Ever since the introduction of microdisplay rear-projection HDTVs based on DLP, LCD and LCoS technology, the bother and expense of having to replace their bulbs in your television has been an issue. Most of these behemoth TVs use conventional bulbs, just like compact two-piece projectors, to power their pictures, and after a certain amount of time--in the 3,000-to-6000-hour range depending on usage patterns--those bulbs burn out or fade away. Panasonic, a company whose bread is buttered primarily by plasma and not rear-projection, has nonetheless introduced a new RPTV bulb technology it calls LIFI, which lasts much longer and accords with the logic of labored acronyms by standing for "LIght FIdelity." Unfortunately, the dark fidelity of this set is the problem, as it can't produce nearly as deep a shade of black as competing RPTVs, and its color accuracy and uniformity evinced a few issues too. While we applaud the notion of never having to replace the bulb, the Panasonic PT-61LCZ70 makes too many picture-quality compromises along the way.
The external appearance of the PT-61LCZ70 is rather understated, with all-black trim and the standard glossy frame around the screen. Compared to the Samsung HL-T5687S and the Mitsubishi WD-65734, for example, the frame is somewhat thick, measuring about an inch wide and ringed by another half-inch of cabinet protruding from behind the sides and top. A matte, perforated, horizontal strip runs across the front hiding the speakers, and below that is a thinner, glossy strip that includes a flip-down door concealing basic controls, an AV input with composite video, an SD card slot, and an HDMI input.
With rear-projection sets slimming down every generation, this example stretches the tape at 19 inches deep. All told, the Panasonic PT-61LCZ70 measures 56.5 inches wide by 39.2 inches tall by 19 inches deep and weighs 77 pounds.
We really like Panasonic's remote. Its layout is basically the same as that of last year's model, but the somewhat larger buttons feel much better. Its keys--of which there are just the right number--are arranged quite logically, and although there's no backlighting, we appreciate the ease with which we were able to locate buttons by feel. The remote can control as many as three other devices. Panasonic's internal menu system is intuitive enough, although we disliked the ease with which you can inadvertently erase your picture settings. The top of the picture menu has an item called Normal that, when selected and set to "Set," returns the settings to factory defaults. We'd prefer a better name--something like Reset, as well as a confirmation dialog and a less-prominent menu position for this function.
The Panasonic PT-61LCZ70 has 1080p native resolution, which translates to 1,920x1,080 pixels, the highest number available today in an HDTV. The set can resolve every detail of the highest-resolution 1080i and 1080p HD sources, and all other resolutions, whether from 720p HDTV, DVD, or standard-definition television, are scaled to fit the pixels. The larger size of this TV makes the benefits of 1080p more apparent than they'd be on smaller sets. Unlike most 1080p-resolution rear-projection TVs, the PT61LCZ70 uses LCD technology instead of DLP or LCoS.
Panasonic's new LIFI technology allows the company to guarantee the bulb life for five years. We were told that the bulb would last "theoretically 100,000 hours, although this has not been proven yet." In short, you won't have to replace the bulb for a darn long time. When you do, Panasonic estimates the replacement should cost $300 including labor--unlike with most microdisplays, the bulb is not user-replaceable. The company also claims the bulbs are quieter than standard bulbs (although we've never noticed any too-loud hum on other microdisplay bulbs ourselves) and deliver better color--although according to our measurements, that wasn't the case.
This particular model offers more picture-affecting features than previous Panasonics we've tested, including the ability to fine-tune the color temperature--it needed it--with user-menu red and blue gain and bias controls. We'd prefer to see controls for green as well, but any fine color-temperature control is a nice touch in addition to the three presets. The PT-61LCZ70 has three adjustable picture modes that apply globally to every input, along with a fourth Custom mode that's independent per input. We really like the ability to adjust the lamp brightness in small increments--there are 60 total steps--although doing so didn't have nearly the same impact on black-level performance as we typically find when reducing a flat-panel LCD TV's backlight control.
We left most of the more advanced-sounding controls turned off. Panasonic throws in an "AI picture" control said to adjust the black areas of the picture without affecting brighter areas, which we left turned off since it changed the picture on the fly. The Color Management control made blues and greens more intense and less accurate, so we left it off, too. There are also three noise-reduction controls, a black extension control, and a black-level control (best left at "0" and "Off", respectively, to preserve shadow detail) and a setting that engages 2:3 pull-down. A couple of other controls are grayed out for HD sources, namely "3D Y/C filter," which should be left turned on in most circumstances, and Color Matrix, a nice extra that allows you to specify which color space--high-def or standard-def--to use.
In addition to the four aspect-ratio modes for HD sources, there are four for standard-def. Convenience junkies will be bummed by the lack of picture-in-picture. Like many HDTV makers this year, Panasonic offers a version of control-over-HDMI, branded EZ-Synch, that allows other similarly equipped devices to be controlled via the HDMI connection using the TV's remote.
The PT-61LCZ70's connectivity suite includes three HDMI inputs, one on the front panel and two around back. There's also a VGA-style PC input (1,280x1,024 maximum resolution), a pair of component-video inputs, two AV inputs with composite- and S-Video, an RF-style antenna input, and an optical digital output for the ATSC tuner. As we mentioned above, a door on the front flips up to reveal another AV input with composite video, that third HDMI jack, and a slot for SD cards, allowing you to display JPEG digital photos on the big screen.
While its bulb may last a long time, the Panasonic PT-61LCZ70's picture-quality problems will last even longer. It can't produce a very deep level of black at all, its color accuracy is pretty suspect, and we detected banding that we'd never seen before on a rear-projection set. All in all, the Panasonic performs worse than most RPTVs we've reviewed in the last year.
We began, as always, by taming the set's light output to a comfortable 40 footlambert (ftl) for our darkened home theater, then adjusting black level (the brightness control, among others) to its optimal setting. The Panasonic's default color temperature in Warm mode was still quite blue, and while we were able get it much closer to the D6500 standard using the aforementioned fine-tuning controls, the midtones were a bit red afterward. For our full user-menu adjustments, click here or check out the Tips & Tricks section above. For comparison testing, we set the Panasonic up next to the Samsung HL-T5687S and the Mitsubishi WD-65734, both big-screen DLP rear-projection HDTVs, as well as our color reference, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 50-inch plasma, and watched The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen via our Samsung BD-P1200 Blu-ray player at 1080i resolution.