Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pioneer PRO-111FD Review and Calibration

Recently something wonderful has happened in the plasma TV market. Pioneer has dropped prices on their 9th-generation displays to levels never before imagined. I was incredibly fortunate just a few weeks ago to pick up a PRO-111FD for a mere $2900. Six months ago this was a $5000 display. The funny thing is it’s worth every penny of $5000. At $2900, I’m practically stealing it!

The plain truth is the 9th-generation Kuro plasmas are the best performing televisions you can buy. That is no exaggeration. Their color accuracy, clarity, video processing and most importantly, dynamic range, are without equal. I’ll throw out a number right now: 51,080 to 1 On/Off Contrast Ratio. This is literally what I measured in the ISF Day mode. Minimum black - .001fl, maximum white – 51.080fl, incredible! Color accuracy was equally amazing. The measured color gamut is a perfect overlay of the Rec 709 HD colorspace. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll continue with these amazing performance specs a bit later.

The PRO-111FD is the 50-inch model in the Elite line. There is also a 60-inch panel, the PRO151FD and monitors in 50 and 60-inch sizes, the PRO-101 and 141. Everything about the set exudes quality. The base and bezel are finished in a high-gloss hard plastic. The back of the panel is all metal. There are four HDMI inputs (one side-mounted), one component input and two S-video and composite inputs. There is a side-mounted USB input for the Home Media Gallery feature. This allows you to show photos and videos from a USB device directly on the display, very slick. There is also an optical digital audio input which can handle a Dolby Digital or DTS bitstream and downmix it for the TV’s speakers. These speakers by the way are the best I’ve ever heard on a television. They certainly won’t replace a 5.1 surround system but they blow away any other speakers built into a display. Pioneer thoughtfully made them removable as they add about eight inches to the overall width of the set. The remote is also of excellent build quality. The face is brushed aluminum and all buttons are backlit. It can be programmed to operate other components.

Setup is quite easy. If you use the internal tuner, you can scan for available channels. If not, simply connect your components to the generous selection of inputs. There are seven picture modes: Standard, Optimum, Performance, Sport, Movie, Game and Pure. Pure is the most calibration-ready mode. It has the most accurate colorspace and a perfectly flat gamma of 2.2. You will need to calibrate the grayscale as it runs a bit warm out of the box. Movie is similar but it has a slightly expanded colorspace. Some people prefer this but it’s really not necessary with this TV. The color saturation and tint are dead-on accurate at the factory default settings in Pure mode. There is no need to pump up the color since the luminances are close to perfect.

The user menus are quite extensive offering a large variety of calibration options and other features. You can find the white balance settings and color management system in the Pro Adjust submenu. This is also where you can make choices for Pure Cinema, Noise Reduction and other image enhancements. There is a very handy Tools menu that has its own button on the remote. This menu lets you change the AV Selection (picture mode), Screen Size (aspect ratio), blank the screen and other options. You can view your current input resolution, AV Selection, input number and Screen Size by pressing Display on the remote.

The real reason to go for the Elite TVs is the available ISF modes. These can only be unlocked by connecting a laptop to the RS232 port and using ISFccc software like ControlCAL. There are two modes, Day and Night. They can be set up any way you like. You can have a Night mode with less light output. You can have a black & white mode with a 5500k grayscale, whatever you want. This can be done independently per input. After activation the ISF modes appear in the AV Selection list and in the Tools menu. All user adjustments are locked out when the ISF modes are engaged. This way no one can tamper with the modes you paid good money to have calibrated. The ISF modes can also increase the peak light output. On my set, the peak reading went from 38fl in the Pure mode to 51fl in ISF. This makes a huge difference in picture quality. The Pure mode seems dull and drab by comparison. That extra output is nice in rooms that have some ambient light coming in. I have no trouble watching on a bright sunny day.

Since I’m calibrating this TV through a control interface, the procedure is somewhat different than other displays. I began by connecting my laptop to the RS232 port. After cycling the power, I was able to establish communication with the TV through ControlCAL’s ISFccc connection. This gives me complete control over the calibration plus video processing and aspect ratio. There is a color management system, settings for the Pure Cinema modes and a 9-point RGB gamma control. After activating each ISF mode (Day and Night), I performed a separate calibration for each. Using ControlCAL along with Calman calibration software makes for a very smooth setup. With both applications on screen and Calman controlling my signal generator, I could literally calibrate this TV without looking at it! Controls behaved exactly as they should with no interaction.

The ISF Night mode was set about 15fl lower, peak output. Otherwise, I left all other settings the same. I set the Pure Cinema to Advanced. This allows for 72hz operation with 24p content from Blu-ray disc. It also performs inverse-telecine deinterlacing from 480i and 1080i sources. With film-mode DVDs, motion is much smoother since the repeated frames are discarded. Blu-rays play with a 3:3 pulldown. Frame interpolation is available if you select Pure Cinema Smooth. I find this look to be unnatural. It makes film look like soap opera video. It also introduces annoying artifacts and judder in content that isn’t mastered correctly. My recommendation is to go with Advanced and leave it at that. I set the Screen Size (aspect ratio) to Dot By Dot. This is a true 1:1 pixel mode with no overscan or pixel blanking. Test patterns confirmed that every pixel was rendered. Screen uniformity was visually perfect.

As previously stated, On/Off Contrast measured 51,080:1 in ISF Day mode. This is phenomenal performance. Gamma was ruler-flat at 2.2. Grayscale tracking measured within 75k of D65. Delta E* was under 1 for all stimulus levels. A Delta E* of 3 is the point where errors are visible to the eye. The color measurements were of comparable accuracy. Primaries and secondaries were within a whisker of perfect and luminances were also nearly perfect. You can see all the results below. I used Calman 3.3 and an EyeOne Pro meter for all measurements. Patterns were provided by an Accupel HDG-3000 signal generator.

Once complete, I closed out the ISFccc interface and all settings were saved. I was able to set up the other inputs just as easily and accurately with ControlCAL. Disc-based test patterns were used to adjust and verify my Denon and Panasonic disc players. When exiting ControlCAL, calibration information is saved to the display that can be viewed by the user. It’s cool to hold down the Display key on the remote and see my name, calibration date and phone number. I save this same data to all clients’ displays.

Since calibration, I have lived with this excellent display for several weeks. Even though I have the Night mode available, I find myself leaving the TV on Day mode. I never have my room totally dark and I am sitting about ten feet away. I like a bright image and 51fl is quite comfortable for my wife and me. There is no question that I have purchased the finest flat-panel display available. By activating the ISF modes, I have tapped into its full potential. There is literally nothing I could wish for with this TV. All performance specs are a close to perfect as my instruments can measure. Perceived picture quality is simply unparalleled. This is truly a TV that makes you want to watch your entire movie collection over again. With an artifact-free image, perfect color and stupendous contrast performance the Pioneer Elite PRO-111FD is literally without flaw. Now that prices have dropped within reach of most of us, there is no better time to add one of these fine TVs to your viewing room.


Anonymous said...

Great article.
Now I am even more jealous of Kuro owners!
Now if only Panasonic can catch up.

Anonymous said...

How important is calibration?

Chris Eberle said...

Calibration is important if you want to extract maximum accuracy and performance from your display. Some TVs are closer to correct calibration than others but I have yet to encounter one that didn't need some adjustment. It's like tuning your piano. It will still play if you don't have it tuned but it will never realize its full potential unless you do have it tuned.

Anonymous said...

I want to get a professional calibration, how would I find a first-rate technician in my area?
I am in Palm Beach County, Fl. and recently purchased the PRO-111FD ($2,499. at Best Buy). This is truly a stunning set. I have a lot of windows with ambient and reflected light during the day, but this has been no problem what soever. When day turns to night the performance of this set is spectacular.

Chris Eberle said...

I'm glad you're enjoying your new TV. For a pro calibration, try one of the guys at this link: http://www.isfforum.com/sobi2/ISF-Forum-Calibrators/Americas/United-States/Florida.html

Anonymous said...

You noted "The PRO-111FD is the 50-inch model in the Elite line. There is also a 60-inch panel, the PRO151FD and monitors in 50 and 60-inch sizes, the PRO-101 and 141." But what's the difference between the 111FD and 101? I have a local retailer offering me a decent price on the 101, but not as low as you're suggesting it probably should be if the 101 is "less" of a product than the 111FD.

Chris Eberle said...

The PRO-101 is a Signature Series Elite Monitor. The panel is hand-selected. It has a few extra features like ethernet connectivity and a DVI input. It is quite a bit more money than a 111. Unless you need an ethernet or DVI connection, there is no real advantage over the 111.

digimetic said...

Chris - excellent article! You wouldn't by chance recommend any online vendors for grabbing one of these? Many thanks,


Chris Eberle said...

I got mine from Clarity Technologies/BuyBest Plasma. Talk to Roman. He's very professional and efficient.

digimetic said...

Cool, thanks again.