For a generation, TVs have been in the background – in more ways than one – of household entertainment.
Panasonic VIERA ST50A 3D plasma TV
This plasma TV looks great, and is excellent value for money
- Very low price
- Excellent 2D and 3D image quality
- Near-perfect black level
- Not quite as bright as an LED TV
- Internet features are mediocre
For the price, we were amazed with the Panasonic VIERA ST50A plasma. Its picture quality is excellent for any 2012 TV -- not just for a plasma -- with exceptionally dark black levels and great detail and motion control. Internet features are mediocre, but this shouldn’t be a major problem.
Price$ 1,799.00 (AUD)
Panasonic has begun a swing away from its mainstay plasmas towards thinner, more power-friendly LED TVs in 2012, although its top television is still a plasma — but the range-topping VT50A is at least $3799 for the 55-inch, and a painful $5999 for the 65-inch model.
Enter the VIERA ST50A: it’s one step down from the VT50A in Panasonic’s plasma hierarchy, but comes with a massive reduction in price. The 50-inch model we’re testing here is a mere $1749 RRP, while the 55-inch and 65-inch variants are $2799 and $3999 — cheap by comparison to the VT50A or any of Panasonic's LEDs. We’ve even seen the 50-inch model for less than $1300 at some online retailers.
Panasonic VIERA ST50A: Design
The VIERA ST50A isn’t especially thin (or especially attractive) when you compare it to LED TVs like the LG LM9600 or Samsung Series 8, but it’s not bad for a plasma. At around 45mm thick, with a 35mm bezel, it’s much less bulky than plasmas of yesteryear, although the new Samsung Series 8 plasma is more attractive and thinner. The stand of the ST50A has around 30 degrees of swivel built in, so it’s versatile.
The screen of the Panasonic ST50A has a moderately glossy coating, but it’s good at keeping reflections to a minimum. It’ll still reflect a bright light source that’s directly in front or to the side, but the screen coating diffuses the reflection somewhat — it’s not a Pioneer-esque mirror finish.
Three HDMI ports is a backward step from the four offered on 2010’s V20A, although last year’s ST30A was when the cut was made. The ST50A also has inputs for composite and component video, and has built-in Wi-Fi as well as a wired Ethernet network port. These connection options are standard for a TV of this size and price point, but the lack of a fourth HDMI may prove annoying.
There's also three USB 2.0 ports, to which a Skype camera or USB flash drive or hard drive can be connected. The TV can play music, audio and video — we tried various AVI, MKV, MP3 and JPEG files successfully.
Interestingly, when we turned the VIERA ST50A on to a black screen, we didn’t notice any buzzing on our 50-inch test set — this is a problem that persists with many of today's plasma TVs. Sitting directly in front or to the sides of the TV, we didn’t pick up any undue noise. With an ear directly against the back top of the TV’s chassis we could hear an electrical buzz, but it was very very quiet and became quieter as the TV warmed up. With any audio at all playing, any hint of a buzz was imperceptible.
Panasonic VIERA ST50A: Picture quality and performance
We’ve generally been impressed by Panasonic’s plasma televisions in the past, for their clean and trouble-free picture quality at generally attractive price points. While the VT-series Panasonics are priced squarely in enthusiast territory, the ST50A is much, much cheaper but retains most of the plasma picture quality nous that Panasonic is celebrated for.
The ST50A can display 12,288 shades of gradation — only half of the VT50A’s pro-level 24,576-step range. It also misses out on Panasonic’s image-optimising Pure Image Creation processing and processing-free 1080p Pure Direct mode. Despite these impediments, we think the Panasonic ST50A looks brilliant when it comes to displaying high-quality video sources.
We tested the Panasonic VIERA ST50A with several sources: compressed 480p AVI, 720p and 1080p MKV video files from an external hard drive, DVDs of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as our standard 2D and 3D Blu-ray test discs of The Dark Knight, Terminator: Salvation, Avatar 3D and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs in 3D.
We switched the Panasonic VIERA ST50A to its True Cinema mode as soon as we turned it on — it offers the most true-to-life picture quality, although it has a very slight overall green tinge. Standard mode is brighter but comes at the slight cost of minor shadow and highlight detail.
The first thing that you notice about the ST50A is how deep and dark and inky its black levels are: in a dark room, if there’s any light source on the rest of the screen, black areas are entirely dark. This is something that no LCD or LED TV can achieve. The ST50A’s blacks are properly black with no blueish hue (as most LEDs tend to have, even if only slightly). The ST50A is much better than Panasonic's TVs from 2011 and 2010, too; we’d go so far as to say as its blacks are almost as dark as our benchmark Pioneer LX509A.
Detail levels with both high definition and standard definition content are excellent. Our Blu-ray discs resolved 1080p Full HD detail perfectly, with no visible over-sharpening in the default True Cinema settings, and 480p upscaling of standard definition content was smooth and pleasant to watch. We did lower sharpness half-way to give detail edges a very slightly smoother, more film-like look. The Panasonic VIERA ST50A is one of the most detailed televisions we have watched — and the fact that it’s so cheap makes it even better.
Colour performance is, again, excellent. The True Cinema mode is definitely the go-to for colour accuracy — in comparison, Standard looks too blue and Dynamic looks outright garish. Backing off the Colour option by three or four increments solves any slightly-too-bright green and yellow tones that persist in True Cinema, and enthusiasts would do well to bump up red and blue saturation very slightly in the Advanced Settings menu. These tweaks aren’t necessary, but they do bring the ST50A towards near-perfect colour reproduction. Whether you’re watching a Blu-ray or something lower-quality, the ST50A has a stunning picture.
Motion performance is improved from last year’s plasma TVs. Panasonic’s Intelligent Frame Creation can introduce some odd artifacts when fast-moving text is juxtaposed against a slow-moving background, but setting this to Off or even Minimum solves the problem without making video too smooth. We gave DiRT 3 a quick run-through on the Xbox 360 to test motion performance in Game mode and came away very impressed. Sport also looks great; our favourite F1 1080p test clip was clean and detailed during fast motion.
3D is also much improved from previous models. The ST50A is quite bright in its 3D mode — not LED TV-bright, but bright for a plasma — and we appreciated the inclusion of 3D picture settings for an experienced calibrator to tweak. We didn’t notice any cross-talk in either Avatar 3D or the difficult scenes of Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 3D. 3D is, naturally, slightly blurrier than 2D content of the same source. The ST50A offers a wide range of customisation in its 3D mode, and with a little tweaking we were able to eliminate any trailing or ghosting effects from video.
We also ran a couple of synthetic image tests on a Spears & Munsil calibration Blu-ray disc. We generally prefer real-world tests for comparing TVs, but after the ST50A’s excellent performance we wanted to check that everything was kosher. Most tests resolve excellent levels of detail, although one test (white circles in a dart-board pattern on a black background) did show up one anomaly: a clover-shaped area in the centre of the screen. This points to slightly excessive post-processing sharpening, but it’s not at all evident in any of our other testing. We’d disregard this strange occurrence for the most part.
The Panasonic VIERA ST50A does stumble somewhat when it’s directly compared to an LED TV in terms of outright brightness. LED TVs can produce a brighter overall picture for both 2D and 3D video. Although the 2012 range of Panasonic plasmas has increased brightness over the previous generation, we’d still choose an LED TV for viewing in a bright room. Plasma TVs only thrive when you can control and reduce a room's ambient brightness.
Panasonic VIERA ST50A: Smart TV
The Panasonic VIERA ST50A has a mediocre range of Smart TV features. It has integrated access to ABC iview, Quickflix, BigPond Movies, PLUS7, Skype, Facebook, YouTube and the Panasonic VIERA Market of apps, but it’s a little sluggish and the whole experience is a little tacked-on. You can also control the TV through iOS and Android apps over Wi-Fi.
The Smart TV experiences of Samsung, LG and Sony are far and away better than the VIERA Connect feature of the Panasonic ST50A, with voice and motion controls, fitness apps, streaming music and concerts and the like. Panasonic’s integration seems to be an afterthought in the same way that Sharp and Toshiba’s services are.
There is a solution to this, though, and it’s a very simple one. We’d buy a Smart-enabled Blu-ray player from Sony, Samsung or LG — probably Samsung, and probably the BD-E5900, which is packed full of features for less than $200. Plug one of these in, hook it up to your home network, and you’ve got almost all of the Smart features of a competing TV on your Panasonic ST50A — problem solved.
Panasonic VIERA ST50A: Conclusion
We’re shocked that you can buy this TV for $1300. Its picture quality performance is very, very close to the Pioneer LX509A, which cost $6500 just a few years ago. We have to question how much better the top-of-the-line VT50A is, though, at such a price premium. We don’t love the ST50A's middling Smart TV feature-set, but this can be resolved with a $200 third-party Blu-ray player.
We have to conclude that given its excellent picture quality, the Panasonic VIERA ST50A is extremely good value for money. This is particularly true for the 50-inch model ($1300 is a bargain), although the 60-inch at around $2200 and 65-inch for around $3400 are also very appealing.
Even disregarding price tags, the ST50A performs favourably against the top-tier LG LM9600, Samsung Series 8, and Sony BRAVIA HX850. When we bring price into the equation, Panasonic’s VIERA ST50A is the TV that we would buy this year.
Just a note - this is only the second 5 star review we've ever given a TV. The first was the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX609A in 2009. We are very, very impressed with the VIERA ST50A.
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