Panasonic TX-P50VT20 Review

A new era is upon us: the first 3D TV displays have started trickling into stores, and accordingly, into the hands of us here at HDTVTest. The Panasonic TX-P50VT20, which has been with us for analysis over the last week, sits at the top of the company’s VIERA TV product line and boasts 1920×1080 resolution, a plasma panel worthy of the name “Infinite Black Pro”, Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) calibration controls, dual Freeview HD and Freesat HD tuners, and of course, 3D capability.

While some viewers will be drawn to the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 for its 3D thrills, another audience is paying even closer attention for an altogether different reason. Although they have gotten much closer this year, Panasonic’s displays haven’t quite managed the near-perfection that Pioneer’s departed KURO displays could achieve. However, as a result of Pioneer’s untimely departure from the flat-screen TV business, the burden of devising a suitable replacement has fallen into Panasonic’s hands. We don’t think it is stretching the truth when we say that enthusiasts are looking toward the VT20 line as being a possible heir to the KURO throne — the KUROs, of course, still holding onto their largely deserved reputation of being the best flat-panel TVs ever made. So, no pressure then(!)

Without further ado, let’s give the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 a look over.

Note: The specific review unit we tested was the Panasonic TX-P50VT20B (the extra character “B” appended to the end of the model number simply denotes the 3-pin-plug British version). The Panasonic TX-P50VT20B may also be sold by UK retailers as Panasonic TX-P50VT20, Panasonic TXP50VT20, Panasonic TXP50VT20B or Panasonic 50VT20… all referring to the same 3D TV.

Design

Panasonic TX-P50VT20 Front

Like all Panasonic products, the TX-P50VT20 is plainly styled. In most room environments, this 3D HDTV looks almost no different to any other gloss-black display on the market. However, under stronger light, it becomes apparent that the chassis actually has a subtle brown tinge to it. The Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is thin enough for any practical use, and comes packaged with a circular, gloss-black stand.

Panasonic TX-P50VT20 Shutter Glasses

As noted, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 3D HD TV comes with two sets of active shutter glasses (part number TY-EW3D10). It’s important to note that these are very different to the “throwaway” passive glasses that many 3D-equipped cinemas let moviegoers take home with them. For a start, they cost around £100 per pair, so we’re glad to see that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20B comes with two pairs. On the down-side, this does add to the cost of the TV if an entire family wants to watch together. Interestingly, Panasonic USA and Panasonic Japan only ship their equivalent models with one pair of 3D glasses, making this a refreshing change in terms of value-for-money in Europe.

In theory, active 3D glasses mean that manufacturers can deliver 3D with fewer changes made to the display itself: the only essential requirement for this kind of 3D TV is that the screen can refresh at double the normal rate, with the glasses doing much of the work (although Panasonic have made more improvements on the TV side beyond just upping the refresh rate, which we’ll clarify later). Panasonic packages these high-tech shades each with their own protective plastic case, and supplies them with two “nose-band” fittings to make sure that they sit as comfortably as possible on the viewer’s face.

The 3D glasses draw power from a small battery (the familiar CR2032 type) located beside one of the hinges. Panasonic supplies a small screwdriver for the purposes of changing the battery when it is depleted. At this early stage, we have no idea how long the battery will last, but the glasses are equipped with a small On/Off switch and also automatically shut off when line-of-sight with the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is lost (or when the TV switches back into 2D mode).

Connections

Panasonic’s debut 3D TV, the TX-P50VT20, features enough connections to satisfy almost any need. There are 4 HDMI inputs (one of which is on the side of the TV), inputs to both the terrestrial and satellite tuners, an Ethernet jack, an SD card input, and of course provision for older analogue AV interfaces (Component, SCART, and Composite video). Just don’t expect to watch your old VHS home videos in 3D…

Panasonic bundles the TX-P50VT20B with a wireless USB adapter, so we imagine most people will choose to use this instead of the Ethernet port, taking the opportunity to minimise cabling (assuming they care about the networking functionality at all, that is). In any case, once connected, access is granted to the VIERA CAST online portal as well as to DNLA-compliant home networking devices.

Rear connections on Panasonic TX-P50VT20
Rear: 3 x HDMI, VGA, component, 2 x Scarts, aerial, Freesat, ethernet & audio outs
Side: SD Card, Common Interface slot, 2x USB, 1x HDMI, Composite video, Headphones

Operation

Despite the inclusion of 3D technology, there are no huge changes to the Panasonic TX-P50VT20′s menus when compared to the rest of the Panasonic 2010 range. The menus are the same familiar blue and yellow, and all of the picture controls which appear on the company’s higher-end 2010 displays are present.

[Picture] menu [Sound] menu
[Picture] menu [White Balance] menu

After un-hiding the “Professional” picture modes (by enabling [Advance(isfccc)] in the TV’s “Setup” menu), the user is given access to Greyscale calibration controls, a menu which allows one of six preset Gamma curves to be chosen, and a basic Colour Management System. We imagine that many people spending this much money on a cutting-edge display will be interested in calibrating it using these controls (or paying someone to do the job for them), but for everyone else, the THX picture mode offers a good compromise.

3D Settings on Panasonic TX-P50VT20
Above: 3D Settings on Panasonic TX-P50VT20

Naturally, there is now a “3D Settings” menu tucked away under “Setup”. This 3D Settings screen can also be conveniently accessed via the VIERA TOOLS remote control button, which will be handy for sources that require the 3D mode to be manually enabled (although we wonder why Panasonic did not include an even more convenient “3D ON/OFF” button on the remote).

Since this is the first time we’ve seen these controls, we think it’s appropriate to expand our description in as much detail as possible. [3D Picture Display] can be set to either “2D” or “3D” and, when set to “2D”, allows the user to “flatten” 3D material into 2D. This may be of use for packed living rooms that don’t have enough sets of glasses for everyone.

[3D Picture Format] has four options: “Auto”, “Side by Side”, “Top and Bottom”, and “Original”. The “Auto” setting is designed for use with Blu-ray 3D players outputting frame-sequential 3D images (also known as “frame packed”, although the marketing term is apparently going to be “Full HD 3D”, indicating that Full HD images are sent to each eye). BD 3D is unique in that it retains full resolution for both the Left and Right eye images, a feat made possible thanks to additional compression techniques (which exploit the close similarities between the Left and Right eye images) and the large capacity of BD-ROM discs.

On the other hand, the “Side by Side” and “Top and Bottom” formats are a compromise that both allow 3D material to be sent and received using existing 2D video encoders and decoding hardware. These signals contain the Left and Right eye images squashed into a single HD frame, sacrificing either horizontal or vertical resolution in exchange for the extra depth. In the UK, British Sky Broadcasting are using the Side by Side technique to literally squeeze 3D images into their existing 2D delivery system, to promote rapid adoption by existing Sky HD owners.

Finally, “Original” turns the 3D processing off and displays the video signal exactly as-is. Panasonic explain that this is essentially a troubleshooting option, which is to be used for identifying which mode (either Side/Side or Top/Bottom) needs to be selected.

Additionally, [3D Picture Sequence] swaps the order of the glasses’ shutters (it doesn’t appear to make any difference to the output of the Plasma display itself). Panasonic mention that you should reverse the sequence “if you feel that the sense of depth is unnatural”, suggesting that it is for content that is out of phase. Additionally, there is a mysterious [Edge Smoother], which applies a subtle blur to the picture. The manual is very unclear about its intended usage, but it seems that it is intended to reduce “rough edge” artefacts that can result from yet another method of squeezing 3D content into a 2D signal (called Quincunx encoding). Accordingly, it has no effect with frame-sequential material like Blu-ray 3D, which is inherently free of such artefacts.

Unlike one other manufacturer, Panasonic do not provide any 2D-to-3D conversion facility on their TVs. In fact, a representative from Panasonic USA has cited the poor (or at least unreliable) quality of such processes, indicating that they would rather not include such processing until there is a way for it to work well. We will be very interested to see if Samsung’s 3D TVs, which do include this feature, can create convincing 3D out of 2D material.

Finally, when a 3D BD player is sending 3D 24p film material, the [3D 24p Film Display] option appears in the TV’s [Setup] > [Other Settings] screen. This setting refreshes the Plasma display at a multiple of 24 times per second, avoiding motion judder. This is a very confusing menu option, because it appears in the exact same place as the [Intelligent Frame Creation] and [24p Smooth Film] options which show up with 2D material. Those two options are motion interpolating controls which give films the awkward “sped-up soap opera” look and have confused many users over the years. Conversely, [3D 24p Film Display] does nothing of the sort and unlike the aforementioned controls, we recommend turning it on, because it displays films without judder by changing the panel refresh rate, not by inventing motion which never existed in the first place.

2D Calibration

Note: Our Panasonic TX-P50VT20B review sample was calibrated using Calman Professional, the industry-leading video calibration software.

2D Mode Greyscale

After clocking approximately 100 hours of use on the brand new Panasonic TX-P50VT20 plasma TV to let it stabilise, we verified basic picture settings in the [THX] picture mode, and then ran a series of measurements using test patterns. It is important to let a Plasma display “break in” before performing calibration, as the Greyscale characteristics shift during the early stages of its life.

Pre-calibration CCT
Pre-calibration CCT in [THX] mode
Pre-calibration RGB Tracking
Pre-calibration RGB tracking and delta errors (dEs)

The Greyscale tracking in the THX picture mode was fairly good, albeit imperfect. The image appeared somewhat green-ish, but we imagine that this result will be completely serviceable for users who do not want to calibrate the TV further.

Gamma curve in [THX] mode Gamma tracking in [THX] mode
Gamma curve in [THX] mode Corresponding gamma tracking

Gamma tracking was a little crooked, closely resembling the characteristics of the Panasonic S20 Plasma display which we reviewed last week. The Panasonic TX-P50VT20 does feature a Gamma control, which allows the user to select from one of several preset gamma curves — but in the THX picture mode, it does absolutely nothing! No loss, though: switching over to the “Professional1″ mode, which is identical to the THX mode before any adjustments are made, gives full control. It also unlocks the Colour Management System, which will be of use later.

Panasonic have introduced user-accessible calibration controls for the first time on their 2010 models. This is the first time the company has done so, so it’s not too surprising that the menus are just a little bit less intuitive than those from manufacturers who have been providing them for a while. The menus will reappear and cover up the area of the screen that you’re trying to measure, only seconds after you’ve begun adjustments. This is unlike HDTVs from the likes of LG and Samsung, where the menus will get out of the calibrator’s way and not reappear until prompted. My workaround for this was to double-tap the OPTION button (located directly left of the remote’s directional pad) to clear all menus from the screen whilst taking the measurement. Fortunately, the menus remember what option you last had selected, so it’s possible to hit MENU then “OK” a few times to get back to exactly where you were before. In other words, this is no where near as annoying as it could have been, and being a video gamer, I did not view this button-mashing as being particularly inconvenient.

Post-calibration CCT in [Professional1] mode
Post-calibration CCT in [Professional1] mode
Post-calibration RGB Tracking in [Professional1] mode
Post-calibration RGB tracking and dEs in [Professional1] mode

After calibration, Greyscale tracking on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 HDTV was brought up to a very high standard. It’s not quite as linear as the likes of the Pioneer displays or some high-end projectors we’ve seen, but none of the small errors are troubling. (It’s possible that these will actually straighten out even more with more use, as this result is more linear than what we measured when the TX-P50VT20B was brand new). From looking at the CCT chart (top), we noted that this display has the exact same “bump” downward at 30 IRE as other Panasonic PDPs we’ve seen lately. (The large error at 0 IRE you see on the bottom chart indicates the difficulty of measuring the RGB channels within the exceptionally dark blacks that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 can produce, and does not equate to a visible problem with picture quality).

Gamma curve in [Professional1] mode Gamma tracking in [Professional1] mode
Gamma curve in [Professional1] mode Corresponding gamma tracking

We managed to straighten out Gamma tracking by selecting the 2.4 option in the dedicated Gamma sub-menu (and yes, in the “Professional” picture modes, the control actually does work!) This actually brought us closer to our target of 2.2, making the picture richer than the out-of-the-box state. Some trial and error during Greyscale calibration allowed us to refine Gamma tracking quality further, in exchange for subtly less accurate Greyscale tracking. Our final calibration result reflects the best balance of both.

2D Mode Colour

Colour performance on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 was very good in the [THX] mode with no further adjustments made. However, red was slightly pushed towards yellow/orange, and green was mildly oversaturated. We also noted that Luminance levels were routinely too high, giving the colours unintended exaggeration on screen. Two clicks of the [Colour] control down from its default position remedied this.

The following measurements indicate the end result of our efforts to improve colour using both the basic [Colour] control, as well as the Hue and Saturation controls in the [Colour Management] submenu:

Post-calibration CIE chart in [Professional1] mode
Post-calibration CIE chart with reference to HD Rec.709
Post-calibration Luminance levels in [Professional1] mode
Post-calibration colour luminance (coloured bars = targets; black bars = measured values)

After calibration, colour performance was further improved. The final result was excellent, which is what we’ve come to expect from Panasonic’s 2010 displays: chromaticity is close to flawless, barring some very minor hue errors with secondary colours. Luminance levels (a.k.a. colour decoding) are not at the same level of perfection as calibrated Samsung displays, but they are close enough for us to not be concerned.

3D Measurements

It’s no secret that 3D glasses cause a noticeable change in image characteristics (most noticeably, they cause a loss of brightness), but unfortunately, there is currently very little consensus on how to properly set up 3D displays at this early stage. Indeed, when the 3D mode is enabled on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 3D TV, the name “THX” disappears and is instead replaced with “True Cinema”, which we assume is the result of THX having no 3D certification procedure in place yet.

However, given that 3D material is being produced using mostly the same equipment, it arguably makes sense to calibrate with the same white point and chromaticity as 2D in mind, at least for the time being. For this review, we were able to gain the insight of the post production community, who have been dealing with the same problems — namely a lack of standardisation — for some time. We were advised to calibrate the display “bare”, but afterwards, we also took it upon ourselves to attach the 3D shutter glasses to the calibration probe, and attempt to calibrate “through” the glasses to also counter the skew they added.

This was not without its challenges. Beyond the obvious difficulty in affixing the 3D glasses to the meter (which we overcame using a high-tech process known as “sticky taping”), Plasma displays require windowed test patterns for measurements, and at the time of writing, there is no commercial test pattern source outputting windowed patterns in 3D. Furthermore, because the active glasses automatically power off when the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is not fed with 3D content (which causes the TV to revert to 2D mode), I had to encode my own 3D test patterns before I could take measurements through the 3D glasses.

Irritatingly, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 does not store settings independently of the display mode (2D/3D). So, if you alter, for example, [Colour] in 3D mode, the change will remain even after you’ve put the glasses away and are watching 2D content. Fortunately, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 does include two “Professional” modes which were originally designed for separate Day and Night ISF calibration. We repurposed these as 2D and 3D modes respectively, but obviously still had to manually switch between the two when starting and finishing 3D viewing — something we hope will not be necessary on future 3D TVs.

3D Mode Greyscale

During the process of 3D greyscale calibration, we found out that much of the different “look” given to 3D material was actually more inherent to the display rather than being the fault of the glasses. That is to say, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 produced very uneven Greyscale tracking when we measured it running in 3D mode without the glasses (presumably because of the higher refresh rate), and uneven tracking — albeit differently so — with the glasses attached. The following measurements reflect the latter scenario:

3D Pre-calibration CCT
3D Pre-calibration CCT in [Professional2] mode
3D Pre-calibration RGB Tracking
3D Pre-calibration RGB tracking and delta errors (dEs)

These non-linear Greyscale tracking results would not really impress us had they come from a 2D display, but given that we are in the brave new world of 3D, all we can really do is nod our heads and see how future products hold up. Fortunately, we managed to make a considerable improvement with some calibration work, and were relieved that we received consistent readings from our meter, despite the 3D shutter glasses being in front of the lens.

3D Post-calibration CCT in [Professional1] mode
3D Post-calibration CCT in [Professional2] mode
3D Post-calibration RGB Tracking in [Professional1] mode
3D Post-calibration RGB tracking and dEs in [Professional2] mode

Our thoughts on the resulting picture quality come later in this review.

3D Gamma curve in [Professional2] mode Gamma tracking in [Professional2] mode
3D Gamma curve in [Professional2] mode 3D Corresponding gamma tracking

3D Mode Colour

Ultimately, most of the corrections we made using the [Colour Management] menu in 2D mode had to be applied for 3D, too. The observations that we can make from the measurements, though, are that we can’t fully saturate blue with the 3D glasses in front of the measuring probe, and secondly, that magenta was deviated towards blue.

3D Post-calibration CIE chart in [Professional2] mode
3D Post-calibration CIE chart with reference to HD Rec.709
3D Post-calibration Luminance levels in [Professional2] mode
3D Post-calibration colour luminance (coloured bars = targets; black bars = measured values)

Benchmark Test Results

Dead pixels None
Screen uniformity Perfect
Overscanning on HDMI 0% with [16:9 Overscan] set to “Off
Blacker than black Passed
Calibrated black level 0.006 0.009 cd/m2
Black level retention Stable in [Professional] modes
Primary chromaticity Excellent
Scaling Excellent
Video mode deinterlacing Good: 2/3 bars smooth on HQV test
Film mode deinterlacing Failed 3:2/ 2:2 cadences in all resolutions
Viewing angle Excellent (> 150°)
Motion resolution 1080 lines at all times
Digital noise reduction [P-NR] is a spatial control, very little effect
Sharpness Defeatable edge enhancement
Luma/Chroma bandwidth Full Luma, Chroma slightly blurred in 2D mode
Image retention Virtually none in 2D, some in 3D
Posterization Mild, though worse with poor source
Phosphor trails Yes (reduced); severity depends on individual susceptibility
1080p/24 capability Accepts 1080p/24 video signal; no telecine judder
Input lag Only 17ms slower than a lag-free CRT
Full 4:4:4 reproduction No, 4:4:4 input subsampled

Power Consumption

Default [Normal] mode (2D) 137 watts*
Default [Normal] mode (3D) 171 watts*
Calibrated [Professional1] mode (2D) 187 watts
Calibrated [Professional2] mode (3D) 333 watts
Standby 1 watt

* The default factory settings in “Normal” [Viewing Mode] was unusually dim, which is the reason why the power consumption of our Panasonic TX-P50VT20 test sample was lower out-of-the-box than that after calibration. The measurements above reflect measurements taken with a 50% grey full screen, and could be as high as 424 watts with a full white screen (in 3D mode), although power consumption will rarely reach this height with actual programme content.

Picture Performance

3D Challenges

Earlier in the review, we mentioned that one of the benefits of companies using active shutter glasses for 3D is that only minimal changes to the display device itself are required. However, this is not the whole story. Because 3D requires the screen refresh rate to be doubled, Panasonic have had to develop a new panel drive mechanism to ensure that light output from the television itself is not sacrificed as a result. This is critically important when we remember that the shutter glasses themselves have a darkening effect.

Comparison of luminescence power and afterimage time, image (c) Panasonic

Additionally, Panasonic have reduced afterglow effects by developing new short persistence phosphors. Many people are familiar with the phenomenon of “phosphor trails”, that is, the green and yellow trails which can sometimes be seen following moving objects on most Plasma displays. Whilst this effect can be occasionally irritating with 2D content, Panasonic have realised that it has much more severe ramifications for 3D, where the Left and Right eye images are flashed up on the Plasma display in rapid succession. Any such after-images produced during 3D content mean that pieces of visual information intended for one eye can end up being sent to the other, producing a distracting ghosting effect known as “crosstalk”, which can seriously damage the sense of immersion that 3D is supposed to provide. If this much was necessary to make a Plasma display’s motion characteristics suitable for 3D, we imagine that producers of 3D LCD TVs will well and truly have their work cut out for them.

However, it is not only 3D which benefits from the new short persistence phosphors. Panasonic claim that the afterglow time has been shortened by about one one third, meaning that the “phosphor trails” will be significantly less visible when the screen is in 2D mode.

Black Level

Panasonic promotes the TX-P50VT20 as featuring “Infinite Black Pro”. It would appear that this is a marketing phrase which describes two key sub-features:

  • “High Contrast Filter Pro”, a screen coating designed to reject ambient light, thus increasing contrast performance even when the TV is in a bright environment,
  • and a new NeoPDP panel which on its own features a higher native contrast ratio.

The question on everyone’s minds, of course, will be whether or not the new NeoPDP panel can match or even exceed the deep blacks produced by the discontinued Pioneer KURO displays when viewed in an entirely dark environment. The answer to that is: very nearly. The Panasonic TX-P50VT20′s black level measured at an astonishingly deep 0.006 0.009 cd/m2, making it the deepest that Panasonic has ever produced, albeit minutely higher than Pioneer’s best (which we measured at 0.003 cd/m2). Only when placed side-by-side with the legendary KURO display would the incredibly small difference be apparent. Frankly, blacks this deep are more than adequate: while we would never say no to deeper blacks year-on-year, it really has got to the stage where there are better issues to worry about (something we wish we could say for the majority of LCD TVs).

To measure this value, we used our Klein Instruments K-10 colorimeter — a device that is already known for its accuracy with low light — and ran continuous measurements of a black video signal for one hour (resulting in almost 30,000 different readings). We then averaged the results to add another layer (or 30,000 layers, technically) of accuracy.

Update 23 May 2010: When we first published this review, the initial black level measurements from our Klein Instruments K-10 meter read 0.006 cd/m2. Unfortunately, despite us using a brand new and freshly calibrated meter under the instructions provided by the manufacturer, it turns out that the unit was in need of an extra initialisation step in order to bring its measurements in line with the exacting demands of such a capable Plasma display. The corrected black level measurement is 0.009 cd/m2, meaning that, just like before, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 produces an incredibly dark shade of black which is second only to the Pioneer KURO displays. Although the inaccuracy was not even half of a single nit of brightness, we apologise for this mistake which will not be repeated in the future. Only the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 review was affected, because no other recently tested display can produce such a deep shade of black.

Unfortunately, the phrase “black level” has been haunting Panasonic lately, with many owners reporting that their 2009-model NeoPDP displays only produced such a deep shade of black in the first few hundred hours of use, with black level quality decreasing visibly afterwards. At the time of writing, we have no idea how this new-generation NeoPDP panel is going to fare over a period of many years. Given that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is an expensive display and carries the “Infinite Black Pro” branding, we cannot imagine that any retailers (nor Panasonic) could reasonably expect buyers to tolerate a marked decrease in black level quality in any short space of time.

At least one additional point is certain: the issue of “floating blacks”, where the picture would occasionally appear to brighten very slightly during darker scenes, does not appear on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 plasma television. This issue was mildly irritating on the cheaper Panasonic displays (although nowhere near the levels of LCD and LED LCD TVs which fluctuate their backlight brightness), so it’s great to see that it doesn’t make an appearance here. It would be a shame if this minor quirk affected the high-end 3D model.

Additionally, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 held up remarkably well even with ambient light in the room. The panel filter did an excellent job of diverting stray light and making sure that the image appeared rich and vibrant. This makes the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 suitable for day and night viewing, with the image quality looking excellent in both cases.

Motion Resolution

We were expecting the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 to follow its predecessors in resolving around 900 lines of resolution in our scrolling test chart. However, we were delighted to see that motion resolution has been increased to a full 1080 lines even with the [Intelligent Frame Creation] system turned off, with only pixel-thin purple and yellow streaks surrounding the black lines in the chart. This means that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 has the clearest motion out of any TV being manufactured today. It also means that the [Intelligent Frame Creation] option serves little to no use, other than to introduce the so-called “soap-opera effect” into film content.

We also encoded new side-by-side 3D versions of our normal motion resolution test clips, and confirmed that real-world material looked fantastic when the panel was being driven in 3D mode (as well as 2D).

Not only does the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 wring out a few more lines of motion resolution, but thanks to the new short-persistence phosphors, trailing is considerably reduced. It’s still visible on certain fast moving video games (the desaturated world of Resident Evil 5 still being my favourite test for sniffing it out), but it now only appears during very fast camera movements. For what it’s worth, although I could clearly see it, I was never very disturbed by this effect on previous Panasonic TVs, so we will be interested in hearing other user feedback on this topic — especially from readers who have found the trails on previous Panasonic PDPs particularly objectionable.

3D Material

There is a 3D content gap at the moment, something which Blu-ray 3D will probably be the most successful at filling. While the BD format has been gaining steady momentum so far, Hollywood clearly hopes that adding 3D to the mix will help convince more consumers to jump on board and finally retire their DVD players.

Not surprisingly, it was a sample 3D Blu-ray disc (a specially prepared version of Dreamworks’ Monsters Versus Aliens) that really impressed. Personally, I’ve always been a little irritated by 3D in cinemas, due to the uncomfortable, sometimes dirty glasses, the severely hampered brightness, and on one occasion, incredibly skewed colours. But thankfully, the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 3DTV allowed me to raise the display’s [Contrast] setting high enough to almost make the light loss from the glasses a non-issue. Of course, this is not good from a power consumption point of view, but I won’t feel guilty about the amount of juice the TV is consuming while 3D content makes up a very small percentage of viewing.

Although it’s one of the less visually appealing animated films to roll off of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s cartoon assembly line, I can’t deny that watching the Blu-ray 3D Disc of Monsters Versus Aliens on this display was the best 3D experience that I’ve ever had. (Interestingly, viewing the film in 3D made Dreamworks’ usual plastic-looking human character designs look much less freakish). The experience was comfortable and bright enough to the extent that my anti-3D barriers began to come down: gradually I was impressed, sometimes wowed, by the depth of the image. The only down-side was that occasionally, there was some crosstalk visible around white objects on black backgrounds, having the effect of producing a horizontal “ghost image” of the offending bright object.

We came up with a basic crosstalk detection test pattern which confirmed that the issue is present to some extent on this TV. We’ll be using this pattern to test 3D LCD displays (mostly LED-backlit) as they arrive, but obviously, we hope it can be alleviated as 3D technology matures.

Before going to the (virtual) press, Panasonic also managed to rush a copy of their own 3D BD demo disc to us. Some of the clips on this disc are 1080p/24, the remainder are 720p/60. The 1080p clips were much more impressive, the higher detail giving a satisfying sense of realism.

One other thing I cannot stress enough is the improvement made by calibration. Although 3D standardisation is still on the horizon, much of the same equipment is being used as in the 2D production process and calibrating to our usual standards, and compensating as best we could for the skew of the glasses, made a huge improvement to the image. Admittedly, the Greyscale tracking measurements that we took through the glasses suggest that there is work to be done in this area, but the improvement was undeniable nonetheless. What at first looked like washed out, salmon-coloured pictures burst into life. I am considerably more enthused by 3D TV in general after seeing it like this.

All in all, the experience of watching Blu-ray 3D on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 was great — something I wasn’t expecting to write. The superiority of Blu-ray Disc over other delivery methods was already obvious in 2D, but it is completely blatant now in 3D, with the Full 1080p resolution per eye really paying off. After getting used to High Definition in 2D, I feel that the Side-by-Side and Top-to-Bottom methods involve too much of a resolution compromise to be fully enjoyable in the long term — although I’ll wait and see what Sky 3D do with this method before coming to any conclusion.

Standard Definition

BBC News on Panasonic TX-P50VT20

The Panasonic TX-P50VT20′s SD performance is as good as, but no better than the mid-range 2010 NeoPDP displays. In a nutshell, this means excellent, clear scaling, pretty good video deinterlacing, but also a total lack of any film cadence detection. This last point (a routine omission from Panasonic HDTVs) means that film content received by the TV in an Interlaced video signal will feature subtle jaggies where there would ideally be none.

France24 on Panasonic TX-P50VT20 Freesat

Adding these strengths and weaknesses to the plasma panel’s own characteristics (which we are largely delighted with) should give readers a good idea of what SD signals will look like on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20. Much of it is down to the source, and good SD material (good luck in finding some of that!) really shines on the TX-P50VT20.

High Definition

2D Blu-ray Disc movies looked absolutely sublime on the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 HDTV. It’s easy to get distracted with the novelty of new 3D material, but doing so would be a criminal oversight, because this display’s 2D image quality is one of the best we’ve ever seen. Ironically, the better the TV, the less there is to discuss in this area: the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is faithful to the point where the look of what you’re watching is dictated only by the source itself, and almost never by the TV. Images had astonishing depth (yes, in 2D!), vibrancy, and realism due to the performance of the NeoPDP panel. The picture quality is simply outstanding.

Gangs of New York on Panasonic TX-P50VT20

Since we went into this review with one other outstanding display in mind, there is one point to make here about image detail which will be of special interest to Plasma TV owners. The Panasonic TX-P50VT20′s images are marginally (and we do mean marginally) more detailed than that of Pioneer’s PDP-LX5090 KURO TV. When fed with a high-frequency stipple pattern, the Pioneer TV would show blurring and disturbance on screen (except for when the TV was set to “PC” mode, but this produced poorer colour accuracy). In reality, this shortcoming of Pioneer’s display had very little effect on real world image content, but it is nevertheless the case that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 produces a slightly more detailed HD picture. High frequencies are rock solid on this plasma television, meaning that there is a subtle difference with ultra-detailed BD titles (for example, Warner’s “How The West Was Won”, which contains an astonishing amount of detail) and also to the faithfulness of film grain on others. This is in addition to the fact that Panasonic’s display produces less dithering noise in the picture — although its tendency to show more posterization during movement is reportedly the associated trade-off for this. For most users, Panasonic’s newest display will be preferable, looking both cleaner and being marginally crisper. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement…

We are a little surprised to see that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 does not reproduce full chroma resolution from a 4:4:4 input source. This means that the finest coloured nuances from 4:4:4 sources (PCs, games consoles, and Panasonic BD players which perform advanced chroma upsampling) are lost, as they are on almost all TVs. However, higher-end VIERA TVs have featured full 4:4:4 support in the past, and Panasonic tout advanced chroma upsampling as one of the key advantages of their own Blu-ray Disc players, so this was disappointing, albeit very subtle. Television-sized displays generally do not reveal the limitations of chroma down-sampling unless an observant user sits very close, but it still a little disappointing given that this is arguably Panasonic’s frontrunning 2010 model. (In fact, we have a slightly guilty feeling that the lower chroma resolution may be a side-effect of Panasonic adding a Colour Management system to its TVs).

HD TV broadcasts looked as good as could be expected. Frankly, they are pretty underwhelming on any TV after sampling the best unfiltered Blu-ray Discs. That isn’t the fault of the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 though, as it delivered all the resolution left in BBC HD‘s filtered 1440x1080i channel, and also from ITV HD‘s less-than-stellar efforts.

Console Gaming

Unsurprisingly, gaming was fantastic fun on the TX-P50VT20, as it has been on every Panasonic Plasma display for as long as we can remember. These TVs have never featured any input lag worth mentioning, and this top-end model is no different. We measured the input lag as being only 17ms in all modes, which is enough to make it effectively unnoticeable.

But what of input lag during 3D mode? Does the video processing required to take a side-by-side (or top-to-bottom) signal and convert it to frame-sequential 3D for display on the screen add to input lag? The answer is no: we measured the exact same 16-17ms figures in the 3D [Professional2] and [Game] modes.

Of course, there is not a lot of 3D gaming content yet, something which Sony Computer Entertainment in particular are promising to change. Until then, the tie-in movie game of Avatar on the Xbox 360 served as our 3D gaming test material. The immersive quality is impressive, but unfortunately, it is achieved with the resolution-compromised Side-by-Side method, meaning that the final resolution is effectively 640×720 (that’s a lower horizontal pixel count than Standard Definition games consoles — ouch). Additionally, this game in particular has a very low frame rate in parts, which completely ruins any immersive effect that the 3D might have added. Still, gaming is one area where 3D shows particular promise, so hopefully some better, faster 3D games appear soon. We also wonder if manufacturers’ plans regarding the lifespan of today’s games consoles may have to be revised if 3D takes off…

The Panasonic TX-P50VT20 3D TV was much more prone to temporary image retention when in 3D mode (even when with the [Contrast] setting lowered). We can only assume that this a side-effect of the higher panel refresh rate. In any case, the retention quickly cleared up after viewing.

Conclusion

It’s a little unusual that the first 3DTV we’ve had the chance to review here at HDTVTest is a Plasma. Panasonic (a heavy investor in both Plasma and 3D technologies) have been vocal in explaining the advantages of viewing 3D content on this display type, especially as far as 3D crosstalk is concerned — although we are sure that LCD/ LED LCD manufacturers will have their own performance claims to fight back with. One thing is becoming more apparent: the addition of 3D places new demands on the display device and will almost certainly re-ignite the Plasma vs LCD debate. In the future, we’d like to see comfier glasses (especially around the nose), less crosstalk, and less light loss. But for now, consider this skeptical writer’s opinion of 3D TV to have done a U-turn.

Attempting to put 3D aside for a moment, how is the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 as a standard HDTV? Absolutely wonderful. It produces the cleanest motion and the deepest, richest blacks out of any flat-screen HDTV currently on the market (although how those blacks will hold up over time is another matter). And, since the question is on the tip of your tongue, is it as good as the Pioneer KURO displays?

Yes — and no. Panasonic’s newest effort can boast of less panel-generated PWM noise in the image, and a very subtly more detailed picture due to the fact that it does not curtail the highest frequencies in the video. On the other hand, the last-generation Pioneer KURO displays have very marginally deeper blacks (although you would likely only notice with the two displays side by side in a pitch black room), effectively no visible posterization during movement, more linear Greyscale and Gamma tracking, and proven long-term black level quality. Both screens are just about equal in terms of colour. We think that the lure of 3D will convince a good number of Pioneer KURO owners to sacrifice a little bit of picture accuracy and a miniscule amount of black level quality, in exchange for some other benefits, and the new experiences that the third dimension brings.

All the same, we hope that the novelty and mystery surrounding 3D — something that this display seems to be very good at — hasn’t diverted anyone’s attention away from the fact that the Panasonic TX-P50VT20 is the best HDTV on sale today. It is for this reason that after a lot of discussion, we feel that the rating of “Reference Level” is appropriate. Although the Panasonic 50VT20 isn’t flawless (is anything?), it is, like the Pioneer PDP-LX5090 before it, the best HDTV that money can buy today — and it is visibly superior to others in the “Highly Recommended” category (Panasonic’s own G20 included). Almost every aspect of picture quality we can think of is either very good or excellent. The only down-side, which is a lack of film cadence detection (which hampers SD film material slightly), is becoming less and less relevant in the age of 1080p Blu-ray material. In any case, it can be compensated for by other components in an AV system.

We can’t really think of any audience or situation that would prevent us from unreservedly recommending the Panasonic TX-P50VT20. It does 2D brilliantly in dark and bright viewing environments, can produce an enveloping 3D experience (something which could effectively be regarded as a bonus), is absolutely fantastic to play video games on, and does just about as well as a TV could with broadcast material. All that remains to be seen (except for the fate of its black levels) is how competing 3D LCD/ LED LCD products hold up, and most importantly, how the public responds to this technology at large. Watch this space…

Reference Level

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