When Pioneer announced it was pulling out of the TV market, and ceasing production of the Kuro, there were plenty of home cinema fans who had a little panic. The problem was, there was no TV out there that could match the Kuro. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but it gave the best overall picture and was miles ahead of anything else.
If you're a real fan of picture quality, it's all about plasma. LCDs are great these days, but there's something about a plasma that makes it a much better display tech for a lot of stuff. For example, Freeview in standard definition usually looks a lot better on a plasma than it does on an LCD. And while this is mostly a matter of taste, we think plasmas have a more natural look to them than LCDs.
So when the opportunity to look at Panasonic's new 50-inch flagship came up, we were keen to see how it looked. And we're in a great position to judge, because it would be sitting next to our Pioneer Kuro LX5090.
Plasmas have come a long way over the last few years. Those chunky sets, with thick black bezels which weigh a tonne, have gone. In their place are TVs that are nearly as thin and light as their LCD counterparts, with whisper-thin bezels and glorious styling. The VT50 is a classic example, with looks that are equal to any of those fancy-pants LCDs floating around.
By way of trivia, it's actually possible for a plasma TV to be far thinner than an LCD. In theory, at least, all a plasma needs is the glass and the gas cells which are bonded to its rear. Because plasma is fluorescing, there's no need for backlights or any other stuff. Of course, a TV constructed like that would be far too fragile, but Panasonic has, in the past, demonstrated plasma TVs that are thinner than any TV currently on the market, and are beaten only by OLED in ultimate thinness.
Anyway, back to this TV, and there's plenty of socketry going on here. Four HDMI sockets are located on the rear of the set, and off to the left-hand side - as you look at the TV. There are also three USB sockets, one designed specifically for connecting a hard drive for video playback and recording. There's the usual SD card slot too - Panasonic is rarely without these - for playing video and pictures from an SD card.
You'll also find two types of aerial input. One is regular Freeview and Freeview HD, the other is for freesat HD, which is always a nice addition. If you have a satellite dish you're not using for Sky, or you've got a spare LNB feed from your dish, then you can get some extra free channels this way.
The remote control is a standard affair, it glows in the dark - when you push a special button - so it's ideal for home cinema use, and it's got the usual Panasonic look to it. There's a circular direction control and large programme and volume controls. It's nice enough to use, although it's not weighty, so doesn't have the authority of the old Kuro remote.
From the front, the TV looks brilliant. A single light tells you when it's on, or in standby, there are no buttons on the front, although there are some basic ones behind the TV on the right-hand side.
You get two remotes in the box, one very much a standard affair, the other with a touch pad on it. Because the TV has a certain number of apps, and a web browser, the trackpad makes some sense. To be honest though, we didn't much like it and didn't really find ourselves wanting to use it at all.
As is the requirement these days, Panasonic includes some "smart" functionality. The company has always struggled a bit with this, seemingly not putting the content agreements in place with the big players. LG, Sony and Samsung are leaders here, and while Panasonic's system has always been competent enough, it's not exciting, nor does it have enough services.
BBC iPlayer is present and correct, as you'd hope, and there's a Skype app too, which we love the idea of, but you need to buy a special webcam to get the best out of it. There are some other services too, but they aren't inspiring, and there's no Netflix or Lovefilm yet. We're hoping Panasonic will add more good services soon, but we've been hoping that for four years now, and it's not happened.
Ultimately, it's in this area that the Panasonic is weakest. If you care about Internet TV services, then this isn't the set for you. Or, more likely, it is the set for you, but save extra money to buy a PS3 or Xbox to do those services alongside it.
There are no visible speakers on the Panasonic, which makes us think one of two things: either it doesn't have speakers - it does - or they're going to be very small, and quite underpowered.
In fact, despite being tiny, the speakers on the VT50 are not bad. There's enough power here to ensure the TV can be heard in a decent-sized room, and the dialogue audibility is first-rate. Yes, it's true that there's no significant bass, but that's really to be expected. And, we have to say, if you're spending this kind of money on a TV, and you haven't spent similar on an audio system, you're fooling yourself and throwing your money away. Audio is so important to the AV experience, and it's too often neglected.
Not everyone agrees with us on this subject, but if you want the best picture quality from a TV, buy a plasma. That's not to say the technology is perfect, because it isn't. There are still some problems with solarisation effects around certain objects when you're watching highly compressed video - these days, all video is compressed to some extent.
Then there's the issue of plasma noise - look closely at a plasma, and you'll see fast-moving speckles on a plasma, that look like the snow you get from a de-tuned analogue TV, but they are nowhere near as severe. This is a side-effect of the technology, and is unavoidable.
But compare that to LED backlit LCD TVs and there's more to love than hate. There are no bright edges, or terrible halos around bright objects on a dark background. All-in-all, the picture you get from a plasma is far closer in "feel" to a CRT of old, and that's a good thing, because CRT TVs were a mature technology that looked stunning right up until we all decided having massive, flat TVs was the thing we cared most about.
So, where does that leave this Panasonic plasma? Well, it's just about the best TV we've seen since the Kuro.
And in some regards, it's much better than Pioneer's TV that remains the reference for picture quality even today, years after the last one rolled off the production line. Its black levels remain legendary, but there are some things about that TV that were never perfect, pure white, for example is more grey than white, and in bright scenes, there's a slight cloudiness to the image. Plus, the Kuro isn't a hugely bright set, which is an issue for people who watch in bright rooms.
The Panasonic on the other hand is amazingly bright. In fact, it's capable of such brightness that if you put it next to an LCD, we have doubts anyone would be able to tell it's a plasma. Whites are brilliant too, and colours can either be as brilliant as an LCD or as perfectly judged as a plasma.
But there's one stand-out feature. The detail. In Kuro days, the detail was never quite as impressive as on an LCD. Hardly surprising, as the reason we prefer plasma is its superior handling of low-quality video from the likes of Freeview. But, these days, where most things worth watching are HD, there are plenty of reasons to love the sharpness of LCDs. Now everything has changed, because this Panasonic plasma has an almost jaw-dropping amount of fine-detail information in the picture. Throw a good HD picture at it from a Blu-ray, and it will blow your mind.
Of course, lots of people want lots more from their TV than good picture quality. Some people want a slim TV, some want lots of interactive features and some might just want a TV that looks good in the corner of their loft apartment. If you don't care about picture quality, then don't bother with this TV, because it will be wasted on you. This is a TV for people who demand the crispest, clearest and most vibrant image quality money can buy.
It isn't, however, all roses. There is one noticeable problem that occurs on material shot at 25fps - most British TV productions, for example - and that's a sort of coloured halo on moving images. You'll see this on pans, or when someone walks across the frame, and it exhibits itself as a double edge on the object which is moving. It's the sort of thing that you will notice occasionally, but it is not the sort of thing that will really bother you, and it is easy to get used to. That's not to say we like it, but we're sure Panasonic is working on getting rid of it.
We also noticed, on low bit-rate content, that this TV has considerable "solarisation" on certain bright objects when they appear on a dark background. We didn't notice this at all on Blu-rays, but it could be spotted on TV shows, and internet-sourced content.
As a byproduct of the extra brightness, the 3D image on the Panasonic is much improved. Plasmas are well suited to 3D because they don't generally suffer from double images, which can affect some LCD screens. This is because of the instant manner in which plasmas can change the displayed picture - LCDs take extra milliseconds to do this. The lack of brightness on older sets was a problem though, making 3D quite hard to watch, but that problem has been reduced substantially with this TV.
We watched Avatar and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in 3D on the Panasonic, and found both to be pleasant experiences. Cloudy works well as a 3D movie, because the depth is subtle, and well-judged. Avatar, on the other hand, is a more in-your-face affair with lots of stuff happening at multiple depths.
The Panasonic coped well with both films. We prefered watching Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, but we can't tell if that's because it's a) brighter, b) more subtle c) not a travesty of poorly written exposition and yawn-inducing set pieces. We think it might be all three. Either way, if you love 3D, this is more than likely the TV for you; it's one of the best at coping with the challenges of the technology, but also provides stunning 2D images.
Also helping the 3D along are Panasonic's new 3D glasses. These are RF linked to the TV, so looking away from the TV doesn't de-sync them, and cause lots of nasty flickering. They're also lighter and more comfortable than previous models. They have a standard USB socket for charging, and you can have them charged for a film in a few minutes, so even if they run out of power, you don't have to wait long to get watching.
On the downside, they're still a little too heavy for our liking, and they still have quite small "glass" portions. Meaning your field of vision with them on is a little restricted. You get two pairs in the box though, which is a good start.
Plasma has always been our choice of display tech. But now, Panasonic has managed to weed out most of the little quirks that made the technology less appealing. Here, we have an ultra-sharp TV that does 3D brilliantly, has an incredible 2D picture and doesn't disgrace itself in the audio stakes either.
While the P50VT50 - like most of Panasonic's TVs - isn't brilliant in the online stakes, we don't find oursevles consumed with concern over that. Online content is great, but most of us own a PS3, XBox, Blu-ray player or some other under-TV-box that can do just as good a job, and is more easily updatable when new services launch than a TV.
The Panasonic is the whole package, a great choice of TV tuners, fantastic picture quality and a design that blows every chunky plasma out of the water. It might not be cheap, but it is utterly brilliant.
If you care about picture quality, this is the set for you.