With the news that Samsung is throwing in the towel on its plasma TV production—it will stop producing them after November—many of us TV fans are already lamenting the loss of what we've long felt is the superior TV technology. The last time I saw this many adults so weepy, I was watching the first 10 minutes of "Up" in the theater with my then-5-year-old, who thought I had popcorn stuck in my eye.
Of course the handwriting's been on the wall for some time now, but the end truly came into view when Panasonic—the leading plasma TV brand—pulled the plug on plasma last year, deciding it was no longer a viable business. So I assumed it was just a matter of time before the last two plasma brands, LG and Samsung, joined the calling-it-quits-on-plasma club. Now Samsung is exiting the market, and while LG has so far been quiet about its plasma plans for 2015, we expect it to come to a similar decision before too long.
Plasma, a requiem
What's the big deal, you might ask? Don't LCD TVs—or LED TVs, if you like to mistakenly call them that—already represent the overwhelming majority of TV sales?
Yes, though frankly I've never been able to understand why, unless you happen to live in a sun-drenched house without any window coverings, where LCD's higher brightness and less reflective screens would be a plus. (Or if you need a TV with a screen smaller than 42 inches.) All those so-called LCD TV features that manufacturers like to brag about, such as local dimming and 120Hz and 240Hz technologies—plasma doesn't need them. They're simply efforts to overcome LCD TVs' inherent weaknesses. And let's not even get into viewing angles.
The best plasmas deliver everything a videophile could want in a TV: great, deep black levels, accurate colors, and unlimited viewing angles. Think that plasmas only appeal to video snobs? We recently brought a bunch of new employees into our TV labs and asked them to pick their favorite two TVs. Out of the 15 TVs playing the same program, every single person picked the only two plasma sets in the room.
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So I guess the real question for anyone in the market for a new set is whether it makes sense to buy a plasma TV knowing that it's a dying technology. You can make your own decision, but I'm going to buy one before supplies are exhausted. (I made that mistake last year, not buying one of Panasonic's ST60-series sets before they disappeared.) The one I'd pick right now if price weren't an obstacle is Samsung's 60-inch F8500-series model, a high-end plasma carryover from 2013 that's probably the last "best" plasma TV. The 51-inch version is selling for about $1,800 or even less right now, and the 60-inch version costs about $2,000.
Those on a tighter budget could consider one of LG's 2014 plasma sets. We tested the 60PB6900, which costs about $1,100, and the 60PB6600, which is a steal at about $850. (The main difference is that the less expensive model lacks 3D.) While neither are top-of-the-line sets—they include LG's old smart TV platform, not the webOS-based Internet system found on step-up LCD sets this year—they both deliver excellent high-definition picture quality, and the PB6900 also has excellent 3D performance, among the best of any tested set.
The question I'm asked most frequently is whether someone buying a plasma TV this year should be nervous that they won't be able to get the set repaired if something breaks. Thankfully, TVs from major brands have been very reliable according to our annual surveys. And Samsung and LG are major brands that will continue to back up their sets with parts and service. If you do need to get your TV serviced, many states have laws governing how long a company has to maintain a supply of parts; check to see if your state has such regulations.
This is also one of the few instances where it might make sense to consider an extended warranty, so if parts aren't available, the service contract company will have to replace the TV with something comparable.
I bought one of the first plasma TV sets on the market—a 42-inch 720p model back when there weren't any 1080p plasma TVs—and it's still working fine. My main family set is a 50-inch VT-series Panasonic that's about five years old, and I still marvel at the great picture. I can't imagine owning an LCD set as my primary TV. I just need to get another five years out of my current TVs. I figure that's about the amount of time before big-screen OLED sets become affordable, so I won't be forced into buying an LCD set—even a UHD model—as the main family TV.
—James K. Willcox
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