A Love Letter To The (Dying) Plasma TV: Reviewing Panasonic's 2013 Home Event (Updated: The Highest-Rated TV Ever)

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Spring has made it to New York City, which means it's time once again to cast our gaze towards the big electronics companies' annual home product unveilings. Events like this are a little more tame than, say, CES (the Consumer Electronics Show), where the bleeding edge of technology is almost always the centerpiece. So here, at Panasonic's 2013 Home Event, we were treated to an eyes-on of this year's updated electronics wizardry. And while Panny's (as the Internet lovingly refers to the company) newest line of headphones, lady-shavers, nose-hair trimmers, and microwaves were impressive, the TVs stole the show as usual.

Particularly deserving of acclaim is the ZT60, Panasonic's flagship-- as in, best and most expensive-- plasma set. If you're not aware, the war over picture quality between LCD/LED and plasma TVs was won long ago, by plasma. Among other specifications, what plasmas do so well over competing technologies are two things: lack of motion blur (the phenomenon which causes images on screen to appear blurry during scenes with a lot of camera movement), and black levels. Black levels are exactly what they sound like: how deep and accurate the darkest black colors on screen are to "true black." Thin and futuristic as they are, LCD and LED TVs can't even come close to reproducing the black levels seen on top-quality plasmas. Most end up looking somewhere in the charcoal arena, worse if you're in a brightly-lit room. Here's an example of the tremendous black levels on the ZT60:

Those are unedited photos taken in a dark room. I wish I could effectively relay the amount of excitement that existed during the presentation; needless to say, us geeks were foaming at the mouth a bit. The ZT60 bests even the fabled Pioneer Kuro, a plasma which has held the moniker of Best Picture Quality In The Industry for years (even after its unfortunate discontinuance). 

Why, then, do plasma TVs make it into increasingly fewer and fewer living rooms? Well, if you go into any big-box store (let's say, the one that rhymes with "Zest Guy") and compare how an LED set looks on the wall next to a plasma set, you'd think the plasma was there merely to show off the other's superiority. This is because the color reproduction of a plasma is much more accurate than an LCD or LED, resulting in a picture that appears less colorful in comparison. But it's not. At all. It's simply that the Zest Guy employees turn the brightness, contrast, and color levels on the other TV sets up to 11, so you the customer can be wowed by the picture quality of the crappy set they're talking you into getting. 

I asked Merwan Mereby, Panasonic's VP of Content and Services, what (if anything) was being done to combat this problem at the retail level.

"It's a problem that we recognize," he says. "One thing we're doing is going in and teaching the employees [of the retail stores] the features and differences, so they can recommend plasmas to people who ask about picture quality." He added that showcase rooms like Magnolia Home Theater can be helpful as well, because the lights are optimally dimmed and TVs separated from each other enough to get a sense of what they can really do. But even that, he said, hasn't turned the plasma industry around.

Sadly, even my plasmevangelizing won't be enough to stop the slow, steady downhill slide into technology obsolescence: Engadget is reporting that Panasonic is halting development of new plasma sets. So now's the time, dear reader. Run out while you still can, and get yourself the best-damn picture box you can shake a stick at. Sure, plasma TVs are heavy. And expensive. And nearly antiques. But when you're binging on a Firefly marathon, won't it be nice to know that the empty space the Serenity is flying through looks as black as it actually is? 

UPDATE (4/12/13): CNET just posted their review of the Panasonic ST60 plasma TV, the less-expensive sibling of the ZT60 (above). They awarded it 5 STARS-- the highest rating available, and the first television in CNET history to attain such a rating. Hopefully Panny is paying attention, and re-thinking their decision on plasma development...

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Posted on April 12, 2013 .