Panasonic Viera TH-46PZ81B television review

Panasonic has introduced the World’s first flat panel TV with a built-in Freesat tuner and it’s a cracker. The 46-inch model we had to test has Full HD 1080P resolution, though its blocky black lines aren’t the most stylish on offer today, it is a versatile TV indeed.

For those that don’t know, Freesat is essentially carries free high-definition TV broadcasts, along the lines of Sky HD, but with a single one of payment for the dish and receiver rather than ongoing subscription charges. Panasonic’s innovation is to combine Freesat and Freeview into one set, so you can upgrade to Freesat, if required, without needing to buy another set-top box. Buy the PZ81 and it’s all built-in – although you’ll still need to get a dish mounted to receive the Freesat signal.

In terms of connections you get a comprehensive set up including three v1.3 HDMIs with Deep Colour compatibility, an SD card slot that will allow you to play JPEG stills and AVCHD movies shot on a digicam or camcorder and Ethernet, which presumably will allow future connection to, say, BBC’s iPlayer.

Of all the features, it is the Freesat HD tuner that beckons, and as the set also carries Freeview and analogue tuners, it’s the UK's first three-tuner TV. The usefulness of a tri-tuner TV may seem a bit of a mystery so it’s worth noting that Freeview carries a few channels that Freesat does not (yet) such as Sky Sports News. It is also worth considering that if, for some reason, you lost your satellite dish, you always have the standard digital tuner as back-up.

To get the most out of the HD Freesat tuner and other HD sources (my PS3 for example) Panasonic’s has included its superb V-Real 3 picture-processing engine. V-Real’s impressive abilities include helping suppress noise, boosting colours and enhancing resolution. The V-Real 3 engine plus the superb quality of the 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution plasma panel, produce stunning picture quality.

Pictures are sharp with superb detail from both Freesat HD sources and some of my Blu-ray test discs such as Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 and Jumpers. The superb dynamic contrast ratio of a claimed 1,000,000:1 might be a bit optimistic but the good black level response means the picture looks superb particularly in darkened environs.

Although LCD sets have come a long way in terms of their black level response, the new Viera really does perform beyond what most LCD sets are capable of. However, something that niggled in terms of the Panasonic’s panel – and something I’ve not encountered so much with LCD panels – is the screen’s reflective surface.

The overly shiny surface meant, in brighter rooms, the screen’s effective brightness and contrast appear lowered and you have to contend with the reflections getting in the way of the viewing experience.

On the up side however, there's practically no picture noise in HD pictures and I’d say pictures look as good if not better than almost any Freesat set-top box. The PZ81's picture processing also greatly improves standard-definition pictures, something LCD flat panel TVs don’t cope with quite as well. This set lacked any of the jerkiness or trails common on some LCD TVs displaying standard definition pictures.

In terms of audio performance, while the 20W speaker set-up built into a swooping grill at the bottom of the screen won’t beat a proper home cinema surround sound system, it’s reasonably loud without distorting. The bass is okay and the simulated surround sound set-up allows you to set the system depending on how far the TV is from a wall: closer or further than 30cm.

This helps increase the sound separation if, say, the TV is wall mounted or stood on its supplied stand, further away from the wall. When watching sport one of the problems common with a lot of flat panel sets, LCD or plasma, is the over sharpening around, say, the relatively small people on the screen.

Compression artifacts can mar the image so reducing the default sharpening can help here, as can turning off the Intelligent Frame Creation feature, which calculates extra frames of image data to reduce motion judder.

I felt the set’s reds were a little on the flat side too and the excellent inclusion of the SD card slot would have been even better if you could record onto it, as well as play back.

Aside from these minor moans, my only other issue is with the lack of HD content on the Freesat service. Yes it’s growing all the time and what’s there, from movies, TV series, to superb documentary output, Freesat is still in its infancy but the production of sets such as this are sure to put a bit more impetus behind it as the market for the output grows.

Another problem I noticed due to the sheer excellence of the 46PZ81B is the quality of some of the standard-definition channels, some such as ITV are of such poor quality even the V-Real 3 processing struggles to cope, even so it’s still an overall better performance than LCD channels on the same standard-definition signal.

Verdict

Yes, we’re still waiting on Freesat to deliver both the service and range of channels a TV set like this deserves, but as that’s out of Panasonic’s hands, products like this will help build a groundswell for improved HD programming.

Make no mistake, the 46PZ81 is a real breakthrough product thanks to Panasonic’s excellent plasma panel and V-Real 3 technology and it being joined at the hip to a Freesat tuner. In a word, it’s … superb.