Panasonic’s 50-inch TX-50AX802 TV combines Ultra HD 4K resolution and advanced picture processing with Freetime, arguably the most seductive catch-up TV service yet. See The 7 best Smart TVs: what is the best Smart TV of 2014.
And at around £2100, it’s clear evidence that 4K is beginning to usurp 1080p at the large-screen end of the TV aisles. Joining this 50-incher in the AX800 series is the 58-inch TX-58AX802 and 65-inch TX-65AX802.
Reassuringly, there’s nothing budget about the build. Tipping the scales at a hefty 24 kg, this metallic-trimmed set is convincingly premium. An unusual counterweight pedestal block, fitted out of sight behind the screen, gives the illusion that the TV is resting on nothing but a slim chromed frame.
The AX802 has dual Freeview HD and Freesat tuners, and includes a camera which automatically pops up from the bezel when required for Skype of facial recognition
Connections include four HDMI 2.0 with audio return channel (ARC), PC-friendly DisplayPort, three USB, ethernet and a 4K video-compatible SD card slot. Wi-Fi is built in.
The set also ships with two remotes, a particularly handsome IR controller with metallic finish and a Bluetooth Touch Pad with built-in microphone for voice commands.
Freetime, the roll-back EPG, first came to light on the Freesat satellite platform. Here it’s evolved to work with either Freeview or Freesat tuner, and greatly simplifies catch-up viewing from the main broadcasters (BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD, Demand5). With Freetime there’s no need to fire up individual apps, just scroll back to find the programme you want using the EPG.
Aside from catch-up, the AX802 lists Netflix, Vimeo, BBC News & Sport, Wukai.TV, Skype and Dailymotion amongst its apps. Panasonic’s distinctive my Home Screen UI provides a solid launcher for all these services. You can choose a Home Screen from a selection of presets, or just arrange your own using a blank grid.
The AX802 also introduces my Stream, a curated content recommendation engine that filters broadcast content, YouTube clips and other sources. You can fine-tune recommendations using a Star icon on the Bluetooth controller. There’s also provision to recommend content for other family members with a registered my Stream profile.
Interestingly, while the TV does have an HEVC decoder (the compression standard currently favoured for deliverying 4K video from the internet), it’s not compatible with the nascent Netflix 4K service, apparently due to an unforseen incompatibilities between Panasonic’s chosen chip architecture and Netflix.
This incompatibility may or may not prove a significant failing in the long term, but certainly while UHD content sources remain scare it’s a blow. You can however stream 4K demo content from Panasonic’s own UHD channel.
File compatibility is wide. We played MOV, AVI, WMV, MPG and MKV across a network from a NAS and a USB stick; audio support covers WMA, MP3, AAC/M4a and FLAC. The TV also supports Miracast mirroring with compatible Android and Windows Phone 8.1 smartphones.
Picture performance is terrific. Many might wonder if a 50-inch 4K screen brings the same viewing benefits as a larger UHD panel. The good news is that with native 4K content, the image here positively prickles with extraordinary detail.
For this audition, we created our own 4K video content shooting sequences on Panasonic’s GH4 system camera. Our 3840 x 2160 resolution material shot in MP4 H.264 at 30 fps looked absolutely stunning on this screen.
The TX-50AX802’s deliciously inky black-level performance is coupled to a quite outstanding colour performance creating lush, dramatic images. There was some unevenness to the backlight, but this wasn’t apparent during normal viewing.
Motion handling is extremely good, provided you keep Intelligent Frame Creation processing to minimum. In this mode you get maximum motion-image clarity with hardly any motion artefacts, making it great for sports.
3D is of the active-shutter variety, and quite effective. Two pairs of glasses are provided and while there’s some inevitable crosstalk, pictures are for the most part wonderfully deep and dynamic.
Sonically the set is effective, although the soundstage is monophonic, as most of the audio is directed out of a central rear facing speaker. Some mild sense of stereo can be gleaned from a pair of downward firing drivers used for higher frequency detail.