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Pioneer PDP-5020FD Review



pioneer-kuro-20
Introduction

The Pioneer PDP-5020FD 50-Inch 1080p KURO Plasma HDTV is this year’s entry in the 50-inch 1080p category, and also happens to be their cheapest TV. Make no mistake though; the 5020 is not cheap in price, nor in performance. A 60-inch model flanks the PDP-5020FD, and beyond that, there are Pioneer Elite & Signature models.

Pioneer brought the first plasma TV to market about twelve years ago, and has been at the forefront of plasma development since. The eight-generation units, dubbed Kuro (Japanese for black, absence of light) really shook up the industry and set a new benchmark for HDTVs. They were the first HDTVs that many videophiles considered worthy of replacing their beloved direct-view sets by virtue of the Kuro’s phenomenal black level and contrast. These ninth-generation units, also known as second-generation Kuros improve things further, but sadly, will be the last panels produced by Pioneer themselves. For their tenth generation, Pioneer is outsourcing their panels to Panasonic, and afterwards may switch to LCDs only.

Design

Pioneer’s design philosophy hasn’t changed much over time, but in the simplicity of their design lies a certain elegance that gives them a very high-end look. Part of this is also a result of the best build quality in the segment, as Pioneers are made in Japan and assembled in the United States.

Without the detachable speaker bar, the PDP-5020FD is a glass panel surrounded by a deep black glossy bezel. Only the Pioneer logo adorns the front, making for a very understated, yet attractive design. Pioneer includes a stand that raises the TV pretty high, which is great, because it brings the TV closer to eye level on most TV benches. Unfortunately, the stand does not swivel, but as this is a plasma, it is not an absolute must.

Around back is a standard set of inputs including three HDMI inputs, with the side inputs containing the fourth HDMI input. There is a VGA input for those who insist on using it, but DVI-HDMI is always better. Interestingly, there is a subwoofer out for those who wish to use the included speakers, but want more bass, for a 2.1-type layout. It’s a nice touch and certainly shows that Pioneer isn’t cheaping out. There’s also an Ethernet jack, which I think is a bit passé, and should be replaced with an integrated 802.11g/n WiFi connection.

Pioneer has redesigned the remote for the second-generation Kuro, borrowing from the Kuro theme heavily. It’s fairly long and thick, though less so than last year’s, and some of the heft and solidity of last year’s model is also gone. It’s finished in faux black-anodized aluminum, which is OK, but there’s no backlight, which is a little strange on such a high-priced TV.

Features

Like the remote, the GUI was also redesigned with the second-generation Kuro, and also borrows from the Kuro theme. The GUI shows a side-by-side type layout, with the left side of the screen showing the menu, and the right side showing the image on the TV. This is probably not the best way to go about things, as I easily prefer menus that are overlaid, such as Samsung’s. For some reason, probably to differentiate the Elite models more, Pioneer left out a lot of customizability and functionality in the GUI this year. There are basically no serious options such as color temperature and gamma, and that might even be ok as with the Panasonic TH-50PZ800U if it had a mode that was very close to the NTSC standard, but none of them are. Initially, none of these options were available even through the service menu, but ControlCal software can now fully calibrate the PDP-5020FD. Of course, that involves an expensive calibration on top of the already hefty pricetag.

The feature that really makes the Kuro stand out in the crowd and command a greater price is its picture quality, made up primarily of an ultra-high contrast ratio and the best black level of any TV on the market. These features are important, because contrast and black level are the factors that contribute most to picture quality. Imagine even a moderately bright scene, such as the one from Batman Begins, of little Bruce Wayne playing on the grounds, right in the beginning. In the close up of his face, the greater contrast ratio of a TV reproduces the shadowy detail between the strands of his hair better, and the light and the dark areas of the hair have more of a difference. This gives the picture an almost 3D look, closer to our eyesight than other TV sets with less contrast.

The PDP-5020FD is connected well, with four HDMI inputs in total, but only one component-video input. I’d like at least two, instead of having two composite inputs, which are less likely to be used today. There is a USB port on the side panel, and an Ethernet port at the back as well.

In the context of TV speakers, the Pioneer sound bar isn’t too bad. When combined with a subwoofer via the subwoofer-out at the back, sound is pretty much acceptable if you are constrained to such a setup. The speakers don’t come attached, as Pioneer probably doesn’t expect that many customers to use them.

The PDP-5020FD has numerous video processing features, including a 72 Hz mode for 24 Hz Blu-Ray film content. We’ll discuss these in further detail in the performance section.

Performance

Black Level

Black level is the Pioneer PDP-5020FD’s piece-de-resistance. It is precisely what allows Pioneer to charge what it does for the TV, and it is also what helps the contrast ratio be what it is. Watching movies, especially darker ones, will make you feel like you’ve been watching movies through a filter before the Kuro. Last year’s model, the first generation Kuro, achieved a black level of 0.008 foot-Lamberts on the 720p models, and as low as 0.004 on the 1080p models. This second generation Kuro has a black level of 0.001 foot-Lamberts, so low that some equipment can’t detect light in that range. By comparison, the Panasonic plasmas are around 0.015 foot-Lamberts, and the Samsungs are around 0.030. Even Panasonics tenth-generation Neo-PDP units are reported to be around 0.010-0.011 foot-Lamberts, which means they’re still not as good as the first-generation Kuros in this area.

Contrast

The PDP-5020FD has the highest contrast ratio we’ve ever tested on a TV, exceeding 10,000:1. By comparison, the next best was the Samsung A650-series LCDs, at around 3700:1, and both Panasonic and Samsung plasmas were around the 1300:1 mark. This makes a significant difference, and in some ways, makes the PDP-5020FD worth its premium price.

Color Accuracy

Like other TVs, this Pioneer too comes with an Achille’s Heel. In this case, it is out-of-box color accuracy. None of the basic image modes are near the 6500k standard, and while the movie mode comes closest at around 6200k, it’s still not good enough. This is often the case with TVs, but most can be adjusted to come fairly close. Unfortunately, the limitations of this year’s model don’t allow you to adjust color temperature, so you’re either stuck with the modes built-in, or will have to pay big bucks to have a professional calibrate the TV with ControlCal.

We thought that the Optimum mode would be something special, as it uses the TV’s built-in light sensor and processing engine to analyze a number of factors and constantly adjust the image. It even shows a histogram and adjustments constantly being made, but it’s all for show. Overly saturated colors that are too cool, crushed blacks, poor shadow detail and some edge enhancement are what you’ll get from the Optimum mode, so it’s probably best to stick to the Movie mode.

Processing and Upscaling

The PDP-5020FD, like its predecessors, had no trouble going through the processing tests. Deinterlacing was perfect, and when upscaling lower-resolution material, no artifacts were introduced. We looked at a variety of test material, even including Knight Rider Season One. Shot on film in the early 80s, the image looked clean and very much like an analog recording without noise.

This TV has a 72 Hz mode that it uses for 24 Hz Blu-Ray film content, and unlike the competing Panasonics with their 48 Hz mode, is entirely watchable and does a good job of removing judder, like many 120 Hz LCD TVs. It’s the best choice in a plasma TV for this type of content.

Uniformity

Plasmas do not suffer from the non-uniformity issues that LCD TVs do, but the PDP-5020FD has an interesting issue. In the first hundred or so hours of use, the screen appears a little blotchy. However, after you cross the hundred hour mark, these blotches go away, so it’s a non-issue. Apart from that, there are no hotspots or bright spots on the TV, which help this Pioneer to display a smoother, better picture than even uber-priced LED-backlit LCD TVs.

The PDP-5020FD is the most resistant plasma I’ve seen to image retention. I could not get it to retain an image even after an hour of displaying the Windows desktop, and this was great to see in comparison to the other plasmas.

Bright Environment

It was interesting to note that the Pioneer PDP-5020FD lost the least brightness of all the plasmas we’ve tested in a bright environment. Many plasma TVs will wash out to varying degrees, but this TV looks as good as most LCDs in a bright environment. Of course, the purpose of this TV is truly lost in such as environment, but it’s nice to know that it holds up anyway.

PC Connection

We tested the PDP-5020FD with a VGA connection as well as a DVI-HDMI one. Naturally, it looked far better with the DVI-HDMI connection, when set in dot-by-dot mode (which allows for 0% overscan). Since it basically didn’t have any image retention, it made for a great high-contrast monitor.

Conclusion

The Good: Best black level, contrast ratio, video processing and build quality. No image retention, decent connectivity.

The Bad: Lack of picture adjustability, no presets come close to 6500k, could be cheaper.

Overall: Essentially the best non-Elite HDTV available, but carries a heavy price and demands a professional calibration for the best results.

Buy the Pioneer PDP-5020FD 50-Inch 1080p KURO Plasma HDTV at Amazon.

5 Responses to “Pioneer PDP-5020FD Review”
Turbe - February 8th, 2009 at 2:48 pm

ISF Professionals who can calibrate the Pioneer 9G Non-Elites (PDP-5020FD/PDP-6020FD):

http://www.controlcal.com/forum/showthread.php?t=93

best dish deal - February 8th, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Wow man. You really know your stuff. Guru is right. Sheesh! 🙂

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