Pioneer's Kuro: As Good As It Gets?

and its use by Pioneer refers to the low black levels its plasmas are claimed to produce. 1/08/2008 5:46 AM Eastern

Pioneer's Kuro: As Good As It Gets?

and its use by Pioneer refers to the low black levels its plasmas are claimed to produce.

I RECENTLY HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO EVALUATE Pioneer's new 50-inch 1080p KURO plasma HDTV, Elite PRO-110FD. For those who don't know, “kuro” is Japanese for “black,” and its use by Pioneer refers to the low black levels its plasmas are claimed to produce. I first saw the Kuro products in the spring 2007 under tightly controlled viewing conditions: in a restaurant that had been draped off and had very little ambient light floating around the room. Even Pioneer execs were dressed in dark black and gray suits.

This was done for aesthetic and technical reasons. Aesthetically, the demonstration would be much more dramatic when saturated colors appeared amidst the black-to-dark-gray viewing environment. Technically, the minimal ambient light would allow members of the press to judge just how deep the black levels were.

The press event was quite a contrast (no pun intended) from previous events I've attended. There is no doubt that Pioneer is on to something — the pictures have inky black and deep, saturated colors, particularly reds and dark greens. The fact that these new plasma HDTVs come with 1080p resolution is just icing on the cake.


Still, press events are just press events. The only measurements that ever matter to me are the ones I take in my studio, under controlled conditions, with the display set for best grayscale image quality. And that's exactly how I tested the PRO-110FD, using test patterns, full-screen primary and secondary colors, and luminance windows from black to white.

The results are quite impressive, and far exceed the performance of any plasma HDTV or monitor I'd tested to date. My previous record for lowest black levels was in the range of 0.15 nits, but the Pioneer unit blew past that with an average reading of 0.065 nits.

That in turn pushed average contrast levels with a 50/50 black/white checkerboard test pattern to 1082:1, and peak contrast within that same pattern measured 1523:1. The highest contrast reading I took was a sequential (small area white, then full black) reading and it came in at 2291:1.

To put this in perspective, the average and peak contrast numbers are 35 percent and 49 percent higher respectively than those I measured on Pioneer's first 50-inch 1080p plasma, the PRO-FHD1, in early 2007. The lowest black level that model could produce was 0.153 nits, which is impressive in itself.

How about color? I measured the primary and secondary color coordinates and plotted them against a known standard — the ITU BT-709 color gamut, which is the basis for HDTV production and transmission. The resulting coordinates were so close after my first pass that I went into the service menu to see if I couldn't make them line up exactly by playing with luminance and hue values.

The result? I was able to get the red, green, blue, yellow, and magenta coordinates to hit the BT-709 coordinates right on the nose. Only the cyan coordinate was a bit off, shifting more towards green than blue, and that might have required changes in the phosphor formulation.

This high accuracy in color was another change from the PRO-FHD1, which had a noticeable shift towards cyan in its green channel and could not cover the BT-709 gamut precisely. Note also that none of these improvements came at the expense of brightness, except when viewing the images at high or low vertical angles.

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Pioneer's Kuro: As Good As It Gets?

and its use by Pioneer refers to the low black levels its plasmas are claimed to produce.


At both angles, I saw and measured greater drop-off in image brightness than I have with other plasma monitors and HDTVs. That would seem to indicate a more sophisticated level of polarization somewhere in the front glass, which would cut down on reflected light and drop black levels even lower.

How much drop-off? I used a Minolta CL200 handheld luminance/color temperature meter and a tape measure to position the meter's eye 36 inches distant and about 45 degrees above and below the centerline of the plasma HDTV. I performed the same test on a Panasonic 50-inch 1080p plasma monitor for comparison.

Light fall-off on the Panasonic at +45 degrees and -45 degrees measured around 35 percent of the on-axis reading. The decrease in brightness was much higher on the Pioneer, averaging 65 percent at +45 degrees and -45 degrees. That alone would indicate there is some sort of advanced light path filtering going on, and it's most likely polarizing.

This drop-off in illumination is readily seen. Overall brightness also appears down slightly from previous models, with full white screen readings of 50 nits to 60 nits on the PRO-110FD coming well under the 65 nits to 73 nits readings I took using the same test pattern on the older PRO-FHD1.

This isn't to say the newer design is unusable in anything but a darkened room, but I'd avoid ambient light spillage as much as possible with the PRO-110FD. How it would hold up in a digital signage application is hard to say — small area full white readings did hit a peak of 163 nits in dynamic image mode.


Pioneer has been able to engineer substantial improvements into plasma technology. In a day and age when it's easy to disparage plasma in favor of LCD, the PRO-110FD proves there's plenty of life left in the old dog. And the emphasis on picture quality, instead of producing torch-like bright images, is indeed refreshing.

There are still many of us who vote for best image quality over brightest image every time, and we all fell hard in love with Canon's Surface-Conduction Electron-emitting Display (SED) when it was first shown at CES a few years back. Unfortunately, the SED is tied up in a complex of legal and technical problems that may prevent it from ever reaching our shores.

In the meantime, Pioneer has shown that it can achieve SED-like image quality with 1920 x 1080 resolution in 50-inch glass (the SED's targeted size and pixel count) and make it into a mass-produced, shippable product.

The remaining issue for plasma to overcome is power consumption. In my eight-hour tests with everyday content, the PRO-110FD consumed just over 400 watts — decent for a 50-inch plasma, but nowhere near the projected 80-100 watts that a comparably sized SED would consume.

On-going research at the Advanced PDP Development Corp. in Japan has shown that it's possible to get plasma luminous efficiency as high as 6 lumens per watt, which would drop the PRO-110FD's power consumption down well under 100 watts. Combine improved black levels, accurate colors, and lower power consumption, and plasma will continue to be a strong player in the consumer and professional markets for years to come.

Contributing editor Pete Putman is president of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, Pa. He can be reached at

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