The hype has been building up for a while now and the future of television has finally arrived. By the time you read this, the first 3D TVs from Panasonic, Samsung and Sony will be on demonstration in stores across Canada. Thanks to Panasonic’s excellent reputation for TVs, the company’s VT series of 3D plasma TVs are among the most anticipated products of the year. But is 3D at home worth all this hype? To find out, we asked Panasonic to send us the TC-P50VT25 50-inch 3D plasma TV ($2,999) along with the DMP-BDT350 3D Blu-ray player ($599).
Panasonic’s VT series consists of four 3D plasma TV models, ranging in screen sizes from 50 inches all the way up to 65 inches. Every model comes supplied with one pair of 3D LCD shutter glasses; additional pairs are sold separately for $149. The 3D Blu-ray player includes a Panasonic Blu-ray 3D demonstration disc which contains various 3D clips of people, animals, nature scenes as well as a preview of the computer animated film Astro Boy 3D. For a limited time, those who purchase both a Panasonic 3D TV and the 3D Blu-ray player will receive Coraline and Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs on Blu-ray 3D. Unfortunately we did not receive these two movies with our review samples.
The VT series is a marvel of technology which promises to bring the best 2D and 3D picture to our living rooms. Thanks to faster screen phosphors, high speed 3D drive technology and a 600Hz sub-field drive, these new TVs output alternating images at 60 frames per second to each eye (with a full 1080p resolution reaching each eye). Panasonic says that these innovations result in a faster response time and a ghost-free viewing experience when watching 3D content. Panasonic’s Infinite Black Pro allows the VT series to achieve a 5,000,000:1 native contrast ratio and the ability to reproduce billions of colours. Each model in this series is THX certified, offers 24 fps playback (using a 96 Hz refresh rate, much like previous generations) and has a 1920 x 1080 native resolution. To top it all off, the VT series also includes ISFccc, a protocol which allows ISF calibrators to fine tune the picture settings to perfectly match the viewing environment. Inputs on the back of the TC-P50VT25 include 3 HDMI (ver. 1.4), 2 component video, 1 composite video, 1 antenna cable jack and 1 VGA. The side panel offers two additional inputs (1 HDMI and 1 composite video), an SD card slot for viewing digital photos and videos, and two USB ports for the addition of a keyboard and a WiFi adaptor (sold separately). When connected to a home network, the Viera Cast feature allows access to Bloomberg News, Google’s YouTube, Picasa and Skype video calling among other services. The P50VT25 has a glossy black frame and is housed in an enclosure that’s just 3.6 inches deep. The supplied remote control has the all-important backlight but does not have direct input buttons or direct access to picture modes.
Of course in order to enjoy 3D Blu-ray movies, you’ll need a 3D Blu-ray player like the Panasonic DMP-BDT350. Like all other 3D Blu-ray players, this player offers playback of DVDs, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray discs and will up-convert lower resolutions to 1080p. What makes this player very unique is the inclusion of two HDMI outputs – one for audio and one for video – designed for those who don’t own an AV receiver with HDMI 1.4 inputs (required to send the 3D picture). This way, the player can send audio to an AV receiver using one HDMI output, and video directly to the TV using the second HDMI output. Other video outputs include 1 component video and 1 composite video. Audio outputs include 7.1-channel analogue, coaxial and optical digital. Like all current Blu-ray players, the DMP-BDT350 can decode the latest audio formats including Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio or send them via HDMI to a compatible AV receiver. Panasonic includes a wireless LAN adaptor which can be connected to the USB port on the back of the player. The USB port will also accept a USB flash drive loaded with pictures and videos. A second USB port and an SD card slot are hidden behind the front flap-door. Finally, the Ethernet port allows the player to connect to a home network for access to BD-Live features and firmware updates. Its DLNA certification also allows the player to stream content from networked PCs. Like most disc players, the supplied remote does not have a backlight.
The P50VT25 offers five picture modes for watching standard 2D programming – these include Vivid, Standard, THX, Game and Custom. While watching 3D content, an additional Cinema mode is available. The THX mode is by far the best mode out of the box, producing the most accurate colours, the deepest blacks and a good contrast ratio. If you wish to further tweak the picture, the P50VT25 offers plenty of picture settings, including a Pro Setting menu for advanced users. The most discerning viewers can take the picture quality one step further by hiring a professional calibrator to fine tune the TV using the ISFccc controls.
Of course the most tantalizing feature of the P50VT25 is its ability to play 3D material, so I began my viewing tests with the Panasonic Blu-ray 3D demonstration disc. When watching 3D content, the picture mode automatically jumps to Cinema, a darker picture mode deemed to produce the best 3D results. Although this mode is noticeably dimmer than other modes, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the 3D picture. The two-and-a-half minute preview of Astro Boy looked absolutely stunning in 3D. My initial impression was that the quality of this 3D picture is very similar to what I’m used to in a 3D movie theatre. The computer animated characters had convincing depth and cityscapes had realistic dimensions that stretched deep into the picture frame. I found the scenes in which Astro Boy is followed by a camera as he’s flying to be particularly enjoyable. The sense of three dimensional movement was undeniable and resulted in a substantially enhanced enjoyment. Although initially I noticed image crosstalk only on a few occasions, a further inspection revealed that many scenes in Astro Boy in fact had image crosstalk. Image crosstalk appears as faint outlines around characters and objects. The good news is that the crosstalk on this TV was much more subtle than I’ve seen on all the other LCD-based 3D TVs to this point. Also, it appeared to be only Astro Boy that had a noticeable amount of image crosstalk. The other live film 3D clips on the demo discs had very little image crosstalk, if any at all. Based on these observations, it seems that image crosstalk is dependent on both the TV and the content.
A steam locomotive in the opening footage from Grand Canyon Adventure 3D showed a good perspective with parts of the drive train which appeared gradually further away from the viewer. Fly-by shots over the canyon exhibited true-to-life depth, particularly in the parts of the picture closer to the viewer. Mountains far in the background on the other hand looked like they were pasted on to a single two dimensional canvas. I also thoroughly enjoyed the scenes from Coral Wonderland. Certain shots in which the camera moved forward over the corals produced a sensation as if I was actually snorkeling. How wonderful!
If you’ve gone out to watch a 3D feature at the movie theatre in the last couple of years, you should already know that the current generation of 3D is not about gimmicky effects that pop out of the screen. The focus is rather on the depth of the picture inside the screen, which results in a much more realistic and enjoyable 3D experience. All of the current 3D TVs, including this Panasonic, use the same principles.
While watching the 3D content, I came to the conclusion that the Panasonic 3D glasses are unnecessarily large and quite uncomfortable. There are large gaps between the lenses and the arms of the glasses which allow light to sneak into your eyes, which is especially distracting when watching 3D content in a brighter environment. Panasonic includes two types of rubber nose pads whose positions can be adjusted although they don’t make the glasses any more comfortable to wear. The glasses promise about 75 hours of continuous use but the watch-style battery that they use is not rechargeable, which is very inconvenient. Changing the battery requires a screw driver, which is another hassle. I would like to think that future models of the glasses will be rechargeable, just like the ones from Samsung.
Considering that very little 3D content will be available this year, the vast majority of the content watched on the P50VT25 will be standard 2D programming and movies. So how does the P50VT25 fair here? I performed all my viewing tests in slightly fine tuned THX picture mode.
Watching the opening scenes of Star Trek on Blu-ray demonstrated that the P50VT25 is capable of reaching an excellent black level and contrast. These are the deepest blacks and the highest contrast ratio I’ve seen yet from any plasma TV, with the exception of the now discontinued Pioneer KURO plasmas. As the U.S.S. Kelvin starship flies into a Romulan trap, both ship hulls displayed a tremendous amount of shadow detail even in the darkest parts. Even as the Romulan ship passed in front of a bright star, it retained the same level of shadow detail. The ability to display a truly deep black and really bright areas on the screen at the same time, without the entire picture dimming or brightening up, is just one of the benefits that plasma TVs offer over LCD TVs. In some of the same scenes, I also noticed that the P50VT25 displayed incredibly smooth gradient transitions from one colour to another.
Next I proceeded to a watch a few clips from Yes Man on Blu-ray, paying attention to colour reproduction and skin tones in particular. Various indoor and outdoor scenes showed that the P50VT25 has superb colour accuracy – in fact, one of the best available from any TV in the market today. Grass and trees looked perfectly natural. Various skin tones looked remarkably real. Overall, colours were very well saturated and had just the right amount of pop.
On the video processing side, the P50VT25 did an average job of de-interlacing 1080i content (converting from 1080i to 1080p). It passed about half (most of the common ones found on discs) of the deinterlacing tests from the Spears & Munsil disc. This means that the P50VT25 will do a good job at with 1080i channels from a digital or satellite box.
The DMP-BDT350 player is lightning quick at loading Blu-ray discs. It took only about 15 seconds to load the Panasonic Blu-ray 3D demonstration disc and about 20 seconds on average with other Blu-ray discs. The 1080i de-interlacing capability of this player turned out to be a notch better than the TV itself, which means that 1080i Blu-ray discs will look good played through this player.
The Panasonic TC-P50VT25 plasma offers one of the best pictures available today from any flat panel TV – this alone easily justifies its $2,999 price tag. The fact that it produces one of the best 3D pictures currently available gives it an even better value. The great news for potential buyers is that all four models in the VT series retail for the same price or lower than the same sized models from last year. So if you plan to purchase a higher performance plasma TV, you might as might make it a 3D model. At $599, the DMP-BDT350 3D Blu-ray player offers great performance and is a little pricier than other 3D Blu-ray players currently available. But it is a necessary purchase for those who wish to embrace the 3D revolution.
Panasonic TC-P50VT25 50-inch 3D Plasma TV
Panasonic DMP-BDT350 3D Blu-ray Player