Death of the KURO: Did the Sheriff Ride Out of Town?

Answering a reader letter for a recent print issue provided an opportunity to look at how the flat panel TV has evolved since the demise of the best flat panel TVs yet devised, the gone but hardly forgotten Pioneer KURO line of plasmas. These sets looked better, and the measurements demonstrated that in many key respects, they were in fact better than the competition. In blacks and contrast, objective and subjective, we’ve not yet seen their equal let alone their better. My question is whether anyone is really trying any more. The KURO in a short time built an incredible reputation and brand equity and identification. To this day, when readers email me about these sets, they say “KURO,” not Pioneer or Pioneer Elite. That mark stuck with people. When the KURO walked the Earth the other manufacturers were forced to catch up. Within a short time LCD flat panel manufacturers had to answer, and they did. LCDs improved dramatically, primarily through the advent of full array local dimming. Blacks and contrast with LCDs suddenly stood where no LCD had stood before. When the KUROs were here it seemed LED backlighting with local dimming and the performance increases it afforded LCDs were the next big thing. But the KURO went away. Edge lighting came about and is far more prevalent than full array local dimming, making TVs almost iPhone thin. But these sets don’t compete with local dimmers in blacks and contrast and have uniformity issues that may bother purists. The full-array local dimmers are now apparently confined to premium models from LG and Sony, with only VIZIO offering more affordable models. Since thin has been in, there’s also been a massive fixation on Internet streaming apps and of course, 3D. Rumors persist that engineering talent from project KURO now resides at Panasonic, and that the next KURO-like performance will emerge from there. Panasonic’s latest plasmas are definitely the closest we’ve seen from plasmas, but they’re not quite at KURO level in blacks and contrast even though Panasonic has a full suite of Internet apps and excellent 3D.

In other words, now that the KURO is gone are manufacturers really trying to hit that level of pure performance or are they now content to be in an arms race with Internet apps and 3D, and ultra-thinness, both of which will be ubiquitous across all brands anyway?

David Ashba's picture

I am a very happy owner of a PRO-111FD. Most people comment on how dark the blacks are on the tv. I am hoping that Panasonic will produce a KURO beater in the near future, but until then I will just enjoy my KURO.

David Vaughn's picture

I'm still kicking myself for not buying a 60" model before they went away, even if it was just used in a spare bedroom. Sadly, quality components are being forced out of the market because the majority of the people fall into two categories--people who don't care about the quality and people who can't tell the difference.

Ron W's picture

I believe despite its superiority, the Kuro line was somewhat of a perpetrator of its own demise in that it was significantly more expensive than other brands especially in the larger models. Add to that it was also restricted to their "Elite" line of monitors that was only available in specific retail outlets. These two things essentially restricted its exposure AND sales potential so realistically I guess they couldn't sell enough of them to make it all worthwhile(not enough videophiles).Of course, having said all that, I wish I had bought one.

Jarod's picture

I am a proud owner of a KURO PRO-111FD and I am thankfull everyday that I was able to pick one up after the company announced that they would stop flat panel production. I believe that besides the price of the sets, the biggest issue with Kuros not selling was that you could not see there superior performance on the showroom floor. Super bright LCDs appear to have the best pq to Johnny HDTV buyer. Ane he or she would think, "why should I spend that much money on a Pioneer when these LCDs are brighter?". You have to experience a Kuro in a darkened room to see there superiority to all other sets. It is just a shame that just like BettaMax lost to the inferior VHS, the Kuro is now the best set ever made that you can't get. I am waiting until Panasonic equals the last generation of Kuros black levels until I upgrade to a 60+ in plasma. I hope that day comes. RIP Kuro

Shane's picture

FWIW, the KURO plasmas were not restricted to the Elite line. However, it's apparent that one of its biggest issues Pioneer had was an incorrect elasticity model. They either had to sell a lot more of them at lower prices, or they should have exacted an even higher premium for the ones they did sell. I've heard industry insiders make effective cases for both, not that it matters today since KURO is gone.

Peter's picture

I'm very sorry I wasn't in a position to buy one at the time they were available.The truth of it the vast majority of viewers simply doesn't care how things look or sound. We're lucky Blu Ray is a success.

Bruce's picture

I wanted a KURU from day one but did not have the money to buy one. I told everyone that had the money to get one but they went with a cheaper LCD. I wish I could have seen one in a darkened room but you could tell how much better the KURU was over the other TVs even under the florescent lights. I am an owner of a 46" Sony Bravia and when the lights are turned out the un-uniform glow of the backlighting kills me. But it was free so I can't complain. I miss my projector but can't afford a new bulb so it's collecting dust. My hope is that OLED or another technology will come that will far surpass KURU.

jonathan's picture

As of a couple of weeks ago Best Buy's Magnolia Room in Kennesaw, GA (NW of Atlanta) still had a 50" Pro-111 for sale and hanging on the wall ($2000). Picture still beat all of the others.

Mark Coxon's picture

Yes quality is going by the wayside. Streaming of content is showing that access is more important than quality.Most are happy to stream Netflix in 720p, with major compression, just so they don't have to get up and put a disc in the drive.As for the comment on BluRay, they set that bar incerdibly low. Manufacturers tackled brightness and resolution and left color in the dust. I'm all for better black levels Kuro fans, but I hear nothing about the 8 bit color contoured media we are forced to watch. Let's focus on making some lifelike 2D without the flat planes of colors that we get on DVD and BD, before we talk about going to stereoscopic 3D.Its all about gimmicks right now, as I think the manufacturers have left quality for dead.

Richard Reed's picture

I'm a happy owner of a Pioneer KRP-500M. I'd agonized over waiting for the new Panasonic's at this past CES show expecting them to incorporate some Kuro tech, but when I saw that KRP on sale at a local retailer on Black Friday 2009, I didn't hesitate. The general public doesn't generally put a quality picture ahead of getting the latest whiz bang useless feature when they're shopping. It's all about getting a "good enough" picture for the least amount of money.Reminds me of the megapixel wars with digital cameras the past decade. Thank they've shifted to low light image quality.

Steve Smith's picture

I am one of those guys who missed out on a chance to own a Kuro which I still consider to be one of the best if not THE best HDTV ever made. Right now there aint a manufacturer out there that can offer what the Kuro offered and that was top notch PQ and quality. The quality of HDTV'd have slipped these days and the big boys seem to be more concerned with 3D and Internet streaming apps ect. I proudly own a Sony 46V5100 and it was made in 2009 which I believe was the last year the big boys really cared about PQ and all around performance. Since then its been all down hill, in my veiw anyway. Kuro will be the king until someone makes something equal or better and I dont see that happening anytime soon.

Chris's picture

I grabbed a KRP-500 a little over a year ago, had it calibrated by David Abrams, and am continually amazed. People ask "is that what HD is" or "wow, DirecTV really does look better!". I have to agree with the above, there just weren't enough videophiles to keep Pio in the TV business. Last week, dude at Best Buy tried to sell me a new 3D LED backlight Samsung. I was watching the movie they were playing, just killing time. I said "no thanks, I have a 50" Kuro. He just laughed and said 'yea, youre good then". No one can compete, and I dont see anyone investing the money to try

Bill's picture

Sure the Kuros were awesome, but were they worth the asking price? Panasonic seems to have figured out it is best to sell more plasmas at lower cost then a few at highr cost. Hopefully they can incorprate some Kuro like tech into new products that more of us can afford. Just how much did that extra little dash of PQ cost Pioneer anyway? I have a hard time believing that in this age of ICs that are all the same and certain switches are either tuned on or off depending on price that they couldn't have sold them cheaper. I feel they had an elitest and flawed business model. Of course, you realy can't go to BB or Wallie World and get a good demo, but thats another story now, isn't it? I lament the loss of the small AV parlours I once haunted. That too caused part of the downfall, but price was the real cruncher.

Shane's picture

I thought the KUROs were well worth the price premium. The best almost always costs exponentially more. Before I'd come down overly hard on 3D as a gimmick, I'd take notice that some of the very best current flat panels for pure 2D performance are 3D models. The Panasonics with Infinite Black Pro glass are the best plasmas going right now in terms of blacks and contrast, and the Sony XBR-HX909 full array local dimming LCD would earn tremendous praise even without 3D. Still, I wonder just how anxious manufacturers are to push farther knowing they don't have to compete against the KUROs on the showroom anymore.

Garrett's picture

So funny you wrote this Shane. I was just talking about this exact topic with some friends. 3D's fine, internets nice, and thin is cool if you want to look at a tv sideways(never quite understood why this matters to people). But give me picture QUALITY. Fortunately I got my 60" KURO before they were gone last year. God do I love it! Hopefully panasonic uses this KURO tech and brings the same quality for my future purchases.

Bill's picture

Shane, I agree the best always costs more, and is often times worth it, but how much more is reasonable? Pioneer and I have been friends since the mid 1970s. They always put out a great piece at a fair price, but this time they went way over board. Maybe the components cost more then I am aware of, so then my comments here are moot, but I feel they were trying to appeal to the very high end snobs. There are only so many of those type of buyers to go around. We all know and lust over some of those pieces but in reality, we can get 90+ % of the performance for just a tad over average. Think NAD or Rotel vs. BAT or CAT. Pioneer, in my oh so humble opinion, needed to, and still needs to, be in that sweet spot for consumer electronics. I hope they get back in the TV bizz ASAP as my most recent 52 inch Sony is over a year old (Forbid!) and I am feeling the urge to upgrade.

Shane's picture

Bill- I don't think any of that holds water. Let's not forget a couple of things. Pioneer went out of the TV business on these sets. I don't think they were price gouging, I think they had a lot of significant R&D costs to recoup, and they spent a ton of money branding the KURO sets. If they were artificially inflating, they could have just dramatically dropped the prices once they began to struggle.And what's with the attitude that expensive components are merely jacked up in price to "appeal to snobs?" More expensive components generally use more expensive parts, and cost more money to manufacture. Is my JVC-DLA HD750 projector really a $2k projector that's been artificially inflated to appeal to snobs like me? I don't think so. Of course the truth is always in the performance.The Pioneers were demonstrably better than anything before or since. How snobby is that?

Adam's picture

I own a Pro-111FD, My parents have a 720p 50" elite, my Grandparents have a 60" Elite, my best friend has a PDP-4270" and the pro-111FD, my AV mentors entire home only has Pioneer Elite displays and monitors (Pro FHD-1 through Pro-151FD), and when I worked in Magnolia circa 2006-2008 it was considered a bad weekend when the trifecta 42 50 60 wasn't rolled out friday through sunday by at least two of the associates. Later on with Kuro it was more like a 60" elite, and two of the regular 50".Moving into Custom Installation post Magnolia/Best Buy Kuros represented a cut above the croud, and clients who wanted the best GOT THE BEST. Today it is a scary world without the KURO display. The High-End CI friendly TVs are too expensive for the market today because of the race to ZERO in the profit column for the need to comodotize the HDTV. In past days you paid for quality. Now you pay for size, features, and what brand is giving away the best free combination of goodies with the

Chad's picture

I am a proud owner of a Pioneer PRO-111FD and I must say while I don't have a Blu-ray player hooked up to it, (I'm waiting for 1080p uncompressed digital downloads as I hate the clutter of discs, and the ability to stream from my home pc is) I must say it is the prettiest picture I have ever seen. (I did borrow my buddies PS3 and rented Avatar on Blu-Ray for it and hands down I have yet to see a set that looks better! Long live the king!

dandmdandm's picture

Kuro is obviously a very good product line. Unfortunately, Pioneer is not a fancy brand like B&O. People are just not willing to pay B&O price for a Pioneer product. I am currenly a Panasonic plasma user and I would like to see some Kuro-tech Panasonic products in near future. The problem is, plasma seems to be dying in the market too.

Shane's picture

Plasmas are definitely a smaller slice of the market, but I think Panasonic, LG and Samsung are going to hold steady there. I think 3D actually helps, as plasmas seem to have some advantages there. And certainly users who want good off-axis performance will stick with plasma. I hope to update my living room flat screen to 3D next year, and I have every intention of sticking with plasma.

Tom's picture

People always comment on the Kuro black levels, which were industry leaders. However, there are other aspects of the image quality that are worth mentioning.The Kuro plasmas are the least susceptible to image retention of the plasmas I have seen. Also, their black levels do not float like Panasonics. I have had my Kuro for 18 months and the black level is exactly the same today as it was when I bought it.I also think that the Kuors offered a subtle advantage in terms of perceived sharpness. I know that the 1080p resolution is the same as the other manufacturers, but perhaps it was the great black levels that caused this.