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Pioneer Kuro PDP-5020FD reviewed, and why Panasonic is rated higher

CNET reviews the Pioneer Kuro PDP-5020FD, and despite the hype and expectations, it's not the best HDTV of 2008.

The Pioneer PDP-5020FD is an absolutely fantastic HDTV with outstanding black levels, but ultimately we preferred the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U.

For quite some time, the battle for CNET's "Best HDTV Overall" has essentially been between Pioneer's and Panasonic's plasmas. Plasma technology may be losing market share every year, but it's still the clear winner when it comes to image quality, thanks to deep, rich blacks that LCDs still can't match. And the conventional wisdom lately has basically been that Pioneer is the best bet for flat-panel videophiles, due to its industry-best black levels (excluding Sony's little OLED set.)

We posted our full review of the Pioneer Kuro PDP-5020FD on Friday, and home theater buffs are likely to be surprised that it's actually rated lower the Panasonic Viera TH-50PZ800U. We fully expected the resulting angry e-mails and hundred-post AVS Forum threads, so it's worth explaining the ratings, which we've put a lot of thought into. Our opinions are all in the review, but here's the short version:

Pioneer crippled the picture controls
If you're into home theater, you know that a properly adjusted display requires some tweaking in the user menu to get it to look its best. Unfortunately--and somewhat inexplicably--Pioneer dropped many of the picture controls that would allow savvy owners to get a better picture on the PDP-5020FD. You can't adjust the color temperature or the primary colors, which is a real issue because the primary colors of the PDP-5020FD aren't that close to the broadcast standard. More picture controls are available on the step-up Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-111FD, but be prepared to spend about $5,000 for it.

The diminishing returns of blacker blacks
We love deep blacks on HDTVs. Nothing makes a picture pop more than rich blacks, and it's the the biggest component of what makes an image look good. That being said, the closer we get to "absolute black" and infinite contrast ratios, the less incremental increases in black level affect the overall picture quality--in our experience. When we compared the PDP-5020FD and the TH-50PZ800U side-by-side, there was no doubt the that Pioneer is the black-level king, but both sets are so good at getting dark that we felt that color accuracy wound up being a more important factor--and the Panasonic easily trumped Pioneer in this regard.

The new design negatively affects the viewing experience
This might seem like a major nitpick, but I noticed this as soon as I sat down to watch the PDP-5020FD. The frame surrounding the actual panel is very reflective, and the panel itself it inset a significant amount. The problem is that in a completely dark room, you can easily see the light from the screen reflecting off the inside of the bezel, which makes it look like a halo surrounding the screen--very annoying. This may not show up in every home theater, but it's definitely distracting, especially on an HDTV that's built for videophiles who care about details like that.

The PDP-5020FD is really expensive
This didn't necessarily go into the rating, but there's no denying that for the vast majority of buyers, the Pioneer PDP-5020FD just isn't worth the huge premium over the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U. The difference is about $1,500 at current market prices, and we really had a hard time finding reasons to justify the extra cost. Yes, the PDP-5020FD produces the darkest blacks of any plasma we've reviewed, but the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U has great blacks as well and its color is a whole lot more accurate.

That being said, let's not lose sight of the fact that the Pioneer PDP-5020FD is still an exceptional HDTV--we rated it 8.4 overall, which is pretty darn high on our scale.

What do you think? Do you think the Pioneer's superdark blacks make it the best set, or do you think the Panasonic's excellent performance for $1,500 less is a steal? Sound off in the comments.