Technology

Pioneer's Kuro Doesn't Disappoint


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Editor's Rating: star rating

It's a little pricey, but the Kuro PRO-151FD outdoes its predecessor and is the best plasma TV on the market today

A year ago, I declared Pioneer's Elite Kuro plasma television one of the best TVs I've ever reviewed. So when the electronics company released its successor Kuro Pro-151FD, I wondered whether Pioneer could really top itself.

The answer? Yes, but not by much. The company has managed to eke out even more impressive black detail, delivered a slightly thinner panel with better energy efficiency, and made some additional improvements in behind-the-scenes technology. The Kuro is still the best plasma television on the market, but LCD models from Samsung, Sony (SNE), and Sharp (SHCAY.PK) this year have significantly narrowed the gap.

The Kuro is a stunning piece of technology. It offers rich and realistic color reproduction, amazingly deep black levels, and video processing that provides virtually noise-free delivery of all kinds of content. Retailing for about $5,000, the Kuro is for the serious videophile who is not price-sensitive. The 60-inch set I reviewed delivers resolutions up to full HD, or 1080p. The design itself is meant to showcase the gorgeous images it displays, opting for a basic glossy black bezel and simple "Elite" logo on the lower center. Speakers are detachable and mounted on both sides.

Not Designed for Obsolescence

The Kuro is about as future-proof as any set on the market today can be, with enough connections for all manner of devices—from Blu-ray players and game consoles to older set-top boxes and stereo receivers. On the back, it offers four HD multimedia inputs (HDMI) 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. A RS-232 jack also is included for homes with sophisticated remote control systems such as Crestron.

On the side, there's a second component input and composite input, a headphone jack, and a USB 2.0 input for connecting a digital camera, camcorder, or music player directly to the monitor. You can gain access to those devices on-screen through Pioneer's Home Media Gallery software built directly into the set.

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). CableCARD lets the users do away with the set-top box altogether. Users simply install a credit-card-size device in the back that decodes cable signals securely. Some users complain, however, about the fact that with CableCARD the user cannot download pay-per-view or videos on demand.

Special Feature to Remove Motion Blur

Like many other high-end sets, Pioneer also offers a back-panel Ethernet port for connecting the television to a home network. With it, you can stream digital media from a PC or certified media server.

There are plenty of options for viewing preferences. In addition to the power-saving standard mode, there's also movie, game, and adjustable user modes, Pioneer also offers what it calls Optimum, which automatically adjusts the picture to the brightness of the room; Pure, which optimizes the picture for movie-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. A nifty new technology in this year's model is an automatic color-calibration tool that is enabled by an ambient light sensor.

One unusual feature is that in the Pure mode the set converts images to a 72 Hz video processing rate to remove motion blur. Rival sets typically support video in 24 Hz and 60 Hz. It's no gimmick. While watching fast-moving scenes from There Will Be Blood and Transformers, there were none of the blurring problems that occur with lesser sets.

Contrast Levels Suffer

Pioneer says the new sets offer five times the level of black as the previous generation, though it's hard to notice except in the darkest of scenes. The company is working to deliver a set that offer black levels so deep that the image seems to float in a darkened room rather than come from a screen. In my view, it's pretty close already.

The downside is that contrast levels suffer. Because the technology is geared toward delivering deep, deep blacks, it's hard to get the whitest whites on the opposite end of the scale. Pioneer has moved to address the issue by beefing up the processor technology in the set, but some whites looked slightly gray and washed out to me, especially when watching standard definition programming from cable or satellite feeds.

The on-screen menu system has been retooled to make it easier to access the most-used functions. It's simple and intuitive and works well with the remote.

Pioneer's Elite lineup offers some of the most impressive technology for users who want to constantly tinker with the picture and impress others with its movie theater-like performance. Is that enough to justify its premium price tag? For the average television-watcher, probably not. Still, it continues to hold the crown—if only by a little bit—over its LCD rivals.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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