Pioneer Elite PRO-730HD rear-projection CRT TV

Very few manufacturers can call themselves "traditional," but until now, no description has better fit Pioneer, with their dedication to high-performance CRT-based rear-projection displays. However, that's about to change: Pioneer is scheduled to convert their rear-projection CRT assembly facilities to the production of plasma displays in April 2004, finally leaving CRT behind. While there should be enough Pioneer Elite CRT RPTVs in the pipeline to last through the end of the year, you might consider this review an homage to Pioneer's CRT era. It's also a caution: If you've had your eye on an RPTV from Pioneer, the cupboard may be full now, but it won't be restocked. Ever.

The three models in the PRO series top out with the one reviewed here: the 65-inch-diagonal PRO-730HD. The PROs are not so-called "integrated" sets; they require an outboard set-top box to receive high-definition programming.

I spent most of my review time with the PRO-730HD, but by the time I got around to the writing, Pioneer had updated it to the PRO-730HDi. A key elementw of the "i" version is a new Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) calibration tool that makes a professional technician's adjustments easier yet more thorough, and it adds a startup screen that comes on during power-up to indicate who performed the calibration and when a follow-up visit is recommended. Pioneer is the first maker of TVs to collaborate with the ISF on this Custom Calibration Configuration (C3) initiative.

The one physical difference between the PRO-730HD and the PRO-730HDi is the latter's upgraded digital inputs, which use the new, smaller High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) connections. With the appropriate adapter cable, these can theoretically accept a DVI (video only) feed. No such cable was available to me before deadline; I performed all of my DVI testing with the PRO-730HD's conventional DVI input.

Heavy Duty
At my first sight of its rich, high-gloss piano cabinet, trim of gold piping, and the balance and fit of its backlit remote control, there was no mistaking the PRO-730HD for anything but a Pioneer Elite. Bringing old Henry Ford's design ideas up to date, Pioneer makes its PRO TVs in any finish you want, as long as it's black. This is a good thing—the otherwise very large box can complement other high-quality furniture, and its finish will remind you to hire piano movers when you relocate.

The PRO-730HD is a heavyweight: 305 pounds outside its shipping crate. You'd do well to let the dealer earn his keep—make sure yours delivers and installs the unit. Have him put your PRO-730HD where it will stay, hopefully on a solid floor or thin carpet for easy rolling on its six casters. Deep plush carpeting will guarantee a hernia or worse.

The PRO-730HD's glossy finish is completed by its slightly tinted outer screen, which Pioneer has designed to be easily removed. I tested and viewed the unit both ways, but, because neither curious children nor aggressive animals domicile with me, I ended up preferring the outer screen left off. That way, the image was more engaging and bright.

Below the screen, a click-down door hides the front-panel controls and additional composite and S-video inputs. One button, ominously labeled Return, re-sets the user settings to their factory default positions. This is a dangerous button to place at a two-year-old's eye level—heck, it's a danger anywhere. Well, okay, not dangerous, but at least annoying when it gets pushed by mistake and throws all your video adjustments out the window.

Inputs
As with every one of its hi-def monitors, Pioneer offers a multitude of inputs with the PRO-730HD to accommodate the recent history of video in North America. In addition to the composite-video, S-video, and component-video jacks are a set of professional BNC component-video connections, an HD-15 RGBHV computer monitor input, and two DVI (now HDMI) inputs.

Each input has a dedicated button on the remote control, and the four analog inputs can be shared. For example, you can use both the S-video and component jacks on Input 1 for different sources. The traffic at these combined inputs then flows in a fixed priority, depending on the currently active source: RGB inputs have the ultimate right-of-way, followed by component, then S-video, and finally composite. But the PRO-730HD has only one user memory to store all the video adjustments for each numbered input. This will be an issue if sources stacked on one input have significantly different values for color saturation or black and white levels—something to keep in mind if you need more than the six numbered inputs.

Input Quality
In a casual survey of DVI inputs encountered during my day job (I calibrate video displays), I've learned that this connection doesn't always provide the best image. Nearly every hi-def set can easily display the low to middle video frequencies at the high or low contrast levels offered by my Sencore 802b HD test-signal generator, but many won't resolve the highest frequencies. That limitation is shared by the PRO-730HD, in which high-definition signals have a wider bandwidth through the BNC component input than through the DVI. The PRO-730HD's DVI input doesn't reduce resolution as much as some sets, but you'll still get a better picture using the BNC component input.

Pioneer's engineers also thoughtfully included an HD-15 (aka D-sub 15) jack for a standard computer hookup. Home-theater PC folks might grin at the news, but for some reason it didn't pass 720p signals; only 480p or 1080i.

User Menu
The PRO-730HD's user menu is thorough but cumbersome to navigate, requiring you to scroll across and down the main menu one click at a time to get to the item you want to change.

Five preset Picture modes are available on each input: Standard (STD), Reference Theater, Game, User, and Pro. If you make any user video adjustments in the Standard, Reference Theater, or Game modes, these settings are automatically saved in the User memory. The Pro mode provides access to gray-scale controls, and it also has its own memory slot for each input.

I first settled on Pro mode because its gray-scale adjustments are readily accessible from the User menu. But I soon found that the Contrast and Brightness controls were not easily available in this mode, and all the Band-Aid features—such as Scan Velocity Modulation (SVM), Black Enhance, and Luminance Transient Improvement (LTI)—were turned on. Fortunately, you can turn them off.

LTI is an attempt to recover detail in overdriven-peak-white scenes. If Contrast is set high enough to crush whites, this "feature" highlights transitions between high-level gradations, such as the cut of skis through snow. Black Enhance does a similar thing in the darker areas of the image. But these controls—not needed when Contrast and Black Level are set properly and viewed in a properly darkened room—usually distort the dynamic range of the picture. However, if you're pushing the PRO-730HD to the limit of its light output to battle some excessive room light or [gasp] daylight, then these features could be useful.

The mystery of Pioneer's user-menu logic deepened when I selected the DVI input. Color, Tint, and Sharpness adjustments were unavailable. It's still early in the HD game, so it's a stretch to assume that DVI-equipped devices—not to mention film-to-video transfers—will need no adjustments beyond Brightness and Contrast. Oddly, the missing controls become available when 720p signals arrive at the DVI input; eliminating them with 480p and 1080i must be a programming oversight.

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