Pioneer Elite PRO-940HD Plasma Display
Pioneer is a small company relative to many Asian manufacturing giants, but in the plasma display market it plays with the big boys. It began as an audio business, and it still prominent in that arena. But over the years it made a name for itself in video with its rear projection CRT sets. Those designs are (regrettably) history, but Pioneer is now one of the class leaders in plasma technology.
The $3,300 PRO-940HD is the smallest of Pioneer's latest line of Elite plasma sets. While in most respects it resembles last year's PRO-930HD, in one respect it differs considerably. The last few generations of Elite models have come with their video switchers and tuners located in a separate, outboard box. This was a real convenience if you wanted to set up the front end of your system in a different part of the room, separated from your display, and also with connecting and disconnecting sources if the set is wall-mounted. I suspect competitive pressures prompted the move to an integrated unit. It's less expensive to build, ship, and stock one piece rather than two.
And the competition in the flat panel business, particularly in price, has become brutal. Can the new Pioneer Elite '40 series, which is still relatively expensive, survive in such an environment?
The native resolution of the PRO-940HD is 1024x768. While this is short of the minimum 1280x720 that we consider full high-definition, technically the Pioneer qualifies. CEA (Consumer Electronics Association, the industry body that, among other things, runs the annual CES) does not include horizontal resolution in its definition of high-def. If a set can produce 720p vertical pixels, minimum, on a 16:9 screen, the CEA says it may be classified as high-definition.
The 1024x768 resolution of the PRO-940HD is common to many 42-inch plasmas. It's difficult at present to produce 1280 horizontal pixels in a plasma of this size, but we expect this to change in a year or two as plasma continues to duke it out with LCD in the marketplace. LCD pixels can be made much smaller at present than plasma pixels, which explains the rapidly growing number of LCD sets offering 1920x1080p resolution.
Since all the pieces of the Elite models are now integrated onto a single chassis, most of the PRO-940HD's inputs are around back. With two HDMI inputs and a maximum of three component inputs (see the "Specifications" for full details), the set is well enough endowed for most buyers. Those who need more connections will likely be using an outboard video switcher, perhaps the one in their AV receiver or preamp-processor. There's also a set of additional inputs on the left side of the display, one of which is component and is included in the above total.
The set's controls are on the right side of the set, but as usual you'll do business primarily through the remote. The Pioneer's remote is a universal design that may be programmed to operate up to three other devices in addition to the set itself. The remote can learn directly from other remotes, or accept the appropriate programming codes directly. It's backlit, which is a good thing since many of its buttons are uncomfortably small and close together. As with most sets offering a wide range of options, the layout of Pioneer's remote is a little busy. Even with the backlighting I had to look at it intently to find the right controls.
Setup and Control
The physical setup of the Pioneer is relatively simple, helped by the set's modest 70 lb. weight with its included stand (detachable for wall-mounting, if desired). But while Pioneer has thoughtfully included two recessed handgrips on the top rear of the case, you don't want to carry this set alone. Even if you're a regular at your local gym. A slip could be very expensive—to both you and the Pioneer.
Everything you'll need to adjust and operate the PRO-940HD is in the on-screen menus. The usual channel setup (if you use the on-board tuner or CableCARD) is fully explained in the owner's manual. The set offers both Split screen and Picture-in Picture for viewing two sources at the same time. A TV Guide on Screen feature provides full program details, if available in your area. The guides provided by cable and satellite companies are often more useful, particularly as they are frequently linked directly to a digital video recorder inside the set-top cable/sat box.
Once you're ready for the challenge of dialing in the picture, you'll find plenty of user accessible controls. An AV Selection option provides a number of different preset display modes: Standard, Dynamic, Movie, Game, Pure and User. I started in the Movie mode, but soon modified it with my own settings. Except for Dynamic, all of these AV Selection options can be changed from their factory settings by the user. You may also save separate Manual color temperature calibration settings in each one.
The video adjustments you insert for any one of these AV Selections are global across all inputs. That is, for any given AV Selection you can't dial in different user settings for each input. But you can calibrate each of these five user-adjustable AV Selections differently and then use each one of them for any input or inputs you choose.
The Picture menu provides the usual Brightness, Contrast, Color, Tint, and Sharpness adjustments for AV sources. For a PC source, the basic controls are limited to Brightness, Contrast, Red, Green, and Blue.
Selecting Pro Adjust in the Picture menu opens up an extensive sub-menu. PureCinema automatically detects film-based sources and offers three options: Off, Standard, and ADV (Advanced). Standard feeds the display panel the usual film-based video source, complete with 3/2 pulldown. ADV strips off the added 3/2 pulldown fields used to produce the 60 frames per second most progressive video displays expect. It then takes the remaining 24 fps (which is all the genuine data that's in the original film source), and repeats each frame three times, effectively tripling the frame rate and displaying at 72fps. This removes the need for 3/2 pulldown and the motion judder it causes.
The PRO-940HD will accept video sources at 480i/p, 720p, and 1080i/30. In addition, it will accept 1080p/24 material (available now on Blu-ray from some Blu-ray players, including Pioneer's BDP-HD1) and display it at a refresh rate of 72Hz. It will not, however, accept a native 1080p/60 source.
Color Temp, also in the Pro Adjust menu offers five fixed settings plus Manual. Of these, the Mid-Low option was the most accurate (see "Measurements"). But there's also a Manual setting, which provides adjustments for the high and low end of the brightness range for red, green, and blue.
The Pro Adjust menu includes a slew of other adjustments as well. The only ones I found genuinely useful were Color Space, Dynamic Contrast, and Gamma. I'll have more to say about them a bit further on.