Lights Out at Kuro

The video world woke up last Friday to the news reports that Pioneer Electronics, long a leader in consumer video display technology, was getting out of the video display business. At first, the reports did not come from Pioneer itself, but rather from news agencies (first in Japan, later overseas) that put two and two together and concluded that they really did equal four.

Finally today, Thursday February 12, 2009, Pioneer Japan confirmed the news. They are definitely exiting the television business.

The Pioneer production facilities in the US will shut down by this coming April (2009), and the company plans to be completely out of the video display business by March 2010.

The gap between those two dates has led to much Internet babble as to what will happen in that interim, with some Internet forums even wildly speculating that Pioneer will continue production elsewhere during that period, perhaps even including new 10th generation models. That conclusion would appear to be completely unfounded. The April 2009-March 2010 period is most likely to provide time to close other overseas and Japanese facilities not mentioned in the press release, and complete or clear contracts related to television production. After April 2009, the only available Pioneer Kuros, at least here in the US, will be those remaining in dealer inventories. After March 2010, the words "television" and "plasma" will no longer be in the Pioneer lexicon.

Pioneer intends to remain in business and concentrate on other products and services. This will include an increased emphasis on its car audio business. Home audio products will also be in the mix, but there was no word as to which specific Pioneer audio products will survive the crunch and which will not.

As for video products other than displays, Pioneer may continue DVD player production, but in a joint venture with another company—very likely Sharp, which owns 15% of Pioneer. No specific information was announced on the company's future Blu-ray player plans.

The closing of the video display business was precipitated by a number of factors. Pioneer's Kuro displays are among the most expensive, even after the price reductions in the last generation or two. Their clear superiority in a number of key areas (particularly black levels) could not be fully appreciated in a typical store demo, making them an even harder sell. As a result, Pioneer's share of the plasma market never rose above the mid single digits.

The big question now is what will happen to Pioneer's Kuro technology. A great deal of R&D has gone into producing those industry-leading black levels. Further improvements were waiting in the wings for a go-ahead that now will never come—at least not from Pioneer itself. Might rights to Kuro be sold to another manufacturer, such as Panasonic, which could make use of it in more affordable sets? Or with serious competition in that area now suddenly eased, will another plasma manufacturer even have the incentive to produce sets incorporating these advances? And if they did, how long (in the current economic climate) before we would be able to buy new plasma sets equal to the current Pioneers, much less better ones? Or might another company simply buy up Kuro technology and put it on the shelf to prevent its competition from acquiring and using it?

Questions, questions—but few answers, as yet. We will be watching these events carefully over the next few weeks and months.

The biggest question now for consumers, however, is whether or not they should take the plunge at their last chance to buy the Kuro set they've always wanted before the existing stock is exhausted. By all indications, Pioneer as a company, while still beset by financial problems, intends to stay in business. So service for the sets should remain available for at least a few years—though at some point parts could be in short supply. If you plan on biting, you might want to consider an extended warrantee. These aren't usually a good deal, but in this case might provide a measure of extra security should the set break and not be repairable during the lifetime of the warrantee. But check the fine print on any such extended service agreement to see if it provides for a similarly priced replacement in such an event.

To learn more about the current Kuro models, check out our recent reviews both here and on the Home Theater website (including Home Theater's recent four-set face-off). I've just reviewed the 60" PRO-141FD Elite Signature monitor for the May issue of Home Theater (available on newsstands in early April). There's nothing in that review that would prevent me from putting this set at the top of my video shopping list. But be aware that as a monitor, the 60" PRO-141FD has no on-board tuners or audio system.

As far as the consumer market is concerned, the loss of Pioneer plasma HDTVs has definitely set back the state-of-the-art for video displays. But as I said in my PRO-141FD review:

The Pioneer Kuros may soon be gone, but videophiles—Kuro owners or not—will not forget them…Whatever happens…we all owe a debt to every member of the Pioneer team involved in engineering and building the Kuro plasmas for significantly advancing the state-of-the-art in modern flat panel displays. They all have much to be proud of.