Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1 Plasma HDTV

Once upon a time Pioneer Elite was the choice for a serious enthusiast in the market for a CRT-based RPTV. They had the best out of the box image there was, and in fact, I often felt as a calibrator that I was seldom offering more than a touch-up on those sets. They were great sets, and priced to match that high level of performance.

Flash forward into the microdisplay age. Pioneer has abandoned the big screen RPTV in all its digital forms and relies solely on the plasma flat panel in the display market. This might indeed be a good basket to have all your eggs in for the mass market- everybody wants a flat panel to hang on the wall. But even at its best, plasma's performance hasn't yet earned the kind of admiration from hardcore enthusiasts that Pioneer Elite's RPTVs once enjoyed. And while I think plasma has been the best choice for a second TV in the home for some time, I had not seen a plasma I'd recommend as the main display for a dedicated theater environment for a serious movie lover. Until now.

While we can argue whether some recent generations of plasmas had already begun to change this perception, there's no question in my mind that plasma has finally arrived as a high performance display option with the Pioneer Elite PRO-FHD1. It's the first full production 1080p plasma on the market, and is the culmination of all Pioneer has learned, well, pioneering in this market segment. It performs.

Like the Elite RPTVs of yore, that edge is costly with this 50" plasma coming in at $8,000. Although that's substantially more than other premium plasmas of this size, this plasma is every bit the Elite set it's billed as being.

A Plasma That's Made of More Than Hot Gas?
The PRO-FHD1's glass panel has all of Pioneer's latest trimmings, including a Deep Encased Cell Structure, First Surface PRO color filter, a Crystal Emissive Layer, and full 10-bit video processing featuring ACE (Active Continuous Emission) IV. Read Tom Norton's review of the Pioneer Elite PRO-1130HD for concise explanations of the potential benefits of these technologies.

Now, in a departure from the Pioneer Elite plasmas of the past (even the far less expensive ones), the PRO-FHD1 does not ship with the separate media receiver to which source components are connected. This plasma is well outfitted with ins and outs, including dual HDMI inputs, a DVI-HDCP input and a component input. But it lacks the convenience of connecting sources to the separate receiver, and then tethering that to the TV via a simple umbilical set of cables that don't change even when your sources do. The separate media receiver is great for in-wall or on-wall installations for that reason and you're right for thinking $8K should be enough buy you that added convenience.

In addition, this is a plasma monitor, which means no built-in tuners, HD or otherwise.

A Fist Full of Features
The PRO-FHD1 accepts and processes a broad variety of the most fashionable HD signals, including 1920x1080 at 24, 30 and 60fps. In addition, if the source is 480i, 1080i, or 1080p/24 it can be displayed at 72fps, for a smoother, flicker-free image devoid of the temporal distortions involved in the 3/2 pulldown sequencing typically required to bootstrap film's native 24fps to the 30 and 60fps rates required for most video displays in the U.S. This is accomplished by setting the Pure Cinema mode to Advanced. The Standard Pure Cinema mode sets 3/2 pulldown detection and inverse telecine at 60fps.

As one would expect the PRO-FHD1 includes a number of additional video processing features and enhancements. What's far more fascinating is that many of them actually proved useful! Most purists are used to switching everything we can find in the menus that sounds extraneous in any way to the Off position. Don't be so quick here, there's stuff worth fiddling with.

Overall, the PRO-FHD1 has six modes of preset image adjustments called AV Selection- Standard, Dynamic, Movie, Game, User, and Pure. With the exception of Dynamic, which is fixed, the rest of these modes may be adjusted and recalled in the menu. For this review I bounced between Standard and Pure, both of which I fully (and easily) calibrated to track an excellent grayscale. While the basic picture adjustments- Contrast, Brightness, Color, Tint, Sharpness- remain the same when you switch input sources, the advanced Pro Adjust settings do not. This is excellent flexibility with more than enough memory positions for a good number of sources.

According to Pioneer, the Pure mode has more accurate colors, and defeats some of the set's video processing, although a number of the Pro Adjust features listed below are available to be engaged with Pure mode selected. In practice, I found very little difference between the Pure and Standard modes, although I subtly preferred Standard, which looked just a little cleaner to me with standard and HD broadcasts. I honestly can't say that I thought the colors were noticeably different in either mode.

As one would guess, all the fun stuff is in the Pro Adjust menus, including the aforementioned Pure Cinema setting. Within the Color Detail menu pages there are five preset Color Temperature settings, plus an adjustable Manual setting. I was impressed. Although none of the presets were correct, the mid and mid-low settings were close, and very linear around 8500K and 7500K, respectively. And both were off straight into blue, which is relatively benign compared with other color shifts. So, while the set certainly benefited from a grayscale calibration, I had no major issue with the out of box performance.

Also included within Color Detail is a feature called CTI for Color Transient Improvement. I could not detect this "feature" doing anything, good or ill, with either test patterns or program material and so I left it Off. Pioneer also provides a Color Management system that allows direct manipulation of all six primary and secondary colors- red, green, blue, cyan, yellow and magenta. Like Editor Tom Norton, I've never been a big fan of these adjustments, which shouldn't be used without precision instruments, and left the sliders in their default zero positions. As you'll read I found the Pioneer's "stock" color palette quite palatable.

Highly and surprisingly useful were the two Noise Reduction circuits- DNR (Digital Noise Reduction) and MPEG NR. At their Low and Mid settings (High and Off are the other possible settings) I found both of these to improve the imagery I saw from both standard and HD broadcasts (DirecTV is my source for both) and DVDs without softening the image or doing anything else I was bothered by. Good HD DVDs looked perfect with both NR adjustments turned to Off, and part of me wonders what the MPEG NR does when the compression scheme is VC-1 or MPEG-4 instead of MPEG-2.