Panasonic 65″ AX900U 4K LCD TV Review

For years Panasonic owned videophile display market. If you asked almost any reviewer what TV they should buy, it would invariably be a Panasonic plasma. Most of the reviewers I know, including myself, own a Panasonic plasma as our personal reference displays. When they left the plasma market we knew it was going to be hard to find a display that compared to what they had been making. Panasonic’s attempt to move onto LCD and make us forget about plasma is the AX900U. A 65”, 4K, full array LCD TV, it has the specs to match up with almost anything but it probably won’t make you forget about your plasma quite yet.

There are two areas where plasma really has LCD beat: viewing angles and black levels. To try to remedy this Panasonic has taken a two-prong approach. The first is by using an IPS LCD panel instead of the more common VA panel. VA panels have better black levels, often 4-5x darker than those on IPS panels, but their viewing angles are poor. IPS panels have much better off-axis images and so they work better for larger groups.

Plasma-like LCD

Panasonic didn’t want to give up on good black levels, so they gave the AX900U a full array dynamic backlighting system. With control over individual zones, dark sections of the image can have a lower black level than the brighter sections. This creates a better contrast ratio in real world use, though you can’t really measure it as well in objective testing.

Specs
Manufacturer: Panasonic
Model: TC-65AX900U
Display Type: LED LCD
Resolution: 3840x2160
Inputs: 4x HDMI 2.0, 1x DisplayPort 1.2, Component, Composite
Outputs: Optical
Streaming Services: Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
Wi-Fi Support: Yes
3D Support: Yes
Display Size: 57.4" x 34.0" x 14.0"
Display Weight: 81.6 lbs.
Review Date: May 18, 2015
Price: 7199
Company Website
The AX900 also has a wider color gamut that measures at 90% of the P3 color gamut. Content using this larger gamut should start to appear later this year on UltraHD Blu-ray. Movie theaters already use this larger color gamut, with colors that current HDTVs cannot display. It doesn’t support high dynamic range however. Other than HDR it has the best of the things you expect in a high-end TV: Four HDMI 2.0 inputs, integrated Netflix with 4K streaming, even a DisplayPort input for a computer. Panasonic includes two remotes, but as before I find the mini remote with the trackpad too hard to use. You can’t change inputs with it, and the voice commands don’t support commands like “HDMI 1”.

Menus in the AX900U allow you to customize almost everything about the image. Not only are multiple color gamuts supported natively (Rec.709, SMPTE-C, EBU, and Native) but a full color management system lets you adjust beyond that. It has a number of preset gamma options including the recent BT.1886 preset that allows better shadow details on an LCD. The color management system to really dial in the display can be accessed through the menus or through an app for your iPad.

The big question with 4K is always: Can I see a difference? Like all things this isn’t as easy to answer as just yes or no. For most of my testing I sat around 7’ away from the 65” AX900U. Watching Netflix in 4K I can clearly see more detail on content. Their own content will has very accurate textures and fine patterns and looks fantastic.  But this doesn’t mean that 4K is an automatic slam dunk.

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When I move further away in my room to the 10-11’ I sit in my living room, the difference in resolution is minute. I’m unable to instantly switch between 4K and 1080p, but the differences that I saw before aren’t as detailed now. It is also important to have high-quality source content to see the difference. New content shot on a digital UltraHD picture looks better. Watching the 4K transfer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the difference between 1080p and 4K isn’t as apparent. The transfer is fuzzy and those details are masked.

Since the only 4K sources, aside from the expensive Sony media server, are streaming you see compression artifacts there. Fine textures and hairs have more detail, but tiny macroblocking artifacts appear more than they do on Blu-ray transfers. UltraHD Blu-ray will likely resolve this thanks to their higher bitrate, but right now you’re trading off one flaw for another. I’m probably more sensitive to these compression artifacts than most people are but it is still a trade off.

4K Streaming Quality

When 4K looks good, it looks really good. I finally had a reason to catch up on House of Cards since Season 2 and 3 are shot in 4K. The cinematography here is often very dark but the Panasonic does a very good job lowering the levels to bring out the detail. The Netflix series Chef’s Table looks stunning in 4K. The meals on screen look exquisite and you’ll find yourself very hungry in no time at all. The recently released Daredevil series is also very dark but looks great on the Panasonic.

Of course if you only watch 4K Netflix content, you’ll soon enough run out of things to view on the Panasonic. Blu-ray content also looks superb on the Panasonic. The hilltop scene in the final Harry Potter film makes it easy to make out all the minions of Voldemort. The black levels don’t get as deep as a plasma or OLED can, but they are very good for an LCD. While there isn’t the absolute black of other displays, all the shadow details are visible while worse LCDs turn this image into a mess of gray blobs. Side-to-side viewing is far better than most LCD displays. I do notice that the upper-left corner of my unit is too bright and against letterbox bars it is easy to see.

Contrast ratios with the active dimming set to low are very nice. The dimming mechanism is hard to notice and it makes a noticeable improvement in the image. Skyfall is always a good test for this and the scenes in Shanghai and Macau match any LCD I can recall testing. Even the difficult fireworks and handled well. Bright outdoor scenes are much easier to pull off, and of course the Panasonic does that.

This might be the best LCD I’ve ever used for watching sports. With the Motion Picture Setting (frame interpolation) at Weak, there is very good motion quality. The NBA and NHL playoffs in HD look fantastic over the integrated tuner. The AX900U can produce over 90 ftL of light output with the backlight set high so you can see it in any room. The viewing angles are very good with the IPS panel, making it a very good TV for large groups where everyone can’t sit in the center of the display. It also works much better than a curved screen for this case as that makes it even harder for larger groups to all have a good view. If you do watch a lot of sports then the AX900U is going to be a superb fit.

3D on a 4K set offers huge promise because of the ability to use passive glasses and still having the full 1080p resolution of 3D Blu-ray. Passive glasses let in more light and are more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. On the AX900U the 3D is very good provided you don’t sit too close. If you are close to the screen, like the 7-8’ I sat much of the time, and angle is too sharp for the polarizer to work correctly. The top of the screen will be fine but the bottom exhibits huge crosstalk problems. When I move to 9-10’ away the crosstalk goes away and then 3D looks great. It is bright with a sharp image and the glasses are easy to wear. If you are going to sit close to take advantage of the UltraHD resolution then you probably won’t want to watch 3D as much.

Downsides

The large 65” screen on the AX900 makes it a good fit for sports. The wide IPS viewing angles make it easy to have a crowd over to watch the game without needing everyone in the center spot. Motion is good for an LCD, and you can add motion interpolation if that is your thing. The one thing the Panasonic doesn’t do well is video games. There is too much lag, between 80 and 120ms depending on options, to make it a good choice.

One more key thing missing from the AX900U is the ability to stream Amazon Instant Video in 4K. Along with Netflix, this makes up the majority of 4K content currently available to people at home. Support has been promised but at this point isn’t there. More and more 4K content will be available, with UltraHD Blu-ray promised for this year, so then the AX900U will begin to really show what it is capable of.

Given the choice between the AX900U or my 60” VT60 plasma, I’m still keeping my plasma. I sit around 10’ away in my living room so the resolution improvement isn’t as big of a deal, and the blacks are noticeably better. That’s not a choice you have on the market today, though. To get plasma-level blacks you need to get an OLED and a 65” UltraHD OLED is $9,000. It’s also a curved set which many videophiles are not interested in and makes it worse for larger groups of people.

Conclusions

The AX900U is a very attractive 4K display, and one that is flat to boot. Unfortunately it can’t produce the deep blacks we miss from Panasonic plasmas but nothing besides OLED can. It does produce a great looking image with a dynamic backlight system that works well in use. It is also flat, which most of the other high-end displays right now are not. I know lots of people love the curve, my Dad asked me about it just last month, but I do not as a videophile.

My main issue with the AX900U is simply the price. The plasma displays offered such a huge value compared to other high-end displays that giving that up is hard. When compared to other UltraHD sets the Panasonic comes in relatively fine. The Sony XBR950 is $6,000 and is also a full array local dimming display. Samsung’s new JS9500 is also $6,000 for full array local dimming with UltraHD. The Vizio P-Series is full array local dimming and UltraHD for only $1,800 but lacks the expanded color gamut of those other displays. It also has half the dimming zones of the AX900U and is more prone to haloing and other local dimming artifacts. The Panasonic is also the only one using an IPS panel for better viewing angles.

I think the main issue I ran into with the AX900U is to keep mentally comparing it to the Panasonic plasma displays from last year. These are gone and not coming back, and we all just have to accept this. Against TVs you can actually buy, it stacks up very well. It’s expensive but it has an image that is great. It isn’t for the gamer because of the lag, but it is for the videophile. It’s flat, huge, and looks good even off-angle. However if you aren’t going to sit off-axis often than other UltraHD sets with VA-panels can offer even better contrast ratios. Panasonic has tried to make an LCD that is as close to a plasma as they can, and it is closer to one than any other LCD set. In trying to be the most-plasma like LCD there have been choices made that give other LCDs an advantage in areas. However if you want wide viewing angles and accurate colors, the Panasonic is at the top of the LCD heap.

Review Summary
Product: Panasonic TC-65AX900U
Reviewer:
Pros: Accurate image, very good off-axis viewing for an LCD, great color, effective dimming
Cons: Poor ANSI black level measurements, very expensive, can't play games on it due to lag, Amazon 4K not streaming yet. 3D doesn't work well if you sit close enough for the full 4K effect.
Summary: The Panasonic AX900U is a very accurate 4K LCD with great off-axis viewing and an effective backlight system. It costs more than competing LCDs that offer better black levels and include High Dynamic Range. Those displays are also curved, and not as good off axis. If you want an LCD that tried to mimic the performance of a plasma as much as possible, the AX900U is that display. It looks very good, handles all content well, and is flat in a world of curved high-end displays.
Value: 2.5/5
Performance: 4.5/5
Overall: 3.5/5