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Panasonic TC-PVT60 series review: This plasma picture finally challenges Kuro

The Panasonic VT60 has one of the best pictures of any TV we've ever reviewed, and matches the best-ever in dark rooms.

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Ty Pendlebury
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Ty Pendlebury

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Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.

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Panasonic has been top of the picture-quality pile for the past five-plus years, ever since the Pioneer Kuro (now known as the "K-word") bowed out of the frame. Panasonic inherited technology and engineers in Pioneer's shakeup and has been inching toward beating the K-word ever since, but never quite got there. I would argue that 2013 is the year Panasonic has finally cracked it.

Panasonic_TC-PVT60_series_35566958_35567314_20.jpg
8.3

Panasonic TC-PVT60 series

The Good

The <b>Panasonic VT60</b> produces the second-best picture quality of any TV we've ever reviewed, equal to or better than our in-house Pioneer Kuro reference and surpassed only by the ZT60; exceedingly deep black levels and excellent shadow detail; well-saturated colors and excellent skin tones; industry-leading sound quality; extensive features including touch-pad remote, voice control, and onboard camera.

The Bad

Extremely expensive; worse bright-room picture than that of the Samsung F8500; somewhat humdrum design; camera is limited, and facial recognition is a gimmick.

The Bottom Line

The Panasonic VT60 has one of the best pictures of any TV we've ever reviewed, and matches the best-ever in dark rooms.

The VT60 is an excellent plasma with the best dark-room image quality you'll see this year not powered by light-emitting diodes. It is a shade better than the Kuro we've been using as a reference these long years, it beats the Samsung F8500 in critical dim-room viewing situations, and it's demonstrably better than the outstanding ST60. It boasts industry-leading black levels, illuminating shadow detail, and rich, saturated colors.

There are a couple of problems, however. The first is price: the VT60 is exactly twice the cost of the ST60, and its picture is by no stretch of the imagination twice as good. In other words, this is a TV not just for videophiles, but, like the Kuro and the F8500, it's a TV for relatively wealthy videophiles.

Another problematic decision looms for those who can afford it: Panasonic's own ZT60, a step-up model that outperforms the VT60 in brighter rooms. In dark rooms the two are dead even, but videophiles in this tax bracket who simply want the best picture quality they can get, money no object, won't bat an eye at the extra $500 the ZT60 demands.

The VT60 is the better value, however, and offers better features and sound quality, as well as availability in a 55-inch size. And its silver medal in the all-time picture quality Olympics is still no mean feat.

Editors' Note, November 15, 2013: Panasonic has announced that it will no longer manufacture plasma televisions after 2013, making these TVs the last of their kind. That fact doesn't negatively affect our buying advice; in fact, just the opposite. We have confidence Panasonic will remain a viable company, and continue to support its plasma TVs, for years.

Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 60-inch Panasonic TC-P60VT60, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality.

Models in series (details)
Panasonic TC-P55VT60 55 inches
Panasonic TC-P60VT60 (reviewed) 60 inches
Panasonic TC-P65VT60 65 inches

The Panasonic VT60 rises to the top (pictures)

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Design
Design has never been Panasonic's strongest point, and the VT60 looks like every other top-of-the-line plasma TV the company has made for the past four years: piano-black bezel, flush glass, silver trim, and a silver stand. You could argue that the stand's new V (for VT! Viera!) shape is distinctive, and you could also convincingly argue that it's somehow lost in time. It's covered in chrome and would look better appointing the hood of a '59 Buick ("Vuick"?) than the base of a '13 television. The stand is also fixed, so it won't swivel, but it does come with plastic clips to hide the cabling.

The V-shaped stand is chrome and a little gaudy. Sarah Tew/CNET

The TV comes with two remotes: the familiar, simple-to-use wand with its large, friendly buttons and a smaller touch pad with a few select keys. The touch pad is upgraded from the one that shipped with the VT50 last year to include a microphone for voice search. It's relatively easy to use, though it lacks some essential buttons such as Menu.

A tale of two remotes. Sarah Tew/CNET

The television has two sets of menus -- one for Smart TV and the other, accessible via that little Menu key, for more-mundane TV settings like picture and network options -- and there's no way to get from one to the other using the menus themselves (update There is but it's still tough to find; select the Menu icon from top row of the main Viera Connect apps page). The Settings icon from within the Smart TV Home system takes you to a configuration page for Smart TV itself. Once you find them, though, Panasonic's 2013 settings offer easy navigation and sleeker design compared with what you got in previous years.

Key TV features
Display technology Plasma LED backlight N/A
Screen finish Glossy Remotes Standard, touch pad
Smart TV Yes Internet connection Built-in Wi-Fi
3D technology Active 3D glasses included Two pairs
Refresh rate(s) 96Hz, 60Hz, 48Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing Yes
DLNA-compliant Photo/Music/Video USB Photo/Music/Video
Other:Integrated camera and voice control; Optional touch pen (model TY-TP10U, $79); additional 3D glasses (model TY-ER3D5MA, $79)

Features

Panasonic has traditionally been about picture quality first, features second, and while the VT60 acquits itself well enough on the first front, the company has also tried to counter the competition's ever-expanding lists of extras with the VT60. This is Panasonic's first real attempt at a plasma TV Swiss Army Knife.

On the other hand the higher-priced ZT60 cuts back on the features, losing the onboard camera and front-facing speakers. Otherwise the two have basically identical feature sets..

The Skype camera flips up when you open the program. Sarah Tew/CNET

The VT60 and flagship WT60 LED are the first and only Panasonic TV to offer an onboard camera. It pops up from the top center of the screen, and when active, it serves two main purposes. The most important is Skype, eschewing the need for an expensive aftermarket camera like the $90 TY-CC20W, while another is facial recognition (more on that below). The camera opens automatically when you access Skype, and also pops up when you use the My Home Screen voice command. The camera stays engaged when up, so if you're nervous about having an open camera on your television -- or simply don't want to spoil the aesthetics of your TV -- you need to manually lower it.

Skype worked as well as you'd expect, and the camera gave about two seats' worth of coverage from a distance of 6 feet. The camera includes color and brightness settings, but sadly no zoom feature. As most Skype conversations I've ever had have had fairly lousy video quality, including a digital zoom wouldn't affect call quality in any meaningful way and would enable people to see your face much more clearly. For that reason, Skype on a laptop, phone, or tablet, which allows close-ups much more easily, is often preferable.

New for 2013, Panasonic finally includes 3D glasses in the box; you get two pairs, compared with four with the Samsung PNF8500. The included glasses, model TY-ER3D5MA, are much nicer than Samsung's throw-ins but not quite as good as Panasonic's own separately sold 2012 TY-ER3D4MU ($75 each). The latter are also rechargeable, while the included ones require a coin battery. Panasonic told me additional pairs of the new 5MA glasses would sell for $79 each, or $149 for a two-pack. The VT60 complies with the full HD 3D standard, so it will work with third-party glasses like the aforementioned Samsungs ($20).

One unique extra for all 2013 Panasonic plasmas is a touch-pen accessory ($79), which allows users to draw on the screen, though this is more of a business tool than an in-home one.

If you have a smartphone, Panasonic's improved Viera Remote app enables some functions like basic control if you misplace the remote and "swipe and share" to display photos on the big screen. It also allows direct access to relatively advanced calibration functions, although I didn't test this feature.

Smart TV: The most noticeable change to Panasonic's smart TV suite is the brand-new interface. It lacks the dynamism of Samsung's Smart TV offering and with the default inclusion of a calendar and an analog clock on the main screen, it looks downright frumpy. Not even HTC is doing analog clocks anymore.

The home screens of the new Panasonic interface. Sarah Tew/CNET

As with last year, the interface offers multiple "pages," and all show the currently playing input in an inset window along with the grid of apps. You can place any app anywhere you want on the grid, a welcome change from interfaces from makers like Samsung that offer only partial customization. Panasonic ups the custom ante further by offering three different templates for new pages you can create, custom backgrounds (including your own pictures), and the ability to name pages -- for example, each member of a particularly tech-savvy family could set up his or her own page.

The set boasts facial recognition for selecting your home screen but using the remote is a lot faster Sarah Tew/CNET

The onboard camera comes back into play here, and the TV can switch to your customized screen after recognizing your face. However, depending on the lighting it could take several goes to find your face, so it's usually easier to just navigate to your page yourself. Unfortunately you have to press the Home key twice to switch between pages, rather than simply navigating among them directly.

The full apps screen is a little jumbled but configurable. Sarah Tew/CNET

The app selection is superb and very similar to last year's with Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Hulu Plus all present. If you want to dive into the nonpreinstalled selection in the Viera Marketplace, there's also Vudu, Pandora, TuneIn radio, Rhapsody, and full episodes and photos from a Panasonic-sponsored series on National Geographic TV about World Heritage sites. There are also apps for use with the optional touch pen, a smattering of kids apps, and the requisite crappy games.

The TV does include a Web browser, but with better browsers on phones, tablets, and laptop PCs, who really needs one on their TV? Navigation is a little better with the touch pad, but sometimes pages don't render properly, and using voice search results in a two-step process that is frustrating at best -- especially when it mishears your search terms!

Picture settings: As befits a near-flagship TV, the VT60 offers an exhaustive number of picture controls, even more than the ST60. The primary addition is a pair of THX-certified modes, one for "Cinema" and one for "Bright Rooms." Advanced tweaks include a 10-point grayscale and 10-point gamma system as well as color management for the primary and secondary colors. The company has also added a cool "copy adjustments" option that allows you to migrate your picture settings from one input and/or mode to others.

Other controls include three levels of dejudder, aka soap opera effect, an unusual seven different aspect ratio settings, and the usual array of items to help prevent and treat image retention, including a pixel orbiter and scrolling white bar.

Connectivity: Disappointingly for such an expensive TV, the VT60 only includes three HDMI ports. If you have a cable box and more than two other HDMI devices (like a game console, Roku, or Blu-ray player), you'll need to invest in either a HDMI splitter or, more practically, an AV receiver. Other inputs include three USB ports (for accessories like a wireless keyboard and external storage), a shared composite/component output, and a digital optical. The TV also comes with an SD card slot for sharing photos and videos.

Picture quality
Every year I wonder at how Panasonic can squeeze a better picture out its plasma TVs, and the VT60 does it again. It's definitely a step up from last year's incredibly good VT50, and overall the best TV we've ever tested aside from the ZT60. That TV only outperformed the VT60 when we turned up the lights, however; in a demanding, dark-room environment, the two were basically identical.

(Editors' Note: A section below that compared the VT60 to a precalibration ZT60 has been removed due to the publication of the full ZT60 review. The remainder of this VT60 review below was written before we had tested the ZT60, so it doesn't refer to that TV. For a direct comparison between the two, check out our full review of the Panasonic TC-PZT60.)

If you want ultradeep blacks on your TV screen -- and that's what we all should want, since they're the chief ingredient in amazing home theater picture quality -- you'll find them in the Panasonic VT60. This TV beats the Samsung F8500 in terms of black level, although it can't match that panel for image brightness. But in a dim to dark room, the kind in which you'll want to watch any good TV to best appreciate its picture quality, the VT60 wins -- it gets plenty bright enough for most rooms, and that much darker. Colors are a little more vivid on the Panasonic, and flesh tones are healthier-looking than the Samsung can muster.

Of the six TVs in our comparison lineup, it was really a two-horse race between the Panasonic VT60 and the Pioneer Elite Kuro 111FD. While the Pioneer did some things better, the Panasonic had a more impressive picture overall due to its slightly deeper black levels and better shadow detail. So in a way, despite the fact that it's the ZT60 Panasonic is touting as a Kuro-killer, the less expensive VT60 is actually the first TV we've tested to outperform our in-house Kuro.

Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Comparison models (details)
Samsung PN60F8500 60-inch plasma
Panasonic TC-P65VT50 65-inch plasma
Panasonic TC-P55ST60 55-inch plasma
Samsung PN60E8000 60-inch plasma
Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD 60-inch LED
Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-111FD 50-inch plasma

Black level: While the Kuro stood out in 2007, Panasonic has been slowly catching up every year, and this year has finally surpassed the black levels of the 50-inch Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD plasma we've kept as a reference ever since.

In a field of the best TVs we have ever seen in the CNET offices, the VT60 and the Pioneer Kuro were easily the darkest in the room. Watching dark scenes from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," like the hillside as the camera flies by Voldemort's amassed army, both the Kuro and VT60 were able to bring out the individual faces on the combatants without sacrificing deep black in the shadowy areas of the valley below. Though they were neck and neck, the Panasonic had a little bit more shade -- particularly in black bars. The Sharp Elite and Samsung F8500 couldn't get quite as dark, while the VT50 and the others appeared a bit lighter still.

When surveying a dark room of full of piled-up furniture, the (Chapter 14, 57:29) the VT50 and VT60 illuminated similar amounts of shadow detail, while the 60 had a touch more pop due to its deeper black levels. Compared to the Kuro the VT60 was able to illuminate just a little more detail while keeping black "black."

On a bright scene, such as the all-white "dream sequence" (Chapter 22), the Samsung's higher brightness on a full screen pays off, with a truer, more brilliant white than was available on any of the other TVs bar the LED-based Sharp Elite. The VT60 looked noticeably duller, and was about as bright as the VT50 in this scene. The older Kuro was able to get just a little brighter on this scene, due in part to its smaller 50-inch size. As a rule, the larger the plasma, the dimmer its picture gets.

Color accuracy: It shouldn't be surprising when comparing TVs this good, but I was still impressed by how similarly all of the seven TVs performed when it came to color, especially greens and blues. When presented with a rural scene from "The Tree of Life" (TToL) (Chapter 5) featuring skin tones, green grass, blue sky, and cyan clothing, all of the TVs got the colors dead-on. All, that is, except the Sharp Elite, which was completely unable to render the blue-greens of cyan and instead made them ice-blue.

Where the TVs differed were in skin tones, with the VT50, VT60, and Kuro sharing a very saturated look, while the F8500 had the least saturated skin tone of all the TVs. At no point though did the skin coloring of the VT60 veer into "feverish" or even "Tanning Mom" territory, and remained natural and pleasing.

Watching the earlier opening scenes of TToL's Creation (Chapter 4) we were treated to some of the best reproductions we've seen yet, with amazing colors on black contrast and a minimum of color banding. Only compared to the Kuro did the VT60 suffer slightly, with a slight red tinge to the close-to-black screens, and it wasn't quite as talented with gradations showing some green fringing.

Switching to "Star Trek," and, for whatever reason, Panasonic plasmas always make the highlights of the "ninja pine cone" alien ship (Chapter 4, 28:18) look brown, and it's the same with the VT60. The highlights are more neutral/black on the Samsung.

Video processing: The TV was able to smoothly render our test scene consisting of the Intrepid fly-by from "I Am Legend" without judder or breakup of the diagonal lines of flags when set to 96Hz. Choosing 60Hz for the 24p mode resulted in more judder during this scene while 48Hz displayed both flicker and more judder.

The Panasonic boasts a "3,000 Focused Field Drive," but as with other Panasonic plasmas, it only achieves the respectable 1,200 lines of full motion resolution of when you turn on one of the smoothing/dejudder modes. Without any of those modes on the VT60 still managed a respectable score of 700 lines.

The VT60 only passed the Film Resolution test when set to its "3:2 pull-down" mode is set to On; it failed to properly deinterlace 1080i film-based content in the default Auto mode. Funnily enough, even Off looked better than Auto on our test.

Bright lighting: In calibrated modes, The VT60 exhibited improved bright room performance (blacks) over the VT50 and much better than the Kuro, although much more reflective. In direct light the VT60 and F8500 performed very similar with grey blacks but at right angles to a light source the Samsung demonstrated deeper blacks and more vivid colors.

Using standard picture modes, the VT60 was able to get to a maximum brightness of 47.42 fL (Cinema with Panel brightness high) which is only a little better than our dark room setting. The Samsung F8500 in comparison was capable of almost twice that at 83 fL. In a bright room there was little contest in the TV's brightest modes: the Samsung looked much punchier and its less reflective filter meant that blacks were deeper and reflections more ably rejected.

Hockey or skiing, where much of the screen is occupied by white or very bright material, appears markedly brighter on the F8500 than on other plasmas this size, and other content is proportionately brighter too, depending on how much of the screen is occupied by white. Most content is more mixed between light and dark, however, making this F8500 advantage less important. It's also worth noting that most LEDs can maintain an even brighter image than the F8500 with near- or full-white content.

All of the plasmas aside from the Kuro were quite close in the depth of black levels; the VT50 was actually second-best at preserving black, followed by the VT60 and then the ST60 and E8000.

Sound quality The Panasonic VT60 had the best sound reproduction of our lineup -- the forward-facing speakers really helped. This was the only TV in our lineup that I'd actually listen to music on. All of the other TVs distorted the bass guitar in Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand," for example; the VT60 felt like it had a little too much bass, yet the treble and midrange were still clear. The Samsung F8500 had the worst sound in the lineup, with very distant, muddled audio.

If you want to listen to music, or get the most from movie soundtracks and don't want to buy a separate sound system, then the VT60 is the TV to get if you can afford it. It is one of the rare TVs in the last few years with forward-facing speakers, and the effects aren't subtle. Voices have more presence, actors no longer sound like they're perched behind the sofa, and music and sound effects have the requisite amount of punch and impact.

3D: Compared with the ST60, the VT60 is a far superior performer when it comes to 3D, especially in quick movement. During the opening chase scenes of "Hugo," the ST60 displayed plenty of motion artifacts -- the figures look like they're being viewed from behind a waterfall when moving -- but the VT60's motion was rock-solid.

The VT60 had relatively poorly detailed shadowy areas during 3D scenes -- but this is with the caveat that we don't calibrate for 3D playback, and just used the THX mode. The Samsung F8500 was able to deliver much better contrast and shadow detail. At the 9:54 mark, Hugo opens a large metal door, and on the F8500 you can see his face quite clearly, while on the VT60 he is in blue-black shadow. Increasing the brightness did improve things a little, but we were unable to equal the Samsung's shadow detail without washing out the scene altogether.

Crosstalk results between the F8500 and the VT60 were very similar, with some ghosting visible on Hugo's hand (4:44), but both saw a definite improvement on the VT50.

Juice box
Panasonic TC-P60VT60 Picture settings
Default
Picture on (watts) 408.79
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.27
Standby (watts) 0.09
Cost per year $89.81
Score (considering size) Poor
Score (overall) Poor
GEEK BOX: Test Result Score
Black luminance (0%) 0.002 Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.11 Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 1.9 Good
Near-black error (5%) 1.302 Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.183 Good
Bright gray error (70%) 2.267 Good
Avg. color error 0.695 Good
Red error 1.85 Good
Green error 0.358 Good
Blue error 1.397 Good
Cyan error 2.188 Good
Magenta error 2.085 Good
Yellow error 0.828 Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) Pass Good
1080i De-interlacing (film) Pass Good
Motion resolution (max) 1200 Good
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 1200 Good
Input lag (Game mode) 47.9 Average

Panasonic TC P60VT60 calibration report

Panasonic_TC-PVT60_series_35566958_35567314_20.jpg
8.3

Panasonic TC-PVT60 series

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 10Value 7