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The Fate of Pioneer Plasma

March 18, 2008 By Geoffrey Morrison



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There is a romantic notion about the intersection of Hollywood and Vine boulevards. Perhaps back in the 1920’s there was a solid reason for this notion. But now, this section of Hollywood, and for that matter most of the town of Hollywood, isn’t exactly the nicest parts of Los Angeles. Dilapidated buildings, cracked and dirty sidewalks (replete with Walk of Fame stars), and countless mediocre souvenir shops all sum to the having the flavor of Times Square in the 80’s, minus the porn.

But that is changing. Several years ago an extensive urban renewal project began to bring people back into downtown L.A. and the surrounding areas. Upscale housing, restaurants, and nightlife have all started to seep into the area. In the middle of all that, we find Pioneer’s KURO Loft.

Located in the historic Broadway building, the KURO Loft is, from one point of view, a presentation piece for Pioneer to showcase their latest wares. But more than that, it is to show movie and TV industry professionals that there are different levels of picture quality.

If you’re reading this website, then you know that some TVs look better than others. But many non-enthusiasts either don’t realize this is the case, or don’t know what to look for when trying to decide what TV is better.

The core area of the KURO Loft, at least in my opinion, is the TV Taste Test. This is a wall of televisions from several different manufacturers. Here, one can sit and judge six different flat panels, all under excellent conditions. The room lighting is variable, from bright to dark (the windows are all covered), as is the content, from satellite to Blu-ray. Unlike many similar TV face offs, the remotes are all here to play with. For example, Samsung’s excellent 81-series LED backlit LCD was here, and I could see that the brightness was set too high, as in, you could see the black level. I turned the brightness down a few clicks, and it looks better.

Now before you think that Pioneer was trying to throw the match, all the TVs were set to their “out of the box” settings. Even Pioneer’s KURO was a few notches too high in the brightness setting.

While ideally having all these TVs calibrated and dialed in would be the most accurate way to judge them, for Pioneer’s purposes, and to give a general idea of what the TV market is like, this setup works just fine. The wall, with four plasmas and two LCDs, readily shows the difference between the different makes and technologies.

Around the corner was a small living room type setup. And by small, I mean the space, not the equipment. Flanking a 60-inch KURO were Pioneer EX Series floor-standing speakers, with an equally un-small EX center channel. Here, Pioneer demonstrates that even a smaller room can have a full-blown, high performance, audio/video system. Preaching to the choir, Pioneer. Preaching to the choir.

Ending plasma manufacturing
In early March, Pioneer announced that it will no long manufacturer plasma glass. At first glance, this seems like a bad sign for the future of Pioneer plasmas, perhaps even to the plasma TV industry as a whole. But I’m not so sure. To see why, we have to take a look at how a plasma is made first, then back up from there.

The two main parts of a plasma are the “glass” and the electronics. The “glass” is shorthand for the surface with the actual pixels and their phosphor coating and gas that create the image. In front of this are filters to block the UV light (what is created when the gas gets excited to a plasma state), as well as to reduce reflections and so on. The electronics are everything from analog to digital converters, scalers, and all the processing that needs to be done to drive the panel.

What Pioneer has said is that they are going to start buying the glass from another source.

What this means
Despite proudly selling a high-end product, Pioneer isn’t immune to the incessant dropping of price in the flat panel market. Even a step up in picture quality can’t offset a substantial price difference, at least not in the volume required to make manufacturing plasmas profitable.

If they can’t get the volume in sales, they can’t get the profit to invest in a plant to make the volume in production, which would drop the price of the panels, which would drop the price of the TVs, which would bring up the sales volume…

So Pioneer is looking for a partner to manufacturer the glass, but to Pioneer’s specifications. They’re also making it a point to say that they’re going to continue to research and develop plasma technologies. In other words, they’re going to design it, someone else is going to build part of it, and they’ll assemble the final product. There is a short list of manufacturers that Pioneer could partner with. Panasonic has been mentioned as a likely source, both by the Japanese press and casual observers. If those talks don’t pan out, then Hitachi is really the only other likely choice. Japanese politics and culture being what they are, it almost seems unlikely that Pioneer would group with Samsung, LG, or any of the many Chinese companies. But stranger things have happened.

If they do partner with Panasonic, then this would be a good thing for the plasma industry: more volume means cheaper panels, which means more profit. That is, if both companies keep the quality up. It’s possible, if some likely technology sharing happens, that both company’s products could improve. Imagine a Panasonic plasma with a Pioneer-esque black level. Or a how about a Pioneer KURO at just a small premium over a Panasonic plasma.

So in theory, this announcement could mean very little to the consumer. I’m going to reserve judgment until we start seeing the non-Pioneer Pioneer plasmas. If they look good, then who cares who makes them? If they don’t look as good as the current generation, well then that’s the game. We shall see.

If you are interested to see what some "industry" professionals have to say about KURO and the Loft, check out this YouTube video.

If you are an movie/tv professional and want to check out the KURO Loft, you can sign up here.

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