Panasonic Plasma HDTV Review

Model: Panasonic TH-50PX60U
Description: 50" Plasma Television, Widescreen 16:9 Format
Resolution: 1366 x 768 (HDTV)
b>Includes: Integrated pedestal stand and 20W integrated speaker system, NTSC and ATSC (HDTV) tuners, 2 HDMI high-definition inputs, 2 component video, 3 composite video, 3 S-Video connection.
Color: Silver Bezel and casing, speakers, and pedestal stand

Reviewer: Paul Doran
Review Date: June 2006

INTRODUCTION

The Panasonic TH-50PX60U is the 9th edition of the very popular Panasonic high-definition plasma televisions. The resolution remains 1366x768 like the previous model, the TH-50PX50U—a Best Seller in 2005, but Panasonic has upped the contrast ratio specification to 10,000:1 for this year's model. Because of increased demand, Panasonic has included a second HDMI connection for this year's consumer plasma line. Panasonic even gives the TH-50PX60U a makeover to a more modern look.

With each passing generation, other top-tier plasma television manufacturers—such as Samsung, Pioneer, and Toshiba—are improving both their picture performance and overall value. Samsung and Toshiba have focused on matching Panasonic's aggressive price-point with their new models (the HP-R5052 and the 50HP66, respectively). Pioneer, on the other hand, remains focused on its first-rate picture quality and providing a comprehensive feature set at a slightly more expensive price. Considering the competition, Panasonic has strategically placed the TH-50PX60U to compete with Pioneer for top picture quality while maintaining its aggressive value in the market.


PICTURE: 94/100

Like most televisions on the market today, the Panasonic TH-50PX60U came out of the box with superficially bright default picture settings. Out of the box, the picture is in a default picture mode setting of Vivid (which maximizes Contrast and Sharpness settings) and a color temperature setting of Cool. The first task before examining the picture quality of the plasma TV is to find the picture settings that get us closest to D6500K—the optimum prescribed color temperature used by the film and broadcast industry. Because Panasonic plasmas typically have a cooler default temperature setting than other brands (which often leads to a "blue push" in the white balance), the "Warm" color temperature setting is preferred for increased realism. By switching to the "Standard" picture setting (which has medium Contrast and Sharpness settings) and using a "Warm" color temperature, we quickly move much closer to D6500K. Maintaining a color temperature close to D6500K is important because it is the basis on which the rest of the picture calibrations are made.

Panasonic TH-50PX60U Review

In order to fully optimize the picture quality of our TH-50PX60U, we used a colorimeter, a Sencore High-Definition signal generator, and a specialized software suite to calibrate the television to the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) standard color temperature of D6500K. With this equipment, we were able to properly calibrate the picture settings on the television, and we were able to measure color temperature, color saturation, white balance, and black levels. Using these measurements as a reference point, we used the Sencore software suite to precisely calibrate the optimal picture settings for the TH-50PX60U.

The following table contains the picture settings for the TH-50PX60U after its ISF-calibration. We highly suggest that, if you own a Panasonic TH-50PX60U, you imitate these picture settings. By configuring the television to the below settings we were able to get the color temperature to D6650K, a substantial improvement over the out-of-the-box measurement of D10000K+. Using the below settings to regulate the color temperature and white balance virtually perfects the picture of the TH-50PX60U:


Panasonic TH-50PX60U Optimal Picture Settings
Picture Mode Standard
Picture +22
Brightness +8
Color -1
Tint -4
Sharpness -14
Color Temperature Warm
Enhanced Black Level Off

Figure 1. Optimal picture settings for the Panasonic TH-50PX60U using ISF calibration.

To move any closer to D6500K, the film and broadcast industry standard for color temperature, would require a lot of time and effort for only a percent or two gain in picture quality. One would have to hire a trained technician to modify the service menu of the plasma television—a method which could potentially destroy the television.

Wow, once the picture was calibrated the TH-50PX60U had undoubtedly the truest picture of any television that we have tested to date. Using the Toshiba HD-XA1 HD-DVD player, we watched the Cinderella Man HD-DVD. With the heightened emotion of the final round of the championship fight between James J. Braddock (Russell Crowe) and Max Baer (Craig Bierko), the TH-50PX60U gave us the impression of being in the front row. After Braddock gives Baer a series of quick jabs, the sweat droplets fly off of Baer's face in crystal-clear High-Definition detail. The flesh tones of the boxers are reproduced perfectly, and one can spot dark details within the crowd at the boxing match because of the accurate ISF calibration.

Panasonic's black levels have been the best in the industry for years, and the TH-50PX60U is no exception. The TH-50PX60U clearly exhibits subtle differences in the dark Depression-era scenes of the Cinderella Man HD-DVD. This is an important strength for Panasonic because the dark matter detailing of the plasma television impacts the picture's realism as much as its color reproduction ability.

The plasma's black levels are put to the test when the scene cuts to Mae Braddock (Renée Zellweger), James Braddock's wife who is nervously listening to the fight on a radio in a candle-lit room. The TH-50PX60U expertly shows the contrast between her jet-black hair, the fibers on her dark sweater and her dimly-lit surroundings. This smooth transition between dark shades can be attributed to the 3,072 shades of gradation in the TH-50PX60U—an attribute that sets Panasonic plasmas apart from the 2nd tier plasmas increasing in popularity today. It is also important to note that the bright candle in the room with Mrs. Braddock appears very clearly in the dark room without any elements of false contouring, a problem that can occur when plasmas try to display bright objects with dark surroundings.

After we performed the ISF calibration to optimize the television's picture, we decided to measure the TH-50PX60U's contrast ratio (light output ratio of "whitest white" to the "blackest black") for ourselves. We used the Sencore High Definition signal generator to display both whites and blacks on the screen, and the accompanying colorimeter to measure the light output from each sample. While the black levels on the TH-50PX60U are quite impressive, our measured contrast ratio for the television is only 788:1! This measurement falls short of Panasonic's specified 10,000:1 contrast ratio, and it calls into question the methods by which Panasonic—and other popular HDTV manufacturers—arrive at these highly-advertised contrast ratio specifications.

As is made evident by the Cinderella Man HD-DVD, the quality of high-definition content on the TH-50PX60U is unparalleled. When the conventional Cinderella Man DVD is played in Progressive-Scan 480p, the championship fight scene is still very clear, but obviously not to the extent of the HD-DVD. It is important to note that the TH-50PX60U does not display the visual artifacts easily noticeable on lower-tier plasma displays with a conventional input source.

The ATSC tuner pulls in digital broadcasts from all around town. When we watched the Evening News in high-definition, the image was very clear, and the news anchors' faces had accurate flesh tones. When they cut to reporters out in the field, the detail of their surroundings was excellent. When we changed the channel to view the same program in regular definition, the picture was somewhat fuzzy. The image degradation is probably caused by the lower bandwidth emitted by local stations for their analog channels.


OTHER CONSIDERATIONS: 84/100

Because many thought that the styling of last year's plasma HDTV line did not match the magnificence of its picture, Panasonic modernizes the looks of the TH-50PX60U. The outer casing of the television, including the bezel and the speakers, is completely silver. There is a small black framing element around the screen to increase the perceived contrast, but it is merely an accent. The new look of the TH-50PX60U is definitely very modern, and it has significant "pop." If a more understated look is desired, the Panasonic TH-50PHD8UK, the broadcast monitor version of the TH-50PX60U, delivers the same great Panasonic picture quality with a very thin charcoal-black bezel frame.

At only 47.6 inches wide, the Panasonic TH-50PX60U is one of the slimmest 50" plasma televisions on the market today! This is an especially handy feature for consumers with only a tight space in which to fit the television. The height of the television is 32.2 inches without the pedestal stand (34.5 inches with pedestal stand). These very slim measurements for a 50" plasma television with included speakers contribute to the sleek look of the TH-50PX60U.

For the TH-50PX60U, Panasonic improves its already user-friendly remote control. The easy-to-find buttons are generally in the same place as the last model, but now they are bigger and easier to find without looking. The remote feels good in your hand, has intuitive controls, and would be a serviceable solution as a universal remote control.

The on-screen menu system on the TH-50PX60U is relatively unchanged from Panasonic's previous generation TH-50PX50U. This is not a bad thing because Panasonic's menu system is pretty intuitive. When the Menu button on the remote control is pressed, the main menu options—Picture, Audio, Timer, Lock, Memory Card, and Setup – appear in an easy-to-read fashion. The Picture menu includes the picture controls required to calibrate the picture. The Audio menu features Bass, Treble, and Balance adjustments. In the Other Adjust sub-menu for Audio, you can choose Surround for a marginal Virtual Surround Sound experience. Also in this sub-menu, the users with Home Theater systems may choose to simply turn off the internal speakers of the television.

When viewing material from a non-HDTV source, aspect ratio becomes a concern with the TH-50PX60U. There are four modes for adjusting regular 4:3 inputs to the widescreen 16:9. The first option is to watch the source in its native 4:3 ratio with the sidebar "letter-boxes." Panasonic allows the customer to change the color of the letter boxing, and it is wise to change these to black if you want to use this aspect ratio setting. With Full mode, the picture is uniformly horizontally stretched across the screen. With Zoom mode, the plasma cuts off the top and bottom of the screen and zooms in so that the sides match with the ends of the screen. Obviously, most people will not choose this setting because they don't want to lose any of the picture. The final choice is the most popular—Just mode. Just mode stretches the picture horizontally but uses a special stretching algorithm to minimize distortion in the middle of the screen. With this method, distortion on a 4:3 source is virtually undetectable.

Panasonic adds a front composite video input and digital card slot input at the front of the panel for this HDTV plasma. This is particularly useful if you want to display images from a digital camera or a source that you will use only temporarily. Panasonic removed these features from the TH-50PX60U's predecessor, but many consumers clamored for their return even though they are rarely used.

We did not test the Secure-Digital (SD) memory-card slot—a new feature for the TH-50PX60U, but we are sure that users will find this a handy feature to quickly view digital camera pictures.

Another important addition to the TH-50PX60U plasma TV is the second HDMI input. Because of the increase in popularity of up-converting DVD players and digital high-definition cable and satellite boxes which already support the HDMI format, and the upcoming HD-DVD and Blu-Ray disc players which will be optimized for HDMI, this is an especially handy feature. To make way for the second HDMI input, Panasonic eliminated the Cable-Card slot from the TH-50PX60U. While the Cable-Card was a highly touted innovation, few cable companies have providers have been slow to adopt the technology causing problems in compatibility between the TV and the cable operator. The TH-50PX60U also includes two component video inputs, three composite/S-Video inputs and a coaxial input jack. The plasma also includes digital audio output capabilities. Even though one cannot choose input sources directly on the remote, it is easy to navigate to the chosen source.

Like its predecessor, the TH-50PX60U cannot display Picture-in-Picture. This means that, although it can support up to eight input sources, it can only display one source at a time. This is another highly touted, but rarely used feature.

The two 10-watt speakers on this TV put out a total of 20 W of power and are more than adequate for home viewing. There is discernable separation of channels between the highs and low notes of the bass output. Panasonic offers a Virtual Surround option for the TH-50PX60U, but its marginal performance will cause most users to ignore it. While many home theater aficionados will want to use their own surround sound speaker system, the included speakers will impress the average consumer.

While it is a secondary concern for most plasma television shoppers, it is important to note that the Panasonic TH-50PX60U eats up an astonishing 515 watts of power. When compared to its primary competition—Samsung HP-R5052 (390 W), Pioneer PDP-5060HD (355 W), and Toshiba 50HP66 (460 W)—the TH-50PX60U consumes substantially more power. Even though the TH-50PX60U has arguably the best picture quality and value of the top-tier 50" plasma televisions, it is disappointing that Panasonic did not engineer the television to use less power.


VALUE: 98/100

Panasonic introduced the TH-50PX60U with an MSRP of $3,499 but it can be found close to $3,000 at one of several Internet retailers (searching only authorized dealers, of course). When we traveled around town checking prices, we found that prices at the big-box retailers are usually 20-25% higher.

The TH-50PX60U is not only an impressive plasma display, but it is the most affordable of the top-tier plasma televisions. Both Samsung and Toshiba have 50" plasma televisions on the market with marginally lower prices, but they can hardly compete with the superior picture quality of the TH-50PX60U. Pioneer's PDP-5060HD has a very high-quality picture, but Pioneer also includes superfluous features such as a separate box which inflate the PDP-5060HD's price to roughly $1,000 more than that of the TH-50PX60U. Perhaps the most interesting price comparison is between the TH-50PX60U and its predecessor, the TH-50PX50U. When it hit the market in 2005, the TH-50PX50U was heralded for its great value - it had an MSRP of $3,999; $500 more than the TH-50PX60U!

Like with its earlier plasma televisions, Panasonic's TH-50PX60U has excellent black levels, contrast, color reproduction, and aesthetic appeal. There is simply no other 50" plasma television on the market today that can match both its picture quality and its price point in the market. Panasonic was very smart to cut unneeded features from the TH-50PX60U to keep the price low while adding important new features like a second HDMI input and a front-panel composite input. This plasma television is for those HDTV buyers who demand paramount picture quality at a reasonable price.


OVERALL RATING (WITH PICTURE DOUBLE-WEIGHTED): 92.5/100

Rating scale from 70 (denoting poorest quality) to 100 (signifying the very best quality). A rating in the 60s for any particular category of a product review indicates a serious defect which causes the product not to operate properly. Picture quality is double-weighted in the Overall Rating Score calculation.




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