It's pretty clear from its £3,700 price tag that Panasonic's 60-inch TX-P60ZT65 is not a TV that's aimed at the mass market. No, this behemoth has been designed by the company's engineers to appeal to picture purists who want the deepest black levels and most accurate colours you can get from a 1080p HDTV.
It's only available in one screen size, and Panasonic says it's not actually building that many of them. Each one comes with a special booklet with the signature of the company's two head honchos for TV design and manufacturing. In a way, it almost seems like a vanity project by Panasonic just to show that it can produce a set that outperforms Pioneer's old Kuro range.
So has the company succeeded? Yes it has, although it's very pricey, not massively superior to the Panasonic's own VT65 and with 4K around the corner you'll have to consider your investment carefully if you're thinking of buying one.
User interface and TV guide
Apart from the Studio Master Panel logo that pops up when you turn on the TV, the user interface for the ZT65 is pretty much identical to that used on Panasonic's other 2013 models. The company has vastly improved this over what it was using on its 2012 TVs, as it has a brand-new smart TV system that allows you to create your own customised homescreens.
The settings menu isn't really integrated into this new system, so looks a little less slick. It's still fairly colourful and, more importantly, quick and easy to use. Panasonic's presets are extremely good right out of the box. There are two THX picture modes for Cinema and Bright Rooms, and a new EBU mode that conforms to the European Broadcasting Union's guidelines on industry standards for stuff like black level, contrast and luminance.
The ZT65 also has a full colour management system, as you'd expect, as well as 2- and 10-point white balance control. Unlike Panasonic's older plasmas, it allows you to adjust the panel's overall brightness levels, with low, medium and high luminance levels available.
The ZT65 thankfully is also equipped with Panasonic's new programming guide. This has been updated to include a video window of the channel you're currently tuned to, which is handy if you're watching a show and just want to quickly check what's coming up on other channels later without missing out on any of the action.
In its smart TV menu you'll also find a channel explorer widget. This presents a now and next guide as a vertical column containing the different Freeview or Freesat channels. The clever bit is that when you jump from one channel to another it'll actually show a live video picture-in-picture view of what's currently showing on the other channel that you've selected.
Smart TV system
The new Panasonic smart TV system the ZT65 uses is miles ahead of what was available on last year's models. You can either choose to use one of the preset homescreens or alternatively build your own custom version using a number of templates. This is a great idea, as it lets you group all the apps you use most often together in a single location that's quick and convenient to access.
By default the TV starts up on your smart TV homescreen, but you can set it start in fullscreen mode instead if you prefer. Annoyingly it does show an advert banner if you select this option, but thankfully this can be turned off via the settings menu -- Panasonic doesn't make it obvious how to do this though. You actually have to go into the settings menu and disable the VieraConnect banner.
The smart TV system has apps for popular services such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. There are still quite a few gaps in the line up, however -- it lacks apps for Lovefilm, ITV Player and 4oD, all of which are found on Samsung's smart TV platform.
There is a full Web broswer onboard, though, and this can be used with Panasonic's app for iOS and Android devices, so you can catch and throw Web pages to the TV. The handshaking involved in getting the two to speak to each other is still relatively long, so it's not as immediate to use as it might sound.
The browser supports Flash, so you can use it to watch the outstanding video reviews on CNET UK, for example. Web navigation isn't bad thanks to the secondary touchpad remote that Panasonic includes with the TV.
Weirdly, the ZT65 lacks the camera found on the VT65, so the face-recognition features and Skype video-calling aren't supported unless you add the optional camera accessory. It does come with the Bluetooth pen that lets you scribble on the screen like a Sky Sport presenter. It's fun to use, but a bit of a novelty, so after trying it out a few times it'll probably end up being stuffed away in a drawer somewhere, or lost down the back of the sofa.
More interesting is the fact that the TV has dual tuners for both Freeview HD and Freesat HD (this is what lets you see previews of other channels on the TV guide). As a result, if you plug a hard drive into one of its USB ports it can act as a full-blown PVR, allowing you to record one channel while watching another. Panasonic's user interface for this isn't wonderful -- like its standalone PVRs, the interface can be obtuse at times -- but it gets the job done.
The ZT65's media player is pretty handy too. It can play MKV files as well as MP4, DivX and Xvid videos, and the transport controls work properly, so you can fast-forward and rewind even when you're streaming files across a network -- something that doesn't work on current Samsung TVs.
Design and connections
The ZT65 is a fairly elegant-looking slab, but some way off the prettiest TV I've seen. The chassis and bezel are both thicker than what you'll find on today's high-end LED sets, for example. Nevertheless, its piano black and shiny chrome finish makes it quite sophisticated, as does the single sheet of glass design, where the front of the screen sits flush with the edge of the bezel.
The V-shaped stand won't be to everyone's taste and, sadly, like many of the stands on the latest plasmas it doesn't swivel (an issue as the ZT65 is very heavy to move about on its base), but I still think it looks pretty classy. I also like the fact that Panasonic has made the LED at the front dimmable -- ideal if you're watching the TV in a darkened room.
As with most high-end sets at the moment, the ZT65 comes with two remote controls: a touchpad remote and a new take on Panasonic's normal TV zapper. The touchpad remote isn't bad, but it's not as good as Samsung's one and not a patch on LG's magic remote.
The standard zapper is much better. It's thinner than Panasonic's normal remote and has slightly smaller buttons. It's got a funky red backlight and has dedicated buttons for stuff like the apps menu and home screen.
Stingily, Panasonic has stuck with the three HDMI ports that you get on the VT65, which is ridiculous on a TV at this price -- it should have at least four. You do get three USB ports as well as an SD card slot. Wi-Fi is built-in too and naturally there's a wired Ethernet port as well.
In the box you'll find a short breakout cable for connecting up older Scart devices to the TV. There's an optical digital audio output too, for sending audio from the TV's onboard tuners to external amps that don't support HDMI.
2D picture quality
The main reason why the ZT65 is so expensive, and being produced in limited numbers, is because there's no air gap between the panel and the glass front. They're bonded directly onto each other. The importance of this is two-fold: it helps the panel reduce reflections in bright rooms, which in turn increases the apparent black levels in the picture. Secondly, it helps more of the panel's luminance (brightness) to make it past the glass surface.
To be honest, neither of these benefits is hugely apparent in a dark room. If you like viewing movies with the light down in the evening, the ZT65 doesn't produce pictures that are hugely different to the cheaper VT65. Both are capable of delivering exceptionally deep black levels while also teasing immense shadow detail from dark images.
The differences only really becomes apparent under brighter lighting conditions. In a bright room the ZT65's pictures look more contrasty and more dynamic than the VT65, because its black levels remain very, very deep under these conditions, while it also retains its exceptional shadow detail performance.
Samsung's excellent F8500 is arguably brighter than it in these conditions, however, but importantly the F8500 can't match its black levels in a dark room. It's the fact that the ZT65 produces such good results in a range of different viewing environments that makes it so special.
The ZT65's colour handling is also absolutely first-class. Skin tones look beautifully realistic and colours have so much pop to them without ever looking unnatural. In fact, the ZT65 handles subtle colour hues with a defter touch than any other TV around at the moment.
Its picture processing is also hugely impressive. Upscaling standard-definition broadcasts to a screen of this size is not an easy feat, but the ZT65 does an excellent job. It smoothes out noise, while also adding in just the right amount of sharpness where it's needed.
The ZT65 is not flawless, though, as it suffers from some motion issues. This is most noticeable on broadcasts, rather than Blu-ray pictures, but it shows up as double image ghosting or flickering on the edges of moving objects during panning shots or continuous moving shots. I could see it clearly on coverage of the Tour de France, where side-on shots of the riders from the motorbike camera showed this juddering on objects in the mid-distance.
It definitely seems to affect broadcast pictures far more than movies from Blu-ray, and you can get rid of the worst aspects of it by using the intelligent frame-creation processing at its lowest setting. This doesn't completely eradicate it, but it does calm it down to a degree that you have to start to look for the problem to be able to see it.
3D picture quality
As with all plasmas, the ZT65 uses active 3D technology. Panasonic supplies two pairs of its 3D glasses with this set. The glasses are much lighter than Panasonic's first generation 3D specs, and on their own are reasonably comfortable to wear. If you already wear prescription glasses, you'll probably find they don't sit comfortably with your existing giglamps. Certainly they're not as good as Samsung's active glasses in this regard.
The ZT65 is a very good 3D performer, on the whole. As with 2D, its black level performance is exemplary. What's more, its relatively high levels of brightness help it produce dynamic-looking images, although to my eyes Samsung's F8500 was a tad brighter in 3D than the VT65. Shadow detail was very good in 3D as well.
Like all active 3D glasses, at the default setting Panasonic's specs cause flickering on ambient light in your room. The set does allow you to change the refresh rate for 3D to 120Hz, which hugely reduces this flicker. This also increases crosstalk quite dramatically though, so it's really best to stick with the default 100Hz refresh rate. The dynamic picture mode also suffers from crosstalk in 3D too, so it's best avoided.
The good news is that in pretty much all the other picture modes, crosstalk just isn't an issue, and the VT65 3D pictures have a very good sense of depth, thanks in part to their good levels of sharpness.
The VT65 sounds pretty good by flatpanel standards. It's so big, the speakers are positioned reasonably far away from each other, which helps it to create a wider soundstage and its bass response isn't bad either. It has downward firing speakers rather than the front-firing ones on the VT65, so it lacks some of the extra clarity for dialogue that made the VT65 so good in this department.
Sure, the ZT65 is very expensive, and the fact that it's a 1080p set when 4K is just over the horizon may put some people off. It's also odd that it's missing some features from the VT65, such as the camera and side mounted speakers, and its smart TV system isn't a match for what you get on Samsung's TVs.
The ZT65 is not about extras, it's about all-round picture purity and on this front it outdoes all its peers. Panasonic's own VT65 runs it very, very close for dark-room performance and Samsung's F8500 has more light output for use in bright rooms.
But the ZT65 is exceptionally good when it's working in both bright and dark rooms and it's this versatility that makes it such a high-quality telly. If your aim is the ultimate in picture quality, the ZT65 provides it -- and that's all that really matters from an 'enthusiast' display such as this.