Panasonic TH-50PZ750U 50" 1080p Plasma Television

The TH-50PZ750U is in Panasonic's first group of 50" 1080p consumer plasma televisions. There is even a 50" model in the 700 series that offers fewer features than the set we're reviewing here, but costs $500 less.

So, at $3,999, the TH-50PZ750U isn't quite the least expensive 1920 x 1080 plasma of its size. Of course, its only real competitor as of now is the Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1, listing at $8,000 but widely available for under $6,000.

Most of the features you expect of a modern television are here: ATSC and QAM tuners for standard and over-the-air and cable HD broadcasts, respectively, adequate inputs including a VGA jack for a PC, and three HDMI connections. There are also Parental controls, multiple aspect ratios, and a wide range of video adjustments (though the grayscale calibration controls are found only in the hidden service menu). The set does not have CableCARD HD capability.

The Panasonic also incorporates EZ Sync HDAVI Control, which lets you operate your other home theater components via a single remote control button. The only catch is that those components must also be EZ Sync compatible. Several Panasonic components are compatible, but few others have this feature as yet.

An SD card slot on the front panel may be used to view digital photos.

The multi-component remote will control three other devices in addition to the television. It's well laid out, and while it has a lot of buttons, they are all big enough for easy operation. It is not backlit, however, and you cannot select inputs directly.

The built-in two-channel audio system employs hidden speakers; they are installed in the bezel in a way that makes them virtually invisible. You'll want to make them inaudible as well. The sound is, to put it mildly, unpleasant, even compared to the undistinguished sound from that 4" speaker in your old CRT. It also overloads easily at moderate listening levels. But if you're reading this you probably plan on using an outboard sound system with the set anyway. Plan on ignoring the onboard audio.

An anti-reflective screen is also said to cut down on reflections from the plasma's front glass. I didn't find it particularly effective.

The Panasonic has a wide range of setup controls, but is missing a few that are available in many other digital sets. For example, while there are three different color temperature selections, there are no user-accessible color temp calibration controls (they're in the hidden service menu). There are also no variable gamma adjustments, and the two noise reduction controls- mosquito noise and digital video- have only two settings, On or Off. And three controls listed in the manual—HD size (an overscan control), a manual 3:2 pulldown On/Off control, and Block noise reduction—were nowhere to be found.

There are four different picture mode settings: Vivid, Standard, Cinema, and Custom. They may each be configured separately for each input. Even if you put the same settings in all of the modes, however, you won't get the same picture. That is, there appear to be sub-controls somewhere in the internal firmware settings, which act in conjunction with the user controls and are different for different picture modes. For example, the Cinema mode always looked a little soft and lacking in punch to me, no matter where I set the user controls.

Many of the controls operate only with certain inputs and certain resolutions. Zoom Adjust allows you to shift and resize the image vertically, but only in Zoom mode. A PC setup menu is accessible only when you select the PC mode. Color Matrix is available only in 480p, where it lets you select between SD and HD color spaces (it automatically selects SD for 480i and HD for 720p and 1080i/p). 3D Y/C is selectable only with a composite input. The Color Management control is said to enhance green and blue, particularly on outdoor (bright) scenes. But I found its effect negligible, apart from a subtle increase in the saturation of cyan, visible mainly on test patterns. The C.A.T.A. control is said to "enhance brightness and gradation accordingly," but if it's supposed to be some sort of dynamic contrast feature I found it to have little effect.

At the top of the picture adjustment menu there is a control called Normal, with two positions: No and Set. Whenever you input your own settings, the indicator for this control reads No. But if you change it to Set, it immediately wipes out your settings and reverts to the factory configuration for that mode. It only takes a single button push to do this; in effect, it's a reset control. There are no "confirm reset" or "are you sure" warnings. It just dumps everything. Since it's easy for you or someone else in the family to go there (the cursor sits on this Normal selection whenever you open the adjustment menu), I strongly recommend writing down all of your preferred settings for each input in case they accidentally get deleted.

For most of my viewing, I used the Custom mode (properly configured, of course). I turned most of the above features Off and, except for my first few hours with the set, I my observations were made following calibration of the color temperature.

There's a lot to love here. The price, of course, is certainly attractive. But beyond that, the Panasonic is a star performer in many ways.

Out of the box, the grayscale in the Warm Color Temperature setting measured just a hair under 6000K and was very uniform across the full brightness range. In the Normal setting, it averaged around 7600K and was similarly consistent. Both settings were off by enough to make a full calibration desirable but, out of the box, the Warm setting was still highly watchable.

The Panasonic's video processing (scaling and deinterlacing) going from 480i to the panel's native 1080p resolution was good, though short of the best I've seen. The processing was a bit slow in recognizing 3/2 pulldown, and never really grabbed onto it fully. It also showed some artifacts on the waving flag and 2:2 (video) cadence test on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark test DVD.

The set properly deinterlaced a 1080i source (video- or film-based) to the panel's native 1080p, but like most current 1080p displays we've tested it did not recognize 3/2 pulldown with 1080i film-based sources.

The Panasonic's image was exceptionally clean, smooth, and free of obvious video noise from a normal viewing distance. It also displays picture information at both below black and above white.

The more time I spent with the Panasonic, the more I liked it. It was an exceptionally relaxing set to watch, and when properly set up was neither too bright for films nor too dim for sports. While some of its colors were a bit too vivid—not unusual these days—a good calibration and a careful hand with the color control will keep things in line without noticeably washing out the color. While green remained just a little too day-glo aggressive on bright, sunlit foliage, it looked better on dimmer and overcast scenes.

The set is also highly detailed without looking artificially enhanced. The Chronicles of Riddick is still one of the most amazingly detailed HD DVDs available. And the Panasonic brought it all out. I'm sure there are things that can't be seen on a screen that's only 50" diagonal from a normal viewing distance, but what you will see here is amazing. The same goes for other top quality high-definition discs such as U-571 and the more recent Matrix Trilogy.

Broadcast HD, from my cable system, wasn't quite as jaw dropping as the best high-definition discs, but viewed on its own terms it was fully satisfying.

I did notice, however, that a direct feed of 720p programming from networks such as ESPN HD, Fox HD, and ABC HD into the Panasonic were softer looking than when those 720p sources were scaled and interlaced by my cable box and fed to the Panasonic at 1080i over component. I also found that a component multiburst test pattern showed little response from a 37.1MHz burst at 720p. With an HDMI connection, however, the 720p multiburst test pattern looked noticeably better out to 37.1MHz.