Panasonic Z1 (TX-P54Z1) Plasma TV Review

In an exclusive review, AVForums takes a look at Panasonic's top-end Plasma model for 2009.

by AVForums
TV Review

22

Highly Recommended
Panasonic Z1 (TX-P54Z1) Plasma TV Review
SRP: £5,400.00

Introduction

At the top of Panasonic's range of 2009 model Plasma displays sits the Z1 series. Available in both 46” and 54” versions (we're reviewing the latter, for what it's worth), these displays are luxuriously styled and almost unfathomably thin. Like the step-down V10 series displays, they're THX Certified, so offer a THX viewing mode which attempts to match industry production standards and give you the best viewing experience, with no calibration necessary (at least not when the TV is new - the characteristics of any optical component can drift over time). They also feature a satellite tuner, giving you access to the Freesat service, as well as a standard Digital Terrestrial tuner (for “Freeview”).

But the most interesting feature of the Panasonic Z1 Series is arguably the WirelessHD™ (yes, they actually trademarked it) module, which allows you to send lossless 1080p video without wires. Many competing systems are limited to 1080i, but Panasonic's version gives you all of the quality of a cabled setup without the clutter. (It remains to be seen whether the snake oil merchants hawking overpriced HDMI cables will have to move into the air purification business if wireless transmission ever becomes the standard!)

Anyway, cables or no cables, the hopes are high for this display, so let's see how it performs in the real world.

Styling

I really couldn't ask for more in a TV design – the TX-P54Z1 is insanely thin (at most it's 2.5 centimetres thick) and looks incredibly slick. The top and bottom panels around the screen have a silver brushed metal look, and some unobstrusive gloss black frames the picture at the left and right. Panasonic supplies the screen with two unobtrusive speakers which attach to the left and right of the display, which also look nice.

In order to keep the display itself so slim, Panasonic has housed the inputs and tuners in a separate box, which is styled in a similar way to the company's Blu-ray Disc Recorders (but is much smaller). This box connects to the display with a single HDMI cord (Panasonic provide a nice thin one in the box). This'll please people who want to wall-mount the display, without having several cables hanging from beneath the panel.

The tuner box features 2 RGB SCART sockets, one set of Component inputs, 3 HDMI inputs on the back, a Satellite dish input, an aerial input, analogue stereo audio outputs, and both digital coaxial and digital optical audio outputs. A flap on the front of the unit can be brought down to reveal an SDHC card input, the fourth HDMI input, as well as S-Video, Composite, stereo audio, headphone, and PC inputs.

The remote control, too, is presented in a brushed steel-ish silver. It looks, feels, and operates wonderfully. You can point it at the panel itself, or at the tuner box: both locations interact together at all times.

Menus/Setting Up

Expecting to see the same menu controls as on the UK V10 displays, imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered the “Advanced Settings” screen. This screen houses Greyscale controls, and a Gamma adjustment. If you've read the AVForums reviews of the Panasonic G10, G15 and V10 displays, you'll have listened to us complain that the Continental European models of those TVs also feature these advanced controls, whereas the UK versions do not. As we understand it, the absence of such controls from the UK models was not a deliberate omission, but more of an unfortunate difference stemming from the fact that Panasonic's UK models are developed separately from the other European ones. Of course, no matter what the cause, the end result is the same: in the UK, the only consumer model with these controls is the most expensive one.

In any case, we're very glad to see these controls on at least one model (this year). There are of course also the traditional Contrast, Brightness, and Colour controls, as well as a misleading “Colour Management” on/off switch (there's no management at all), a basic 2D noise reduction filter, “Eco Mode”, and Sharpness controls.

As with Panasonic's other displays, picture settings are not saved per-input, but per-profile. In other words, we have picture profiles like “Dynamic”, “Cinema” and of course, “THX”, each with their own partially editable settings. For example, we can apply “Cinema” to HDMI1, HDMI2, and Freesat inputs, but if we adjust the Brightness to compensate for a device which is outputting too high a black level, then it will affect all the other inputs using the Cinema mode, too. Fortunately, I've not run into many real-world issues with this arrangement, but true per-input settings would be nice to see on future models.

Test Results

THX Mode Measurements

Because the point of the THX mode is to get close-to-accurate video out of the box, I make a point of measuring it's unadjusted performance when a TV features it. So, after letting the TV warm up, I selected the THX preset, touched nothing else, and then started the measurements. Here are the results:

Greyscale: the colour of grey had a visibly green tint to it. Although the error on the charts is fairly minor, it's more visible to the eye then errors with Red or Blue. This surprised me, because the THX mode on the Panasonic V10 model we reviewed months ago brought basically perfect Greyscale performance with the correct mix of red, green and blue – out of the box.
But, remember that the Plasma panel itself is an opto-electrical component, and is particularly susceptible to individual production tolerances - in other words, this varies from screen to screen. It's one reason why copying other people's calibrated picture settings from the internet is unlikely to get you the best possible picture. Fortunately, the Z1 features easily accessible Greyscale calibration controls, so a professional calibator will be able to remove the green tint fairly quickly.

Colour: as you can see from the colourful CIE Gamut chart above, the gamut of colours produced by this display while it's running in THX Mode is almost identical to that used by filmmakers, special effects houses, directors, and other industry professionals. In other words, once we remove the slight green tint by calibrating Greyscale, we'll see a picture that's very, very close to what the filmmakers and other content producers intended us to see.

Colour Luminance appears to be a a tiny bit too high based on these measurements, but I didn't feel that this impacted real-world performance. t's not really possible to clean up the few small Colour errors, though: Panasonic's TVs have no Colour Management System. The only possible means of altering Colour performance is with the single basic “Colour” control, but this affects all colours, and all aspects of those colours, together. In other words, lowering the Colour control to lower Colour Luminance will also have a knock-on effect on the Saturation of the colours. As a result, I left it where it was.

Cinema” Mode Calibration: Before and After

Starting with the THX mode and then calibrating Greyscale is likely to be the way to get the best results from the Panasonic Z1, but just for completeness, I decided to see how the “Cinema” mode measured up. To cut a long story short, it's possible to calibrate Greyscale perfectly, but Colour reproduction is still behind the THX mode due to the lack of a Colour Management System. The proof:

Gamma, by default, is set to 2.0 in the Cinema mode, which looks slightly more washed out and less "rich" than the THX mode. Of course, now that Panasonic have given us control, we can now set this to 2.2, and the two modes, once calibrated, look almost identical (except for colour).

Video Processing

With Panasonic's cheaper displays, we recommended bypassing their built-in video processors with the use of a high quality Upscaling DVD player, AV receiver, or dedicated off-board processor. The situation, thankfully, is different with the Z1 (good thing, too, given the price of this display!)

First of all, deinterlacing. For productions shot with video cameras, a flat panel TV has to “fill in” video information that simply doesn't exist in the first place. Done well, this can look quite convincing (albeit imperfect). Done less well, the “filled in” (or “interpolated”) parts still look quite jaggy. Panasonic's performance is at the better end of the scale, with diagonal interpolation being applied to reduce the appearance of video jaggies. It's not as good as some other manufacturers' solutions, but it's a big step up from the lower ranges and means that fast moving sports and rapidly-scrolling news tickers (to give two examples) will look quite watchable and readable.

For film content, a TV doesn't have to fill any lost information in (unless that said Film has been incompetently mastered), but it has to detect that the content IS film to stop any Deinterlacing happening when it's not needed (this process is called “Cadence Detection”). The Z1 still doesn't do this, so any film content essentially has jaggies added to it, because everything is Deinterlaced with processing better suited to Video. In real world usage, if you're watching films on TV, these are often so blurry anyway that the jagginess doesn't really make itself apparent (it is there, though). For better quality standard-def sources, you can get around it with an Upscaling DVD player (but remember, many upscaling DVD players fail cadence detection as well, so make sure you get a good one).

Finally, scaling, or the actual resizing of the Deinterlaced standard-def signal to match the panel's high definition resolution. There are various different mathematical approaches to calculating new pixels where none existed in the first place, and they all have a slightly different look. Panasonic's lower-down ranges tend to look soft when dealing with 480i and 576i input, and don't capture the full frequency range of the input signal (so the finest details are obscured). This is not the case with the TX-P54Z1, which looks considerably better here. The scaling is clear and crisp, which makes a nice change.

Gaming Performance

None of Panasonic's Plasmas feature any meaningful level of input lag, so video games are responsive and fun to play. The TV has a “Game” picture preset for the HDMI inputs, which makes no difference to the responsiveness. I happily played games in the THX mode.

Wireless HD Module

After OFCOM finally vetted the Wireless HD receiver/transmitter combination for use, we were able to see if there were any sacrifices involved with ditching cables and trusting our precious video and audio bits to the air. The transmission module hooks up to the HDMI output of the media box, so the idea is that you keep these things together (it's a shame the receiver module isn't built into the media box, but having it separate keeps things flexible, if a little less neat). The receiver fastens to the bottom of the panel and connects to the HDMI input on the back.
Unless we actually blocked either the receiver or transmitter, then Panasonic's claim of lossless 1080p appears to be entirely correct. Even at the most bandwidth heavy 1080p/60, there were no issues with this setup at all, and it IS practical for (single-room) home use. There's little else to add, because it works correctly. If we put a resolution test pattern on screen and walked around the room in the way of one of the devices, then the picture could break up slightly at times, but any momentary degradation is likely to be much more subtle with real-world video content.
One issue, however, was what happened when the signal was obstructed for any great length of time. In this case, the Blu-ray player acted in the same way it would if its HDMI cable had been pulled out, halting playback. We actually had to stop the player, AV receiver, and other components in the chain and turn them back on again in order to re-establish sound and video. Of course, this was us trying to trip things up, and a normal usage scenario (hopefully) won't cause these problems.
I'd be interested to know the inner workings of the transmission system. If the receiver can't make contact with the transmitter, then the interference you get on screen causes a dithered, pixel-shifting effect, which actually reminds me of what a Sharp ASV LCD panel looks like when it's working properly. Block one component entirely, and the image gets VHS-style timing errors and interference. Interesting stuff...

Other Features

Naturally, the Z1 features Panasonic's VIERA Cast, an internet service which brings content from YouTube, Picasa, Eurosport, Bloomberg, and more, to your TV screen. I'm not ecstatic about any of the internet-enabled TV features, but this is probably my favourite out of the ones that I've seen so far (YouTube on your TV can be surprisingly fun when there's nothing good showing). One thing I did notice was that YouTube videos are always shown in low quality sub-standard definition, even if an HD version is available.
It also features media server functionality, so with the supplied code, you can download a computer program called TwonkyMedia Manager, which makes accessing multimedia files stored on your computer easy.

Energy Consumption

Full-screen patterns were input at various different intensities: 0 IRE (black), 50 IRE (mid-grey), and 100 IRE (full white), in the calibrated THX mode, with Eco Mode on and off. Note: these power consumption figures include measurements from both the Display itself, as well as the Tuner box, which measured 41 watts at all times. The figures you see below have had the 41 watts added.
Eco Off: 0 IRE: 109 watts, 50 IRE: 282 watts, 100 IRE: 439 watts.
Eco On: 0 IRE: 109 watts, 50 IRE: 238 watts, 100 IRE: 432 watts.

Picture Quality

When hooked up to a worthy source, the panel fitted to this display looks absolutely gorgeous. The best Blu-ray Discs are a sight to behold, and like with any great display, this is fairly difficult to write, because what you watch is basically down to the quality of the source. Black level and contrast ratio are both absolutely excellent, which made the darkened cave shots in Icon's Australian BD of "The Descent" (pictured above) look especially deep. The Plasma panel presents motion wonderfully, and has a very wide vertical viewing angle (the screen coating appears to cause the picture to dim if you view it from high above, but I can't imagine that this will be of any practical concern).

Standard-def broadcasts on Digital TV (via the Freesat tuner) look good. With these SD tuner inputs, it looks like Panasonic is employing some sort of filter to try and downplay compression artefacts. However, one thing I'd like to do with these TV broadcasts is apply some high frequency Sharpening, because this can increase the perceived detail a little. The Sharpness control on Panasonic's displays, when you're watching SD from one of the tuners, applies gain mainly to the middle frequencies, meaning that if you crank it up, the picture begins to look quite scabby, with fairly thick halos. Also, due to the fact that only a very tight range of frequencies is actually targeted by the control, it looks quite artificial. I suspect this has been done intentionally, so that the Sharpness control tries not to sharpen compression artefacts. High frequency sharpening would allow us to give edges in the picture a more convincing boost. Regardless, standard def TV looks almost as good as possible, and all I can really do is speculate on ways to try and polish it in a different way.

It's not really worth talking about SD DVD in this review, because this processing is best handled by an Upscaling DVD player (in which case, the performance of the player matters). The TV's own video processing has no cadence detection capability, which I can tolerate for movies on TV (given that they're often cut up and covered in TV channel logos anyway), but wouldn't want to subject my DVD collection to. Again, the advice: use a good upscaling DVD player to get around this.

More on the panel itself: Panasonic's plasmas feature a little more PWM noise in bright white areas when compared to some other manufacturer's Plasmas, and they also have a slightly strange optical (not digital, and therefore much more subtle) effect where very, very subtle green and purple glowing can be seen to the edges of pixels. However, you really need to look at test patterns (or connect a computer, which produces similarly tough conditions) and be sitting right up beside the screen to actually notice this, which is why I don't take it into account for use as a video display. In these cases, the high contrast and deep black level produced by the panel are its most noticeable traits, and wonderful traits they are, too.

By the way, in the interest of completeness, I need to point out that the panel I received did have one defective pixel on it (something that I've actually witnessed more on Plasmas than on LCDs lately). It appeared as a dark purple spot, and was sometimes just visible during normal viewing.

Verdict

8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

The Good

  • NeoPDP contrast performance and black level are excellent
  • Extensive connectivity options - one of few displays to include built-in Satellite tuner
  • Calibrated THX mode has excellent Greyscale accuracy
  • Colour accuracy in THX mode is also excellent
  • Easily accessible controls for Greyscale and Gamma improve potential picture quality
  • Picture detail is excellent
  • 24p input is handled without judder
  • Incredibly thin design with wireless option increases aesthetic appeal
  • Lack of input lag means video games are responsive and fluid
  • Wireless HD module is a workable, cable-free solution

The Bad

  • No colour management system means that colours are just short of perfect
  • Standard-def video processing still has some performance holes (NOTE: this is irrelevant if an Upscaling DVD player or AV receiver is used)
  • Other than aesthetics and Wireless HD, there is little reason to spend this much money when compared to some other Plasma displays

Panasonic Z1 (TX-P54Z1) Plasma TV Review

It's expensive, but the Panasonic TX-P54Z1 is a fantastic Plasma TV. It looks absolutely brilliant with the best Blu-ray Discs in a way that the better LCD TVs can't manage, and an off-board video processing device can make standard definition very watchable – perhaps not something that should be necessary for a display this expensive, but a minor issue given its other strengths. Panasonic's latest NeoPDP panels come very close to featuring the best black levels we've seen on any flat panel display, and are second in this regard only to the Pioneer KURO KRP-500A, which is a huge achievement.

Panasonic's wise decision to include THX Display Certification has improved the performance (and thus, our final score) for this TV. We're delighted to see that, at last, the company has included Greyscale and Gamma controls in their user menus – something that Panasonic should be commended for, because these go a long way in making sure that the TX-P54Z1 can look its best. However, the THX mode is still the only way of achieving the most accurate colour reproduction (and it could be a tiny better if we were given a Colour Management System).

The price will be a lot to stomach for most customers, and unless they absolutely must have Wireless HD capabilities or the impossibly thin display as part of their home theatre, then many people will be better served by tracking down one of the remaining final Pioneer Kuro displays, or Panasonic's own V10 Series Plasmas: both examples of other Plasma displays which offer excellent performance, but at a considerably lower cost. For this reason, the Z1 scores lower in the Value for Money category than most other displays of this quality. Of course, this part of the review is subjective rather than scientific: there will be people with better decorated rooms than mine who will value an (almost) cable-free TV highly.

The TX-P54Z1 is another solid NeoPDP display from Panasonic, and coincidentally enough, is the last of their currently announced displays for 2009 that we've been waiting to review. We look forward to seeing what they can do to improve the performance of their future displays, because the company is well on its way to filling the hole left by Pioneer at the top end of the display market. Until next time...

Highly Recommended

Scores

Sound Quality

.
.
.
7

Smart Features

.
.
.
7

Ease Of Use

.
.
.
7

Build Quality

.
.
.
7

Value for Money

.
.
.
.
.
.
4

Verdict

.
.
8

Picture Quality

.
9

Video Processing

.
.
.
7

Greyscale Accuracy

.
9

Colour Accuracy

.
9

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black Level

.
9

Screen Uniformity

.
9
8
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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