In a year when the firsttwo big-screen OLED TVs are hitting the market and the best LCD ever will likely have an even better successor, Panasonic's VT50 plasma still has the best flat-panel picture you can buy -- for now. Even if one of those contenders manages to unseat it atop the picture-quality heap, videophiles who invested in Panasonic's flagship can reassure themselves that OLED and Elite owners are getting ripped off. The VT50 itself is not cheap by any means, but it's sure to cost much, much less than those others.
By "not cheap" I mean "$1,000 more than an ST50" as of press time. And while the VT50's picture is amazing enough to drop even the most jaded of jaws, the ST50's isn't much worse. It's certainly not a Cleveland worse, at least to most viewers. If you, however, count yourself among the few who might actually consider spending that much extra to get the best TV since the Kuro, the Panasonic VT50 is a tempting target for a big chunk of living-room wall. If you count yourself value-conscious, the ST50 is a pretty good way to settle.
For the last couple of years Panasonic has fronted its best "V" series plasmas with a single sheet of glass that visually merges the picture and the frame into a single plane. On the VT50 the effect is beautiful, enhanced by the thinner bezel around the screen and the slim edge of silvery metal. I think this is Panasonic's best-looking plasma ever, and one finally able to compete with the flagship designs of LG and Samsung. In fact, I like the VT50 best among the three.
The VT50 comes with two remotes: the standard clicker found on models like the ST50 and a little puck with a thumb touch pad just like a laptop computer's. Unlike the touch remote included with Samsung's high-end TVs, this one's actually as responsive as I'd expect from a modern touch pad, making it fun to use in many circumstances.
Panasonic also tried to jazz up its standard remote this year, but the newly glossy face serves mostly to show fingerprints. We like the rest of the changes, though, from the nicely differentiated button sizes and groups to the extensive backlighting to the new dedicated Help button.
THX modes are quite good by default. I really appreciated that both THX Cinema and THX Bright Room offer basic adjustments -- an improvement over LG's nonadjustable THX. Unfortunately both are capped for light output on the 65-incher I tested, so there's no way to get either one any brighter.
The Custom mode houses the 2- and 10-point grayscale, a full color management system, and even a 10-point gamma adjustment. The advanced controls didn't work as well for me as Samsung's, but they outdid LG's.
The VT50 is the best-performing plasma I've tested since 2008, beating out the Samsung PNE8000 and Panasonic's own ST50 and GT50. I don't expect any other 2012 plasma to beat it. Its black-level performance, shadow detail, color accuracy, and bright-room picture quality outdo the Samsung's handily, and while the ST50 puts up a stronger fight than the Samsung, it also ultimately falls short of the VT50's picture quality, if not value. I haven't fully reviewed the GT50 yet, but it's a closer match to the ST50 than to the VT50 from what I've seen so far.
The only TVs that can compete with the Panasonic VT50 are the Sharp Elite and, yes, that hoary veteran the Pioneer Kuro (circa 2008). Ignoring size differences (the Kuro maxed out at 60 inches) and the fact that you can't get one anymore, I actually would still rather watch the Kuro than this Panasonic -- but it's very close. The VT50 is a better TV overall than the Sharp Elite, however, despite the latter's arguably superior black-level performance. My vote goes to the Panasonic for its more accurate color and perfect screen uniformity. Of course if you sit anywhere but the sweet spot in front of the middle of the screen, the Panasonic's advantages increase. The only reason I'd recommend the Sharp Elite instead is if you can't control ambient light in the room (and if you can't, you might as well get a lesser TV anyway), you really value 3D performance, or you really want the 70-inch Elite's larger screen.
As you can probably guess by now, the VT50 earned a "10" in this category. Its only real flaws are excessive crosstalk in 3D and some wonkiness during calibration, but neither of those can keep it from taking the 2012 TV picture-quality crown -- and serving as my new reference TV. It's clearly Panasonic's best plasma ever, and creates some stiff competition for the OLEDs arriving later this year.