Panasonic's latest line of professional plasma panels, the TH-PH9UK series, continues to turn everyday TV shoppers' heads for some very compelling reasons. While designed primarily for professional use, the picture quality of these TVs is better than that of most consumer models, and their prices are extremely competitive. The trade-off? Panasonic's pro plasmas come with just a couple of inputs, no speakers, and no stand, although you can purchase them separately. The HDMI input--a necessity in today's world--will cost you at least an extra $110, the stand (pictured above) around $150, and the speakers, if you choose to add them, about $250. (The full list of accessories can be found here.) If the customization and extra accessories sounds like a chore, then the professional models probably aren't right for you.
If you can handle their limitations, however, the pro models still represent a fantastic value. The 50-inch TH-50PH9UK reviewed here follows in the footsteps of last year's TH-50PHD8UK with essentially the same feature set, although it does offer at least one significant improvement in picture performance. And while the Panasonic TH-50PH9UK didn't perform quite as well as the Pioneer PDP-5070HD, which earned our 2006 Editors' Choice award among the 50-inch plasmas we've tested, it costs significantly less and still produces a superb picture. As you might expect from a product aimed toward the professional market, the Panasonic TH-50PH9UK is quite simple with no industrial design flare whatsoever. It is finished in a very dark gray, and other than the Panasonic name below the center of the screen and the power light all the way to the left, there is nothing else to distinguish it. The all-screen look results in relatively tiny overall dimensions for a 50-inch plasma: 47.6 by 28.5 by 3.7 inches WHD for the panel itself, with a weight of 81.6 pounds.
As we mentioned, stereo speakers are an optional accessory. You must also opt for either the table-top stand or the wall-mount kit to support the panel.
The remote is intelligently designed and as a result, very easy to use. We especially appreciated the separate keys for each input slot. Unfortunately, the clicker is not backlit at all and cannot control other devices. Internally, the menu system hasn't changed on the industrial models for many years and remains extremely simple and easy to navigate. With a native resolution of 1,366x768, the Panasonic TH-50PH9UK matches the pixel count of just about every other 50-inch plasma on the market. It has enough pixels to display every detail of 720p sources; and all sources, from standard TV to DVD, to HDTV, to computers, are scaled to fit the native resolution.
As you may have surmised, the TH-50PH9UK doesn't offer much in the way of a feature package. Interestingly, it does have a PIP feature, which allows you to watch any two sources simultaneously, but that's about all she wrote for conveniences. There's no tuner, ATSC or otherwise, so to watch standard or high-def TV, you'll need to connect an external source, such as a cable or satellite box. Likewise, the lack of speakers means you'll need to connect your A/V sources to an external audio system or buy Panasonic's optional speakers to hear anything.
We were annoyed that the TH-50PH9UK still can't switch aspect ratios with HD sources, which is an issue if you're watching high-def on a channel that's sized improperly--like a lot of TNT channels--and your cable or satellite box can't change aspects. There are four aspect-ratio choices available for standard-def sources.
The Panasonic TH-50PH9UK does have several picture enhancing features worth mentioning. First off, 2:3 pull-down is available in the video processing but must be engaged for all inputs individually in the setup menu, as the default setting is Off. Selectable color temperatures are on tap and include Warm (the closest to the broadcast standard of 6,500K), Normal, and Cool. Panasonic also gives you three Picture mode choices: Dynamic, Standard, and Cinema. The TH-50PH9UK has independent memory per input; this means you can use any mode you wish at any input and still be able to make changes to the picture controls (with the consumer models such as the TH-50PX60U, you must assign a picture mode to an input in order to set it up independently of other inputs). Finally, in the advanced menu, there are fine-tuneable grayscale controls and selectable gamma settings.
Connection options are definitely limited compared to other HDTVs on the market. The panel comes with one component-video input that is also configurable to RGBHV (for computers or other RGB gear); an S-Video input; a composite video input; a 15-pin VGA input for computers (1,366x768 maximum resolution) that can also serve as a second component-video input with the addition of an inexpensive adapter; and an RS-232 control port. It's also worth noting that the component- and composite-video ports don't use standard RCA-style connectors. You'll have to buy inexpensive adapters, available at any RadioShack, to turn the BNC-style jacks into RCA jacks that will fit most A/V gear.