Pioneer KURO PDP-5010FD 50-inch Plasma HDTV 
Home Theater Flat Panel HDTVs Plasma HDTVs
Written by Adrienne Maxwell   
Saturday, 01 December 2007

If you follow the HDTV world at all, you’ve probably already heard about Pioneer’s new KURO line of plasma displays. Or maybe you’ve seen those disturbing new KURO ads on TV and wondered what the heck they’re talking about. You’re not alone. The buzz actually began at last year’s CEATEC trade show in Japan, where journalists got a glimpse of Pioneer’s redesigned line of plasmas, capable of rendering an astonishingly deep black. KURO, by the way, means “black” in Japanese. The buzz gained momentum when that same demo hit the states at CES 2007 and reached full stride at Pioneer’s line show back in May, when the company announced eight new KURO plasmas, priced from $2,700 to $7,500. The first models to hit the shelves were 42- and 50-inch 768p displays; not surprising to those of us who had seen the early demos, these TVs drew great reviews. Now that the 1080p models have arrived, we had to get our hands on one and see for ourselves if the real-world product lives up to the hype.

Like all Pioneer A/V products, the KURO line is divided into two brands: the standard Pioneer brand and the higher-end Elite brand. The basic guts of each brand are similar, but the Elite lineup uses a different filter and adds some advanced features and picture adjustments. Pioneer sent me the non-Elite, 50-inch 1080p panel, the $5,000 PDP-5010FD. As I move through the review, I’ll highlight what you get if you step up to the same-sized Elite model, the $6,000 PRO-110FD.

Features and Set-Up
As other flat-panel manufacturers furiously drop prices to compete in the general marketplace, Pioneer has made a conscious decision to position their plasmas, Elite or not, at the high end of the chain. As such, even this standard Pioneer-branded model is loaded with worthwhile features. The PDP-5010FD offers Pioneer’s characteristically attractive piano-black frame, while its supplied stand is rather boxy and doesn’t swivel. The TV also comes with a detachable speaker bar that runs along the bottom cabinet; in contrast, the Elite model offers two side-mounting detachable speakers. The bar contains two 17-watt speakers, each with a 4.8cm cone woofer and 2.5cm semi-dome tweeter, and connects to the panel via spring-loaded binding clips. The speaker bar is detached upon arrival and is fairly easy to connect – easier than the manual makes it look. The TV’s back panel includes a subwoofer output, should you wish to direct lower frequencies to an outboard sub, as well as both optical digital and stereo analog outputs to send all audio signals to an external sound system. Sound-adjustment options include treble, bass and balance controls, plus SRS WOW, Focus and TruBass processing.

The supplied remote has a generally intuitive layout, with glow-in-the-dark functionality and dedicated input buttons. It’s preprogrammed to control other Pioneer devices, but lacks the learning ability found on the step-up Elite model. This TV does include the HDMI-CEC control spec that allows for more intuitive control of devices connected via the HDMI inputs. CableCARD slots seem to be appearing on fewer and fewer TVs, but you will find one on the PDP-5010FD’s back panel, along with two RF inputs to access the internal NTSC, ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. The TV Guide on Screen program guide is included, as is picture-in-picture functionality, with window and split-screen viewing options.

The PDP-5010FD has a generous input panel for connecting external sources, including four HDMI (v1.3), two component video (one on the side panel), one 15-pin RGB for PC signals, one S-video and three composite video. There’s also a side-panel USB port through which you can view photos via the Home Gallery feature. Just plug in a standard USB device, and the TV automatically jumps to the Home Gallery onscreen menu, where you can view individual photos or set up a slideshow. The Elite model includes the more advanced Home Media Gallery, which allows for playback of both music and photos via a USB device, and adds an Ethernet port to access music, movies (including HD), and photos from your PC via an existing home network. Other panel connections include a headphone jack and an SR+ control port for use with a Pioneer A/V receiver. Elite models add RS-232 and IR repeater functions for advanced control.

In terms of aspect ratios, the standard choices are here for tailoring HD and SD content, including a Dot by Dot mode for 1080i and 1080p. You can precisely move the image horizontally and vertically, the Auto Size function offers automatic aspect-ratio detection for HDMI sources, and a Side Mask feature adds gray sidebars to 4:3-shaped HD content. That last one can help reduce the chance of image retention, as can the Orbiter function, which moves the picture slightly to prevent a static image from being left on the screen for an extended period of time. Should image retention occur, Pioneer has supplied a Video pattern that you can run to help counteract the effect. Other advanced set-up features include a sleep timer, automatic shut-off when no source is detected, an energy-saving mode to reduce power consumption and brightness, and a built-in room light sensor to automatically adjust screen brightness based on the room’s lighting conditions and the type of content you’re watching.

The biggest differences between the Pioneer and Elite models can be found in the Picture set-up menu. The PDP-5010FD offers a very nice assortment of picture adjustments, beginning with six picture modes: Optimum, Standard, Dynamic, Movie, Game and User (the Elite model adds Pioneer’s Pure mode). The Optimum mode utilizes the room light sensor to automatically adjust image parameters. In this mode, you can further tweak the basic picture parameters of color, tint, contrast, brightness and sharpness, but you cannot access the TV’s Pro Adjust menu, which includes some rather important choices: color temperature, noise reduction, gamma selection and film-mode options, among others. I found the Optimum mode’s color temperature to be too cool (or blue) for my taste and went with the tried-and-true Movie mode, which defaults to the Low color temperature and required only minimal tweaks to look accurate. Unfortunately, you can’t adjust each picture mode differently for each input, so the User mode comes in handy. I went with the Movie mode for component video and then precisely tailored the User mode for HDMI sources; using my Video Essentials (DVD International) test patterns, I was able to set up the User and Movie modes to look quite similar. The PDP-5010FD’s Low color-temperature setting looks mostly accurate across the board, creating natural skin tones and a generally neutral color palette. The TV’s red, green and blue color points are close to SMPTE standards; green looks a little oversaturated, but none of the three is so far off the mark as to upset the overall color balance. As good as these color parameters were, the Elite TV offers the chance to make them even better, with the addition of the ISFccc calibration feature that allows a professional calibrator to fine-tune white balance and individual gamma steps for both daytime and nighttime viewing. The Elite model also has five preset color-temperature choices (instead of three) and two color-space options.

A TV’s processing is one of its most important features, and I was glad to see that Pioneer uses the same advanced ASIC deinterlacing and scaling circuitry in both the Elite and standard Pioneer brands. The PDP-5010FD’s PureCinema menu lets you choose how the TV handles the conversion of film-based sources. The Standard mode offers the usual 3:2 pulldown that converts 24-frames-per-second film for output at 60 hertz. The Advance mode is Pioneer’s 72-Hertz option: it converts 24 fps to 72 fps using 3:3 pulldown, which provides smoother movement than the normal 3:2 process. Finally, there’s a new Smooth Film mode. While I couldn’t get an exact description of what this mode does, it appears to interpolate frames to reduce motion judder. Finally, the TV includes several noise-reduction options: Tuner Noise Reduction, 3DNR (three-dimensional noise reduction) and Field NR to reduce what Pioneer calls “smoky noise” in DVD images, as well as non-adjustable Block and Mosquito Noise Reduction. The 3DNR and Field NR controls would prove to be worthwhile features, especially for component video sources. The Elite model adds the option to switch Block and Mosquito Noise Reduction settings on or off.

One final perk in the set-up department is the ability to do quick before and after comparisons when making video adjustments. Just hit the remote’s Blue “A” button, and you can switch between before and after settings to see how the adjustments affect picture quality.

Television And Movies
Black-and-white information provides the foundation of any image; the higher (grayer) a TV’s blacks are, the less saturated the picture looks, especially in a darkened room. In theory, each plasma pixel creates light when needed, so the black level should be zero when the pixel is off. However, the pixel is never really off; in order to respond rapidly, the pixel is primed and ready, emitting some light in the process. The amount of light it creates while idling, or its idle luminance, determines its black level. Previous Pioneer plasmas had solid black levels but were not the lowest amongst plasma manufacturers. They are now. According to the company, the idle luminance in these new KURO models has been reduced by over 80 percent. When I saw the original demo at CEATEC, you couldn’t even tell the TV was on when an all-black signal was displayed in a dark room. With the real-world PDP-5010FD, the black level isn’t quite that deep, but is still outstanding. At the same time, the KURO uses a new filter to reduce ambient light reflection off the glass, yet still allows for a good amount of light output. This combination of a substantially reduced black level and good light output results in the best true contrast ratio you’re going to find in a flat panel, period.

A great contrast ratio equals great image depth, dimension and saturation. Add in the PDP-5010FD’s accurate natural colors, and you’ve got the makings of some truly gorgeous high-definition content. I began with chapters two through four of the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Blu-ray disc (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), and I was extremely impressed with the TV’s ability to render the precise details in dark, complexly-lit scenes, yet still pop in the bright daytime sequences. When comparing this plasma with my reference Epson projector, its overall black level wasn’t quite as deep, but it did a much better job rendering fine shadow details and areas of fine contrast, bringing out subtle textures and giving the picture a more three-dimensional quality. The overall level of detail was exceptional, too. As I moved through my arsenal of Blu-ray discs, from Black Hawk Down (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) to Mission: Impossible II (Paramount Home Entertainment) to The Prestige (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), I was simply dazzled by the contrast, color and detail of the PDP-5010FD.

The PDP-5010FD’s HDMI inputs accept both 1080p/60 and 1080p/24. If your high-def player can output 1080p/24, you can feed this TV the native signal off a high-def disc and use the PureCinema Advance mode to convert 24 fps to 72 fps, for a smoother, less juddery film presentation. Using the slow pan across the buildings in chapter two of the Pirates disc, I experimented with all three film modes and could see a difference. The Advance mode was a little smoother than the Standard mode, while the Smooth Film mode looked similar to the 120-Hz LCDs I’ve seen. The interpolated frames create a super-smooth motion that makes film look more like video – an effect many purists don’t like. The Smooth Film mode’s performance was somewhat inconsistent and its overall effect wasn’t as pronounced as it was with 120-Hz LCDs. Ultimately, I preferred the Advance mode, but I liked having the choice. On a related note, my processing test discs showed that the TV correctly deinterlaces 1080i and picks up the 3:2 sequence in film-based 1080i sources, through both the HDMI and component video inputs. So you could mate this TV with a 1080i-only high-def player and still enjoy a clean, detailed image with minimal artifacts.

As good as the PDP-5010FD performed with high-def DVD content, I was even more impressed with its handling of standard-def DVDs. Again, black-level demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal Home Video, chapter one) and Signs (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, chapters 18 and 19) revealed nice, deep blacks and excellent shadow detail. I popped in the Gladiator DVD (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) to evaluate the TV’s upconversion and deinterlacing of 480i, both of which were solid. There was nice fine detail in close-ups of Russell Crowe’s face, and I saw minimal jaggies and shimmer during the Coliseum flyover in chapter 12, no matter which PureCinema film mode I selected. Usually, I play this demo scene and quickly move to the next disc; however, I was so drawn in by the PDP-5010FD’s richness and detail with this SD disc that I just let the film play on and enjoyed the ride. I noticed some digital noise in background colors and light-to-dark transitions in my favorite test scenes from Ladder 49 (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, chapter 10) and Chicago (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, chapter five). In this case, though, the noise-reduction controls provide a big improvement. The Mid setting for both Field NR and 3DNR did a wonderful job reducing noise without overly softening the image, as many NR controls can. With the noise reduction engaged, you can actually sit very close to this TV and still enjoy an attractive picture, even with lesser-quality sources.

Next I moved to television signals, using my DirecTV set-top box. High-def shows like The Office and House were clean and wonderfully detailed. Even shows that can look noisy, like Heroes and The Black Donnellys, were excellent in appearance. Brighter HD sporting events revealed that this TV isn’t just about creating deep blacks with darker DVD content. Its excellent contrast ratio helps color and detail spring to life, creating a very engaging image. NFL broadcasts on CBS and NBC boasted rich, vivid colors that didn’t look exaggerated or cartoonish, and I could easily make out individual blades of glass on the field. Also, details aren’t diminished in faster-moving scenes. The PDP-5010FD has ample light output to render a richly saturated image during the day, even when I turned on all my room’s overhead lights and opened the blinds. The new filter successfully cuts down on reflections off the glass, but doesn’t eliminate them entirely. The TV’s high-quality processing circuitry also benefits SDTV signals; both upconversion and deinterlacing were good. I felt the HDMI image had slightly better detail than component video with SD sources. In terms of overall image quality, component video was consistently good, but HDMI kicked everything up a notch, rendering a more engaging picture with all sources. There’s a reason why the TV has four HDMI inputs.

One final performance note: Pioneer also put a lot of energy into redesigning the speakers to create a higher-quality audio experience than you’ll get from most flat panels. I therefore spent more time listening to audio through the speaker bar than I normally would. Admittedly, the sound is fuller and more robust than the norm, but male vocals still don’t sound entirely natural through those small speakers. If you’re going to invest this kind of money to get a high-end viewing experience, don’t even think of selling the audio element short; mate this TV with a good-quality speaker system and enjoy the complete A/V experience.

The Downside
This might be a first for me but, from a performance standpoint, I can’t come up with any significant downsides to the PDP-5010FD. The deinterlacing of 480i content wasn’t the most consistent I’ve seen; the TV passed my Gladiator torture test, but failed with The Bourne Identity (Universal Home Video) and some complex cadences. Still, I saw very few artifacts with everyday content.

My few concerns are ergonomic in nature. For one, the panel has a fairly audible buzz, which may not be noticeable at an average volume level, but I was aware of it during quieter passages. The PDP-5010FD was slower than average to switch between resolutions when using HDMI for my DirecTV HD box, and the Auto Size feature only functions correctly if the HDMI signal’s aspect ratio has been correctly flagged, which was seldom the case with my DirecTV signal. Finally, while I understand the benefits of gray sidebars in a plasma, I still prefer black ones, which is not an option in this TV.

While light output is good and screen reflections are minimized, I’d still be mindful of placing this TV in the path of direct sunlight. Ironically enough, light reflections were less of an issue here than they were with the glossy Samsung LED LCD screen I just reviewed. That TV is another flat panel capable of rendering deep blacks and a beautifully rich image, as long as you view it straight on. With the PDP-5010FD, you can sit anywhere in the room and still enjoy its gorgeous picture quality.

The PDP-5010FD is a high-end item. Its $5,000 asking price is almost twice that of some 50-inch 1080p plasmas on the market. This TV isn’t expensive because it carries a high-end brand name or is targeted at the super-wealthy. It’s expensive because its performance is spectacular, the finest example of the form, no matter what type of signal you feed it or where you place it in your room. The average consumer may not care enough about picture quality to step that far up in price; however, if you’re a video enthusiast who wants the best flat panel money can buy, you need look no further than Pioneer’s KURO.
Manufacturer Pioneer
Model KURO PDP-5010FD 50-inch Plasma HDTV
Reviewer Adrienne Maxwell
Diagonal Screen Size 43 to 56-inches

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