Pioneer Elite PRO-1130HD Plasma Display System Page 2

While the Pioneer's image was too bright in its factory settings, I was able to lower the Contrast enough to bring this into line without killing the vitality of the image. This is an improvement over the PRO-1120HD, which had a black level that was too high to maintain decent subjective contrast when the peak white level was lowered.

But the black level on the PRO-1130HD is significantly better than in the earlier set. At a pre-launch line show last year, Pioneer compared a pre-production prototype of the PRO-1130HD to a Panasonic plasma boasting what were then state-of-the-art blacks. While I always take such comparisons with a grain of salt, my experience with the review sample confirms that that this new Pioneer is ready to take on all comers.

A Shot in the Dark
In my review of the PRO-1120HD I wrote:

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.

306pioneer.4.jpgThis is no longer true. To a certain extent, all plasma displays, including this one, look dark gray instead of black when displaying video black (a full black screen image such as chapter 17-51 in the original Video Essentials test DVD). Dark scenes with low inherent contrast can still look grayish. The snake slithering through the dark field in the opening scene of the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire DVD doesn't look as rich and deep on the PRO-1130HD as I'd like.

While some of the darkest scenes look a little murky, others do better. The opening below-deck scenes from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World hold up well, with all the important details visible. M. Night Shyamalan's movies are a veritable festival of dark-scenes, and in chapter 4 of Signs I could clearly make out the shadowy figure Mel Gibson's character spots on the roof as he glances out the window.

While some of darkest movie scenes still look a little murky and dark gray rather than deep black, they're at least tolerable on this new Pioneer, even when viewed in the most challenging environment: a fully darkened room (room light tends to mask the lack of true blacks). The best rear projection DLPs—some of which are now equipped with dynamic irises—can do better. And the superior blacks of a good CRT will crush the blacks (pun intended) of any digital display, including this one. But the PRO-1130HD provided satisfying performance at the bottom end of the brightness scale—something I could not say about its predecessor.

Once you move up the darkness ladder by only a few steps, the subjective contrast of the Pioneer is impressive. And apart from those darkest blacks, this set is unlikely to be bettered in its subjective image quality by anything its size currently available—using any technology. There's a punch and three-dimensionality to the Pioneer with good program sources (particularly high-definition sources) that grabs you immediately and doesn't let go.

Even good DVDs on the Pioneer can produce images that just might fool you into thinking you're watching high-definition. Walk the Line (criminally denied a Best Picture nomination) popped off the screen. Flesh tones (post-calibration) were spot-on. The image was crisp and detailed without any artificial-looking edginess, and there was no sign of false contouring, noise, or other artifacts. Even the darkest scenes on this DVD looked right.

As video demonstration material goes, computer animation is a bit of a cheat. It looks good on any almost any competent video display. So when I tell you that the computer animated Madagascar makes for great eye-candy on the Pioneer, you won't be surprised. But clay animation is another story. While clay animation still differs in important ways from live action, the materials from which it's made are real three-dimensional objects: real character models, real sets, and real lighting. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, while much less colorful and subject to the jerkiness of its stop-motion animation, was nearly as impressive in its own low-tech, labor intensive way.

High Definition
As good as DVD can look on the PRO-1130HD, high-definition looks even better. Whether the source was D-VHS tape, cable HD, or an over-the-air broadcast, the best high-definition programming was sensational on the Pioneer. Even run-of-the-mill HD commanded attention, and even bad movies drew me in. The Chronicles of Riddick may not have done anything to help Vin Diesel's career, but it was made for high-definition. Shot mainly in subdued (but rarely pitch black) lighting, the HBO telecast (unfortunately panned and scanned from its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio to 1.78:1, as per HBO's usual abysmal policy) was exceptionally detailed. For those who say the benefits of high-definition can't be seen on a screen this size, this movie definitely proved the opposite.

I watched all sorts of high-definition programming on the Pioneer, everything from bad movies (OK, I couldn't make it through all of Riddick) to the Winter Olympics. Stops in-between included some of the best series' on television, such as episodes of Lost, Battlestar Galactica (the latter on Universal HD), local news on KABC in Los Angeles (much of which is now in HD), and Discovery HD Theater (still one of the best-looking high-definition channels). While not all of it was of equal quality, I can't recall a single example I found disappointing.

Yes, there were a few problems. I live in a difficult area for over-the-air reception, with a large hill (or small mountain) between my house and most of the transmitting antennas for the Los Angeles area atop Mt. Wilson. Fed from my powered outdoor antenna, the Pioneer's built-in HD tuner would not capture any stations. When I compared this to set-top HD tuners from Zenith and LG (each with its own integral PVR), the Zenith brought in 23 and the LG 18 DTV channels, respectively, including multicasts. I have no doubt that the Pioneer tuner will work fine in a more benign reception area, but if you live at the fringes, plan on using a better external tuner for your off-air high-definition needs.

The Pioneer's color, while vivid and pleasing, did exhibit the over-the-top greens (mostly evident on brightly lit foliage) that are common in digital displays (see the "Tests and Calibration" section below for more on this).

In addition, none of the available aspect ratio settings will fill the screen from left to right with standard definition, widescreen letterbox material upconverted from 480i to 720p and 1080i. Standard definition letterbox programming from my cable PVR (and spit out as 1080i, though still of standard definition resolution) could only be displayed as an image with black bars on all sides—in other words, as a letterbox confined to the center 4:3 area of the screen.

Conclusion The Pioneer's performance on test patterns could be better. Its bandwidth on both HD and component is not as wide as it ought to be (see "Tests and Calibration" for more on this issue). But test patterns do not always correlate with eyeballs on normal program material. And in the latter respect the Pioneer is unsurpassed by any plasma I've yet seen. The way the technology is moving, I can't say that this will be true next year or even next month, but for the here and now, the Pioneer Elite PRO-1130HD is an immensely impressive set and, in my judgment, worth every penny of its premium price.

Highs and Lows

Naturally sharp image
Very good blacks and shadow detail with excellent subjective contrast
Low video noise
Bright, vivid colors

Weak off-air HD tuner
Less than optimum video bandwidth