Panasonic’s feature packed top-of–the-line 2008 50” plasma HDTV has even better specs than last year’s highly rated 750 series plasmas. Some of the new specifications for 2008 are: contrast ratio of 30,000:1 (up from 5,000:1 from last year’s 750 model plasma); home energy saving mode (on initial installation), built-in internet connectivity for access called Viera Cast which currently includes You Tube, Picassa (photos you can upload and store), weather and news, 1080p resolution with 24p native Cinematic playback (with choice of 48Hz or 60Hz refresh rate), and SD card slots with support for H.264 HD motion video as well as digital photo files. Other features include a Pro Setting Menu and a Digital Cinema Color Re-Mastering that stretches the red and green color gamut beyond the HDTV color space standard to reproduce levels intended by filmmakers.

Cosmetically, the latest Panasonic sports a single sheet of front glass that contains a shiny black bezel underneath and new thin “hidden” speakers located at the bottom beneath the screen bezel.

In addition, the latest Panasonic plasma has an improved anti-reflective screen filter, signal processing and an additional HDMI connecter bringing the total to four (three rear and one front below the screen). There are also component video inputs as well as a 15 pin “D” type VGA connector for (analog) PC connectivity.

Panasonic provides five aspect ratios and high definition sources can be viewed with about 4% overscan or pixel for pixel (1:1) using the Size 2 option in the user menu.

To evaluate performance the TH-50PZ850 was put through a series of test signals, followed by evaluations using high and standard definition Verizon FIOS signals, as well as DVD Blu-ray discs. After set up and calibration were complete, a side-by-side comparison to Pioneer’s KURO plasma was performed.

I began testing using a Sencore VP-403 signal generator and Photo Research spectroradiometer to set the user controls and calibrate the gray scale. All subsequent evaluations (except where otherwise noted) were made with the TH-50PZ850’s “Custom” user mode. There are four picture modes available, Vivid (best suited for overly bright store showrooms), Standard, Reference and Custom. In addition, there are presets for color temperature, with “warm” closest to the industry standard of 6500K, control of the gray scale (also called white balance). Additional controls can be accessed to fine tune the gray scale (you need an accurate measurement device to perform this task) and are only accessible using the “Custom” mode. One interesting note, the brightness and picture controls have a narrow range between minimum to maximum, compared to other displays tested. To achieve proper black level (the brightness control) it was set to 80 out of 100 (with the CA.T.S. light sensor in the off position)

With the user controls properly set for optimum picture, the Silicon Optix test discs were employed to check out the performance of the TH-PZ850’s signal processing. The results were quite impressive. Beginning with 480i standard definition signals the Panasonic did a good job avoiding jaggies on the spinning line and moving three line tests. Ditto for the tests at 1080i resolution. The built-in main noise reduction circuit was quite effective reducing overall video noise, without softening the image (a common problem with many other displays). There are two additional noise reduction circuits, one for block noise and the other for mosquito noise (appears as wispiness around edges of objects on-screen). These were also effective without causing image degradation.

The Panasonic properly deinterlaces 1080i to 1080p displaying all 1080 lines of resolution as it should (some other HDTVs cut resolution up to 50% when displaying 1080i HD content). The only test the TH-50PZ850 failed is the 3:2 film conversion test. Using the Silicon Optix HQV 1080i Blu-ray disc, it did not completely pick up the film sequence (noise appears at the edges of the test signal area). Fortunately, I did not see this aberration appear in any of the film based Blu-ray discs I sampled. 3:2 circuitry converts the 24 frames per second film as recorded in 1080p on Blu-ray movie discs to 60 frames per second, the native rate of this television. The one artifact that 3:2 “pulldown” does create on all 60 Hz refresh displays is called “judder” and is seen as a jerkiness in horizontal pans. To eliminate judder, this Panasonic plasma can display 24 Hz native content at 48 Hz (2 frames followed by 2 film frames or also called 2:2). This mode completely eliminates judder, unfortunately it creates flickering of the image as well, making it unwatchable.

Color reproduction is the area where this plasma really shines. There are two color modes one can choose, either the HDTV broadcast color space called BT.709 (aka Rec. 709) or DCC for Digital Cinema Color. The latter is a color space standard for the Digital Cinema Initiative, which provides a wider color range at the green and red color points (and all colors that fall between). For the techies out there reading this I will supply the measurements below, for the non-tech types, the DCC on position makes a greener green and a red that is more crimson than I have seen on any other plasma (note: LCD HDTVs with standard fluorescent backlights vs. red, blue, green LEDs do not reproduce deep reds, they appear orange in comparison).  I was pleasantly surprised activating the DCC mode as it created a purer red and made other colors richer and deeper without making them appear unnatural. The DCC mode interpolates the picture data and widens the palette of colors on-screen. Of course, you can turn the circuit off if you desire to do so.

The Viera Cast feature was simple to activate (though you need an Ethernet connection near the plasma, and an internet service provider). Once set-up it enabled access to You Tube content, though, the image quality it standard def (at best) The Picassa feature allows PZ850 owners to post and access their photos as well as (if you desire) the ability for family and friends to access your content, provided they too have an 850 series Panasonic plasma and an Internet connection.

So, how’s the picture quality? Terrific. To provide a point of reference I made a side-by-side comparison to my current reference HDTV, a Pioneer KURO (model PDP-6010FD). Here is a point-by-point review.

Black Level– The Pioneer is a shade darker than the Panasonic, maintaining its best black level ranking. However, there are a few caveats that go along with its deep blacks. Examining both plasmas with power off, one can clearly see the screen is darker on the Pioneer. It uses a darker tinted coating over the front of its panel to accomplish this, think tinted windows on an automobile. The downside for the Pioneer?  Deep dark detail gets buried below the dark tint. The Panasonic provides clearer detail with dark scenes. If you like to view TV with the lights off you may prefer the Pioneer, but with moderate room lighting, the dark detail remains in Panasonic’s favor. As ambient room light increases, the differences in black level become more obscured. –Advantage Pioneer

Anti-Reflective– Both use special screen (shiny) coatings to dramatically cut down the intensity of bright room objects being reflected off the screens. Pioneer’s screen wins with more reflection rejection than the Panasonic’s, but at a cost. Reflections off the Pioneer screen are tinted with a bluish-red color. The Panasonic is very close to neutral. This color tint combined with the darker tint of Pioneer screen created color differences when comparing the same source material. When viewing Private Parts, Howard Stern’s hair appears dark brown on the Panasonic, while it appears black on the Pioneer. Which is it? Other dark objects such a soil, dark rocks, sky appear differently on the two sets. Advantage-Split

Signal Processing– The Pioneer has a 72 Hz film mode that eliminates judder created by 3:2 sequence described above. However, there are more modes on the Pioneer and each mode occasionally creates artifacts, such as combing, or jaggies. I for one am not inclined to continually change processing modes every time I see image artifacts to get the best image for a particular program or movie. The Panasonic processing does a better job on the Silicon Optix test discs, and except for judder, provides fewer anomalies when viewing a variety of different content. Advantage-Panasonic (overall processing)/ Judder Free without Flicker -Advantage-Pioneer

Energy Consumption– We are a few months away from an industry standard test for power consumption. In lieu of a standard test, I freeze-framed an image of a dive into a swimming pool from the Olympic Trails program and using a power consumption meter measured the 60” Pioneer and 50” Panasonic in their respective calibrated settings. The watts measured was divided by the number of square inches of the respective displays to provide a “watts per square inch” measurement. The results? The Panasonic measured .205 watt/ per sq. inch versus the Pioneer’s .2548 watt/sq. inch. This makes the Panasonic about 20% more efficient than the Pioneer. For those of you interested, in the uncalibrated factory default Vivid mode (Panasonic) and Dynamic (Pioneer) were 502 watts and 464 watts respectively. Calibrated power consumption was 218 watts and 392 watts respectively. Advantage-Panasonic

Color– The Panasonic provides a more natural green, a redder red than the Pioneer. The blues are quite accurate in both plasmas. Below are the hard numbers expressed in x. y. coordinates for the Panasonic with Digital Cinema Color (DCC) ON/ DCC OFF and the industry standards for HDTV (Rec. 709) and the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) Standard (Panasonic calls it DCC). Advantage-Panasonic

DCC On Red x .666 y.323
DCC Off   Red x .657 y.330
DCI Stan   Red x.680  y.320
Rec. 709  Red x .640 y.330

DCC On Green  x. 258 y.665
DCC Off Green  x.274  y.648
DCI Stan Green  x .265 y.690
Rec. 709  Green  x .300 y.600

DCC On  Blue x.151 y.058
DCC Off  Blue  x.151 y.058
DCI Stand Blue x.150 y.600
Rec. 709   Blue x.150 y.600

Gamma-The rate of transition from dark to light is called Gamma and can be measured and tracked. The standard for HDTV is 2.2 and the Panasonic tracked quite close to the industry standard. The “Normal” mode setting, is the one to choose for the best and most accurate image. The Pioneer’s gamma curve was not as accurate as Panasonic’s, however it provides an image (when using film-based sources) that may be preferred by a number of viewers. The transitions are more rapid than the standard, in the parts of the image that are low-middle to high-middle brightness resulting in an overall brighter, punchier image, when compared next to the Panasonic. The downside? The Pioneer makes film grain more prominent. The Panasonic image appears flatter (less contrast) but is smoother by not exaggerating the presence of film grain and making transitions on faces and objects appear more natural. On many video based sources such as sports, concert videos and non-scripted (and a growing number of scripted) television series evaluated, there were far less apparent differences in the image transitions (and since it was video based no film grain on either display). Advantage-Panasonic

Overall Quality-The Panasonic is an excellent plasma HDTV with the best color of any panel tested to date. Its noise reduction, signal processing and energy efficiency (once calibrated) along with its comparatively low retail price ($3499.95) makes a very compelling case for it to be placed at the top of the HDTV hierarchy.  The comparison with a Pioneer KURO demonstrates, the need to determine which set of performance attributes: Color Accuracy, Signal Processing, Gamma, Dark Detail, Energy Consumption and Price versus Black Level, Anti Reflection and overall Brightness are most important to the perspective purchaser.

Copyright ©2008 Gary Merson/HD Guru™. All rights reserved. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.