Being a self-consciously premium TV is not a comfortable place to be in these cash-strapped times. But if any set can make a triumph out of such apparent adversity, it's the KRP-500A, which appears to be Pioneer's most uncompromising model to date.
Return to plasma
This is the company's first plasma TV in a long time to sport an external tuner/multimedia receiver and it has done so for three very good reasons.
First, connecting all your AV gear to an external box does away with the horrible cable-spaghetti most TVs have. Instead you just get a single lead between the AV receiver and the 500A's 50in screen, which is a much more satisfactory scenario for wall mounters.
Taking all the tuner and connection gubbins out of the 500A's screen has also helped Pioneer make the set barely half as deep as its regular plasma TVs. The most intriguing potential advantage of using an external tuner/receiver, though, is that by removing the spatial constraints imposed by trying to fit everything into a slim TV, it should be possible to improve image quality.
That's a tantalising prospect indeed, especially considering the quality of Pioneer's standard plasmas. Both the 500A and its accompanying receiver are gorgeously built, and even the remote control is resplendent in an extruded aluminium finish. The receiver is also mightily well stocked with connections.
As you might hope, given the presence of the satellite jack, the 500A's multimedia box can receive MPEG4-HD broadcasts. However, it can't handle the dual-stream Freesat system, Sky's encrypted hi-def broadcasts, or even the upcoming Freeview HD service. In other words, with the exception of BBC HD, you're limited to unencrypted HD services from Europe.
A potentially critical feature of the 500A is its new Pure AV mode, which effectively bypasses nearly all of the TV's usual video processing 'hoops', delivering arguably the purest representation yet of what's being carried by an AV source, such as a Blu-ray player.
Another improvement over Pioneer's current 'standard' plasma TVs is the AV Optimum mode, which uses a sensor to detect not only the amount, but also the colour tone of light surrounding the TV, and adjusts the pictures accordingly.
Optimise your picture
Thanks to a startlingly attractive and inventive new user interface, the 500A is easily Pioneer's most approachable TV to date. On the downside, we had to spend some time with a DVD Essentials test disc and the TV's colour management system to optimise the pictures to their best.
Simply the best
The pictures from Pioneer's standard plasma TVs are arguably the best the flatscreen world can currently offer, but the 500A really does nudge this picture quality up yet another gear.
The Pure AV mode is particularly exciting. Using this in conjunction with a high quality HD source, such as a Blu-ray disc or a good quality Sky HD broadcast, pictures really do appear to be slightly sharper, fractionally cleaner, a tad more textured and even a smidgeon more naturally coloured than they do with the Pure AV mode deactivated.
In other words, pictures look more 'as the director intended' than we've seen with any other TV before. All this love for the Pure AV mode is not intended to suggest that there's anything wrong with Pioneer's image processing, however. In fact, when sources are lacking, such as a poor-quality HD feed, a DVD or a standard-definition broadcast – deactivating the Pure AV mode so that the processing can get to work results in some dramatic improvements.
Pictures enjoy all the strengths associated with the brand: world-beating black level depth and accuracy; outstanding colour richness and naturalism; exemplary detailing and sharpness and motion that enjoys both clarity and fluidity.
Actually, the use of the external multimedia receiver has enabled Pioneer to achieve slightly better results with standard-definition sources than it has with its past plasma offerings, in that they seem to upscale to the screen's full HD resolution with less noise, more sharpness and marginally more colour authenticity.
The 500A doesn't ship with speakers included, so we haven't reviewed them.
A bit expensive
So far as we're aware, the KRP-500A is the most expensive 50in panel on the market in the UK. But then it's also the best by far, so is arguably worth every penny. It's just getting the pennies that's the problem.