Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD review:

Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD

Pioneer PDP-5020FD
An HDMI input and a USB port highlight the easy-access side-panel connections.

Simply put, the Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD produced the best picture of any flat-panel HDTV we've tested to date. It delivered the deepest blacks we've seen from any large-screen display, as well as the most-accurate color. Video processing was superb, its glare-reducing screen is the best we've seen on any plasma TV, and we could find almost nothing to complain about in other areas. Given its superb performance, the PRO-111FD scores the first "10" we've ever awarded in overall picture quality. To us, that score doesn't represent perfection--hey, nothing's perfect--but instead a picture that's solidly superior to anything else we've seen in the flat-panel HDTV category.

Our standard calibration turned out to be a simple affair, despite the PRO-111FD's sizable complement of picture controls. The key was the Pure picture mode, which automatically engages Color Space 2, which in turn adheres very closely to the Rec. 709 HD color standard. We tweaked the color temperature a bit, removing a slight reddish cast, and touched up Magenta and Green by three total pips in the color-management system, but that was about it. The default Gamma 2 setting measured a nearly perfect 2.181 gamma; light output and black level were almost dead-on, and our main change was to bump up saturation (Color).

The initial accuracy of Pure, in fact, makes us doubly annoyed that Pioneer didn't include the same picture mode in the non-Elite version of this TV. All of those picture controls are largely unnecessary, in our opinion, if the out-of-the-box picture (in Pure mode) is so accurate. For what it's worth, you can check out our full picture settings at this blog post.

We also tried out the Optimum picture mode, just for kicks, and as we saw on the no-Elite PDP-5020FD, it lost some detail in blacks and oversaturated color in our dark room, although unlike the 5020, the Elite's light output in Optimum was much closer to what we'd consider ideal. When we turned up room lighting, the extra saturation and somewhat crushed blacks remained, although the picture did brighten somewhat to compensate for brighter room lighting. Of course we'd recommend Pure for image-quality enthusiasts, but folks who like auto-adjusting pictures could do worse than Optimum.

Image quality tests for the PRO-111FD were conducted, as always, as part of a side-by-side comparison. We were lucky enough to have two of the highest-scoring HDTVs this year available for the lineup, Panasonic's TH-50PZ800U plasma and Samsung's LN46A950 LCD, and we also threw in the LG 60PG60, the Samsung LN52A650 and the Samsung PN50A650 for good measure. We checked out Iron Man on Blu-ray, courtesy of our trusty Playstation3.

Black level: Since last year's PDP-5080HD, Pioneer's Kuro plasmas have evinced the deepest overall black levels of any HDTV, and the PRO-111FD continues the trend. We didn't have this year' non-Elite PDP-5020FD to compare directly, but we'd wager its black level performance is identical, and the PRO-111FD out-blacked the other displays in our comparison handily, including the Panasonic and the Samsung 950 LCD. The latter, when we watched from dead-center, gave the PRO-111FD the closest run for its money, blooming notwithstanding. In scenes that were almost completely dark, such as the 35:08 mark, when the only light is provided by green outlines and blue text on a laptop, the Samsung's local-dimming LEDs would turn off and make its screen look a bit darker than the Pioneer.

In the vast majority of scenes, however, including very dim ones--such as the rest of the cave scenes in Chapter 4--the inkiness of the Pioneer's black levels was the deepest. The letterbox bars--dark areas like Tony Stark's black sweater, black shadows around the soldiers, and, in the next chapter, the shadows inside the cargo plane--all looked inkier and more realistic than on any of the other displays, although in the case of the Panasonic and the Samsung, the difference was more or less subtle, depending on the overall brightness of the scene. In near-dark scenes, however, it wasn't subtle at all. We also appreciated the Pioneer's superb shadow detail, which, with the help of those deep blacks, outclassed anything in the room. As always, those deep blacks lend punch and impact to just about every scene.

Color accuracy: Our biggest complaint with the non-Elite PDP-5020FD was its inaccurate color, which was exacerbated by lack of adjustment. The Elite solves both of those problems, although as we mentioned above, just selecting Pure mode is enough of an adjustment for most people. Thanks to a nearly-perfect grayscale, skin tones, like the face of Pepper Potts and the torso of Stark during the "Operation" scene, looked even more natural and true than on the Panasonic, and indeed, the Pioneer measured significantly closer than the Panasonic to the D65 standard after calibration. Primary colors, such as the red and blue in the American flag, and secondaries, like the cyan contributing to the sky in the next chapter, were equally impressive and again came closer to the HD standard, according to our measurements, than any of the other displays. The PRO-111FD also maintained the most-neutral black and dark-gray areas of any of the other displays.

Video processing: The PRO-111FD's Film Mode menu provides a few options not found on most other plasma HDTVs. The most important to film buffs is called "Advance," which is designed to work with 24-frame-per-second sources--namely Blu-ray movies played at 1080p/24--to preserve the look of film during movement. Unlike Panasonic, which tried the same thing with its 48Hz mode (double the native rate of film), Pioneer uses a 72Hz rate with Advance, which avoids the flicker we saw on the Panasonic.

We checked out a pan over Tony Stark's workbench (27:43 into the movie) to compare between Advance and the Panasonic's standard 60Hz mode along with the two other 60Hz plasmas, with our PS3 set to 1080p/24 output, and the difference was obvious. In Advance, the entire image scrolled smoothly across the screen in a relatively smooth sweep, while on the 60Hz displays there was a sort of hitch or chugging effect evident when we looked at the whole picture. We preferred the look of the Pioneer, but it's worth noting that it introduced more-obvious breakup in individual objects in the pan, especially bright ones, like the top of a coffee cup or a piece of note paper. Of course, the main thing is that Pioneer provides the option, so if you don't like Advance you can choose Off to get the chugging seen on the standard plasmas.

Pioneer also puts in a dejudder processing mode, which is common to LCDs but found on no other plasma, called Smooth. Generally we're not fans of dejudder in any form when watching film-based movies, because often the result is a more videolike appearance than we'd like to see. On the PRO-111FD, however, engaging Smooth had no effect on the film-based material we watched. Checking out a few scenes in Smooth from Iron Man and couldn't find evidence of the telltale smoothing effect anywhere. Scratching our heads, we turned to the scenes in I Am Legend, where we noticed artifacts along with smoothing in Smooth mode on the 5020FD. Again, the film didn't look Smoothed at all; it evinced the same level of judder we noticed in Standard mode, and was similarly artifact-free. The only time we noticed Smooth mode performing as we expected was when watching a special demo clip Pioneer provided.

(Update October 28, 2008) We contacted Pioneer's representatives to get an explanation, and they couldn't provide one. They told us that the Smooth modes in both the Elite and the non-Elite should perform the same. We'll have to leave it at that, with the lame explanation that according to our observations, "your mileage may vary" in Smooth mode.

(Further update November 5, 2008) Additional observations confirmed that Smooth mode does operate more sporadically than expected. We checked out the pan over the workbench from Iron Man for example, and sometimes Smooth would engage to remove judder and sometimes it would not. The same went for other films, and it was difficult to pin down exactly what was causing dejudder to engage or not (we didn't change any settings). We haven't observed this kind of sporadic dejudder with any other displays, although to be fair day we feel it's a minor issue on an HDTV like this, which is targeted at video purists who will probably want to turn dejudder off anyway.

As we'd expect from any 1080p HDTV, the PRO-111FD resolved every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources. It also properly deinterlaced both film- and video-based sources, a feat not many HDTVs can claim. Motion resolution tested between 900 and 1000 lines, which is among the best we've seen on any display. As usual, we found it difficult to discern the benefits of these advantages in actual program material, as opposed to test patterns.

Bright lighting: We don't mean to pile it on, but we've always considered Pioneer's antireflective screen the best available on any plasma, and the PRO-111FD is no exception. With the room lights up and window shades open, it attenuated reflections very well, making them dimmer than any display in our comparison. It also maintained a deep black level in bright rooms almost as well as the shiny-screened Samsung LCDs.

Standard-definition: Unlike other aspects of its picture quality, the Elite's ability to handle standard-def sources was underwhelming according to our tests with the HQV DVD. Details were fine, both in the color-bars resolution pattern and in the stone bridge. But the set didn't eliminate as many jaggies from moving diagonal lines like a waving American flag as the Samsungs did, but it was still quite good and better than the Panasonic in this department. We really liked having those four noise reduction controls, and they worked extremely well to clean up moving motes in skies and sunsets. Surprisingly, the Elite failed our test for 2:3 pulldown, allowing moiré to creep into the grandstands after eliminating it briefly, regardless of the Film Mode or I-P mode we chose. As always, standard-def performance is irrelevant if you're connecting to a source that scales 480i to a higher resolution before connecting to the TV.

PC: With a digital connection, the Pioneer performed as well as we expect from any 1080p flat-panel, delivering every line of a 1,920x1,080-pixel PC signal with sharp text. We saw some edge enhancement in the standard settings but selecting Pure or Movie mode, or cranking down Sharpness, eliminated it completely. As usual, the analog connection was a disappointment, only accepting resolutions up to 1,280x1,024-pixels. Naturally the image looked softer and stretched to fill the screen, so we'd recommend PC users go digital.

Before color temp (20/80) 6221/6266 Good
After color temp 6444/6497 Good
Before grayscale variation +/- 239 Good
After grayscale variation +/- 19 Good
Color of red (x/y) 0.641/0.332 Good
Color of green 0.292/0.599 Good
Color of blue 0.151/0.061 Good
Overscan 0.0% Good
Defeatable edge enhancement Y Good
480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps Fail Poor
1080i video resolution Pass Good
1080i film resolution Pass Good

Pioneer PRO-111FD Picture settings
Default Calibrated Power Save
Picture on (watts) 333.54 293.06 291.73
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.31 0.27 0.27
Standby (watts) 0 0 0
Cost per year $103.24 $90.71 $90.30
Score (considering size) Good
Score (overall) Poor
*Cost per year based on 2007 average U.S. residential electricity cost of 10.6 cents per kw/hr at 8 hours on/16 hours off per day.

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