Pioneer Kuro Plasma

Just a few short years ago, the mere sight of a flat-screen, high-definition television could stop you in your tracks. The slim design! The glorious picture! The sheer size of the image! A generation of men seized by uncontrollable hardware lust emboldened the consumer electronics industry to crank out dramatically improved sets at a rapid pace to slake that desire…until recently. While falling flat-screen TV prices still drive sales, the quality of the picture on screen has remained much the same. Yes, marginal improvements have been introduced, but nothing that generated, for me at least, much of a "wow" factor. Then I got a look at Pioneer's new plasma TV line. My friends, the "wow" is back.

What Pioneer has done better than anyone else is create a jet-black background. In fact, the research effort that gave birth to these new sets was named Project Kuro—and kuro is Japanese for black. If you look closely at most flat-screen TVs, whether they use LCD or plasma technology, you'll find they have a dark gray background rather than a true black. As a result, when some of the dots fill with colored lights to create a picture, they lack the optimal bright-against-dark contrast that gives colors an intense pop.

That lack of black is a function of too much resting voltage—the electrical charge that subtly illuminates the screen. On competitors' TVs, it's enough to turn it from black to gray. The Pioneer engineers found a way to dramatically reduce the resting voltage of the plasma panel on a Project Kuro set to an inky blackness, and the results are amazing. Watching high-def video of fireworks exploding against the night sky, you feel as if you're gazing out a window at the real thing. In a Blu-ray movie, everything from brilliantly colored fruits and flowers to beautiful summer dresses and even foreboding darkened corridors have a lush cinematic quality not found elsewhere.

Eight Pioneer plasmas use the Project Kuro technology, though only four of them offer the true 1080p high-definition picture you want. These range from a 50-inch model for $5,000 to a huge 60-inch set priced at $7,500 from the appropriately named Elite line.