter and Facebook is present, as is a web browser.
News offerings include BBC News, Euronews and CNBC Real-Time, and live sport services include BBC Sport, MLB.tv and the new - though subscription-based - Eurosport Player app.
Music is catered for by TuneIn Radio, SHOUTcast radio, Aupeo and iConcerts apps.
Gaming apps include Brain trainer (£1.14), Apple Muncher (£1.14), Let's Golf (£3.44), Asphalt 5 (£3.44), Star Battalion (£3.44), Chess Challenge and Penalty Shootout.
Other apps include the excellent Rovi TV guide and Picasa. Happily, all are quick to load, shutdown and swap between by dint of a dual core Pro4 processor.
Tuners for both Freeview HD and Freesat HD are present, while four HDMI, an SDXC card slot and three USB slots should suffice for connecting other AV equipment.
We also counted composite video, component video and a single RGB Scart (all three use in-the-box adaptors) and a choice of audio outputs consisting of a headphones slot, some phonos and a digital optical audio port.
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Powered by either wired LAN or Wi-Fi, the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 can stream myriad files - including, in our test, MOV, MP4, AVC HD and AVI video, JPEG photos and MP3 and FLAC music, from a PC, NAS drive or even a Mac (running UPnP software, such as TwonkyMedia).
Those who lament the lack of MKV support over a network will rejoice at the news that it is supported from a USB-connected flashdrive or HDD, as is the WMA music format.
Note that those USB slots - as well as the SDXC card slot - can also be used to make recordings from the Freeview tuner, though without a second tuner it's a case of 'watch one channel while you, err, record it.' Useful if you have to leave the house suddenly, but it's otherwise dreadfully limiting.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT50 also has a Bluetooth module that's primarily for use with 3D spectacles, though it also enables you to hook up a wireless keyboard or headphones.
There are two pairs of 3D glasses included in the box; additional pairs of the Panasonic TY-ER3D4ME specs can be purchased for around £50/AU$100/US$56 and, crucially, have worked with both Samsung and LG 3D TVs in our tests this year.
The last hardware offering is theoretically the most exciting; the touchpad remote, a 4.5-inch long, matt black plastic device that looks and feels like a disregarded prototype of a phone from the late 1990s.
Featuring a circular touch-sensitive (though not very) pad above, the more slender lower part contains volume and channel changer rockers alongside Menu and Back buttons, though frustratingly it's not always obvious how to use it to operate all of the TV's on-screen menus.
Thankfully there's also a traditional remote control included in the box, which emits red backlighting when the bulb-labelled button is pressed, lasting around 10 seconds; great news for those watching in a blackout, which is where this plasma TV truly belongs.
Viewed in a blackout, the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 has an almost 3D-like quality, but that's got nothing to do with active shutters.
Just from watching a 2D Blu-ray disc of Shutter Island, we can tell instantly that the Infinite Black Ultra filter is at work. It's not just the deep, inky blacks that it creates that so impress, but the contrast within mixed brightness scenes.
During the dream sequence, ash falls from the ceiling as the light sweeps in, then a fire breaks out. And it's all handled exquisitely by the panel.
Fine details are discernible within large blocks of darkness, such as side-lit wall shadows, while fast-moving sequences and both rapid and pondering camera pans are visually almost seamless.
We did try out Intelligent Frame Creation, though could only come to one conclusion; it introduces artefacts when on anything but the Low setting, and doesn't add much in terms of fluidity.
That impeccable treatment of dark colours extends throughout the colour spectrum, though the polished blacks are best appreciated in as total a blackout as possible.
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Watch the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 on a cold, dark winter's night and you'll instantly see the difference between this and an LCD TV.
But if you plan to use it in a living room where the lights are always switched on, think twice; this is not the brightest picture around (switch to THX Bright Room mode if that's an issue), but it does create something hauntingly natural. However, this isn't the final act in plasma perfection; blacks could be even blacker.
Turning to Freeview HD and BBC One HD's Later… With Jools Holland we see the smooth, noise-free image continue amid those same bold colours, with the darkness of the studio handled perfectly.
Meanwhile, plasma's reputation as being sublime with sport continues; Manchester City vs Borussia Dortmund on Sky Sports HD 1 via a Virgin Media TiVo box looked crisp and super-smooth.
Switch to standard definition and the detail takes a dive, but not the pristine, noiseless picture, with even a low-res YouTube clip looking smooth and clean.
If potentially low-bitrate fare and the resulting jagged edges mopped up effectively (and we were more than happy with a DVD), the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 really gets into its stride with a 3D Blu-ray disc of Hugo.
This sublime piece of cinema is given a pin-sharp and fluid treatment, though it's once again worth bearing in mind the noticeable drop in brightness when wearing the 3D specs.
With the THX Cinema 3D mode engaged, sequences such as the opening salvo of a snowdrift and the subsequent sweep into the train station - often a crosstalk-fest for some 3D TVs - is immaculate.
And the sense of realism in mixed brightness scenes inside the train station is yet another reason why the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 is top of the plasma pile.
This more complex, more refined picture suggests that 3D as a bona fide AV format is coming of age - at least at this high end.
Usability, sound and value
Probably the nicest, friendliest aspect of the Panasonic TX-P50VT50's user interface comes when you change channel on the Freeview or Freesat electronic programme guides; the page graphically lifts and turns, as if were a page of a book.
We genuinely like the idea of a touch-sensitive remote control, but the touchpad included with the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 isn't particularly easy to get along with, because it's not sensitive enough.
Not least because it also indulges in 'pushing' photos and videos to the TV from a phone's photo library (a process that takes a few seconds to actually happen, but is impressive nonetheless).
As a high-end plasma TV designed for home cinemas, it won't come as any surprise that the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 can be endlessly calibrated.
Its advanced picture menus stretch to white balance, gamma and a full colour management suite (complete with two ISF professional spaces to save changes).
But the pre-calibrated presets will suit most; THX Cinema once again rules the roost for watching movies in a blackout, though the THX Bright Room preset is also worth trying for watching TV in the daytime.
That dual-core processor makes skipping around Viera Connect a dream, and enables up to six apps to run concurrently - you can even make Skype video calls while watching TV.
But we won't over-estimate the usefulness of this feature; in essence, that dual core makes the whole system merely work adequately.
You can see which apps are running by pressing the Viera Tools button while the Viera Connect page is on the screen; the latter peels back to reveal the app icons, which can then be scrolled to. We found this out by mistake, so it could be clearer, but graphically it's excellent.
Not so the eight-day electronic programme guide, which stuffs schedule information for eight channels over two hours on a single page, but lacks both a thumbnail and audio from the current live TV channel. Oh, the horror.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT50's interface isn't a complete failure, though. It makes the TV easy to understand and use, and there's an interactive app ready to replace the built-in EPG - Rovi - that can be used while other apps are running.
However, using the Media Player software to fetch and play back digital files is indicative of the entire core user interface.
It's a clunky, far too manual experience that lacks the visual and organisational niceties of other brand's efforts - particularly LG's SmartShare.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT50's stereo speakers and small woofer do try their best, but the built-in audio never matches up to the on-screen awesomeness.
During Shutter Island, the simple presets for Music and Speech proved very limiting, while the fancy-sounding V-Audio ProSurround reduces the volume and presence in the audio mix of dialogue. It's best to stick to the standard V-Audio or the slightly wider V-Audio Surround.
Although we didn't experience much in the way of surround effects during Hugo, the TV manages to correctly isolate a ticking clock. There's also a voice guidance feature.
If money was no object, and you could spare the £1,799 (around AU$2,812/US$2,882) asking price, we'd be ordering you all to get hold of the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 before sunset. But given that there are much cheaper - and almost as good - 3D plasmas in the Panasonic stable, we're not so sure.
If you can live without black level perfection and 3D specs, the 50-inch Panasonic TX-P50ST50 is hardly a massive step down.
That said, the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 is a tremendous accomplishment that's not matched even closely by the only other two makers of plasma panels left standing, LG and Samsung, whose efforts tend to be more affordable and lacking significant black level-boosting filters.
Judged purely on 3D specs, Panasonic has done well to get the price of these down, though the newly Bluetooth-fueled TY-ER3D4ME (£50/AU$100/US$56) and TY-EW3D3ME (£80/AU$120/US$60) 3D glasses that can be used with the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 are hardly cheap.
So too the add-on Skype camera, the TY-CC20W, which costs around £100/AU$120/US$95. Like the 3D specs, it can be purchased either online from Panasonic or from a shopping area on Viera Connect.
Already named the European Plasma TV of the year 2012-2013 by the European Imaging Sound Association (EISA), the Panasonic TX-P50VT50 comes with a big reputation.
In testing, the TV delivers in spades, with that new black-boosting panel filter a key - if niche - piece of tech that will be lauded in home cinemas across the land.
Picture quality - loved it - the THX Cinema preset worked wonders with everything we threw at it amid some startling contrast and awesome upscaling.
Despite fluid, naturally coloured 2D and 3D images, inky blacks and detail throughout, perhaps what's most impressive is that this plasma's obsession with perfection isn't at the cost of versatility; it handles poor quality sources of video just as well.
We also liked its SD XC card slot, a rarity on flatscreen TVs, while the red-backlit remote is also bang on the money for life in a home cinema environment.
If we had to nit-pick, we'd say that this plasma is not as bright as an LCD TV, though that's only likely to be noticeable in a brightly-lit shop environment.
Far more of an issue is a poor Freeview EPG that lacks even a live TV thumbnail, let alone audio, the rather old-fashioned core user interface, and the lack of MKV support while networking.
The touchpad controller is a matter of taste, though it feels like what it is; faltering first-gen tech. At this price, we feel there should be a 'proper' touchscreen remote.
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We'd say that Panasonic's even larger TX-P65VT50B takes the crown of the brand's - and the flatscreen TV industry's - king of plasma TVs.
But at the arguably more important 50-inch size, this sumptuous Full HD plasma TV barely puts a foot wrong.
Still, unless you're a perfectionist, it's worth considering a more affordable plasma, and buying the 3D glasses yourself - but stick with Panasonic and you'll retain the core brilliance of the Panasonic TX-P50VT50.
If you want a Full HD, 50-inch plasma TV and care more about networking, streaming and general digital frippery than pitch-perfect pictures, head immediately for the thoroughly good value LG 50PM670T plasma.
There are no 3D glasses included and the Freeview EPG isn't much better than on this Panasonic, but otherwise the user interface is peerless. The drawback is a thoroughly average black level that doesn't get anywhere near this plasma.
Samsung also does a decent line of plasma, such as the 60-inch Samsung PS60E6500, which also comes in a 51-inch Samsung PS51E6500 flavour.
Both Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners are included, though once again it lacks ultimate contrast compared to the Panasonic reviewed here.