Review: Panasonic Viera P55VT50 is an imperfect, pricey plasma TV
At a Glance
Panasonic Smart Viera TC-P55VT50 55-Inch Plasma HDTV
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You should expect a lot out of a $2,500 HDTV. The top-of-the-line Panasonic P55VT50 plasma has very good picture quality, but we've seen comparable performance and features in lower-priced TVs.
When you spend $2500 (estimated street price as of 12/4/2012) for an HDTV, you have the right to expect something special. The Panasonic Smart Viera P55VT50 is the 55-inch version of the company’s highest-end plasma set, offering a large screen, 3D playback, THX certification, and good built-in speakers. You'll probably like the set’s streaming and media playback options, but those features are fairly standard these days. The unique feature in the mix is a built-in SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot.
As you'd expect, the set's picture quality is very good, but for the price, we expected it to run laps around lower-priced HDTVs. That wasn't the case. What's more, you'll need to calibrate the picture for the best results, as we saw notable picture-quality problems before we calibrated the set.
We gauged the VT50 picture quality twice. We first ran the set through our image-quality subjective test without calibrating the set, using the TV's scene presets and THX mode for each test clip. Then, we calibrated the set's picture using a Digital Video Essentials disc and gave it a second pass. We definitely recommend calibrating the set, as its brightness, color, sharpness, and motion scores improved dramatically after calibration.
When five judges (including me) initially gathered in the TechHive Lab to judge the P55VT50's image quality, we were shocked at how dull and dark it looked. That problem, luckily, was easily fixed. We had set up the television with its Standard preset, where the brightness was turned way down. (Because our first image-quality test is a clip from a football game, we generally pick a Sports preset if one is available. If not, we go with the default.) When we switched to THX mode, which we planned to use for movies but ended up using for everything, the image looked much better.
Calibrating the P55VT50 definitely improved the situation. The image was still darker than most sets, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I personally liked the dark look.
But it still had problems--not serious ones, but more than you would expect on an HDTV in this price range. Skin occasionally had a false, oil-painting look, and I occasionally noticed what looked like edge enhancement--a fake sharpness that doesn't actually reveal additional details--in some long shots. At other times it looked fuzzy.
True to its THX certification, the VT50 does a great job with movies, but calibration also goes a long way for watching films. Whether they were played via standard-definition DVDs or high-definition Blu-ray discs, they generally looked great. One judge noted the set’s nice brightness and contrast, and I was particularly impressed with its ability to upscale DVDs. True, I saw some digital artifacts, as did another judge, but you can't display a 720x480 image on a 55-inch screen without seeing some problems.
Before we calibrated the TV, we noticed a brick wall in one panning shot vibrated noticeably, as did some buildings in another. Both of these were from Blu-ray discs; Mission: Impossible III, chapter 7, and The Dark Knight, Chapter 9. Several judges also noted slight color-accuracy problems before calibration.
In the end, we judges gave it an overall image quality score of 4.1 out of 5 based on our tests after calibrating the picture. That's very good, but much cheaper sets have scored better. Its overall score was lower than two lower-priced LED sets we viewed alongside it: the Sony Bravia KDL 46HX850 and LG Infinia 47LW6500.
The P55VT50 sounds great. In casual audio tests, I noted a slight strain when the volume was all the way up, but that's acceptable, because no one in their right mind would listen to these powerful speakers that loud (unless they, like me, were getting paid to do it). When I turned the volume down to 70 percent, it was still plenty loud, with no discernible distortion. The reasonably broad dynamic range allowed a sudden organ blast to have its intended dramatic effect, and the simulated surround sound reasonably faked the real thing. A headphone jack allows you to listen without disturbing the family.
If you really care about the audio when you watch movies, you'll want to buy a separate, 5.1 or 7.1 home theater sound system. But if that's not practical, the P55VT50's speakers make for a reasonable substitute.
3D, connected features, and file support
The P55VT50 uses active 3D, which means the glasses are expensive ($80 a pair from Panasonic). No glasses come with the TV, so you'll have to make that additional investment—another disappointment given the price of the set. The P55VT50 can simulate 3D on a 2D program, just in case you feel that you must see everything that way (which is not a viewing habit that I personally endorse).
Like all decent HDTVs, the P55VT50 supports a wide range of streaming Internet services. You can access the Internet, and your home network, through either an Ethernet connection or Wi-Fi. You've got the ever-popular basics, such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Skype, and Pandora. For pay-per-view entertainment, the P55VT50 lets you choose between Amazon, Vudu, and CinemaNow. You can also enjoy Facebook, Twitter, AccuWeather, UStream, Vimeo, and Rhapsody. Other apps can be downloaded, and still more will likely appear in the future.
When it comes to your home network, the P55VT50 offers three ways to view and listen to your own videos, photos, and songs. You can access media files directly off your PC over the network, or walk the files over to the TV on a flash drive or SD/SDHC/SDXC card.
That's providing that your media is in formats that the P55VT50 supports. These include .jpg photos, .mp3 music, and a few video file formats. You'll find the supported video codecs on page 90 of the downloadable manual.
You'll probably have better luck with file formats if you access the files directly off your computer. To do this, your computer must be running DLNA server software, which isn't difficult to find. In fact, Windows comes with one: Windows Media Player. In theory, and often in practice, the TV can play any file that the server software can play. For instance, although I was unable to play a .wma song off a flash drive or SD card, I had no trouble over the network, using Windows Media Player as my server.
Remote control, inputs, and documentation
The P55VT50 takes a bit of effort to set up, but once that’s over with, it's reasonably easy to use. The inputs on the back point downward, making them difficult to get to, but all four HDMI inputs are easily accessible on the side. The first time you turn it on, a wizard walks you through the initial setup.
Once the TV is ready to use, you'll find the main menu clear and easy to navigate, with useful on-screen explanations. Two buttons on the remote (Options and Viera Tools) bring up smaller menus of settings and features you may want frequently. You can move from one input to another--say, from cable to your Blu-ray player--with two button presses of that same remote.
The included remote mixes good and bad design. It has a backlight, but it's not programmable. The volume and channel controls are large and placed exactly where they should be, but the circle of arrow keys used for navigating menus is too high.
You don't have to use those arrow keys, or even the primary remote, as the P55VT50 also comes with a small touch pad. Unfortunately, I didn't find this touch pad any easier to use than the conventional remote. The buttons around the pad aren't laid out intuitively, and you can't select an item by pressing down on the pad itself.
Panasonic makes iOS and Android remote control apps available in the appropriate online stores. To my mind, these apps have only one real advantage over physical remotes: Your smartphone or tablet has a keyboard, which is useful for those times when you need to enter text into your HDTV (for instance, passwords and Netflix searches). Although the Panasonic app has a keyboard, I couldn't get it to work in either Netflix or YouTube. I asked Panasonic where I could use the keyboard, but as I write this, I have not received a response.
The printed documentation doesn't offer much beyond the basics, but it doesn't have to. You can download a mammoth manual in PDF form, and Panasonic has built a very useful help tool into the TV itself.
Despite the set’s Energy Star certification, the P55VT50 burns considerable electricity--136 watts when on, according to TechHive Lab tests. But keep in mind that this is a 55-inch plasma set, so high power consumption should be expected. The good news is that when it’s turned off, the P55VT50 burns so little energy that it didn't even register on our equipment.
The Panasonic P55VT50 is the flagship plasma from a company that's known for making great plasma sets, so our expectations were very high. It's certainly a fancy, expensive HDTV with solid performance and loaded with all the latest whistles and bells. For the price, however, we were expecting its picture quality to bowl us over. It certainly produces a good-looking picture, but you'll need to calibrate the set to get it looking great. Even after calibration, we've seen better picture quality from lower-priced LED HDTVs.