In the run up to its release, Panasonic promised the last word in picture performance from its £3,199 flagship LED TV.
The TX-55X902 is a substantial screen, tipping the scales at 26kg sans stand. The brand's improbably heavy counterweight, which allows the screen to sit upright, adds another 14kg to the overall weight.
Design cues are elegant and the beveled metal bezel and blue LED lighting effect emphasise the premium look.
Panasonic's engineers have clearly lavished an enormous amount of attention on the specification. The panel technology here is leading edge. The set features a full-array backlight, coupled with advanced local dimming.
The AX902 is positioned above Panasonic's slimmer, more affordable AX802 line, which are all edge-lit and cover 50-, 58- and 65-inch screen sizes. You can choose from either a 55- or 65- inch AX902 model. Our tested sample was the former.
Connections include four HDMIs, with HDCP 2.2 copy protection support, plus DisplayPort suitable for use with a PC sporting a 4K graphics card. There are also component and Scart inputs via an adaptor, a trio of USBs, Ethernet and an optical digital audio output for soundbars or home cinema systems.
The set comes with two remote controls. The main IR is backlit and has a flashy metallic finish. The other control is Bluetooth with a thumb-driven touchpad and microphone. Wi-Fi is integrated.
There are dual DVB Freeview and Freesat satellite tuners onboard. Not only does this open the door to trendy twin screen tuner sharing, but also allows the channel listings to sport a live thumbnail different to the main screen. The set is 3D compatible too, and ships with a couple of passive glasses.
Smart functionality is top-flight. The excellent Freetime roll-back guide offers full mainstream TV catch-up from BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, Demand5 and 4OD – just choose the show you missed from the retrospective listing and the requisite channel player fires up.
Freetime also offers curated channel highlights for those that can't be bothered to peruse programme guides. The system is fast to navigate too, thanks to a Quad Core Pro 5 LSI.
And frankly, this is just the tip of a functional iceberg. There's also onboard TV Anywhere Internet streaming, USB programme timeshifting, screen mirroring with a compatible MiraCast device, photo frame mode, onboard web browser and video messaging. This TV really can do it all.
If the AX902 knocks the ball out of the park with feature functionality, picture quality is where things get a little sticky.
First the good news: screen uniformity is excellent, thanks to that full array backlight. The hotspots common to edge-lit LED screens are pleasingly absent. Consequently, there's an unwavering solidity to the image. The AX902 actually features 128 zones of dimming, dubbed Local Dimming Ultra.
Image gradation and consistency are both high. Backlight control is adjusted on a block-by-block basis within the image, with the overall brightness modified for both highlights and darkness. To help minimise the effects of haloing, images are analysed vertically, horizontally, diagonally and back and forth.
This is all well and good, until you start to work through the image presets. The majority of which are just too dull and flat for general viewing. Despite offering a variety of modes, not a single preset satisfies. Despite being inherently bright (Panasonic quotes an extremely high 700 Nits) you really need to fiddle around among the many settings to make the most of this.
The normal picture preset offers the best brightness and colour balance, but lets the side down during dark scenes where local dimming halos white objects against black backgrounds.You can be rid of this if you opt for the true cinema, cinema or THX modes, unfortunately all have a black level set too low for comfort. Opt for dynamic and it not only sears your eyeballs, but also destroys shadow detail.
Pimping the THX cinema mode arguably brings the best results, particularly when watching movies with high levels of black. The THX cinema mode, incidentally, disables some of the advanced settings. THX bright throws a little more light on the subject. I used it grudgingly.
There is an ambient sensor which dynamically adjusts settings according to available light, but I found the variable consistency of the image a little jarring.
By default, none of the presets outside of the two THX modes will give you a correct aspect ratio without overscan. While there's a slew of options via the aspect ratio button on the remote, you actually need to go into screen settings to set the 16:9 overscan to off.
One consequence of the full array backlight is that the set can run hot. A battery of cooling fans are provided to combat this, but impart a low-level whir when you power the set up. While not too intrusive, this grumble is noticeable if you're coming from a fan-free set.
Image clarity is unquestionably high. The set does a great job upscaling 1080p sources, boosting detail without increasing noise. The quad-core processor is used to handle the heavy lifting. The set analyses the resolution of source material, then applies texture analysis. Godzilla (Blu-ray) seems astonishingly detailed, with massive levels of texture and nuance visible on the Big G's hide. Destroyed vistas across Hawaii become deeply immersive. If you don't want to upscale your source material, you can opt for simple linear scaling.
The set employs an IPS panel, which offers a wide viewing angle but doesn't deliver a truly deep black. When viewing in moderately lit rooms this isn't a massive problem; blacks appear pretty solid. Watch the AX902 in a fully dark room though and its limitations quickly become apparent.
IFC, Panasonic's proprietary frame interpolation mode, is designed to maintain fine detail during pans and fast movement. It works well but comes with caveats. While resolution is retained, images gain a slippery sheen, sometimes described as the soap opera effect (other brands offer similar motion processing technologies), and it can create motion artefacts.
Frame interpolation generally works best with sports and TV studio-centric material. While you might expect to see motion artefacts on the more aggressive flavours of Panasonic's IFC Pro picture processor, intrusive smudgy effects can actually be spotted in all modes (min, mid and max). Even if you turn off IFC altogether, the set struggles to give a really clean moving image with some subjects.
Usability, sound and value
The TX-55AX902 is actually a great screen to live with. When it comes to Smart navigation it's the sprightliest yet from the brand and the blend of deep functionality with everyday ease of use is a delight.
The Freetime catch-up TV interface sits on top of Panasonic's own customisable home screen, which is a formidable piece of UI software in its own right. You can configure it to suit, arranging the home screen to offer shortcuts to key features.
Opt for different themed home screens, and different users can have their own screens, or simply create a one-size fits all launchpad, which is probably what most viewers will prefer. I found having the set's media server, plus Netflix, YouTube and iPlayer ready to go at power-up without menus to navigate a wonderful thing.
Even in standby the set is eager to please. Panasonic's novel info bar activates when a proximity sensor is activated, which can be disconcerting at first. There are many content apps including both Netflix 4K and Amazon Instant Video, as well as BBC News and Sport, YouTube, Wuaki.TV and Viewster.
Once on your network the set does a fine job of playing the hub for connected sources and local USB thumb drives. File support is solid. Video file compatibility includes with WMV, MKV, mpeg, AVI and Video_TS. Audio file playback is equally gregarious, unspooling m4a/AAC, FLAC, WAV, MP3 and WMA.
Audio quality is reassuringly good. While there are no visible forward facing speakers, Panasonic has effectively combined stereo downfirers with a rear-mounted woofer. The end result is a well-blended, if slightly monophonic, audio system with adequate volume and a solid mid-range.
Overall value is a little more contentious. Obviously the TX-55AX902 isn't your everyday LCD flatscreen. The full-array backlight, ambitious picture processing and substantial build all warrant a premium price tag. In truth though, the set doesn't deliver a performance that's truly commensurate with its RSP. For better value, then look to Panasonic's TX-AX802 UHD range which actually offers a rather more satisfying 4K viewing experience.