The Year of the Plasma

For the last several years, our annual January pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show has been all about someone else’s toys. Handheld smartphones and tablets, wearable technology (now, what is that about?), fashion earphones, smart appliances, electric car-charging stations, streaming pocket-sized speakers, you name it. It’s been awfully quiet on the A/V front…until now.

Much to everyone’s surprise, display technologies that have been promised for years were suddenly front and center again at this year’s show. We’ve got 4K Ultra HDTVs and content delivery services launching, and OLED, still just a promise, is threatening to show its face. The two most impressive video demos I saw at CES belonged to Sony and Panasonic, each of whom showed its own version of a 56-inch 4K-OLED hybrid TV.

You only had to take one look at those prototypes to know this could be the real future of television. Panasonic, for its part, has stated publicly that it plans to skip the 4K LCD TV phase that other manufacturers are participating in this year and go straight to 4K-OLED, perhaps as early as next year according to industry news reports. I’ll believe it when I see it, but in the meantime, I’m not whining about the Panasonic plasmas that will someday be made extinct by the company’s ambitious plans.

Our first review of a 2013 plasma was Panasonic’s ST60 series. Regular readers will know that the ST plasma has been one of our most popular recommendations for the last two years thanks to its tremendous value. This year’s model didn’t disappoint, either—far from it. Check out our review.

But that’s only the beginning. See Tom Norton’s review of Samsung’s new F8500 plasma, its best ever. We’re also working on reviews of plasmas in Panasonic’s VT series—which, till now, has been the company’s top of the line and regarded as the best picture you could buy in this post-Pioneer Kuro world—and step-up ZT series. I was lucky enough to be able to directly compare all three of these HDTVs side by side, each adjusted to its optimal settings by a team of expert calibrators, at an event in New York this spring. The 9th Annual HDTV Shootout held by Scarsdale, New York, retailer Value Electronics, pitted these three flat panels against each other and Sony’s new XBR-65X900A Ultra HD 4K LED LCD, Samsung’s F8000 LED LCD, and Panasonic’s new top-of-the-line WT60 series LED LCD.

The experts ran test patterns and movie content into all the sets simultaneously to allow the audience participants to rate them in critical areas like black level, contrast, color fidelity, motion resolution, bright room viewing, and overall image quality. Oh, and did I forget to mention that there was a late-generation Pioneer Kuro plasma monitor on hand for reference? Despite being off the market for three years, the Kuro remains the HDTV against which Home Theater and everyone else pits all serious contenders.

There was no question for anyone in attendance that the three new plasmas and the old Kuro stole the show, and there was much excitement about the significant leap in quality of this year’s crop. It would appear that the plasma TV, after being written off by many as an endangered species, is enjoying a renaissance. That ol’ gray mare is proving to be a lot blacker than we thought.

kent harrison's picture

They way I see it still the best TV,and if they want blow 4k away Plasma tv is going to be the best period.

StargateNH's picture

Almost None of my friends believe me when I tell them Plasma is the best TV with the picture. I am the go to "tech guy" in the group but no one heads my advice on the TVs. They keep buying LCD/ LED. It frustrates me so much since I know Im right. One friend bought a top of the line Samsung LED for $3500, more than my Panasonic Plasma and I can hardly stand to watch his LED. Yah I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much. Another friend just bought a Vizio LED for $900. Their reason was they wanted something cheaper but still 1080P in the 50in size. WHAT!!?? The brand new 2013 Panasonic Plasma line has a mid-range 50in model for $100 cheaper MSRP! Grrr.
No matter how many articles I show them, I guess they want to believe Best Buy's 18 year old "pro" that LCD/ LED is better.

notabadname's picture

The best in LCD, like the Elite, has been proven (by this very publication) to match the best of plasma. So plasma is not better by default. It just depends on the manufacturer's implementation. It seems to mainly comedown to backlighting type for contrast and In Plane Switching for viewing angle. Unfortunately, the market is driven to the lowest pricing over the highest quality. But I, like a majority of us (to be realistic), do a majority of viewing on a screen that is in a well lit room. Most consumers can't afford a dedicated home theater, so they are truly going to be more pleased with the brightness, and typically lower reflectivity, of an LCD screen. The video versus film "look" is easily adjusted on almost any LCD with some easy settings adjustments. The consumer ultimately determines what is "best", and ultimately drives the manufacturers. OLED will have its own challenges as well to keep it from being "best" for most consumers; price and image retention will be tough hurdles to overcome. Especially price.

tommygunzz's picture

Better is subjective, but not entirely. That is why there are bench tests, and product lines. Where flat panels are concerned, the best plasma, will still beat the best LCD (that has already been proven). It's the purist who focuses on details in a specific category, and the purist mainly shows itself through our hobbies, and passions. One may not spend hundreds to thousands on a tv, but that same person may spend hundreds to thousands on a computer. Ultimate performance matters where we feel it counts (that's the subjective part).

notabadname's picture

You say "the best plasma will still beat the best LCD (that has already been proven)"

That is an incorrect statement as I mentioned in my OP. This very site has had a review that disagrees with you, read the conclusion on the bottom of this page for the LCD Elite.

And my point to contrast stands as well. Plasmas do not have the best brightness levels, and therefore, for many people, an LCD is technically better, and tested as such for light output, in bright environments. That is not opinion, but an instrumented tested and measured fact. I game in a brightened room, and like program material with static images. I still have not seen a single plasma's manual that doesn't reference static image retention concerns, break-in periods etc., regardless of pixel shifting technology, which adds another image inaccuracy on its own with a slight overscan so it has image to shift around without exposing the image's limit at screen edge.

So yes, every image quality feature and tech can be measured versus other screens. But the very best contrast on a glossy glass screen plasma could be the worst viewing experience in a normally bright and well-lit family room. That is the subjective of comparison that still respects the technical measurements and differences int the tech's capabilities. IMO, comparisons and reviews should be geared in that aspect as well; best TV for a bright viewing space (perhaps with a low glare screen), Best Panel for a darkened home theater environment (which could be an LCD Sharp Elite, by numerous independent reviews), or may very well be a plasma.

Just because most manufactures are cutting costs, in a race to the bottom for screen cheapness, is not a reflection of the actual capabilities of that technology should a manufacturer chose to implement the best that can be offered, as in the Elite. It is simply ill informed to say LCD can't match plasma, yet accurate to say the choices of LCDs utilizing the best in technology are sadly limited. The difference is important.

Sackrat's picture

Every serious TV(4) in my house is plasma except for one. And I am an avid plasma buyer till last year. My Sony XBR 65HX929 is every bit as good if not a little better. It is my media room TV. Granted it was pricey but I was not going to buy an edge lit LED set, it had to have local dimming like the Sony. I almost went for the Sharp Elite but saved $3,000 by going Sony. I am very pleased that the knowledgable reviewers at Home Theater Mag still see a great future with plasma. I will be replacing my TV in master bdrm soon and will look plasma first. I love having choices though.

tommygunzz's picture

That tv was awesome! (I owned one for about 2 months, in addition to owning the pio elite pro 110, pro 111, and now Pana Zt60). Make no mistake, that elite pro 60x5 is top shelf (that is the only Led/lcd that I have ever owned for serious viewing). All my sets operate off of ISF calibrations, and after calibration the plasma (that I owned) offered the best total picture quality. There are great flat panel techs out there but plasma is still the current measuring stick (even if it is a 5 yr old reference model). But I do my most serious viewing in the darkened setting. It's a shame that we can't mention a 2013 Pio Elite model with the comparisons. It probably would be none (but that is over). Up next, maybe 4k plasma, OLED... Good stuff though!!!!