Black Level and Contrast Performance
Since it’s using Panasonic’s Plasma technology, the TX-P42UT50B is all but guaranteed to smoke competing HDTVs (which, at this price point, are almost exclusively LCD) when it comes to producing deep, inky blacks. There’s one caveat, though: you won’t see those deep, inky blacks unless you’re watching the Panasonic TX-P42UT50 in a darker environment. The UT50 series do not feature the “Infinite Black Pro” screen coatings found on the ST50 and upwards, meaning that in a very bright environment, the blacks will appear greyer. If you plan to constantly watch TV in a bright, sun-filled room, an LCD (or better-equipped Plasma) will be more appropriate.
If you only watch television in the evenings, though, then it’s all good news as far as black level is concerned. Without any strong light to wash out the picture, the TXP42UT50B gave us a measurement of 0.009 cd/m2 on both a full black screen and on an ANSI checkerboard test chart. That’s equivalent to the company’s VT50 flagship plasmas which cost many, many times more than the UT50. This is extraordinary performance for a display of this price.
Unlike the Panasonic GT50 and VT50 series, which, in their European versions, can only produce around 90 and 80 cd/m2 of brightness respectively when set to their “Professional” picture modes, the UT50 can more or less reach our target of 120 cd/m2, but at the expense of some whiter-than-white details. What tradeoff of dynamic range versus screen brightness you choose is up to you, but one thing is for sure: you’ll want to raise the [Contrast] control significantly from the default position, which produces only 63 cd/m2 of brightness!
One last point to make regarding overall brightness relates to ABL (Automatic Brightness Limiting, a standard feature of all plasma and CRT TVs, which causes full white screens to be dimmed automatically to reduce power consumption, and apparently, heat buildup in the panel). The implementation of ABL on the Panasonic TX-P42UT50B appears to be a little more extreme than on other Panasonic plasma televisions, such as the ST50 series and up. In other words, images which wouldn’t trigger the dimming on the ST50 did appear slightly dimmed on the UT50, suggesting that the ABL kicks in sooner on this cheaper model. In any case, it should have a minimal effect on real usage since almost no TV content (other than iPhone commercials) features these average picture levels.
Surprise, surprise… the Panasonic TX-P42UT50 manages to cleanly draw all 1080 lines on the FPD Benchmark Software‘s horizontal scrolling test. Other artefacts are at a minimum, with only small (less than one pixel wide) yellow and purple trails clinging to edges. The same improvements to motion rendering (compared to last year’s Panasonic range) that we first became elated with in our March review of the TX-P42ST50 are present on the UT50, with only a tiny amount of barely noticeable dithering noise surrounding moving details.
As with all plasma displays, the panel is in its sweet spot when outputting 60hz video (such as that from the FPD Benchmark Disc). 24p film content from Blu-ray is also trouble-free, with this lower frame rate being output by the panel at 96hz, resulting in judder-free, cinema-like motion.
On the other hand, the troublesome 50hz format used in much of the world – but not in any of the countries where major television manufacturers reside – has to be output by the plasma at 100hz to avoid flickering. That increases double-imaging and means the gradation quality is slightly lessened. We didn’t find it to be a huge issue, but admittedly, that is partly slanted by our preference for 24p and 60hz content (the same flaws are true of 24p material being output at 96hz in theory, but in practice, these artefacts aren’t visible with 24p film content owed to its lower frame rate). If you watch a lot of 50hz TV shows, you might choose to use the [Intelligent Frame Creation] option, which reduces these effects – especially on its maximum setting, which causes the TV to internally convert 50hz content and output it at 60hz.
The TX-P42UT50B did well with SD images in our tests, with crisp, clear scaling and correct recovery of full vertical detail from films transferred to PAL video (2-2 cadence test). Diagonal interpolation for avoiding jaggies during interlaced video camera material was also good, although not top-tier. It’s not quite as forgiving of ropey, overcompressed digital TV channels as Samsung’s best plasma TVs, but that’s not so much the fault of the TX-P42UT50.
The UT50 produced the same excellent quality images that we’ve seen across the rest of the 2012 Panasonic plasma range. It’s difficult to write about what makes these HDTVs special time and time again, so we’ll start by reducing it to three main attributes: images output by Panasonic Plasma displays are natural, high quality, and crisp.
“Natural” and “high quality” are closely related. As we demonstrated with measurements of colour and light output from the screen, the TX-P42UT50B, in its “True Cinema” mode, can reproduce images very similar to those seen, and approved of, by the directors, camera operators, directors of photography, set designers, colourists, and so on. Its images are reasonably accurate and true-to-spec to start with, and the calibration controls allow them to be taken to a new level, providing you’re hiring the time and skills of a calibrator, that is. Pictures aren’t marred by any obvious undefeatable video processing: unlike some offerings from rival TV brands, there is no noise reduction circuit running to blur out fine details, unless the user turns it on, nor is there any visible ringing around edges.
A quick note on frequency response for the die-hard videophiles: a glance at a Luma Zone Plate pattern reveals the same strange “four-leaf clover shape” that we’ve seen on the entire Panasonic 2012 lineup, and if we look at single-pixel details with our noses almost pressed against the panel, we can see that this very subtle sharpening process occasionally results in a stray pixel being drawn here and there. There is also some moiré around the outer edges of the pattern. This has basically no real ramifications for video content, although as we’ve said in our other reviews, we hope Panasonic don’t start adding more and more of this sort of thing as the years go on.
The vast majority of our appreciation for these plasmas is owed to the contrast performance. This is a critical characteristic of deep, involving video images. Again, we don’t recommend the Panasonic TX-P42UT50B at all for use in brightly-lit environments, because it doesn’t feature an advanced anti-reflective (AR) filter: readers listening to us sing the praises of its contrast performance will be scratching their heads if they’ve only see a UT50 in these conditions. (For that same reason, do not assess the UT50′s performance based on what you see in a brightly-lit store showroom). In the right conditions, however, the TX-P42UT50′s truly deep blacks (which measure at just 0.009 cd/m2) and sufficiently bright whites (with some adjustment) act as a great canvas for the accurate grey shades and colours to go on top of.
Since it’s a plasma TV, there are no viewing angle limitations: the image looks as rich face-on as it does from the sides, with no washed out images for viewers sitting to the sides. Screen uniformity is also nearly perfect, without any “dirty screen” effects. The only times we encountered less than perfect uniformity were when the plasma panel had some temporary image retention (for example, ghost images of static video game score counters can linger on the screen for a few minutes after long play sessions).
Almost any picture quality attribute you can name, the 2012 Panasonic plasma TVs excel at, so now, onto the negatives: although we prefer plasma motion rendering to that of an LCD, Panasonic’s panel driving isn’t perfect. High-motion video content (sudden camera pans in video-based news footage, for example) can reveal some posterisation (where flat areas of colour which should be one smooth gradient appear with visible tone jumps), sometimes accompanied by a little bit of false colour. And, full screens of bright images (which probably won’t occur much at all outside the realm of test patterns) could sometimes produce a light amount of flicker on the panel.
We had a watch of Paramount/Miramax’s outstanding Blu-ray Disc of No Country For Old Men (which looks many times better than the truly half-hearted transfers of Cohen Brothers films that Universal has dumped onto disc for their box-set). Sure enough, with room lights turned on, the film’s darker scenes were impacted by the lack of AR filter. A quick flick of the light-switch resulted in image quality that was nearly indistinguishable from – or better than – televisions costing many times as much.
In terms of 3D, the TXP42UT50B presents basically the same performance as the other Panasonic displays: it doesn’t resolve all 1080 lines of a tri-dimensional image across the entire dynamic range, which results in jaggedness being visible on some diagonal objects. That’s hardly surprising, because even the flagship VT50 suffers from the same limitation. Images in the 3D mode are also duller and noisier than in 2D, leaving only the added depth to keep us relatively satisfied (and it is impressive). As with nearly all 3DTVs, though, 3-D images don’t have the same quality as those in 2D, and given the apparent failure of 3D TV in the marketplace, we wouldn’t be surprised if this is how things will stay until OLED displays come along. Panasonic’s usual strength of being able to reproduce judder-free motion with all signal types – 50hz, 60hz and 24p – is repeated here, however, which is excellent.
The UT50′s delivery date coincided with Sega re-releasing their Dreamcast classic Jet Set Radio in 720p on Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network (Dreamcast games on a Playstation system… the die-hard Sega fan in me doesn’t quite know what to make of that). The game really shone on the TX-P42UT50, with the colourful neon city of Tokyo-to being the perfect match for the excellent contrast performance of Panasonic’s plasma panels. Even after all these years, the game still only runs at 30 frames per second, so it doesn’t really push the motion rendering capabilities of the television… however, the UT50′s lack of input lag (which measured at only 16ms) was evident, allowing us to connect with the game world in a way that’s not possible on laggy HDTVs.
Before we reviewed the Panasonic TX-P42UT50B, we had the idea that the UT50 series’ picture quality would be essentially the same as the excellent ST50′s, factoring in the omission of the antireflective plasma screen coating on this cheaper display. That assumption turned out to be right on the money: provided you’re in a dimmer environment where its deep blacks won’t be washed out by light hitting the screen, the TX-P42UT50 produces the same outstanding picture quality, and in the right environment, it’s frankly hard to tell it apart from the very best.
If the Panasonic TX-P42ST50 were to be available for around £100 more, we’d probably argue for the UT50′s redundancy. However, the TX-P42UT50B is priced at around £550, which is some £300 less than the 42-inch ST50. For users in darker viewing environments who don’t care for the ST50′s sleeker design, built-in wireless connectivity or Infinite Black Pro screen filter, the UT50 is almost all good news. In such environments, it completely smokes LCD-based TVs (which is the bulk of the competition at this price point) in just about every way, with its ultra-low input lag, near-perfect screen uniformity, and naturally achieved deep blacks. Just don’t touch that “N” button.
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