Panasonic Viera TC-P54Z1 review: Panasonic Viera TC-P54Z1

Adjustments available on all picture modes include a "C.A.T.S." function, which senses ambient light and adjusts the picture accordingly; a Color management toggle that made color decoding worse when engaged; a trio of On/Off settings affect video noise; and another lets you set theblack level (the Light option exposed the correct amount of shadow detail). The setting to control 2:3 pull-down happily affects both standard- and high-definition sources.

You can choose from five aspect ratio options with high-definition sources, including a Zoom mode that allows adjustment of horizontal size and vertical position. The Full mode can be made to match the pixel counts of 1080i and 1080p sources, without introducing overscan, if you select the HD Size 2 option from the Advanced menu (in THX mode this option is called "THX" and you can't disengage it). We recommend using this setting unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some channels or sources.

Panasonic also offers ways to avoid temporary image retention, aka burn-in, and address it should it occur. A pixel orbiter slowly shifts the image around the screen, and you can elect to have it happen either automatically or in user-set periodic intervals. You can chose bright or dark gray bars alongside 4:3 programs. And if you do see some burn-in, chances are the scrolling bar function, which sweeps a white bar across a black screen, will clear it up after a while. We appreciated that the VieraCast menu went into screen saver mode after a few minutes of inactivity.

While the company touts the Z1 series' power-saving chops, thanks to its so-called NEO PDP panel, in reality this is still one of the more energy-hogging TVs you can buy (see Power consumption below). The set's ECO menu only allows automatic turn-off functions; it doesn't offer a specific power-saving mode that affects power draw when the TV's turned on.

The TV lacks picture-in-picture and cannot freeze the image temporarily to catch a phone number, for example. However, It can accept SD cards with digital photos into a slot on the left side, which allows it to play back the images on the big screen.

Panasonic TC-P54Z1
The box's front flips down to reveal a few inputs and controls, as well as an SD card slot.

Panasonic TC-P54Z1
The back panel of the tuner box proffers an array of inputs, including three HDMI ports and two component-video ports, as well as connections for the wireless transmitter.

Connectivity on the TC-PZ1 series, which is found on the tuner box, is excellent. There are four HDMI inputs: three on the back and one under a flip-down door on the front. Other back-panel connections include two component-video inputs, an AV input with composite and S-Video, and an RF input for cable or antenna. There's also an Ethernet port, a digital audio output, and an RS-232 remote port for custom installations. In addition to HDMI, the box's front panel offers a second AV input with composite and S-Video, a VGA-style PC input (1,366x768-pixel maximum resolution), and an SD card slot for digital photos.

Performance
As we expected given our experience with the step-down Panasonic TC-PV10 series, the flagship TC-P54Z1 delivered excellent picture quality. It equaled its line-mate in the important arenas of black levels and color accuracy, and though it fell short in video processing because of some strange (generally sporadic and subtle) video processing quirks, it delivered a distinct advantage in bright rooms.

TV settings: Panasonic TC-P54Z1

Although THX was the most accurate picture setting before any adjustments were made, we discovered, as we did with the V10, that we could obtain better results on the Z1 by switching to Custom for our calibration. THX mode delivers more accurate primary colors than the company's other settings, along with very good gamma and grayscale performance (see the Geek box ). The downside of THX is a slightly dimmer image (30.65 footlamberts) and some color decoding issues that bring a greenish cast to the image.

Custom mode, on the other hand, doesn't suffer the greenish tinge and allows the TV to achieve our target light output of 40ftl. It also produced accurate gamma (2.27 versus an ideal of 2.2--the same as we measured in THX) and solid grayscale performance thanks to the Pro adjust settings. Compared with THX, Custom evinced less accurate primary and secondary colors (with the exception of magenta). In case you're curious, we did measure the DCC mode and found it, as expected, highly inaccurate by HDTV color space standards, so we left it turned off for our evaluation.

Said evaluation took place as a side-by-side comparison involving the Z1 and a few other high-end HDTVs we had onhand. From the plasma camp they included the aforementioned Panasonic TC-P50V10, the Samsung PN50B650, and our reference Pioneer PRO-111FD. We also included a pair of the best LCDs we've tested, namely the Samsung UNB8500 (the only one that approaches the Z1's lofty price point) and the LG 47LH90. We used the Blu-ray of "Whiteout" to help with comparative image quality tests.

Black level: Although not quite the equal of the Pioneer or the Samsung 8500 in this department, the Z1 matched the excellent V10 nearly exactly, and handily beat the other sets in our lineup at producing a dark shade of black. In other words, it ties for the third-best black levels we've ever tested in a plasma or LCD TV. Dark scenes, such as when Kate Beckinsale wakes up after her nightmare in Chapter 8, looked superb, with inky black areas including the letterbox bars, the shadows behind her head on the pillow, and the shape of Columbus Short in the foreground as he comforts her. Shadow detail, as seen in the strands of her hair against the pillow, looked as realistic as that on any TV in our comparison, including our reference Pioneer.

Color accuracy: As with the V10, the Z1 delivered color that bested other Panasonic plasmas but fell short of the most accurate displays in our comparison, namely the LG and the Pioneer. Its less accurate reproduction of green and cyan made areas like the plant in Beckinsale's apartment, the greenish walls of the research station, or the cyan-tinted shadows of the ice mountains appear more intense and less natural than our reference. The difference wasn't drastic, however. We also noticed that saturation on the Z1, though very good, suffered as a result of us backing down the color control to make up for the red push in Custom mode. In consequence, colors didn't seem as lush as we saw on the Pioneer, although they still had plenty of punch thanks to the Z1's deep blacks.

On the plus side Beckinale's skin tone, from facial close-ups to the introductory shower scene in Chapter 2, appeared nearly as good as on the Pioneer and better than on the Samsung 8500 (as long as we avoided the greening effect of Panasonic's THX mode). We also appreciated that dark areas stayed quite true and didn't veer off into excessive blue or green--it was the best set in our lineup, aside from its equal the V10, in this area.

Video processing: Our first order of business was to confirm that the 96Hz mode worked as advertised. It did, on all but one occasion. We tried our favorite test for proper 24-frame cadence, the flyover of the deck of the Intrepid from "I Am Legend," and the motion looked as filmlike as we've come to expect from displays that handle 1080p/24 sources correctly--just the standard rapid-fire judder of film without the hitching motion associated with 2:3 pull-down.

Once during testing, however, "Legend" caused the display to evince overt stuttering that looked like a much slower frame rate. It was unwatchable to our eyes, but fortunately when we switched out of 96Hz mode to another mode, then switched back, the Z1 behaved normally. It's worth noting that the V10 (nor other TVs we tested) never lapsed into similar stuttering, and also that we couldn't replicate this problem.

As expected, neither the 60Hz nor the 48Hz setting dealt with film-based material as handily as 96Hz. In 60Hz mode the tell-tale subtle hitching returned, and when we switched to 48Hz the flicker seen on the G10 and other so-equipped Panasonic plasmas was in full effect. For the full videophile experience we recommend using 96Hz mode on the Z1 (even if you have to re-engage occasionally it to get it to "stick") with your Blu-ray player set to output 1080p/24.

Motion resolution was the equal of other Panasonic plasmas and the Samsung 8500, with the Z1 resolving all 1080 lines of resolution in our test pattern. The display also successfully deinterlaced both film- and video-based 1080i sources. As usual, however, these resolution characteristics were difficult to appreciate outside of test patterns.

One other issue we caught was visible without resorting to test patterns, however, and it didn't occur on any of the other sets in our lineup, including the V10. It first popped up in the demo sequence from Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics, where the edges of the clouds next to an ascending helicopter appeared to break up into interference that resembled snowy video noise. We noticed it along the edges of other clouds in the sequence, and also in the edge of a building, and for whatever reason it was much more prominent in 96Hz mode than in 60Hz mode (although even in 60Hz, the effect was noticeable on the Z1 and not on the V10).

We never found as obvious an example in other program material, however. In "Whiteout," for example, none of the numerous clouds or other suspect areas showed the noise, although we did spot other subtle differences that may be related. They could best be described as very slight false contouring, where gradations between color and brightness levels appear separated by distinct edges (like a contour map for elevation) as opposed to perfectly smooth. We saw just a bit more contouring in areas like the blurry background behind Beckinsale's head at the 22:38 mark, the wall behind her at 25:22, or in parts of the PS3's menu, on the Z1 as opposed to the V10.

All of these video processing differences were either too subtle or too sporadic for us to consider them deal-breakers to anyone who's not a video quality perfectionist. We can't help but wonder if they have something to do with the wireless connection, but there's no way to tell for sure (our attempts at a direct comparison of wired vs. wireless were fruitless; see below).

Bright lighting: This is one area where the Z1 was clearly superior to other Panasonic plasmas we've tested, including the V10. Under bright lighting it dimmed in-room reflections better than any model in our lineup save the LG and the Pioneer. On the other hand it also preserved black levels better than the V10 and about as well as the Pioneer, albeit not quite as well as either the Samsung or the LG. All told the Z1 looked as good in a bright room as any plasma we've seen, although it still wasn't the measure of most matte-screened LCDs.

Standard-definition: The TC-PZ1 series was a mediocre performer with standard-def material. It resolved every line of the DVD format, although details weren't quite as sharp as on the Samsung, for example. It did a subpar job with moving diagonal lines and stripes on the waving American flag, leaving plenty of jaggies along the edges. Noise reduction was solid, on the other hand, and both Video NR and MPEG NR settings contributed to removing moving motes and snow from low-quality shots of skies and sunsets. Finally, the set properly engaged 2:3 pull-down to remove moire from the grandstands behind the racecar.

PC: With an HDMI source and set to THX mode the Z1 performed perfectly, resolving every line of a 1,920x1,080-pixel source, with no sign of edge enhancement or overscan. Via VGA the TV would accept a maximum resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, as the manual indicates, and naturally test looked softer, blockier, and generally worse than via HDMI. We'd love to see a full-resolution VGA input on a TV this expensive.

Wireless performance: In general the Z1's wireless connection performed perfectly. With good line of sight we noticed no obvious image degradation (unless you count the subtle video processing differences noted above, which may be caused by the wireless).

In an attempt to isolate those differences, we did try to compare what the Z1 would have looked like with a wired connection. We hooked an HDMI source directly to the lone HDMI input on the panel, skipping the tuner box. Unfortunately the panel had different picture settings in this setup, and didn't respond to menu commands, so it was impossible to perform a true comparison--and ultimately academic anyway, since no typical user would operate the TV without the tuner box and its wireless gear.

At times using one wireless placement setup--with the receiver and transmitter about a foot apart, facing one another--we would see a couple of horizontal white lines flash briefly on the screen, which happened maybe once or twice per half hour of viewing. Moving the transmitter eliminated the problem, and we didn't see this issue while using the recommended placement, with the transmitter across the room. When we moved briefly between the transmitter and receiver, for example to sit down on the couch, we didn't interrupt the transmission, although blocking line of sight for extended periods did.

TEST RESULT SCORE
Before color temp (20/80) 6470/6451 Good
After color temp 6553/6479 Good
Before grayscale variation 113 Good
After grayscale variation 104 Average
Color of red (x/y) 0.63/0.336 Average
Color of green 0.309/0.591 Good

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    Panasonic Viera TC-P54Z1

    Part Number: TC-P54Z1 Released: Oct 10, 2009
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    Quick Specifications See All

    • Release date Oct 10, 2009
    • Enhanced Refresh Rate 600 Hz
    • Display Format 1080p (FullHD)
    • Diagonal Size 54 in
    • Type plasma TV
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