Pioneer ‘s 2008 Kuro Plasma Television Line

Ever since plasma televisions began to crawl out of R&D labs and into living rooms, Pioneer has been one of the most respected names in the industry – the one others strived to emulate. While pricy, Pioneer’s plasma displays have consistently ranked among the best by home theater diehards, earning the company a reputation as the BMW of the plasma world.

This made it a total surprise when Pioneer announced this spring that it was turning its plasma production over to Matsushita Electric, the parent company of Panasonic. The company’s gripes about the “commoditization” of plasma TVs at CES turned out to be more than a marketing ploy to paint its own products as boutique items; apparently, large-scale competitors were killing Pioneer financially, making the killer Kuros unprofitable to produce. With Matsushita now slated to take over Kuro production in 2009, this year’s just-announced 2008-model Kuros may be the last true Pioneer-made sets ever made.

Pioneer Kuro
Pioneer’s 2008 Kuro Elite

And Pioneer promises they will be the best yet. According to the company, the next-gen Kuros will boast black levels five times better than the last generation, an enormous leap for such an already-refined product. The sets likely borrow technology from the company’s “perfect black” concept plasma unveiled at CES 2008, which produced such black blacks that unlit portions of the screen actually appeared invisible in a pitch-black room. Although Pioneer makes no such claims for the new Kuros, early comparison photos illustrate them outperforming other sets in black levels by a similarly outrageous margin.

Besides improving the detail level and contrast, Pioneer claims the purer black also allows the sets to reproduce deeper colors, improving their color gamut as well. While definitely something that has to been seen to appreciate, Pioneer claims, in its typically hyperbolic language, that “the end result cannot be imitated and is beyond compare.”

To ensure that the TV is always at its best in varying lighting conditions, Pioneer has also included another technological twist: a self-adjusting lighting option it calls Optimum Mode. Rather than requiring viewers to play with settings and adjust their TVs for different viewing scenarios, the new Kuros will use a built-in light sensor to automatically optimize settings on the fly. Since Pioneer caters to enthusiasts who love to tweak and be in control, it has also left its old, manually adjustable settings intact: standard, movie, sports, performance and game.

Like extra cup holders in a new car, the new Kuros also sport a handful of other minor refinements. For instance, Pioneer has cut depth down by 20 percent to just 3.7 inches, and a feature known as Home Media Gallery will allow owners to enjoy media from networked PCs on their TVs. The remote control and on-screen interface have also been redesigned, and all Kuros will be DLNA and Windows PlaysForSure compatible.

And if Pioneer is the BMW of plasma televisions, then its Kuro Elite sets can be considered the M series. The company’s premium televisions take the already favorable performance of its regular displays and ratchet it up another notch, to a level many enthusiasts consider the best available. The new Elite sets are hand-built, include a deeper set of control options for custom installs, and perhaps most impressively, measure just 2.5 inches deep.

The new Kuros will hit showroom floors in June. The standard 50- and 60-inch models will cost $4,000 and $5,500, respectively, while the Elites of the same size will each demand a $1,000 premium, running for $5,000 and $6,500. At those prices, it’s easy to see why Pioneer struggles against more efficient companies in the marketplace. But for that niche of home theater enthusiasts who demand the very best, the newest Kuros may very well deliver. More information can be found at Pioneer’s Web site.

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