At the beginning of 2009, Pioneer announced it was pulling out of plasma production, and as a result many of its engineers migrated across to Panasonic. Eighteen months later, the Panasonic VT20 is the first television that incorporates the know-how gained through making one of the best TVs ever made: the Pioneer Kuro.
Panasonic has taken a different tack for the design of its V and VT series televisions. Where in previous years the company has opted for simple piano-black finishes here it's broken out of the corral with something different. While the V series features a brushed aluminium look, the VT20 boasts a faintly metallic and dark brown bezel. Not the greatest colour in the world, metallic brown, but the effect is subtle and sophisticated.
The TV is quite slim and light too thanks to the lack of an external glass layer, in fact at 27.5kg it's managed to reduce the weight on the previous V10 model by a whole 9kg! The unit is solidly built as you'd expect and features a stippled swivel stand that makes it more comfortable to view the screen in other parts of the room.
The remote control is nothing special and is based on Panasonic's years-old design, but at least the centrally-based "Viera Tools" button is actually useful now as it brings up an OSD menu including 3D settings. You'll still need to hit the smaller "Menu" button to access other TV settings though.
In September 2009, Panasonic was very excited about Avatar and its potential to sell 3D gear. And the TV it used to show a 3D trailer of the movie? A prototype of the VT20. So, as you can imagine, Panasonic is quite chuffed with its 3D system. The TV comes with a single pair of glasses, but if you want more than this they cost AU$199 each. Ouch.
The TV ships with a copy of Ice Age 3 and Coraline in 3D. Rumours are that Panasonic has an exclusive for the Avatar 3D Blu-ray and will start shipping it with its TVs later in the year.
The VT20 features all the usual 3D modes (side-by-side, top-bottom) and will also convert 3D material (such as the World Cup final) back to 2D, which could be useful if you have more people than 3D glasses. However, this is a feature we desperately want for other, non-3D TVs.
If you're not interested in 3D then the TV caters for you too. The "glassless" waffle front means there are fewer reflections when watching this TV and there is a better off-axis response as well. The TV comes with a 1080p moving picture resolution, which means sharper movement, has a high "5,000,000:1" dynamic contrast and has been certified by THX.
The TV also comes with two USB ports that can playback media files such as AVCHD, DivX HD, SD-Video, JPEG, MP3 and AAC, and can also record free-to-air content with the addition of a USB drive.
As with other TVs released this year, the Panasonic features IPTV under the name of "Viera Cast" with access to YouTube and Bloomberg, with local content "coming soon". You can Skype your buddies (with the addition of the AU$150 camera) and also access Twitter and Picasa.
At CNET Australia we're big fans of plasma technology, but think that this year LCD is nudging its way ahead. Given the Panasonic's heritage we feel duty-bound to give the VT20 a high rating almost by proxy: "It's based on the Kuro? Automatic five stars." But the truth of it is that things have changed drastically in the TV landscape in the past 18 months. After much hand-wringing, we're sorry to say plasma is no longer king.
After using the VT20 for a while we have to admit some mixed feelings for it. It's great in well-lit rooms (a first for a plasma) and is even better in a darkened home theatre. Pictures are sharp, blacks are deep and detail is as sharp as you'd expect from the current leader in plasma technology. But in some respects it's not as good as last year's V10.
Starting with synthetic tests our television aced all of the HQV tests, bar the film mode (24p) test. This is one better than the V10, which also failed the video test, but this still means that you may experience some judder when watching Blu-ray movies.
This proved true on the Mission Impossible III Blu-ray, which showed a propensity for clunky motion, but this also depends on your player. While we had judder issues with the PlayStation 3 we had none with Panasonic's own BD300. Despite passing the synthetic jaggies test, the VT20 left us scratching our heads with its inability to smooth out some jaggies. There was a lot of moire on the railings at the beginning of the bridge scene of MI3 and this was disappointing — the Sony HX800 was able to clean this image up spectacularly and still deliver a detailed picture. Despite this, the image was sharply honed without degenerating into noise and blacks were inky.
Traditionally, plasmas have problems with clouds — whether it be dust, sunsets or storm clouds — and this is because they weren't able to handle the subtle graduations of colours. This usually resulted in clear streaky lines and "buzzing" artefacts. Moving to the Batman Begins Blu-ray, though, we found that the Pana no longer sees this as a problem. The clouds above Ra's al Ghul's mountaintop palace were smooth and fluffy.
DVD replay was also good, with the sunrise over the Empire State Building in King Kong never so believable. Images were clear, full of depth and natural looking. While clouds did show a little bit of "buzz" colour gradations were mostly smooth. Another thing we noticed was that large patches of sky also displayed faint strobing horizontal lines on occasion, and this occurred regardless of the player.
LCD TVs have a terrible problem with off-axis viewing — that is, viewing when not directly in front of the TV — and even the Sony HX800 has a problem with this. This Panasonic has the best viewing angle of any TV we've seen so far. Add a swivel stand and you can truly watch this TV from anywhere in the house, presuming you have a line of sight.
Sound quality was good, with voices clear and soundtracks delivered with oomph, though we did find that there was a "chuffing" noise with music.
After connecting a USB disk, we found that the on-board recorder is very quirky and not recommended as an alternative to a PVR. It won't let you preset recordings, you can only record the show you are watching. To access it, you need to press the SD-card button on the remote.
So far, so good. But the TV wasn't as successful in some areas, particularly 3D. While images suffered from very little "crosstalk" or ghosting, we did find that engaging the 3D mode did cut the TV's brightness quite significantly. This would make it hard enough to watch in a lit room if it weren't for the flicker — any light source that's in your peripheral vision will flicker. So it's best to watch this TV in the dark if you want to watch 3D. Obviously this can present a problem when you're watching communal 3D content such as sport.
The internet features aren't that comprehensive at this stage though browsing YouTube was fun. We look forward to the company announcing content deals with the commercial and public broadcasters in the near future to round out its content offering.
We had high hopes for the Panasonic VT20 and they were mostly fulfilled. This is truly one of the best plasmas that has ever been produced. Black levels are very high, pictures are detailed and off-axis viewing is the best of any TV currently on the market.
Unfortunately, the spectre of the "grey" black levels issue will hang over Panasonic TVs, and there's even debate over whether it even affects Australian models at all. It's too soon to say if this TV will be affected, but we can imagine that the brightness will increase gradually over the life of the set instead of overnight.
The VT20 is an excellent television, and we predict it will be seen as one of the best TVs ever. It just happens that Sony's TV is that much better.