The arrival of any new Panasonic OLED TV is typically a cause for celebration among serious home cinema fans. After all, arguably no other TV brand has more experience working with self-emissive screen technologies, arguably no other TV brand collaborates as closely with the members of filmmaking world when developing its products, and, as a result, arguably no other TV brand does a better job of getting its OLED TVs to deliver images that look like their creators’ intended them to look.
The excitement for Panasonic’s 2023 OLED TV range, though, is particularly feverish, thanks to the introduction of new brightness-boosting Micro Lens Array (MLA) technology in its flagship models, and a filtering down of past flagship quality to its new mid-range models. In fact, if the mid-range 55MZ980 we’re looking at here is anything to go by, so much once high-end quality is now available on Panasonic’s mid-range TVs that calling them mid-range hardly seems fair.
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room about the Panasonic 55MZ980 right away: No, it doesn’t carry the new MLA technology found in the brand’s new MZ2000 flagship OLED TV range. Nor, in fact, does it get the brightness boosting heat sync technology that previous Panasonic flagship TVs have carried. As a result you’re looking at brightness peaks of around 775 nits on a 1% (of screen area) HDR window and just over 700 nits on a 10% HDR window, rather than the 1300-1400 nit figures you might expect from an MLA display.
The 55MZ980 costs £1,799, though, versus £2,799 for Panasonic’s flagship MLA-sporting 55MZ2000 - a substantial difference that could well be a deal breaker for many. Also, as I’m about to explain, while the 55MZ980 may not have the next-gen hardware of the MZ2000s, it’s actually gloriously good for its money.
As with previous Panasonic OLED generations, the heart of the 55MZ980’s immense picture quality appeal lies in its peerless understanding of the filmmaker’s art. Specifically, the immense attention to detail that goes into mastering films and TV shows on uber-expensive professional-grade monitors for their cinema and home entertainment releases.
What this translates to in 55MZ980 picture terms is a sensational amount of subtlety, balance and insight in almost every single picture frame. This is particularly true when it comes to the 55MZ980’s handling of dark scenes, where fantastically granular handling of black and near black picture information leaves dark scenes looking more detailed, more three dimensional, more free of noise and instability, more natural, more consistent and just, for want of a better world, more beautiful than they do on arguably any rival screen at anything like the same price level.
You feel like you’re seeing somehow more picture in dark scenes than you do with most TVs - and it’s in this sense of seeing something extra that the 55MZ980 most reveals its knack for and understanding of creative intent, which grades images down to almost pixel level to try and help them create emotions as well as simply visually telling the story.
The same level of finesse and nuance applies for the most part to the 55MZ980’s colour performance. Its ability to combine its immaculate light management with a deft understanding of colour values, balance (so that no tone is delivered with excessive weight) and standards again yields an almost painterly sense of refinement to the colour palette that further enhances the sense of depth, solidity, naturalism and, again, emotion of most scenes.
Every now and then a scene - usually a mid-dark scene with large expanses of fairly monotone blue or grey colours in the background - will unexpectedly reveal some striping and banding in the 55MZ980’s usually immaculate colour blend rendering, presumably caused by a limitation of Panasonic’s HX Pro AI picture processing system. This issue occurs rarely enough, though, not do any really significant damage to the 55MZ980’s picture prowess - or to detract substantially from the actually exceptional accuracy and subtlety with which the processing engine works on pretty much every other aspect of the TV’s pictures.
To prove this point, let’s get back to more things the 55MZ980’s picture processor does outstandingly well. Starting with the fantastically clean but natural sense of detail you enjoy with native 4K sources. We’re talking here about a totally organic level of precision and texture refinement born from wholesale mastery of multiple picture elements rather than just the forced-looking outcome of some sort of half-baked sharpness enhancement system.
The 55MZ980’s upscaling of sub-4K resolution sources is also superb, seemingly managing to leverage the full range of picture elements that makes native 4K sources look so refined when calculating what pixels it needs to add to HD and even SD sources.
Panasonic’s Intelligent Frame Creation (IFC) motion processing has come a long way over the past couple of years, too, in terms both of the way some of its settings can reduce ‘hardware’ judder without leaving 24fps films looking like cheap soap operas, and how few unwanted side effects the processing generates (outside of its Max power setting, anyway).
The 55MZ980’s screen does a good job of soaking up on-screen reflections too, and can be watched from almost any angle without any drop off in the screen’s exceptional contrast or colour performance.
Before getting into the 55MZ980’s audio performance I should circle back to the lack of MLA technology that we started this part of the review with. So, yes, the 55MZ980’s pictures are very clearly not as bright as those of MLA OLEDs such as the LG G3 series, or QD OLEDs like Samsung’s S95C series. The extreme precision with which the 55MZ980 can control its light, though, means that HDR shots still look dynamic and realistic, especially when it comes to the way light peaks are able to appear right alongside - literally a pixel away - from incredibly deep blacks without any impact on the purity of either element. The disturbing gleam in Pennywise’s eyes as he chats to Georgie from the a rainwater drain in the opening scene of It Chapter One, for instance, has never looked more pure, authentic and convincing.
It helps the 55MZ980 get the maximum value out of the brightness available to it that it supports both of the premium HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR formats, which provide extra scene by scene picture information to help compatible screens deliver more impactful picture results. Most rival TVs only support one or the other of these premium HDR formats.
Overall, while it might be fair to say that the 55MZ980 benefits from being used - at least for proper movie nights - in a fairly dark room if possible, concerns that its pictures might look in any way dull prove way off the mark.
Even though it doesn’t enjoy either the full, multi-channel speaker system of Panasonic’s MZ2000 or the built in forward facing speakers of the brand’s step-up MZ1500s, the 55MZ980 still sounds impressive for such a reasonably priced TV. Especially one which features only a bare minimum of frame around its screen.
For starters it can both go surprisingly loud and project its sound a good distance beyond the boundaries of its bodywork - two features that immediately reinforce the home cinema potential created by the MZ980’s picture quality. The projection of the sound is especially effective with Dolby Atmos film or TV show soundtracks, helping effects scatter far and wide across the front of your room - including some sounds appearing to come from above the TV in a bid to capture a sense of the overhead effects associated with Dolby Atmos mixes - without the soundstage losing cohesion or becoming thin and brittle.
The 55MZ980’s speakers are sensitive enough to pick up even the slightest details in a mix, and while it doesn’t deliver the deepest bass I’ve heard from a TV it manages to avoid almost all of the crackling or buzzing distortions during heavy bass moments that so many TVs suffer with. Its speakers have enough dynamic range and headroom, too, to shift up and down a few gears during the ebb and flow of a good action movie mix.
The 55MZ980’s sound doesn’t have much forward push from the screen to accompany its sideways spread, and occasionally male voices can sound a touch soupy and indistinct. Otherwise, though, Panasonic’s new mid-range OLED TV sounds more than good enough to make adding a soundbar feel like more of a luxury than a necessity.
Viewed straight on, the TX-55MZ980 presents a very attractive face to the world. Its screen and bezel sit slickly on the same plane, the frame around the screen is on-trend narrow, and the outer edges of the screen are seriously, futuristically thin round the back.
If you have to view the TV from much of angle, though, a startlingly chunky protrusion that actually occupies most of the rear panel starts to heave into view. The skinny screen feels a little cheaply attached to the chunky section too; so much so that I’m not surprised that Panasonic ships the TV with a diagram stuck to its rear explaining in detail how you should and should not hold the screen when you’re moving it about.
For people not hanging their 55MZ980 on a wall (which it isn’t particularly well suited to given how deep part of its rear is), the screen can be slotted onto a slightly plasticky but still good looking centrally mounted ‘flat plate’ style stand.
The four HDMI inputs included among the 55MZ980’s connections, meanwhile, should be enough to meet the needs of even the most tech-heavy households. It’s a little disappointing, perhaps, that only two of the four HDMIs support the full range of gaming features we now look for on premium TVs: 4K resolution graphics supported up to 120Hz frame rates, variable refresh rates and auto low latency mode switching when a game source is detected. But Panasonic goes an extra couple of gaming miles elsewhere by supporting the AMD FreeSync and NVIDIA varieties of VRR alongside the standard HDMI VRR system, and by providing a Dolby Vision Game mode, so that you can enjoy low latency Dolby Vision gaming from PCs or the Xbox Series X.
The 55MZ980’s smart features are provided by Panasonic’s My Home Screen system. This is mostly good news these days, as this system now combines a very easy to customise and use interface with a fairly comprehensive collection of key video streaming apps.
One last great feature of the 55MZ980 is the amount of picture adjustments it offers in its menus. There’s everything a professional calibrator would need to optimise the picture for your room set up if you want to go that route, but Panasonic additionally provides both an unusually long set of picture presets capable of catering for all sorts of picture quality tastes, and a series of highly unusual but invariably useful extra tweaks that prove as much as the 55MZ980’s pictures just how deep Panasonic’s understanding of OLED picture quality really runs.
One of these unusual tweaks, the Contrast Control system, is particularly worth familiarising yourself with, as it provides you with an impressively subtle way of tweaking away a slight tendency for Dolby Vision images to crush out some shadow detail in dark scenes.
All in all, the 55MZ980 is an excellent TV to hang out with - especially if you’re the sort of AV fanatic who appreciates the finer things in AV life and enjoys having lots of adjustments to tinker with.
While it might not be the most cutting edge TV in Panasonic’s 2023 range, the 55MZ980 still manages to be nothing short of a mid-range masterpiece. In fact, the understanding and finesse it applies to its pictures feels like something you’d expect to see on a high-end TV rather than a mid-range one. If you want balance, refinement, attention to detail and respect for the creative process from your next TV without spending a fortune, the 55MZ980 is the one to beat.
It Chapter One 4K Blu-ray
With its startling mix of deliberately bright, richly coloured daylight scenes and ultra dark night-time and underground scenes, the first of Andy Muschietti’s adaptations of Stephen King’s ‘It’ provides a stiff challenge for any TV. The 55MZ980, though, takes all of It’s extremes effortlessly in its stride. Even better, it’s so good at revealing the subtleties that appear between the extremes that I often spotted subtle details in ‘It’ that I hadn’t seen before - despite watching it on dozens of other TVs.
Sleepy Hollow 4K Blu-ray
Tim Burton’s highly stylised tale of a ghostly headless horseman gruesomely murdering the inhabitants of a small rural township features lots of exceptionally stark and dramatically lit imagery that’s perfect for highlighting just how effectively and cinematically the 55MZ980 handles both subtle detailing and light and dark extremes.
Diablo IV Xbox Series X game
Panasonic signed up as the official TV partner for this year’s big Diablo IV game launch, and witnessing the game’s subtle colour palette, stunning world detailing and the intimidating darkness of its demon-filled dungeons looking so sumptuous on the 55MZ980 makes it easy to see why this truly is a match made in heaven (or, in this case, a seriously good looking hell).
Panel type: OLED
Native resolution: 4K (3840x2160)
HDR: Yes - HDR10+, HDR10, HLG, Dolby Vision
Tuner: Freeview HD
Connections: Four HDMIs, three USBs, digital optical audio output, Ethernet port, RF port, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi
HDMI features: eARC, VRR (including AMD FreeSync and NVIDIA G-Sync), 4K/120Hz, ALLM
Video processor: HCX Pro AI
Smart system: My Home Screen 8.0
Lag in game mode (1080p/60): 14.5ms
Sound: 2 x 15W
Screen sizes available: 42-inch, 48-inch, 55-inch
Dimensions: 42-inch model: 933(w) x 545(h) x 67(d)mm, 48-inch model: 1069(w) x 622(h) x 67(d)mm, 55-inch model: 1227(w) x 711(h) x 69(d)mm
Weight: 42-inch: 16kg, 48-inch: 16kg, 55-inch: 14.5kg
Panasonic’s long experience of working with self-emissive screen technology joins forces with its in-depth relationships with the Hollywood movie world to deliver almost ridiculously refined and beautiful picture quality for a £1,799 TV.