Better than plasma? Let’s find out…
It’s been a year since Panasonic sounded the death knell on plasma and 10 months since we got our first look at a prototype AX902. The full review is now published and is here.That was at CES and Panasonic were making some bold claims about their new flagship Ultra HD 4K LED TV, even going so far as to suggest a performance superior to plasma. At that particular demo Panasonic had a very early prototype of the AX902 sandwiched between a ZT65 plasma TV and a WT600 LED Ultra HD TV. Whilst that demonstration was impressive, it also reminded us how good plasma was and we remained sceptical that an LCD TV could out-perform the now defunct technology in terms of blacks.
We've had to wait quite a long time since that early demonstration to actually see a full production model of the AX902 but we finally had the chance on Friday the 24th of October 2014. Panasonic invited AVForums to their Bracknell offices to meet their Japanese engineers and get up-close-and-personal with the 65-inch version of the AX902. The new model launches in the UK in the first week of November and comes in three varieties - 55AX902 (£3,499), 65AX902 (£4,999) and 85AX902 (£12,999).
As soon as we arrived, we were in for a surprise because the 65AX902 that was set up in the room was clearly using an IPS panel. Panasonic confirmed that both the 55 and 65 inch models do use an IPS panel and passive 3D, whilst the 85 inch version uses a VA panel and active shutter 3D. Given the emphasis Panasonic have placed on the black levels produced by the AX902, using an IPS panel with its weaker performance in this area seems a strange choice.
Concerns about the choice of panel aside, the AX902 certainly packs in a huge amount of cutting edge technology; although whether this will be enough to justify the hefty price tag remains to be seen. Panasonic pointed out that the AX902 uses a 700 nit Ultra Bright Panel, a direct LED backlight with 128 local dimming zones, Studio Master Panel, improved calibration features, HEVC decoding, Quad Core Pro5 and the latest version of Panasonic's remote app. That all sounds very impressive but what does it mean?
Well, let's start with the Ultra Bright Panel which uses a newly developed backlight and high transmittance panel to deliver much higher brightness and a wider dynamic range. There is a new feature called Dynamic Range Remaster, which Panasonic claim can recover the brightness and colour of bright scenes as they were filmed. At the other end of the spectrum, Panasonic feel the combination of direct LEDs and local dimming will deliver deeper and more robust blacks.
The local dimming not only uses 128 zones but also includes more precise brightness adjustments, as opposed to just on and off, and a 5x5 matrix around each zone, as opposed to the current 3x3 matrix. The result is a more balanced performance with much less haloing around bright objects against a black background. There is also a gradation scale applied to both bright and dark scenes, allowing more details to be seen whilst retaining the widest dynamic range.
Moving onto the Studio Master Panel, we get a much wider colour space - 98% of DCI and obviously 100% of Rec.709. We also gat Studio Master Drive which can deliver more accurate colours and smoother gradations. First there is the Super Chroma Drive, which uses 3D lookup tables for each brightness level to achieve greater colour accuracy in darker scenes. Meanwhile the Black Gradation Drive allows the AX902 to retain details, even in very dark scenes.
The AX902 also includes Quad Core PRO5 processing, with Intelligent Frame Creation PRO, 4K Super Clear Resolution and Content Optimiser PRO. The first of these features uses frame interpolation and halo effect reduction to deliver improved motion handling. The second is designed to reduce random noise and low-bit-rate noise, whilst the third upscales lower resolution content to match the native Ultra HD 4K panel through resolution and texture analysis.
The AX902 is the zenith of Panasonic's current TV technology, seeking to squeeze every last drop of preformance out of LCD.The AX902 includes the usual extensive calibration controls, although Panasonic have now added BT1886 to the usual selection of gamma curves. Whilst BT1886 is similar to a gamma curve of 2.4, it's characteristics change as the black levels change and this has been recently recommended by the ISF as their preferred choice. The latest version of Panasonic's remote app also includes all the calibration controls and can, for the first time, be used with the Professional (ISF) modes on the AX902.
The news about the remote app will be welcomed by calibrators who now don't have to worry about the menus getting in the way of their meters. The new version of the remote app will also work with the AX802 and that particular model will be getting a Netflix 4K firmware update on the 11th of November. Finally the AX902 includes four HDMI inputs, all of which support HDMI 2.0, HDCO 2.2 and 4:4:4 colour subsampling.
Of course all the technology in the world means nothing if it doesn't actually work, so Panasonic gave us a series of demonstrations with the AX902 next to a professional CRT studio monitor. First of all Panasonic showed four clips of Okinawa to demonstrate the ultra bright panel and the Dynamic Range Remaster feature. The panel was certainly bright but also able to retain sensibly accurate colours at the same time.
Then we saw some night time scenes of New York to demonstrate the black levels and local dimming, which also looked impressive, although not as good as the monitor next to the AX902. Panasonic also pulled out the scene from the last Harry Potter film, where Voldemort's army amasses on a hill. The local dimming did a very good job with this notorious scene and managed to look dark whilst retaining detail, although again the monitor had the edge.
After that Panasonic went through a number of other Blu-ray scenes, along with some 4K content to show the potential of the AX902. The monitor was mainly there to demonstrate how accurate the colours were on the AX902 and they certainly were impressive, as was the brightness and dynamic range. The video processing was also excellent and naturally with 4K content the AX902 looked fantastic. Whether or not this performance justifies the price remains to be seen, but we will be reviewing the AX902 very soon.
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