Panasonic's exit from plasma will sour TV value sweet spot

Panasonic will sell its last plasma TV March 2014, making the company's current 2013 line its last. Great picture quality just became less attainable.

David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
David Katzmaier
4 min read

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It's no secret that we at CNET, along with most other TV reviewers who pay attention to picture quality, love Panasonic plasmas. Just look at our current "Best TVs" list. The top four are all plasma TVs made by Panasonic.

They include the high-end ZT60, which has the best picture of any TV we've ever reviewed, and the entry-level S60, one of only two TVs this year to earn a 10 in our Value subcategory.

Even more important is the ST60, which is the only TV CNET has ever given a 5-star rating. The reason? It delivers unprecedented picture quality for the price, representing a true sweet spot between value and performance.

Now, confirming the rumors, Panasonic has announced that it's leaving the plasma TV business altogether. It will close its last factory in December, and plans to sell its last plasma TV in March 2014.

The news might come earlier than expected, but the writing was on the wall. Plasma has been losing market share every year to LCD, and Panasonic has been posting losses and shedding jobs at a tremendous clip. Panasonic President Kazuhiro Tsuga vowed to address the situation with cuts, and CNET was told in March that the ZT60 would likely represent the last generation of plasma TV development the company would undertake.

Panasonic nonetheless fielded a healthy lineup of the TVs this year, appearing at least for 2013 to redouble its commitment to plasma. It turns out to have been a sweet swan song.

Wider implications
Companies struggle and technologies get phased out on a regular basis. And I may be biased as someone who makes his living reviewing TVs, but in my opinion this is different. The loss of Panasonic plasmas is a huge blow to TV buyers who want the best picture quality for the money. Here's why.

First off, plasma is the king of affordable picture quality. The 50-inch S60 costs just $679, and no other TV at that price range comes close to its performance. The ST60, at $979 for the 50-incher, has a picture that makes LED LCDs priced hundreds more look mediocre. Meanwhile Samsung's best plasma was good enough to hold its own next to an OLED TV at three times the price.

Only two other companies currently make plasma TVs: LG and Samsung. In 2013 LG basically abandoned the game by only producing one non-bargain-basement plasma, in just one size. It's a decent value at 60 inches, but its picture quality was no better than many LCDs'. I wouldn't be surprised if LG also stopped making plasmas next year.

Samsung, meanwhile, pared its line down to just three series. The high-end PNF8500 is phenomenal, a truly innovative model (thanks to its high light output) that was the only 2013 television aside from Panasonic plasmas to score a 9 or higher in picture quality. It also costs nearly twice as much as the ST60, which also scored a 9.

Unfortunately Samsung didn't field any midrange plasma TVs this year that can compete with the S60 and ST60 for picture quality. The closest was the PNE5500, a solid performer and an excellent value, but nothing like 2012's superb PNE6500 -- still the highest-rated Samsung TV we've ever reviewed.

The future without Panasonic plasma: Samsung, OLED, and LED LCD
Unless Samsung picks up the slack in 2014 with a series or two of excellent-performing, well-priced plasmas like the S60, the ST60, and the PNE6500, I predict a big hole in the market where Panasonic used to be.

And with competition from Panasonic gone, Samsung will have little reason to fill it. I've often told people that comparing Samsung and Panasonic plasmas is the best part of my job. And I'm not the only one -- plasma TVs from those two makers regularly trade wins for supremacy at the well-regarded Value Electronics shootout. Variations of "Which plasma should I get, the Samsung 8500 or the Panasonic VT/ZT?" are among my most common reader questions this year.

Judging from the comments, CNET readers didn't react well to the original rumor. When I tweeted it I got a couple of immediate replies.

Yes, a lot of questions still remain. Will Samsung step in to fill the void with quality, well-priced plasma TVs? Will OLED fall quickly in price? Will the best-performing LED LCDs get significantly more affordable? Will any 2014 TV offer the combination of value and picture quality seen on the S60 and ST60?

I've been reviewing TVs and observing this industry for more than a decade, and my instincts say the answers to each of these questions is no. For the sake of videophiles like me who can't afford a flagship-priced TV, I hope those instincts are wrong.

In the meantime, if you're in the TV market, now is the time to buy a Panasonic plasma.

Update, October 31 at 12:01 p.m.: Panasonic has confirmed cessation of plasma TV sales.