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Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD review: Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD

Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD

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David Katzmaier
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David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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14 min read

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.

9.1

Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD

The Good

Produces the deepest black levels of any large-screen display we've tested; extremely accurate color points and color temperature; superb antireflective screen; 72Hz refresh mode works well with 1080p/24 sources; Pure picture mode delivers superior settings out of the box; extensive picture controls; excellent connectivity, including 4 HDMI and one PC input; styling that's all business.

The Bad

Extremely expensive; mediocre standard-definition processing.

The Bottom Line

The Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD represents the pinnacle of flat-panel HDTV picture quality.

Design
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.

Pioneer PRO-111FD
Pioneer's redesigned menu system has easy-to-read graphics and a smaller inset window instead of the standard overlay.

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.

Pioneer PRO-111FD
A Tools menu provides quick access to many oft-used functions, including aspect ratio and picture mode.

Features
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).

Pioneer PRO-111FD
The readout along the bottom of the screen lets you follow along with the changes Optimum makes to the picture.

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.

Pioneer PRO-111FD
An included color sensor reads ambient light conditions and adjusts the picture accordingly.

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).

Pioneer PRO-111FD
Manual controls for color temperature...

Pioneer PRO-111FD
...and color management highlight the step-up Elite feature pack.

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.

Pioneer PRO-111FD
The Pioneer's back panel includes three HDMI jacks and an Ethernet port for the home network feature.

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.

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

Performance
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.

TEST RESULT SCORE
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.

How we test TVs

9.1

Pioneer Elite Kuro PRO-1FD

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 10
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