In the United States, hundreds of new TVs are released every year, and our job is to pick out the diamonds from among the dirt clods. In the past six months, two TVs have really stood out to me not only as diamonds, but iconic in the same way that the Pioneer Kuro was all of those years ago.
While we all wait for OLEDs to appear later in 2012, I have seen only two televisions in recent memory that I would consider buying for myself: the Sharp Elite Pro and the Panasonic ST50. Both have amazing image quality, but one you'll pay dearly for and one you won't.
Most people wouldn't consider paying $6,000 for a television, but I would. The Sharp Elite is one of the most droolworthy televisions on the market, with great looks and unbelievable image quality: it's perhaps the first true successor to the legendary Pioneer Kuro Elite, and deserves to carry its name.
I believe that you have to pay for image quality, or at least I did until an unassuming-looking cardboard box turned up at the CNET office a couple of weeks ago. On paper, the ST50 is the successor to the ST30: a solid, midrange set that we put forward as 2011's "most bang for buck" TV. In reality, the ST50 is a blockbuster with image quality besting last year's Panasonic VT30 but at half the asking price.
In 2012, we have introduced a Value rating that now counts toward 40 percent of the total score. Given the Elite's high price and the only incremental increase of image quality on this year's Panasonic plasmas, it would probably rate 5 or 6 in terms of value.
The old adage "LCD for bright rooms, plasma for dark ones" isn't very meaningful in the case of the ST50. It handles bright lights better than any plasma we've tested and can also produce a bright picture for a plasma--albeit not as bright as that of most LCDs.
I'm not really one for features, as long as the TV has Netflix I'm happy, but the ST50 has a similar feature set to the Elite. Both TVs offer a Smart TV interface, a professional setup menu, and 3D. If you're buying a TV just on 3D alone for some reason, we'd skip over the ST50 as it's not as competent a performer.
At $1,700 for the 55-inch ST50 -- less on the street -- it's incomprehensible how good this TV is for the money. The few LCDs we've seen this year have all struggled with the requirements of our new Value rating because of one reason: the ST50 is too damn good.
How can Panasonic do it? Is the ST50 a loss leader? Is it going after fellow Japanese company Sony -- a company that this year drastically cut down its TV range in the face of massive finacial losses. The Sony HX750 would have been OK if released in previous years, but when forced to compete with the $600 cheaper ST50 it looks like an expensive amateur.
But the Sharp and Panasonic aren't the only TVs that also stand out to me in terms of picture quality. The Samsung E8000 and Panasonic UT50 are also worth a look. While the UT50 is an excellent television and is almost identical to the ST50, it doesn't have the all-round capabilities of these two TVs: namely it only performs well in a dark room. Turn the lights on and image quality suffers. Meanwhile, the E8000 has image quality roughly similar to the ST50 but is much more expensive, and addition of the "Siri-like" Smart Interaction doesn't justify the difference in price for me.
So if offered a choice between the Sharp Elite and Panasonic which would I get? I know which one I want: the Sharp is a simply beautiful TV. But as a consumer, I tell myself I could be using that extra $4,000 as a deposit on a jet pack. So, in the end, what's the TV I'll probably end up buying this year? So far, it's the ST50.