Panasonic TX-P50VT65 £1799
29th May 2013 | 09:18
Spectacular movie-friendly picture quality joins with a brilliant smart TV interface
For the past few TV seasons, reviewing Panasonic's high-end plasma TVs has felt more or less like a coronation. They've just been so consistently far ahead of the plasma competition that we've had little choice but to love them.
This year, though, we're not automatically wheeling out a crown to greet the Panasonic TX-P50VT65. First because Samsung has already put forward a big challenge with its outstanding PS64F8500, and second because the Viera TX-P50VT65 ships with a stupid electronic touch pen. More on this scarily pointless feature later.
Thankfully the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 also has some rather more promising features up its sleeve. For instance, it uses a new panel design dubbed NeoPlasma Black 3000. This delivers an unprecedented '3000Hz' effect chiefly by boosting the efficacy of Panasonic's sub-field drive technology.
Panasonic's high-end plasma TV also claims to deliver a step up over the performance of its cheaper GT60 series sibling by using a higher-grade filter in its screen, to reduce the impact of ambient light on its potentially spectacular contrast performance.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65 additionally carries Panasonic's new and rather lovable My Home Screen smart TV interface, and plenty of multimedia support. But history suggests that it should be the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's picture quality that proves its star attraction.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65 is priced at £1,799 (around US$2,711/AU$2,810). If you like the idea of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 by the time you reach the end of our review but would like something bigger, Panasonic does 55-inch (£2,399) and 65-inch (£3,499) VT65 series models too. Or if you want something cheaper at a slightly reduced performance, the Panasonic GT60 range should do the job.
Where rivals are concerned, the Samsung F8500 plasma series is definitely the closest competition, thanks to some unprecedentedly bright (by plasma standards) pictures and a very powerful and sophisticated smart TV system.
Also of interest, though, should be the Sony KDL-55W905A, which offers the richest colours and best black levels yet seen from an LCD TV.
With design now a key part of many households' TV buying decisions, the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 suffers a little versus much of the competition by virtue of its frame being markedly wider than those of most LCD televisions. That said, its silvery metallic stand and open 'V'-style stand neck look cute, and the finish of its frame is polished enough to almost turn its size into an advantage.
We also welcomed the discovery of a pop-up camera in the centre of the TV's top edge, since this enables you to video call friends over Skype without needing to buy an optional external camera. This camera also enables the TV to recognise who's using the TV, for automatic selection of individual users' preferred home screens (more on this in the Usability section).
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The Panasonic TX-P50VT65's rear delivers an initial slight disappointment since it turns out it only carries three HDMIs when most mid and high-end TVs now carry four. Everything else is present and correct, though, including three USBs for multimedia (video, music and photo) playback and recording from the set's Freeview and Freesat tuner, plus built-in Wi-Fi and wired LAN options for streaming in multimedia files from networked PCs or taking the TV online with Panasonic's Viera Connect service.
This service is good rather than brilliant. There's a decently wide selection of content, with some surprisingly respectable games joining video, music and utility apps. Among the key video streaming services Viera Connect carries are Lovefilm, BBC iPlayer and BBC News/Sport. Also present is Acetrax, but this service is scheduled to be closed in June.
Notable by their absence, though, are Netflix and UK catch-up services beyond BBC iPlayer, putting Viera Connect at a disadvantage to the latest smart TVs from Samsung, LG and Sony.
Providing considerable solace for this shortage of top-level video services, though, is the inspired My Home Screen interface Panasonic has introduced this year to make it much easier for you and your family to find the content you each like the best.
We suppose we're duty bound to talk a bit more about the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's touch pen functionality, whether we want to or not. The deal is that a quite tactile and attractive white pen provided free with the TV can be used to interact directly with the TV's screen, for drawing, writing notes or playing games.
To be fair to the touch pen feature, the functionality provided by the TV's software makes it more flexible than you might expect, and the screen responds quite accurately and effectively to the pen's touches.
But we ultimately can think of no truly compelling reason why we'd want to put down our tablet computers or phones, stand up from our comfy sofas, walk over to our posh new TV and start tapping and scraping away on its surface with a big pen. Even drawing a false moustache and devil horns on Katherine Jenkins failed to give the feature any appeal. And if that won't do it, nothing will.
Having mentioned tablets and phones back there, let's discuss Panasonic's new Viera Remote 2 app for Android and iOS devices. This is one of the best of this generation's TV remote apps, providing in one easy-to-follow piece of software the means to control your TV via your smart device's touchscreen display, share multimedia from your smart device with the TV screen and share what's showing on your TV with the screen of your smart device.
And the Viera app isn't the only alternative control system on offer with the Panasonic TX-P50VT65, either. The TV also ships with a second remote control with a streamlined button count and a built-in touchpad cursor control.
The plasma panel at the heart of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 features the now customary round of technical improvements by Panasonic's R&D department. The sub-field driving system has been boosted, for instance, to help the panel deliver an unprecedented '3000Hz' effect to boost colour brightness and motion fluidity.
There's also been a further improvement to the filter built into the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's screen for soaking up ambient light, meaning there's less chance of extraneous light being able to infiltrate the plasma cells (thus reducing contrast) and less chance of reflections on the screen getting between you and your enjoyment of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's hopefully gorgeous images.
It's not just Panasonic's long history of delivering class-leading black levels from its plasma TVs and the improved screen filter that's raised our hopes of record-breaking black levels from the Panasonic TX-P50VT65, though. Also important should be the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's Infinite Black Ultra panel technology versus the slightly less contrast-rich Infinite Black Pro setup of the step-down GT60 series.
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The enhanced panel and processing in the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 delivers some colour benefits over the GT60 series one step lower in Panasonic's range. First it can deliver a claimed 30,720 gradation steps versus the cheaper model's 24,576 gradations.
Even more tantalisingly for movie fans, though, it's capable of delivering a claimed 98% of the full colour range of the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) specification. In other words, it has the potential to deliver almost exactly the same colour scape you should see in a commercial cinema.
The VT65 level of Panasonic's plasma range has traditionally been aimed squarely at serious AV enthusiasts, and this cycle isn't broken by the Panasonic TX-P50VT65. As well as the uncompromising panel design already discussed, the plasma TV comes boasting the endorsement of both the THX quality assurance group and the ISF professional calibration group.
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THX has backed up its endorsement with a specially calibrated picture preset on the TV, while the ISF endorsement results in two 'professional' presets and a huge array of picture tweaks including expansive colour and gamma management tools.
In a particularly brilliant touch, you can even fine-tune the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's pictures via the Viera Remote app, so that you don't have to obscure the pictures you're calibrating on the TV with any on-screen menus.
The last really significant feature of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 to cover is its 3D playback. As with all plasma TVs, this is of the active variety, and we're happy to report that two pairs of active shutter glasses are included free with the TV.
With TV picture standards rising across the board this year, it's become much harder for any new model to really blow us away right from the get-go. But the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 manages it. With knobs on.
Given our expectations that the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 has been designed to be particularly effective with films, to suit serious home cinema fans, we fed it a selection of our favourite and most technically demanding Blu-rays. And for every second of every title we tried, the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's pictures looked nothing short of exquisite.
Predictably, the foundation to the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's exceptional image prowess is its black level response. This achieves a black depth and tonal naturalism when showing dark scenes, the like of which we haven't witnessed since Pioneer launched the last of its impossibly-ahead-of-their-time KURO plasma TVs. This fact alone will send tingles down the spines of long-term AV technology fans.
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Black levels manage to go even deeper than those of the Samsung PS64F8500, despite the truly huge black level improvements Samsung has managed to deliver this year. In fact, there are times where the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's black levels actually look deeper than those of the KURO reference set we've still got set up in our test room.
It's important to stress, too, that the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's staggering black level performance isn't in any way forced. Tucked safely away in even the darkest corners of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's images are the tiniest and most subtle of colour tones and shadow details. This is a result of the fact that plasma technology produces the light output for each of its pixels individually, rather than having to depend on external light sources that must 'compromise' their light levels to achieve the best balance to satisfy the mixture of bright and dark elements that make up all pictures.
It's brilliant to find, too, that the depth of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's black levels is joined by a beautifully neutral black tone, with practically zero sign of the blue or green undertone that's been visible with many previous plasma TVs.
Black levels as brilliant as those delivered by the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 aren't just great in their own right. They also provide a spectacular point of contrast for the screen's colours to work against. This means that colours look more dynamic as well as - more importantly - gorgeously natural, with tones that really can look all but identical to those you might hope to see emerging from a commercial-grade digital projector at your local cinema.
HD picture processing
The quality of the panel and power of Panasonic's latest Hexa picture processing engine, moreover, ensures that colours appear on the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 with stunning levels of tonal accuracy and blend subtlety. This infuses HD images with so much finesse and colour nuancing that they resemble with uncanny accuracy the sort of immaculate and immersive images you get from celluloid or digital images projected at a higher resolution than the 1920 x 1080 setup of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's panel.
It does no harm to the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's sense of extreme image sharpness, either, that its pictures look beautifully crisp and detailed without tipping over into becoming noisy.
What's more, motion is handled far better on the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 than it has been on any previous Panasonic plasma TV we've seen, combining plasma's innate freedom from motion blur (compared with LCD TVs) with markedly less judder or stutter than we've previously seen with Panasonic plasmas.
During fast camera pans there's still a very faint trace of double imaging around strongly defined edges, but it's much less of an issue than it has been before, and can be largely eradicated if you call into play Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation motion processing. Many film enthusiasts won't want to do this, because even on its lowest power level it can cause a slightly video-like look to creep into proceedings. But it does at least avoid generating many of the flickering or haloing issues of many motion processing systems.
Now that we've stumbled across a small negative aspect to the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's 2D picture performance, we might as well hunt for more - however ill-rewarded that hunt might be.
Probably the main point to stress is that the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 is at its best when you're not running it very brightly. Push the brightness too high and the image starts to suffer with green speckling noise in dark parts of the picture (a problem also witnessed on Samsung's PS64F8500).
This need to keep a lid on the set's brightness perhaps dents the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's appeal to people who spend most of their time in very bright rooms. But at the same time, the green speckling loses its impact the further from the screen you're sat, so if your room is reasonably big you may well not feel troubled by the dithering even when running the screen very hard.
Before dragging ourselves away from the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's gorgeous pictures, there's still the small matter of its 3D picture quality to consider. And happily the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's quality largely remains intact in the third dimension.
Particularly impressive is the screen's almost total freedom from crosstalk ghosting noise, and the amount of detail you can see when watching 3D Blu-rays.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65's phenomenal contrast helps the screen build a terrific sense of 3D space too, and unlike some previous Panasonic plasmas we've seen, 3D motion is credibly handled, with only a small increase in the double edging phenomenon noted earlier.
The only concern in 3D mode is that as per usual, Panasonic's active shutter 3D glasses cause what feels like a more substantial reduction in brightness than you see with most rival 3D platforms.
But so long as you can darken your room for 3D viewing, this loss of brightness isn't too severe a price to pay for all the good things about the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's 3D pictures. It's worth adding, too, that the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's 3D pictures are brighter than those seen on any previous Panasonic 3D plasma TV.
Usability, sound and value
For the most part this section of the review is a real strength of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65. The main reason for this is Panasonic's My Home Screen interface, which delivers the most straightforward way for you - and, crucially, all your family members - to access all the myriad content sources the TV supports.
The system kicks off with three home screens already set up - one called TV, one called Lifestyle and one called Info. These prioritise different features and links for easier access, and switching between all three of them is a doddle.
But what's really cool about My Home Screen is that everyone in your household can build their own personalised home screen sporting links to only the content they specifically want to have direct links to.
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Every part of the home screen system, including the process of building your own home screen, is well explained and easy to follow, and really does revolutionise TV interfaces.
Also brilliantly simple and helpful to use is Panasonic's latest control app for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. This brings a strong feature set together in one easy to follow app, and its simple 'swipe and share' approach to sharing multimedia and video between the TV and your smart device is inspired.
The only bum notes in the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's mostly excellent operating system are its rather drab calibration menus, and the touchpad remote control. The touchpad is too small and too circular (compared to the screen's rectangular shape) to be really effective, and its level of responsiveness doesn't feel very natural either.
First, the bad news: the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 has to use cooling fans to stop itself from overheating, and these fans produce just enough noise to be audible during very quiet sequences - especially if you're sat close to the screen. However, the tone of the noise is very stable and it really isn't that loud.
Furthermore, for the vast majority of the time you won't even notice the gentle whir of the fans, on account of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65's startlingly powerful speaker system. The key trick of this system is that it uses front-firing speakers built into its screen frame in conjunction with a separate subwoofer, rather than the usual down-firing, rear-mounted speakers.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65 is thus able to produce levels of volume, clarity, dynamic range and relatively harshness-free treble detailing that you seldom hear in the flatscreen TV world.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65's full £1,800 (around US$2,711/AU$2,810) price tag certainly doesn't make it cheap by today's standards. But then it's not really fair to compare the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 with the vast majority of rival 46-50-inch TVs for the simple reason that, well, it's better than them.
If you value picture quality enough to put your money where your mouth is, then the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 is so good it's arguably something of a bargain. And Panasonic chucks in two pairs of active shutter 3D glasses for free.
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The Panasonic TX-P50VT65 arrives with an awful lot of baggage. After all, it's got the weight of Panasonic's long and venerable heritage in the plasma TV world to support, at the same time many people seem happy to predict that plasma's very existence as a TV format is coming to an end. Plus Samsung recently put the cat among the pigeons by releasing easily its finest plasma television to date in the shape of the Samsung PS64F8500.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65 carries all this pressure as it if were the easiest thing in the world, however. It sets about winning hearts and minds right away with its brilliantly attractive and straightforward My Home Screen interface, which does a great job of making the TV's many content sources more accessible and personalised.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65's real star turn, though, is its performance, since its truly stunning, contrast-rich pictures join with some formidable audio to deliver a spectacularly cinematic experience. It's a home cinema fan's dream.
The TV isn't totally perfect. There's some minor double edging with swift horizontal motion, and you can't drive the screen especially bright without some green speckling noise kicking in. But so long as you can dim the lights for when you really want to use the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 in anger, it's yet another stellar turn for Panasonic's redoubtable plasma technology.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65's black level performance is unprecedented, and most other aspects of its pictures are stellar too. Joining these outstanding pictures is an exceptionally robust audio performance, and despite the TV's sophistication it's made easy to use by Panasonic's excellent My Home Screen interface.
You can't drive pictures especially brightly or else dither noise sets in, and there's minor double edging during some motion reproduction. Also you only get three HDMI connections, the touchpad remote option isn't much cop, and a few more premium quality video streaming services on Viera Connect would be appreciated.
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Despite the arrival of some intense competition this year, Panasonic has risen to the challenge with this new high-end plasma TV, delivering what for our money are the most cinematic 50-inch pictures we've seen.
The Panasonic TX-P50VT65's contrast performance is particularly incredible, but it's joined by some exceptional colour subtlety and naturalism, and some outstanding sharpness and clarity. Front-firing speakers serve up a superior audio performance too, and the television's smart TV interface is brilliantly friendly.
People with especially bright living rooms might possibly want to think about a high-end LCD TV or one of Samsung's F8500 models instead. But for film fans who can control their light levels, the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 is nothing short of a masterpiece.
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The most direct rival for the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 is Samsung's PS51F8500. This delivers the remarkable twin benefit of an excellent black level response and the highest brightness levels yet seen from a plasma TV. The Samsung PS51F8500 is thus arguably a better option than the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 if you're looking for a TV to go into a very bright environment.
However, the Samsung PS51F8500's black levels aren't quite as deep as those of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65, and Samsung's push for extra brightness means there's sometimes quite a lot of green dither noise to contend with.
If you'd prefer an LCD panel, your best option in performance terms is the 55-inch Sony 55W905A. This delivers the deepest black levels you can find in the LCD world, together with outstandingly rich colours, great sharpness and a potent long duct audio system.
While its pictures can look more dynamic than those of the Panasonic TX-P50VT65 and thus can better survive an assault from an extremely bright room environment, its black levels aren't as consistent as those of the Panasonic, and its smart TV interface is a little off the pace too.