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CES: Pioneer goes black

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If you’re going to stake out a spot on the high end of the consumer electronics market, you’d better keep coming up with engineering marvels to tout. In the case of Pioneer -- which has positioned itself as the premium brand in plasma TVs -- this year’s bragging point was contrast ratio. Or rather, the elimination thereof.

Contrast ratio measures a screen’s whitest white against its blackest black. The former isn’t as tough to achieve as the latter. Plasma screens are made up of millions of tiny cells, each of which tends to emit a little light even when it’s not in use. That’s why, in a dark room, you can still see a slight gray glow from a plasma screen (and other TV types too) after it’s been turned off. The luminance from the idle cells dilutes the colors of the active ones, making for a less vivid picture.

At its news conference this morning, Pioneer talked up a prototype of a plasma set whose idle cells are, in fact, dark. In other words, there’s no glow. The contrast ratio is so high, it’s beyond measurement, said Russ Johnston, a Pioneer executive vice president. It’s hard to verify the claim, given that the prototype is under wraps until Monday, and no models will be produced in the coming year. Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing claim. Displaying true black has been a weak spot for TVs, and if Pioneer has found a way to do it in plasma, that could lead to notably better picture quality. At the high end of the market, of course.

Pioneer also plans to show another prototype plasma screen that’s remarkably thin and light -- 9 mm, or about 1/3 of an inch, compared with an average of 3.5 inches among plasma sets. The company plans to combine both new features in a future generation of plasma sets.

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-- Jon Healey


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