Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered and its Editors' Choice award removed because of changes in the competitive marketplace.
The big-screen HDTV arena is still owned by rear-projection models, but with every passing year flat-panel versions, especially plasmas, fall in price and become attractive targets for folks seeking massive home theater pictures. But prices haven't fallen far enough yet for most people, so for the foreseeable future big-screen plasmas like the Panasonic TH-58PZ800U will remain playthings of the rich. If you can afford it, however, this HDTV provides compelling reasons to go flat aside from bragging rights and the possibility of wall-mounting. Those reasons revolve around picture quality, from deep black levels and highly accurate color to the kind of uniformity and viewing-angle performance that puts rear-projection models to shame. Yes, again Pioneer's Elite plasmas delivered better performance overall than this, Panasonic's best plasma for 2008, but for all but the most ardent videophiles the extra price to go Elite won't be worth it.
Editors' note, October 13, 2008: The review originally indicated that the 58-inch TH-58PZ800U shares the same "single pane of glass" design found on the 50-inch TH-50PZ800U. That is incorrect; it has a traditional bezel raised about 1/4-inch from the screen.
The massive Panasonic has an unassuming look that differentiates itself somewhat by virtue of a slightly curved lower edge that forms the bottom of a sort of lower lip. Colored charcoal grey to contrast with the rest of the glossy black panel, the lower section bears the company logo and THX moniker and hiding a set of inputs behind a flip-down door and speakers in the crease of the lip.
The stand looks identical to the sloped number found on other 2008 Panasonic plasmas, but unlike the stand included on the 50-inch model, this one doesn't swivel. Including stand, the massive TH-58PZ800U measures 56.9 inches wide by 37.4 inches tall by 16.2 inches deep and weighs 136.9 pounds; divested of stand its size shrinks to 56.9 inches wide by 35.4 inches tall by 4.3 inches deep and its weight to 128.1 pounds. That's a lot of weight to be hanging on your wall, so we recommend using a professional installer if you want to go that route.
Panasonic's remote control remains the same as last year, and we remain fans of its layout. The medium-length wand groups the distinct sets of right-size buttons in an easy-to-feel arrangement, and although we'd have liked to see some backlighting, we didn't really miss it after a few minutes of becoming familiar with the button arrangement.
A familiar yellow-on-blue menu system leads to the television's setup functions, and although the graphics lack the panache of a Sony or a Samsung menu, navigation was intuitive enough. We liked that the company renamed its previously confusing "Normal" command to "Reset," which more accurately describes what it does to your picture settings.
THX Display Certification heads the list of step-up features on the TH-58PZ800U. The certification calls for minimum standards in a number of categories, such as contrast ratio and color accuracy, although THX is characteristically silent as to the exact details of those standards. The TH-58PZ800U has a special picture preset that, when engaged, causes the TV's picture to comply with the certification. We'll detail its effects in the Performance section, and we describe more about the certification itself in this blog post.
Like most plasmas in Panasonic's 2008 lineup, the TH-58PZ800U has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, or 1080p, which is fast becoming a standard feature on all flat-panel HDTVs, especially ones this large.
Picture controls on the TH-58PZ800U aren't as extensive as seen on many higher-end HDTVs. While we appreciated the ability to adjust all of the five picture modes, including THX, and the fact that the Custom mode is independent per input, we couldn't adjust color temperature beyond the three presets.
Advanced picture controls on the TH-58PZ800U include a color management control that we left off in THX mode; a "C.A.T.S." mode that changes contrast on the fly and so should be left turned off; two species of noise reduction, and a black level control. In case you're wondering, the step-up TH-PZ850U series series does include adjustable color temperature and a host of other picture tweaks, although it lacks THX certification.
Panasonic also touts Game mode, which turns out to be little more than an easy way to select a particular input. A quick press of the "Game" button on the remote toggles between any of the inputs that you've labeled "Game" using the input naming menu. Pressing that button does not engage the Game picture mode (which is simply another collection of adjustable picture settings) nor does it affect video processing or lag time between controller and screen--although, to be fair, such modes on other HDTVs have little value as far as we can tell.
The TH-58PZ800U offers five aspect ratio controls for HD sources, more than most HDTVs on the market. There's also a setting, called "HD Size 2," that lets the TV display every pixel of 1080i and 1080p sources without overscan or scaling. We recommend using Size 2 unless you notice interference along the extreme edges of the screen, which can occur on some HD sources. Unfortunately, selecting the THX picture mode doesn't automatically engage Size 2; you must go into a separate menu item to do so. We'd prefer HD Size 2 to be the default for all modes, or at least available among the standard selection of aspect ratios as opposed to buried in a setup menu. A selection of five modes is also available for SD sources.
A new menu for 2008 deals with burn-in or, as the company calls it, "image retention." There's a pixel orbiter that moves the entire image gradually around the screen, along with an option to set the 4:3 mode to include gray bars to either side of the picture (as opposed to black, which cause image retention more easily than gray). On the off chance that the plasma retains an image, there's a scrolling bar that slides across the screen as a sort of eraser.
We would have liked to see an energy-saver mode on this TV, but it does include one nice extra that really helps ameliorate power consumption--for a price. When you first plug in and set up the TV, it asks you whether you're in a store or home environment. Choosing "home" engages the Standard picture preset by default across all of the inputs, which saves quite a bit of power over the Vivid preset. This savings is reflected in our Juice Box measurements, where default was measured in Standard mode.
Unfortunately, Standard measures a vanishingly dim 6.8 footlamberts max light output (23.2 cd/m-squared), whereas we consider 40 the standard for a completely dark room. Brighter rooms call for even higher light output. Engaging standard produced a dull picture that we consider inadequate for a TV of this level, and anyone who cares about picture quality will likely avoid using standard, and naturally use more power. The Juice Box numbers for Calibrated more accurately reflect the true power consumption for this TV.
The Panasonic TH-58PZ800U lacks picture-in-picture, but it does include a thoughtful "Surf Mode" control, which can be set to restrict the TV's tuning options. You can set it to "all," "favorite," "digital only," or "analog only."