Panasonic TC-55CX850U review

Throw open those blinds! Panasonic's CX850U shines even when the sun doesn't

Panasonic’s CX850U offers a gorgeous, plasma-like picture that even bright rooms won’t manage to tarnish.
Panasonic’s CX850U offers a gorgeous, plasma-like picture that even bright rooms won’t manage to tarnish.
Panasonic’s CX850U offers a gorgeous, plasma-like picture that even bright rooms won’t manage to tarnish.

Highs

  • Plasma-like picture quality
  • HDR-capable
  • THX Certified
  • Up-to-date HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 inputs

Lows

  • Extremely hard to find
  • Dodgy backlight dimming

I still get goosebumps thinking about the Panasonic AX900. That was one of 2014’s best TVs, and a personal favorite. I don’t think I’ll ever see an LED TV that looks that much like a plasma again. It’s just too bad the TV was so expensive and nearly impossible to get your hands on – it cost $8,000, and had to be special ordered. That’s enough to put off even hardcore video enthusiasts.

I fear consumers may be facing the same conundrum when it comes to Panasonic’s 2015 flagship series, the CX850U. It’s an outstanding TV series in many regards, and the prices have come down — I wouldn’t hesitate to give it my full recommendation. It’s just that the CX850U is so hard to shop for and purchase, and it should never be hard to buy a TV!

The look

The CX850U series, which is available in 55-inch (seen as low as $1,500 online) and 65-inch (seen as low as $3,000 online) options, isn’t the flashiest TV we’ve ever seen, and for that we’re thankful. Panasonic opted to go with a simple, understated look underscored by solid build quality. Both the screen’s bezel and the TV’s stand are made of metal rather than chromed plastic, resulting in a solid, stable television. Of course, this makes the TV a little heavier than its contemporaries, though not prohibitively so.

The TV’s screen is covered in an anti-reflective coating which does a great job of taming reflections in a bright room. Around the back of the TV you’ll find 3 HDMI inputs — all of which are HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 compliant – a LAN port, optical digital audio output, a coaxial cable/TV input, and three USB inputs. There’s also an SD card slot for media playback.

In the box with the TV is Panasonic’s tried and true wand remote control, upon which all major functions have big, backlit buttons you can press. Panasonic’s website also indicates a TouchPad remote is included, but we believe that is a typo, and that the remote is a $75 accessory (which we wouldn’t recommend anyway).

The Features

Panasonic was clearly thinking forward when it designed this television. In addition to all three HDMI ports being HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 compliant, the THX-certified television is also capable of processing and displaying HDR content. The 65-inch TV is rated to be capable of displaying 98 percent of the DCI/P3 color space (the standard for digital cinema) while the 55-inch variant tops out at 90 percent of DCI/P3. As there is little to no content that can take advantage of the wider color gamut, it’s hard to get too excited by this feature, though we understand the same tech that made expanded color possible also makes colors more accurate across the board.

Also new for this television is the Firefox operating system. If the name has you hoping for a full-on PC-style version of Web browser by the same name, you’ll be disappointed. We’ve never met a Web browser built into a TV that we liked, and Firefox OS does nothing to change that stance – it’s slow, awkward and buggy. However, Firefox OS interface is, on the whole, a huge leap in the right direction for Panasonic. The Viera system the company clung on to for years was dated the day it came out, and that’s not to even mention the annoying ads. By and large, we had no problem navigating on-board apps and user settings menus. It’s not as sleek as LG’s WebOS 2.0, nor is it as saturated as Samsung’s Tizen, but, again, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

A handful of the apps contained within Firefox OS do support 4K UHD streams, including Amazon Prime Instant, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube, although it did not appear Amazon’s HDR content was being decoded.

Panasonic shot for accuracy over glitz, and we very much appreciate it.

While THX certification certainly isn’t requisite for a high-performance TV, we’re not surprised to see the CX850U earned it, and we’re especially appreciative of its inclusion here as the THX Bright Room and THX Cinema picture presets look great right out of the box. These presets make it easy to switch back and forth between settings that work well in a brighter room and more “accurate” settings for watching movies in the dark. Of course, if you like, you can hire a professional calibrator to come in and set up one of the two available Professional presets to achieve the same effect, while getting even closer to professional display standards.

The experience

The CX850U is by no means a disappointing TV – quite the opposite, actually – but it didn’t stand a chance of replacing last year’s elusive AX900 in our hearts. The display panel isn’t quite as good, there are fewer zones of backlight dimming, and although the TV’s processing is very good, it just isn’t as impressive as the AX900.

With all of that said, the CX850U is still an excellent television, and worthy of being called one of the best TVs produced in 2015. Panasonic managed to keep the plasma-like appeal the AX900 exhibited last year while pulling its 4K Ultra HD line more tightly in line with emerging standards.

Panasonic CX850U 4K UHD LED TV
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

What sets the CX850U apart from the other TVs on our Best 4K Ultra HD TVs list this year is its laid-back approach. When you sit down with this television, it doesn’t scream at you with artificially intense contrast or sharpness, nor does it try to squeeze every available shade of color out of its expanded palette and inject it into your eye socket. If Samsung’s JS9500 SUHD TV is like a full-blown rock concert in a huge arena, Panasonic’s CX850U is more like an incredible Jazz Quintet in an intimate upscale venue. There’s a lot to appreciate about both, but the CX850U is going to appeal to the more reserved crowd.

Once again, Panasonic shot for accuracy over glitz, and we very much appreciate it, but with that decision come some sacrifices. We were never left wanting for detail, but Panasonic’s focus on delivering detail sometimes came at the expense of black levels. By upping the luminance in bright objects on dark backgrounds, surround blacks took a hit and came off looking just a tad purple, rather than true black. You can also see just a touch of halo around those bright objects, though we’ve seen far worse on lesser TVs.

The CX850U is hard to shop for and purchase … it should never be hard to buy a TV!

The CX850U also has fewer zones of dimming for its full-array backlight than the AX900 did, and that resulted in less-inky blacks across the board. But we were a little more bothered by what seemed like slow processing of the backlight adaptation. If you look closely, you can see the backlight adapting to the scene, but the adaptation happens slowly enough that you can see it as it brightens and dims. It’s most notable on dark movies with letterbox bars (we saw it primarily on Blu-ray movies), and we’d be quick to dismiss it as a major concern except more than just video aficionados may pick up on it.

None of those issues are enough for us not to recommend this TV. In fact, the CX850U should be getting an Editor’s Choice award from us, but we must dock the score a point because we’re not sure you’ll ever get to buy one. The TV has only been on the market for a few months, and already we can’t find a place to buy it online (Panasonic was the only retailer and it is now out of stock), nor is it easily tracked down at a retailer, as popular stores like Best Buy, HH Gregg and the like don’t seem to have it in stock.

Conclusion

If we knew were to tell you to get it, we’d suggest you immediately go check out Panasonic’s CX850U series television, and would go so far as to suggest looking at the 65-inch version for its slightly more advanced backlight system and picture performance. But, alas, we don’t know what’s going on with this TV’s availability, and Panasonic isn’t exactly rushing to quell our concerns.

It’s a shame that such a quality TV may never find its home inside many real number of US living rooms, because it’s a great choice for video enthusiasts who have to deal with the face that real life sometimes casts a lot of light on an entertainment room. With the CX850U, you can get videophile-style performance without the dark dungeon, and that’s no small achievement.

Highs

  • Plasma-like picture quality
  • HDR-capable
  • THX Certified
  • Up-to-date HDMI 2.0a/HDCP 2.2 inputs

Lows

  • Extremely hard to find
  • Dodgy backlight dimming
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