Hands On: Panasonic ZT60 and VT60 Plasma HDTVs
Deeper blacks, new Home Screen and voice control
Note: This is last year you can get a Panasonic plasma. In October the company announced that it was closing all plasma manufacturing. You can read more about that here.
For the past few years, Panasonic has earned praise from home theater and video video enthusiasts for the picture quality of its plasma TVs. With few exceptions, plasma can deliver the best television picture and usually at prices lower than competing technologies. Panasonic’s VT series has been among the best of the plasma TVs on the market.
So what would you expect Panasonic to do with that kind of reputation—add to it of course by coming out with yet another plasma TV series. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January of this year, the company introduced the ZT series, which they said would be even better than the popular VT series. So of course, I asked for one of each. The 60-inch TC-P60ZT60 and TC-P60VT60.
In a lot of ways, in fact in the most important ways, the TVs are basically identical. Under most viewing circumstances they offer the same excellent picture quality (more on that later). The product specs are almost the same. They use the same panel, though the ZT uses a swanky special filter. Both are stated to produce a contrast ratio of several millions:1 and more than 30,000 gradation steps—each step being the difference between one shade (of gray, for example) and the next. Menus and online features are also the same, and they’re pretty close cosmetically.
Pointing out that these TVs have a lot in common is to point out that they share some great features. Last year’s VT50 series (which was the company’s top line in 2012) looked great, but Panasonic added a number of improvements. As already noted, the gradation steps have gone from about 24,000 to a little more than 30,000. On the pixel level, the company changed the pre-discharge rate of the pixel, which reduces unwanted light and improves the black level. A new red phosphor also allows the TV to achieve 98 percent of the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiative) color space.
Other things the two sets have in common is the “V” shaped base for tabletop display—this base actually goes together easier and faster that some previous models, and as a reviewer who has to assemble and disassemble lots of TVs, I thank them for that. Little plastic clips are provided to attach cables to the back of the base so you don’t see them dangling around.
Both models are very slim—not as slim as the top LED TVs or LG’s new curved OLED, but slim enough that when you hang it on the wall, your family photos probably stick out further.
Strangely, for top-line TVs, they seem a little slim on the input front. Specifically, you get only three HDMI inputs (one includes ARC). I assume most readers will connect their new TVs to an AV receiver, processor or control system and only use one HDMI port anyway, but still, three’s kind a skimpy. The TVs also includes three USB ports, which seems like two too many? The only reason to have more than one USB port is if you’re using them to charge your 3D glasses—but here’s the rub—the TVs don’t ship with rechargeable 3D glasses. Instead you get two sets of glasses that require disposable batteries. That’s a bit of a disappointment. The sets also don’t include serial or RS232 jacks for control system, so if you’re integrating this with something like Control4, Crestron, AMX etc. you’ll need an IR blaster.
Another change to the TVs this year is Panasonic’s smart TV implementation. In previous years the company’s TVs featured a bland, but functional (maybe a little slow) cloud-based interface that connected you to online apps like Netflix, etc. That’s all been replaced with a concept called My Home Screen.
Now, when you turn the TV on you’re immediately shown your home screen, which includes the current channel framed by your favorite apps or information icons (one is “Notes” which lets you leave notes on the TV, though I can’t think of a time I’d use that). Your home screen is customizable, so you can add your favorite apps. If you want to watch your main TV source, just press the enter button and the home screen disappears. If you want to watch a streaming app or play a game, just use one of the two provided remotes to highlight your selection. I like this approach because it puts more of your options onscreen, right in front of you, rather than making you switch to a different menu (such as last year’s VieraCast) and then hunt for, say, Pandora.
The TV’s setup menu is easy to use, and offers a video enthusiast an extra-large salad serving of features. Both sets are THX certified and include THX Cinema and Day modes. Advanced options offer control of gamma, motion smoothing, etc. If you’re getting your set professionally calibrated, then your installer will have lots features to play with. For most people though, the quick route to a perfect picture is just to set the TV to THX mode and leave it alone. THX and Panasonic did a fantastic job making this a set-it-and-forget feature. If you watch TV in a brightly lit room, then you should probably go with THX Day mode; but if you’re a cave dweller like me the THX Cinema mode will do you right.
With both Panasonic TVs you get the option to use a standard remote or a small Bluetooth-connected remote with a touchpad and microphone. To use the smaller remote (both are included) you first have to pair it with the TV. The round touchpad helps when navigating web pages or skating through your online apps. It’s nice, and once you get used to it, it’s pretty fast.
The other feature built into that small remote is voice navigation. The remote includes a microphone, which you have to speak your commands into, after you’ve pressed a button to put the TV into voice mode. You can then ask the TV to switch inputs, conduct web searches, adjust the volume and other settings. It works reasonably well—better than some other implementations I’ve tried, but I know I’d never use it. Plus, if you have to hold the remote in your hand and press a button to make it work anyway, then where’s the benefit? I hope that consumers aren’t paying more for this feature, because I’m sure hardly anyone actually wants it.
So what’s the picture look like? Does it live up to the hype?
The Panasonic ZT60 is easily one of the best-looking TV’s I’ve seen. It clobbered all my test patterns, so I just started watching TV and movies right away. I’m not much of a crime show fan (real crimes in the news are disturbing enough) but I sat through a whole episode of CSI just to witness the lush liquid reds of every murder victim contrasted with the black backgrounds of the seedy hotel rooms where they met their ends.
Onto Blu-ray, played through an Oppo-BDP105, I watched The Hobbit for about the 75th time, because I can’t get enough of the Great Goblin’s wagging chins. The fight/chase scene under the Misty Mountains is one of my favorites, and the ZT60 handled it like a pro.
For 3D I popped Life of Pi. The colors and dynamics were excellent, and 3D was good, but not great. There was some crosstalk to the 3D image that I didn’t see with other TVs.
As much as I like the way the TV operates, there are two things that bothered me. First, whenever you turn on the TV, the first time you hit the volume button an advertisement pops up. That’s right, your TV manufacturer is serving you adds on top of all the ads you have to deal with from your regular TV programs. This is unique to Panasonic, and annoying.
Second, the first time you try to access the internet features you have to agree to a multi-page End User Agreement. I’ve never seen this before, or if I have, it’s never been so long and filled with Microserf-speak. The EUA essentially warns users not to do anything illegal with the TV’s software and that the company may take the feature away at any time without warning.
What about the VT60
Almost everything I’ve written about the ZT60 can also be applied to the VT60. Almost. When viewed in a dim room, the TVs offer identical picture quality. If the TV is not going in a living room full of windows and glare, and you prefer to watch your movies with the lights turned down, the VT60 will look just as good as the ZT60, and you’ll save $500.
But what if you live like a normal person and not a salamander from Lost River Caverns? The ZT60 has an important additional filter, a feature which Panasonic calls the Studio Master Panel, which cuts out most of the ambient light glare. It works. I had the TV in my basement, which is a dark cave, but even with the sconces and overhead lights turned on, the ZT60 looks good, noticeably better than the VT60. Both are great TVs; the ZT is a little better in ambient light. It’s worth recognizing though, that LED LCDs still generally look better in bright rooms than any plasma.
The VT also includes a pop-up camera on top. The camera is used for Skype video calls, facial recognition (for switching to different home screens) and games. The VT60 also includes front-firing speakers, while the ZT60’s speakers fire back and down. The VT60s speakers do sound much better than the speakers in the ZT60, so if you’re not using a separate sound system or soundbar, that might be something to take into consideration.
The choice between the two TVs is pretty easy: dark room=VT60; bright room=ZT60. If you’re looking for the best picture, either one of these may be it. I haven’t had a chance to try all the plasma TVs on the market (Samsung’s F8500 is an excellent one to compare), and new OLED and 4K TVs are in completely different price categories, so look around. Samsung TVs also have more a more comprehensive approach to smart TV, but that might not be important to every buyer.
Panasonic TC-P60ZT60: $3,499.99
Panasonic TC-P60VT60: $2,999.99
More articles to help you find the perfect TV:
What Do Pros Looks for in HDTVs?
Are Curved OLED TVs a Big Deal?
The Case for Dumb TVs
Tips for New TV Buyers
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