Pioneer Elite KURO PRO-110FD Plasma HDTV

Greatest flat panel ever.

Forgive my dipping into hyperbole for the caption, but there really wasn't another way to go. It's not just the fact that the PRO-110FD creates a beautiful image. It's that the image it creates is such a step above every other flat panel on the market that it is not even comparable. There's that hyperbole again. I'll stop and let the performance speak for itself.

A little over a year ago, in a cramped demo room at CEATEC in Tokyo, Pioneer showed something that really got my nerd radar beeping. In the darkened room, you could make out two panels. One had that subtle and comforting glow that any flat panel has when displaying "black." The other panel was clearly off. Then an image appeared-on both screens. It was a ruse; the other panel wasn't off at all. It was on. The black level was that good-CRT good. We, as TV reviewers, have tossed that latter term around before. We were wrong.

Fast-forward to last summer. Pioneer had a name for this new leap in plasma technology, KURO, the Japanese word for black. The press conference for the production models of this new line amazingly had all the plasmas lit from behind. Could it be that they didn't want to show their plasmas in a totally dark room (a trick stolen from every LCD manufacturer)? Some of us, myself included, worried that the promise of this leap was watered down so that it was merely an incremental improvement. Manufacturing in large numbers tends to do that. So we waited.

Let's start with the big one. The black level, as measured in our lab, is 0.004 foot-lamberts. For comparison, the best black level we've measured on a plasma previously was 0.012 ft-L, which was a Panasonic TH-42PX60U. The best black level on an LCD we've ever measured was 0.006 ft-L on the Sharp LC-52D92U. So that 0.004 ft-L is lower than any other flat panel we've ever measured. While excellent, it's still not black. As in, you can still see when the TV is on or tell the black letterbox bars from the dark room beyond. I know, I'm asking for a lot. I mean, you'd have to get a projector and a pretty big screen to reach a better black level (or, admittedly, a CRT). But as impressive as that measurement is, it isn't even the amazing part.

At 4,020:1, the PRO-110FD's full-on/full-off contrast ratio is so good, it is nearly double that of the next best flat panel. Read that again. Double. This isn't an incremental improvement, as we've seen with all flat panels over the past few years. This is a marked jump. And that's comparing it with the best of the rest. If you take the average contrast ratio of current flat panels, it's three or four times better. The irony is that plasmas aren't supposed to have a good full-on/full-off contrast ratio; it's in their very design not to. I'll come back to that, as this still isn't the amazing part.

ANSI contrast ratio, which is the measurement of eight 100-percent-white and eight 0-percent-black squares arranged in a checkerboard pattern, provides a sort of worst-case scenario of what you'll see on the screen in terms of contrast ratio. The measured ANSI contrast of 3,239:1 is almost three times better than the best plasmas and most LCDs, and a full 50 percent better than the highest we've previously measured. And even all of that pales in comparison with this next measurement.

All of these tests so far aren't even letting a plasma perform at its best. All plasmas have built-in limiters, so things like a 100-IRE full-white field won't cause the TV to melt. So their full-on/full-off numbers, at least how we measure them, are misleadingly low. This is why I always mention what a plasma can do on a 100-IRE window (roughly 25 percent of the screen), which is a more accurate representation of the contrast ratio you're seeing when you're watching TV or movies. LCDs don't need this test because they'll measure identical to their full-on/full-off numbers. That's just how they work. With this test-and this is what it looks like when you're watching actual video-the contrast ratio is 10,645:1. This is above and beyond any other flat panel on the market, by far. In fact, there are only a few displays of any type on the market that can boast this kind of contrast ratio without "dynamic" helpers such as irises or adjustable backlights, and all of them are front projectors.

Even the vaunted CRT would find it difficult to beat this beast, as CRTs had notoriously bad ANSI contrast measurements (although, admittedly, the best had an immeasurably low black level).

Plasmas create light with time. This is weird, so bear with me. A plasma's cells (pixels, if you will) cycle hundreds of times per second. If you want a bright pixel, the cells fire and create light during most or all of the cycles. If you want a dark pixel, they don't fire as often, or at all. Each firing is the same brightness; it's just how many times per second the cells fire that determines the brightness of the pixel.