Pioneer Elite PRO-940HD Plasma Display Page 2

As for the others, CTI is designed to enhance color contours. Its effect was subtle and I left it off. The same was true of both Black Level and Intelligent DRE (Dynamic Range Expander). Off with them, as well. Intelligent Color is a techie-sounding name for a control that "automatically selects the optimum color tones for an image." Sounds like a flesh tone corrector to me. I left it Off. The noise reduction controls were subtle enough to be effective without excessive softening of the image, but apart from checking them out briefly I did not use them for this review.

A Color Management selection offers control over the three primary and three secondary colors. While these adjustments did move the color points, they did not produce any net improvement in the measured results. Instead, they often improved one coordinate while degrading the other. And if you fiddle with them without the proper test tools, the most likely result will a worse picture than you'll get by leaving them at their factory (zero) settings. That's where I left them for my critical viewing.

There are five aspect ratio selections. Three are for the usual 4:3, 16:9 (Full), and letterbox (Zoom) requirements. There is also a Wide option (one of those stretch modes designed to fill the screen with 4:3 material), and Cinema (which provides an unusual, 14:9 result). There are also three options for PC only: Dot-by-Dot, Full1, and Full2.

The menus also provide selections for various types of digital video input signals, either Digital RGB (Color-1) or Digital Component (Color-1 for 4:2:2, Color-2 for 4:4:4). A full explanation of these options might well take more space than this entire review. Fortunately, all you really need to know is to leave this control at its Auto setting. If you ever get a truly bizarre color palette from a new source (or no picture at all), one of the other settings should get you back to normal—for that source.

A feature called Home Media Gallery (not tested) lets you connect the PRO-940HD, via Ethernet, to a home network containing movie, music, or photo files. With appropriate software you can then navigate through the contents of your server via the set's Home Media Gallery GUI and select what you want to hear and/or view. The owner's manual (downloadable from Pioneer's website) devotes 16 pages to this feature.

The on-board audio system, which will also accept audio from the HDMI inputs, is decent enough for casual listening. It provides some of the usual enhancements, but is certainly no substitute for a good outboard surround sound system. The set does have a TosLink (optical) digital audio output for routing the sound from the onboard tuner to an external AV receiver or preamp-processor.

The Real Deal
I've never felt shortchanged by a Pioneer plasma, and the Elite Pro-940HD continues that winning streak. We don't often review flat panel displays this small, but the set performed superbly. Its only significant limitation was its black level, but even that was lower than we have measured on most digital flat panel sets. Its blacks were even marginally darker than the blacks on the Pioneer Elite PRO-1130HD I reviewed last year.

The Pioneer's scaling and deinterlacing were fair. Not exceptional, but worthy of a passing grade in most respects. While it locked onto the racetrack bleacher test for 3/2 pulldown on the Silicon Optix HQV Benchmark test DVD, it took longer to do so than usual. It failed the 3/2 pulldown test on the Faroudja test DVD. It also flickered badly on the HQV Benchmark's 2/2 video cadence test, and failed the Faroudja disc's video over film test as well. But it passed all the other tests. I saw some subtle deinterlacing artifacts on the infamous opening title sequence of Star Trek Insurrection, but such artifacts were rare on most program material.

When I tried the PureCinema ADV setting (as discussed above, 72fps display with no 3/2 pulldown) I had mixed results. At this past CES, Meridian Audio was demonstrating the effect of their prototype 24fps Faroudja processor using a variety of program material into Pioneer plasmas (not the PRO-940HD). The most memorable was chapter seven from Star Trek Insurrection. At about 34 minutes into the film there's a scene in which the camera rotates around three characters in the foreground, while columns in the set rotate behind them. Using this scene on the Pioneer, in ADV, the motion of the main characters was smoother than in Standard mode, but just barely. The columns behind the main characters, however, were subtly more blurred in ADV, particularly at their trailing edges. On that scene, at least, the result was a tossup between the 24fps-to-72fps ADV mode and the 3/2 pulldown, 60fps Standard setting. (The Meridian demo produced quite different results, but their processor does more than just triple the 24fps frame rate to 72fps; it interpolates the added frames. It also is expected to cost close to $30,000, so I don't imagine we'll see too many of them being used on 42-inch, $3,300 plasmas!).

I preferred the Gamma 2 setting. The Low setting of the Dynamic Contrast also added a little welcome pop to the image. In the manual, Pioneer calls the Mid setting of Dynamic Contrast the standard setting, but I found the Low setting more natural.

It's no faint praise to say that the Pioneer PRO-940HD, with or without ADV, produced a very good picture. My recent experiences with 1080p displays makes it difficult for me to use the word "outstanding" in referring to a 1024x768 model, though a year ago I would have gladly used that term for the Pioneer.

But the Pioneer will outperform any of the 1080p LCD displays I've reviewed recently in one important respect: the richness of its blacks. While they still aren't down to the level of a good CRT, they almost never looked grayed or washed out. It's a curious characteristic of plasmas that their black level looks mediocre when they are displaying a full black image (a fadeout between scenes or a "video black" test pattern); but good sets like the PRO-940HD don't look nearly so gray on normal program material, even on relatively dark scenes. And while once or twice I thought I spotted a bit of false contouring in darker images, it passed quickly and was never distracting.

The colors on the Pioneer were also natural looking, as long as you stick to the Color Space 2 setting, which also measured best.

Many of my favorite DVDs and high-definition discs looked as impressive on the PRO-940HD as they do on much larger, more expensive projection systems, apart from the impact that comes with a larger screen. You will see more detail on a larger 1080p display, but that has as much to do with the characteristics of the eye as with the display itself.

You really appreciate higher resolution as the image gets substantially larger, but at 42-inches, well, I'll have to wait until we see 1080p plasmas of this size (and they're coming) before criticizing the lower resolution of the Pioneer. At eight feet or so from the screen, there was no sense that anything was left out—even on standard definition DVDs. The Superbit version of The Fifth Element was loaded with detail, and my long-time favorite reference DVD, Charlotte Gray looked superb, from its natural flesh tones to its fine image depth.

I did most of my serious viewing in HDMI, and recommend you do the same for your critical sources. You'll get more detail and a sharper image overall. Gladiator on DVD looked almost shockingly crisp and detailed, and while its colors are stylized by design, they never looked wrong. Some of the film's darker scenes looked a little muddy, but not washed out.

High-definition was just as impressive, if not more: Batman Begins on HD DVD for its overall quality and impressive dark scenes, The Wild on Blu-ray for brilliant color and crisp detail, and a demo Blu-ray disc from Pioneer for the overall brilliance of its many stunning images. This Pioneer disc is the best-looking Blu-ray Disc I've seen, and while the selections were likely chosen to avoid tripping up Pioneer displays(!?), they look great on other sets as well. Yes, they do look more impressive on a (much) bigger 1080p display, but they really show off what the PRO-940HD can do. And it gets the job done in great style.

No 42" set will wow you with immersive impact, and no 768p set can match the fine detail available from a 1080p design. But you won't be conscious of these limitations when you first view a properly calibrated Elite PRO-940HD. All you'll see is a great picture.

It would be wrong not remind you here of our reports from the recent CES 2007, reports indicating that Pioneer has some exciting new technologies planned for its next line of plasmas. These are scheduled to appear later this year. But new models are always just over the horizon. In the here and now you're unlikely to find a better 42-inch plasma than the Pioneer Elite PRO-940HD.

A punchy image with good contrast and very respectable blacks
Good color (in Color Space 2) before calibration (Mid-Low setting); excellent color after calibration
Offers a wide range of useful adjustments

Will not accept native 1080p/60 sources
Overwrought color (in Color Space 1)
Limited component 480i/p bandwidth