Status Symbols are devices that transcend their specs and features, and become something beautiful and luxurious in their own right. They're things that live on after the megapixel and megahertz wars move past them, beacons of timeless design and innovation.
There was a span of a couple years in my career as a technology journalist where I would endlessly flit from demo to showcase to product launch. Whether via bike or skateboard, I was everywhere in Manhattan, taking in product spiel after product spiel. I walked away nauseated from early 3D demos, and world-weary after witnessing 20 different iPod docks from a single company, but there's one company that never failed to impress: Pioneer.
Pioneer's favorite thing to do was just destroy with black levels. It would set some LCDs up next to its plasmas, shut off the lights, and cackle as the LCD "black" would illuminate the room with backlight bleed, while I'd squint trying to determine if Pioneer's TV was even on.
In 2008 and 2009, however, Pioneer reached the pinnacle of its black art: the Kuro — from the Japanese word for "black." For the low, low price of $6,000-ish, you could have the deepest black levels ever produced by a television.
"Other TV manufacturers have exceeded the Kuro in every single spec except for the black levels."
"When it was released there was no meter on the market that could measure its black level," says Ben Drawbaugh, a Kuro owner and HD editor at Engadget who knows more about TVs than anyone has a right to. "It's just legendary. Kuros were actually blacker when they were off than other TVs were when they were off. They actually absorbed the light in the room." Without even turning it on, the Kuro had an advantage: its screen material was darker than that of competing televisions.
And four years later, Kuros are still the champ: "Other TV manufacturers have exceeded the Kuro in every single spec except for the black levels," says Ben.
The black levels of a display aren't just a pissing match: it's actually observable to the naked eye, at least when it comes to watching films with dimly lit scenes. By lowering the "floor" of blackness, you can make out more details, and you get more gradient in your darkest colors.
Unfortunately for Pioneer, it was a boutique audiophile-style plasma TV manufacturer in a mass-produced LCD world. Not only were LCDs rapidly dropping in price and rapidly gaining in functionality, but modern plasmas had to battle against a bad reputation for burn-in, ghosting, power consumption and glare — even though most of the problems had long since been solved. In 2009 Pioneer sold off its TV business and patents to Panasonic, who has carried the plasma baton, but has yet to match the Kuro's black levels.
A boutique audiophile-style plasma TV manufacturer in a mass-produced LCD world
Chris Grant, editor-in-chief of Polygon, has long been a plasma fan, and doesn't understand the LCD allure — he bought his current 42-inch Panasonic set for $900 and has zero regrets.
"The refresh rates are awesome, there's no latency, which is great for games... it's close to CRT levels of latency," says Chris. He also thinks the deep blacks and rich colors of plasma are even more of a boon for games: "A game like Journey looks really great on that set."
Chris says a top-of-the line plasma, like the Kuro, is too rich for his blood, but HD enthusiasts like Ben still mourn for the champ's passing. The 60-inch Kuro Ben bought a few years ago for $4,500 or so is still worth more than $2,000 used, thanks to a rabid fan base which has only grown since the TV was discontinued.
To add insult to injury, Pioneer was demonstrating a next-generation "Infinite Black" technology (complete with cackling, I'm sure) at the time Panasonic swooped in. Surely the "Infinite Black" TVs would've been even more expensive than the Kuro line, which was Pioneer's whole problem in the market anyway, but it's sad that those black levels never saw the light of day.
Still, there's hope on the horizon. According to Ben, Panasonic's upcoming top-end plasma line is rumored to finally match the Kuro's black levels, and that achievement paired with all the recent plasma innovations like brighter whites, smaller sets, and lower prices (all specs the Kuro struggled with), might mean a new king is near. But Panasonic's delay has probably cemented Kuro's legacy: "It took them three years to match the technology," says Ben, "and that's the company that bought the patents!"