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Pioneer Europe Adds LCD Panels, LCoS FP to Kuro Family

Gizmodo is reporting that Pioneer Europe has announced, as expected, the addition of a range of LCD flat panels to its popular Kuro brand products:

Pigs officially fly today: Plasma king Pioneer has announced their LCD lineup for Europe, and yep, they're getting the coveted Kuro distinction (equivalent to a "best TV on earth" badge) as is the already released KRF-9000FD LCOS projector. The 1080p LCD sets are on the smaller side (leaving big boy TVs to plasma) in 32, 37 and 46-inch sizes, with a 100hz frame mode and a "specially tuned" picture quality. But do they live up to Kuro?

The addition of LCD panels to Pioneer's product line-up has pretty much been a foregone conclusion ever since Sharp purchased roughly a 20% share of struggling Pioneer in 2007. But there's been much speculation about whether the Pioneer LCDs would fall under the Kuro brand umbrella -- and with good reason. Kuro is the Japanese word for black, and Pioneer's recent Kuro plasmas have set the standard for black level performance; on the other hand, middling black level is a long-standing Achilles Heel for LCD displays.

The more interesting bit of news coming from the Pioneer Europe press release is that the company is also adding an LCoS-based 1080p front projector to the Kuro family:

Developed specifically for cinephiles with a dedicated home cinema room, the KURO projector is configured for screen sizes starting from 60 inches. Aside from displaying signature KURO style cosmetics, it supports advanced calibration and is in line with the KURO benchmark of deep black levels and rich colours, resulting in the unmistakable look of film. It incorporates LCOS 1080p technology, producing the highest native contrast ratio. Based on 3 x 0.7 inch D-ILA, it boasts a wide lens shift capacity and dual HDMI 1.3 support.

The addition of the LCoS projector seems a bit of a non-sequiter in that this is neither a Pioneer nor Sharp area of technology expertise. Reading between the lines, it appears that the Pioneer projector is based on the well-regarded JVC line of "D-ILA" projectors. LCoS is a non-proprietary technology, but the two leading companies pushing LCoS products are Sony and JVC. Sony has branded its LCoS products "SXRD," while JVC has long used the "D-ILA" moniker (Digital Direct Drive Image Light Amplifier).

Gizmodo indicates that there's no definitive word on whether other Pioneer regions will be following the European lead in bringing LCD and LCoS Kuro products to market.

Bias Alert: Lights Out for Philips HDTV Sales in US Market

Gizmodo is reporting that the Dutch conglomerate Philips has taken the decision to exit the US television market:

If the rampant out- and cross-sourcing between LCD and plasma TV makers didn't tell you that it's a nasty and brutish time in the TV biz, this should: Philips is officially pulling out of the US market, and is licensing its brand name for TVs over to Funai -- best known for supplying Wal-Mart's Black Friday TVs and DVD players.

This might also tell you that Philips makes pretty crappy televisions.

This also feels like poetic payback for Philips foisting its Ambilight stupidity on US consumers, along with the insipid TV advertisements that it produced to promote its flat-panel displays with that so-called technology built in. While neutral bias lighting of certain types of televisions can be very beneficial, Philips' real-time, color-shifting Ambilight was an imaging science atrocity of the highest order.

Hopefully, Funai won't repeat Philips' mistakes by burdening its products and customers with Ambilight. But I'm not holding my breath...

For bias lighting done right, check out the Ideal-Lume line of products.

What's New (is Old): Mitsubishi Unveils Laser (DLP) TV

Over at the Robb Report web site, Geoffrey Morrison has an excellent write-up on Mitsubishi's introduction of its much ballyhooed Laser TV technology. What surprised me (and definitely diluted the "cool factor") is that Laser TV is just a rear-projection DLP with a seemingly more futuristic light source:

A regular DLP based rear-projection TV has a lamp (think light bulb) that creates the light. This light is focused down and shown through a rotating color filter wheel. Single chip DLP systems, like what is found in RPTVs, create sequential color. That is to say, at any given moment, only one color is on the screen. Because these colors change rapidly, your eye and brain blur them together so you see a full color image...

Using lasers as the light source simplifies this process. Three lasers, red, green, and blue, are expanded to fill the DMD chip. The color is still sequential, but the lasers can turn on and off faster than any color wheel, so the "rainbow" effect should be unnoticeable. Removing many of the lenses in the light path makes the light engine less expensive to produce, as well as more efficient. A less powerful light source can be used to create the same amount of brightness.

It's interesting to see the significant commitment Mitsubishi is making to Laser TV, especially when the tide seems to be definitively moving away from rear-projection form factors to flat panels. Still, as Morrison notes, there is a definite bang-for-buck consumer benefit for rear-projection HDTVs, and perhaps with Sony, Hitachi and others exiting this market segment this will turn out to be good, near-term business for Mitsubishi.

But with Laser TV sales roughly 6 months off into the future, it's likely that the anti-rear-projection mindset will spread to more HDTV buyers. In the end, it may be that Laser TV may have to settle for a niche in the front projection market.

But the best part of Morrison's article is his concise and convincing explanation of how Mitsubishi's "Twice the Color" marketing blather is not just hype, but hype that actually torpedoes picture quality:

Most modern displays are capable of reproducing all the colors available in the HDTV signal. Many are designed to reproduce more than that, creating "oversaturated" colors. In a store, these displays seem to have lots of color, and often get purchased over displays with more accurate colors. What happens is green grass is really green. Red apples are almost candy red. Again, perhaps not a big deal for the average consumer, but for those looking for a display that just shows what is in the original material ("as the director intended") this oversaturation of color is an artifact.

The problem, in effect, is in the signal. As good as HDTV is, it doesn't have the ability to encode all the colors that the human eye can see. New technologies, such as xvYCC aim to expand this limited color palette, but these are a long way away (if ever). This is because every step in the chain, from the transfer, to the encoding, to the decoding, to the transmission, to the display, all need to be xvYCC in order for it to work. Right now the only steps that are xvYCC are the display and the Blu-ray player (if you're lucky). So it's a useless feature at the moment.

Bravo, Mr. Morrison.

Pioneer Australia Chief Gives Hints on Future Product Mix

It's a little surprising that Australia, a country of only 20 million population, is the fourth largest national market for Pioneer Electronics. But that's what Pioneer Australia Managing Director Yasuo Sakuma claims in an interview that appeared at the Smarthouse web site on Wednesday -- and that lends a certain level of credibility to his comments about the future direction of the Japanese electronics company after last week's decision to shut down its plasma display manufacturing operations.

Sakuma noted that Pioneer will shift to Kuro-branded LCDs built by Sharp and new Kuro plasma panels built by Panasonic. He said Pioneer will continue to sacrifice volume for profitability.

Sakuma indicated that when Kuro LCDs roll out sometime late this year, they will be in the sub-50-inch range, with 32-, 42- and 46-inch models likely. On the plasma front, Sakuma indicated that Pioneer will continue to offer both 50- and 60-inch Kuro models.

"We have one of the best display engines in the world and our Kuro plasma display has won numerous awards because of this engine. Now we are working with both Panasonic and Sharp to transfer this technology into both our LCD TV's and our new thin plasma TV's. The Pioneer display engine is key to our success."

Sakuma also mentioned that Pioneer is considering establishing Pioneer-branded retail outlets, though for a company that seems hellbent on reducing costs and increasing margins, this would seem somewhat counterintuitive.

Pioneer Reportedly Planning to Exit Plasma Manufacturing

According to a Reuters newswire report, in follow-up to a story originally reported by Nihon Keizai Shimbun (NIKKEI) in Japan, Pioneer is expected to make a decision soon on ceasing manufacturing of the plasma panels used in its Pioneer- and Pioneer Elite-branded HDTVs.

As reported by Reuters:

Japan's Pioneer Corp is finalizing plans to stop all production of plasma display panels in a bid to turn around its loss-making flat TV operations, an industry source briefed on the plan said on Tuesday.

Shares in the maker of audio-visual products and auto electronics jumped to a four-month high after first reports of the move, and were up 11.2 percent at 1,160 yen as of 12:50 a.m. EST.

Pioneer is the world's fifth-biggest plasma TV maker, but it has been struggling to compete with larger rivals with better output efficiency such as Matsushita Electric Industrial Co (6752.T: Quote, Profile, Research), maker of Panasonic-brand electronics.

After the move, Pioneer plans to buy plasma panels for flat TVs from Matsushita, the Nikkei business daily reported. Pioneer is already planning to buy liquid crystal display panels from Sharp Corp (6753.T: Quote, Profile, Research) to start offering LCD TVs.

Australia Latest to Consider Ban of Plasma, LCD TVs?

In September, the opposition UK Conservative Party said it would consider banning plasma television and some other energy-hungry appliances.

Because the Conservatives are not the majority party in the UK and because a general election is unlikely to be held there for at least a year, the Conservatives' policy position is probably more public relations ploy than legal reality. But that doesn't mean that environmental groups in other countries aren't paying attention, with a report now circulating in Australian government circles suggesting a ban should be imposed there.

iSuppli Predicts Recent LCD Panel Price Rise is Short-Lived

From iSuppli, a global consumer electronics consulting firm:

After declining or remaining stable for the past six months, the Average Selling Price (ASP) for LCD-TVs rose significantly in July and remained at a higher level in August, according to iSuppli Corp.ís TV PriceTrak service.

The increase mainly was due to the introduction of new LCD-TVs that are more expensive than older sets because of their inclusion of enhanced features like Light Emitting Diode (LED) backlights, an improved viewing experience and support for the full 1080-progressive (1080p) scan format. The ASP was further bolstered by stabilization in the pricing for older-model LCD-TVs in August, ending a period of rapid declines.

For all sizes of LCD-TVs sold by premium brands in June, the ASP was $1,799. In July, prices increased because of the addition of new models, rising 7.4 percent to reach $1,933. In August, brand and retailer promotions on some models and new model introductions continued, keeping prices stable at an average of $1,931.

Looking forward, iSuppli forecasts that the recent uptrend in LCD prices is unlikely to continue, with prices beginning a decline later this month that is expected to carry through the end-of-year holiday selling season.

iSuppli says 42-inch panels are the "sweet spot" for vendors and that competition among retailers is at "fever pitch" levels. iSuppli also notes that although Philips has been extremely aggressive on pricing and that Sharp has introduced a value-priced line to compete with the LCD market leader Vizio and upstart player Westinghouse, price alone will not be enough to to hold or grow market share.

The bottom line here is that while LCD flat-panel HDTVs rarely garner picture quality accolades, it's clear they will continue to be the near-term driving force for HDTV pricing, regardless of technology or form factor.

UK Conservative Party Ponders Plasma TV Ban

First, California banned smoking in bars. Then, New York City mandated trans fat-free restaurants. Now, the UK oppposition party wants to ban plasma TVs.

When I was growing up, I used to think having a nanny would be cool. I was wrong.

From the UK newspaper, The Sun:

The Conservatives will propose banning plasma screens and other energy-guzzling electrical goods in a report to be unveiled next week. 

The proposals target white goods like fridges and freezers, as well as TVs, personal computers and DVD players that use too much energy or operate on stand-by.

The ideas come from a Conservative group set up by David Cameron to develop policies to protect the environment and although the measures to make household electrical appliances more energy efficient are not binding on Mr Cameron, they are thought likely to be warmly received by the Tory leader.

Warmly received? Mr. Cameron better watch his ass, or he'll be next victim of the carbon footprint stampede.

Runco International Sold to Planar Systems for $37m
Sam Runco is widely credited for creating the term "home theater," and he actually owns the trademark on that bit of verbiage, at least in the state of California.

So then, even though it sounds like Sam will continue to be involved in the Runco business after the sale closes, it is still a bit sad to hear the news that he's selling the company he founded 20 years ago.

From the TWICE (This Week in Consumer Electronics) web site:
Commercial and high-end home theater display manufacturer Planar Systems Wednesday acquired elite home theater display manufacturer Runco International for $36.8 million in cash, Scott Hicks, Planar home theater display group president said.

Runco, a privately held company, has been positioned as the market share leader in the ultra-high end home theater display business, and has expanded its distribution in recent years through the acquisition and development of the Vidikron brand.