- Review Price: £4499.99
If you’re still in any doubt as to the massive impact the recession has been having on AV prices lately, check this out. Back in June, we reviewed Panasonic’s 46in P46Z1 flagship plasma TV with a quoted price of £5,400. Today, two and a bit months later, we’re looking at the 54in version of the Z1, and have found it going for £4,500 – a cool £900 less than the old price of the P46Z1. Groovy.
Well, sort of. For there’s still no doubt that £4,500 is a mightily large amount to pay for a TV, no matter how large and cutting edge that screen may be. So the P54Z1 is still going to have to go some to keep us sweet in these ever-more-competitive times.
The set still makes quite an impact aesthetically, at any rate. The distinctive metallic finish to its top and bottom sides ensures it looks every inch the TV flagship, and the contrast the metal makes with the bezel’s black, glassy-finished side strips is deeply attractive.
And then there’s the small matter of the TV only being 24.7mm deep for the majority of its body. Yes, I really did say 24.7mm. For Panasonic has been able to retain the extraordinary, groundbreaking (by plasma standards) slimness witnessed with the P46Z1 – and actually, because the slimness sits behind an even larger screen, its impact is even greater than it was on the smaller model.
The only flies in the P54Z1’s aesthetic ointment, in fact, are the supplied WirelessHD system and the external multimedia/tuner box. Both of which clearly warrant further explanation!
The P54Z1’s extravagant thinness means Panasonic hasn’t been able to squeeze its usual Freeview, analogue and Freesat tuners into the main TV body. Hence the presence in the package of the slightly dour-looking external multimedia box.
The WirelessHD system, meanwhile, comprises two components: a receiver that fastens to the underside of the screen, and a transmitter that attaches to and, rather vaguely, sits somewhere near the multimedia box, sending audio and video information to the screen without the need for a direct cable connection.
Still, while having the WirelessHD receiver hanging off the screen isn’t ideal, it doesn’t actually make quite as much of a negative aesthetic impact as it did on the smaller P46Z1. And although I might wish that Panasonic had built its wireless transmission system into its screen and multimedia box like Sony did with the 40ZX1, rather crucially the P54Z1’s beam-based HD transmission system supports 1080p/24 Blu-ray playback, whereas Sony’s system tops out at 1080i.
As you’d expect of Panasonic’s flagship plasma TV, the screen at its heart is one of the brand’s latest NeoPDP jobs, offering you the choice of either brighter pictures or much reduced running costs compared with the older-style plasma screens populating the bottom end of Panasonic’s plasma range.
Another feature that clearly marks the P54Z1 out as a screen aimed at someone as obsessed with video quality as fancy design is its THX certification. This proves that the P54Z1 has sufficient picture prowess and adjustment flexibility to satisfy the independent THX team’s stringent demands. And this approval is backed up by a THX picture preset in the TV’s menus, which enables you to watch pictures using the settings THX has determined to be the best for movie viewing. Folk usually too scared or too lazy to get involved with fine-tuning picture settings themselves could find this preset very useful indeed – provided it’s actually been calibrated well, of course!
We’re still by no means done with the P54Z1’s fancy stuff yet, either. For instance, it also has what Panasonic likes to call 600Hz processing – though actually, using this name is rather debatable. For the screen doesn’t actually refresh its output 600 times a second, but rather derives its 600 figure from the addition of extra ‘sub-fields’ of image data. Still, we’ve seen the system hugely reduce the judder problem commonly noted with plasma TVs before, so we’re sure it will do the same again here.
Next on the seemingly endless list of intriguing features is Viera Cast: Panasonic’s online service. I won’t go into detail on this again here, as we’ve now covered it numerous times before. Suffice it to say that it’s a well-presented system offering ring-fenced access to such key third-party content as YouTube, Picasa and Eurosport.
Other little bits and bobs of note include the facility to fine-tune the white balance when using the THX preset; a 24p Smooth Film processing mode that automatically kicks in when Blu-ray playback is detected (unless you’re in THX mode); JPEG, AVCHD and DivX playback via a built-in SD card slot; and the frame-inserting IFC mode that replaces Smooth Film when you’re watching normal TV sources.
With more and more LCD and LED TVs doing more and more exciting things in the past couple of months, I initially found myself startled to feel a touch disappointed with the P54Z1’s picture performance. But thankfully, while there are certainly issues with the TV’s picture you need to be aware of, it didn’t take too long before I fell under the familiar Panasonic spell. At least while watching HD films…
The reasons for my initial disappointment with the P54Z1 are three-fold. First, there’s a general lack of brightness vs LED and LCD TVs, at least when the image is calibrated to really movie-friendly levels. Second, some sources can look really quite soft. And finally, colours sometimes suffer with some seriously off-beat tones.
The brightness problem is, of course, not really a huge issue if you can manage to get your viewing environment looking pretty dark – though at the same time the lack of verve can deny some images the punch they might enjoy with a fine LCD or especially LED TV.
The softness, meanwhile, occurs when watching standard definition pictures, and, more troublingly, when playing HD console games. A bit of softness on a 54in screen when showing Freeview/Freesat standard definition programmes really is quite forgivable – in fact, some might even find it quite desirable given the way it can hide noise inherent in a source. But the curiously soft look I experienced while playing Resident Evil 5 on my Xbox 360 – even using the provided Game picture preset – is harder to explain, and harder to ignore.
The colour problems noted earlier are mostly restricted to standard definition again – especially low-quality standard definition, such as outdoor news broadcasts. With this sort of material, skin tones tend to look a bit over-cooked, reds can look a bit orange, and some shades of green can look radioactive. Especially if you make the mistake of sticking with the Normal picture preset you might imagine to be the best option for basic TV viewing.
Thankfully – very thankfully – all of the problems just detailed vanish in the blink of an eye when you switch the TV to play back a Blu-ray disc and select the TV’s Cinema or THX presets.
Colours, for instance, suddenly become remarkably natural and consistently totally believable, with even tricky low-lit skin tones no longer giving cause for concern.
It does no harm to the image’s sudden new-found colour precision, either, that the Cinema preset introduces new Gamma adjustment options as well as fine-tuning of the high and low red and blue elements of the white balance.
The image’s sharpness levels and detail presentation also snap into focus to mesmerising effect with Blu-ray sources, revealing all the customary minutiae we love to see from our HD sources without – and this is key – detail being over-egged to the point where images look unnaturally noisy and forced.
If you use the Cinema preset with the 24P Smooth Film mode selected, you can also remove almost all judder from Blu-ray images, further improving their clarity. This mode can, it has to be said, also produce some minor and sporadic processing glitches, but for me these are less distracting than the judder that sometimes materialises during camera pans.
With this in mind it’s perhaps surprising that the THX mode doesn’t actually allow you to turn Panasonic’s motion-compensation circuitry on. But on reflection this does make sense, for THX’s driving interest is to have the TV reproduce images so that they look as close as possible to how they would have looked in the cinema. And the fluidity visibility with the 24p Smooth Motion mode active does not by any means replicate the 24fps experience of a celluloid film experience.
For that reason there will understandably be many purists who stick always with the THX preset – and I’d have no argument with that whatsoever. All I’d say is that the de-juddering option opened up by the Cinema mode at least warrants a trial run before you completely dismiss it.
One final massive strength of the P54Z1 that suddenly explodes into your consciousness with Blu-ray playback is its black level response. For while I’d felt strangely unmoved by this aspect of the TV’s pictures with standard def, with a good Blu-ray film I’m suddenly seeing black levels deeper and more tonally neutral than anything Panasonic has managed before (except for the P46Z1!).
By tonally neutral, by the way, I mean black colours are hardly infused at all with the slightly green flavour noted with some screens lower down Panasonic’s plasma hierarchy.
To sum all this high definition glory up, I’d say that the P54Z1 produces the most cinematic pictures we’ve seen since Pioneer’s KURO TVs – and you can’t say fairer than that. Especially when you consider that the quality we’re describing is coming via a wireless AV delivery system.
The fairly hefty ‘bolt-on’ speakers Panasonic does with the P54Z1, meanwhile, work hard to ensure that the blissful Blu-ray film experience is joined by some tip-top audio. The audio from a good film mix fills even a large room, without sounding harsh, imprecise or muddy, while dialogue sounds clean and real. There’s even a reasonable amount of bass to be heard, and that’s certainly not something you get with your average super-slim TV.
Another day, another TV that’s got me feeling conflicted.
Having finished my testing with a few Blu-ray discs, I’m still basking in the warm glow of the P54Z1’s truly exceptional HD movie performance. And yes, I’ve been at least a bit seduced by the extraordinarily skinny design and extremely effective WirelessHD technology.
But forcing myself into a more sober reflection on my experience with the P54Z1 as a whole recalls those sometimes underwhelming standard definition images – which look slightly worse than they did on the P46Z1 because of the P54Z1’s extra screen size. And then there’s that £4,500 price tag to consider. This is a price so high, of course, that it actually makes the now £2,500-odd asking price of Pioneer’s 50in KRP-500A look cheap. And while the Panasonic arguably matches that legendary Pioneer with Blu-ray playback, the Pioneer is for me a more consistent picture all-rounder.
So unless you’re desperate for the Panasonic’s extra 4in of pictures, slim/metallic design or wireless technology, the Pioneer is arguably the more sensible buy. If you can get hold of one before they disappear forever, of course…
Score in detail
Image Quality 9
Sound Quality 9