Editors' note (March 4, 2010): The rating on this product has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of 2010 models. The review has not otherwise been modified..
The TH-VX100U is Panasonic's so-called Premiere series of plasma TVs, new for 2009 and distinguished by pro-grade parts and connections, numerous picture adjustments, and a picture quality similar to the highest-end standard Panasonic plasmas such as the TH-PZ800U and the TH-PZ850U series from 2008. Unlike those models or any of the new 2009 plasmas Panasonic announced at CES, the Premiere series is marketed by the company's professional division, much like the TH-PF11UK series we reviewed previously. Like those, the TH-VX100U isn't technically a TV. It's a monitor, lacking a tuner, speakers, and various extras found on most standard televisions. However, it's also one of the best-performing televisions we've ever reviewed, delivering a picture that approaches that of the current picture quality champion, Pioneer's Kuro Elite. Still, with a high price and the promise of even better plasmas on the horizon in the form of Panasonic's 2009 models, the Premiere series will be a tough sell.
Series note: The 2008 Premiere series is available in two screen sizes, the 65-inch TH-65VX100U ($9,995 list) and the 50-inch TH-50VX100U ($4,995 list). We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 65-inch model, but we expect our observations to apply nearly equally to the 50-inch model, since they have very similar specifications. One exception is that the 50-inch model had a lower contrast ratio, although we don't expect that to make a major impact on picture quality. Any potential differences between the two are noted in the full review below.
The TH-VX100U lacks the stark, industrial gray frame of the company's less-expensive TH-PF11UK professional panels, instead going with a burnished metal black finish along the top and bottom and matte black metal along the sides. Abutting the glass of the screen itself is a black border about 0.75 inch thick. The entire frame is thicker than that of the 11UK series, but more attractive to our eyes.
As with the company's industrial models, Panasonic does not include a stand with the Premiere series. However, the company does sell sloped, matching black stands specifically for the series. The stand for the 50-inch version, model TY-ST50VX100, lists for $350, while the stand made for the 65-inch version, model TY-ST65VX100, lists for a healthy $1,000.
We appreciated that Panasonic included its standard consumer remote control, with its big, well-differentiated buttons and simple layout, but there are a few key (pun intended) differences. The company added another row of four buttons to allow direct access to each of the four HDMI inputs; the PC and component-video inputs get dedicated keys too. The volume and channel rockers are gone, replaced by input and video mode toggles. Some of the new key assignments go astray though. For example, we kept inadvertently selecting the component-video input since its key lurked near the cursor control where "exit" or "back" usually belong. The remote can command three other pieces of equipment.
Panasonic's small, text-heavy menu design immediately betrays the TH-VX100U's pro heritage. The many-paged menu is chocked with options, yet getting around is surprisingly easy. Numerous technical terms await the uninitiated, from "Normalize" (known to mortals as "reset") to "AGC." On a professional model, we don't expect the nice explanations, common to consumer HDTVs, of such arcane terms, but buyers should be forewarned.
If you're expecting speakers and a tuner, you're out of luck. Owners of Premiere plasmas are expected to supply their own external audio systems (or pony up for the custom speakers) and cable or satellite boxes, which isn't too much to ask given the plasma's well-heeled target market.
On the other hand, picture adjustments abound, beginning with three adjustable picture modes and a fourth, titled Monitor, that offers limited adjustments and is designed to show a studio monitor-style picture. We appreciated the capability to save picture adjustments into a massive 16-slot memory bank. The Advanced menu includes a range of additional options, including full white balance controls, four gamma controls, and a few more esoteric options such as automatic gain control and input level.
Aside from the main picture menu are two others, Signal and Size/Pos that allow further adjustment. Our favorite setting was the External Scalar mode, which basically turns off all of the video processing and scaling built into the TV, and displays the 1080p input signal as purely as possible. Unfortunately, when the TV is in this mode and you send it a signal that's not 1080p, the screen remains a blank until you disengage the mode (easy enough since the remote has a dedicated "EXT. SCALER" toggle). We'd like to see this mode better implemented, with a warning message instead of a blank screen, but it's still nice to have.
As befits a monitor, the TH-VX100U has the capability to adjust the position and size of the onscreen image six ways from Sunday. The "1:1 pixel mode" is also a boon for use with 1080i and 1080p sources since it maps them to the display with no scaling or overscan, preserving the full resolution. You can choose from five aspect ratio choices with high-definition sources and four with standard-definition sources.
Panasonic also includes numerous options to prevent and remedy burn-in, or image retention. "Wobbling" moved the image slowly over time, while "peak limit" suppressed peak brightness. If image retention occurs, you can engage a scrolling bar, a full-white screen or a reverse color image and set a timer to end it automatically. There are even four different levels of brightness you can apply to the bars to either side of 4:3 images.
Like most plasmas displays, the TH-VX100U uses a lot of power (check out the Juice box--which only applies to the 65-inch version we tested, not the 50-inch model). Unlike Panasonic's consumer models, no concession was made to Energy Star 3.0 and the Premiere models are not compliant with the new standard. They do offer a power saver mode that again suppresses peak light output to cut down on consumption somewhat, and there's a standby power save mode too, although we couldn't measure any difference between leaving that mode turned on or off.