Panasonic TH-50PH9UK 50-inch Plasma HDTV 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs Plasma HDTVs
Written by Kevin Miller   
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Panasonic has just introduced the latest version of its commercial panel line, which many reviewers, me included, believe to deliver superior picture performance over their consumer line. The new 9UK series replaces last year’s 8UK series, and the TH-50PH9UK, the subject of this review, is certainly one of the best values in its category. Plasma panels have plummeted in price in the last year or so, and are now quite competitive with similar screen sizes in the LCD flat panel category. A year and a half to two years ago, most 50-inch plasma panels were in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. Today, this 50-incher can be found in the $3,500 to $4,000 range, depending on accessories, and will give just about any plasma in its size range a run for its money in terms of picture quality and performance.

Panasonic’s industrial panels are a do-it-yourselfers dream. Simple and basic in design, the 9UK series is a fully customizable panel. While it doesn’t come with attached speakers, a built-in amplifier and speaker outputs are on tap for either the optional Panasonic speakers or another set of your choice. It measures 47.6 inches wide by 28.5 inches high by 3.7 inches deep, and weighs a hair under 95 lbs. The panel is finished in a very dark gray; there are no other color choices. Other optional accessories for the panel include a table-top stand, wall-mount kit and digital input card blades (both DVI and HDMI are available).

Connection options on the TH-50PH9UK are somewhat limited, but unlike any other panel I have ever evaluated, you can actually add input cards to it to customize the panel’s inputs to your system’s needs. It comes with one set of component video inputs, one S-Video and one composite video input, and a 15-pin VGA input for computer use. One empty slot allows you to add the input blade of your choice, whether it be DVI, HDMI or component, and the other input cards can be swapped out and changed to a different type of input based on what you need to do to accommodate your video system’s various sources. Input blades cost between $145 and $250 apiece. Essentially, you can customize these industrial panels to your exact system requirements. Therefore, you don’t pay for what you don’t need.

The remote control is a well-thought-out and designed unit. Discrete input selection is one of its most convenient features, and also one that will appeal to custom installers who want to program that functionality into a touch panel remote system like a Crestron or an AMX, which of course is easier to do with discrete access than without. All the most commonly used keys are within easy thumb’s reach, and the buttons are differentiated by size and shape. An aspect key gives you control over the aspect ratio of the set directly from the remote as well.

Since it is an industrial product, the TH-50PH9UK has few if any of the standard convenience features that you would find on a consumer plasma TV. It is strictly a monitor with no built-in tuner, so you will need a cable or satellite set-top box for tuning capabilities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the panel does offer PIP (Picture-in-Picture), but you will need an external tuner from a VCR, cable or satellite set-top box to make it work. The TH-50PH9UK also has some set-up features worth mentioning that can enhance the picture quality of the set.

Unlike most other plasma panels, the TH-50PH9UK does allow you to fully calibrate each input/source independently. In the advanced menu, there are separate grayscale controls for each input. There are a number of different gamma choices, with 2.5 being the most accurate and delivering the best rise out of black and grayscale tracking performance. Other features include all you have come to expect from just about any high-definition TV, like selectable color temperatures, which include Warm, Normal and Cool. Since Warm is the closest to the broadcast standard color temperature of 6500 Kelvins, I used this setting to calibrate the set. Several picture modes are also available to choose from, including Dynamic, Standard and Cinema. I chose the Standard mode for my set-up, because the Dynamic mode is way too punchy and overdriven, and the Cinema mode is somewhat dull, lacking contrast ratio and snap.

Panasonic’s industrial model plasma panels have long been my favorite, going back to the 6 series from several years ago. Their biggest strength is without a doubt the excellent black level performance they are capable of when set up properly. The ability to do black well is largely responsible for achieving good contrast ratio, which happens to be the most important aspect of a picture for the human eye’s ability to detect. With that said, Panasonic’s 10,000:1 contrast ratio spec is absolutely a bogus number. Real world contrast ratios on this panel are in the neighborhood of about 400:1, depending on the environment the set is in and how well it is set up. As a reference, the eye can only see between 800 and 1200:1, so specifications that claim 3000, 4000 and up contrast ratios become meaningless, even if they were true. This panel does float black a little, meaning the panel’s ability to hold black at black independent of what is in the picture is not perfect. This means that black level changes, depending on whether the picture is dark or has bright content. Some call it “Floating Blacks.” For set-up in a home theater application, you should simply set black level with a standard low APL (Average Picture Level) PLUGE pattern and leave it at that. I must say I do find this to be a minor problem, and certainly prefer dealing with this over a plasma panel that won’t render a deep rich black in the first place, which is a problem that continues to plaque most plasma panels.

Two other important components of color fidelity are gamma and grayscale tracking. As mentioned earlier, I ended up using the 2.5 gamma setting and the Warm color temperature as my baseline for calibration of the set. I achieved a very linear and accurate grayscale from top to bottom, measuring 6450 Kelvins at 20 IRE, and 6575 at 80 IRE after calibration. With the accuracy of the color decoding, gamma and grayscale combined, the colors and skin tones looked quite natural. If the red and the green could be tweaked to be more accurate, it would deliver exceptionally good color. Video processing is relatively good, with solid 2:3 pull-down, and crisp, clean artifact-free delivery from 480i interlaced sources like a good standard-definition DVD player. Interlaced standard-definition and high-definition pictures are delivered quite cleanly.

Color accuracy is a mixed bag with the Panasonic. Color decoding is dead on accurate with no “Red Push” whatsoever, and it also decodes green well. Grayscale tracking, which is another measure of color accuracy, is also outstanding. However, the primary colors of red and green, and the secondary colors of cyan, yellow and magenta, are fairly far from accurate. Red measured x=659 and y=325, with the ATSC reference being x=640 and y=330. Green measured x=264 and y=652, with the ATSC reference being x=300 and y=600, which is way off the reference. Blue was nearly perfect, measuring x=151 and y=062, with the reference being x=150 and y=060. The importance of primary and secondary color accuracy should not be underemphasized. It makes the difference in subjects like football or baseball fields and tree leaves, things that we all know intimately well, looking natural or looking downright cartoony or neony and clearly wrong. This is the one area where I would like to see Panasonic improve on picture performance. A number of TV manufacturers now offer Color Management Systems (CMS) that address this problem, and allow technicians like myself the ability to fix the problem in the field.

Several chapters from the excellent DVD transfer of Seabiscuit revealed excellent color saturation and exceptionally natural-looking skin tone rendition. However, there is a lot of rich saturated color, and shots of grass in particular belied the inaccuracy of the panel’s greens. Hollow Man, another superb transfer, is also a good DVD for deep saturated color. The scene where they bring back the ape from invisibility is particularly telling. On the Panasonic, this scene revealed exceptionally well-saturated colors and it was razor sharp, practically popping off the screen with a three-dimensional feel to it.

Blacks are also extremely clean and smooth, with no false contouring or solarization artifacts in very dark scenes. I have watched a variety of DVDs on the TH-50PH9UK, but for a serious black level test, I used the excellent transfer of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The opening scene of this movie with the space shots is perfect material for detecting problems with black level performance, and artifacts related to those issues. Other dark parts of this film also revealed extremely clean, dark, rich blacks that actually approach the holy grail of all black level performance in home theater displays, the vaunted and now nearly extinct CRT.

The TH-50PH9UK delivered all of the resolution from a 720p resolution test pattern at the component input. Consequently, HD looked crisp and clean on the Panasonic. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an HDMI input to test resolution on my review sample. I spent a lot of time watching HD from a high-definition TiVo-based satellite system. Dark concert footage on HDNET looked convincing, with good shadow detail in the background of the crowd. The Discovery HD channel looked particularly impressive, with excellent color, and awesome detail, and the HDNET movie channel was also impressive-looking. Sporting events in HD on the Panasonic are particularly exciting and engaging. Yankee baseball on the Yes HD channel in New York looks awesome on the 9UK, with clarity that practically puts you in the ballpark. I can only imagine how good the new HD DVDs will look on this panel.

The Downside
Some folks might find the limited connectivity, and the fact that you have to go to the trouble to customize the set by purchasing and installing additional input cards, a negative. People wanting consumer convenience features like a built-in ATSC tuner or a cable card will also be disappointed. If these are deal breakers, then you can always opt to buy one of Panasonic’s consumer plasma panels that offer some of these features. However, if you are interested in the best picture quality, the industrial models handily outperform their consumer siblings. My biggest complaint is the inaccuracy of the red and green primary colors.

The bottom line: The TH-50PH9UK is the best bang for the buck in the 50-inch plasma panel category. In terms of color accuracy, it is one of the tops in its class. If the primary colors were either close to accurate out of the box or addressable through a CMS (Color Management System), then it would be a world beater in every aspect of picture quality and performance, regardless of cost. There are a number of plasma sets on the market that have the CMS feature that work very well, and as a result exhibit incredibly good color accuracy across the board, but they do cost about twice what the Panasonic does (5 to 6K). By way of comparison, the current Fujitsu 50-inch P50XTA51UB carries a list price of $6,500 and does offer the CMS feature. Of course, there are a few panels out there that cost less than the Panasonic, but they can’t compete in terms of picture quality. Panasonic’s industrial model plasmas do reproduce black better than any other brand, period. This means you get a higher contrast ratio and consequently pictures that deliver more impact than other competitive models. At around $4,000, give or take a few hundred bucks with additional input boards and optional speakers, the TH-50PH8UK is the one to beat for the money!
Manufacturer Panasonic
Model TH-50PH9UK 50-inch Plasma HDTV
Reviewer Kevin Miller
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches

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