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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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417 Responses to “Pioneer’s Kuro Killing: A Tipping Point in the Plasma Era”

  1. Big Sven

    My Sony Trinitron is 13-14 years-old, perfect picture still, but I’m getting jealous of these big-screen flat-TV’s we have today.

    So… been checking ‘the scene’ re: flatscreen-TV’s, speaking to experts, engineers, old TV repairmen.

    One engineer still uses one of the last Sony Trinitron CRT’s as a reference. Result? Only plasma comes close to the best CRT ever sold.
    “Forget the numbers, look at the picture. Not a few of the numbers touted by sales-folk and the brochures are too slight for the human eye and brain to see. That 42″ plasma with ‘only’ 720 resolution in the vertical-plane you are undecided about? At 3 metres viewing-distance, at your age, you physically can’t see the difference to a 1080 HD resolution whilst watching TV, you’ll likely only notice a slight difference if you run a blueray DVD. It is NOT worth paying twice the price for that slight, occasional, difference a genuine HD TV will give you. CRT’s disappeared because they couldn’t physically make the ever-bigger screens the market demanded, not because the picture quality was inferior to plasma and LCD. I’d just love to see someone develop a new CRT screen using the technology we have today, laser-etching the mask on the screen, for example, I’m sure we could make higher-than HD-standard resolution 16:9 widescreens in glass, albeit only in small-screen format, with a dozen laser-guns each lighting-up a segment of the screen, allowing us to make a screen almost as a flat as we now have, maybe we could go as far as 600Hz refresh – it depends on how fast each ‘colour-spot’ can lose it’s glow and go dark again. NO plasma or LCD would get close! Plasma is superior to LCD, even a LED one, don’t believe the plasma is on the way out, that’s sales-hype, there are new plasma ‘bulbs’ being developed, brighter, faster, and using less current to drive them. Over 40″ even LED-LCD’s use nearly as much current as a good plasma, the backlighting current goes up exponentionally for every inch of screen, not linearly. If these new plasmas DO use less current than before the large-screen LCD can be the one that disappears from the stores, NOT the plasmas! But whatever type you buy use good connections, peripherals (VCR/DVD/cables/aerials) the adage is ‘crap in-crap out’.”

    So, I might be buying that Panasonic TX-P42X10Y after all. The cost of the doubled-power consumption can be allayed by switching-off at the main plug ever night, to save the 43W all my units on standby are costing me, and defrosting the fridge twice as often.

  2. truthfully, ir epair televisions and i will tell you, there is not much better than hitachi for plasmas in the past… almost none got repaired because they stood the test of time… amazingly “cool” pcb’s…

  3. Andrew

    I read on a hifi site that pioneer might be getting back into the tv market in 2010. “we will be getting back to the black” Quote from the president now what can that only mean?

    Apparently since the market is slowly getting better we might see the 10G kuro. I cant rememebr the site but the site reviews audio and video products.

  4. I have owned 7-8 differant HD tvs over the last couple years. I really like plasma. I own a 58″ 750u Panny and the picture quality is great. I then bought a 46″ Samsung for the bedroom and it looked great when I was watching candy comercials. But normal tv like Heros, Terminator Series and Dark Knight movie looked HORRIBLE on LCD. Great for PS3 games or computer. But if you want to watch TV??? PLASMA all the way !!! LCD also has a terrible angle viewing. Very washed out unless your directly infront of the beast. LCD reminds me of a cheap projection that takes up less space. REALLY !

  5. This is very sad. I purchased a Pioneer Plasma about 18 months ago, one of the first KURO units. It’s the best TV available and it will be maybe 3 years before anyone makes a comparable unit. Now all that will be available is mediocre TVs! Pioneer should pursue the professional HDTV and film market, that is were people are willing to spend a little extra for the best.

  6. LCDs are brighter especially at the store display. Of course, casual consumers (which are the masses) would pick the one with the brighter picture. Also salesmen bring up burn-in and energy efficiency issues with plasmas, plus they are thicker and heavier. Why do salespeople do this? Well because there is higher mark-up for LCDs. LCD has better marketing so it killed PDP despite being the better technology. Just like VHS did with Betamax.

    Sony used to be the best maker of CRT, then PDP, now LCD. Pioneer is gone and we hope that Panasonic continues Pioneer’s Kuro with their 10g panels, that is if Pioneer license their Kuro technology.

  7. What the frik does obama and bush have to do with the fracking TV industries!?! seriously people get lives. Also I would like to point out that the type of television really does not matter as everyone’s eyes and therefore preferences are different. The economy is in bad shape anyways I bid you ado

  8. Samsung is actually a Japanese product assembled in Mexico. Same parts produced in Japan and other places, just put together in Mexico since labor is cheaper there. Panasonic is also another Asian company who assembles their tv’s in Mexico as well. That is why the tv’s cost less because the cost of labor is cheaper. Learn the facts!

  9. Thanks to the cheap crap Samsung and LG make that Americans seemed to love to much. Americans are settling for cheaper and crappier products each year. You can’t compete when your competitor sells crap for cheap in disguise of quality Japanese products.

  10. The Plasma have better picture than the LCD but LCD is much better in shipment for it can be shipped on its side or any angle and that it is lighter than the Plasma. The plasma on the other side can only be shipped on the upward position which is a hazzle to any business company shipping plasma. I pick up mine and i told them to lay it down on my Sienna.I was told that it can’t be layed on its side and that it had to be transported in upward position, so i got me a pick up. I had my Plasma 3 years ago and still have quality picture than my LCD TV.

  11. It is sad that some people believe LCD are superior than Plasmas. I am an audiophile and love watching hi-def and, there is no way for me to prefer an LCD over A Plasma. It is regrettable that this economy is forcing people to return to the STONE AGE. I own one and, I will buy a bigger one right away—I do not want to go back to use bow and arrows.

    Smart people buy Plasma. Bye…!

  12. Plasma is NOT dying out! Pioneer plasmas are dying out due to the fact that they can’t compete with Panasonic. Panasonic is making the best Plasma Dollar For Dollar in March 2009 Panasonic will launch the best LCD tv’s on the market. Go Panasonic!

  13. LCD can’t even come close to plasma. I recently bought a 50 in Samsung Plasma and the picture blows away all of the LCD I have seen. If I had a choice it will always be Plasma.

  14. Hi everyone. I purchased the Samsung LCD and it is nice in the very light great room on the south side of our house. The plasma we had there was just too dark. When sports are on and they pan the footfall field there is a very big issue with this. It almost makes you sick and I bought the upgrade $4000 model with high refresh rates. But besides the panning issue the thing is nice ……the Black Light feature works awesome and it really is bright.

    As far as Obama and McCain I think it really doesn’t matter who was in office the last 8 years we would still be in this mess. Just about every country is in the same mess and they do not have McCain. That in mind I will say I think McCain where he went wrong is in his lack of obtaining other support around the world. I have no idea why anyone would think that we are headed towards a socialist economy because of republican/democrat issues……there are too many checks and balances just won’t ever happen. Now look at California….that to me is more socialist…..but it is just due to overpopulation and inevitable that the more people you have the more restrictions you need……take advice from china and see what can happen with too many people….one kid laws…etc….anyway I am tired of typing see ya….