AVForums editor Phil Hinton reports from Pioneer's European product launch and witnesses a possible re-birth of Plasma technology
Rome, the eternal city, birthplace of modern civilisation and many of the technical processes we today take for granted, like running fresh water, underground waste management and breathtaking design architecture.It is clear what the Roman’s did for us during the centuries and that there have been many rebirths since the time of the empire. It was against this backdrop of rebirth, new visions and design that Pioneer launched their latest products to an amassed media measuring over 300 in strength. There had been a build up of promotion in the twelve months previous from the company, hinting at an all new Plasma technology that would be a complete rebirth of the product and May 8th was to see the finished article unveiled to the world.
There will be those cynical amongst the forums community who see such press events as nothing more than pulling the wool over the eyes of those present and offering no more comment than PR hype, with no substance that is useful for the end user. It is true that for the full 3 days (or 4 in my case with an overnight stay in London), we were treated to the best of Hotels, food and of course drink and don’t forget that backdrop of Rome. However, those who are regulars to the AV Forums will know that our editorial is aimed squarely at the enthusiast market and our community of end users. With that in mind, this article will not follow the usual style of the press, but rather give you the behind the scenes details of how such events are put together and presented.
We set out to approach Pioneer’s launch like every other event we cover for you on the forums and that’s from the point of view of the AV Community and fans of the hobby. So, this event was aimed at what the company described as a complete rebirth of plasma and as UK Product Manager Jim Catcheside claimed, “These are brand new panels, they are built from the bottom up.”
Landing in Italy on Monday, the first thing we were met by was a young lady holding a “V” above her head, this was to attract our attention so we managed to get our transfer to the Hotel, but it was also a clue to the whole PR spin of the event. Indeed on arriving at the Hotel and everywhere else we attended as part of the event, there were Large “V” signs everywhere. According to the PR, V is for Vision, V is for me and V is for you, or as one commentator said, V is for vomit, maybe he didn’t like the copywriting of this campaign?
For someone who hasn’t been to one of these events before, it is quite surprising how much detail and time is taken on getting the message hammered home to those attending. The slogans, the cards left in your room telling you about the events coming up next, the name badges, large 3D “V” logos in hotel reception areas, it is clear that every advertising trick is used to get this message through either subliminally or direct in your face. That’s not to say that this is wrong in anyway, indeed it adds to the build up and anticipation and proves that a company is serious in its goal at getting the message over. As long as you remember that it’s PR and don’t let it blind you with slogans over the actual product being launched, it’s all good fun to be honest.
I noticed rather quickly that nearly every UK technology or AV journalist had made the trip, representing everyone from the tabloids to some very well know Hi-Fi and AV publications, oh and of course your favourite AV Forum. It was clear that Pioneer meant business with this launch; it can’t be every year that you invite over 300 journalists from all over Europe and Russia to an event like this. It becomes obvious that there must be something very special indeed to talk about if you are going to the expense and logistics of such a launch.
The Monday evening was set aside for the Gala Dinner to be held at the Villa Miani, an 18th century building perched on a hill above the city and offering some stunning and breathtaking views of Rome. The entrance to the venue was rather tight for coaches to make with twisting roads and gate houses that were mere millimetres from the side of the bus as we passed. As the assembled 300 stood on the patio surveying the views we were treated to some fine wine and finger food.
The whole night was set aside for relaxation and enjoying the best of what the venue had to offer. The food was very good, although not to my particular taste, the wine kept flowing and whilst having dinner, 4 artists were creating various new masterpieces for our entertainment, although it was rather confusing, nobody was able to tell me what it was that they were actually painting or creating. To finish the evening, we were treated to a 10 minute fireworks display before boarding the coaches back to the hotel and to endure the tight twisting roads again, which sadly resulted in our bus sustaining a puncture! Once back in our rooms we were left to wonder about exactly what we were about to see and if it could possibly live up to the now constant hype.
The roll call was 8.30am on Tuesday the 8th of May, as we again boarded coaches for the conference centre and the full press launch. The PR tricks were again out in force as we had to walk down a completely black tunnel into the auditorium, with just one blinding light at the far end, and sounds of various languages all preaching the ethos of “V.” The black tunnel was obviously a precursor to what the main thrust of the presentation would be black levels better than in previous generations.
The main conference presentation kept up the slick and sleek PR tone with video promos extolling V for vision and what the director intended from the likes of Spike Lee. The presenters handled different areas of the business with Marnix Somers, head of European home business, covering market trends and design ideas. His speech covered who it was that Pioneer was speaking too in the market, people who want the best in design and performance. People who are not drawn by the hundreds of logos that are regular features on products, but rather those who want the most accurate and custom products possible, and they aspire to owning these products. Somers also covered the current flat panel TV market where the mass producers are currently reducing prices, some by as much as 40%.
Pioneer and Somers state that they are a small company in terms of production volume, but rather they aim to provide the very best technology and design, a no compromise approach where obviously the end user will have to pay for that quality, or certainly aspire to owning the Pioneer brand. Somers ended by talking about entertainment aficionados and the creative community of TV producers and Film Makers, bringing all together to present the most accurate picture and sound quality to see the original content as it was intended to be seen.
Finally Somers discussed the brand re-launch of Pioneer and the new partnership with advertising agency TBWA\Chiat\Day. The L.A. based company were responsible for re-inventing the Apple brand and their iPod business, along with inventing the Energiser bunny. The campaign will be worldwide and the idea is to help Pioneer become recognised as the high end elite brand for plasma and home entertainment products.
Next up was a presentation from Philippe Coppens, Technology and product manager for Europe. The main points of this speech were aimed at the product strategy for Europe and what new products we would be seeing from the company this year. This covered the new LX-01 Home Entertainment system as a unique all in one product, the new “24” logo which denotes products that can playback 1080p 24Hz material and the companies new Blu-ray Player. I will come back and cover each of these points later.
To finish up the hour long launch presentation, we were introduced to the Godfather of Plasma, Yoichi Sato. Mr Sato was the head engineer responsible for all of Pioneers plasma sets from G1 up to the brand new product. He explained how they had fundamentally changed the design approach for the G8 sets by going back to the beginning and re-inventing the way in which plasma works, in fact so much so that at one point it was discussed whether the plasma name should be changed!
The focus of this new approach was to produce the most realistic black levels possible from a plasma set, create the correct black level and you have the best picture quality. Other new features were also discussed such as Optimum-mode, a unique way of determining the ambient lighting in which the set is being used as well as the source material and automatically adjusting the picture to suit. Indeed project “Kuro” was a fundamental change in the technology Pioneer were going to use going forward.
After the main presentation it was time to split into groups and attend break out rooms, covering the technology we had just seen in the press launch. These rooms covered the following areas;
•“Project Kuro” black
•“Project Kuro” video processing
•“As the director intended” 24hz
• Shop in shop –video DJ
• DLNA networking
• High fidelity sound
The “Project Kuro” rooms are probably the areas of most interest to forum members and I will cover these first. Kuro is the Japanese word for ‘Black’ and this is central to the new sets. Pioneers engineers have gone for optimum black level and correct greyscale tracking which in turn produces the most accurate colours on screen. In the ‘black’ room we had one 1080p screen from Pioneer along with the XGA version and in between both was a Sony LCD set.
I can see why Pioneer include LCD screens in these demonstrations like they have done at events like the Bristol Show back in February, however I do not feel these comparisons can give any real insight into what they are trying to show. For a start because it is a Pioneer demonstration you have to ask exactly how the sets were configured, because I have seen that exact same LCD screen produce far better images than in this demo. That said it was easy to just dismiss the LCD and actually concentrate on the Pioneer screens.
If the company are going to continue with these types of shoot outs, I think they need to consider doing it in a more transparent way, perhaps have an independent calibration expert set the screens up to industry standards, even then I believe the Pioneer Plasma would win out in terms of overall picture quality due to the differences in technology employed between the two, and it would be easier to accept the comparison in objective terms.
So the results of the black levels on these new sets are very good indeed, almost as good as CRT sets in terms of total video black. In a totally dark room there is still some very slight light on the screen surface when showing a black image, however it is probably no more then say a CRT TV. Without being able to take actual measurements at this time, I am happy to say that to the eye the black levels live up to all the hype, and in context to other flat TVs out there, probably the best possible with current technology.
The side effect of accurate black is of course accurate colour reproduction, depth of field and shadow detail to die for, and yes in these demos I was impressed, very impressed. I just want to point out that the video material in this room was, as in most of the demos bar one, custom made HD video with slow panning movements, never the best material to actual see how a set reacts to fast moving video, which is usually the downfall of many flat screens. Another feature demonstrated was the Optimum-mode, where sensors inside the set determine the lux conditions within the viewing room and also detects what the source material is, then it adjusts the picture level to an optimum level as the name suggests. I can’t really comment on how accurate this mode is from this demo, I would like to see it working in the home environment to fully test.
As if my mind was being read by some Pioneer higher being, the next room of interest was the video processing area. This room again had three screens on view, this time a 6th Generation Pioneer, one of the new screens in the middle and a Phillips screen on the right. Here we were shown a few clips which had obvious problem material like a flag in the wind, or a medium paced pan up a wooden stair case. On the two outer sets you could clearly see jaggies and motion judder, however the new set handled the material extremely well, without adding any obvious side effects. In fact the pan up the stair case was a revelation on the G8 screen when compared to the others, it was smooth and detailed where as the other screens had real judder in the images and lost all detail available. Again this was custom produced material, but it did test the panel and its processing to get a good idea of what this set is capable of.
And so it was on to the final G8 screen room called ‘As the director intended’ and focussing the sets ability to display 24hz material correctly. The demo used a clip from ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ where the hero is shown the engineering area of the universe and is being transported on a hovering craft. There are plenty of camera pans in this scene and it was shown in NTSC as well as 1080 24hz and as expected the judder was completely absent from the 24 frame version. The presentation also explained the differences between 3:2 and 2:2 and the pitch problems of Pal video. This was interesting, but as most soundtracks are pitch corrected these days it was only really relevant in the picture judder areas than audio.
So what other products were on show? Well one of my favourite rooms was the high fidelity demonstration of the new EX Reference high end speakers and Pioneers audio components; I am not normally a huge 2 channel fan but the sound quality of these products was very impressive and lead to the funniest point of the day for me, the speakers are nearly as tall as me (or as small depending on how you view things).
The other sound demonstration was the LX-01, a complete home entertainment solution according to Pioneer. “It includes a 250GB hard disk DVD recorder with digital terrestrial tuner, HDMI with 1080p scaling, a dual-drive subwoofer receiver, and four distinctive 3-dimensional shaped satellite speakers; a speaker design technology unique to Pioneer. Sharing the characteristic piano-black glossy finish of a Pioneer flat screen TV, the LX01 also includes an LCD touch-screen remote control and separate display,” said the spokesperson in this room. We were shown a few clips of audio and what stood out for me where two things.
First off are the satellite speakers with drivers aimed at the surfaces of the room to create a wide and expansive soundstage, and this works really well at conveying a sense of depth to the sound. However the downside for me was the use of only four speakers, with no discrete centre channel employed. Instead the left and right employ a phantom mode which introduces problems. You have to be sat fairly central to both speakers to obtain any accurate central imaging. While this set up is designed as a lifestyle product to match in with other Pioneer products such as their flat panels, I cannot help but feel a centre channel speaker would have been a better option in this regard and would certainly have anchored the dialogue better.
While the new Blu-ray player (LX-70) is due in only 2 -3 weeks time and was used in most rooms there was very little presentation on this product in any real detail, no films demos or even better some high definition audio clips. The only aspect of the player featured, was in fairness its unique DNLA functions. This means the player can act as a server between your PC and TV and let you access audio, jpg and mpeg files. The menu application is also very intuitive and well designed and is a nice feature to have to try and justify the cost of Pioneers BD machine. Of course this functionality is also available on Pioneers new receivers as well as full HDMI support for the new HD sound formats; again maybe an opportunity to fully explain and demonstrate these was missed? Obviously time is a constraint at this type of launch and I am sure we will be given the chance to review these products in more detail as they come to market.
So with all the rooms completed it was time to head out to the lawn for some lunch and it was a chance for us to see what others present had taken from the demos. To listen to some interviews you can download the AV Podcast Home Cinema Edition which has all the comment and opinion from the day
One of the stand out points of this trip was how well Pioneer had organised not only the press launch, but unusually for such trips, all who attended where then treated to a full sightseeing tour of our surroundings as well as a private tour of the Vatican Museum – a real treat.
So as an enthusiast it was very interesting to see how the industry works in terms of product development through to launch and to also see exactly how the UK press report on these things. Hopefully the way we have presented the material to you has also given you an insight.
The impression I was given was that not only have Pioneer developed some interesting products and arguably re-invented the Plasma panel, but they are certainly aiming at the higher end of the market with confidence. I feel this is a wise move from the company and they have demonstrated that they have the product and vision to attain that goal.
If any company can achieve the ambitious restructuring hinted at, it will be Pioneer. It is also obvious that the company are interested in what the actual end user thinks about its products and is listening to what they are saying. Many of the things we enthusiasts have talked about wanting from our equipment on the AV Forums, has been taken on board by the company and we are seeing that technology being developed and added to Pioneers products, such as 24hz support which they have had since G6. We also can’t forget the ease in which their panels can be correctly calibrated, something many manufacturers could take notice off and provide, as we say at the AV Forums, get the best from your picture source and that means an accurate calibration.
So that ends our behind the scenes look at the Pioneer launch from Rome and below we have provided you with the press details and further photographs of the products announced which should start to be available from June 2007 and we hope to be able to bring you reviews of all the equipment mentioned as and when the products become available.