Plasma Television: The end of an era?

The first rumors that Panasonic was going to end its plasma display panel research, surfaced in December 2012. Since then, we have seen contradictory statements from Panasonic; by July this year, Panasonic was saying that there is still room for development; now it is confirmed that Panasonic will stop all plasma TV production by December 2013 and end all plasma TV business activity by end March 2014.

Irrespective of the Panasonic story, it remains a fact that we have already seen a rather restricted range of plasma TVs for 2013, which in itself is indicative of where the industry is heading. Unfortunately, picture quality of even the latest LCD TVs using advanced LED backlight technology has never managed to provide a match to that of the best plasma TVs. This is not some subjective picture quality analysis, but a fact proved over and over again by in-depth product reviews.

For videophiles and home theater enthusiast looking for the best picture, the problem is that there is no real alternative to plasma’s affordable picture quality; OLED TV pricing is expected to remain exorbitant for at least the immediate future.

So… What are the implications for those who care about picture quality?

Is the Plasma Display Industry at the end of the line?

Panasonic VIERA TC-P55ST60 55-Inch

When Pioneer and Vizio moved out of the plasma TV market in 2009, many proclaimed that plasma is dead. Yet since then, we have seen some of the very best plasma televisions, in particular from Panasonic. It is true that after 2009, there only remained three plasma television players — Samsung, LG, and Panasonic. In other words, plasma display technology is still alive, but…

For how long… is this, the end of an era?

2013 brought the smallest plasma television lineup since the first plasma TVs appeared on the market a decade ago. In addition, it is now confirmed that Panasonic will exit all plasma TV business by end march 2014. This clearly points out to where the industry is moving.

LG

For 2013, LG is not having a high-end plasma television model; instead, LG’s plasma range is just limited to a mid-range series (PH6700) that comes with Smart TV active 3D, and two entry-level series, the PN6500 1080p series and the PN4500 720p HDTVs. Entry-level series do not include Smart TV or 3D, while the mid-range PH6700 series makes use of a slower dual-core processor instead of the faster version found on high-end LG LED TVs. As things stand, we doubt if we will see a plasma television lineup from LG for 2014. Why?

Not having a high-end model is a bad sign, a very bad sign; it implies that LG has already relegated its plasma TV lineup to second division! Not having a high-end plasma model in this year lineup means that most probably, LG has already stopped its R&D on its plasma displays; mind you, we did not see any LG announcement in this respect, but we highly suspect this is the case. And if this is so, then it is also highly probable that LG is making use of the same 2012 plasma display panels on its 2013 HDTVs.

Samsung

Samsung PN60F8500 60-Inch

With Samsung things are a bit different; Samsung has definitely continued with its development of a new and much improved plasma display panel. Rather, Samsung is aiming to becoming the number one in picture quality with its new F850 plasma television, surpassing the highly acclaimed 2008 Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-111FD, a TV that so far has been used by pros as the reference in picture quality.

The new panel on the F8500 plasma flagship has a much brighter picture; it is almost as bright as an LED. It also has among the deepest black levels even under bright ambient light levels. Samsung is saying that its new F8500 is the Kuro killer, the new standard in picture quality.

We still have to wait for comparative reviews in this respect with the new Panasonic ZT60 to determine which one will win the battle, but irrespective of any comparisons, the new Samsung has surely registered a remarkable leap in picture quality over 2012 HDTVs. The F8500 is available in 51-inch, 60-inch, and 64-inch version, with the 60-inch selling at amazon for just under $3,000.

This new development leads us to believe that Samsung aims to be present with its plasma TVs at least until 2014, and possibly beyond.

But like LG, Samsung’s new 2013 lineup is the smallest we have ever seen in years. Apart from the flagship F8500 series, Samsung is not having Series 6 and Series 7 plasma HDTVs; instead, the only addition to the F8500 series is the inexpensive entry-level Series 4. This in itself is an equally bad sign, indicating that this TV maker is shifting its R&D efforts away from plasma display technology.

Panasonic

The last of the three remaining plasma television makers for 2013 is Panasonic. Panasonic has always been a leader in display technology and the one that took over the picture quality throne from Pioneer when this left the market in 2009.

In fact, Panasonic plasma HDTVs have been the most sought after by videophiles and discerning home theater enthusiasts looking for the best picture. In particular, Panasonic plasma televisions have always been rated as the very best plasma TVs you can buy, capable of the deepest black levels and finest shadow detail.

Like Samsung, Panasonic has continued to invest in R&D on plasma display technology; rather Panasonic is the one that continued to invest heavily in this technology, by presenting a full lineup of plasma televisions for 2013. This contrasts with the restricted lineups of plasma televisions for 2013 from Samsung and LG. But this was a last effort by Panasonic since there would not be any new models from Panasonic for 2014.  In the meantime however, Panasonic plasma lineup for 2013 is the best ever.

For 2013, Panasonic has over fifteen different plasma television models — from entry-level X60 and S60 plasma TVs, to the mid-range ST60 series (a follow-up to the highly successful ST50 series from 2012), and premium VT60 and flagship ZT60 series HDTVs. The latter is being defined as the best plasma Panasonic ever released. The ZT60 aims at becoming the new reference TV model in terms of picture quality instead of the Pioneer Kuro, a place occupied by the Pioneer Kuro Elite PRO-111FD since 2008; it is no wonder that Panasonic has nicknamed the new ZT60 as new ‘The Reference TV’! As things stand, the ZT60 may be the last of its kind; it is the only TV we are aware of that comes manually pre-calibrated prior to leaving the factory to ensure you get the best picture possible, straight out of the box.

Such an extensive lineup seems to contradict the latest confirmation from Panasonic that it will stop producing plasma TVs by December 2013 and will exit completely out of the plasma TV business by end March 2014. Mind you, Panasonic will still be providing product support for the years to come for its current plasma TVs; this is expected, but sadly as it may be, there would not be any new plasma TVs from Panasonic after end December this year.

Why a Shrinking Plasma Television presence?

The problem with plasma TVs is that according to NDP Display Search, world-wide shipment of plasma televisions during 2012 fell by over 23% Y/Y compared to a less than 1% reduction for the first time ever in global shipment of LCDs TVs (CCFL + LED TVs); this sharp fall following years of continued decline in the plasma TV market share contrast heavily with the continued dominance of LCD TVs.

As expected, the TV maker most impacted by this continued negative trend in plasma TV sales is the TV maker that invested heavily in this display technology; this is Panasonic. Last year, Panasonic posted a massive loss of almost $2 billion, a loss that surely affected negatively Panasonic’s plans to remain in the plasma television market. The problem with Panasonic is that unlike Samsung, it kept a rather low profile with LCD TV sales; it continued to push plasma at a time when the market was showing a distinctive preference to LED TVs.

Panasonic VIERA TC-P55ST60 55-Inch

 

Plasma may not be the best display technology; it is not as suitable as LCD when it comes to use under bright environment, and surely consumes more electricity. However, the irony is that Plasma has superior picture quality to that of any other LED LCD TV. In addition, if there is one thing that proves this, it is a recent Cnet review covering the new TC-PST60 Panasonic plasma television. This is the only HDTV to ever earn a five-star rating at Cnet for its spectacular picture quality, this despite its lower price; suffice to note that the 55-inch TC-P55ST60 is selling on amazon for under $1,350!

The problem with plasma is that the average consumer still fear burn-in thanks to what is often negative sales talk by sales reps in retail stores that in effect, know nothing about display technologies! Others have the misconception that LCD TVs, and in particular those with a LED backlight, represent a newer and therefore better, display technology!

What are the implications for those truly interested in picture quality?

There is no doubt that for videophiles and home theater enthusiast who really care about picture quality, having Panasonic moving out of the plasma display TV market is possible one of the worst things that can happen. No LCD TV has ever delivered the superb picture quality that even a mid-range plasma TV from Panasonic can deliver.

It is true that there remains Samsung, whose F8500 plasma flagship seriously contend Panasonic for the picture quality throne. Yet, with Panasonic out of the scene, Samsung will not have any competition against which to measure itself in terms of picture quality; nor will Samsung have any incentive to remain in the plasma TV business. We have seen this happening in the past in the RPTV market.

Panasonic said it would be shifting its R&D effort on OLED display technology. This is being seen by the TV industry as the display technology of the future. As stated in our OLED TV guide, this has the potential to deliver the deepest blacks – one that supports true ‘infinite’ contrast ratio. It also supports super wide viewing angles, accurate color, and super fast response; and this apart from its super-thin appealing factor and low power consumption.

OLED display technology promises to be the ideal display technology that we have been waiting for, except for one very important thing – pricing; the new LG 55EM9700 55-inch OLED TV has a price tag of $12,000! Present pricing does not make the OLED TV an affordable picture quality option for the majority of videophiles and home theater enthusiasts – even with respect to pricing of flagship plasma TVs from Samsung and Panasonic. The industry has been struggling to improve production yield.

It is true that we have been hearing about new improved printing process in OLED manufacturing that aims at making the whole display technology much cheaper. Nevertheless, until it will be possible to implement such processes in a wide scale production, prices of OLED TVs will remain exorbitantly high.

And this apart from the fact that as with every new technology, OLED is a display technology that still has to prove itself in terms of display performance over time – in particular with respect to the stability of the different organic materials used to generate the red, green, and blue light colors.

The bottom line

For anyone concerned with picture quality, it is simply disappointing and shameful, to say the least, seeing a situation where people continue to prefer LCDs over plasma televisions when the latter can deliver a much better picture for less.

Panasonic TC-P65ZT60 65-Inch

It is a situation that is forcing the TV manufacturing industry as a whole to move away from plasma display technology. Luckily, for those in the market for a plasma TV, plasma display technology have reached what can be defined as the pinnacle in picture quality; if the industry were to stop with its plasma development now, the latest flagship plasma TVs from both Samsung and Panasonic may very well end being the ‘reference TVs’ for the years to come. And if there is one plasma TV we expect to become the reference TV — replacing the Pioneer Kuro Elite PRO — is the Panasonic ZT60 with its studio master panel. And you know what… the Panasonic 65-inch TC-P65ZT60 flagship plasma TV is selling for under $3,500; this is a far cry from the $12,000 required to get hold of the LG 55-inch OLED TV.

In the meantime… with Panasonic moving out of the plasma television market in 2014, anyone who truly values picture quality will have fewer affordable alternative TV options worth considering. Worst still, with Panasonic out, there is no reason why Samsung and LG will not follow suit; after all, we have already seen reduced plasma television lineups for 2013 from these two TV makers.

Our advice: If for whatever reason, you have been holding back from buying yourself a plasma TV — hoping for a better picture or lower pricing — we say this may be your last chance to enjoy what the very best in display technology has to offer today. There is no need to invest in a flagship model; a quality plasma like the new Panasonic ST60 referred to above, will still give you a lot more in terms of picture quality and overall features for your money than an equivalent size LED TV.

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