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Pioneer Kuro PDP-20FD review: Pioneer Kuro PDP-20FD

Pioneer Kuro PDP-20FD

David Katzmaier

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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12 min read

Editors' note: The rating on this review has been lowered because of changes in the competitive marketplace.


Pioneer Kuro PDP-20FD

The Good

Produces the deepest shade of black of any big-screen display we've tested; accurate color decoding; dejudder processing option; 72Hz mode for 1080p/24 sources works well; superb antireflective screen; streams photo, music, and video files over home network; fine connectivity with four HDMI and one PC input.

The Bad

Expensive; inaccurate primary colors; lacks advanced picture controls; frame causes minor reflections.

The Bottom Line

Best-in-class black levels and excellent all-around performance places the Pioneer PDP-5020FD near the top of the picture quality heap, but it will cost you.

When it comes to black levels, you apparently get what you pay for. Pioneer's PDP-5020FD is the company's cheapest flat-panel plasma HDTV for 2008, yet it still costs significantly more than the poshest plasmas produced by Panasonic. We really liked the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U we reviewed earlier this year, and despite the Pioneer's capability to produce a darker shade of black--the most-important ingredient in overall picture quality--we don't think the newest "Kuro" is worth the steep price of entry for most high-end HDTV shoppers. Don't get us wrong; the PDP-5020FD is still a superb TV, and deep-pocketed videophiles who prize the absolute blackest black available will find plenty of reasons to spend the extra money for that inky goodness. However, with this TV's color accuracy issues and lack of adjustability, we expect more than a few of those deep-pocketed videophiles to spring for the Elite version instead.

If you liked the look of last year's PDP-5080HD, you'll like the external appearance of this year's PDP-5080FD. There's basically no difference. The 2008 model has the same-size, equally unadorned glossy black rectangle surrounding the screen, below which is the included speaker. Aesthetes can remove the speaker for a cleaner, nearly all-picture look, an option we love, although we're not the biggest fans of the stark, nonswiveling stand. Overall, we preferred the appearance of the Panasonic plasmas, with their flush pane of glass, but Pioneer's clean look is no slouch.

Speaking of flushness and lack thereof, nitpicky videophiles, among whom we count ourselves, may complain that the inner edge of the frame adjacent to the Pioneer's screen reflects bright light. This thin strip of reflection, which isn't visible on last year's PDP-5080HD, can certainly be distracting, especially in a darkened home theater. It's frankly surprising that the designers at Pioneer would let such a flaw creep into an expensive TV ostensibly aimed at home theater enthusiasts.

Including stand and speaker, the PDP-5020FD measures approximately 48.5 inches wide by 34.1 inches high by 13.8 inches deep and weighs 86 pounds. By itself, the panel measures 48.5 inches by 28.5 inches by 3.7 inches and weighs 74.1 pounds.

Pioneer's remote control 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 opinion, it sure doesn't help navigate the scads of buttons. Sure, we liked the direct access to each of the inputs and the glow-in-the-dark keys, but we can't forgive the unforgiving grid.

Pioneer PDP-5020FD
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 PDP-5020FD
A Tools menu provides quick access to many oft-used functions, including aspect ratio and picture mode.

For such an expensive HDTV, the Pioneer PDP-5020FD certainly doesn't have as many extras as most competing high-definition sets. However, it does have a 1080p native resolution--although, even at this screen size it's difficult to tell the difference between 1080p and lesser resolutions.

Pioneer has positioned the non-Elite models in its lineup to appeal to the average person, according to the company, and so has stripped out a number of picture controls that were available last year. The PDP-5020FD lacks color temperature presets, a noise reduction control, a gamma control, and numerous other more-esoteric settings that the 2007 models included. If you want a bunch of picture adjustments on your 2008 Kuro, you'll have to pony up for the Elite version (more info).

Pioneer PDP-5020FD
The extent of control you'll get over the Pioneer PDP-5020FD's picture has decreased dramatically compared with last year's model.

The PDP-5020FD offers seven total picture presets; five of which can be adjusted using the available basic picture controls and apply to every input, while one of the five is labeled Standard and it's independent per input. We found Movie mode to deliver the most-accurate color temperature (the rest were much bluer), but since it's not independent per input, you can't use tweak Movie for various components.

The company's recommended picture mode is Optimum, which automatically adjusts the picture according to room lighting and content. Other adjustments include a Smooth mode that introduces dejudder processing and an Advanced mode that switches the TV to a 72Hz refresh rate designed to work with 1080p/24 sources. See the Performance section for more details.

Pioneer PDP-5020FD
The Optimum mode can display information on the automatic changes it makes to the picture.

An excellent selection of six aspect ratio modes is available for high-definition sources and five for standard definition, 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 lets it interface with a USB thumbdrive or your home network via an Ethernet port to view photos, or play music and video files on the TV. Pioneer's implementation doesn't include as a media-rich experience like Samsung's LN46A750, which has built-in Shockwave tutorials, weather reports, and other more advance features, but it still offers a decent DLNA option with a wide array of supported file format. 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, Standard did indeed consume less power (about 100 watts less) than we tested on last year's default mode, although compared with the ultra-dim Standard mode on the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U, the Pioneer is a moderate energy hog. See the Juice Box for details.

Pioneer PDP-5020FD
The Pioneer's back panel includes three HDMI jacks and an Ethernet port for the home network feature.

Connectivity on the PDP-5020FD is as comprehensive as we expect from such an expensive HDTV. There are 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-pixel 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.

If you read the introduction of this review, then you know the sound bite: the Pioneer PDP-5020FD produces the deepest level of black we've ever seen among TVs larger than 11 inches. These deep blacks help the image pop and add realism and life to colors. Speaking of color, the Pioneer isn't as accurate as we'd like to see, and its Smooth picture mode introduces numerous artifacts, but in most other areas it's a superb performer.

Much like the THX mode of the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U, the Movie mode of the Pioneer didn't require much tweaking get it to produce its best home theater picture. Light output was almost exactly 40 footlamberts, our nominal post-calibration standard, and we only had to tweak brightness and color a tiny bit. We measured a color temperature that was a bit reddish, and primary colors were definitely off, so we would have preferred the capability to adjust both. That's not an option on the non-Elite models, however, so our list of ideal picture settings is short and sweet.

Pioneer makes a big deal about its auto-adjusting Optimum mode, but for critical viewing we preferred Movie. In our dark room, Optimum crushed detail in blacks, oversaturated colors, and made the image a bit brighter than we'd like to see. When we turned up the lights Optimum increased brightness a lot less than we expected, but the more saturated look was still there. Some viewers might appreciate the convenience of leaving the TV in one mode that adjusts the picture automatically, however.

For our dose of critical viewing we set the PDP-5020FD up next to its predecessor, the Pioneer PDP-5080HD; its main competition among high-end plasmas, the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U plasma (we chose that model instead of the flagship TH-50PZ850U since the 800U performed better in our tests); and the most-impressive LCD we've reviewed this year, Samsung's LN52A650. We chose an old favorite reference Blu-ray Disc, I Am Legend, played via an old favorite Blu-ray player, the Sony PlayStation 3.

Black level: The superiority of the 5020FD's depth of black was visible everywhere, but was most obvious in dark scenes, such as when Will Smith runs over the zombies on the end of the pier. The black areas like the silhouette of his decoy, the shadows under the bridge, and the paint of his SUV appeared darker than any on the other sets in the room. Last year's Pioneer took second place in the darkness stakes, followed by the Panasonic plasma and finally the Samsung LCD. Of course, the Samsung and especially the Panasonic are capable of producing black levels deep enough to satisfy most contrast-hungry videophiles, and the Pioneer's extra depth was most obvious in a side-by-side comparison. Still, when the PDP-5020FD's black frame appeared just a couple hairs lighter than the black screen itself, we found our eyes gravitating toward its picture in preference to the others.

Shadow detail on the 5020FD was every bit as good as the Panasonic, so we saw the all of the stubble on Smith's face and detail in the vents of his dashboard as he crashed through the zombies. As expected after seeing such good shadow detail, gamma was also superb, according to our measurements, averaging just fewer than 2.2, so we didn't miss having a gamma control to change it.

Watching test patterns, we saw the level of black fluctuate a tiny bit when we changed from very bright to very dark patterns, but this issue, unlike a similar effect we saw on the Sony KDL-46W4100 LCD, was not visible in program material as far as we could tell. At the end of Chapter 3, for example, when Smith shuts up his apartment for the evening, black stayed stable under the fading light.

Color accuracy: As you can see from the Geek Box, the Pioneer didn't score particularly well at primary color accuracy. Like those of many displays, its primary and secondary color points, particularly red and green, didn't conform closely to the HD standard. The green of the trees lining the Greenwich Village streets appeared a bit greener and bluer than the reference Panasonic and the Samsung, for example, and the red outfit of a dummy in the record store was likewise off a bit. Smith's skin tone also looked a bit ruddier than those two displays, which we blame on a combination of the somewhat reddish color temperature and that primary color of red. These issues certainly didn't spoil our enjoyment of the film, however, and the combination of deep blacks and accurate color decoding allowed the Pioneer to beat the rest of the displays at producing rich, saturated colors.

Video processing: The Smooth setting on the PDP-5020FD is the same as last year's version, and it's designed to smooth out the judder characteristic of film-based sources. Many viewers, ourselves included, prefer to keep that judder intact for a more film-like, as opposed to video-like, look. As with other such dejudder modes we've tested, Smooth on the Pioneer made Legend feel more like video. Some people like the smoothness, however, so we suppose it's a nice option to have, but it did introduce more artifacts than a similar dejudder mode on the Samsung LCD.

The worst effect was breakup during movement. For example, as the red Mustang speeds around a corner onto 34th Street, its white stripe appeared to separate from the car and trail behind briefly, before catching up again. Similar breakup occurred around Smith's head as he moved through a record store. Neither of these effects was visible on the Samsung.

Another option that Pioneer didn't change since last year's model is the 72Hz refresh rate imparted by selecting Advanced from the PureCinema menu. Since 72 is a multiple of 24, the TV can theoretically preserve the film's rate of judder and not have to engage 2:3 pull-down detection as a typical 60Hz display must. After setting our PS3 to 1080p/24 mode we checked out one of our favorite scenes for evaluating smoothness versus judder, the long helicopter shot in Chapter 7 that eventually finds Smith hitting golf balls off the wing of a spy plane parked on the USS Intrepid. Indeed, the Pioneer's advanced mode made the movement appear a bit smoother, without that hitch associated with 2:3 pull-down, although to our eyes the difference was subtle. Still, for videophiles who want to utilize their Blu-ray players' 1080p/24 mode, Advanced is worthwhile.

Unlike many HDTVs we've tested, the PDP-5020FD successfully deinterlaced film-based material. Naturally it displayed every line of 1080i and 1080p sources, although compared with the non-1080p PDP-5080HD right next to it, we found it nearly impossible to see any difference in detail from our seating distance of eight feet.

Bright lighting: The PDP-5020FD has the same antireflective screen as the PDP-5080HD, and it performed admirably when we opened up the blinds and tuned on the lights, attenuating reflections better than either the Panasonic or the glossy-screened Samsung LCD. Compared with the Panasonic, the Pioneer sets also did a better job of preserving black levels in bright environments.

Standard definition: According to our standard-definition tests, the PDP-5020FD scored a bit above average. It passed every line of DVD resolution and details looked relatively good--better than the Panasonic and about the same as the Samsung--on the grass and stone bridge. When fed images of a waving American flag and rotating diagonal lines, it did a solid job of eliminating jaggies. The set lacks a noise reduction control, but the Optimum and Performance picture modes were quite effective at squelching motes of noise in shots of skies and sunsets--the other modes didn't do as well. Finally, the set engaged 2:3 pull-down effectively, although it took a half-second longer than the other displays to lock into film mode.

PC: With a digital connection the Pioneer performed as well as we expect 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 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) 6288/6322 Good
After color temp N/A  
Before grayscale variation 206K Good
After grayscale variation N/A  
Color of red (x/y) 0.668/0.325 Poor
Color of green 0.27/0.653 Poor
Color of blue 0.146/0.057 Good
Overscan 0.0% Good
Defeatable edge enhancement Y Good
480i 2:3 pull-down, 24 fps Y Good
1080i video resolution Pass Good
1080i film resolution Pass Good

Pioneer PDP-5020FD Picture settings
Default Calibrated Power Save
Picture on (watts) 293.33 272.67 269.2
Picture on (watts/sq. inch) 0.27 0.26 0.25
Standby (watts) 0.42 0.42 0.42
Cost per year $91.05 $84.66 $83.58
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.


Pioneer Kuro PDP-20FD

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8
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