Editors' note, April 17, 2013: The replacement for this TV, the
Last year after reviewing numerous TVs, my holiday recommendation for "bang for the buck" was the Panasonic ST30 series. This year I won't be surprised if -- after reviewing however many other 2012 TVs that come down the pike -- that recommendation will go to the ST50 series. Yes, you can get a cheaper TV, but the ST50 is pretty affordable even now, and worth the money for any buyer serious about picture quality who can't wait for holiday price drops.
The ST50 handily outperforms its predecessor, with deeper blacks, more accurate color, and an improved bright-room image. The picture is so good, in fact, that it scored the same as the flagship VT30 I lauded last year, and in person it's tough to tell the two apart. If anything, the ST50 looks better. It sets a lofty standard for HDTV picture quality this year, and one I feel confident only a few TVs will approach. I doubt any of them will do it for less money.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 55-inch Panasonic TC-P55ST50, 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.
|Panasonic TC-P50ST50||50 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P55ST50 (reviewed)||55 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P60ST50||60 inches|
|Panasonic TC-P65ST50||65 inches|
My first thought upon unboxing the ST50 was, "Man, that looks just like a Samsung plasma, just not quite as nice." And that's an improvement over past Panasonics. The edge of the frame is that jewel-like transparent plastic pioneered by Samsung and LG. Panasonic differentiates the shape of its frame with a thicker bottom edge and slightly angled bottom corners; I prefer normal corners and edges of equal width, so, yeah, Samsung's still looks a tad nicer to me. The ST50 is plenty sleek and modern-looking, however, from its slim panel (1.8 inches deep) to its silver-topped stand.
Panasonic also tried to jazz up its remote, but the newly glossy face serves mostly to show fingerprints. I like the rest of it though, from the nicely differentiated button sizes and groups to the extensive backlighting to the new dedicated Help key that takes you straight to an easily navigable onscreen version of the full user manual.
Aside from the great help section, the rest of Panasonic's menus remain unchanged: all-business yellow-on-blue that still seems a bit dated compared with Samsung or Sony, but gets the job done.
|Display technology||Plasma||LED backlight||N/A|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||Active||3D glasses included||No|
|Refresh rate(s)||60Hz, 48Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||Yes|
The ST50 is missing the THX mode and dual-core processor of the GT50, but otherwise their feature sets are very similar. Unlike the step-up VT50, it lacks a 96Hz refresh rate, but according to our test, the ST50 still delivered proper film cadence on 1080p/24 sources anyway (I wouldn't be surprised if the VT50 performed better in other ways, however). The main step-up over the UT50 series is Panasonic's Neo plasma panel and an improved screen filter, both said to improve picture quality. Panasonic has added dejudder processing to its plasmas; see the performance section for more details.
Like all plasmas the ST50 uses active 3D technology. New for this year Panasonic's active 3D glasses support the universal standard. In practical terms that means other companies' glasses that also support the standard will work with this Panasonic, and also that no 2011 or earlier Panasonic glasses will work with this TV. At $65 each the new Panasonic 2012 3D glasses cost twice to three times as much as Samsung's cheap models (the $25 SSG-3050GB and $20 SSG-4100GB). Check out our universal 3D glasses comparison for more info on glasses that are compatible with the ST50.
Smart TV: Last year I ranked Panasonic's Smart TV interface, called Viera Cast, highest for its simple layout and ease of use. The company didn't change a thing for 2012 on the ST50 (although other models I saw demoed with app folders and a gallery view). I like the ability to easily shuffle the items you want most, like Netflix, into prominent positions; I didn't like that navigation felt a bit pokey. The company's dual-core models (the VT50 and GT50 plasmas and WT50 LED) should be more responsive.
Panasonic's video content selection is top-notch since it added Vudu to last year's lineup, although I'd like to see a dedicated 3D app like the ones LG and Samsung offer. There's a newish Social Networking app that lets you combine live TV, Twitter, and Facebook on the same page. Audio gets relatively short shrift, with just Pandora, Shoutcast, and a karaoke app as of press time. The Viera Market also has a shopping section with overpriced Panasonic gear and other sundry hardware like keyboards (which helps if you're the one guy who really enjoys tweeting on your TV).
The company says it will add new apps, including a partnership with MySpace touted at CES and an exclusive with Disney digital books, soon. It also offers a remote control app for iOS, Android, and BlackBerry. The ST50 also includes a Web browser, although it wasn't accessible until I downloaded the app from the marketplace (it's under News & Lifestyle). I didn't get the chance to test it by press time.
Update June 11, 2012: The latest software update causes the TV to show you a banner ad when you first power up. It popped up and lasted about 3 seconds, but it was still annoying. I was happy to see I could disable it (here's how), but the banner is turned on by default.
Picture settings: Panasonic barely changed its options on the ST50 and remains one of the least-adjustable TVs on the market. The Cinema setting, which provides the most accurate default settings, doesn't allow tweaking much and now comes with the abhorrent Motion Smoother engaged by default. Turning it off rids the picture of smoothness, but I wish that weren't necessary.
The only mode to offer advanced controls is Custom, which unlike the others also allows different settings for each input. Its Pro section gets a two-point grayscale control and a few gamma presets, along with a bunch of less useful stuff like Black Extension and AGC, both of which should be set to zero. LG and Samsung offer 10-point (or higher) grayscale settings, along with full color management, in their plasmas, and the latter would be particularly helpful in Panasonic's case. It's also worth mentioning that the step-down UT50 series lacks the Pro section.
Connectivity: These days just about every TV has four HDMI ports, so while I don't think the ST50's total of three will cramp most users' hookup plans, it's still notable (as is the lack of a VGA input for analog computer connections). Included breakout cables support the one analog composite/component input, and there's a pair of USB ports and a rare SD card slot for media.
The Panasonic TC-PST50 series not only improves upon its predecessor ST30's picture quality in every way, it actually deserves the same lofty 9 I gave to the flagship VT30. Its black levels are just as deep as the VT30's -- and deeper than any other 2011 plasma -- its color accuracy and gamma are superb, albeit not quite reference-level, and its bright-room performance is better than we've seen on any plasma TV, ever. Color isn't quite perfect, and matte-screen LCDs are still a better choice for very bright rooms, but I found few faults with the ST50's 2D picture. The 3D picture quality was very good as long as you remember to put the TV on the 48Hz setting (see the update below).
|Panasonic TC-P50ST30||50-inch plasma|
|Panasonic TC-P55VT30||55-inch plasma|
|Samsung PN59D7000||59-inch plasma|
|Pioneer PRO-111FD||50-inch plasma|
|Sony KDL-55NX720||55-inch LED-based LCD|
|Sharp Elite PRO-60X5FD series (reference)||60-inch LED-based LCD|
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.
Black level: The ST50 produced an extremely dark shade of black that competed well against the generally more expensive TVs in the lineup when I watched "Hugo." In dark scenes, such as Hugo's entrance into his train station hideaway (chapter 2, 9:53 and later), it delivered depth of black that looked nearly indistinguishable from the picture on the VT30 and the D7000, and darker than that of either the ST30 or the Sony NX720. Only the Kuro and the Sharp Elite showed a picture that seemed darker.
"Hugo" lacks letterbox bars, which make judging relative black levels easier, so I tried out "Tron" and saw much the same results -- if anything the ST50 improved. It outdid the black of the D7000 and even of the VT30, although again the two uberexpensive Elites won the day (handily). At times the Sony managed a deeper black than the ST50, for example, during the opening sequence with the grid lines, but only when the screen was almost completely black.
It's important to remember than the VT30, ST30, and D7000 TVs were aged, causing them to show different black levels than when they were new. Comparing initial black-level measurements, however, the ST50's stellar 0.005 Fl (see the Geek Box below) is still darker than even the VT30's initial measurement (0.0061). Of course I can't say how the ST50 will age, but if the 2011 Panasonics are any indication, it won't get much worse during the first year.
Aside from depth of black, the ST50 also improved upon on the gamma and shadow detail of the 2011 Panasonics, matching the Samsung and Elites in this crucial characteristic. In chapter 2 of "Hugo," for example, the brightness of the shadows and interplay of light and dark areas in the walls, gears, and ceiling struts looked natural and not too light, as with the other Panasonics, nor too dark, as with the Sony.
I kept an eye out for floating blacks, or noticeable fluctuations in black and very dark areas, but didn't see any during the segments I watched. I also checked out the scenes from "Tron" that caused such fluctuations last year on the GT30, but didn't see them on this set.
Color accuracy: In the past I've complained about Panasonic plasmas' tendency toward too-green skin tones, red push, or lack of saturation, but the ST50 had none of these issues. It delivered the most accurate color I've seen on any Panasonic after a user-menu-only calibration. It came close to the reference Samsung in this area, and outdid the others aside from the VT30 (which looked nearly the same) in various ways. Skin tones, such as the face of Hugo when he visits Georges' house (chapter 8, 56:56), looked natural and lifelike, without the too-blue tint of the Sony or the more washed-out look of the ST30. Compared with the D7000, the ST50 did appear a bit warmer and redder in some areas, but the difference was very subtle.
T Of course the ST50 looked more accurate than the Sharp Elite since (like the other sets) it didn't desaturate cyan. The new Panasonic also showed rich, balanced color in other areas, for example the flowers at Lisette's stand (1:06:31). I also appreciated that near-black areas remained true and not overly tinged with blue or green.
Video processing: Like its 2011 brothers, the TC-PST50 passed our 1080p/24 test on its 60Hz setting. It cadence was smooth and properly filmlike, indistinguishable from the look of the other sets in our lineup that handled 1080p/24 properly. As usual, I found the 48Hz mode flickered too much to be watchable.
On the other hand, I did notice some artifacts from 1080p/24 sources in 60Hz mode. On the Digital Video Essentials test Blu-ray I noticed shifting lines and minor instability in the downtown Philadelphia buildings during an upward-facing pan. I didn't see any similar issues during other program material, but assume they might crop up.
Panasonic's Motion Smoother delivers three options, Weak, Medium, and Strong, and as usual I found all three relatively distasteful and preferred to leave the setting off. When engaged, Motion Smoother caused an improvement in motion resolution in our test pattern (see the Geek Box), but it's not worth the smoothing in our book because any blur was impossible for us to discern with real program material.
The ST50 passed our 1080i deinterlacing test with 3:2 pull-down set to On, but not when I used the default Auto (and, despite what the menu explanation says, this setting does affect HDMI sources).
Bright lighting: The ST50 handled overhead lighting better than any plasma I've ever tested. Comparing it with last year's Panasonics, the filter over the screen is better in both important ways. Under the lights, dark areas looked a bit darker on the ST50 than on the 2011 Panasonics as well as the Samsung D7000 plasma. Reflections in the ST50's screen also appeared a bit dimmer than on the other Panasonic plasmas, although the Samsung D7000 showed the dimmest reflections of all. Both LCDs (Sony and Sharp) preserved black areas' darkness better than the ST50, but their reflections were significantly brighter and more distracting.
Panasonic's Louvre Filter acts like venetian blinds to reject light coming from above. Compared with last year's VT30, the ST50's filter did dim the image a bit more when seen from high off-angle vertically. In practice this difference is only visible from angles that are roughly equivalent to placing the TV on the floor. As usual for a plasma, horizontal off-angle viewing, which is far more important than vertical in typical living-room situations, looked essentially perfect -- in marked contrast to both LCDs, for example.
3D: Overall the ST50 didn't maintain as impressive an image with 3D sources, but it was still solid. I compared it in a lineup that also included the passive 3D Vizio M3D550SR, the 2012 Sony KDL-55HX750, and our current 3D reference TV, the Samsung UN55D8000.
The first chapter of "Hugo" (a movie I plan to use for all 3D testing this year since it has significant depth and lots of interesting camera movement, is live action as opposed to animation, and was shot completely in 3D) has some scenes where crosstalk was quite prominent on the ST50. The ghostly double-image was especially visible on as Hugo's hand as it reached for the mouse (5:01), the tuning pegs on the guitar (7:49) and the face of the dog as it watches the inspector slide by (9:24), for example. The VT30 looked nearly the same in comparison, but the PND7000, the Elite, the UND8000, the HX750, and the Vizio all showed less crosstalk than either Panasonic.
Updated June 5, 2012: The above comments were made with the TV on its default 60Hz setting. Since this review was published I've had the chance to test the ST50's 3D picture quality in a different lineup using the 48Hz setting instead. It worked very well to reduce crosstalk, and elevated the ST50 to the same level in this area as a competing Samsung plasma. For more details and comparisons, check out the 3D section of the Panasonic TC-PVT50 series review.
In the default Cinema, Movie, or THX settings (I don't calibrate for 3D) the ST50's 3D black levels looked deep enough, with good shadow detail, but didn't look appreciably deeper than those of any of the others, aside from the Sony HX750 and the Vizio. Its color also seemed a bit too blue, especially in dark areas, although it wasn't egregious. Of course any of these differences could change with a calibration in 3D. I did not test 2D-to-3D conversion.
Panasonic's new 2012 glasses are lighter and fit better than either of their predecessors. The Bluetooth connection also seemed to maintain sync better than the old Infrared method.
Power consumption: [Note that this test and all of the chart numbers below only apply to the 55-inch TC-P55ST50, not any of the other sizes.] The 55ST50 uses significantly more juice than any similarly-sized LED or LCD-based TV, but it's a bit more efficient than the 55-inch VT30 from 2011. As usual for plasma, the default picture preset (Standard) is vanishingly dim with the room lighting sensor disabled; just 14 Fl compared with our dim-room target of 40 Fl. That explains the more than 100-watt difference between the two.
This year, due to the hard cap of 108 watts for any size of TV imposed by Energy Star's latest 5.3 specification, 55-inch and larger Panasonic plasmas fail to earn the blue sticker. The only Energy Star-qualified TV in this series is the 50-inch TC-P50ST50.
Editors' note: CNET has dropped TV power-consumption testing for 60-inch or smaller LCD and LED-based TVs because their power use, in terms of yearly cost, is negligible. We will continue to test the power use of larger LCD or LED models, as well as all plasma OLED models.
|Panasonic TC-P55ST50||Picture settings|
|Picture on (watts)||142.75||246.97||N/A|
|Picture on (watts/sq. inch)||0.11||0.19||N/A|
|Cost per year||$31.40||$54.24||N/A|
|Score (considering size)||Poor|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.005||Good|
|Near-black x/y (5%)||0.3306/0.3624||Average|
|Dark gray x/y (20%)||0.3137/0.3331||Average|
|Bright gray x/y (70%)||0.3134/0.328||Good|
|Before avg. color temp.||6796||Poor|
|After avg. color temp.||6395||Average|
|Red lum. error (de94_L)||0.315||Good|
|Green lum. error (de94_L)||2.5755||Average|
|Blue lum. error (de94_L)||0.191||Good|
|Cyan hue x/y||0.2216/0.3216||Good|
|Magenta hue x/y||0.3227/0.1542||Good|
|Yellow hue x/y||0.4259/0.5064||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|1080i Deinterlacing (film)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||1200||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||900||Good|