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Panasonic TH-42PZ80U Plasma HDTV Review

by The Review CrewJuly 9, 2010

With the rapidly depleting prices of flat-panel televisions in the current climate, 1080p is quickly becoming both a buzz phrase and a necessary technology to common consumers instead of a strictly enthusiast’s tool.   The fact that a rash of 32” 1080p sets has hit the market is clear indication of that fact.  But the mainstream integration of this new resolution has created a stirring new trend in the panel market, aside with changing economic conditions: the price of flat-panel, full-resolution sets is dropping quickly.  Because of this weariness for price and budding “requirement” for 1080p resolution, the popularity for 42” televisions has spiked within that niche.   Blending the result of scientific analysis, price conscientiousness, multi-functionality, and consumer space constraints, many consider this to be the go-to framework for an everyday use television.

Staying their course, Panasonic have continued their ever-popular PZ plasma line with their 42” TH-42PZ80U – a 1920x1080p, native 20,000:1 contrast ratio set with plenty of experience underneath the hood.   They’ve been the go-to line for budget plasmas for quite a while now, tweaking and perfecting their models to the best of its capabilities.   This model represents one of the better marriages in budget and quality available on the market, which etches the PZ80U out as a strong option in the midsize flat-panel television market.  Sitting comfortably at a list price hovering underneath $1,300, you’ll find a lot to love with this bang-for-the-buck unit. 

Aesthetics:

Recently, Panasonic made a consumer-conscious decision to steer away from silver cabinet units, instead draping them in a glossy black chassis.  The PZ80U is no exception, and it’s a design beauty: sitting at roughly 29 inches high on stand, 41 inches across including frame, and 3 inches thick (14 inches back to front including stand), it’s covered from top to bottom with glossy black material.  Sporting a semi-bowed silver stripe near the bottom of the set itself, it has a nice touch of flare.  However, keep the light sources in the television’s room in mind, because glare will be a problem; while attractive and glossy to look at, the Panasonic reflects a lot of light against the chassis.  The thick glass protecting the plasma screen itself fares a bit better considering the Anti-Reflective filter toted on the box, but – as with all plasmas, especially budget ones of its ilk – there’s still a glassy reflection to consider.   Keep all windows in mind with placement, along with plans to purchase a set of thick curtains for those within a 15+ foot radius.  

To the rear, the Panasonic sports a standard array of plug-in options without much in the frill department.  Two HDMI ports, two Component plugs, a standard cable line, and two standard Video plugs lay the groundwork for wiring up all the electronic devices hovering underneath the television.   Unlike its nearly-identical big brother, the Panasonic TH-42PZ85U, it doesn’t have a PC-input to enable usage as a computer monitor.  It does, however, have a handy SD card slot on the front panel for easy image/video viewing, presented in a stripped-down, no-frills layout that gets the job done.   Speaking of front-loaded plugs, an extra HDMI slot, S-Video, and standard L/R sound inputs are available underneath the slickly-hidden panel.  

The remote is a bland affair, sporting a stripped-down and basic block-button style that won’t come as a surprise to any Panasonic-brand purchasers.  It’s a predominately black remote, sporting large numbers in the lower half of the casing while keeping the Channel [CH] and Volume [VOL] buttons near the center of the construct.  At the top, the compass-style maneuver button helps to navigate through the MENU, which is clearly accessible from the large button at the top.   On each side, there is the TV VIDEO toggle button, a SUB MENU Button and both RETURN and EXIT buttons corresponding to the others.  Aside from the rest, there are five brightly-colored buttons: the POWER button, as well as the R,G,B, and Y buttons that hover directly underneath the menu functions.   If you’ve handled any of Panasonic’s remotes before in the past – whether we’re talking about television or DVD player remotes – this will feel quite comfortable.   To keep with cost efficiency, this low-brow remote hasn’t been built with a backlight.

Setup:

Once you’ve reached the Picture function in the remote menus, the TH-42PZ80U’s setup process will feel extremely familiar if you’ve spent some time with a Panasonic flat-panel before.  Along with the pre-set adjustments, labeled Vivid, Standard, Cinema, and Game, there’s the Custom Picture mode where you can tweak the Picture, Brightness, Color, Tint, Sharpness, Color Temp, Color Mgmt., and x.v. Color.  Toggling these options offers a flexible and responsive picture adjustment experience, ones that help match coloring with the demonstration disc of your choosing.   Most of these were set to higher than average levels, but none of them were turned to maximum strength.  These options are a bit limited and rigid in making minor adjustments, but still offer enough tweaking to reach desired results.  

Aspect ratio selection mirrors Panasonic’s other efforts as well, marked by Full, Just (modified stretch) 4:3, and Zoom.  One earmark that I particularly favor is the Zoom Adjust function, where the Zoom option in your FORMAT range can be tailored to the source.  It’s a useful tool if you own films that aren’t enhanced for 16×9 sets – whether they’re non-anamorphic DVDs or Letterbox VHS – but it’s a chore to adjust.  Its setting out of the box, however, is surprisingly spot-on (see DVD discussion below).  Under the “advanced” options, there’s a Video Noise Reduction, 3D Y/C filter, Color matrix HD/SD selection, MPEG Noise Reduction, Light/Dark Black Level toggle and an HD size toggle.   I left the HD size in the “2” position – revealing the entire picture – while making sure that the Light black levels and HD Color matrix option were selected for all sources.  

On the Audio side of things, the first menu only gives the option to adjust Bass, Treble and Balance between the full-range 20W speakers.  Under the advanced settings, however, there’s a host of other options:  there are AI Sound and Surround functions which alter the dimensionality of the source, Bass Boost and Audio Leveler which bolster desired areas of the audio source, as well as a Yes/No Speaker Output toggle.  Furthermore, it gives the options to select the source of your HDMI source’s audio – Digital, Component 1, Component 2, Video 1 or Video 2.    Often than not, it’s wise to leave the Bass Boost function alone to preserve cone integrity within the speakers, while choosing the AI and Surround functions is at listener discretion – though neither have really impressed me with past Panasonic sets, both sounding a little hollow and echoed.

Performance:

First up on the TH-42PZ80U’s gauntlet of signal tests was television viewing, handled in both high-definition and standard-definition signals.  Watching 1080 HD broadcasts of “LOST”, “The Office”, and “Heroes” – three highly-touted televised sources – were all extremely pleasing experiences.  Exceptionally impressive was “LOST”, a living, breathing contrast-boosted drudge through the gorgeously-lit contours of a tropical island.  Though stark in rendering shade levels, detail never gets drowned out during the broadcast.  During pixilated scenes with higher motion, the PZ80U doesn’t skip a heartbeat in rectifying the signal.  When tested with live broadcasts on the Today show, texture and color clarity was outstanding.   Put briefly, Panasonic’s set aptly handles HD broadcasts in the same fashion that they’re relayed to it.  At 480 resolution signals, however, it’s not quite as attractive; when either sent through the composite line or utilizing the HDMI port, the signal looks flat and murky – something that improves a bit when using HD channels, but not by much.  Utilizing the Zoom feature with downgraded 16×9 HD signals improves the experience, if that’s a necessary route.  

To test its capacity to display Blu-ray technology, the PZ80U was sent through a range of tests with Sony’s Playstation 3 – set to output 1080p/24 via HDMI — that exercised multiple aspect ratios, grain structures, and content differences.   After popping in Disney’s WALL-E, an all computer-generated animation with an expectedly pristine 2.35:1 print, it’s clear that Panasonic have maintained their competence with color saturation.  WALL-E’s a vibrant film, ranging in blistering blues and reds in space to the burnt orange and sepia-stained post-apocalyptic world that the little robot cleans up.  Panasonic’s television handles the color range of its splendidly flawless AVC encode, keeping pace with Wall-E movement with grace.   

Alternately, it was time to display the Criterion Collection’s high-definition presentation of El Norte, a film framed in 1.78:1 that stretches to each and every corner of the television.  It’s a grainy, low-budget film without the Hollywood polish, but it’s still a marvelously gorgeous transfer of an older source.  Panasonic’s PZ80U handles the heavy grain admirably, while displaying the drastic color gradients and hidden details in the film with splendid austerity.   Finally, Kingdom of Heaven – a film with rich production values and abundant miniscule details – underwent the close of the Blu-ray tests.  Every nuance and color popped on-screen with its dual-layered MPEG 2 transfer, giving grand life to skin tones and gothic architecture while displaying strong film grain competency.   To say the least, this set offers a splendid 1080p film experience.  

Utilizing Toshiba’s HD-A2 for upscaled DVD screening, the Panasonic also handles standard definition film screening extremely well.  With the resolution output set to 1080i and 480i/p respectfully, I popped in Kingdom of Heaven’s standard-definition counterpart to see how it held up.  The result was surprisingly good in both accounts, rendering an image that handles itself with bravado next to its higher-tier technology.   Little difference could be discerned between the television’s internal upscaler and the DVD player’s capabilities, which speaks well for the PZ80U’s natural aptitude.   Even DVDs without widescreen enhancement– tested with Grosse Pointe Blank and Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations – looked relatively outstanding when paired with the TV’s ZOOM picture setting, only clipping off a very mild amount (+ or – 2%) on each side of the image out of box.   Whether a new Blu-ray player still seems far in the future or if the television set is being purchased for the purpose of handling the new technology, this Panasonic will not disappoint.  

Plasmas tend to suffer a bit in when used as a console gaming monitor, and Panasonic’s PZ80U follows suit with some of the same problems as its predecessors.   However, its competence with gaming consoles was rather surprising, whether utilizing its “Game Mode” pre-set or not. After testing the unit with several Playstation 3 games – namely the ever-addictive Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Prince of Persia – it’s obvious that the unit suffers from the unavoidable green trailing; conducting sharp turns in a first-person style game, whether in high or low contrast areas, always resulted in a light green stream along brightly-lit areas.   It’s noticeable, without question, but the trail becomes less noticeable as time goes on.  What do look splendid are the amazingly vivid colors that come from its HDMI-source, along with the oft-mentioned contrast competence.   Tromping around Shivering Isles, a bright and colorful realm in Elder Scrolls, looked outstanding, while gliding from obstacle to obstacle in Prince of Persia really amazed with its beautiful cel-shaded motion.   Surprisingly, it’s during these gaming sessions when I notice image retention the most, all of which dissipates once the source either shuts off or loads anew.  

Even with 480p sources, like Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii games, the amount of color and detail can be fairly surprising.  However, they do fair a bit worse than their higher-resolution counterparts.  After giving World of Goo and Resident Evil 4 a go on the Wii, they suffer from all the same problems – just to a higher degree.  It seems that higher-resolution games result in more intense green trails and, sadly, more blurry motion.  Considering that this is a range of low-definition feeds, they don’t suffer too much in the process.  

Impressions Round-Up:

It’s impossible to quantify an absolute opinion on Panasonic’s TH-42PZ80U without first considering the outstanding price.  Thinking back two or three years, it’s incredible to consider what $1,300 can net you now in the television market– 40+ inches of screen, 1080p resolution, and solid specks to boot.  The TH-42PZ80Umakes the most out of this investment, as it provides a gorgeous image for gaming, film, and television sources.  Color levels and high-definition “pop” really accentuate how sumptuous this set can look under the proper conditions.  The 20,000:1 contrast level also serves itself well here, crafting stark black levels and fluctuating palettes that adjust with its sources well.  When compared with other strong-performing HDTVs in the size and price range – such as the Toshiba REGZA LCD series and several Sharp models – it renders black levels with deeper, inkier substance, while fighting tooth-and-nail to parallel them in detail and color range.   Matched with two rear HDMI ports and one to the front, it’s got enough inputs to use without seeming like overkill for receiver-using individuals.  Along with that, the set seems built for a mid-sized room (tested in a room roughly 13×13), as the viewing range is extremely wide at around 150-155 degrees without any ugly internal screen reflections.  Plus, it’s an attractive addition to any room, sporting a beautifully designed chassis that looks a lot pricier than it really is.  

The TH-42PZ80U ’s attractive looks can also be a slight deterrent, as the glitzy gloss picks up any form of light that pours into the room.   Along with that, there are only a few negatives to attach with the set’s overall performance.  As with Panasonic’s past plasmas, two picture issues arise that you had to adjust to while warming to the PZ80U: green trail, and a mild red push.  The green trail grows less noticeable with your time with the set, though it still becomes strongly apparent in high-motion instances in films, television shows, and especially games.   But it remains to a mild degree, something that drove me mildly crazy as I followed the Wii’s hand pointer around on-screen.   With the red push, it’s an element that renders slightly embellished pinkish-reddish skin hues from time to time, depending on the source.   Picture adjustment can handle a large portion of it (lightly adjusting the tint with some color guidance), but it’s a necessary evil to preserve natural shades with the rest of your colors.  Now, regarding image retention, it’s an omnipresent concern when considering a plasma television purchase – one that the PZ80U suffers from to a certain degree.  No damage could be discerned from the numerous hours of testing that the set underwent, but bits of mild retention could be spotted – and rectified, once the source either reset internally or shifted to another feed.  Also worth considering is the fact that the PZ80U doesn’t contain either a PC-input or the heightened 30,000:1 native contrast ratio like its slightly more expensive brother, the TH-42PZ85U, or THX certification like its near-identical twin, the TH-42PZ800U.  

Given the value underneath the hood of the sub-$1,300 Panasonic TH-42PZ80U’S , it’s a wholly worthwhile purchase for those in the market for a 42” 1080p plasma television set.   Some might argue that the screen size doesn’t quantify a necessity for the higher-resolution progressive technology, but that will actually depend on visual sensitivity for the viewer and sitting distance from the set.   Still, the ability to handshake more aptly with sources at the 1080p setting gives this set an extra boost over 720p alternatives, all the while providing a substantially solid image that concentrates on contrast differential and color saturation as its key assets.   Panasonic continues its legacy of being one of the best budget-minded plasma producers around, crafting an admirable piece of equipment with their TH-42PZ80U that fits the bill for anyone shopping for a mid-range 1080p set.   Some might want to consider the TH-42PZ85U for its additional boost in contrast ratio and PC-inputs for an extra $100 or so; but if computer integration isn’t an issue, then flip for a few classy Blu-ray discs – or even a player — to watch on this gorgeous plasma instead. 

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.

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