Panasonic PZ81 (TH-42PZ81) Plasma TV review

We take a look at the first consumer TV with freesat HD built in. Phil Hinton examines the PZ81 from Panasonic

by Phil Hinton
TV Review

3

Best Buy
Panasonic PZ81 (TH-42PZ81) Plasma TV review
SRP: £1,400.00

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It has taken us a little while to get around to covering Panasonic’s plasma TVs, but what better way to start than with the only TV with built in freesat HD.

Panasonic’s PZ81 range of TVs offers Freesat via its built in HD receiver and all you need to do is add a satellite dish. If you happen to have Sky then you are laughing as Freesat is broadcast from the same satellite so all you need to do is connect the cable to the rear of the PZ81 and off you go. We will cover this in more detail later in the review.


We will start with the TVs looks and connections. Out for the box the PZ81 looks smart with an all black design and matching table mount. There is a distinct lack of any unwanted logos apart from the Viera name on the left hand top bezel. When switched on there is a small green light to the bottom left hand side and that’s it. The TV looks sleek and unassuming with nothing to draw your attention from the screen.

At the bottom of the bezel is a push up flap which hides a number of connections. These range from one HDMI, an S-video, composite, audio in and headphone jack to an SD card slot which will appeal to users of Panasonic camcorders as it will play back AVCHD footage on the TV. To the left side of the inputs are the main controls which can be used should you lose that remote down the back of the couch.
Moving around the back the connection list continues with two HDMI v1.3, two scart, one component, RGB PC and Ethernet (non-operational but part of the Freesat specifications, this will possibly be used for the BBC iPlayer). Also included are audio in/outputs using RCA plugs and an optical digital out. The final unusual connections are the satellite and expansion card slot for pay TV (via the DVB tuner, not satellite). The connection of a dish (if you don’t have Sky) will cost around £80 from most high street retailers, so remember to add this to the overall cost if you want to take advantage of the HD tuner. One feature that did impress me on the rear of the Panasonic was the power cord input. This has a lockable clip connection as the power input is upwards at the rear, so if wall mounting you don’t need to worry about the power cable falling out again.

Overall build quality for what can be considered a budget plasma seems solid with a nice weight to the panel. It certainly belies its plastic origins and in my opinion certainly looks the part. So let’s switch it on and set up the tuners.

I connected the second satellite feed from my Sky HD box to the PZ81 for Freesat reception along with a normal DVB aerial connection. Letting the PZ81 set everything up automatically takes about 20 minutes and after testing the function twice, I’m happy that this works properly each time. The Freesat channels are automatically selected but you can also do a manual tuning to select exactly what you want to see. Obviously pay TV and Sky channels cannot be accessed via Freesat.

The menu systems on the Panasonic are straight forward to use and arranged in an intuitive manner. You have three choices when pressing the menu key on the remote control, Picture, sound and set up. (There is a Viera link option but we ignored that for this part of the review). Choosing picture first gives us the usual control options from Picture selection [dynamic, normal, cinema, eco], contrast, brightness, colour, sharpness, colour balance [warm, cool, normal] colour management (not what you may think it is) and noise reduction and reset.

The sound options do what you expect including a mode for music or speech. What I found strange was that in music mode speech was clear and there was an added weight to the sound through the TVs speakers, switching to speech made it all sound a little tiny and speech was actually harder to follow. You can select bass, treble, balance as well as surround. Switch the surround setting on and you are greeted with a wider stereo mix than an actual surround experience. The speakers in the TV are very capable on their own for everyday TV viewing, but I would imagine most of our readers will use the TV with a separate surround set up. This is where the optical out will become useful for sending audio to your AV amplifier. The final menu selections include parameters such as Freesat favourites set up along with the option to switch the intelligent frame creation process on or off, more on that later.

Finally we have the remote control which although made from plastic has a nice solid feel to it. The buttons are also nice and large and well laid out, making it easier to find them in the dark. The main input keys for TV or AV are at the top along with the SD card and aspect controls. You are then presented with the menu and GUI buttons and a touch sensitive arrow circle with the OK button well presented in the middle. Moving down we have the coloured keys and text, sttl, index and hold. Next are the large number keys and finally volume and channel + and – Keys. Overall the remote is easy to use and intuitive.

Out of the Box and Calibrated

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that in the menu selection there are no controls for manual white balance (greyscale) or any colour management system controls for the primary or secondary colour points. As this is a mass market TV maybe we were expecting too much, but when you have LCD TVs that are not only cheaper but have full 3D CMS and manual colour temperature controls, maybe Panasonic need to look at providing these in future TVs.

Basically if you want to calibrate this TV, you, or an ISF calibrator, will need to access the service menus which complicates proceedings. We would never recommend that anyone other than a trained professional accesses the service menu to do the greyscale balance as you can do real damage if you don’t know what your doing. The whole point of our measurements and testing is to see just what every TV is capable of and how good it stands up against the accepted industry standards. We will calibrate this display following our out of the box tests. So how close is the PZ81 out of the box against the HDTV standards? We found that ‘cinema’ in the picture selection menu and ‘warm’ in the colour temperature options, provide the following results.


Colour temperature out of the box RGB out of the box Luminance out of the box
Looking at the CIE chart first you can make out that green is over saturated against the correct point, but the gamut (width of the white triangle) is not considered to be far away from correct. The colour points are off slightly with Cyan towards green and Magenta towards red, but white is almost at the desired D65 temperature. This point is also further enhanced with the Greyscale results which show that blue and red are flat, but around 10% too low in the overall mix. (Red, Green and Blue are mixed in equal amounts to make the correct colour of white across the greyscale. In this graph, green is 100% but Red and Blue are only around 90%).

With the PZ81 missing out on proper calibration controls within its menus, it is thankful that in ‘cinema’ and colour temperature ‘warm’ the results are not a million miles away from the correct points against the HDTV standard, (a standard all HD displays should be able to reproduce.) These results do bode well for a high quality picture and colours should be without any major inaccuracies. Green is a small degree away from ideal, however, apart from grass looking slightly cartoonish in HD football content we watched in this mode; there are no other serious complaints. However, as promised we also calibrated the PZ81 to see if it could get even closer to the reference standard.


Colour temperature calibrated RGB calibrated Luminance calibrated
Before I go any further I want to make a plea to one of the worlds largest plasma manufacturers. In future could you please give us menu based colour management and white balance controls? Nearly every other plasma manufacturer has ISF ccc controls and menus, or even basic 3D CMS and white balance systems in their TVs. So I’m puzzled as to why Panasonic do not provide these in their main plasma ranges? To calibrate the PZ81 we have to enter the hidden service menu to adjust the white balance controls to get our greyscale tracking perfectly. There are no colour management controls. Please note that only ISF trained professionals, or service engineers should access the service menu. Please do not access this mode if you do not know what you are doing, as you may invalidate your warranty and damage your TV. After around an hour of going back and forth with the white balance controls we managed to get the greyscale to track from 20IRE to 100IRE with DeltaE errors of less than 2. (The targets for any greyscale track are errors of 4 or less as the human eye cannot detect any errors in this range). By managing to get the greyscale to track perfectly it also corrected some of the colour points so they were now closer to where they should be. So even though there are no menu based controls, by performing a professional ISF calibration it is possible to get the PZ81 to within acceptably accurate levels. This further improves the image quality as we will discuss below. But please Panasonic, give us the menu controls so your TVs match the rest of the market.

Picture quality

As we said in the 'out of the box' area above, the PZ81 thankfully gets pretty close to the correct standards. With only a few colour errors and a slightly low greyscale mix the TV does manage to produce some very nice looking images in ‘cinema’ and colour temperature ‘warm’ out of the box. This is obvious with free to air TV channels through both the DVB and Freesat HD tuners. Taking plain old freeview first, colour performance is acceptable with good black levels and plenty of shadow detail. Video processing is also just above average with this material, with no obvious issues standing out. However this result is dependant on switching off the ‘Intelligent frame creation controls’ which can cause mayhem with picture judder. Indeed any material seen with this picture mode engaged looks like digital video and very strange. Movement is not correct even when fed HD material, so our advice is to leave it switched off. With normal TV material and depending on what channels you watch, image artefacts can range from light to pretty damn obvious. Poor channels such as ITV 1 can look noisy and pixel blocking can be pretty obvious with jaggies being the main culprits. However with good quality signals, things do clear up and sitting at acceptable distances will allow you to see a clean SD image. Moving to Freesat has a few strange issues for us. If its HD material from BBC or ITV HD, then performance is very good with no obvious issues, however for SD material it again varies in channel quality. The EPG for freesat is also a little chunky and not particularly quick. However as this is the first TV with integrated freesat HD, we are prepared to forgive the slightly noisy SD images in general, as the HD quality is superb. BBC HD looks sublime and because the PZ81 has good colour and greyscale results, it looks very three dimensional and detailed. Colours look good with excellent flesh tones and shadow detail is also a plus point with great looking blacks.

Indeed, moving on to Sky HD and Blu-ray sources in the same out of the box settings, things improved further. The ‘Back to the Future’ HD premier was met with an enthusiastic and cinematic performance. Blacks were solid and well balanced with colours looking vivid yet natural, and screen uniformity holding up well. However, we have one word of warning with this screen, and its surface. If you want the best possible black performance, keep any ambient lighting from falling on the screen. The Panasonic does not have a screen filter and as such the picture will wash out quite badly with any light hitting the screen surface. This could be a problem for some users, and when it happens it can ruin this TVs otherwise great performance.

On the subject of black levels this Panasonic is well above average in its price range, and if you avoid the ambient lights as mentioned above, it can reach levels seen in last years 8th Generation Pioneers. This also confirms a very good dynamic range (contrast) which adds a depth to the image not seen in other screens at this price point.

In ISF calibrated set up the performance gets that little bit better, with shadow and white detail benefiting the most from perfectly flat greyscale and no sign of colour uniformity issues. It is HD material that looks far better than it should on such a budget priced display, with plenty of detail and degrees of depth normally only seen in far more expensive units. Ok, so it is not quite perfect and the image can wash out in the wrong environmental conditions, but take some care in the set up and you will be rewarded with a very good image indeed.

Conclusions

It is unclear at this stage if freesat HD will take off and at this time, there is only one real HD channel currently broadcasting. However having the capability of receiving the free to air satellite broadcasts at no real extra cost, could be seen as a real added bonus. We were also impressed with the PZ81’s measurement results and pleased that even though it has no real calibration controls, out of the box it is not nearly as bad as some HDTVs on the market. Indeed the fact it gets quite close to the HDTV reference standards and has a greyscale that although not completely correct, does track across the board quite well, should be commended. Add in a service menu calibration and the performance of the Panasonic leaves most LCD competitors in the quality image stakes standing. The picture processing could be slightly better if we are completely honest, but given the price and the fact you should leave ‘intelligent frame creation’ switched off, the final results are not bad at all. Indeed if you can live with slight issues of jaggies and noise on poor SD signals (or sit further back that one and a half screens widths), we would deem the performance as acceptable at the price point.

As this is a plasma display there are a few other issues to investigate, such as image retention and phosphor trails. During many tests the PZ81 performed above average in terms of phosphor trails with none seen playing normal material. Only on the rare occasions of fast moving objects against a bright background did we see flashes of trails, but these are rare and certainly not something to affect everyday viewing. And image retention is also not an issue in everyday use. Obviously as with any plasma display common sense is the name of the game and during our four days of testing material we saw no instances of image retention. But as always, be sensible with video gaming and still images such as dogs (Digital onscreen graphics) and always use the screen in the suggested ‘cinema’ mode and ‘warm’ colour temperature settings.

Overall we were very impressed with the PZ81 given its price point and level of performance. Blacks are solid and deep, if not quite at the very best end of the market, but certainly better against the majority of LCD screens out there. Detail in fast moving images is also very good with around 750 lines visible during the FPD tests. And with the added bonus of freesat HD the PZ81 will certainly fit nicely into the sub £1000 range and if this is the range you are looking in, we suggest you get a demonstration. Although its not perfect and can’t compete with the very best out there in plasma land, the PZ81 is still great value for money and we would pick one over any LCD in the same price range, any day of the week, it’s a best buy!

Scores

Sound Quality

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5

Smart Features

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6

Ease Of Use

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7

Build Quality

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7

Value for Money

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8

Verdict

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6

Picture Quality

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6

Video Processing

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5

Greyscale Accuracy

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7

Colour Accuracy

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6

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level

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6

Screen Uniformity

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6
6
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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