To the Riviera and Beyond the Reference
Another year, another Panasonic European Convention and this year it was being held in the home town of a familiar face from our videos - Panasonic’s own Fabrice Estornel.
When we heard that we were headed to Nice in mid-February, the thought of some winter sun on the French Riviera had us packing our sunglasses in anticipation. So imagine our disappointment when on the first day of the convention the weather was as cold and grim as the London we had left behind, there was snow in the air and the palm trees were mocking us.
The weather wasn't the only source of frustration, as the proximity of the convention to CES means that whilst in Vegas Panasonic are reticent to confirm any details about their new line before the official announcement in February. At least now that the convention had arrived we could find out what Panasonic has in store for Europe and finally get an idea of model numbers, prices and release dates. So let’s kick off with one of the surprises this year, the addition of a new flagship plasma that sits above the VT series, offering the promise of an enthusiast’s TV in these austere times - the ZT60.The Once and Future KingEver since Pioneer upped sticks and pulled out of the plasma TV market the enthusiast has been looking for a replacement. The combination of heavy investment, hiring key Pioneer engineers and purchasing some of their technology made Panasonic the pretender to Pioneer’s crown. Perhaps the initial expectations were unrealistic, after all it takes time to develop someone else’s technology, even if you have lifted their talent and patents. Early views of Panasonic’s new plasmas at CES 2010 looked suspiciously like the ninth generation Kuro but the AV enthusiasts crossed their fingers and held their collective breath.
After a number of false starts, Panasonic finally delivered on their early promise with last year’s VT50 - the first consumer TV to win an AVForums Reference Status badge since the all conquering Kuro. However, despite the acclaim heaped upon the VT50 by just about every reviewer who saw it, there were still those who refused to recognise the usurper, clinging to the mystique of Pioneer’s plasma swan song. Like Banquo’s ghost, the Kuro just wasn’t going to leave the banquet that easily and despite being four years old and no longer manufactured, supported or available to buy, some people felt that the Kuro remained the true reference point.
Well the Kuro is dead, long live the ZT60! Panasonic has pulled out all the stops this year and developed a genuine enthusiast’s TV that delivers an uncompromising level of image quality. Panasonic clearly feel that the ZT60 is going to be a hard product to beat and with their marketing department declaring that it's “Beyond the Reference”, it had better live up to such bullish claims. At the convention, Panasonic were obviously happy to put their money where their mouth was, as they set up a side-by-side comparison of a Pioneer KRP-600A, a ZT60 and a VT50 in a darkened room. There was obviously less noise on the Panasonic plasmas and the black levels on the Kuro and the ZT60 appeared identical, whilst both were a shade darker than last year’s VT50. The ZT60 also had richer reds and the level of gradations within the image was clearly superior to the Kuro, with a greater sense of subtlety and detail.
Whilst there wasn't a great deal of movement in the demo material, what there was appeared to be handled better by the VT60. Of course, companies choose demo material that places their products in the best light and we obviously didn't see Panasonic set up the Kuro or the ZT60 beforehand. We did notice, whilst shooting the videos at the convention, that Panasonic were using 60Hz material for the plasma demos and 50Hz material for the LCD demos. In terms of dynamic false contouring, none was apparent but we will have to wait for a review sample before we can accurately determine how good the ZT60 really is.
As the flagship TV, the ZT60 includes almost every feature with the exception of the built-in camera, which, when it comes to the plasma line-up, is only included on the VT60. Panasonic claim that the camera's omission on the ZT60 is due to a desire to concentrate on image quality and if you really want the camera you can buy it as an add-on. That's all well and good but if that's the case why, in the UK at least, is the electronic touch pen being included with all the plasma models? The ZT60 uses the new 1080p Studio Master Panel, along with 3000Hz Focused Field Drive, Hexa-Processing Engine, active shutter 3D and the Ultimate Black and Pro High Contrast filters. There’s THX Certification, VR-Audio Pro Surround 2.1 and Panasonic’s new Smart TV platform - My Home Screen, along with VIERA Connect, built-in WiFi and the web content optimizer. On top of that there’s the touch pad remote, twin tuners, voice interaction, the Remote App 2 and Swipe & Share 2.0. There’s also a Media Player, Web Browser, HDD recording and two pairs of 3D glasses included.
The Studio Master Panel uses a new design that eliminates the traditional air layer between the panel and the front of the screen. As a result of this, external reflections are reduced and light transmission through the panel is improved, thus enhancing the contrast, brightness and detail. Those who found the Pro modes on the VT50 and GT50 last year to be too dim will be pleased to hear that the brightness of the ZT60 (and the GT60 and VT60) have not been capped, resulting in a much higher light output. Along with the new panel design and removal of the air gaps, the ZT60 also uses a black bezel with a silver trim and the new v-shaped stand.
As always, there will still be complaints when it comes to the ZT60 but those complaints won’t be related to image quality. The major issues people may have will be related to the limited availability of the ZT60 and the fact that it’s restricted to a single 60” screen size. Both of these issues are directly related to the new panel which, according to Panasonic, is very difficult to make. This explains the limited availability and the absence of smaller screen sizes, although there will also be a 65” version but this will only be available in the US. The might also be complaints about the price tag but by our estimates, this seems about right for an enthusiast TV with a 60” screen size.
The ZT60 will be available in May as a limited edition with a single screen size of 60” and a price tag of about £4,000. Panasonic plan to only sell the TV through retailers who have demo facilities and can offer effective advice and support. The ZT60 will primarily be available through independent retailers and selected department stores and will include a signed certificate with each unit sold. If the Kuro represents the classic reference point for two dimensional images and the VT50 is the new reference in a world of smart features and 3D, then the ZT60 may well be beyond both, possibly even the zenith of plasma technology - we’ll find out in May.
The Return of the Comeback KidMuch like Mark Twain the reports of plasma’s death have been greatly exaggerated, especially if Panasonic’s 2013 plasma line-up is to be believed. Whilst Panasonic may no longer be spending money on plasma research and development - there seems little point with it being a mature TV technology and OLED (hopefully) around the corner - that hasn’t prevented them from refining their latest generation of plasmas. Aside from the limited edition ZT60, Panasonic offer an impressively wide range of plasma models and, unlike in the US, even the GT60 has been retained.
Kicking things off we have the ST60 with employs a gloss black bezel with a silver trim and a brushed metal effect stand. The 1080p panel uses 2500Hz Focused Field Drive, includes active shutter 3D the Infinite Black Pro and High Contrast filters. There’s VR-Audio Surround 2.1 and Panasonic’s new Smart TV platform - My Home Screen, along with VIERA Connect, built-in WiFi and the web content optimizer. On top of that there’s voice guidance, the Remote App 2 and Swipe & Share 2.0. There’s also a Media Player, Web Browser, a camera option, an electronic touch pen and one pair of 3D glasses included. Whilst the specifications are impressive and the prices similar to last year,Panasonic has dropped the 65” model in the UK which is bound to annoy some people. Panasonic claim that the majority of people buying a 65” screen in the UK, opted for the VT50 rather than the ST50, which is why they have dropped the option. The ST60 will be launching in March.
The GT60 includes all the features found on the ST60 but improves on some and adds some others, whilst retaining a similar styling. The GT60 has THX certification and uses the 3000Hz Focused Field Drive and also the Hexa-Processing Engine, which extends the number of image processing features designed to help make internet video content more watchable. The GT60 also includes voice interaction via your smartphone, two pairs of 3D glasses and adds USB HDD recording. Panasonic recommend Western Digital’s My Book AV-TV Recording Drive for use with their TVs but any HDD should work. The GT60 will come in 42 and 50” screen sizes and will be launched in March with similar prices to last year.
Finally, there’s the VT60 which again includes everything on the GT60 but adds a few more features and improves on some others. Aside from the cosmetic differences such as a glass front and the v-shaped stand, the VT60 also uses Infinite Black Ultra and Pro High Contrast filters. There’s also the inclusion of a VIERA touchpad controller, built-in camera and twin tuners for improved recording and playback capabilities. As with the ZT60, the colour space is wider and the reds have been improved, which were always slightly under-saturated on previous Panasonic plasma panels. The VT60 comes in 50, 55 and 65” screen sizes, so if you want the largest plasma possible your only option is the VT60. As with the ST60 and GT60, the prices will be similar to last year but the VT60 will be launch a month or so later.
A Vision in Glass and MetalIn an inevitable move with the times, Panasonic has vastly expanded their LCD TV line-up, adding more models and larger screen sizes. All their LCD TVs use LED backlighting and the higher end models use Panasonic’s glass and metal design that includes an ultra-slim chassis, a very thin bezel and the new V-shaped stand.
Starting off with the E6, we have a slim LED design with 100Hz backlight blinking and a high contrast filter. There’s also V-Audio and Panasonic’s new Smart TV platform - My Home Screen, along with VIERA Connect, built-in WiFi and the web content optimizer. On top of that there’s voice guidance, the Remote App 2, Swipe & Share 2.0, a Media Player, Web Browser and a camera option. There are 32, 39, 42 and 50” screen sizes and, as with the plasma line-up, the prices will be similar to last year.
Moving up the range we have the ET60 which uses an IPS panel for an improved angle of viewing and 600Hz backlight scanning. There’s also passive 3D with two pairs of glasses, Clear Panel Pro, Brilliant Contrast filter and VR-Audio Surround 2.1 and larger screen sizes ranging from 42, 47, 50 and 55 inches. The FT60 is a new model for this year that includes many of the features found on the ET60 but adds 1600Hz backlight scanning, Hexa-Processing Engine, voice interaction and HDD recording. The FT60 includes the new V-shaped stand and only comes in two screen sizes, 42 ad 47” inches.
Above the FT60 is the DT60 which has very similar specifications but includes the touch pad controller, twin tuners and four pairs of 3D glasses. The DT60 also has the largest number of screen sizes, which range from 42, 47, 50, 55 and 60 inches. Finally, just like last year, there is Panasonic's flagship LED LCD TV - WT60. This model uses the transparent 'floating' stand and includes 3600Hz backlight scanning and a built-in camera. However despite its flagship status, it only has two screen sizes - 47 and 55 inches.
Swipe, Share, Control and Calibrate!This year Panasonic has introduced their new Swipe & Share 2.0 which now lets you save content between devices, as well as just sharing it. Swipe forward/back with one finger on your smart device and you can share content to/from your Panasonic TV; use two fingers and you can save that content (photos or videos). The VIERA Remote 2 app also lets you use your tablet or phone as a controller for the TV. The app provides intuitive menus that mirror the functionality of the normal remote, even letting you start VIERA Connect online apps and providing free-point navigation of web pages. The new VIERA Remote 2 app can also turn your tablet or smartphone into a convenient second display so that you can perform actions like calibrating your TV’s pictures or searching for content without any menus having to appear over the images being shown on the TV.
In the case of calibrating this is particularly useful. Whilst this new feature shouldn’t be confused with calibration software such as CalMAN and you can’t attach a meter and run an auto-calibration feature (at least not yet), it does give you another method of accessing the calibration controls on the ZT60, VT60 or WT60. Using the Smart Calibration feature you can access all the calibration controls and adjust them accordingly but you can also see graphical representations of that particular control. This will help users get a much better idea of what exactly a CIE chart, greyscale or gamma curve is and how the colour management system or white balance controls affect them. You can also save settings on your smart device and load them onto your TV whenever you want, which might allow a professional calibrator to use a standard calibrated setting as a starting point and then fine tune as necessary.
A Design for LifePanasonic has developed a far more integrated eco system for their 2013 products, in an attempt to make the smart features as simple to use as possible. The centre of this philosophy is their new ‘my Home Screen’ Smart TVplatform, the core of which is the ability to customise the screen to meet your own requirements. The my Home Screen allows you to build around three themes: TV, Lifestyle and information. So, for instance, the TV Home Screen can provide fast access to TV listings, the lifestyle screen summarises practical things like weather reports and calendars, while the information screen prioritises Web browsing and social networking. Each family member who wants to setup a personalised TV portal can choose from three preset layouts, or create their own layout populated by only their favourite apps and widgets to make choice easier. If your Panasonic TV has a built-in camera or you add one, there is also facial recognition. The camera will automatically recognise the current user's face and bring up their personalised home screen. We haven't had much luck with facial recognition, the software can become confused if the room is dark or if more than one person is sat in front of TV. God knows how it would handle identical twins! Panasonic have also added voice interaction using either the touch pad controller or your smartphone. You can speak basic commands into the microphone, which might help when surfing the net but we always feel that if you've got the remote in your hand, you may just as well go 'old school'.
Moving on to Panasonic's 3D Blu-ray player line-up and the first surprise is that last year's DMP-BDT500 remains the flagship player for those looking for higher quality audio components and performance. The dinky DMP-BBT01 also remains in the line-up but there are some new models including the DMP-BD79, which makes an attractive entry-level player. The DMP-BDT130/131 adds a smart media hub, whilst the DMP-BDT230 includes extensive networking as well. Top of the tree in terms of new features is the DMP-BDT330 which uses Panasonic's angular design and metal finish and includes built-in 4K upscaling, home networking, online apps, twin HDMI outputs, 2D to 3D conversion and Miracast, which lets you show media stored on your smartphone or tablet on your TV screen. Let's hope Panasonic have redesigned the remote control! Panasonic also offer a wide selection of 3D Blu-ray recorders with 1TB, 500GB and 250GB HDDs and twin tuners. There are also 3D Blu-ray players with integrated 1TB, 500GB or 250GB HDDs and twin tuners.
With the audio on modern TVs suffering because of their ever-thinning chassises, the soundbar market has exploded in the last couple of years and Panasonic are offering a strong line-up in 2013. There is the SC-HTB170 which offers multi-angle positioning and there's the more traditional SC-HTB527 with a soundbar and wireless subwoofer. The SC-HTB570 includes the ability to turn the soundbar into a 2.1 speaker system, whilst the SC-HTB770 can be turned into a 3.1 speaker system. Panasonic also have a varied selection of all-in-one systems, including the new SC-BTT880 which includes a 5.1-channel system with wireless rear speakers, 3D Blu-ray, built-in WiFi, 2D to 3D conversion, online apps and an integrated dock for the iPhone 5 and the 5th generation iPod Touch. There are also a wide selection of other 5.1 all-in-one systems, many of them carried over from last year, as well as a number of 2.1 speaker systems.
Another big growth area is wireless speakers, where people just stream their music directly to the speaker using DLNA, Bluetooth or AirPlay. Panasonic's new SC-NE3 wireless speaker offers all three methods of streaming, along with easy control, premium sound, attractive styling, high performing audio output, wall mountable and a USB slot for iPod/iPhone/iPad. The SC-NE5 offers the same choice of streaming methods, along with a wireless CD unit and a dock for a more flexible speaker set up. Moving on from these are the premium audio systems like the SC-HC58 and SC-HC38, which both include wireless streaming, two way sliding door for CDs and an integrated dock for the iPhone and iPod touch. In the case of the SC-HC38, there are also a wide choice of attractive colours. Looking at the AV line-up, you find yourself quickly reminded that Panasonic don't just make TVs and it looks very strong for 2013.Embracing the FutureOne of the few genuine surprises at CES was Panasonic's (and Sony's) announcement of a 4K OLED screen.Panasonic had their's on display at the European convention and once again it looked incredible with absolute blacks, a wider colour space, a super-fast response time and an increased resolution that was immediately obvious. Whilst Panasonic were claiming that at this stage it's just a prototype and that they had no plans to actually release a 4K OLED screen, we got the feeling that this prototype could become a viable product a lot quicker that some other commentators seemed to think. We also heard that Panasonic and Sony have now gone their separate ways with regards to 4K OLED, which would explain their differing comments at CES. Panasonicseemed confident that their new printing process for manufacturing the OLED panels has addressed the low yield issues that have plagued other manufacturers' attempts to produce large numbers of OLED screens. We shall see...
After the rain and snow of the first day, the second day was glorious with blue skies and warm sunshine that completely changed how Nice looked. It was amazing what a difference just one day could make and Panasonicwere keen to stress at their convention that they have turned a corner and that 2013 will be a very successful year. Based upon what we saw in Nice, we're inclined to agree - very nice indeed.
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