Pioneer markets its Elite lineup of plasma TVs to appeal to the hard-core home theater enthusiast, and that means pricing these panels above and beyond just about anything else. The enthusiast who can afford one, however, can rest assured that the 50-inch PRO-111FD performs above and beyond anything else on the market today. This display has the best black levels (aside from OLED) and most accurate color of any HDTV we've ever reviewed, and it's hard to find fault with other aspects of its picture quality. A picture mode entitled Pure is exactly that, delivering better out-of-the-box settings--before we performed any adjustments--than any preset picture mode we've tested, including THX on models like the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U. A stratospheric price disqualifies the Elite from consideration as our Editors' Choice, but make no mistake: If you have the cash to burn, this plasma or its 60-inch brother is best flat-panel HDTV you can buy today, period.
Pioneer's no-nonsense, all-black look gives the PRO-111FD an ultraserious air, backed up by the unadorned, glossy-black frame with a simple gold "Elite" tattooed on the bottom. The sharp-cornered frame is characteristically chunky for a 50-inch plasma, and unlike most HDTVs, Pioneer mounts the speakers to both sides, making for an expansive wingspan. We appreciated that the speakers can be detached, as can the glossy black, nonswiveling stand.
Including stand and speakers, the PRO-111FD measures approximately 56.9 inches wide by 31 inches high by 13.8 inches deep and weighs 88 pounds. By itself, the panel measures 48.8 by 28.5 by 3.7 inches and weighs 74.5 pounds.
Pioneer's remote was redesigned after last year, and we really don't like it. Gone are the different shapes for secondary functions; instead, almost all of the keys on the new remote share the same square shape, tiny size, and are arranged in a staid grid. While that may make the clicker look cooler in some designer's opinions, it sure doesn't help navigate the scads of buttons. Sure, we liked the direct access to each of the inputs and the red-backlit keys, but we can't forgive the unforgiving grid.
The menu system underwent an even more thorough overhaul. Instead of overlaying the menu atop the picture, as nearly every other HDTV does, the Pioneer shrinks the live TV image into a small window in the middle-left sector, and fills the remainder of the screen with menu text, onscreen explanations, and guide icons on a black background. We liked the new menus, which are exceedingly easy to read, and appreciated the fact that during picture adjustments the standard overlay arrangement returns, so you can see the effects of your adjustments. We also appreciated the Tools menu, which provided easy access to many of the most used functions.
The main difference on the spec sheet between Pioneer's non-Elite models and the Elite lineup comes in the form of picture adjustments. Your extra cash buys you a level of control over the image that's equal to that of models from Samsung and LG, for example, although the PRO-111FD lacks the 10-point IRE color-temperature calibration we liked so much on select LG sets. We mention those two manufacturers partly because they provide a high level of picture control throughout their lineups, from the least to the most expensive models, and don't make you pay significantly more for those controls.
Pioneer's picture adjustments start with seven total picture modes, five of which can be tweaked and apply to every input. Another, labeled Standard, is independent per input. We found Pure mode to be the most-accurate overall, to the point where we really didn't have to use all of those controls to get it to look its best (see Performance for details).
As on the non-Elite models, the PRO-111FD has an Optimum picture mode, which automatically adjusts the picture according to room lighting and content. One item not included with non-Elite TVs is a special room-lighting sensor, which senses the intensity and color of room lighting to better adjust the picture on the fly, according to the company.
Those Elite-only picture controls include five color-temperature presets in addition to a Manual color-temperature mode that allows adjustment of red, green, and blue gain and cut. A full color-management system is also onboard, with tint controls for both primary and secondary colors that worked very well. You can choose between a wide color space (denoted as "1" and set as the default on most picture modes) and one that conforms closely to the HD standard (option "2," the default in Pure mode).
Additional advanced controls abound. There's a gamma control, adjustable black level, a detail enhancer, automatic contrast adjustment, and an automatic color and brightness adjustment called Intelligent Mode--the latter two dynamically change the picture according to content, although not as dramatically as Optimum. Noise reduction is as comprehensive as we've seen on any TV, with four different NR options, two with four settings and two with On/Off settings. Video processing adjustments include a Smooth mode that introduces some dejudder processing and an Advanced mode, designed to work with 1080p/24 sources, that switches the TV to a 72Hz refresh rate.
An excellent selection of six aspect ratio modes is available for high-def sources and five for standard def, along with an Auto feature that attempts to set the correct aspect ratio for you. As we'd expect, there's also a dot-by-dot mode that scales 1080i and 1080p sources perfectly without any overscan. If you're interested in using this mode, which we highly recommend, be sure to disable the "Auto Size" option in the Setup>Option menu, or else the TV will default to Auto (which doesn't seem to like dot-by-dot much) every time you turn it on.
Pioneer added its Home Media Gallery to the TV this year, which allows it to interface with a USB thumb drive or your home network via an Ethernet port to play back photos, music, and video files on the TV. We didn't test this feature on the PRO-111FD, but it's the same as the version we tested on the PDP-5020FD.
Other features include picture-in-picture with a side-by-side option, and a variety of options to combat potential burn-in, including a pixel orbiter, a scrolling white bar to wipe out retained images, and a mode that "simultaneously optimizes the related settings to alleviate image retention."
While we appreciated the addition of a pair of power-saver modes, which somewhat limit peak light output and therefore energy consumption, a more-important feature is the same kind of store/home choice found on Panasonic and Samsung panels. When we first plugged in the TV, it asked us whether we were in the store or at home, and when we chose "home" the TV was automatically set in the Standard picture mode, which is designed to meet the new Energy Star guidelines coming later this year. According to our tests (see the Juice Box below), Standard did a great job saving power without sacrificing too much light output--a big criticism we had about Panasonic's Standard mode.
Connectivity on the PRO-111FD is as comprehensive as we expect from such an expensive HDTV. There is a total of four HDMI inputs, with three on the rear and one on the side. The back panel includes one component-video input, one AV input with S-Video and composite video, one AV input with only composite video, a PC input (1,280x1,024 maximum resolution), an RF input for cable and antenna, an analog audio output, and an optical digital audio output, along with a LAN port. The side panel adds another AV input, a headphone jack and a USB port that works with the Home Media Gallery.