It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times
There is both irony and tragedy in the fact that this year’s much-deserved prize for our Top Pick product for all of 2013 goes to TC-P65ZT60, whose short life and lineage will begin and end with the 2013 model year. In what feels like a cruel joke on videophiles the world over, Panasonic confirmed last fall what had long been rumored: It was getting out of the plasma TV business. Production of plasma display panels would cease in December, the company announced, and by the end of March, it would cease operations at its last remaining plasma plant in Amagasaki, Japan. The company cited market difficulties that it traced all the way back to the economic collapse of 2008, but the bottom line is that it’s been losing boatloads of money for the last few years, and LCD displays have eaten away plasma’s share to the point where the business is no longer viable.
What’s both ironic and tragic, of course, is that Panasonic’s plasmas have been the go-to HDTV recommendation from virtually every respected TV reviewer ever since Pioneer abandoned the market and walked away from its groundbreaking Kuro display in 2009. Today, after four years of evolutionary improvement that led to the ZT60 series—the first television we’ve seen that can actually compete with the old Kuro on black level and all other key areas of image quality—Panasonic is suffering the same fate as Pioneer.
There is good reason for Sound & Vision to honor the ZT in this fashion, to hold it separate from all others, for it represents more than just another TV that happened to be the best last year. Panasonic always recognized the image superiority of plasma displays, even as the world markets were turning toward LCD, and when Pioneer left the business, the company redoubled its research, reportedly even gathering up the plasma engineering talent that had been set loose by Pioneer. The ZT represents the pinnacle of its technological efforts, just as the step-down ST line came to represent the pinnacle of value in the flat-panel market. Unless Samsung or LG, the last two remaining plasma makers, step up to fill the gap, Panasonic’s departure will leave a huge hole where affordable, state-of-the art picture quality used to live. OLED sets hold greater promise, but at a cost so high as to be unattainable by most consumers for what will surely be several years. Ultra HDTV LCD displays, which are helping to push plasma off the stage now, combine inferior image quality with additional pixels that are of questionable value at screen sizes less than 75 or 80 inches.
Ultimately, then, our prize for the ZT60 this year recognizes not just this accomplishment, but the accomplishments of all the ZT’s forebears, and gives thanks to Panasonic for sticking with it as long as they did and making very happy viewers of a lot of our readers—and the friends and family who followed their lead. It also pays homage to the imminent end of the technology that started the flat-panel revolution way back when. Long live plasma. Better get one while you can.