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Editors' Note 04/17/2008: The rating on this review has been modified from 8.0 to 7.7 due to changes in the competitive marketplace.
In the 50-something-inch screen size, plasma still holds a price advantage over LCD, although that advantage is shrinking every day. And as LCD TVs deliver improving picture quality and boast higher native resolutions, plasmas have to compete in other areas. One new picture-quality front is the screen itself--many newer plasmas, such as the Panasonic TH-50PX77U, incorporate antiglare coatings on their glass screens. The idea is to attenuate room reflections, an area where LCD has traditionally trounced plasma. The TH-50PX77U does a solid job of cutting down glare, and the majority of its other picture-quality characteristics, especially its deep black levels, outdo most offerings from the LCD camp. If you've been holding out on plasma because you have a bright room, sets such as the TH-50PX77U might help change your mind.
Editor's note: We also reviewed the 42-inch version of this set, the Panasonic TH-42PX77U, which scored slightly lower in the performance category. The main differences were in the 50-inch version's better black level performance and its slightly less noisy image.
The redesigned Panasonic TH-50PX77U is one of the better-looking plasmas we've reviewed in the last year. The glossy black frame around the screen--now standard on most flat-panel HDTVs--is augmented by side-mounted speakers, which appear as unobtrusive black strips, each about an inch wide. Along the bottom is set a swatch of charcoal gray that bows up ever so slightly in the middle and tapers on the sides. The only other accents on the front are the red power light and the silver logos. On the right side, invisible from the front, is a hatch that opens to reveal basic controls, an A/V input with composite and S-Video, and an SD card slot.
We really liked Panasonic's new remote. Its layout is basically the same as last year's model, but the somewhat larger buttons feel much better. Its keys--of which there are just the right number--are arranged quite logically, and although there's no backlighting, we appreciated the ease with which we were able to locate buttons by feel. The remote can control as many as three other devices. Panasonic's internal menu system is intuitive enough, although we disliked the ease with which you can inadvertently erase your picture settings.
With a native resolution of 1,366x768, the Panasonic TH-50PX77U matches the resolution of just about every available 50-inch plasma today. That's enough to display every detail of 720p HDTV, and although some competing displays have higher 1080p resolution, it doesn't make much of a difference at this screen size (see Performance below). All incoming signals, whether HDTV, DVD, or standard-def TV, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The range of picture controls bests that of previous "consumer" Panasonic plasmas, such as the 58-inch TH-58PX600U, coming closer to the control available in "professional" models such as the TH-50PH9UK. The most important improvement is the addition of true independent input memories. In other words, the settings for the set's Custom picture mode can be completely different for each input, allowing you to customize the picture for each of your sources. You can also choose from three other picture modes, which each can also be adjusted--but not independently for each input. There is a monkey wrench in the customization machine, however. Mistakenly deleting the settings you've worked to adjust is all too easy; a control labeled Normal, when selected, returns picture settings to their default positions. Writing down your settings somewhere once you've gotten them determined is a good idea.
A number of advanced adjustments complement the standard contrast, brightness, and other controls, including a trio of color-temperature presets, of which Warm is the most accurate. Of course, we would have appreciated the ability to further fine-tune the color temperature, as offered by Panasonic's own "professional" plasmas as well as by other competing units, such as the Vizio VP42HDTV.
Panasonic's color-management control is said to "enhance" the colors of green and blue, but we couldn't see any effect so we left it off. Controls for noise reduction and black level are also present, along with a selection for a standard or high-def color matrix (welcome with 480p sources, which use standard for DVDs and high-def for SD broadcasts). The selection of aspect ratio choices is quite good, with five available for high-def sources and four for standard-def.
In addition to the SD card slot we mentioned above, which allows you to display digital photos on the big screen if you insert an SD card, the Panasonic offers a fair selection of conveniences. There's an ATSC tuner for grabbing over-the-air broadcasts, although as expected, this model lacks CableCard. We also missed having the ability to view two programs at once via picture-in-picture.
Around back, the Panasonic TH-42PX77U offers pretty basic connectivity. There are two HDMI inputs, two component-video inputs, two A/V inputs with S-Video and composite video, an RF-style input for antenna or cable, a monitor A/V output with composite video, and an optical digital audio output for passing the surround soundtracks from over-the-air HD broadcasts. We were disappointed that Panasonic didn't deign to include a VGA-style input for PCs, as do many competing plasma makers.
We began our evaluation by adjusting the picture of the Panasonic TH-50PX77U for optimal quality in our darkened theater. In the Custom preset with the Warm color temperature selected, its grayscale came quite close to the 6,500K ideal for color temperature (see the Geek box below), although it was a bit red. After a service-menu level calibration it was significantly closer, although the grayscale wasn't as linear as we'd have liked, tending toward blue in the lower- and mid-bright areas. We were pleased that both the Custom and Cinema presets kept maximum light output to a reasonable level, close to the 35 footlamberts we prefer in a totally dark room, whereas most HDTVs' presets are blindingly bright. For a complete look at our final user-menu picture settings, click here or check out the Tips section above.
After setup was complete, we slipped one of our favorite HD DVDs, , into the Toshiba HD-XA2 at 1080p resolution, fired up a couple of other 50-something-inch HDTVs--our reference Pioneer PRO-FHD1 and Sony's KDL-50XBR2--and checked out how the Panasonic compared.
As usual, the first thing we noticed was black-level performance, and in this regard the TH-50PX77U beat the other two displays, especially the Sony LCD. From the completely blank screen before the disc's menu appeared to the letterbox bars above and below the picture, to the dark scenes themselves, the Panasonic's black level performance was superb. As the Venture slips away from New York during the night, for example, we saw that the shadows in Arian Brody's hair and the black of the night sky were both a bit deeper than on the Pioneer, and noticeably deeper than on the Sony. As always, deep black levels lent additional "pop" and contrast to the entire film, which really helped the picture deliver mode impact.
Shadow detail was commendable as well, although we wished for the option to tweak the gamma control to get a slightly slower rise out of black--an option available on both of the other displays. We also noticed that the Panasonic's actual black level fluctuated slightly on certain test patterns. As one area of the picture increased in brightness, the black areas also became a bit brighter, causing the TH-50PX77U to fail the black-level retention test mentioned in the Geek Box. We looked for the effects of this issue when watching Kong and other material but did not spot it.
The ship sailing out of the harbor also revealed one of the Panasonic's biggest weaknesses: susceptibility to false contouring. The sky above the night-lit buildings evinced visible gradations from shadow to blackness, along with some noise in the darkest areas near black. To be fair, even the excellent Pioneer evinced some contouring in this difficult scene, although not nearly as much as the Panasonic. For its part, the Sony aced this torture test, delivering a smooth fade into black. We also noticed the Panasonic contouring in some other scenes, such as the shadow on the wall behind Naomi Watts as she talks to Brody, but the issue was infrequent enough that it didn't really detract from our enjoyment of the picture.
Color accuracy on the TH-50PX77U left little to be desired. Scenes such as Watts' tearful posing on the ship's bow looked beautiful, with deep reds and purples in the sunset and the perfect amount of color on her pale yet flushed face. Yes, the Pioneer did look a tad more impressive, thanks to its more-saturated look, but the Panasonic was still excellent. It did suffer from an inaccurate primary color of green, however, which made areas such as the lush jungle of the island appear a tad too yellowish--both the Pioneer and Sony were better in this regard. The Panasonic's solid color temperature, excellent color decoding, and deep black levels all contributed to realistic color overall.
On any television, lights, bright objects in the room, and even pale fabric from a couch or the shirt of a viewer can reflect off the screen, which could become distracting, especially in dark scenes. Of course, the best way to control this issue is to eliminate as much ambient light as possible in the room, but the TH-50PX77U, along with its 77U-series stablemates, addresses the problem in another way. Its screen is coated with an antiglare compound that, unlike the coatings of some previous plasmas we've reviewed such as the Samsung HP-S5053, does a good job of attenuating reflections. We watched TV with the lights on full-blast, and compared to the other plasmas, the reflections on the Panasonic's screen were considerably dimmer, blurrier, and less noticeable. We couldn't discern any adverse effect of the coating on the TV's picture quality.
While we watched the film in 1080p mode to give the Panasonic the best possible source, we also tested its ability to handle 1080i sources using the HQV HD DVD. The TH-50PX77U aced the video resolution loss test, preserving all of the resolution from video-based sources, but it failed the test for film resolution. As a result, we could detect moiré in the grandstands of Raymond James Stadium. We also saw a similar artifact during one of our favorite video-processing torture tests--chapter 9 of , about 51:26 into the film--where the Panasonic introduced moiré into the vertical wires hanging from the ceiling as she ascends the staircase. Since this scene looked clean when we set our player to both 1080p and 720p resolutions, we recommend choosing either of those resolutions over 1080i when sending HDTV signals to the Panasonic.
Detail was excellent on the Panasonic, even compared to that of the Pioneer and Sony displays, both of which have 1080p resolution. Watching either of the two extremely sharp discs, we had a hard time discerning the difference between them from our seating distance of about 7 feet.
We also saw a bit more moving motes of snowy noise on the Panasonic compared to the Pioneer on the HQV HD DVD's video noise test, as well as in both Flux and Kong. Engaging the video NR control cleaned it up a bit, so the two plasmas were about equal afterward.
Next, we checked out the TH-50PX77U's standard-def image quality using the DVD version of HQV played over the component-video inputs at 480i. Performance was mostly good; the set resolved nearly every detail of the disc's resolution, although it was a bit soft in the vertical lines. The stones on the bridge and the blades of grass on the "detail" shot appeared reasonably sharp, too. The Panasonic smoothed out jagged edges along diagonal lines quite well, although the difficult stripes on the waving American flag had a few jaggies. Again, we noticed improvement when we engaged the video-noise-reduction setting--the TH-50PX77U squelched noise in low-quality sources nicely--although the accompanying "MPEG NR" setting didn't seem to have as much of an effect. Finally, 2:3 pull-down detection functioned well, eliminating moiré in the stands in short order, albeit not quite as quickly as did some displays we've tested.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6,110/6,096||Good|
|After color temp||6,491/6,479||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 785K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 124||Average|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.638/0.344||Good|
|Color of green||0.264/0.660||Poor|
|Color of blue||0.148/0.064||Good|
|Black-level retention||No stable pattern||Poor|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Yes||Good|
|480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps||Yes||Good|
|1080i video resolution||Pass||Good|
|1080i film resolution||Fail||Poor|