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Now playing on the big screen: The best HDTVs and 4k Ultra HDTVs of 2013

2013 has been a year of triumph — and some trouble — for the TV industry. Triumph number one: the introduction of big-screen OLED HDTVs from Samsung and LG that readily deliver on that technology’s picture quality promise (though both manufacturers threw us a curveball by making the sets' screens curved). This year has also seen the introduction of a wide range of 4K Ultra HDTV displays that offer four times the resolution of regular HDTVs. And while these new higher-res sets are generally expensive, some models, specifically those made by off-brand manufacturers like Seiki and Hisense, are priced in the same range as current HDTVs with the same screen size.

The past year has also been a great one for plasma TV technology, with the number two HDTV on our "best of" list, Panasonic’s TC-P65ZT60, setting a new high-water mark for contrast ratio and overall picture quality. But with Panasonic’s triumph came trouble: Hot on the heels of its success with the ZT60, the company announced its intention to bail on plasma TV development and production. (Talk about getting out at the top of your game.) However, we would not hesitate to purchase one while they are still available, as Panasonic provides excellent support and the company will be around for years to come,. Panasonic recently announced it's staying in the TV business, shifting over to LED LCD HD and Ultra HDTVs (4K) as well as planning to produce its own OLED 4K TVs.

There are more great options in store for TV viewers who care about picture quality. Samsung, maker of the PN60F8500 plasma model that ranks third on our list, has said it will continue to produce plasmas. And along with Samsung, Sony and LG both upped their game considerably for their 2013 LCD models — something proven out by the inclusion of both companies our list.

Samsung KN55S9C
The arrival of OLED TVs came with high expectations, and the KN55S9C more than met ours. This set’s off-the-charts contrast ratio means you can get as bright a picture as you'd possibly want without affecting its ability to produce deep, inky blacks. Colors are spot-on accurate, and its picture looks both detailed and uniformly bright over a wide seating area. The only disappointing aspect of the KN559C is its curved screen, which can make letterboxed movies look slightly distorted from certain viewing positions, and also prevents you from wall-mounting it. (And there’s the small matter of its $9,000 price tag…)

Along with a stunning picture, the KN55S9C comes with Samsung’s OneConnect box, an external A/V switcher that can be ugraded to keep pace with changes in video tech (HDMI 2.0, anyone?) via the company’s Evolution Kit concept. Other items of note include Samsung’s full Smart features suite, a built-in camera for gesture control and Skype chats, and a quad-core processor to enable zippy navigation of onscreen menus.

Panasonic TC-P65ZT60
Panasonic may be exiting the biz, but its statement ZT60 models represent everything good about plasma: category-leading native contrast ratio (courtesy of a Studio Master panel that’s unique to the ZT60 series), excellent on- and off-axis picture uniformity, and realistic color. The set's extensive list of advanced picture adjustments makes it a must-have for tweakers, though it will also look good if you simply selecting its THX Movie modes presets for 2D and 3D sources. Short of OLED, you won’t see a better picture from any current TV. Along with the 65-inch TC-P65ZT60 model ($3,600) that we reviewed, Panasonic also makes a 60-inch version, the TC-P60ZT60 ($3,000). Scoop one up while you still can.

If you can’t afford a ZT60 but still want to grab a Panasonic plasma, then also check out the company’s ST60 Series models. The TC-P60ST60 ($1,465) we reviewed earned a five hearts rating, with only slightly less stunning contrast ratio and a lack of THX picture presets separating it from the ZT60s. The ST60 Series also features a 55-inch model, the TC-P55ST60 ($1,295), a 65-inch model, the TC-P65ST60 ($2,200) and the 50-inch TC-P50ST60 ($979).

Samsung PN60F8500
Samsung’s top-dog plasma for 2013 is a light output champ: Clocking in at 49.5 footlamberts (post-calibration), the PN60F8500 ($2,798) is the brightest plasma we’ve yet measured, a feat Samsung pulled off by developing an all-new panel containing sub-pixels with deeper cells and thinner walls, along with a new anti-reflective filter that reduces onscreen glare from ambient room light. Its contrast is also topnotch, though not as mind-blowing as what you’ll get with the Panasonic ZT60.

In addition to a great-looking picture, the PN60F8500 packs all the Smart features found in other high-end Samsung sets, and it can be upgraded via the company’s Evolution Kit. F8500 sets also have a notably cool design — you’ll be proud to have one sitting in your living room. The F8500 Series also includes 51- and 64-inch models, the PN51F8500 ($1,898) and PN64F8500 ($3,398). Read our review.

Sony KDL-55W900A
Sony’s been on a roll lately with its higher-end LCD TVs. And while the company has shifted its focus to 4K/Ultra HDTV, we were most impressed this year with its standard HD model. The KDL-55W900A delivers notably rich, accurate color due to its hybrid quantum dot/LED backlight tech. And the impressive performance delivered by its local-dimming edge-lit backlight means that dark images on its screen look uniformly dark. Input lag with the set’s Game mode preset selected is a mere 18.9ms, making it one of the best sets you can currently buy for playing videogames. Read our review.

IMAGE: LG 55LA8600
LG 55LA8600LG

LG 60LA8600
LG’s top LED LCD HDTV is nicely styled, with a very thin bezel and rounded metal stand. As the company’s flagship model, it is also loaded with performance and convenience features. You get an edge-lit LED backlight with local dimming, 240 Hz refresh (120 Hz + scanning backlight) for reduced motion blur, a Smart TV GUI with plenty of apps, passive 3D, LG’s Magic Remote with a built-in mic for voice control and more.

What sets LG 860o Series LED LCDs apart from most others is an IPS LCD panel. This provides superior off-axis viewing compared with its LED LCD competitors, many of which present a dimmer picture when viewed from an off-center seat. It also permits the use of inexpensive passive glasses for 3D viewing. The series consists of the 60-inch 60LA8600 ($2,299) and the 55-inch 55LA8600 ($1,475).

And 2013′s Best (4K) UHDTVs…

IMAGE: Samsung UN85S9
Samsung UN85S9Samsung

Samsung UN85S9 
OK, it costs 40-grand, but Samsung’s UN85S9 ($39,998) is still the most impressive UHDTV we’ve yet seen. (Samsung isn’t exactly sending enormous $40K TVs out for review, but we have had the opportunity to spend quality time with it at various press events.) Part of its charm is the sheer hugeness of its 85-inch screen, huge screens being an optimal vehicle for delivery of 4K/Ultra HD content. But Samsung has also endowed its largest LCD UHDTV with a full-array local dimming LED backlight. The payoff? Pictures with powerful contrast and none of the halos that usually plague edge-lit LED LCDs.

The UN85S9 comes with all the Smart features found on other Samsung sets, the company’s upgradeable OneConnect box (an ability to upgrade from HDMI 1.4 to HDMI 2.0 connectivity being a necessity for a 4K/Ultra HD set), and an elegant “easel” frame that supports the TV and has built-in speakers.

IMAGE: Panasonic TC-L65WT600
Panasonic TC-L65WT600Panasonic

Panasonic TC-L65WT600
With plasma disappearing in the rear-view mirror, we can count on Panasonic to turn its focus on making LED-lit LCD sets — at least until it gets into making OLED. The company’s first 4K/Ultra HD LCD, the TC-L65WT600 ($5499), is something of a statement piece: Unlike other UHDTVs on the market, it arrives with HDMI 2.0 connectivity — no future firmware upgrade required. The main advantage here is that both the set’s HDMI 2.0 input and its DisplayPort connection can accept the 2160P/60-format signals that will undoubtedly be part of any forthcoming Ultra HD broadcast standard or disc-based format. The TC-L65WT600 is also a 4K THX Certified display, which means it should deliver pictures with accurate color straight out of the box and also do a good job upconverting regular HD content.

Al Griffin is an HD Guru contributor.

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