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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