Panasonic PT-52LCX65 LCD Rear-Projection HDTV

High resolution at a pleasingly low price.



Viewing

I had a strong competitor on hand for side-by-side viewing comparisons— the similar-in-size but much-moreexpensive ($1300 more) JVC HD- 52G786. Still, the Panasonic held its own in some areas and actually bested the JVC in resolution (especially with HDMI sources), though it took me a while fiddling with the controls to get an optimum picture. Bright scenes looked surprisingly natural, with red reds and minimal screaming lime greens. However, video motion artifacts, always a problem with the 1080i VOOM Original HD channels I like so much (now found on DISH Network), were more prevalent than on the JVC. While both sets had similar measured black levels and contrast ratios, the P a n a s o n i c ' s "blacks" and dark grays were tinted blue instead of gray, which contributed to dark scenes looking significantly more washed out and unnatural.

A friend brought over the Tom Cruise DVD Vanilla Sky to use as a test. It looked really bad—poor contrast, poor color, terrible flesh tones, ugly overall colorcast. It didn't look great with the JVC, either. With confidence, I turned to my reference, the 55” Hitachi plasma, for a comparison, and while it did have slightly better contrast and color than either LCD set, Vanilla Sky still brought on the worst false contouring I've seen from the Hitachi.

Nevertheless, my friend insisted that this DVD looked good on his Sharp 9000 DLP projector. Disbelievingly, I drove over to his house to see for myself. He was right. The deeper blacks and superior dark scene performance helped transform this demanding DVD, which will be a torture disk for all my future reviews. Yet, even the less demanding DVDs I tried constantly reminded me of this set's lack of contrast, dark scene detail, and overall "punch." Artifacts weren't a problem with the DVD player set to 480p, but 480i signals, via the set's own 3-2 pulldown, were riddled with them.

Viewing with the built-in digital tuner showed the Panasonic at its best. Reception capability was a tad better than the other sets here, and the picture, with either standard-definition signals or HD, was sharp, clean, free of artifacts, and (on very bright material) almost a match for the Hitachi plasma. But it was during direct comparisons with the plasma and the JVC via tuner that I put my finger on what really holds the Panasonic back regardless of source. While I could make the sets look nearly identical on bright scenes, the Panasonic would quickly lose much of its color saturation as scenes got darker, giving it an increasingly drab look. The other sets didn't have this problem. Keeping things as bright as possible by running CONTRAST at maximum and GAMMAADJ at "Full" helped, but only as a cover-up of the real problem.

Conclusion

While Panasonic's entry into the big screen LCD market is a good buy in many respects, it suffers even more from the same Achilles Heel the other ones have—poor black level—which is ironic since Panasonic plasmas have the best blacks in the industry. This always means that bright broadcasts (sports, news, etc.) look great, while darker ones look drab, washed out, and unimpressive. If you can overlook this (which I definitely couldn't), there's not much else to seriously complain about, especially in a set so fully featured at such a low price. As with the similar Hitachi and Sony sets I previously reviewed, this TV won't always knock your socks off with everything you watch. Certain things just won't look very good on any of them, but especially not on this one. When you shop for a TV, bring some darker program material along to help you make up your mind.

Comparing overall picture quality among LCD-based RPTVs, this one generally impressed me a little more than the low-end Hitachi products I've field-calibrated, less than the high-end Hitachi and the JVC D-ILA set I reviewed earlier, and much less than the more expensive (and calibrated) Sony Grand Wega that I tested several issues ago. Since Panasonic also has a similarly-sized DLP-based RPTV that's not a whole lot more money, you might also want to look at that, since it's likely (though I haven't tested it) to have improved contrast and do dark scenes much better.

Technical

The PT-52LCX65 was a surprisingly competent performer in several tests. Resolution, in particular, was noteworthy. At 720p (the set's native resolution), the highest band in the multiburst pattern was reproduced well (but with noise) via component inputs but with textbook perfection (for a 1280x720 set) with an HDMI connection. Likewise, the focus test pattern looked superb, even with a 1080i input. Alignment of the LCD panels was outstanding as there was virtually no color fringing around white lines. The screen, however, gave a slight "screen door" effect at closer viewing distances.

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