Pioneer Elite PRO-200 rear-projection TV

With the reality of digital television now almost within our grasp, manufacturers of big-screen sets must feel like sky-divers in free fall. Until the 'chute opens with the snap of digital displays finally hitting the stores, the market for large, expensive, conventional rear-projection models might appear to be controlled by nothing but the force of gravity. In a highly unscientific survey, I asked a few dealers around the country whether big-screen television sales were down and whether consumers seemed to be waiting for the coming of the first digital sets. The answer to both questions was a uniform and unequivocal yes.

So what inducements might be offered to convince reluctant consumers to pop for a grand display of NTSC technology in the very dawn of the digital era? Would they jump at built-in progressive scanning, which approximates the clarity of digital, or the cinematic aspect of a 16:9 screen, the shape specified for "high-definition" sets? A healthy price break could certainly help fence-sitters decide to go for NTSC now.

With these considerations in mind, behold the Pioneer Elite PRO-200 television parked in my home theater. It is almost certainly Pioneer's final word on NTSC rear-projection design before the company brings its first digital sets to market. And how does the PRO-200 express the marketing solutions of a long-standing industry leader? Progressive scan? Nope. A 16:9 screen? Well, not exactly. Instead, Pioneer has rolled out another of its quasi widescreen models using the singular aspect ratio of 16:10.7. The price of the PRO-200 is $5800. Does that feel like an inducement?

What's the score?
When John Gannon, my colleague from the Imaging Science Foundation, had finished bringing the PRO-200 up to NTSC performance specs (which is to say, down from the blue), he stood back and, with all the circumspection of a technical zealot, offered his terse appraisal: "Monumentally dumb."

In last year's Elite PRO-1009W, one of the most appealing rear-projection televisions I've ever seen, Pioneer presented the conventional widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9. But in the PRO-200, the company has reverted to the narrower look of 16:10.7

Pioneer's rationale is that 16:10.7 falls closer to 4:3 than does 16:9, so the viewer always enjoys a picture with "more information on the screen." That is to say, no matter what shape the original image, it is automatically fitted to the width and height of this screen. Thus, any television broadcast takes on a more cinematic breadth; conversely, any widescreen laserdisc or DVD image is trimmed to fit the same field of view.

The set offers two viewing modes, Normal and Cinema. In Normal, standard television broadcasts or 4:3 images from tape or optical disc are extended at the sides to fill the screen. Cinema, intended for use mainly with letterboxed videos, virtually fills the screen though at some loss of picture at the extreme sides. Pioneer, in fact, notes in its owner's manual on page 17: "In the Cinema mode, some periphery of the picture may be cut off."