The second 50-inch plasma available with 1080p resolution, the Panasonic TH-50PF9UK has a bit of catching up to do. The first was Pioneer's Pro-FHD1, which earned the highest picture-quality marks we've given out in a long time. The Panasonic also delivers excellent images, although it's not quite as impressive as the Pioneer overall. More importantly, both cost significantly more than their lower-resolution 50-inch plasma brothers, and their extra resolution only translates into an appreciably sharper picture if you plan to sit very close to the big screen--say, six feet or less. In other words, most buyers will be better served getting standard-resolution 50-inch plasmas, but if you must have millions of pixels and you like the Panasonic's industrial chops, then it might be worth the extra cash to you.
While Panasonic has announced a few "consumer" 1080p plasmas, the first being the 50-inch TH-50PZ700U due this summer, the TH-50PF9UK reviewed here was designed primarily for professional use. It's still perfectly safe for use in the home, however, and it provides more picture-quality adjustments and a much cleaner, minimalist look than the company's consumer models, as evinced by the current PX50U series. 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 stand will cost around $150, and the speakers, if you choose to add them, about $250. (The full list of accessories can be found here.)
In outward appearance, the TH-50PF9UK is identical to its lower-resolution sibling, the TH-50PH9UK. Its utilitarian exterior 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: 47.6x28.5x3.7 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 tabletop 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. The exception is that a couple of picture-affecting controls, such as 2:3 pull-down and noise reduction, are relegated to the setup menu when they really should be found in the picture menu.
The major selling point of this plasma TV is its 1080p native resolution, which translates to 1,920x1,080 pixels. That's more than twice as many as most 50-inch plasmas, and it allows the Panasonic to display every detail of the highest-resolution HDTV formats, 1080i and 1080p, as well as handle very high-resolution computer signals. All other input signals, as usual, are converted to match the native resolution.
The TH-50PF9UK doesn't offer much in the way of a feature package. Interestingly, it does have a PIP feature however, which allows you to watch any two sources simultaneously, but that's about it for conveniences. There's no tuner, ATSC or otherwise, so to watch standard or high-definition 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-50PF9UK can't switch aspect ratios with HD sources, which is an issue if you're watching high-definition on a channel that's sized improperly--like a lot of TNT's programs--and your cable or satellite box can't change aspects. Luckily, there is a "dot-for-dot" option in the pic/size menu that displays all the way to the edge of the image without scaling. Still, we'd really like the option to resize the image with HD sources, especially for channels that show interference at the extreme edges. There are four aspect-ratio choices available for standard-definition sources.
The Panasonic TH-50PF9UK 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 Off is the default setting. The setup menu is also where you'll find the noise reduction control. 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 its typical three picture mode choices: Dynamic, Standard, and Cinema, and adds a fourth called Super Cinema. Independent memory per input allows you to 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). In the advanced menu, there are fine-tuneable grayscale controls and selectable gamma settings--we found gamma 2.2 to be the best. Increasing the Black Expansion control simply loses or "crushes" detail in dark areas, so we left it at the default 0 setting. The Input Level setting appeared to have the same effect on bright areas, so again we left it at 0. AGC, which adjusts black levels in the fly, is best left off.
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 RGB (for computers or other RGB gear); a DVI input that can also accept HDMI sources when you connect an inexpensive adapter cable (it can take 1080p video or computer sources up to 1,920x1,200); a 15-pin VGA input for computers (1,600x1,200 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 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. Also of note, the TH-50PF9UK doesn't include any standard-definition composite- or S-Video connections.
The good news is that the TH-50PF9UK has hot-swappable inputs housed on removable boards. The set comes with two boards preinstalled--the component-video input on one and the DVI input on the other (the VGA input is fixed). There is also an empty bay for adding a board your choice. At this point, we recommend holding off on purchasing an HDMI board because, as of this writing, Panasonic's current HDMI board cannot accept a 1080p input signal, and the company would not tell us when they expect to have a 1080p-compatible HDMI board available. The only way to connect a 1080p source to this television is via the DVI or the component-video inputs. As we mentioned above, however, you can easily connect an adapter to get 1080p HDMI sources into this set via DVI. The only disadvantage is that you won't get color or tint controls via DVI (no loss since they're both accurate anyway at default settings) and that DVI doesn't pass details below black (again, not a major loss).
Overall, the Panasonic TH-50PF9UK delivers excellent picture quality that's solidly in the tradition of its lower-resolution commercial-model predecessors. Its black levels remain among the best we've seen for any plasma, color was mostly accurate, and details, as expected from a TV of this resolution, were superb. We did detect some false contouring in some scenes, and the primary color of green appeared yellowish, but that's about it for complaints.
Our first step in evaluating the TH-50PF9UK was to attempt to create the best picture possible by adjusting its image quality settings. Initially the Super Cinema setting provided the most accurate color temperature readings, but its gamma was off somewhat. We ended up using the Cinema mode, which allowed us to choose our gamma curve (the default 2.2 was nearly perfect), and calibrated the user-menu color temperature controls to arrive at an excellent grayscale overall (see the Geek box at the end of this review). We're used to the grayscales from Panasonic industrial plasmas having a green cast even after calibration, but that wasn't the case with the TH-50PF9UK. For our full user-menu settings click here or check out the Tips section.
After setup, we were able to compare the Panasonic directly to a couple of other displays we had on hand: the 65-inch rear-projection Mitsubishi WD-65831; Panasonic's lower-resolution sister set, model TH-50PH9UK; and the direct competition, Pioneer's excellent PRO-FHD1, another 50-inch 1080p plasma. Equipped with a PlayStation 3 playing back the Crank disc at 1080i, we settled back to see how the TH-50PF9UK looked.
The results were mostly great. The Panasonic exhibited excellent, deep black areas in the film's few dark scenes, such as when Chev (Jason Stratham) enters Sin City Disciples. The deepest areas of the film appeared slightly darker than on the Pioneer we had right next to the TH-50PF9UK, but the difference was very subtle. We were also impressed by the lack of noise in shadows, which appeared remarkably clean--more so than on the lower-resolution Panasonic TH-50PHUK.
The color on the TH-50PF9UK was a step below that of the Pioneer, however, but it was still more accurate than on most HDTVs. Color decoding was nearly perfect, so we could achieve great saturation and rich colors. The skin tones during the Chinatown outdoor tryst looked quite realistic; we could see the changes in tone in Eve (Amy Smart) from her arm to her upper chest, and her yellow dress was brilliant in the sun. But her skin appeared just a tiny bit too yellowish--a result of the Panasonic's inaccurate green primary--and some green areas, like a pepper in the kitchen, were also slightly yellow. We stress "slightly" because the difference was hardly enough to spoil the experience, and was mostly apparent because the Pioneer's green was significantly more accurate.
One area where the difference wasn't as subtle appeared in a couple instances of false contouring we saw with the Panasonic. At the one-hour mark for example, when Chev and Eve climb down a fire escape, the sun in the sky had a couple of distinct rings in the area of transition from light to the blue of the sky; the rings were also visible on the other Panasonic plasma, but not on the Pioneer or the Mitsubishi. We also saw a similar effect in the white light of the windows inside Sin City Disciples, and in the cell in Aeon Flux. Instances with visible contouring were still rare, however.
As we expected from the very sharp Crank Blu-ray, detail was spectacular. When Chev jumps into the pool to talk to Carlito, we could see every droplet of water on their faces, down to reflections in the droplets themselves. In the scene where Chev chops off the guy's hand, we could see the incredibly fine texture of the guy's blood-soaked polo shirt. When he crashes his car in the mall (15:26 into the movie), the image was sharp enough to easily detect the fake-looking green-screen work as he rides the upturned car up the escalator. As with the Pioneer, the Panasonic easily resolved every detail of a 1080i test pattern from our Sencore signal generator, although we were not able to test 1080i deinterlacing.
Of course, the sharpness had more to do with the disc than with the Panasonic's high resolution. We compared scenes directly with the lower-resolution TH-50PH9UK, and time after time they looked essentially identical from our seven-foot seating distance. Only when we got really close could we detect any difference, and then only in very highly detailed areas like blocks of cement or Strathan's ubiquitous stubble. One benefit of the high resolution is that individual pixels are invisible from distances farther than about six inches, so if you actually do want to sit five feet away, you'll see pixel structure on the 1,366x768 TH-50PH9UK but not on the 1080p TH-50PF9UK. But we imagine very few people want to sit that close to a 50-inch plasma.
We also checked out some of the standard-definition tests from HQV, at 480i resolution via component video, and the Panasonic turned in a relatively good performance. It conveyed every detail on the DVD, the image was relatively sharp, and 2:3 pull-down detection functioned well. The Panasonic's noise reduction also took care of the snowy interference in low-quality scenes, although it wasn't as effective as the Pioneer. The TH-50PF9UK also had a difficult time smoothing out jagged edges on diagonal lines.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6219/6698K||Good|
|After color temp||6538/6532K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 228K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 59K||Good|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.663/0.328||Average|
|Color of green||0.267/0.659||Poor|
|Color of blue||0.151/0.065||Good|
|Black-level retention||All patterns stable||Good|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Y||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|