People who know about TVs, and have tested lots of them - as we have - will almost universally agree that plasma TVs are amazing. We wouldn't discount LCD as a display technology, but for the absolute best picture quality you really can't beat a plasma. And that's where the 60-inch Panasonic TX-P60ZT65B comes in. Although we prefer ZT65 for short.
To give the ZT65 some context: back in 2008 Pioneer released its second-generation Kuro TVs and the world stood open-mouthed. The picture quality on these TVs was unprecedented, especially at a time when LCDs were still largely CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamp) backlights, with uneven brightness and generally poor black performance. Watch a Kuro now, and it is still one of the best picture experiences you can have, although it too has some flaws. Some of Pioneer's plasma patents have since been sold on to Panasonic.
And that brings us to 2013 and the Panasonic P60ZT65. This TV is special. It's also £4,000, is made to order and part of a limited run. We're not surprised - part of the process involves a layer being placed on the screen in an autoclave. All that sounds fancy, but does it add up to the best plasma TV the world has ever seen?
We open with a tinge of sadness here, because true or not - we'll find out in the course of this review - Panasonic thinks that it can't top the performance of this set. Think about that for a minute, what Panasonic is saying is that this is as good as it gets. And, what's arguably worse, is that the Japanese company is rumoured to have ceased all research and development on its plasma technologies to concentrate on OLED from now on.
That leaves Samsung and LG in the plasma world, but we have a real sense that this technology has reached the end of its life. There will be no 4K plasmas, and all TVs from now on will use either OLED or LCD. At this point, no one has really seen and spent much time reviewing OLED TVs, as they just aren't available. And that's a worry, because this lack of review samples suggests the quality isn't quite there yet.
We asked Panasonic about 4K plasma a while ago, and it said that while it would be possible, it would have some monstrous power requirements. And for that reason it would probably never happen as modern eco rules and ratings simply make it impractical.
Once we took the Panasonic out of the box and assembled it - we managed alone, you probably need two people to do it safely - we were struck by just how beautiful it is. And that's before we turned it on.
Supported on a metallic "V" stand, with a brushed-aluminium base, the TV's silver bezel makes the screen look enormous, even larger than its 60-inches. It's pretty in a way that the chunkier Pioneer Kuro wasn't - one of the most attractive TVs we've seen, without being faddy and of its time. This TV will look as good in 10 years as it does today and, given its stance in the plasma world, it needs to.
In the box, there are a pair of remotes. One standard, which you'll probably use most, and one smaller with a touch surface. You can use this remove to scroll around the menus, and it will allow you to access basic functions. It also enables the voice control system: here you speak into a microphone and say what you want the TV to do. Like, "increase volume" or "change to channel one".
It's hopeless. We weren't actually able to command the TV to do anything with voice commands, but we couldn't care less either. The remote control has served TVs well for decades now, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of point in replacing it with a voice, especially given how poorly it works, and how, when you're watching TV, the room is rarely quiet enough for a TV to make out what you're saying. But the standard remote is great.
On the connections front the TV has a decent number of inputs. There are three HDMI inputs - that might sound a bit mean, but it's fair to assume most people will use this with an AV receiver, and will likely only use one input. There are three USB sockets, so you can plug in a hard drive, webcam and perhaps a USB stick with some content on. A generous amount, and a welcome inclusion.
There is an aerial input for Freeview, and a pair of satellite-type connectors for the dual Freesat tuners. We like this flexibility, as we mostly use satellite now at home, but having a choice means everyone will be able to get loads of channels.
We're no fan
One thing we noticed very quickly when switching the Panasonic ZT65 on was the fans on our review sample are really loud. Plasma screens often have fans to help keep them cool, but this is really the first one we've noticed to the point where it's distracting.
The problem here is that the fan on this TV pulses. That means the noise isn't a constant hum, it's a two-tone hum that alternates several times per second. This is incredibly distracting, and could only be more distracting if the fans screamed instead. Watch the TV at a normal distance and at normal volume and it will be drowned out - but you may notice it in those quiet movie moments.
It's a real shame andcould be an anomaly with the review unit. That doesn't mean we're happy about it, but when we saw the ZT60 units - the European name of the ZT65, as shown at Panasonic's own convention in February 2013, and again at the IFA electronics show 2013 - the volume wasn't as noticeable. Shows what difference setting up a TV in your own living room can have compared to a show floor. We're still holding out hope that what we have is a dud fan. Or it could be a side-effect of this TV having been moved from reviewer to reviewer. We've contacted Panasonic for further comment.
The trickiest part about all of this is that tracking down a ZT65 to take a look at - and, indeed, a listen to - won't be easy as it's a made-to-order product. Fans are trivial to replace, so there's always the possibility that if your set is noisy you could get an in-warranty replacement. But this doesn't seem fair on a £4,000 TV and we think the TV itself should be as quiet as possible.
And so, here we are, the point that the ZT65 needs to prove: does it live up to the benchmark of the Kuro? Yes, it does.
To be clear, these two TVs are not the same, and they don't look the same in the picture they produce, but there are loads of things about the Panasonic that we just love.
For example, the brightness is something else. In the Kuro's heyday this was a real problem for plasma screens - it could be difficult watching them in bright rooms. Now the Panasonic has lifted that brightness level to something that looks almost like an LCD TV with a full LED backlight. That's quite a skill.
Motion, too, is better than anything we've seen from a Panasonic before. While the company has always made TVs with very good moving picture resolution, one issue was how movement looked. On earlier TV models we've noticed that moving objects could have a yellow halo around them, which is annoying, but not a showstopper. Now, that's pretty much cleared up and what remains is one of the sharpest, most natural-looking pictures money can buy. We don't think any TV on the market now can hold a candle to the Panasonic in its purity and blackness. It is, in short, an amazing screen.
Most pleased about this will be the hardcore home cinema enthusiasts. Those who never had a Kuro, or those who did and now want to upgrade to a smart TV that does 3D. Well this is about as good as it gets, and from what we're being told, about as good as it's ever going to get for plasma.
The 3D is good too, if that's your thing. The brightness and increased colour and blackness means you get a decent 3D image. Plasmas have never had much trouble with ghosting, and we didn't notice any in the ZT65 either.
We don't much care for 3D as a whole though, and we can't say we did more than the standard test before getting cross about how annoying active shutter glasses are and so how painful 3D can be to watch. It might be an amazing TV but it's not going to shift our 3D preferences.
Also worth a nod is the exceptional picture quality from standard definition sources. We put on some Freesat channels and they looked great upscaled on the 60-inch panel. Usually we'd expect everything under 1080p to look poor, but that isn't the case here.
And one last thing: plasmas used to have a lot of picture "sparkles". This was never a massive picture quality issue, but go close to the Kuro and you'll see that the image has a lot of these. The Panasonic has none, which gives you an idea about how brilliantly this technology has evolved in the years it has been for sale.
A big surprise is perhaps the sound. Given that the TVs speakers are hidden away and reasonably small, the audio you get is a surprise. That's not to say it's booming low-end sound was a match for our home cinema, but what the Panasonic does is produce a level of clarity from this TV that you won't be expecting.
That means dialogue is crisp and clear, and you can hear people talking over background sounds and music. From that perspective, it's actually very pleasant to just use this TV straight out of the box.
The downside is that everything does sound a bit thin, and while there's plenty of high and mid-high sounds, the rest is a slightly lacking. It's fine for most TV shows, but for the quality entertainment, you're going to want to connect it to something with a bit more power.
For a very long time Panasonic has struggled with its "smart TV" offering. This means modern TVs can jump online and use apps that add extra functionality, so Netflix viewing is now no more difficult that pressing a button on the TV and finding the show you want to watch. And there are plenty of other things to do, like making a call using Skype, or watching YouTube videos.
Now the breadth of content is good here, and Panasonic also throws in the ability to stream video from your home network. And you know what? It's really good and works without issue. We had no problem getting HD video to play from our trusty Plex media server, and the quality was utterly fantastic.
Panasonic is doing a good job. You can tell it knows that too, because it's also throwing you straight into the interactive home screen from the get go. This might frustrate some, but then you can preset it to put you straight into TV mode instead.
The issue with that is we noted adverts displayed when you turn on the TV - we got a MySpace banner for a couple of seconds at the bottom of the screen. It didn't make us want to visit MySpace.
We feel that's unacceptable. There is a way to turn the ads off, but why the hell should you have to? This is a £4,000 TV and it's giving you banner ads? Not good enough. If it annoys you as much as it does us, go to Setup > Display settings > and set "Viera Connect Banner" to off. That's a virtual wrist-slap right there.
The Panasonic ZT65 is the gold standard of TV. We doubt we'll see a better plasma than the P60ZT65 any time soon, if ever again.
It has everything going for it: beautiful design, stunning picture quality, and a really usable and well thought-out smart portal.
However, the biggest problem by far for us - if you ignore the price - is the noise from the cooling fans. We believe our particular model could have an issue, because the noise from the fans was irritating. Not only was it loud, but the pulsing hum made it near impossible to ignore. It was more noticeable than when we saw the European ZT60 units, but that was outside of a living room context.
Otherwise this Panasonic has reminded us why plasma TVs are in every way superior to everything else on the market right now. If you've got the money, don't make the mistake of not ordering one of these, because TVs of this quality don't come along all that often.