Pioneer Elite PRO-200 rear-projection TV Page 2

What Pioneer really is selling here is a pluperfect 4:3 television—"enhanced," if you will. Without losing any of the image, you gain some breadth of perspective through electronic stretching of the sides of the picture. But that approach, for all its mainstream appeal, surely doesn't do much for movies in a cinematic mode. That much became clear the moment I slipped an anamorphic DVD into the Faroudja DV1000 player. Anyone who owns a DVD player and a 4:3 television has seen the skinny people you get when you accidentally display an anamorphic image in that squarish frame. Anamorphic images are "squeezed" for expansion onto a 16:9 field, not onto 16:10.7. When anamorphic images are unfurled in 16:10.7, the actors look almost normal, but not quite. They could still be Martians impersonating Earthlings; they're too thin. And the picture is whacked off on the sides. Likewise, standard 1.85:1 letterboxed images fill the screen top to bottom only at the cost of their wingspread being trimmed. As for 2:35:1 Panavision, forget it.

At this stage of the home-theater era, with more and more DVDs offering standard widescreen or anamorphic display and HDTV coming with its 16:9 aspect ratio, it's hard to grasp why Pioneer would promote a screen shape that compromises the cinematic experience of any and all formats. I get the "optimizing" rationale, even though I don't buy it, for the reasons I've stated. I suspect that Pioneer's marketing view is that most people would rather see the entire screen filled, but I doubt many home-cinema enthusiasts—readers of SGHT, for example—fall into that mainstream category.

Curiouser and curiouser
The more carefully one examines the engineering and presentation of the PRO-200, the curiouser it becomes. On the one hand, several technical refinements contribute to a picture that, ultimately, looks quite good; on the other hand, it seems as if a marketing perspective has triumphed over the engineering side at every turn.

Refinements in the PRO-200 include filtered red and green lenses, which are designed to pass only those colors without traces of other hues, and a large electronic gun and focusing lens, which is said to improve beam-spot focus by 10% over Pioneer's older version. In addition, a Triple Dynamic Focus Circuit is intended to stabilize CRT output voltages to ensure constant focus, and a first-surface image mirror helps maximize picture illumination while minimizing distortion. Other niceties include a nine-point convergence system and a 3-D digital comb filter.

But then there are what Gannon and I have come to call the Band-Aid circuits: patches required to stop the bleeding from self-inflicted picture wounds. These include automatic flesh-tone control, which adds red to compensate for the calculated excess of blue, and scan-velocity modulation, which attempts to stabilize transitions between black and white in a picture tube that's being pushed to put out too much light. Finally, the Auto Super Gradation Circuit also seeks to preserve contrast in an excessively bright picture.

Nowhere is this problematic and contradictory array of design elements more conflicted, or perhaps simply moot, than in the area of color temperature. Pioneer provides three factory settings: Cool (12,000 kelvins), Normal (9500K), and Warm (7000K). Out of the box, Gannon measured all three settings at more than 16,500K throughout the middle range of 20 to 60 IRE. This is off the NTSC scale, on which 6500K represents a gray tone untinted by blue or red. As I have detailed in the sidebar on calibration, the picture was eventually brought under control, and the excess blue was purged from it. But this took some doing, and Gannon saw some odd measurements even then.

Out of the box, what the eye perceives in this television is also surprising, given the distinguished lineage of Pioneer Elite rear-projection designs. In Dave, a finely modulated video transfer to DVD, the PRO-200's overbearing sharpness gave faces the chiseled appearance of figures chipped from wood. Only when we cranked the contrast down from that "zero" starting point to -20 did faces regain their human contours and softness. At least Pioneer provided the adjustment range to correct this problem. After calibration, the television served up an engaging picture from the beautiful DVD transfer of Terminator 2. Color balance is excellent, flesh tones offer natural variations, and black level holds solid.

I like some aspects of this troublesome creature very much. Pioneer's compact remote, which is large enough to fill the hand and small enough to be easily manipulated, could be my favorite in the industry. The PRO-200 also provides ample A/V connections, including a set of component-video inputs, without turning the rear panel into a NASA switchboard. The television's sound is perfectly adequate within the limits endemic to a single-chassis A/V entertainment system.