Panasonic TX-55AX902 – Picture Quality
The 55AX902 is in many ways a remarkable picture performer for an LCD TV, and really does manage to mimic some of the things we loved about plasma technology in a way no other LCD TV has.
The single most startling strength of the 55AX902 is its colour response. Thanks to its combination of a high-brightness panel, high-colour-response LEDs, and unprecedentedly powerful colour processing – including that 3D Look-Up system – it delivers a phenomenal range of tones that ensures blends always look perfectly smooth and tones look gorgeously natural and immaculately balanced.
We’re not saying other TVs out there can’t rival or even outgun the Panasonic on raw colour vibrancy, but the 55AX902 is truly exceptional in the way it uses its colour range to pursue accuracy rather than going for more showy aggression.
It’s especially, unprecedentedly good at retaining natural colour tones in the darkest parts of the picture – in fact, it’s in this key respect that the 55AX902 most resembles and maybe even bests Panasonic’s ZT60 plasmas.
The delicacy of the colour handling, together with the extreme quality of the set’s upscaling and, perhaps, its high-brightness panel, meant that we became aware of some background picture information we hadn’t really noticed before while watching our favourite test discs. And to be clear, this isn’t to say that the picture draws your attention away from where it’s supposed to be! Merely that its picture is so well balanced in colour, sharpness and luminance terms that you take it in more as a whole than usual.
Also contributing to this sense of total immersion is the image’s remarkable stability. There’s no trace of light blooming or blocking around bright objects for 99.9 per cent of the time, and nor does the image exhibit signs of brightness ‘stepping’ or jumping as the TV manipulates light levels to maintain an effective balance between black level depth and brightness. Even fade-to-blacks reveal immaculate backlight stability, and that’s extremely rare in the LCD world.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, considering there’s an IPS panel at the 55AX902’s heart, though, is the way Panasonic’s set is able to produce black colours that actually look black, rather than green or grey as they so often do on LCD TVs. Especially IPS LCD TVs.
Even better, this impressively deep blackness doesn’t come at the expense of shadow detail. On the contrary, for the vast majority of the time the 55AX902’s ability to reproduce subtle greyscale and colour information in dark areas is a revelation – and another way in which the 55AX902 reminds us of plasma technology. Frankly we can’t even get our heads round how Panasonic has managed to get both such deep blacks and such class-leading shadow detailing from an IPS panel.
Not surprisingly the 55AX902 is at its absolute best when fed native 4K sources from our assembly of servers and, for the first time on a Panasonic TV, Netflix’s 4K feeds. Detail levels are immense, as the raw 3840 x 2160 pixel count joins forces with Panasonic’s processing power and remarkable colour precision to deliver arguably the most nuanced and thus high resolution-looking 4K picture we’ve seen to date. No previous TV – not even Sony’s fantastic X9005B series – has delivered quite so much colour and luminance subtlety when picking out every last detail of a native 4K source.
Watching 4K sport at 60fps also rams home how good the 55AX902’s motion processing is, as moving images scarcely lose any resolution at all.
Needless to say, with so much precision and infinite subtlety in the 55AX902’s images the customary ‘secondary’ 4K strengths of greatly enhanced depth of field and more image ‘solidity’ are also gorgeously delivered.
When it comes to upscaling, again the 55AX902 is on the money. It’s at least the equal of Sony and Samsung when it comes to spotting the difference between source noise and actual picture information as it goes about adding the huge number of pixels necessary to turn HD into UHD, and while we’d argue that the Sony and especially Samsung upscaled pictures look sharper, Panasonic’s pictures look gorgeously natural, polished and clean – even if you push it hard with a particularly grainy source such as the final Harry Potter Blu-ray. There are times – many of them, in fact – where the 55AX902 produces the best pictures we’ve seen from a 4K TV yet. Yet it’s still necessary to introduce a handful of riders to our otherwise glowing praise.
The main issue is that the 55AX902 performs much better when running with its light output fairly heavily reduced than it does in high-brightness mode. Try to push it bright and a few IPS contrast frailties start to creep in, while the mechanics used to counter them start to become more noticeable.
This means that once the 55AX902’s pictures have been set up to optimise contrast, they don’t look as immediately vibrant, dynamic or punchy as the images you can enjoy from the Sony X9005B and Samsung 65HU8500 sets. So if you value dynamism over the Panasonic’s deftness and subtlety, or you’re looking for a TV to go into quite a bright environment, then maybe the 55AX902 isn’t for you.
To be clear, we’re not saying the 55AX902’s high-brightness panel is wasted; you can see its impact in the amount of shadow detail and colour tone precision during dark scenes. But it’s more effective when used to deliver such subtle things rather than when used to try and make the picture punchier.
Under particularly extreme circumstances, meanwhile, where a picture contains a really quite drastically contrasting mix of dark and light elements, we occasionally became aware of a gentle influx of greyness over the dark areas – though this is so subtle versus the usual IPS situation that we almost feel ashamed for mentioning it.
So good is the 55AX902’s handling of its backlight and contrast tools, in fact, that it is arguably the only TV we’ve seen to convince us that IPS LCD panel technology is viable as a serious TV technology. Or to put it another way, for most of our time testing the 55AX902 we forgot we were watching an IPS panel completely, instead just losing ourselves in the pictures we were watching.
A couple more minor issues are that standard-definition upscaling proves a bit of a challenge, with colours looking more muted and more simplistic following the upscaling process; and that some sources look a touch more juddery than we’d ideally like without using the motion processing on an uncomfortably high setting.