Sunday, April 06, 2008

Pioneer Elite PRO-150FD Plasma Calibration

The Pioneer Elite line of plasma TVs has always represented the pinnacle of the technology. These displays are truly deserving of the title “reference.” The build quality, image accuracy and features of these displays are truly without peer. The latest generation of this line is called Kuro (the Japanese word for black), and with good reason. Pioneer has really gone after the holy grail of display attributes with the lowest black levels this side of a professional CRT. The PRO-150 is the 60-inch version of this panel. As this TV is very large (duh!) Pioneer thoughtfully made the side-mounted speakers removable. The bezel is a high-gloss piano black as is the pedestal stand which looks like a heavy glass plate (it’s actually Lucite). Four HDMI inputs are included along with one each of component, composite and s-video.

The glass for this panel is the same as used by the non-Elite models. Both lines also incorporate the same excellent video processing. The similarities end there. The Elite panels have a different front screen element to provide even higher contrast. In practice the difference between the Elite and non-Elite’s contrast ratios is small. It can be measured but not really seen. The main reason to go for the Elite is its more extensive calibration controls. There is a complete color management system and full grayscale controls. There are seven picture modes but for calibration purposes, I only explored two, Cinema and User. One of the first things I do with any display is measure the different picture modes to determine which one has the most accurate colorspace. There are also different picture “enhancements” in play but Cinema or Movie modes generally turn these options off. On the Pioneer I found the Cinema mode to be the closest to Rec 709 with nearly spot-on color decoding. I did attempt to adjust the color gamut with the Color Management system in User mode. I was able to achieve a perfect CIE chart but not without a tradeoff. When I attempted to adjust grayscale, I found it impossible to achieve decent tracking. I finally settled on Cinema with its almost-perfect color so I could have perfect grayscale tracking. The default Gamma setting of 2 produced a perfect 2.2 curve. It’s interesting to note that this curve remained correct regardless of the changes I made in other areas. It’s nice to see adjustments not interact for a change!

The other major area I addressed with this TV was motion processing. Since this display accepts 24p input and supports a correct-multiple refresh rate of 72Hz, I wanted to be sure and set up the signal path from the client’s Blu-ray player correctly. Blu-ray output is a no-brainer. Set the player for 1080p/24 and enjoy judder-free and artifact-free playback from hi-def discs. For standard DVD though, I experimented with 1080i. The only way to engage inverse-telecine in any TV or video processor is to feed in an interlaced signal. The processor reverses the 3:2 pulldown and tosses out the extra frame effectively giving 24p playback. Unfortunately, this combination did not look as detailed to me as feeding the TV 1080p/60. The judder was reduced but the image was softer. If you sit far enough from the display, the softness would not be a problem but my client was about 10 feet away and he preferred the 1080p signal. I experienced the same thing with my Panasonic projector. This demonstrates to me that there is still a need for high-quality standard DVD players. As we’ll all be watching NTSC for the foreseeable future, we need a good player to handle that format for displays that just get better and better every year. I’m really hoping a manufacturer will step up and produce a player that supports 1080p/24 output from standard DVD. This to me is the final frontier for NTSC video. Currently, the only way to do this properly is with an outboard video processor. To the Pioneer’s credit, motion processing of 60Hz signals was excellent. Zone Plate patterns showed virtually no loss of resolution. Even though judder was present, it was far less noticeable because detail was preserved during pans.

Obviously the end result of the calibration was superb. Even though this TV is better out-of-box than most, it most certainly benefits from a precise, instrumented calibration. Finding the right balance of picture modes, colorspace, decoding, levels, gamma and motion processing is the key to having the best possible image. Luckily with the Pioneer Elite, no compromises are needed. You really can have your cake and eat it too with this display. Yes, it’s very expensive. I believe the MSRP of the PRO-150FD is currently $7500. For the absolute best plasma display available however, I can’t really call it overpriced. Even the Panasonic commercial 65-inch panel is $6000. Big glass is big bucks! For anyone wanting the ultimate plasma, look no further than Pioneer Elite. It really is the best direct-view TV out there. If you can’t quite justify a $7500 TV though, don’t feel like you’re settling for a non-Elite Pioneer or a Panasonic. They are excellent displays sure to please even discriminating videophiles (like me!). It is my privilege however, to have the hands-on experience with the Elites that I do. They are a pleasure to work on. To quote Ferris Bueller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one of these up!”

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

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