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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. I have a Sam.LCD 120hz 1080p 50,000 to 1 and it is the top of the line LCD. I dont like plasma’s I had a chance to pay one and i didn’t. It had nothing to do with money cause i spent just about 3000 on the TV. I noticed that the LCD is crisper in some areas. Im a big sports fan and with the 120hz on it kicks butt. Gaming is the same way as sports. I would buy a LCD again if i had the chance. I have a dark room and LCD is better in dark rooms then Plasma’s

  2. Blueoyster57

    Looks like all the Plasma owners are getting nervous! Admit you were stupid for buying one and move on. Because years after your plasma has stopped working, my LCD will still be on the job, providing an awesome picture. You see the plasma owners never tell you about the short lifetime of a plasma T.V.

  3. I have both and the pricing difference really makes LCD the better deal. Both are 1080P and I can tell very little difference when hooked up to my 360 and ps3. I spent $3,200 on the plasma and $1,500 on the LCD… your choice.

  4. ive been wanting a new set,but neither plasma or lcd have as good of a picture as my 10 yr old standard 32 in rca. the pictures appear,fuzzy,distorted,almost out of focus.has anyone else noticed this?

  5. Very very sad time when the best TV manufacturer is calling it quits. Pioneer has had the top rated TVs for 15 years and they never bothered wasting time on inferior LCD technology. As for the comment about LCDs being better for computers than a plasma… that’s not even close to being true. I have a 42″ 1080p plasma for my main computer screen. It’s used at least 6 hours a day, every day. Absolutely outstanding graphics and zero burn in issues. All TVs have image retention, even LCDs. Change the channel and it goes away… what a concept. People never seemed concerned about their old CRT TVs burning in, yet this was a very common problem. Oh is that why computers had screen savers? People need to be informed of facts and not live of tech data from 15 years ago. Maybe this will help lead the way for Laser TVs to take off…

  6. After u watch a T.V 4 awhile U get use 2 the picture. So what’s the big deal. Sure it’s a good product and cost a penny. But if u sit in front of a old T.V long enough U won’t even care just as long as the show u r watching is a good 1. But yes if u happen 2 see a plasma u will 4 surly say WOW what a better picture. They r good products. I’m sorry about the bad luck.

  7. Just another neo-nazi plasma hater. Probably worked for Circuit City with the rest of the mis-informed and misguided who not unlike used car salesmen, sold whatever they had more of in inventory, and claimed it the best. WHo cares if Pioneer is out of the game. Yeah, they were nice sets, but a comparable host of others come in better on the pocketbook. My customers are given ALL the information and generally decide for themselves that plasma is superior, instead of being steered into a lackluster display, cause they don’t know any better. Ding Dong the Kuro’s dead! More market share for the REAL players

  8. I think that Plasmas are a great deal better than LCD, even with the burn aspect. I like video games and sports, bolth are better displayed on Plasma screens, whic are much more responsive. LCD’s care better left for computors, but If you want to watch T.V., go with the Plasma, trust me.

  9. I own two VIZIO’s 42″ and 32″ LCD. Love them both. I’ve owned the 42″ for a bit over a year and the 32″ just a couple months. When I bought the 42″ last year comparable 42″ Vizio Plasmas were considerable higher in price, this year the Plasmas of all sizes are cheaper than the LCD’s of similar size. Plasma is dead! Also I live Colorado and Plasma doesn’t do well at high altitude, not so bad in Denver where I live at 5280 ft. but far worse at higher levels!

  10. Bought a 32in Insignia plasma and I’m extremely happy. For 477 bucks, it blows away any LCD in its class. A super bargain. I saw people thumbing their noses at the plasmas in the big box store I was at; and I thought, “WHAT FOOLS.”

  11. SmokeScreen

    In 5 years there will be yet ANOTHER article claiming that the best is is what the best was. Looking forward to the Bi Tronics rendition of the hologram viewer…you guys ain’t seen NOTTA yet, hahahaaa

  12. No mention of OLED technology? This is the future people, in five years this debate will be akin to arguing about your favourite dinosaur… (I’m a HUGE fan of the metriocanthasaur!)

  13. I agree with Mike above. During this sliding economy, people aren’t buying any high ticket items. When it comes to a large LCD or Plasma, there’s not too big of a price gap between a quality LCD and a plasma, so I believe if they can’ afford a plasma, they probably can’t afford a comparable LCD either.
    My 50″ Sanyo Plasma totally blows away about any LCD I’ve ever seen as far as picture quality, response time, and contrast ratio…LCD’s can’t touch it. If Plasma takes a hit in this economy, I’m sure the LCD manufacturers wont be far behind.

  14. People calm down. It’s a television. LCD or Plasma…does it really matter? Either beat the tube tv’s that you all had 9 years ago.

    Shut up and enjoy whatever tv you have. I have a Sharp Aquos LCD and love it….I’m sure I’d love a plasma too.

    Get over yourselves.

  15. brainsnorts

    this is a stupid argument based on misinformation and speculation (a fancy word for a “guess”), and the writer clearly has no grasp on the facts. i’m going to read roger ebert’s blog. i can learn something there.

  16. Kauai Guy

    Iv’e never owned a plasma befor but my Samsung LCD is amazing. The plasmas here at costco are actually cheaper then the LCD’s. Main reason…plasmas use TWICE as much electricty! During a time where everyones is concerned about paying their bills, thats a huge selling point. I am surprised nobody even mentioned that fact. I have never been happier then I am right now with my 46″ 120 hertz / 50,000:1 contrast ration Samsung LCD!

  17. OK I’m dating myself but this sounds like the old Beta vs. VHS thing. Superior quality lost out to price point. I have a 7 year old Panasonic 42″ Plasma TV and a 2 year old Samsung 40″ LCD and believe me, the picture on the plasma is infinitely better. Especially when the viewing angle is slightly off center. This is one of the big differences between the two, the fall off of picture quality on an LCD vs Plasma when viewed from angles that are not head on. But you rarely hear this mentioned.

  18. i suggest one be very careful with their statements as, like the writer of this article is obviuosly ignorant when it comes to technology. LCD can never match the quality of plasmas. Burn-in is an issue of the past… how can this writer be so ignorant?

  19. brainsnorts

    stephen, you’re wrong on the video game thing. my kids play mario kart on nintendo wii constantly, and there are certain images that are there through the whole 8 hours that they play. not only is there NO burn in, but there’s also a feature that will wipe it out even if it happens. i have a friend who works for best buy in their tv department, and he is constantly learning about everything new in tv’s. he steered me to plasma, and i’m happy with it for sure.

  20. Do people not know that plasmas give you more depth to colors? The only reason one should buy an LCD is for video games, to brighten the dark areas. But with a calibration, plasmas out weigh LCDs. An investment in any plasma (especially a Pioneer!!) is worth it for the Blu-ray watcher. All Pioneer needed to do was advertise and educate the population about plasmas.

  21. LCD is crap. Plasmas have much better definition, not to mention they are a bit cheaper. Hell, I still have a cathode-tube TV I use(although newer TVs are preferred). Now they’re trying to give plasma the boot already? This is just as bad as that Blu-Ray crap. Slow down, companies. I don’t want my plasma to be outdated yet(not that LCD is THAT much of a threat).

  22. brainsnorts

    who is this guy and what authority does he have? he’s speculating, just like those people who said $4 a gallon for oil was here to stay last summer. plasma no longer has burn in, it’s just as thin as lcd, and my panasonic 42″ was a great buy for $799. even if plasma goes in the tank, it won’t take away the great picture we plasma owners have. they’re not going into our houses to take the sets away, so who cares what happens from this point on?

  23. No one wants plasma televisions anymore. It would be kind of like purchasing a VCR nowadays-doable, but very rare and only for people who need a VCR to run their tapes.
    And like some other people have said, no one’s buying televisions right now either. There’s no point, especially when most tv’s look the same, act the same, and still won’t give you HD channels without subscribing to some lame cable company (yes I’m glaring at you, comcast)