Why Plasma TVs Are Dying

Panasonic, the biggest champion of plasma TVs, is giving up the ghost and will be closing its last plasma factory in 2014, Reuters has reported. (In response to an email from Tom's Guide, Panasonic said, "The content of the report released overnight is not something that was announced by Panasonic.") 

Regardless of whether Panasonic is closing up its plasma shop, the technology is on a fast decline. "Plasma has some life left, but by 2015, the market opportunity is getting small," Steve Koenig, director of industry analysis at the Consumer Electronics Association, told Tom's Guide.

MORE: 5 Easy Tips for Buying an HDTV

The numbers Koenig provided make that very clear. In 2012, U.S. consumers spent $2.15 billion on 2.98 million plasma TVs; by 2015, they are expected to buy just 1.33 million sets for a total of $923 million. That's still a lot of money, but not necessarily the best place for a TV maker to invest. In comparison, Americans spent about $16.8 billion on about 36.2 million LCD TVs in 2012. Those figures are expected to increase slightly by 2015. 

But the business numbers only say so much. It's people's taste in TV that drives these numbers, and that taste isn't motivated entirely by quality, or even price.

"It would be sad to see such fine displays end production," said Joel Silver, founder of the Imaging Science Foundation, about Panasonic plasma TVs. Silver trains TV calibrators and consults with manufactures to improve the image quality and usability of their TVs. And his choice model for training sessions is a plasma TV from Panasonic's ZT line. 

The old wisdom goes, and it's still somewhat true, that plasma beats LCD in some quality respects — particularly wider viewing angles and the ability to show motion clearly, which is a plus for sports fans. Plasmas also excel at showing deep blacks, which equates to better contrast and more-detailed images. Plasma TV had also been known for better colors. The LED-backlit LCD TVs that dominate the market have closed the color gap, Silver said. But plasma was in trouble long before LCD was competitive from a quality standpoint.

It's no secret that the best quality doesn't always win — that's been the case from Betamax vs. VHS to CD vs. MP3 to Blu-ray vs. Netflix streaming. More surprising is that even better prices didn't motivate people to buy plasma. 

MORE: 2013 Best LED TV Reviews and Comparisons

For any size TV you want, plasma will provide a better deal. Say you are looking for a 55-inch TV with the works: 3D, Internet connection, top image-quality tech. Amazon sells one of Panasonic's best LCDs, the WT60, for  $2,889.99. Amazon also sells Panasonic's ST60 plasma TV, which got a 5-star rating and Editors' Choice from CNET, for $1,295.00. (The LCD comes with an extra pair of 3D glasses, but that hardly accounts for the difference.) 

The comparisons are similar at LG and Samsung, the two other companies that still make plasma TVs.

For some reason, LCD is perceived as better. Perhaps it's because the screens tend to be brighter (though plasma is far from dim) or perhaps because they may use a bit less electricity (even though plasmas are on a par with just a few incandescent light bulbs in terms of power use). Maybe it's because LCD is perceived as newer (at least it was in the last decade.) Plasma also got a bad name because of early models that "burned in" images that were left on the screen too long, thought that's not really a problem anymore, either. 

It seems that no matter what, people are not swayed to go for plasma — not on quality, not on features, not even on price. If that's the case, how could plasma possibly survive?

Follow Sean Captain @seancaptain and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.