For those who prize picture quality above all else, there are TVs, and then there are Pioneer Kuro TVs, and it was sad news that the same day we took possession of the KRP-500A, Pioneer announced that this generation of Kuro will be the last.
A quality brand with a price tag to match, it's the global recession's first big kill of the AV world.
The brutal facts are that although LCD still can't match plasma for contrast, deep blacks and response time, it's getting very close, and the top end of LCD is half the price of the top end of plasma.
At just under £2,500, this isn't even Pioneer's top-end plasma – there is a 60in model – it also comes with built-in digital satellite and digital terrestrial tuners, and the satellite tuner supports DVB-S2 and MPEG-4 for high definition.
It's too early for a DVB-T2 tuner so there won't be a Kuro to take advantage of Freeview HD when that arrives.
Not that you'll see Freeview or Freesat labels on the Kuro, on the screen or the separate media receiver, in the manual or on the box, although there is a DVB logo on top of the media receiver.
The lack of logos preserves the beautiful piano-black design of the screen and media receiver, with only a Pioneer logo on the screen, plus small blue and red power LEDs on the screen, and a trio of blue, red and orange LEDs on the receiver.
The screen comes with an elegant stand, although you'll probably want to wall-mount it for best effect, and at 50kg it's a two-man job. Optional 18W stereo speakers connect to terminals beneath the screen, but this is really designed to pair with a full home cinema system.
Two cables connect the screen to power and the media receiver, which hides behind its black fascia some basic power, input and volume controls, plus USB, HDMI, analogue A/V and VGA inputs, as well as a common interface slot each for satellite and terrestrial.
The back panel has a brace of HDMI, Scart, component video and stereo audio inputs, with two Scart outputs for recording and optical digital audio out for your amplifier (PCM and Dolby Digital are supported).
The analogue inputs include RGB and S-video support to suit most configurations. There's also an Ethernet port for media playback, although firmware upgrades use the front USB.
There's just one each of UHF and satellite IF inputs, and no loopthrough outputs, so you'll have to use a distribution amplifier to supply other Freeview or satellite kit. The terrestrial tuner also supports all analogue standards if you're still waiting for a decent Freeview signal to arrive.
Setup and searching
This is a pan-European product, so you'll have to set your country first for terrestrial TV, and a Freeview scan on Crystal Palace took an acceptable 1 minute 25 seconds. There's an optional signal strength check, manual channel update and you can scan individual RF channels for digital signals as well.
The satellite tuning menus have an unusual organisation, but you can set up your LNB (universal is assumed but you can set up a single local oscillator frequency for other types) and check the signal strength/quality across the range of transponders on your selected satellite.
However, this is only available for the 'By satellite' option, which uses a standard list of transponders for each satellite.
The other option is 'All Frequencies', which works on any satellite and seems to be a kind of blind search, scanning the whole Ku-band. It certainly takes long enough; almost 17 minutes on Astra 2 compared with two minutes for the By Satellite search; on Astra 1 it took about 21 minutes against two minutes.
All Frequencies is definitely more thorough – picking up over 1,200 Astra 2 signals compared with 691 for By Satellite. You can also scan individual transponders and add your own, with free range to pick low symbol rates, but not FEC – so you won't be able to tune in ITV HD. It's also possible to either replace the existing database or add to it, which also saves time.
Multi-sat users won't find support for DiSEqC 1.2 or USALS motors – but mini-DiSEqC and DiSEqC 1.0 switches are catered for – nor can you choose whether to exclude free-to-air, scrambled, radio or data channels from a search, but you can set the channel list to automatically exclude these channels.
Finally, you'll want to get at videos, music and photos stored on your digital storage, and the KRP-500A's Home Media Gallery can access anything on a Digital Living Network Alliance (DNLA) server, including PCs and network storage devices or USB storage.
DLNA is a minefield, but we were successful with PCs running Windows Media Connect, and although it should play many file formats, it won't do DivX or XviD, or any protected files. Connection is via wired Ethernet – no wireless, we're afraid.
Navigation and features
The menus are very elegant, with a simple black, white and grey colour scheme that uses either thumbnail views of live channels or a transparent overlay.
You can select inputs and channels through the attractive Home Menu, via specific remote buttons, or via a pop-up menu that scrolls between a favourites list, channel lists for each tuner, and an inputs list.
The single favourites list isn't really enough, but it can take entries from any of the others, up to 20 analogue channels, 20 DTT channels, 40 satellite channels, all five external inputs and the Home Media Gallery top menu.
More than one favourites list would have been welcome, but a search tool lets you easily search the DTT and satellite lists by TV or radio, satellite, HD or SD, encryption setting and initial letter. The master channel lists can also be edited and moved around (but you can't rename channels), although with thousands of satellite channels that's a big task.
Freeview viewers will be pleased that both logical channel numbering and the MHEG-5 interactive engine are supported, so channels appear in the right order and you can use red button services.
There's also the full seven-day DVB-T EPG, and on satellite there's also as much DVB EPG information as broadcasters supply (not much outside Germany, we'll admit).
However, the KRP-500A isn't Freesat-approved, so you don't get the channels in the right order and you can access only now-and-next schedule information. In theory, it could be upgraded to Freesat standards with new firmware, but there's little hope that Pioneer will go through this tough process now Kuro is being wound down.
However, at least some of Kuro's programming is Linux-based (a Linux licence appears in the manual), so maybe some enterprising individual will provide a hack.
The HMG navigates through a simple menu structure that will be familiar to anyone who has used a media extender device, and like most of them, it often cuts off the end of long file names.
Photos are presented in a variety of gallery formats; you can search for files, create slideshows with soundtracks, and playlists. The playback controls are quite advanced and it all makes you wish you could record off -air content onto attached media, as well as playing it back.
The KRP-500A has a useful split-screen/picture-in-picture mode that lets you display two internal inputs or one external input at the same time, there's good old analogue teletext support (also with split-screen) and you can use HDMI to control other Pioneer devices like DVD players and amplifiers.
As we might have given away earlier, this is a stupendously good screen, both for high definition and standard def, with a wealth of processing options to eke the best out of poor signals and make the most of the good ones, as well as automatically tuning the display to ambient light conditions.
These are probably the deepest blacks you'll see outside of a cinema, but there's also extremely good colour definition and detail in low light scenes. Nor did we notice any smearing or other motion artefacts.
It will, however, make you very picky – showing up weaknesses in hi-def TV broadcasts, particularly where the bandwidth is OK but the encoding or original cameras weren't so good. Our favourite of the season has been FX's Generation Kill, which looks stunning.
The sheer screen size is also very punishing on the many poor-quality Freeview and satellite channels, some of which (embarrassingly) are run by Britain's major broadcasters.