Editors' note, December 10, 2007 The rating on this review has been lowered from 8.7 to 8.0 due to changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of the Pioneer PDP-5080HD.
Pioneer's PRO-FHD1 isn't for everyone. As the first 50-inch plasma display to have a native resolution of 1080p--in other words, 1,920x1,080 pixels--it understandably costs a mint ($8,000 list). As a monitor, as opposed to a "true" TV, it lacks niceties such as built-in speakers, a tuner (ATSC or otherwise), or even an included stand. And as a member of Pioneer's "Elite" subbrand, it includes picture-centric features, such as user-menu color temperature and primary color adjustments, which most users won't know what to do with. But if you're willing to pay top dollar for the best 50-inch plasma on the market right now, look no further. Compared to the Panasonic TH-50PF9UK, the other current 50-inch 1080p plasma, the Pioneer delivers slightly better picture quality at a more-than-slight price increase. Although it's a bit too expensive to be considered our Editors' Choice in this category, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 delivers the best picture quality of any television we've tested in the last year. Understatement is the order of the day with the Pioneer PRO-FHD1. The 50-inch pane of glass is set in the middle of a black frame that, unlike other Elite frames, isn't glossy. Instead there's a layer of dark-tinted plastic that extends slightly beyond the edge of the black on all sides, creating a subtle accent. The only other remarkable item on the plasma's surface is the Elite logo and small, nondimmable LEDs that glow blue when the power is on and red when it's off. The panel measures 50.5 x 29.5 x 3.8 inches (WHD) and weighs 87.7 pounds.
Pioneer's remote is as basic as beans, as we'd expect from a clicker that doesn't have to change channels. We really liked the dedicated buttons for switching inputs, but that's really the only remote item worth mentioning. The set's menu system is organized logically, although the nested selections in the picture menu seem to go on forever. The biggest item at the top of the Pioneer PRO-FHD1's spec sheet is its pixel count. This is the first plasma to have 1,920x1,080 pixels of native resolution on its screen, which lend the picture more detail with 1080i and 1080p sources than you'll see with lower-resolution panels, which typically have 1,366x768 pixels. All those pixels also provide more detail with computer sources, which can be set to 1,920x1,080 resolution and deliver every pixel, but they won't improve the look of 720p HDTV or standard-definition television.
As we mentioned at the outset, the Pioneer lacks many of the features you'd expect in any television. You'll have to pay extra if you want to set it on a stand--Pioneer's PDK-TS23 (about $500) is the model the company recommends. Pioneer does not make matching speakers; you'll have to either connect your own to the panel's audio jacks or just use an external home theater sound system, a better move. And of course you'll also need an external tuner--such as a cable or satellite box--or an over-the-air tuner to watch HDTV or any television broadcast on this monitor.
The PRO-FHD1 has numerous picture adjustments, starting with seven preset picture modes: Standard, Dynamic, Movie, Game, User, Pure, and ISF Night. As you might imagine, the last is sponsored by the Imaging Science Foundation, an organization that (among other activities) certifies professional calibrators who, in this case, make use of special Pioneer software to calibrate the panel and set up the mode. Each of these modes, except for Dynamic, allows you to adjust the picture controls, such as contrast, color, and so forth, separately for each input.
Selecting Pro Adjust in the picture menu opens up a slew of additional options. The PureCinema control selects between Off (no 2:3 pull-down); Standard (normal 2:3 pull-down); and Advanced (special 72Hz mode; see performance for details). There are five color temperature presets, and we found Low came closest to the NTSC standard. We also appreciated the option to adjust color temperature, both high and low points, manually. The CTI mode is said to improve color contours, but we couldn't detect any effect. A color management screen allowed us to adjust primary colors--a great addition. There are adjustments for noise reduction (they worked extremely well); Dynamic Contrast and ACL (we have no idea what the latter stands for; both are said to change the picture on the fly, so we left them off); Black level (best left on); and Gamma (we found setting 1 the best). An adjustable 3D-YC comb filter and I-P mode cap the extensive picture menu.
The Pioneer offered five aspect ratio choices with high-def sources, including a Dot-by-dot mode that we recommend using when you're watching either 1080i or 1080p material. That mode puts the entire 1,920x1,080 pixels on the screen with no scaling; its only disadvantage is that, with some broadcasts, it may cause interference to become visible at the extreme edges of the screen. If this happens, choose Full instead.
The bottom edge of the back panel includes a solid input selection. There are two HDMI inputs, although, as with all current HDTVs, they're not version 1.3. There is also one DVI input that can handle digital computer signals up to 1,920x1,080 resolution, as well as HDCP-protected A/V signals from an HDMI source (adapter required). A set of five BNC style inputs can, using the included trio of adapters, accept component-video signals (up to 1080p) or RGBHV signals (up to 1280x1024) from computers or video processors. Pioneer provides minimal support for standard-def signals; just one composite input (BNC-style, so it again requires an adapter for RCA-type jacks) and one S-Video input. The back panel also has an RS-232 port for custom installation control; a pair of proprietary Pioneer control ports; and the aforementioned speaker outputs. There are no side- or front-panel A/V inputs. Simply put, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 is the best-performing HDTV we've reviewed in the last year. Its combination of extremely accurate color, deep black levels, and sharp detail outclass any of the plasma, LCD, or rear-projection sets we've seen recently.
As always, we started our evaluation by setting up the Pioneer's picture as well as possible. The Pure picture mode provided an excellent basis to begin and we didn't have to change much. We decreased light output slightly, tweaked the color temperature and primary colors, and went through the various other settings to arrive at what we considered an excellent picture for our darkened lab. Our full user-menu settings can be found here, or check out the Tips section at the tab above. Although there's an ISF Night mode that's designed to be used by a professional calibrator in conjunction with special software, our calibration involved only the set's user-menu adjustments and our standard equipment.
Once we had the image to our liking, we sat back to compare the Pioneer against a few other displays we had in-house: the significantly larger Mitsubishi WD-65831 rear-projection set as well as a pair of other 50-inch plasmas, namely the 1080p Panasonic TH-50PF9UK and the 1366x768-resolution Panasonic TH-50PH9UK. We slipped the incredible-looking Aeon Flux into our resident Blu-ray player, the Sony PlayStation 3, and kicked back to enjoy.
The first thing we appreciated was the Pioneer's accurate color. Aeon's skin was pristine; the green of the greenhouse plants was rich and not nearly as yellow as with the other three sets; the red blood of her hands on the shard of glass was darker and not crimson. Color balance according to test patterns was nearly perfect, so we were able to increase the color control to really saturate the image without sacrificing any realism. Primary color accuracy was very good before we adjusted the Color Management settings and superb afterward.
We also noticed that the Pioneer exhibited less false contouring than the other sets, especially the TH-50PH9UK. In the scene before Aeon is captured and wakes up in a cell, her hazy silhouette fades into the light, and the difficult transition from light to dark was smoother on the Pioneer. In the cell, we also noticed a few bands on the transition from the floor to the white light under the bench while watching the Panasonics, which weren't evident on the Pioneer or the Mitsubishi.
Compared to the two Panasonics, the Pioneer did evince a slightly lighter color of black. We noticed during the scene where Aeon stalks Trevon Goodchild in the theater; the shadowy recesses and letterbox bars appeared slightly lighter on the Pioneer; about the same as on the Mitsubishi. We doubt this difference would be noticeable outside of side-by-side comparisons, but it is worth noting.
You may ask whether 1080p makes a big difference on this panel, and as usual, the answer is no. We compared the PRO-FHD1 directly to the lower-resolution Panasonic TH-50PH9UK, and in scene after scene of this very sharp disc, the differences were extremely difficult to detect. Only on a couple of scenes did we feel the 1080p Pioneer had any kind of advantage in sharpness. In Chapter 9, for example (52:07 into the film), the horizontal lines hanging behind the projected face looked more distinct on the Pioneer; later in the film, the same line again appeared sharper. From our 7-foot seating distance (Update: This originally said "8-foot," but it is actually 7), it was nearly impossible to see other differences, whether we looked at characters' hair or the texture of the walls or the tiny creases in skin and lips during the film's numerous close-ups. Anyone sitting farther than 7 feet away would likely appreciate no benefit at all from the FHD1's resolution.
Along with other Pioneer plasmas, the PRO-FHD1 is one of the only displays available to support the 72Hz refresh rate. An item labeled PureCinema in the menu system actually controls this function; when set to Standard, the set refreshed at the standard 60Hz rate, while choosing Advanced puts it into 72Hz mode. The supposed advantage of 72Hz mode is that you get a smoother picture with fewer artifacts when you're watching 24-frame sources, such as the 1080p/24 output of the Pioneer and Sony Blu-ray players. On the flip side, when we watched the 1080i/60 output of the PlayStation 3 in 72Hz mode, we saw some additional artifacts, such as judder and crawl along vertical lines. In general, we recommend using Advanced only if you have a 1080p/24 source. Unfortunately we weren't able to test this feature properly because we didn't have such a source on hand.
On another note, we did hear a very quiet, high-pitched hum coming from the Pioneer; the Panasonic plasmas, for example, were silent. The Pioneer was quieter than the sound of the fan on our PlayStation 3, but we could still hear it.
Next, we put the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 through a battery of standard-definition processing tests, watching patterns and material from the HQV disc at 480i over component video. The TV turned in a mostly solid performance, resolving all of the details of the disc and smoothing out jagged diagonal lines, such as those visible on a waving American flag, particularly well. Details on the stone bridge did look a bit soft until we increased sharpness to 0, which did introduce some edge enhancement. Both the Digital NR and the MPEG NR modes, each with four settings (Off, Low, Med, High) did a great job of squelching moving motes of video noise and "snow" in the low-quality shots of sky and sunsets, as well the scenes of the moving roller coaster. The High mode in particular seemed to choke off almost all noise in many shots, although it did make the image appear softer, especially the MPEG NR's High setting. The Pioneer did a fine job of detecting 2:3 pull-down in both Standard and Advanced PureCinema modes, but the image evinced more judder in Advanced.
One other important note: we recommend avoiding feeding the Pioneer any kind of 480p signal. Via both HDMI and component-video, we observed significant softness in the television's horizontal resolution on grayscale patterns (such as the first color bar pattern from HQV or the staircase from the Sencore VP403 generator), which appeared downright blurry. This issue does not affect 480i, 720p, or either of the 1080 resolution sources; just 480p. If you're connecting this set to a progressive-scan DVD player, you should set it to interlaced mode, or use a player that upconverts to 1080i or 1080p resolution.
|Before color temp (20/80)||6,036/6,191K||Good|
|After color temp||6,305/6,447K||Average|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 327 K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 61K||Good|
|Color of red (x/y)||0.642/0.331||Good|
|Color of green||0.284/0.615||Average|
|Color of blue||0.149/0.066||Good|
|Black-level retention||All patterns stable||Good|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Yes||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Yes||Good|