It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times

Panasonic’s Departure from the Plasma Market is Heartbreaking, and Inevitable

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.

David Vaughn's picture
Rob...couldn't have said it better myself. It's a sad day for videophiles.
aopu.mohsin's picture

I have met a Panasonic employee at the Panasonic booth at CES 2014 and had a chance to discuss briefly about their decision to end the plasmas. This gentleman genuinely expressed his grievance over Panasonic's decision and shared with me that Panasonic just could not suck up to the cost for plasmas, and consumers' choices for LEDs and all those non-sense features. I could not agree with him more.

Coincidentally, the song "video killed the radio star" by Buggles was playing in my head. All I was thinking how and why today's consumers are so obsessed with quantity over quality or how many features their televisions have, how many apps they can support, how light they are, bla bla bla... When did we forget that our television's first and foremost job is to display the image to its truthful and natural reproduction.

First Pioneer KURO, and now Panasonic Plasma. Very sad, indeed!

K.Reid's picture

Well said, Rob. Unfortunately, the need for high profit margins rule the day at Panasonic like other manufacturers. I am watching my ZT right now and am glad I was able to buy one. I missed buying a Kuro and regretted not being able to afford one. I was determined not to make that mistake twice. I doubt I will buy another until OLED matures and we get a reference model. Thanks to Tom Norton for the thorough review of the television.

vqworks's picture

I agree 100% with all three of you. "Video Killed The Radio Star" definitely fits the occasion.

The introduction of the ZT60 series is bittersweet. As soon as I read about the rumors about the inevitable end of Panasonic's plasma production, I bought my ZT60.

The plasma format's lifespan was really endangered for quite some time and this was very obvious for at least the past 6 years. That's a very lengthy period of time for Panasonic to endure negative rumors perpetuated by uninformed salespeople and brand-loyal consumers of LCD sets who seemed to be bent on mentioning "burn-in" at every possible opportunity even when the issue was resolved for many years.

The rumors undoubtedly swayed the majority of consumers to purchase higher priced LCD and LED-backlit LCDs. Somehow they didn't seem to be aware or even bothered by the much higher black levels and narrow viewing angles of their sets, not to mention the slow refresh rates that prompted manufacturers to increase refresh rates to the point of producing the "soap opera" effect. To this day, I'm still amazed with these consumers.

Despite the technical shortcomings of Ultra HD/4K that are caused by the current LED-backlit LCD screens, it will succeed because: 1) The prices are more affordable than current OLED sets.
2) LED/LCD technology is already well-established.
3) Consumers will be dazzled by the increased pixel-count marketing (like they already are with digital cameras) and they won't even think about the invisible advantage at practical viewing distances with screens smaller than 75 inches.

As a side note, more than a year or so ago, one of Panasonic's competitors (with an initial of S) was also caught bribing writers to post false negative reviews of Panasonic's plasmas. The same competitor was fined by the Taiwanese government for doing the same to one of its smartphone competitors, HTC.

Yet, it really is miraculous how long Panasonic was able devote so many resources to plasma technology.

In the meantime, OLED is prohibitively expensive for most consumers and it is experiencing growing pains because of technical bugs of its own that will almost certainly be resolved (just not very soon).

Like David said, "It's a sad day for videophiles".

dnoonie's picture

Nicely said all.

Best wishes to all our ZT VT and Kuro panels, may they last 10 year!!


jnemesh's picture

Fortunately, Samsung is committed to plasma technology...and while their sets don't have the absolute lowest black level compared to the Panasonic (0.02fl of brightness on an absolutely black screen vs 0.01fl on the Panasonic ZT60), in almost every other measurement, the 8500 series Samsung's look BETTER than the ZT60! Better resolution for moving images, better color reproduction, and higher brightness.

I, personally, won't mourn Panasonic. Their exit from the plasma market was their own fault. They, to this day, refuse to protect the pricing for dealers, and don't mind when shady mail order and internet companies undercut the "authorized" installers. They started a price war that they couldn't afford to win, and in my opinion, they are reaping that reward. Bye guys, you won't be missed.

Speakerphile's picture

Well said, I couldn't agree more. I picked up a 60" ZT recently and will hopefully be able to avoid LCD altogether while waiting for OLED.

habittel's picture

I agree that it's unfortunate that they are out of the business. I was lucky, or maybe unlucky, enough to pick up a 65" ZT a couple of weeks ago. However mine had a defect in the screen (a dark horizontal line), which according to the technical sent by Panasonic is a manufacturing defect that they cannot repair. Now I'm left with the task of trying to replace the best quality I've seen in a tv, line excluded. Panasonic has told me they will only be able to refund the purchase price at this point. Enjoy your ZT's everyone! Hope you have better luck than me!