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Pioneer Elite PRO-1120HD Plasma Display System Page 2

The optical-grade clear front of the plasma panel is a non-glass film that Pioneer calls its First-Surface Pure Color Filter. Optically bound to the main glass panel, it is said to increase the effective contrast by nearly eliminating reflected light.

Performance
The Pioneer doesn't hide flaws in mediocre-quality, standard-definition material, though the video controls (including noise reduction—I often used the Mosquito Noise control at Low or Medium) do provide some relief. But with good DVD—or even better, a well-produced high-definition program—the PRO-1120HD produced incredibly eye-popping images. The picture was sharp and colors were richly saturated and natural looking. A slightly rosy cast, visible mainly on gray-scale test patterns, didn't completely disappear even after a full calibration, but it was never obvious on normal video material.

The Pioneer's image was very bright—actually a bit too bright for my taste. Dialing it back with the contrast control was not an option; as with all digital displays I've tested, dropping the contrast control too much simply reduces the picture's peak contrast ratio (since you can't lower the black level below a fixed floor). Reduce it too much and the image simply turns bland and lifeless. In the optimum setting of the contrast control (just below the point at which the whites clip) and with the DRE control set to Low (which produced the best subjective result), the PRO-1120HD put out a searing 41 foot-lamberts in the standard (not reduced) brightness mode from a white-field window.

While the Pioneer is an amazing performer with most program material, there's just no getting around its unexceptional black level and shadow detail. The dimly lit scenes in Hellboy (there are lots of them) weren't fully satisfying. Shadow details were either crushed or dark gray rather than near-black. In the universe of plasmas we've tested, the Pioneer's blacks rank no better than average, and some plasmas (all of which seem to use Panasonic-sourced panels) do significantly better.

I spent some time last year with the PRO-1120HD's predecessor, the PRO-1110HD. The new model may be slightly better in this respect, but black level and shadow detail are still not among the Pioneer's strengths. (The PRO-1110HD was originally scheduled for review in Ultimate AV, but the new model was announced before the review work was completed, and I opted to wait for the PRO-1120HD. The new model took longer to reach market than either we or Pioneer anticipated, as product launches often do.)

Pioneer argues that their design optimizes energy efficiency and increases panel life. But all the manufacturer estimates we've seen of plasma display life recently are at least equal to Pioneers claim of 60,000 hours (nearly 24 years at seven hours per day). Until more statistical data are available, I'm not sure we have a realistic feel for how different design choices may affect any given display's operating life. Still, Pioneer may have a point; we don't see any operating-life guarantees out there. You pays your money and you takes your chances.

The Pioneer's detail and color performance come to the rescue on darker scenes with enough highlighted details to at least give the impression of better contrast than it actually produces. The moderately dark scene from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King on the latest demonstration DVD from DTS (Surround.9), as Frodo is drawn to the evil city of Minas Morgul, was fully resolved and, in fact, would fool many viewers into believing they were watching high definition.

Once the average picture level gets above the low-to-middle charcoal region, the Pioneer really starts to shine. The clips from I, Robot and The Day After Tomorrow from that same DTS disc were outstanding. I, Robot displayed excellent flesh tones in the humans and glistening metal in the robots; the film hadn't look nearly this good in the theater. The Day After Tomorrow, which is a little soft on the full-film DVD, looked crisp and clean from the DTS disc, though here the limited shadow detail did call attention to itself once or twice.

I also did an almost shot-for-shot analysis of the first act of Charlotte Gray, one of the best-looking DVDs I know of and a frequent reference hereabouts. In the opening scene, the sunlit fields with their rows of violet foliage looked spectacularly vivid and bright. In the scene on the train that follows, the details were crisp and the colors were solid, with excellent flesh tones. At the book-signing party, the colors were natural and the image was filmlike (though, of course, much brighter than all commercial presentations). The scene in the back room when Charlotte meets Peter looked a little soft, but it always does; it's one of the weaker parts of the transfer.

The outdoor night scene that follows wasn't as dark as it should be due to the display's high light output and the higher-than-optimum black levels. In the bedroom scene, the flesh tones were good (and there are a lot of flesh tones in that sequence). Some shots in this scene looked a little light and lacking in deep shadows, but the image otherwise remained strikingly good. I noted no obvious false contouring in the images and no artifacts I could attribute to the display. Details remained natural throughout—neither soft nor artificially sharp—a key strength of this DVD. In later scenes where there's a great deal of foliage, the Pioneer's greens, like those of many digital displays, were a little too vivid and lime-green.

I also experimented with the ADV 3:3 pulldown function, which is only available with an interlaced input, so for this test I used a component 480i signal from my Panasonic DVD-RP56 DVD player. (For most of my DVD viewing, I used an HDMI connection at 480p from a Marantz DV8400 player.) The ADV setting did result in slightly smoother images with certain types of motion, though it wasn't easy to spot. We've all become accustomed to the slightly jittery motion that standard 3:2 pulldown produces; I suspect that once you get acclimated to 3:3, you might well notice 3:2's lack of smoothness when you switch back to it.

Higher Definition
Using a variety of familiar 720p and 1080i high-definition material recorded on D-VHS tape, the Pioneer sailed through its HD paces with ease. Images were crisp and natural, clean and noise-free, vivid but believable. Whether the source was sports or movies, I had no complaints apart from the darkest scenes, and there were few of them in the HD material I watched.

While we will continue to test the HD tuner performance of HDTV sets as appropriate, in truth there are so many variables outside the control of the manufacturer and the reviewer (such as the relative location of the viewer with respect to the station, the local geography, the characteristics of the station, and the quality of the program material), that results obtained in one situation will never be universally applicable to everyone. Much the same applies to CableCARD reception, with the quality of the feed lines substituting for the geography and distance issues.

The tuner tests on the PRO-1120HD were conducted at our photo/measurement studio, some 20 miles from my normal location, because I was unable to test either the CableCARD feature or the onboard tuner under the very difficult conditions I must endure in my personal reception area. But since most of you don't have a mountain blocking the direct line of sight between your antenna and the broadcast station, my conditions are hardly typical. (Nevertheless, I can receive several DTV stations at my home studio on the Zenith HDR-230 tuner/digital video recorder).

In the measurement studio, the conditions are difficult for another reason. The outside antenna was inoperative at the time of the test, so I was restricted to an indoor antenna. I was able to pick up five DTV stations on the Pioneer tuner, though some of them often degraded into macroblocking or went completely blank for a few seconds. According to the Pioneer's signal-strength meter, the strength of the most breakup-prone station (the local CBS affiliate) fluctuated between 11 and 40 percent; when it dropped much below 25 percent, the reception problems began.

Of course, the weak signal can't be blamed on the Pioneer, but reception from the same antenna, in the same location, using an LG LST-3410A tuner/video recorder, brought in nine stations, with less frequent breakups. Thus, while the Pioneer's onboard tuner provides an excellent picture with a strong signal from the antenna, it may not provide the best over-the-air performance for you if you live in an area where the signal is weak. A better, outboard tuner (and the LG is one of the best) may be required if you fall in that category.

Conclusions
In almost every respect, the Pioneer Elite PRO-1120HD produces such astonishingly good images that many buyers will reach for their (high limit!) credit cards very quickly. But you should watch a wide variety of program material, including the darkest shots in your favorite movies, before plunking down the plastic. The set's strengths are so impressive that many potential buyers won't notice the limitation or won't care. For them, the set's other genuine strengths more than compensate. They're unlikely to ever regret the purchase.

Highs and Lows

Highs
• Bright, sharp, yet natural-looking images
• gorgeous color reproduction
• Separate media receiver provides convenient DTV and NTSC tuning, video switching, and control

Lows
• Better blacks and shadow detail are available elsewhere
• Expensive
• The Pioneer's DTV receiver provides an excellent picture, but there are better outboard receivers where the signal is weak

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