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Special Issue
WWD Scoop issue 03/24/2008

A possible eulogy for the world’s best TV.

This story first appeared in the March 24, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

People with good taste generally appreciate certain things. The Godfather Parts I and II. Gray’s Papaya hot dogs. Basically all of Prince’s albums from 1980 to 1992. Add to this list Pioneer’s flat-screen plasma TVs. Over the last nine months, they’ve received awards from virtually every tech-geek magazine in America. The legendary Wall Street Journal writer Walt Mossberg owns one. J.D. Power and Associates ranks Pioneer at the top of consumer satisfaction surveys. This month, Apple installed Pioneers throughout its stores to help show off the Apple TV console.   

Pioneer’s best TV—said by many of these same folks to be the best TV ever released—is the Pro-150fd Elite Kuro, a 60-inch plasma that retails for about $7,000. Its main selling point is the picture—which is like staring through glass—but the design is also sleeker than anything out there. The panel is surrounded by a simple black frame, with two removable side speakers. Ditch them for surround sound and you’ll free up almost a foot of wall space. Of course, one might argue that no TV is worth $7,000. But that goes against Pioneer’s entire corporate philosophy, which might be described as tech-geek Hermès, with an attitude to match.  

“We’re very comfortable with who we are and what we do,” said Tracy Christall-Murphy, Pioneer’s senior manager for display marketing and product planning. “We’re not going to chase price. We don’t make ‘me-too products.’ We don’t mass produce our televisions to sacrifice picture quality.”

(For customers who can’t afford the 150FD, Pioneer also produces the $2,200 PDP-5080hd, a 50-inch plasma with a removable speaker on the bottom that won CNET’s most recent Editor’s Choice award.)
Get one while you can, because Murphy’s posturing may have been the world’s most ill-timed case of self-confidence. Six hours after she got off the phone with WWDScoop, it was revealed Pioneer was going to begin outsourcing its displays from other manufacturers in an attempt to reduce costs. Which is a good sign for the company’s bottom line, though perhaps not for the future quality of its TVs.

Like many TV manufacturers, Pioneer is suffering from increased competition and a shift to LCD that has been driven largely by consumer panic over “burn in.” It’s true this happened in the early days of plasma, but today, many consider it a scare tactic being used by LCD makers to swift boat plasma out of existence.  
One of the main things that influences the picture quality of a television is black level. The deeper the black, the better the contrast on-screen. LCD televisions are terrific at showing off bright colors (which makes them great for video games and movies that look like video games) but they tend to wash out films with dark colors. And Pioneer’s Kuro (Japanese for black) line boasts the darkest blacks of any TV maker. In January, Pioneer unveiled a television that disappears in a darkened room when the picture goes black.

“It all starts with black levels,” Murphy says. “It’s the same as an artist with a white canvas. If you start with a true rich black, you get vivid colors and deeper contrast. The whole picture comes alive.”