Pioneer Electronics PureVision Elite PRO-930HD Plasma HDTV 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs Plasma HDTVs
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

As we inch closer to the DTV transition, many television manufacturers are hedging their bets as to which display technology—plasma, LCD or micro-display—will ultimately win our hearts and checkbooks. Some companies have chosen to offer both plasma and LCD flat panels; others can’t even narrow it down that much, bringing out product in every new display category.

Pioneer has taken a road less traveled. The company is quite content to put all of its eggs in the plasma basket. (Okay, I’m done with the platitudes.) They no longer manufacture rear-projection TVs of any kind, nor do they offer panels smaller than 42 inches, since that would essentially require them to give LCD a serious look. As I write this, the Pioneer website lists a total of nine TVs on the roster, all plasmas ranging from 42 to 61 inches.

If all you do is plasma, then you had better do it well. The new 43-inch PRO-930HD ($4,500) is confirmation that Pioneer knows how to bring out the best in this technology. This 1,024 x 768-pixel panel, part of the Elite line, is a true HDTV: It has built-in ATSC, NTSC and QAM tuners, as well as a CableCARD slot. It adheres to Pioneer’s minimalist design approach, sporting an all-black frame with a gorgeous high-gloss finish and a trim profile, thanks in part to the detached speakers. Without the two 13-watt speakers in place, the panels weighs 56.9 pounds and measures just 24.9 inches high by 42.375 wide by 3.625 inches deep. A tabletop stand is supplied, and wall-mounting hardware is sold separately.

Another reason for the PRO-930HD’s trim profile is that Pioneer has put the connection panel in a separate box that goes in your equipment rack. A proprietary cable links the plasma to this media receiver, as they call it. The two-piece design allows for a cleaner look, since only the power cord and proprietary cable are attached to the panel itself, and it’s much easier to connect external equipment directly to the receiver. The IR port is on the panel, so you can tuck the media receiver away in a cabinet. Yet another benefit to this approach is that you can use shorter cables, which saves money and can improve the signal quality, especially with a digital video signal like HDMI.

Speaking of HDMI, the PRO-930HD has two of them—inputs, that is. It also has two iLink ports and three component video inputs, one of which is placed on the media receiver’s front panel, a decision gamers will likely appreciate. It’s worth noting that Inputs 1 and 3 on the back panel share a component video and HDMI input, so you have to choose one or the other via the onscreen setup menu. The default setting is component video for Input 1 and HDMI for Input 3. The media receiver also has an RS-232 port to incorporate the TV into an automation system, a 15-pin RGB connector for use with a computer and a PCMCIA Type II memory-card adapter that lets you display JPEG photos and slide shows.

Making basic adjustments to the PRO-930HD’s video and audio parameters is a straightforward process. The owner’s manual thoroughly explains the different choices, the onscreen menu is translucent and logically laid out, and the individual video controls don’t cover the screen, which makes it easier to adjust the picture. I began with video adjustments, setting up the HDMI and component video inputs using my Sony DVP-NS75H DVD player and test patterns from the “Video Essentials” DVD (DVD International). Pioneer has included six picture modes from which to choose: Standard, Dynamic, Movie, Game, User and Pure (which Pioneer says “reflects input signals as faithfully as possible”). In all modes but Dynamic, you can make further adjustments to contrast, brightness, color, tint and sharpness. I recommend you avoid the Dynamic mode; it’s extremely blue and shows a ton of edge enhancement. I ultimately went with the Pure mode for the HDMI input and the Movie mode for component video. Both look quite accurate by videophile standards and required only minor tweaks on my part. Some edge enhancement was still visible in these modes, which required turning down the sharpness control. You can turn this setting all the way down through the HDMI input; however, with component video, the picture gets noticeably softer if you set the sharpness control at its minimum (–15). I set it at –1 to remove edge enhancement yet still show all the detail in the picture. In addition to the above six picture modes, the PRO-930HD come ISFccc calibration ready, which adds two additional viewing modes, ISF day and ISF night. This calibration should be performed by a professional for further adjustment of the plasma's picture contrast, tint, color as well as to take into account the specific room environment.

A host of advanced color controls allows you to fine-tune the picture even further. You can choose from five color temperature modes (five presets, plus a manual mode that should only be used by a professional calibrator); the Low mode was my choice, as it is the closest to the 6,500-Kelvin standard. Color Management allows for individual adjustments of the red, green, blue, yellow, cyan and magenta points. Other controls include CTI (Color Transient Improvement), digital and MPEG noise reduction and Dynamic Range Extender features that let you alter black level, contrast and gamma. I turned all of these features off for my review.

On the audio end, should you choose to attach the supplied speakers, be prepared to put some effort into it. This isn’t a snap-and-go procedure, as evidenced by the fact that a separate manual is devoted to the process. You can mount the speakers flush with the cabinet or with a small gap. Both the speakers and plasma use spring-loaded connection terminals for the speaker wire. The audio set-up menu includes controls for treble, bass and balance, plus options for SRS Focus control, SRS simulated surround sound and TruBass bass enhancement. A subwoofer output is aboard to send bass to a separate subwoofer. If you’d rather send all audio signals coming in from the tuners to your A/V receiver, there’s also an optical digital audio output.

Now about those tuners …This is the only area where set-up and operation aren’t as intuitive as they could be. Given that this is a higher-end display, perhaps Pioneer is betting that most people will forego the use of the internal tuners for an external cable or satellite set-top box, but you can never rule out some people’s preference for getting free over-the-air HDTV content. Of the two RF inputs on the media receiver’s back panel, you must use Antenna A for HDTV and Antenna B for cable, and you have to run a separate scan for each antenna. During the scanning process, the onscreen display doesn’t indicate which or how many channels you have tuned. Once the scan is complete, you’re given a list of successfully tuned channels, but there’s no way to access this list again to quickly add or delete channels. There is an “Add Channel” feature in the set-up menu, but it’s oddly conceived and difficult to use. Clearly, Pioneer intends for you to use the TV Guide onscreen interface to manage your channels, but this doesn’t group HDTV channels together. In conjunction with my Terk HDTVi antenna, the internal ATSC tuner picked up most of the HDTV stations in my area, although it never did find the local PBS HD channel. The QAM tuner picked up the first 99 channels in my digital cable system without needing a cable box.

The picture-in-picture function is also a bit confusing. You can watch an antenna and external source in regular PIP fashion or in several different split-screen options, but it’s a good idea to read the manual for an exact explanation of how the function works. On the supplied remote, PIP is accessed via the “Split” button. Beyond that odd nomenclature, I like the remote. It’s bulky, but it’s backlit and has dedicated buttons to access each input, change the screen size and scroll through the picture modes. The PRO-930HD scores points for including automatic aspect ratio detection and the ability to change the aspect ratio of HD sources.

Television and Movies
Any minor frustration you may experience during set-up will be instantly forgotten when you sit down to reap the rewards. The PRO-930HD’s picture is simply gorgeous, both with DVD and HDTV content. Even upconverted SDTV channels, while soft, look much better here than through many flat panels I’ve seen.

The TV’s excellent black level has much to do with its picture quality. After reviewing several LCDs in a row, I had forgotten just how much better a well-designed plasma can render a good black. The PRO-930HD didn’t have the deepest blacks I’ve seen in a plasma, but it was pretty darn close. The film “Collateral” (DreamWorks) is shot almost entirely at night, and director Michael Mann used HD cameras for much of the inside-the-cab exchanges between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. The PRO-930HD’s improved black level not only lends greater depth to the overall image, but also lets you take in the extra bit of detail in darker scenes.

Likewise, fine details in the dark background shots of “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” (Warner Bros.) were clearly evident. Usually, such good blacks demand a sacrifice in light output, but I found the Pioneer’s picture to hold up quite well during the day. Pioneer has incorporated a Crystal Emissive Layer between the plasma glass and the individual light cells that, according to the company, “allows each cell to be charged and discharged three times faster than before, for greater light emission.” It works as intended, and the company’s First-Surface Pure Color Filter technology helps reduce ambient light reflections to improve viewability in a brighter space.

I happened to have a similarly-sized LCD panel on hand, so, for fun, I set up a side-by-side comparison of over-the-air HDTV content. It was no contest in terms of black level and viewing angle. The Pioneer’s picture had much more depth and dimension, especially in a darkened room, and suffered no loss in contrast when I moved off-axis. The LCD’s brightness created a more vivid picture during the day, an effect most noticeable with whites, but the difference wasn’t that dramatic. I’d say the PRO-930HD wasn’t hindered as much by daylight as the LCD was by darkness, which makes it a good all-round choice. I made a point to tune in to an NBA playoff game in 720p on ABC to check out how each TV handled motion. The plasma demonstrated noticeably less blur in background detail as the HD camera followed the action on the court.

The Pioneer also has ample dynamic range to render all the steps between black and white in an image. That makes for a smoother picture, with less digital noise in solid colors and grey, even with all of the aforementioned noise-reduction features turned off. During the rescue sequence in chapter 10 of “Ladder 49” (Buena Vista), the smoke that hangs over the entire image actually looked like smoke, not pixels, and the improved black level revealed more detail in this scene than I’ve seen to date. Flesh tones were natural and colors were rich without going overboard, although greens appeared just a bit oversaturated in ABC’s “Lost” and ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.

Pioneer’s PureCinema processing includes two modes. The standard mode handles 3:2 pulldown for interlaced sources like DVD and the advanced mode uses 3:3 pulldown, converting 24 frames-per-second film to 72 frames-per-second video, which should create even smoother motion. I didn’t see much of a difference between the two modes with the Snell & Wilcox test on Video Essentials or in my test scene from “Gladiator” (DreamWorks), chapter 12. They both did an excellent job creating a jaggie-free image with only a hint of shimmer, so a good progressive-scan DVD player is not a necessity. The TV also does an above-average job handling video-based signals like DVD extras and many TV programs, although it occasionally stuttered with text scrolls, such as sports and news tickers.

The Downside
The only real downside I found with the PRO-930HD is its potential for short-term image retention, in which the TV’s pixels remember the state they’re left in for an extended period of time. Note: I didn’t say burn-in, as that implies a more permanent effect than I witnessed. I happened to be in mid-review when NFL draft day arrived. Yes, I am one of those desperate-for-anything-football-related fans who actually tunes in to the draft, and I watched ESPN HD’s coverage all throughout the day, not really giving much thought to the status bar permanently pasted down the left side of the screen, even during commercials. After eight straight hours, that static image had imprinted itself as a ghost on the screen, despite the fact that the contrast control was set at only 65 percent. Over the next few days, the image faded somewhat on its own, and I expedited the process by running an all-white test pattern for several hours. After a week, it had disappeared entirely.

Image retention is a common plasma trait, and Pioneer has wisely included a Game mode, in which the contrast is turned way down to help prevent this when viewing a source that contains a lot of static images. I suggest gamers make use of this mode. The PRO-930HD also uses grey 4:3 sidebars; the grey hue lessens the chance of imprinting the bars on the screen if you still watch a lot of standard-def material. Unlike some plasma manufacturers, they have not included features to help prevent or remedy image retention or burn-in, such as an orbiter function that subtly shifts the image or a reverse pattern to ease the effects. This means you have to be more aware of what you watch and how long you watch it, especially during the first 100 hours of use, and you should never watch TV with the contrast setting turned all the way up.

Lastly, I want to make one minor note about compatibility. My HD cable box, the Motorola BMC9012, provides an interesting challenge for a TV’s HDMI or DVI inputs. Some HDTVs have no trouble displaying the signal from the box’s DVI-D output; others are slow to lock on to the signal and often lose it when switching from a 1080i channel (like CBS) to a 720p channel (like ABC). The Pioneer falls into the latter category, so I stuck with component video for my cable signals. It’s likely an issue with the box, as the PRO-930HD didn’t have any difficulty displaying signals from the other HDMI and DVI sources, like my Sony DVP-NS75H DVD player and the HP z556 Digital Entertainment Center. I mention it only as food for thought for those of you who use this particular cable box.

Yes, the PRO-930HD serves up beautiful HDTV and DVD images. Yes, the panel itself has a simple elegance. Yes, the separate media receiver gives you greater placement options and all the connectivity you’ll need. And yes, you will pay a premium for all of these things. That $4,500 price tag is definitely at the high end for a flat panel of this size but, if you refuse to accept anything but the best performance the technology can offer, you have to take a look at the PRO-930HD. It definitely delivers.
Manufacturer Pioneer
Model PureVision Elite PRO-930HD Plasma HDTV
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches

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