Flat panel TVs revolutionized our home entertainment experience. But going flat also meant taking several steps back in picture quality. Compared to good-old CRT, both plasma and LCD flat panel TVs have relatively poor contrast ratios, reproduce a limited number of colours and have difficulty producing a true black. Many LCD TVs also suffer from motion blurring.
Since the introduction of flat panel TVs, manufacturers have dreamed of achieving similar performance to that of CRT TVs. But this turned out to be quite a challenge and only small improvements were possible with each new generation of products. Earlier this year, when Pioneer introduced its eighth generation plasma technology, the company promised to make a quantum leap in picture performance. By completely re-engineering plasma technology, Pioneer was able to achieve black levels 80 per cent deeper than the previous generation, which ultimately leads to richer colours and sharper details. And Pioneer plasmas were known for their deep black levels all along. Suitably, Pioneer named their latest plasma generation Project “Kuro”, which means black in Japanese. Eight new models make up the Project Kuro (four Pioneer models and four Elite models).
We asked Pioneer to send us the PDP-5010FD 50-inch 1080p plasma TV ($5999) along with their second generation Blu-Ray player, the Elite BDP-94HD ($1199). Within just two days, every member of the CANADA HiFi team dropped by my house to check out the new gear. Yes, we were all very curious to experience a little of the “Kuro”.
The PDP-5010FD is Pioneer’s second 1080p plasma and the first reasonably priced one. It offers the full 1920 by 1080 resolution to match the Blu-Ray and HD DVD formats. Pioneer doesn’t publish contrast and brightness numbers for their TVs due to the lack of standardized measurement techniques. A quick search in google however reveals that the claimed contrast ratio of this TV is a mind-boggling 20,000:1. Some of the new features found in this generation include: the Optimum video mode, which uses a light sensor for automated picture adjustment to match ambient room light and program content; Smooth Film Motion mode, which eliminates motion judder in 3:2 pulldown; and four HDMI version 1.3 inputs. Also on board is Pioneer’s Home Gallery, which allows photos to be viewed from a connected USB device such as a digital camera, a card reader or a USB flash drive. Other standard features include Deep Color support, ATSC and NTSC tuners, a CableCard slot and an on-screen TV Guide. The supplied remote glows in the dark, but doesn’t have a backlight, which is too bad. The PDP-5010FD has a simple, yet sexy appearance thanks to its glossy black frame. An optional speaker array, which can be mounted at the bottom of the screen, is included with the TV.
The Elite BDP-94HD Blu-Ray player is Pioneer’s second generation player, a replacement for the Elite BDP-HD1, which we have been using as a reference player for the last several months. At $1199, it comes in at $600 less than the BDP-HD1 and offers new features and improved performance. The highlights of the BDP-94HD include 1080p/24fps output, internal Dolby TrueHD decoding, HDMI version 1.2a, 5.1 analogue outputs, an ethernet port as well as Pioneer’s Home Media Gallery for streaming audio, pictures and video from a PC computer. The BDP-HD1 will also up-convert your standard DVD collection up to 1080p and play music CDs. The styling of the BDP-94HD is almost identical to Pioneer’s first generation player - simple and sophisticated. The remote is also very similar; well laid out and responsive, but unfortunately it’s not backlit (although the buttons glow in the dark).
But enough with the technical stuff - this Pioneer duo was begging me to put it to the test! Connected with a QED HDMI cable, I fired up both pieces and began laying down a combination of DVDs and Blu-Ray discs on the disc tray.
Not surprisingly, from the factory, the movie picture mode produced the most natural picture. The optimum mode was also enjoyable; I found it most appropriate under brighter lighting conditions. I was perfectly content with the picture performance out of the box, but like any self-respecting video enthusiast, I pulled out my DVE disc and dove into the picture adjustment menus. Within minutes I tweaked the basics, including contrast, brightness, colour, tint and sharpness. Next, I opened the Pro Adjust menu (advanced picture settings) and found a lot more picture adjustments than I expected - a video enthusiast’s wet dream, if you will. Here, I was presented with parameters for advanced tweaking of contrast, dark picture portions, high frequency (detailed) areas, image gradation (gamma), 3-D noise and glimmer reduction. I also stumbled into the new feature called Smooth, designed to eliminate picture judder (which all TVs suffer from) during panning scenes. By the way, each of these features is clearly explained not only in the manual but also on the screen (fantastic!). Okay, so the shear number of picture adjustments was clearly suitable for anyone to tweak this TV to their heart’s desire. This is definitely the most extensive set of picture controls that I have yet seen in a TV. But here’s the real kicker - after selecting an adjustment, the remote allows you to quickly jump between the before and after (making the adjustment) picture. It’s times like these that I’m happy that I (sometimes) read the manual. This phenomenal feature makes it very easy to see exactly the difference that each adjustment makes. Only one adjustment was missing that I would have liked to see - individual colour controls.
Another first that I’ve seen in any TV, is a Video Pattern feature, a special pattern designed to alleviate picture burn-in (should you fall asleep while watching a news channel like CNN). Although, Pioneer uses some clever techniques to prevent burn-in from happening to begin with.
Before watching any movies, I ran through a few video tests from the Silicon Optix HQV standard DVD and Blu-Ray discs, on each Pioneer component. In short, these video tests showed that the PDP-5010FD offers immaculate processing of 480i and 1080i signals. The processing of the BDP-94HD player on the other hand is a bit of a mixed-bag, especially with 1080i content. What does this mean? The BDP-94HD won’t do the greatest job when displaying discs recorded at 1080i - such as concerts and documentaries. However, a very small percentage of Blu-Ray discs are encoded at 1080i. Most are mastered at 1080p, in which case the player simply passes the picture straight to the TV without any processing. In my opinion, 1080i processing is far more critical in a TV. Why? Since a 1080i signal is much more likely to arrive at the TV from a 1080i HD channel (from a satellite box or a digital cable), rather than a Blu-Ray player. Having great 1080i processing in a Blu-Ray player won’t improve the quality of your 1080i HD channels. In other words, Pioneer nailed it where it counts - the TV did a phenomenal job of processing 1080i signals. So when I watched any 1080i Blu-Ray discs, I simply set the player to output 1080i and let the TV take care of the processing. A more detailed explanation of how each component handled the HQV tests can be found in the online version of this review at www.canadahifi.com/.
Now I was ready to move on to the fun stuff. To warm things up, I watched a selection of standard DVDs beginning with Underworld: Evolution. If there’s one fictional character that makes me dream of waking up a vampire one day, it’s sexy Kate Beckinsale. Yes, I would even throw on a tight, pleather outfit. Besides Beckinsale, I instantly noticed astonishing black levels on the screen. For the first time, while watching a flat panel TV, the blacks actually looked truly black, instead of dark gray, like they do on all other flat panel TVs. The improvement in black level between the PDP-5010FD and my own two-year-old Pioneer plasma was striking. The PDP-5010FD produced a black level that was undeniably deeper than any flat panel TV that we have ever tested at CANADA HiFi. Also, right from the start I noticed that the ability to produce really deep blacks significantly influenced all aspects of the picture. The contrast ratio and the details in the shadows simply blew me away. Beckinsale’s dark clothing clearly displayed folds and texture. Characters wearing dark clothing or standing in the shadows in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, showed remarkable details - that most TVs would conceal. But the PDP-5010FD also displayed some of the most natural colours that I have seen in a flat panel TV yet. Every movie that I watched had rich, properly saturated colours. Flesh tones looked incredibly life-like. Sadly, my two-year-old plasma was suddenly lacking in so many aspects. Poor thing, until this day, it was the pride of my home theatre.
Standard DVDs such as The Perfect Stranger and Star Wars looked amazingly crisp and had good detail on the 50-inch screen, when up-converted to 1080p by the BDP-94HD Blu-Ray player. The stunning picture performance of this Pioneer combo breathed new life into my standard DVD collection.
The Home Media Gallery - a feature exclusive to Pioneer Blu-Ray players - allowed me to easily access digital photos from my home network computers without any problems. It took me about 10 minutes to connect the player to my network router (with the supplied cable) and configure the software on my PC. I was pleasantly surprised at how good most of the pictures looked blown up to the TV screen.
I suppose we have yet to see fast loading times for Blu-Ray players. The BDP-94HD was only slightly quicker at starting up and loading Blu-Ray discs compared to the first generation Pioneer player. Also, like all other Blu-Ray players that I’ve tested, the BDP-94HD froze up on me during operation a few times (three times in the first two weeks), but updating its firmware appeared to fix the issue.
I enjoy the idea of Pioneer’s Home Gallery feature built into the plasma, however I did experience some issues with it. The USB port on the side of the TV is designed to accept all digital cameras, multi-card memory readers and USB flash drives. When viewing pictures from my Compact Flash card through a multi-card reader, the Home Gallery froze up on me every time after displaying a dozen or so images. I tried two different memory cards from two different cameras and experienced the same thing. I even tried a different card reader but the TV didn’t recognize it being plugged in at all. However connecting a digital camera directly to the TV with a USB cable and reading pictures directly from a USB flash drive did work for me without any issues. Either way, this feature appeared to be somewhat finicky. Perhaps a future firmware upgrade will be able to fix this.
I was perfectly pleased watching standard DVDs on this Pioneer duo - trust me, you would be too. But playing standard DVDs on this system is like driving a sports car on city streets; sure it’s a lot of fun but you won’t be able to shift higher than the third gear. A sports car needs an open country road. This Pioneer pair was craving some HD content.
First, I watched 1080i content from my satellite box. Watching an episode of CSI (on CBS) confirmed that the TV did a really great job of processing/deinterlacing the 1080i signal. I also caught the end of Serenity, a great sci-fi movie, in 1080i which looked stunning. The PDP-5010FD simply did a phenomenal job with 1080i content.
It wasn’t until I started placing 1080p Blu-Ray discs on the tray that I finally reached the top gear. Clips from Flyboys, Casino Royale, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang displayed extraordinary amounts of detail. Unlike with standard DVDs, subtle details such as hair, wrinkles in character’s faces and clothing textures were clearly distinguished. This detail combined with the organic colours translated into an incredibly three dimensional picture, creating a deep visual landscape. Characters, buildings and objects appeared convincingly in the distance, just as they would in real life.
The PDP-5010FD has a unique feature called Smooth designed to eliminate motion judder in 3:2 pulldown. Three settings of this feature can be selected but I found that at the highest setting, the picture details to be slightly compromised. The feature at the middle setting worked wonders with most scenes in which a camera panned across the screen. Instead of the choppy picture that I’m used to in these scenes from all other TVs, the motion was nearly butter smooth. I did however notice that this feature introduced another kind of choppiness artifact in some instances.
To evaluate the BDP-94HD’s audio performance, I watched scenes from a few Blu-Ray movies that have high resolution soundtracks. Ghost Rider which contains a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack did impress me (more so with the audio than the movie itself). Everyday sounds such as people’s voices, motorcycle engines and street noise sounded as organic as they do in reality. The subtlest audio details in the background were clearly discernable. Yes, the high resolution soundtrack of this movie was certainly a treat to my ears. While watching Flyboys (DTS HD Master Audio), planes flying through the channels made me feel like I was watching an air show. The dynamics of the sound made the planes sound pretty darn real. Sound-wise, the BDP-94HD was top-of-the-class, through both analogue and HDMI outputs.
Most TV manufacturers make modest advances with each new generation of products. But Pioneer’s Kuro generation has taken an exceptional leap in plasma TV performance. For producing the most spectacular picture performance any of us have seen at CANADA HiFi to date, we present the Pioneer PDP-5010FD plasma TV with our first ever Editor’s Choice recognition. With a price of $5999, it’s not cheap, but it’s well worth saving up for. If you’re on a tighter budget, I suggest taking a look at the PDP-5080HD, a 50-inch 720p model priced at $3999 - it’ll still enable you to enjoy the benefits of Pioneer’s Kuro generation (which are much more noticeable than the added 1080p resolution). The Elite BDP-94HD is one of the best performing Blu-Ray players available today, although its $1199 price may seem a little high, now that lower priced players began appearing. The good news is that just before this issue went out to print, Pioneer announced a new Blu-Ray player, the BDP-95FD, which will replace this current model. This new model will retail for the same price but will be the first Blu-Ray player on the market to offer bitstream output of the latest audio formats including: Dolby TrueHD, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS-HD High Resolution and DTS-HD Master Audio. It will also have an HDMI 1.3 output. The BDP-95FD will be available this October.
Pioneer PDP-5010FD 1080p Plasma TV
Price: $5999 CAD
Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD Blu-ray Player
Price: $1199 CAD