2013 Flagship TV Shootout
We break down four of 2013's most posh televisions—only one can be the best.
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Every year, consumer electronics get faster, brighter, louder, and larger—until what passed as groundbreaking just a few years ago is par for the course. This forward motion is most readily visible in new company flagship TVs. There is one thing that doesn't change nearly as often, however: standards.
Unlike almost any other high-volume reviewing establishment out there, Reviewed.com's editorial staff does not decide which product is best based on subjective measures. Where some evaluation is based within industry experience, the lion's share of a product's worth is determined by its objective, scientific performance when silhouetted against industry standards.
The four 2013 flagship TVs in this shootout are all dazzling, powerful, and downright fun in their own right, but one is scientifically superior to the rest. In the following pages, we'll examine which flagship is best—and why.
Samsung F8000—Samsung's flagship LCD is a direct descendent of last year's ES8000; the 2013 variant is a quad-core equipped, super-smart display that threatens to derail the long-standing cable package with its little finger. Replete with motion and voice commands, a built-in camera, and one of the slickest TV designs to date, the F8000 is a tool for the tech-savvy, geared for a bright, modern room.
Sony Bravia W900A—While Sony's true flagship is the UHD X900A, the W900A is the company's top-of-the-line 1080p product this year. Sony has married a unique, attractive design with a high-quality picture to bolster this TV's allure. Our tests further revealed perfectly saturated colors, a decent black level, and impressive motion performance. While it can't outsmart the F8000, the W900A seeks dominance through sheer picture quality.
Samsung F8500—Samsung's F8500 is a perfect poster child for plasma superiority; yet it also hedges out a special place in our hearts as one of the brightest plasma displays ever made. With a black level out-of-reach of LCDs, plenty of brightness, and all of the smarts of its LCD counterpart, the F8500 offers the best of both worlds.
Panasonic ZT60—Panasonic's ZT60 is a heavy, home theater-bound beast with a meat-and-potatoes sort of design. The ZT60 flaunts the largest contrast ratio we've ever tested, a fathomless black level, and a full array of specialist controls. This is a serious TV made small-batch—and forged in an autoclave.
On the next page, we check out blacks and whites in the Dynamics Tier...
The First and Last Thing You See
The most important aspect of any display is its luminance dynamics—some of you might be more familiar with the term contrast ratio. The phenomenon of light output's vast importance to a television is entirely connected to our analog, rod-heavy eyes. Perfect color, a billion pixels, a beautiful design mean nothing if you can't see what you're supposed to.
What is the contrast ratio of real life? Probably a number most of us can't count to. However, the human eye and the non-linear way it sees the Earth around us has everything to do with how displays have been manufactured and engineered since the early 20th century. Almost all of our ability to see and process color is connected with the luminance of the color; there's really no aspect of vision that isn't tied to black and white contrasting one another.
Out of our four contenders, one of them leaves the others in the dust. For reference, the "standard" for contrast ratio in IMAX movie theaters is about 1500:1.
I. Samsung F8000 Contrast Ratio: 2400:1
II. Sony W900A Contrast Ratio: 5000:1
III. Samsung F8500 Contrast Ratio: 18,750:1
IV: Panasonic ZT60 Contrast Ratio: 28,725:1
Winner: Panasonic ZT60
Without a doubt, the ZT60 steals the spotlight when it comes to contrasting bright and dark elements on-screen to create the most realistic, immersive picture. However, contrast ratio alone only tells us so much; the numbers above rely on an even more important aspect of display technology: black level.
The Key Element Of Picture Quality
Black level, or minimum luminance level, is a measure of the least amount of light a display is capable of producing. LCDs like the Samsung F8000 and Sony W900A are much better at producing lots of light than only a little; plasmas like the Panasonic ZT60 and Samsung F8500 are just the opposite. While LCDs tend to fare better in higher ambient lighting, and plasmas in lower, the black level of both is still radically important to contrast ratio and color purity.
We measure black level in candelas per meter squared; one candela is about the luminance of one candle. For years, a good black level was the "norm" on old CRT displays—it was light output that those monitors struggled with. Recent LCDs, on the other hand, tend to be brighter than is even safe to watch, but a "true black" was rarely found. Plasmas, due to their technology, have always fostered deeper blacks. The roundup's plasmas continue that tradition in full force.
I. Samsung F8000 Black Level: 0.12 cd/m2
II. Sony W900A Black Level: 0.069 cd/m2
III. Samsung F8500 Black Level: 0.008 cd/m2
IV: Panasonic ZT60 Black Level: 0.004 cd/m2
Winner: Panasonic ZT60
Again, the ZT60 is ahead of the competition, though each result is acceptable. Black level behaves in a logarithmic fashion to our eyes, and thus the ZT60 actually appears that much darker and blacker. The drawback to its inherent darkness, however, is very clear when you try to watch it in a well-lit room.
To Cave or Not to Cave
The problem with high-performance TVs in the past was always that they necessitated a dim/black room, such as a personal home theater. However, this was something you either did or didn't invest in: Many home theaters run in the $10,000-$20,000 range, for example, and could thus be considered a very niche hobby. Sorry kids, you won't be going to college—but doesn't Citizen Kane look amazing?
Today's LCDs get bright enough to combat the ambient glare of direct sunlight, but maintaining a good black level under normal lighting is something most TVs still struggle with: The average lightbulb produces about 110 cd/m2 of light, for example, and any peak brightness beneath or close to that light output is going to be very hard to watch in severe lighting.
I. Samsung F8000 White Level: 288.04 cd/m2
II. Sony W900A White Level: 345 cd/m2
III. Samsung F8500 White Level: 150 cd/m2
IV. Panasonic ZT60 White Level: 114.90 cd/m2
Winner: Samsung F8500
More and more brightness equals diminishing returns; for this reason, the Sony W900A's intense light output is not a huge advantage over either of the Samsungs, but the Panasonic ZT60's ~110 cd/m2 brightness is actually a drawback under normal lighting conditions. While it has the greatest contrast ratio and the deepest black level, the ZT60 is not a good choice for high ambient lighting. The Samsung F8500 plasma is the second-darkest display, and it still manages to combat ambient light dutifully. For this reason, it's the most flexible between lighter and darker room environments.
On the next page, we dive into reds, greens, and blues in the Color Tier...
Every Color Must Be Just So
When it comes to color production, set standards come into play most prominently. For example, there is a standard for "how much color" a TV's fully saturated red should contain, dictated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the document ITU-R Recommendation BT.709, or "Rec. 709" in shorthand. Standardized color is what enables the French studio that produced The Fifth Element to verify that the film looks the same when viewed in a Japanese theater as it does when viewed on your kitchen TV in Danville, KY.
While it might not seem like a big deal if your blues are a little too cyan, the wrong color saturation can obscure the high degree of detail that makes a 1080p resolution valuable; more subtle hues and edge details can be lost or glossed over, or a vibrant red Corvette could appear washed out and dull.
Thanks to the modernization of calibration controls, many televisions can be tweaked and set accordingly within software menus to produce standard colors. Unfortunately, the average consumer does not have the computer software or expensive equipment required to do this, and it can't be done by eye. For that reason, we tested and scored our four flagship TVs without using CMS (color management system) controls to see what they offered to consumers out of the box.
If you're a completely normal human being, the above charts probably have you saying Huh? What's with those trippy triangles? The four color gamuts above show the placement of each flagship's red, green, blue, and white point saturation. Each of them are very close to the Rec.709 ideal, but none of them are perfect. Though the gamuts are subtly different in many ways, there's one thing they all agree on: Green is king. This is because the human eye is most sensitive to green, so errors in green saturation are the most egregious.
Through testing and data collection, each of the four TVs can be given an average collective amount of error:
I. Samsung F8000 Color Error: 0.021
II. Sony W900A Color Error: 0.020
III. Samsung F8500 Color Error: 0.022
IV. Panasonic ZT60 Color Error 0.028
Winner: Sony W900A
Though by a perceptually tiny margin, the Sony W900A tested with the least amount of collective color error, whereas our Dynamics Tier champ had the most trouble producing properly saturated colors. Apparently, Sony's flagship looks great in more ways than one.
All For One, One For All
A television's "grayscale" is the measure of its black, grey, and white balance from 0 IRE (black) to 100 IRE (white). Because TVs use additive color, each shade of gray is actually made up of red, green, and blue light. This is why light passing through a prism makes so many colors; a TV's pixels do something of the opposite when making shades.
An imbalanced grayscale can look terrible; think about if the three primaries (red, green, and blue) favor too much of one color. Instead of mid-gray, you'll have more of a pink if it's pushing too much red. While this is a major component of TV calibration, we again value what each flagship can do right out of the box for the sake of consumers. The balance of red, green, and blue should equal a particular white point, with a correlated color temperature of 6500K. In short, each step of the grayscale should be "true white," but at different levels of luminance.
For this reason, we can break the grayscale down into its components: the curve of red, green, and blue. Each TV handles its colors differently, but the proper response is one that does not over- or under-emphasize any one color from minimum to maximum input. We've tested and evaluated how each TV handles its color curves; total scores are based on how quickly the curves peak, and how much definition is accorded to each intensity step:
I. Samsung F8000 Color Curves: 7.03 out of 10
II. Sony W900A Color Curves: 7.46 out of 10
III. Samsung F8500 Color Curves: 7.88 out of 10
IV: Panasonic ZT60 Color Curves: 7.95 out of 10
Winner: Panasonic ZT60
Each of these four flagships produces color just a little bit better than their cheaper counterparts—after all, if they didn't, they'd have no business being flagships. Yet the ZT60 purports the most accurate color curves, with absolutely no error in its green saturation.
On the next page, we spring a pop quiz to see which flagship is smartest...
Picture performance is undoubtedly what makes a great TV, but these four wouldn't be flagships if they didn't also have the latest fancy features. The modern smart TV platform is miles ahead of what we saw bundled with high-end TVs just a few years ago, but one company has a leg up on the competition, for a reason most people wouldn't expect.
Samsung Smart Hub
Last year saw Samsung leading the pack in smart features. A heavily streamlined content headquarters put big names like Netflix and Hulu Plus in the same organized sphere as weather apps, news tickers, and questionably-translated flash games. That same level of organization and crisp detail has been carried into 2013's iteration, but with a terrific new feature: cable integration.
Both the F8000 LCD and F8500 plasma ship with many extra items... glasses, remotes, and so on. One of these things, an IR Blaster, is the key to what makes both Samsung flagships so smart. The IR blaster allows the TV to integrate your cable programming into its database, and change channels for you by sending the signal itself. It's a terrific feature, perhaps the smartest thing on the market right now.
Both Samsung flagships are truly stuffed with features, and you can read all about the Smart Hub in our full-length article here.
Samsung F8000/F8500 Features
- Voice control (via smart remote)
- Gesture control (via built-in camera)
- Cable integration (via IR blaster)
- Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go apps
- S Recommendation
- Skype, Twitter, Facebook apps
Panasonic Viera Connect
We've had our qualms about Viera Connect in the past, but this year, Panasonic is upping its game. The ZT60 is not the most feature-focused TV, however, and lacks some features, like the VT60's built-in camera. That doesn't mean the hyper-dark ZT60 doesn't have a few tricks up its sleeve, however.
For a rundown of Viera Connect 2013, check out the full article here.
Panasonic ZT60 Features
- Custom Home screens
- Swipe & Share 2.0
- VieraConnect 2 app (for smartphone control)
- Voice interaction (via smart remote)
- Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video apps
- Facebook and Twitter apps
Sony Entertainment Network
See Me After Class
Sony has been designing user interfaces for years—the PlayStation 3, for example, which has a complex but wholly usable layout. Last year's SEN (Sony Entertainment Network) was a bit on the messy side, but 2013 has shown improvements to the company's design aesthetic. The W900A is easy enough to navigate, but doesn't have the features—voice recognition, cable integration—to help it compete with the other flagships.
For a breakdown of Sony's 2013 smart platform, check out our full article here.
Sony W900A Features
- Android phone/tablet control
- NFC One-touch
- SimulView gaming mode
- Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video apps
- Facebook and Twitter apps
On the last page, we announce the shootout winner...
Is there any question? The winner of the 2013 Flagship Shootout is the Panasonic ZT60.
The four thousand dollar ZT60 is a big investment, but offers the absolute best picture quality on the market right now. Its black level is the deepest, its contrast ratio the highest, and its colors the purest right out of the box. With proper calibration, it's practically a gift from TV heaven.
The ZT60 is not as smart as the Samsung flagships, and it's the most inflexible, in terms of staying watchable in various lighting conditions. It's also 120 pounds, and gets quite hot after about 45 minutes of playback. Yet save for those slight disadvantages, it is king of the dark, light-controlled home theater, producing a picture that continues to impress well after the excitement of novelty wears off.
The bottom line, though, is that each of these four TVs are top-tier performers, with many useful features. We have to criticize them, but from a purely human standpoint, they're awe-inspiring, expertly crafted machines, especially compared to anything pre-2010. It's a good time to upgrade your living room companion. If these pricy picture boxes are out of your budget boundaries, fret not; winter (sales) are coming.