Value Electronics HDTV Shootout: And Then There Were Three... Page 2

As for the black levels, two key findings emerged from this controlled experiment. The first was that Panasonic’s ZT and VT models were essentially identical in this regard, at least in a dark room where the advantages of the ZT’s Studio Master Panel did not come into play. This panel design, exclusive to the ZT, is manufactured with a high-pressure annealing process that bonds the light-rejecting filter on the outside surface directly to the inner glass, eliminating the pocket of air that usually separates these two layers. Consequently, it does a better job of rejecting ambient light than its VT sibling, and it had clearly superior blacks when the room was lit. But that advantage was nullified in dark room viewing, where the sets were almost perfect twins and the less pricey VT actually had the advantage of a little more peak light output.

One other important black level demo was conducted after the audience ballots were handed in to insure it did not affect the results. Here, the organizers did a direct comparision of absolute black level between the Panasonic ZT/VT, the Samsung F8500, and the reference Pioneer Kuro. This was an academic exercise given the Kuro’s out-of-market status, but one deemed necessary, both to ascertain the current state-of-the-art against the standard bearer and to address vocal skepticism surrounding a recent press demo held by Panasonic. In that dark-room demo, which I happened to see at Panasonic’s New York line introduction a few weeks ago, Panasonic directly pitted a last-gen 60-inch Kuro against the new ZT. Dark scenes played on both TVs in their default Cinema modes showed them essentially equal in black level.

At the Face-Off, the pedestal-mounted 50-inch Kuro monitor was moved to a countertop below the wall-mounted 65-inch Panasonic VT at the center of the room, so when viewed head-on, the images actually overlapped slightly. (The VT was used instead of the ZT for the viewing convenience of the audience; since both TVs exhibited the same dark-room black level, the substitution was deemed acceptable to all in attendence.) The experts played the original Pioneer Kuro demo disk through both TVs, a Blu-ray chock-full of clips that were intended to show off the Kuro’s superior blacks when it was first released. Although the sets looked relatively close on some fast-moving program material that mixed bright highlights with black backgrounds, it became very obvious on most moving content and any static graphics that the Kuro still had noticeably deeper blacks than either of the two contenders. Afterward, I stood a couple of feet from the sets and examined the screensaver from the Oppo Blu-ray player used in the tests; those familiar with the Oppo players know they use a bright white Oppo logo dancing on a dark black background. From that alone, it was clear we still have a ways to go to get a plasma that's equal to the Kuro, at least on black levels.

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Left to right, expert calibrators Kevin Miller, David Mackenzie, and DeWayne Davis, and host Robert Zohn.

And The Winner Is…
In the end, the voting was so close among the three plasmas that Zohn felt the need to issue the results with an explanatory note, which you can read along with the attached scores. Among audience members, the Samsung barely took the top prize and was named the 2013 King of HDTV; despite its higher black levels, observers appreciated its punchy bright light output and deemed the set more versatile for different environments. They also noted what appeared to be a bit of extra sharpness in the Samsung’s image, an observation that was coincidentally shared by our own Tom Norton in his totally independent evaluation for our pending review (due out soon). The Panasonics tied for second place, but were it not for the Samsung’s brighter picture and perceived moving resolution, they would have taken the top prizes for their superior blacks.

The expert calibrators, meanwhile, also cast their own ballots and presented their preferences to the audience, though only after the audience ballots had been collected. Inasmuch as each does their home viewing in a darker room with controlled light and wouldn’t benefit from the Samsung’s higher light output, the consensus seemed to be a preference for the Panasonic VT. It was noted that the VT is less expensive than the ZT and more readibly available (the ZT is a limited quantity model that will remain a Best Buy/Magnolia HiFi exclusive until August). It’s slightly superior brightness to the ZT was also cited. However, the experts were extremely laudatory about all three sets, and didn’t hesitate to say the Samsung would be a great choice if they tended to watch in brighter conditions. My personal opinion leaned the same way; as a dark-room viewer, I saw the ZT as the best set overall and the VT as the much smarter value. But I could happily live out my days with the Samsung on that proverbial desert isle.

My thanks to Robert Zohn and the entire Zohn family for sponsoring and hosting this highly educational and fun event and making it available publicly, and to the three great technicians who did such a fine job tuning these HDTVs and demonstrating their strengths and weaknesses to the audience. You can learn more at ValueElectronics.com or see the edited event video at Youtube.com/HDTVShootout in the near future. The Shootout rankings and Zohn’s comment are attached.

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COMMENTS
David Vaughn's picture
I just have to say that Robert is one of the classiest guys I've gotten to know in the AV business and I love his passion regarding this shootout.
Rob Sabin's picture
Gotta agree with you there, David. And he's got a really nicely done shop in Scarsdale now; a recommended stop for anyone in the Westchester region.
David Vaughn's picture
Rob, I actually have two friends that have ordered TVs from him and had them shipped to California!
MrSatyre's picture

Known Robert professionally for a number of years now, and couldn't agree more. Always such a pleasure to have around and talk with. Class act, all the way.

Deus02's picture

Just curious, would the introduction of a first-class video processor like a "Lumagen" in to the mix here working in conjunction with any of the LED/LCDs, when compared to the plasmas, help at all to close the gap on black levels and color accuracy?

Rob Sabin's picture
Interesting question. One of the expert calibrators could better answer this, but I'd guess the answer is no. It's possible outboard processing might have improved the color accuracy somewhat on paper, though I don't think color was "off" enough with these TVs after a basic calibration to be visually meaningful. The bigger issue is that I don't think a processor would have been able to create deeper blacks where they don't exist, and in a subjective, comparative test like this, that has the potential to affect how we view other categories like color. The minimum black level on an LCD (with real content on screen, not a full black pattern that allows the LEDs to shut down) would likely be inherent to the set's hardware and the software triggering the LEDs. None of these TVs featured full-array local-dimming backlights that might permit true plasma-like blacks if well executed, although the Sony and Samsung LCD sets, at least, have sophisticated processing for edge light local dimming to optimize what that approach can acheive. But I think in a side by side comparision like this, it's hard not to punish these sets in the color category because, lacking the deeper blacks of the plasma TVs directly alongside, the colors don't have quite the same impact. And, although the audience did get up from time to time to look directly at the LCDs head on, for most of the time those in attendance were viewing these sets from off axis where the Sony, in particular, exhibited notable color shifting and loss of contrast. That may have affected scores, though not the general impression. I thought it interesting that the Experts rated the LCDs higher on Color than the audience did.
mblackm2's picture

I just bought a VT60 from him and I live in GA. Supposed to arrive in Wed. I'd rather support him and VE than a BestBuy type store. He offers much better customer service I love the Shootout.

Jarod's picture

Great right up! I look forward to this event each year with excitement. It's always very enlightening. Ive done business with Robert on a few occasions and it was always a pleasure. Hell of a nice guy. Its rare to find a guy as friendly and passionate as him.

Deus02's picture

So, obviously, the limitations in the technology of the LCDs on display, when compared to the plasmas, makes it that they just don't have the capability of achieving comparable black levels and this, to date, has generally always been the case. I must admit from my own personal biases, watching a movie on any LCD, regardless of the manufacturer, is generally always like watching a movie on a large computer, it just doesn't look "film like" and very real.

Having said all that and although I have yet to see one, it is interesting to note that reviewers have previously raved about the more expensive Sharp Elite line of LCDs and how comparable the blacks are to plasmas, but, for some reason, despite the technology being there, this capability has yet to filter down to less expensive lines of LCDs, OR is it coming?

Rob Sabin's picture
I have been surprised to find that despite the demonstration of what full-array local-dimming LED can do in its best form we've seen the manufacturers actually stepping away from it. The apparent cost associated with doing it this way in a competitive marketplace must be the key factor, along with aesthetics -- edge lit sets can really be made ultra-thin. Even Sony, which had by far the best LED LCD introduced to the market last year in the full-array/local-dimming XBR-HX950, backed away this year and the new 4K XBR models all use edge-lighting, which provides far less precise control of blacks. In the end, this will all go away if and when the world goes to OLED, which combines some of the best characteristics of plasma (self emanating pixels with no required backlight and the ability to deliver deep blacks) and incredible thinness. But all that remains to be seen...

notabadname's picture

Yes, I am frustrated by this myself. Even the new $20,000 plus 84" monsters from LG and Sony are using edge-lit. It is hard to grasp that the premium, flagship "Ultra" HD sets would use this compromised approach. Does any one really care whether a 7 foot panel is an extra inch thicker? It still looks thinner, by proportion than a 50 inch screen does with edge lighting. We know, and I have seen, that LED full array can match the mighty Kuro. So it is not really a question of which technology is, or can be better. I personally would prefer LED and be free of image retention and break-in issues. I'm either watching letter-boxed films or playing video games with static image elements. I would like to have seen this comparison if it had included an Elite, just to compare the best in each technology.

gunhed's picture

Good to see plasma fans are spoilt for choice. As Robert sold his Kuro 141FD used in previous shoot-outs, was the 50 inch pioneer supplied by D-Nice by any chance ? I ask this because he can drop the black level on most 101FD/500M sets to well below factory spec.

Sanjay

prepress's picture

The Kuro was Robert's personal KRP-500, taken from his home gym.

Rob Sabin's picture
Yes, I can confirm this--Robert's personal monitor taken from his gym room; I'm pretty certain D-Nice did the calibration on that piece.
Big Al's picture

I've never been one to keep up with the latest technology...I was seem to be a few years behind (decades?) Anyway out here in the West everybody seems to think that LCD TVs are the best. I haven't heard anyone suggested a plasma is better in along time. Since a new TV will be an inevitable part of my future, I thank you for this information.

anakinskye's picture
MrSatyre's picture

I am intrigued by the claim in that article that Panasonic is indeed using technology patents purchased from Pioneer in their latest designs. I spoke with them several weeks ago literally about this very topic ("Whatever happened to those patents we sold you?")and was informed that they had never implemented any of them because of cost in a very dicey market and economy. Instead they had used them as idea springboards for improving their own techniques. Predictably, I'm sure a lot has been lost in the translation. Regardless, the new panels from Panny are superb, no doubt about it, so hat's off to Panasonic!

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