Panasonic TC-65AX900 review

It isn't a plasma, but Panasonic's inky black AX900U might fool you

Panasonic’s AX900 makes you feel like you’re closer than ever to what content creators intended you to see.
Panasonic’s AX900 makes you feel like you’re closer than ever to what content creators intended you to see.
Panasonic’s AX900 makes you feel like you’re closer than ever to what content creators intended you to see.

Highs

  • Excellent color
  • Incredible screen uniformity
  • Solid black levels and shadow detail
  • Outstanding upscaling
  • Great substitute for plasma

Lows

  • Heavy; bulky stand
  • Poor smart TV interface

If you’re a fan of high-end TVs, then you may be thinking this review is past its prime. It’s true that most reviews of Panasonic’s AX900 flagship were published several months ago, but I’ve held onto this review for a reason. I’m glad I did, because I now understand more about this television’s place in a tumultuous landscape than I did even a month ago. Allow me to explain.

When I first saw the AX900 at IFA 2014 in Berlin, I suspected there was more to it than just 4K resolution and plasma-like black levels (though I assure you, all of that was plenty exciting). Then, when I got to get up close with the TV at the Luxury Technology Show in Beverly Hills just over a month later, I drank in its gorgeous picture and experienced the pride and joy Panasonic clearly took in the TV as they explained a little about what made it so different.

After experiencing the AX900 in my testing lab for nearly a month, I am now certain Panasonic has something special going on. Still, I have concerns over how well this TV is equipped for the future, and whether it will remain relevant amid a storm of changes surrounding 4K UHD, including a sea of new TVs with expanded color and high dynamic range capabilities.

Simply put: Even though this TV was unleashed in December of 2014, its ready to take on the hottest displays that are only now starting to arrive on store shelves, including SUHD TVs from Samsung, LG’s advanced ColorPrime displays, Vizio’s Reference series, and Sony’s just-announced next-gen 4K UHD TVs – even if it can’t do HDR.

Out of the box

I enjoy seeing what each manufacturer has done to change up its TV designs year after year, especially where TV stands are concerned. Sometimes it’s hard to make something that’s so critically functional sexy, but every year they all try, and where Panasonic’s efforts are concerned, I am appreciative – they really went for something different.

It’s shocking how close the AX900 gets to some of Panasonic’s best plasmas.

Panasonic has ditched the typical collared-style stand for a thin piece of chrome that runs the width of the TV, creating the impression that the display is somehow floating above whatever surface it’s been placed on. It’s a pretty slick trick, but pulling it off involves what is essentially a 33-pound box of ballast attached to the back of the TV. That ballast is hard to wield, makes the TV hard to move around, and significantly increases the depth of the TV (from 2 inches to 14 inches). It also makes an already heavy TV (81.6 lbs.) even heavier (114.7 lbs.)!

Still, the AX900 is a real looker, and a lot of that weight can be attributed to the use of premium components which, in this case, translate into premium performance. In short: We’ll take it.

In the box with the TV you’ll find two pair of passive 3D glasses, a touchpad remote, and traditional wand-style remote.

Features and design

When 4K UHD TVs were first introduced, the selling point was higher resolution. You’d see lots of talk about “four times the resolution of HD,” “higher pixel density,” and so forth. Now, UHD has become about more than just a higher pixel count.

When the UHD Alliance issues a standard for UHD, we can safely expect it to include specs for wide color gamut and high dynamic range (HDR). The specifics need some ironing out, and there’s some dissention in the ranks when it comes to how to approach some of the specs, but when it’s done, we’ll have standard that a TV will have to meet in order for it to be recognized as a UHD TV.

The THX-certified AX900 is ready to meet that standard in terms of color (it covers 98 percent of DCI Color space) but while it can achieve up to 700 nits of brightness, it isn’t technically able to handle HDR. Is that a deal breaker? Not for me, because while I see the value in HDR, it is just one element of picture quality. I’m more interested in excellent performance across a broader range of elements, and thanks to its superior color accuracy across a broad range of brightness levels, I think the AX900 remains a very desirable TV.

With many TVs, color accuracy devolves as colors get darker. Panasonic addresses this issue with what it calls “Super Chroma Drive” which (gonna get tech-y here) constantly analyzes color accuracy using 3D lookup tables at various brightness levels. In real-life viewing, this translates to skin tones that are as accurate in sunny scenes as they are in the shade, for example. This may sound like a minor thing, but we assure you, it has a big impact. And when this TV starts getting fed with wide color gamut material (can we have our UHD Blu-ray now, please?) the impact is going to be even more significant.

Also under the hood are direct (read: not edge-mounted) LED backlights broken down into 128 zones of for local dimming, all sitting behind an IPS LCD panel, a type known for its excellent color accuracy and off-axis viewing, but chastised for its inferior black levels (more on this later … and it’s good news). The TV also has a host of proprietary Panasonic technologies which we’ve seen implemented with great success in its legendary plasma displays.

For connections, the AX900 offers a total of four HDCP 2.2-compliant 4K/60Hz HDMI inputs capable of 18Ghz throughput and 4:4:4 Chroma subsampling – in other words, it’s ready for whatever you’ll be able to throw at it in the next several years, save HDR metadata. The second HDMI port supports ARC. You’ll also get an optical digital audio output, three USB inputs (one USB 3.0), and an Ethernet jack (Wi-Fi is also on board). Limited legacy connections include hybrid component and composite RCA inputs. Finally, Panasonic goes and throws in a DisplayPort input – a rarity in televisions — which may appeal to PC users.

The AX900 delivers the accuracy and precision that professionals and enthusiasts crave.

As for bells and whistles, there are plenty of them, but none of them worth getting into too deeply, in my opinion. Yes, the TV has facial recognition software so it can detect when you’ve walked into a room and react according to pre-programmed instructions (for instance, it could power on and tune to a specific input or channel), but these are the sort of novelties that are more distraction than enrichment. Same goes for the smart TV platform, which I’ve never been particularly fond of (don’t worry, Panasonic is ditching it for Firefox OS soon). And, finally, I could do without the Trackpad remote, which favors swiping and tapping for more conventional navigation, though I’ve always been a little old-fashioned that way – it’s just fine if you personally prefer trackpad remotes, really!

Performance

During my evaluation, I had the Panasonic AX900 set up right next to a Sony X950b (both 65-inch models) so I could view the same material on each one. After a year of testing every flagship 4K UHD TV I could get my hands on, I was confident it would come down to a battle between these two similarly featured (and priced) models for the title of best 4K UHD LED TV in 2014. I believe I was right.

The Sony X950b fared slightly better than the Panasonic AX900 when it came to depth of black levels, but by almost every other meaningful observation, the Panasonic has a slight edge. Of course, that doesn’t mean I think casual viewers will necessarily prefer the Panasonic – the Sony has a picture that really pops, and it is highly entertaining to watch. However, true to Panasonic’s legacy of producing outstanding plasma televisions, the AX900 delivers the sort of accuracy and precision that professionals and enthusiasts crave; myself included.

Panasonic TC-65AX900
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

It’s shocking how close the AX900 gets to some of Panasonic’s best plasmas. I was a little concerned that Panasonic chose to go with an IPS panel, since I’ve had mostly disappointing experiences with their black levels, but Panasonic’s backlighting work on this set is nothing short of outstanding. What little the AX900 gives up in depth of blacks, it more than makes up for with admirable shadow detail, minimal halo effects with bright objects on dark backgrounds, and almost unnoticeable backlight dimming artifacts. Not to mention the color really is outstanding on this TV. Color me smitten.

The AX900 produces an exceptionally cinematic image.

I’ve got this fun little torture test I like to put TVs through these days, and it does a great job of challenging a TV’s backlighting system. I’ll load up a movie or TV show on Netflix (preferably in 4K) with plenty of dark imagery (House of Cards is great for this) and turn on closed-caption subtitles, which usually appear on the bottom of the screen in bright white. With edgelit LED displays, the entire bottom of the screen tends to glow, showing hotspots very clearly, and transforming the blacks around it into a murky grey muck. With full-array local dimming sets like the Panasonic AX900, the advantage of the local dimming is immediately apparent as the screen area to the left and right of the subtitles generally remains dark, though depending on how many zones are at play, some TVs will have more backlight “creep” than others. The AX900 did extremely well with this little torture test, minimizing glow around the bright white letters, and maintaining as uniform a picture as could be expected. I should note that the AX900 performed best with its Adaptive Backlight Control setting at minimum. Turning the setting up to medium or maximum would result in some darker blacks, but in those modes the dimming became noticeable while watching content with a little more blooming around bright objects and a loss of some shadow detail. Tradeoffs.

As for screen uniformity, I frankly didn’t think that LCD-based displays could pull off anything close to performance so plasma-like. The AX900 doesn’t expose its backlights from the corners like so many other displays will, and brightness across the screen appears perfectly even. As a result, the AX900 produces an exceptionally cinematic image.

Best of all, once I turned off the critical analysis portion of my brain, I was able to kick back and really take in the excellent picture this TV is cable of producing. I never tired of the way it rendered images, whether I was watching a favorite flick on Blu-ray, catching up on a TV show via Netflix, or watching sports via cable. I felt like the AX900 made everything look its best, and I never once found myself wishing it could do more. It may not have the Sony X950b’s flash and pizazz, but it does make you feel like you’re closer than ever before to seeing what content creators intended you to see, and for me, that’s a rare feat indeed.

Conclusion

Panasonic knew very well it was going to piss off its loyal fan-base when it shuttered its plasma TV business, but the company has pulled off what many were sure was impossible: an LED TV that looks and feels like a plasma TV. For those who aren’t convinced OLED is the way to go, the AX900 is an outstanding option right now. And if Panasonic keeps this up, it is going to remain extremely competitive heading into the next few years, when 4K UHD really comes into its own.

Highs

  • Excellent color
  • Incredible screen uniformity
  • Solid black levels and shadow detail
  • Outstanding upscaling
  • Great substitute for plasma

Lows

  • Heavy; bulky stand
  • Poor smart TV interface
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