With 2007 HDTV models now shipping to retailers, the HD Guru’s first 2007 review display is Panasonic’s TH-50PZ750, a 50” full HD (1920 x 1080p) consumer plasma model, part of Panasonic’s top-of-the line 750 series. The 750 series claims better performance and includes more features such as a “Pro Setting” mode that optimizes color temperature and “studio reference” color points and an SD card reader capable of playing back high definition full motion video.

Unlike the Pioneer Pro-FHD1, a 50” plasma 1080p monitor with no speakers, tuner or stand, the TH-50PZ750U is a television complete with built-in speakers, table top stand and built-in NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuner for receiving broadcast and unencrypted digital cable programs.

Housed in a very attractive package featuring a high gloss black bezel topped with a black chrome strip, the TH-PZ750 offers a control panel hidden behind a door located just below the screen that includes a “menu” button not found on lower priced models, for making picture adjustments independent of the remote control. The front panel also houses a third HDMI jack.

In addition to two HDMI jacks, the set’s rear panel includes two component video and three standard definition inputs, all of which have associated L/R audio inputs.

The hefty remote control features large buttons for major control functions. Thought the buttons are not illuminated, the logical layout made it easy to operate in the dark. Panasonic may be one of the last set makers to offer direct access for video inputs. Just a press of the input button reveals the on-screen list. Each input has a corresponding number. A single push of the associated numbered input allows you to access the desired choice.

In addition to the normal video and audio functions and an extensive selection of picture controls, there’s effective digital noise reduction as well as the Pro Adjust menu in another layer of the graphic user interface that includes gamma (rate of change from black to white) and “drives” and “cuts” for color temperature fine tuning. (A color analyzer or spectral radiometer and a great deal of know how are required to make use of these controls.)

The right and left edges of the screen bezel contain Panasonic’s new thin strip speakers that performed surprisingly well, producing ample bass and played quite loud.

After adjusting the user controls I began video performance evaluations using test patterns created by a Sencore HD signal generator, the latest HD HQV Benchmark and the new HD DVD version of the Video Essentials disc. Testing revealed the TH-50PZ750 sends the full bandwidth of the source material to the panel. In other words, the Panasonic reveals every fine detail within a high definition program or movie. Though the red and blue color points were very close to the high definition standard, the green was oversaturated. but not as far from the ideal coordinates as other flat panels I have measured.

(Note: the Panasonic press release for this model refers to a “reference mode” but there is no setting as such, so perhaps the TH-50PZ750 is always in this mode. The HD Guru is patiently waiting for an owner’s manual and an explanation from Panasonic, so watch for an update).

The TH-50PZ750 properly deinterlaces 1080i signals into progressive, maintaining all 1080 lines. This was confirmed using the HQV test disc. Measuring brightness levels within Vivid (dealer showroom) mode maxed out at a blazing 57.5 ft lamberts. With the user controls (Custom mode) adjusted properly, maximum brightness came in at 22 ft. lamberts. This is quite bright for normal in-home lighting conditions. Black level was too low to measure accurately with my test equipment; in fact it was the lowest of any plasma I have tested to date. (This is not a contradiction, I know the spec of my meter’s accuracy and this panel was significantly below that level). The high brightness and low black level create a high contrast ratio, which was evident during viewing evaluations.

There has been a huge increase in the past year in the amount of HD availability. There are now hundreds of Blu-ray and HD DVD titles available, more HD channels are on many cable systems (including my choice, Verizon FIOS) and broadcast television has added local news in HD. NBC, CBS and ABC News in New York are all now in HD.

The TH-50PZ750 placed side by side with the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 made for an interesting comparison. How did the Panasonic’s image look? In a word: WOW. The overall picture quality excelled in reproducing dark and bright level details with a high contrast ratio.

The TH-50PZ750’s color accuracy was the best I have seen on a plasma display and it was the only panel evaluated that produces a true red. Comparing the Pioneer when viewing The Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift on HD DVD clearly showed the difference between Panasonic red and Pioneer red. The same car is red on the TH-50PZ750 and orange on the Pioneer. Ditto for the neon signs and lights of the Ginza in Tokyo at night, where red lights appear crimson versus Pioneer’s orange-y reds. Speaking of night scenes, the Panasonic’s deeper blacks revealed details that the Pioneer (and other plasmas) obscured, as if a veil had been lifted off the Pioneer’s panel.

Jay Leno’s blue sport jacket’s pinstripes provided a fine example of the Panasonic’s superior image. Both panels reproduced the pinstripes; but they were more distinct on the TH-50PZ750. The effect is not subtle; five friends performed the side-by-side tests with a variety of source material. They all picked the Panasonic as the best panel.

In conclusion, the Panasonic TH-50PZ750 is simply the best high definition display I have ever reviewed. With a retail of $3999 and an expected street price that will be even lower, I would also consider it a bargain.

Until last week, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 was $8000. The retail is now $5000, no doubt in response to the imminent release of the TH-50PZ750. Panasonic has set the industry standard in flat panel performance.

The HD Guru awards the Panasonic TH-50PZ750 its highest ♥♥♥♥ recommendation.

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