Back in June we were given an exclusive first look at Panasonic’s first consumer OLED TV
New kid on the blockIn June of this year I was invited to join a small group of journalists on a press trip organised by Panasonic. The objective of the trip was to learn all about the production process in Hollywood and San Francisco where film directors, directors of photography and colourists work hard to make their content look a certain way and by following these same standards, we should be able to see identical results in the home.
This is a message close to our hearts here at AVForums where for the last decade or so we have been teaching and preaching the same message to our members. It also makes up a large part of our reviewing ethos where we calibrate, test and assess TVs in a measurable and repeatable manner. We were the only UK site present on the trip that does this.
It was during this event that Panasonic also unveiled their new OLED TV in prototype form, but under a strict NDA. The NDA didn’t stipulate anything other than when we could publish this preview and tell you all about the new OLED TV. This just so happens to be the exact moment that the company will be unveiling it to the world at IFA 2015 in Berlin. In terms of opinion and what we thought about the new CZ950, that is all ours and not influenced in any way by NDA’s or Panasonic; I think they genuinely want some positive and negative feedback, so they get it right first time. OLED has had a number of false starts over the last 5 years, with launch events where product never appeared to the industry, aside from LG, calling time on OLED development and looking backwards at LED LCD TVs.
And that’s not surprising really. To get OLED yields and economies of scale large enough to hit mass market price levels would require billions to be invested in production lines and tooling – not to mention R&D labs, patents, licensing and so on. In the way of this investment has been the global economic downturn from 2008 and a TV market that is fighting its way to the bottom in terms of pricing. We have seen a number of manufacturers, especially Japanese companies; call it a day in terms of the TV market. In this climate it seems astonishing that anyone would chance their arm and try and launch OLED to the mass market, but to give them their due, LG Display and LG Electronics have done just that and it is from LG Display that Panasonic has sourced the 65-inch panel for the TX-65CZ950. That piece of information shouldn’t surprise many enthusiasts but what Panasonic have added to the back end of that panel is the really interesting part of the story.
Mastering the magic?When pushed for a little more detail on the sourcing of the curved 4K Ultra HD (3840 x 2160) panel and what Panasonic are doing with it, the engineer would only state that they asked for a few changes to be made to the panels they source, but wouldn’t be drawn further on what those were. Instead he was keen to highlight that it is Panasonic technology driving the OLED panel. Because OLED is a self-illuminating technology very similar to how plasma works, they wanted to point out that issues such as the shift from absolute black to just above black is something they have managed to achieve where others can’t. The knowledge built up from the many years of perfecting plasma image quality translates extremely well to the similar way that an OLED image is driven.
'Absolute black' is important, but having the correct 'just above black' gradation to the image adds more depth and presents the image as it was intended to be seen, not crushed at the low end. With deeper, natural and native blacks the other advantages of OLED can also be driven by Panasonic technology, such as super accurate colours using the same professional LUT tables as the professional monitors and this year’s LED LCD high-end models. This means that colours even at half luminance on screen are the correct saturation and intensity to match the director’s material, something of which traditional consumer TVs are not usually capable. The TX-65CZ950 is equipped with a specially modified version of the powerful professional-level 4K Studio Master Processor.
By using the more powerful chip, Panasonic’s engineers have also employed the expertise of Hollywood colourists to help make sure that they are achieving the right image results to the industry standards. Mike Sowa (pictured above with the CZ950) who is best known for his work on films such as Oblivion and Insurgent, has been drafted in to help tune the CZ950 to the industry standards for Rec.709 (and 90% of DCI) playback and especially for the capabilities of High Dynamic Range (HDR) material. The TX-65CZ950 has also undergone extensive testing and certification with THX and is the first consumer OLED TV in the UK to carry the THX seal of approval.
Panasonic also confirmed that the TX-65CZ950B would support HDR playback to the standards recently announced by the CEA and that OLED is the perfect partner for such technology given its native dynamic range capabilities and their video processing technology.
During the demos held at Panasonic Hollywood labs the CZ950 was sat next to the LG equivalent and between both of them and a little lower was a reference Sony OLED monitor used by most studios for critical colour correction work. It was pretty obvious, although not confirmed, that the Panasonic engineers have been reading reviews and forums owners threads regarding the LG OLED sets and the issues some people were highlighting. So, with the introductions done, we were given a set of demos to watch which ranged from specially shot material, to a personal walk through of Oblivion from Mike Sowa and then some HDR viewing with clips from A Million Ways to Die in the West.
The Picture is qualityAbove you can see the CZ950 and the Sony reference OLED studio monitor (the LG is switched off in this image).
With all three screens running it took about three loops of the short demo material to start to notice slight differences between the three images. The footage was then paused at certain points so we could get a closer look and this is where some improvements could be seen on the Panasonic. I will point out that I can only report on what I saw with the caveat that this demo was completely run by Panasonic and their engineers - and we had no control over any picture settings. However they were frank and honest when asked questions about settings and the issues they were pointing out. We will get our hands on the CZ950B for review as soon as there is a production retail sample ready, but what we did see here proved to be very interesting.
One thing I noticed on perhaps the second pass of the demo loop was that the uniformity of the Panasonic OLED image was significantly better than the LG. On the LG there was a vignette (dark edges) effect where on the CZ950 the image went to the complete edge of the panel with no dimming at all. This highlights two things to me 1) the engineers have been listening to feedback on the LG sets and 2) with the correct image processing employed it needn’t be an issue. This wasn’t any trick either as I continued to check this well into the demo session and then again in the HDR section. The uniformity, certainly on this pre-production Panasonic was excellent.
The next image issue to be highlighted was colour accuracy and with various colours and skin tones within scenes (again this is a Panasonic demo) there were subtle differences in colour with the more accurate being seen on the CZ950B, where the LG had a red cast to skin tones and some other colour offsets. It wasn’t a massive difference, but it made a difference to the material being played back. This was especially highlighted on the Oblivion scenes where that film's colourist Mike Sowa was actually telling us that a certain scene should have a cyan hint to it and the LG was more towards yellow. Although it was never mentioned directly in the presentation it was obvious that the LG did have a red tint to its image and more so towards the edges of the image. The CZ950B looked impressive in this regard and throughout the demo and watching sessions I saw no evidence of any colour tint.
The final side-by-side had us looking at an image area I feel too many people misunderstand and that is shadow detail and what you should be able to see in a given scene. Sowa highlighted this with Morgan Freeman’s introduction in Oblivion, where he lights a cigar and then his face disappears into the darkness. You should just make out the very left edge of his face and his eyes. Everything else should be in complete black.
The LG was showing too much of this scene where we could actually see the back wall behind Freeman. Just because that data might be in the image when mastered and brought out with incorrect gamma or panel brightness, it doesn’t mean you are supposed to see that detail. This is important in a scene like the one being highlighted as it can completely change the feeling and mood towards the character. He no longer looks menacing if you can see him clearly, like he was displayed on the LG. Again, we had no control over this aspect of the demo, but it did make sense and highlighted the expertise of the old plasma technicians managing to get the gradations between absolute black and just above correct. There were other examples shown where the CZ950 handled shadow detail without clipping and in a more dynamic way.
Scenes like the 'Freeman in darkness' sequence highlighted the amount of work Panasonic’s engineers have been putting into the harder aspects of image quality, like low APR scene detail and gradation performance. It’s been obvious with their LED LCD TVs this year that the new 8000 registry point LUT tables have significantly improved colour saturation and luminance performance (at less than 75% luminance) to provide some of the most natural looking colours we have seen in a long time from a consumer TV.
Translated to the absolute black and dynamic range of the OLED panel, the colour performance is stunning, especially reds and the gradational steps of colour within certain scenes. Stability with brighter images was also good with no obvious brightness shifts between scenes. The only slight issue I noticed with the TX-65CZ950 was on a fade to black within one of the demo loops you could see some very faint panel bands as the whole screen faded down. This was the only time I noticed it and when I later asked the question I was told the production model wouldn’t display that. It certainly wasn’t noticeable in low light scenes or other material we viewed.
When asked about the settings being used I was told that peak luminance was pegged back to 110cd/m2 for the non-HDR demos with gamma set at 2.4 in the dim viewing room. It was calibrated for Rec.709 colour. For those interested the pre-production model could achieve a peak white of 450cd/m2 on-screen and with a full raster at full brightness 150cd/m2 (but when would you ever do that?) So the final demo was with HDR material.
The High Dynamic Range (HDR) demo was with clips from A Million Ways to Die in the West which was material Mike Sowa had worked on. This time we had two CZ950B screens with one showing in HDR and the other in standard viewing mode. Once again this was a demo put together by Panasonic to highlight their product, but the results were very interesting. First of all the one thing this demo did was put to bed the notion that HDR is all about thousands of Nits of brightness and burning your eye balls out! As already pointed out the CZ950 can achieve a bright 450cd/m2 maximum brightness on-screen, but not the 1000 nits most say is the minimum for HDR playback. But the OLED also has absolute black and a stunning dynamic range on its side, so the resulting HDR images are bright, but more importantly the image is fully rendered from the brightest point to the darkest black and everything else in between. It’s comfortable to watch as it is not retina-burning bright, and it highlights the layers we can’t normally resolve from film, bringing out a three dimensional look to the image far more than Ultra HD resolution can do on its own. It highlights how HDR could be a game changer if done correctly.
VideoWe interview Panasonic UK Managing Director Andrew Denham.
The last word for nowBy the time this article goes out the TX-65CZ950B will have been officially announced to the world at IFA and we will have a few more details about its availability and price. As it is a new product and highlights Panasonic’s picture technology and panel driving expertise you can expect this to be the flagship product for the company. As such you need to be prepared for a premium price to be attached to this OLED. Such is the way with these things, that it's the people who will probably appreciate the quality of the product the most, who can least afford to jump in at the start. And if the rumours we have heard from retailers are correct, it could be as much as £8,500! Let’s hope that rumour is just that.
EDIT: The price has been confirmed on the 11th of September 2015 as £7999
What we can say from the short time we spent with the pre-production model in LA is that the engineers have found the weaknesses and made sure their picture processing expertise is applied to the best effect. The image quality on offer in June was stunningly good with the caveat that Panasonic were running the demos, but we will be checking it out yet again in Berlin now that it is a few more months down the line. You can also rest assured that we will be badgering Panasonic from now until we get a production sample for review.
We will update this article as and when we find out more at IFA and beyond.
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