Editors' note, December 10, 2007 The rating on this review has been lowered from 8.7 to 8.0 due to changes in the competitive marketplace, including the release of the Pioneer PDP-5080HD.
Pioneer's PRO-FHD1 isn't for everyone. As the first 50-inch plasma display to have a native resolution of 1080p--in other words, 1,920x1,080 pixels--it understandably costs a mint ($8,000 list). As a monitor, as opposed to a "true" TV, it lacks niceties such as built-in speakers, a tuner (ATSC or otherwise), or even an included stand. And as a member of Pioneer's "Elite" subbrand, it includes picture-centric features, such as user-menu color temperature and primary color adjustments, which most users won't know what to do with. But if you're willing to pay top dollar for the best 50-inch plasma on the market right now, look no further. Compared to the Panasonic TH-50PF9UK, the other current 50-inch 1080p plasma, the Pioneer delivers slightly better picture quality at a more-than-slight price increase. Although it's a bit too expensive to be considered our Editors' Choice in this category, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 delivers the best picture quality of any television we've tested in the last year. Understatement is the order of the day with the Pioneer PRO-FHD1. The 50-inch pane of glass is set in the middle of a black frame that, unlike other Elite frames, isn't glossy. Instead there's a layer of dark-tinted plastic that extends slightly beyond the edge of the black on all sides, creating a subtle accent. The only other remarkable item on the plasma's surface is the Elite logo and small, nondimmable LEDs that glow blue when the power is on and red when it's off. The panel measures 50.5 x 29.5 x 3.8 inches (WHD) and weighs 87.7 pounds.
Pioneer's remote is as basic as beans, as we'd expect from a clicker that doesn't have to change channels. We really liked the dedicated buttons for switching inputs, but that's really the only remote item worth mentioning. The set's menu system is organized logically, although the nested selections in the picture menu seem to go on forever. The biggest item at the top of the Pioneer PRO-FHD1's spec sheet is its pixel count. This is the first plasma to have 1,920x1,080 pixels of native resolution on its screen, which lend the picture more detail with 1080i and 1080p sources than you'll see with lower-resolution panels, which typically have 1,366x768 pixels. All those pixels also provide more detail with computer sources, which can be set to 1,920x1,080 resolution and deliver every pixel, but they won't improve the look of 720p HDTV or standard-definition television.
As we mentioned at the outset, the Pioneer lacks many of the features you'd expect in any television. You'll have to pay extra if you want to set it on a stand--Pioneer's PDK-TS23 (about $500) is the model the company recommends. Pioneer does not make matching speakers; you'll have to either connect your own to the panel's audio jacks or just use an external home theater sound system, a better move. And of course you'll also need an external tuner--such as a cable or satellite box--or an over-the-air tuner to watch HDTV or any television broadcast on this monitor.
The PRO-FHD1 has numerous picture adjustments, starting with seven preset picture modes: Standard, Dynamic, Movie, Game, User, Pure, and ISF Night. As you might imagine, the last is sponsored by the Imaging Science Foundation, an organization that (among other activities) certifies professional calibrators who, in this case, make use of special Pioneer software to calibrate the panel and set up the mode. Each of these modes, except for Dynamic, allows you to adjust the picture controls, such as contrast, color, and so forth, separately for each input.
Selecting Pro Adjust in the picture menu opens up a slew of additional options. The PureCinema control selects between Off (no 2:3 pull-down); Standard (normal 2:3 pull-down); and Advanced (special 72Hz mode; see performance for details). There are five color temperature presets, and we found Low came closest to the NTSC standard. We also appreciated the option to adjust color temperature, both high and low points, manually. The CTI mode is said to improve color contours, but we couldn't detect any effect. A color management screen allowed us to adjust primary colors--a great addition. There are adjustments for noise reduction (they worked extremely well); Dynamic Contrast and ACL (we have no idea what the latter stands for; both are said to change the picture on the fly, so we left them off); Black level (best left on); and Gamma (we found setting 1 the best). An adjustable 3D-YC comb filter and I-P mode cap the extensive picture menu.
The Pioneer offered five aspect ratio choices with high-def sources, including a Dot-by-dot mode that we recommend using when you're watching either 1080i or 1080p material. That mode puts the entire 1,920x1,080 pixels on the screen with no scaling; its only disadvantage is that, with some broadcasts, it may cause interference to become visible at the extreme edges of the screen. If this happens, choose Full instead.
The bottom edge of the back panel includes a solid input selection. There are two HDMI inputs, although, as with all current HDTVs, they're not version 1.3. There is also one DVI input that can handle digital computer signals up to 1,920x1,080 resolution, as well as HDCP-protected A/V signals from an HDMI source (adapter required). A set of five BNC style inputs can, using the included trio of adapters, accept component-video signals (up to 1080p) or RGBHV signals (up to 1280x1024) from computers or video processors. Pioneer provides minimal support for standard-def signals; just one composite input (BNC-style, so it again requires an adapter for RCA-type jacks) and one S-Video input. The back panel also has an RS-232 port for custom installation control; a pair of proprietary Pioneer control ports; and the aforementioned speaker outputs. There are no side- or front-panel A/V inputs. Simply put, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 is the best-performing HDTV we've reviewed in the last year. Its combination of extremely accurate color, deep black levels, and sharp detail outclass any of the plasma, LCD, or rear-projection sets we've seen recently.
As always, we started our evaluation by setting up the Pioneer's picture as well as possible. The Pure picture mode provided an excellent basis to begin and we didn't have to change much. We decreased light output slightly, tweaked the color temperature and primary colors, and went through the various other settings to arrive at what we considered an excellent picture for our darkened lab. Our full user-menu settings can be found here, or check out the Tips section at the tab above. Although there's an ISF Night mode that's designed to be used by a professional calibrator in conjunction with special software, our calibration involved only the set's user-menu adjustments and our standard equipment.
Once we had the image to our liking, we sat back to compare the Pioneer against a few other displays we had in-house: the significantly larger Mitsubishi WD-65831 rear-projection set as well as a pair of other 50-inch plasmas, namely the 1080p Panasonic TH-50PF9UK and the 1366x768-resolution Panasonic TH-50PH9UK. We slipped the incredible-looking Aeon Flux into our resident Blu-ray player, the Sony PlayStation 3, and kicked back to enjoy.