Expert after expert says nearly the same thing: You can spend substantially more and get a slightly better picture, but the Panasonic ST50 delivers an image that'll please even finicky videophiles. It holds its own with -- and in some cases trounces -- flagship plasma sets from other makers, and puts nearly all LED TVs to shame with its black level performance. Even better, blacks are delivered with all the finesse needed to show fine details in shadowy scenes. Like all plasma TVs, white levels are constrained, but the ST50 still shines brighter than many competitors. Color performance also draws a positive response: Most say colors are accurate and well saturated, although a little user tweaking might be needed to get things just right.
The ST50's features roster is solid, as well. While some reviewers voice complaints about ghosting in 3D, CNET reports that changing the refresh rate setting to 48 Hz leaves the image largely ghost free. Internet streaming is excellent, with built in Wi-Fi and a strong lineup of content providers. Only Amazon Instant is missing among the majors.
As we've noted, plasma TVs do their best in dark rooms. One reason is limited brightness, and another is that glare from lighting and windows often reflect as if from a mirror. The latter isn't a concern with the ST50; it employs a special filter that does a good job of fighting off glare, especially from overhead lighting, CNET reports.
Models in the Panasonic Viera ST50 series include the 50-inch TC-P50ST50 (*Est. $1,100 to $2,300), 55-inch TC-P55ST50 (*Est. $1,300), 60-inchTC-P60ST50 (*Est. $1,600) and 65-inch TC-P65ST50 (*Est. $2,300).
If you're looking to replace an existing plasma TV or are otherwise set up to live with a plasma set's classic brightly lit room issues, you can save a little money by stepping down to the Panasonic UT50 series. Critics say it offers the same great blacks as the Viera ST50 and colors that are nearly as good, at least after a little tweaking. Features are similar, as well. The major difference is that the UT50 doesn't offer the same bright room performance as the more expensive ST50. But for those who plan to place the TV in a room where light levels can be well controlled, the UT50 is worth considering. Available models are the 50-inch TC-P50UT50 (*Est. $850), 55-inch TC-P55UT50 (*Est. $850 to $1,300) and 60-inch TC-P60UT50 (*Est. $1,300).
Another set that gets lots of love is the Samsung E6500. Picture performance is similar to the comparably priced Viera ST50, with great blacks, exceptional shadow detail and colors that are very, very good. Features again include 3D and Internet streaming with built-in Wi-Fi. Samsung throws in two pairs of 3D glasses and extras are fairly inexpensive, starting at about $20 per pair.
So why is the Panasonic Viera ST50 better regarded by some? While all plasma sets struggle to get very bright, the Samsung E6500 is more challenged in that regard. You can crank up brightness, experts say, but the result is great blacks that aren't so great anymore. That makes the E6500 a better choice for settings where lights will always be dim. However, the E6500 has glare-fighting abilities every bit as good as the ST50 -- and maybe even better -- so lamp glare won't be an issue. Another negative is that users persistently report of buzzing with certain screen content, a problem with many plasma TVs. It varies from set to set, apparently, and most owners don't hear it at all. Available screen sizes include the 51-inch PN51E6500 (*Est. $1,250 to $1,600) and 60-inch PN60E6500 (*Est. $1,600).