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Plasma comes back with a bang in the form of Pioneer's $7,000 Elite Kuro, the best television on the market today
For the past two years, LCD flat-panel technology increasingly has stolen the limelight in the world of high-definition television from makers of plasma, DLP and other sets. This year, plasma comes roaring back with Pioneer's (6773.T) lineup of high-end consumer televisions.
The company's $7,000 Elite Kuro PRO-150FD quite simply is the best television on the market today, handily outperforming rival manufacturers in every area where it matters most. That includes rich and realistic color reproduction, deep black levels and video processing that provides virtually noise-free delivery of all kinds of content.
The 60-inch set I reviewed is a giant in all aspects, weighing nearly 138 pounds with the monitor and stand. The detachable, side-mounted speakers add another 10 pounds to the mix, though I'd recommend skipping their installation altogether in favor of a high-end sound system to accompany the amazing 1920 by 1080 progressive full-HD video the Kuro delivers.
Like most manufacturers' offerings this year, the bezel is a deep glossy black, with a deep black screen. But Kuros now include special filters embedded within the screen to make the set more viewable in a bright room. It's an important change, since LCD makers have profited handsomely on plasma's weak color performance in brightly lit situations (such as retail sales floors). Pioneer's fix works, too, with the Kuro looking just as good when I watched movies and football on a Saturday afternoon as in the evening.
Pioneer takes a less-is-more approach with the front-bezel design, simply opting for the Elite moniker on the bottom center. On the back, the company outguns many of its competitors with four HD multimedia inputs and a component input for game consoles, HD DVD and Blu-ray players, and set-top boxes. There are also two composite video connections and an S-Video one for older equipment, an audio and subwoofer output, and a digital audio output. Then there are two connections for an over-the-air HD antenna and digital cable, a PC input, and a CableCARD input to let you do away with a cable set-top box altogether.
As if that's not enough, on the left side behind the bezel, there's an additional component and composite input, a headphone jack, and a USB 2.0 input for connecting a digital camera directly to the monitor. To the right, there's the power, input control, volume and channel controls, and button for calling up TV Guide (if you're using a CableCARD).
The same design aesthetic extends only part way to the remote. It is pleasingly backlit and has independent buttons for the inputs, as well as four "favorites" buttons to switch quickly to the most viewed channels. But the odd situation of the infrared receiver on the monitor made it difficult to actually use the remote at many angles. You have to point it directly at the bottom-right sensor to get it to function.
The on-screen display is nicely designed and intuitive enough for even neophytes to navigate to the various display, sound and tuner setup functions. The Kuro also includes an Ethernet connection that can grab digital pictures, music and video off your computer's hard drive or home network under a setting called Home Media Gallery. It's a nifty extra for people who are knowledgeable about setting up media sharing in their home.
There are plenty of options for viewing preferences, too. In addition to the standard movie, game, and user modes, Pioneer offers what it calls Optimum, which automatically adjusts the picture to the brightness of the room; PureCinema, which optimizes the picture for film-based images, and image settings for day and night. Installers and advanced users can dig even deeper to fine-tune individual colors, hues and saturation.
Attention to Detail
The Elite Kuro converts all video to its native 1080p resolution, except for the PC input that tops out at 768 pixels. It also supports video in 24 Hz and 60 Hz. The PureCinema mode mentioned previously processes video at 72 Hz to eliminate motion blur and artifacts in film sources, with great results. While watching Transformers on HD DVD, there were none of the blurring problems that occur with lesser sets.
And where the set really stands out is in its ability to deliver some of the most detailed blacks that I've ever seen. I was transfixed one afternoon watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy in high-definition on Comcast (CMCSA) cable. Details I had not noticed before in several viewings of the film were readily apparent, and the picture looked so clear that I was marveling at the cinematography and vision just like I did in the theaters.
Even standard-definition video processing, a particular weakness of many big-screen HDTVs, looked pretty good on the Elite—boosting it in my book slightly above Sony's XBR sets, which also received a high rating this year.
The Elite Kuro could bust a few budgets, with its giant price tag. But it's the only set this year that I was truly sorry to see returned to the company after my review period. It's hard to see how Pioneer will top itself with 2008 models just around the corner.