Pioneer’s Kuro Killing: A Tipping Point in the Plasma Era

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The Pioneer Kuro line will be gone by March 2010The end of the Pioneer Kuro line of TVs represented a true tipping point in the TV industry, one preceded by long-gestating momentum from opposing forces. The recession and LCDs tipped over plasmas for good, and the slope downward will be quite steep, and fast.

Last week, Pioneer announced it was killing off its critically acclaimed TV business by March 2010 and will concentrate on car and audio/visual systems. It was a dramatic fall for a company that just one year ago had CES abuzz with its newest plasma TV, the so-called “Ultimate Black” Kuro.

The Kuro’s tech was impressive because it reduced light emissions from black areas of the screen to such a degree that at its maximum brightness, the contrast ratio was “almost infinite.” The result was a plasma display with the most vibrant, colorful images yet.

But even at the hype’s peak, problems in the plasma industry were apparent.

Plasmas were at their most popular from 2004 to 2006, a period that saw them overtake rear-projection TVs as the top big-TV format. But they had a tough time offsetting their lowest average prices with high sale volumes. The spectre of LCDs also prompted many customers to hold off on making a purchase. By February ’08, soon after the recession had officially taken hold, premium-quality Pioneers seemed out of touch. Most critically, LCDs were sporting features long the domain of plasma: bigger screens, greater contrast ratios, thinner and cheaper sets. LCD picture quality still failed to reach plasma levels, but to average consumers, the difference was no longer obvious.

Fast-forward to the start of 2009, and LCDs were outselling plasmas 8-to-1 globally, and the dominating the best-selling lists on Amazon.com.

Pioneer tried a last-ditch partnership with Panasonic to create a version of its plasma TVs, contributing its own “secret sauce” to keep the Kuro tech flowing, but that effort appears to be over.

The slumping demand is already having consequences: Projected losses of $1.41 billion in 2008-09 (following a loss of $203 million in 2007-08) and a nearly 50 percent drop in operating revenue have set the scene for 10,000 jobs cuts and the closing of U.S., UK and Japanese facilities. But Pioneer’s not the only TV maker suffering. They’re all taking it on the chin, regardless of display type.

Both Hitachi andVizio had to end the bleeding by shuttering plasmas to concentrate on LCDs. And not even the usually flush holiday period buoyed TV companies to a safe financial landing: Sony (s sne), Panasonic, and LG all posted lower quarterly profits.

Component suppliers have similarly been unable to escape the pain. As Om noted in recent posts, screen manufacturer Corning (s glw) posted fourth-quarter 2008 revenues of $1.1 billion and still had to let go of 3,500 jobs.

Pioneer’s decision to end its plasma production was more complicated. It bought out NEC’s plasma business in 2004, used it as an OEM for its glass, but was recently forced to shutter the unit. Now, the only plasma manufacturers left standing are Panasonic, LG, and Samsung, all of which make their own components.

Panasonic is in good position to benefit from Kuro’s death. Most of the Pioneer engineers who came up with Kuro switched sides and are now working for Panasonic. In addition, recent demos have shown that Panasonic plasmas are nearing Kuro quality. Already in possession of the biggest plasma market share in the world (at more than 35 percent), the company will be able to build a diversified product line using plasma TVs as a premium screen type that appeals to a niche that still wants them.  Add to that the fact that it receives significant revenues from selling its glass to other companies, including JVC and Fujitsu, and it appears that it’ll be able to keep plasmas afloat longer than any other company. Panasonic will inherit the burdens of the difficult economy and the LCD challenge, but once plasma is no longer economically feasible, its own LCDs will have likely caught up in picture quality. In fact, ultimate black contrast tech is already getting closer to LCDs.  So it’s only a matter of a few years (maybe even less) before plasmas finally die out.

As for Pioneer, not all is lost. Reps say that the plasma TVs only accounted for 14 percent of its business worldwide, and patents for the Kuro technology will provide a profit for awhile. But any positives are bittersweet. The legacy of the Kuro TV will be that it was another best-in-class technology that was humbled by the force of the economy and the competitive market.

– Follow Jose Fermoso on Twitter at twitter.com/fermoso

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446 Comments

Andrew

Look, I couldn’t care less about the difference between LCD and Plasma. Personally, I won’t buy one of these expensive televisions until they last on average at least ten years. I cannot believe people are idiotic enough to spend money on these things when they last only a handful of years. Televisions used to last 10 or more years (sometimes over 20). These companies know people are stupid enought to pay the money, so why bother to manufacture reliable products, right?

Pete

man that sucks. i work for bestbuy and at my store theres a really good balance between plasma and lcd.
wow no more elites!! well alleast we still have samsung.

james

I love my 47 inch LG LCD 1080P!!!! I find no difference between plasma and lcd. Plus i’ve seen people with plasmas and they complain about the burn in.

GO LCD!!!

Jo

Hmmm I have a plasma which cost me 6K when I first bought, and I ve been well happy with it.
LCD have much better features
fast ms fast contrast and they don’t reflect sun light but! Plasma on the other hands give a much longer time of use while LCDs crystal break

Jerod

Who cares if they die out or don’t die out. It’s amazing that people spend enough time in front of there TV that that they notice the difference between LCD and Plasma. “OMG it makes my video games and sports so much better.” Try getting outside or maybe spending that $1000 bucks on season tickets and actually going to games…..LIVE! It doesn’t get any better than that.

drago619

i started with a plasma. then switched to a 120mhz LCD cause that was the new hype. it was great for blu rays but still didnt compare to plasma for sports. needless to say i went back to a 50″ plasma. LCD doesnt compare to plasma. with the newer plasmas the burn in is not a problem anymore.

Slater

Agreed with other comments. I’m about to buy hundreds of plasmas for hotels because service life is 100,000 hours versus 60,000 for LCD. AND I’m getting them cheaper than LCD. I only wish the current predominant plasma sets were better at energy efficiency. The NEO PDP sets need to come out and fast, not for picture quality or “thinness” but energy efficiency. Not to mention LCD sets are generally lower build quality across the board. AND with Pioneer leaving the game it’s like Samsung discontinuing its LED 240Hz sets. SO the highest end is going away. So what. Panasonic will absorb the tech and bring it to their sets. High-end sets only matter if their tech is a precursor to the mainstream. And Pioneer is an itty bitty tech company nowehere near the size of any mainstream sets. If Cnet didn’t review their sets nobody would care. This is the result of a down market ejecting a niche player.

Oleg

Really? Plasma dying? Have you owned an LCD TV? I will agree that LCD is better when it comes to a computer screen but TV? Come on, you have to do better than that! Plasmas still eclipse LCDs, as long as Panasonic keeps on producing them people will keep on buying them. There are plenty of enthusiasts that CAN see the difference between a plasma and an LCD and they will buy plasma.

ladyt

LCDs are only selling more than Plasmas because plasma televisions are rarely instock so people will settle for LCDS instead. I will take a plasma tv over lcd any day when referring to picture quality.

Matt

If people only knew how much better a plasma was to an LCD they would be so much better off. 120 hertz LCD is slow compared to a 480 sub field drive in plasmas. That’s just one of many things people don’t know. Like Panasonic, 100,000 hour half life, to most LCDs 60,000 hour half life. I guess blur and longevity aren’t what people care about these days. Its funny to me that people say LCDs don’t burn in. I guess they never seen it. At least plasmas can correct the burn in now. Well what can you do I guess.

Tabitha

I have to agree with Mike up there; this article seems a little like an exaggeration, I mean really. It’s articles like these that discredit the whole news/information arena…

Mike

LCD are cr*p and can’t match the natural look of Plasma. Vizio is a poor-man’s LCD.

Amanda

I think that liquid crystal vs plasma was similar to the blu-ray vs hi-def competition, it just took longer. Both the LCD and plasma are amazing, but it does appear that LCD may win, but it won’t be that big of a deal, they are both high definition with almost the same dimensions–but cable/satellite and movies should definitely equalize their dimensions with the common tv style!!

Doug

Wow – Sad really. I still prefer my Vizio Plasma to LCD’s. Price to Performance ratio is unmatched

Boomer Fan

Plasma’s going away is like 4×4 for vehicles. Why would any manufacturer get rid of such a superior technology that best represents sports, gaming and movie viewers? Bottom line, it’s just about pricing and demand. Spend some money to get the money. The lower prices on Plasma go, the more interested consumers are willing to upgrade to the best High Def TV available!!!!!!!!! Folks, that is why it is a little more expensive!

Liz

That’s sad to hear because my Panasonic 50″ plasma rocks. The colors to me are more vibrant than an LCD and the plasma was a better price. I hope that plasma can make a come back because I would definitly buy a plasma again. The risk of the burn in is the only problem but just don’t leave the TV on pause for too long and problem solved.

lee

what a shame, Plasma is and will always be better than LCD. LCDs are lower quality and thus cheaper to make and cheaper to buy….

Chris

I love my 42 inch Vizio Plazma. I love it. I’m never getting rid of it. Well……let me take that back….there are quite a few good looking models out there!!

Devon

LOL! Plasma dying out? Does the author own stock in the companies that mine LCD resources? :-) I’m sorry, but this article is just pretty silly.

Mike

The only reason this all is happening is because no one is buying products. Most Americans already have purchased their electronics and until they break, it is pointless for them to make another purchase. It’s not a sale boom like when the LCDs and Plasma’s came out in 2004 and 2005 and these were the biggest changes to TV so people have what they need. Again, the production is useless because NO ONE IS BUYING ANYTHING!!!

Mike

Only mis informed buyers think LCD tech has eclipsed Plasma tech. Plasma is still Much much better in Response time for Sports, Gaming, Fast action movies etc. Its so fast they cant even measure the response time.
Its half life is about 12 years+ watching it 8 hours a day. That just means it will be half as bright. But who watches them at full brightness? No one. So in 12 years you just up the brightness.

I sold my old 32 in Panisonic Plasma and bought a 52 in LCD Sony XBR5 last year. When watching Sports I wish i had my plasma back. Plasma was also better with the Blacks. For the informed Plsama still is best if you ask me.

For those who think you will keep a TV for 50 years after you buy it then maybe LCD is for you.
I wish I had bought a Bigger Plasma instead of the Sony LCD.
Other then Burn in LCD has no edge on Plasma. And the Newer Plasmas have features to minimize it.

As far as smaller TV’s i see the LCD being the only choice as Plasma rarely are found anymore smaller then 42in.
From someone who has owned top shelf LCD and Plasma TV’s I would Buy Plasma if I had it to do over again.

Hawks Fan

Bad news! Plasma is much better than LCD. My Pansonic Plasma rocks. Say it ain’t so Joe….

Nathan

Well I’m glad I got my Kuro when I did, it is truly the best TV on the market today and will likely remain untouched for several years. LCD just can’t touch this set!

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