Many reviewers, including the HD Guru™, rated Pioneer’s 2007 Kuro plasma line as the year’s best. Now, the 2008 models have finally begun shipping to dealers. Are they as good as last year’s? Are they better?
According to a Pioneer press release, all 2008 Pioneer plasmas, including the PRO-111FD, the 50” model in Pioneer’s Elite HDTV line, incorporate a number of improvements and feature changes, including lower black levels, deeper colors, new menu graphics, nearly 20% depth reduction (to 3.7 inches) and a new remote control. The step-up Elite series adds additional controls including user-adjustable gray scale, a different anti-reflective filter, slicker styling and a longer warranty.

As always, the HD Guru’s evaluation began after optimizing the user-accessible controls. All tests and picture evaluations were made in the “PURE” mode because it provides the most accurate reproduction (or screws around the least with the input source depending on your point of view).

Relying on an external sensor that attaches to the edge of the display’s bezel, a new “OPTIMUM” mode “automatically adjusts the image quality for the brightness level of the viewing area” as well as for the color of the ambient room light. I have never been a fan of light sensors because the picture settings continually fluctuate as room lighting changes. I prefer optimizing the picture settings manually for night and daylight viewing environments. There are five more picture modes including STANDARD, which unlike the other settings is “not” global for all inputs, GAME, SPORT, MOVIE and PERFORMANCE (for bright rooms, according to the owner’s manual).

Using a Sencore 403 signal generator as the source, I made normal user picture parameters adjustments and set other controls (and boy there are ridiculous amount of them). The Silicon Optix test disc allowed for the checking and adjusting of other picture elements. A test of the noise reduction circuit (NR), which Pioneer calls 3DNR, proved it to be quite effective in smoothing out images containing random video noise and showed an improvement over a similar circuit used in the 2007 sets. There are other NR circuits for “block” and “mosquito” noise, as well as for still images.

A Brief Rundown of Many of the Other Picture Controls.

Though the owner’s manual fails to define the acronym, I assume “DRE” stands for “Dynamic Range Expansion,” since it’s explained as a feature that “…emphasizes contrast between brightness and darkness.” In other words, it “crushes” light detail into white and dark detail into black. It was left “off.”

“Black Level,” which “emphasizes dark portion of the image,” makes darker details disappear into black, so naturally it too was left “off.”
“Enhancer” is a secondary sharpness circuit, which I set to position “2,” or “Natural.”
“Color Temperature” offers 5 presets plus “Manual.” Unlike last year’s model, which was quite close to the d6500K color temperature in the “Mid-Low” position, this year’s “Mid-Low” is factory preset too high (blue-ish), while the “Low” setting results in too low a temperature (reddish). More on this later.
“CTI” (Color Transient Improvement) produced no immediate image difference using test signals, so it too was left “off.”
As with other flat panel HDTVs, there are multiple aspect ratio choices. The “Dot-By-Dot” aspect mode provided a 1:1 pixel for pixel display with no overscan. The regular “Full” mode for HDTV content measured 2% overscan. The PRO-111FD equaled the bandwidth performance of the Panasonic PZ850U, perfectly reproducing the “one pixel on/off” pattern, indicating full bandwidth.
“Jaggies” tests conducted after all picture controls had been optimized had the Elite PRO-111FD passing two out of the three “three-line” test on the Silicon Optix HQV disc, which is an excellent result. The set also passed the 1080i deinterlace test as well as the film (24 frames per second native content) test (using the “Advance” processor mode).
However, with “Advance” mode (which operates at 72 Hz), when viewing 1080i movie channels on Verizon FIOS, the circuit would often trip up, producing momentary double images or aliasing (also called combing artifacts). Overall, though the signal processing (including noise reduction) appeared to have been improved from last year, it still has a way to go.
Static and Motion Resolution measured 1080 lines (per picture height) “static” and 900 lines “motion,” tying the Panasonic’s performance (1080 static; 900 motion) and beating all LCD flat panels tested to date.

With the source material used for the Panasonic power consumption test no longer available, I substituted a full screen (called full raster) test signal set at 30IRE (30% of full white), using the calibrated “PURE” picture mode. Usage measured just 152 watts. Full white (100 IRE) full screen, measured both in “Pure” and “Sports” at 100% contrast setting, produced readings of 400 watts. The Panasonic produced a higher reading, using the same test pattern. The results are at the end of this review.

As mentioned above, the factory presets were either too red (Low setting) or too blue (all others).  Using the “Manual” color temperature setting, I was able to achieve near perfect (d6500K) readings from dark gray to white by boosting the “Green High” drive setting to +5 and the “Blue High” setting to +5. All remaining “Manual” white balance settings (“Red High,” “Blue Low,” “Green Low” and “Red Low”) remained at the “0” factory preset.

Regarding Red, Blue and Green color points, there are two color settings available on the PRO-1111FD: “Color Space 1,” which expands the color gamut towards the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) standard and “Color Space 2,” which is designed to conform to the Rec. 709 HDTV standard.

The “Color Space 1” setting achieved a crimson red that measured almost identically (within .004 x and .001y) to that of the Panasonic TH-50pZ850U. I preferred the “Color Space 1” setting for viewing movies on Blu-ray disc and FIOS, observing higher color saturation and an overall more pleasing, more natural (albeit less accurate than the REC. 709, which is the current standard for each source) rendering of colors. I rate the color as excellent. The readings and the reference color points for DCI and Rec.709 are:
Color Space 1 Red x .670 y.322
Color Space 2   Red x .642 y.331
DCI Stan   Red x .680 y.320
Rec. 709  Red x .640 y.330
Color Space 1 Green  x. 269 y.654
Color Space 2 Green  x.293  y.601
DCI Stan Green  x .265 y.690
Rec. 709  Green  x .300 y.600
Color Space 1  Blue x.146 y.059
Color Space 2 Blue  x.150 y.061
DCI Stand Blue x.150 y.060
Rec. 709   Blue x.150 y.060

So, how does the overall picture quality stack up?  To quote Tina Turner, it’s “simply the best” HDTV I have ever tested. Here is a point-by -point break down against the Panasonic TH-PZ850U.

Black Level- This 9th generation Pioneer Elite plasma has the darkest blacks of any flat panel set I’ve seen. It is so dark, the intensity is too low to accurately measure with my current test gear. It’s noticeably darker than last year’s Pioneer and the Panasonic TH-50PZ850U.  It’s not dead black (you’ll have to wait for next year’s Gen 10 model according to Pioneer), but it’s damn close. On the other end of the scale the calibrated brightness (using a 100 IRE window pattern) clocked in at 37.4 foot lamberts, providing an outstanding (observed) contrast ratio—advantage Pioneer

Anti-Reflective Properties—The lower room reflection off the Pioneer beats the Panasonic PZ850, but it still has the purple reflection of last year’s Pioneer plasma. —Advantage Split.

Signal processing—Performed better than last year’s model, but there’s still has room for improvement, especially when one considers how well other performance areas measured. Advantage by a nose—Panasonic/Judder Free—Pioneer.

Energy Consumption—As mentioned above, I retested the Panasonic using the 30 IRE and 100 IRE full raster pattern. The Panasonic used 161 watts at 30 IRE and 541 watts (in either the calibrated “Custom” or “Vivid” modes) respectively. The Pioneer has two lower energy modes available in the user menu. However, I don’t know if they provide any net power savings as Pioneer states in the owner’s manual that the energy saving modes lower the image brightness. Selecting one of the energy saving modes would require a recalibration of the picture controls, and at the end I don’t anticipate any net reduction in consumption, as one would have to raise the picture (contrast) control to compensate for the lower brightness, which will likely net no power savings. Plasmas are dynamic: producing a brighter picture (higher contrast control setting) requires higher wattage. Bottom line? Pioneer has made this display significantly “greener” with lower power consumption and should crow about it in both its literature and advertising— advantage-Pioneer

Color—Pioneer has improved color saturation; the Reds and Blues are almost identical to Panasonic’s colors. The Green is the least accurate primary color of either display.  The Green is closer to the DCI standard on the Panasonic (in DCC On mode) than on the Pioneer (in Color Space 1 mode). The Pioneer (Color Space mode 2) comes closer to the HDTV standard Rec. 709 Green than does the Panasonic in DCC mode “on” does.

Gamma—The rate of transition from black to white is called Gamma and can be measured and tracked.  The Gamma 1 setting on the Pioneer provided the most accurate tracking, though it comes in a little too bright in the lower (darker) end, until the darkest details drops (crushes) into black. This is an improvement over the 2007 Pioneer model, which tended to crush both dark and light parts of the image. The PRO-111FD measured a Gamma of 1.91. The 2007 Elite model allowed the calibrator to correct Gamma errors with special software; Pioneer appears to have dropped the feature in this year’s Elite plasma. Advantage—Split.

Overall Quality—With color reproduction comparable to the Panasonic 850, improved noise reduction, slightly better real world energy consumption and the best black level of any plasma tested, the Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD rises to the top of the flat panel universe. On the other hand, you’ll pay a premium of $1500 over the highly-rated Panasonic TH-50PZ850U. Is it worth it extra dollars? That is up to you to decide.

Copyright ©2008 Gary Merson/HD Guru™. All rights reserved. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.