The king of televisions: Pioneer's KURO plasma vs Samsung's Series 8 LED TV

We pit the best LED TV on the market against the best plasma TV
Samsung's UA46B8000 boasts a claimed 3000000:1 dynamic contrast ratio.

Samsung's UA46B8000 boasts a claimed 3000000:1 dynamic contrast ratio.

When it comes to choosing a top-of-the-range television, you can choose between the tried-and-tested technology of plasma televisions and the newer innovations of LED-backlit LCD panels. We’ve discussed the technical differences between these television types before — but how do the premium models from each camp stack up against each other in real-world tests?

We pitted Samsung’s premier Series 8 LED television, the 46in UA46B8000, against the reigning king of plasma televisions — the Pioneer KURO. We chose the 50in model of the luxury LX series to keep a level playing field, as the similar screen sizes mean picture quality differences are more apparent.

At its heart, the Samsung Series 8 (UA46B8000) is an LCD panel. But unlike "traditional" LCD TVs, which use fluorescent tubes to create a uniform backlight, it uses light emitting diodes (LEDs) positioned around the edge of the panel to provide section-specific brightness levels. Samsung claims the TV has a 3,000,000:1 contrast ratio, which is a lot of zeros! By way of comparison, Samsung's LA52A850 non-LED LCD television has a 70,000:1 contrast ratio. According to Samsung, more than 500,000 of its LED TVs were sold in Australia during the last two months.

The Pioneer KURO series of plasmas have always been the televisions to beat. Their class-leading performance includes exceptional inky black levels, vibrant colours and impressive scaling technology. The KURO name is fading to black in Australia though, with Pioneer pulling out of the global television market. Although a successor to the Panasonic TH-P50G10A may eclipse it, we think the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A is the best plasma currently on the market. Pioneer doesn’t condescend to offer contrast ratio figures for the panel.

We compared the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A and Samsung Series 8 (UA46B8000) on a number of points to see which came out ahead. The majority of our testing was done using a Samsung BD-P1600 Blu-ray player.

Contrast and black levels

This is an area we expected the Pioneer to dominate — and we weren't surprised by the results of our tests. The KURO disappears when in a dark room, with its phosphor cells unnoticeable. Combined with inky black levels even in high-contrast scenes, no brightness bleeding and huge dynamic range, the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A is still our benchmark for television picture quality.

That’s not to say that the Samsung UA46B8000 doesn’t put up a good fight. The section-specific LED back-lighting means it can dim the screen in low brightness scenes, so video footage with bright and dark areas is displayed well. The Achilles heel of the UA46B8000, though, is backlight cloudiness in super-dark scenes. If there’s only a pin-prick of light on the screen — the light at the end of a train tunnel, for example — the LED edge-lighting shows up as slightly brighter cloudy areas around the screen’s edges. It only rears its ugly head in very specific conditions, but we think the Pioneer KURO is the winner in this area.

Sharpness and detail

We were hard pressed to pick one panel as better than the other when it came to picture detail and image clarity. While the Pioneer is slightly softer when displaying Blu-ray movie content, a little adjustment brings it easily up to par with the Samsung’s Movie mode settings. The Pioneer has a greater range of adjustments available — gamma, sharpness and so on — but when we calibrated both screens to what we perceived as the best picture, we were hard pressed to see a significant difference in the quality of Blu-ray video content. Put simply, both will make the most of the detail in Blu-ray content.

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Colour accuracy, gradation and saturation

When using their Movie mode presets, both the Samsung UA46B8000 and Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A have fairly accurate colours. Both units have enough adjustability to make calibration easy, and both display vibrant and accurate colours when correctly set up. The Pioneer edges ahead in gradation, displaying smoother tones in our test scenes of horizons, skin tones and sunsets.

Digital tuner quality

A lot of effort has gone into the internal DVB-T tuner in the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A. It switches channels in under a second, it is sensitive enough to pick up distant broadcasts and it didn’t have any reception issues in our tests. We feel confident in saying it’s the best tuner you’re going to find in this generation of televisions, short of buying a dedicated digital video recorder.

The Samsung’s tuner is still good, but it doesn’t have the same snappy feel as the Pioneer plasma. Perhaps it’s due to the image-heavy user interface, but changing channels takes an extra second and the initial scan went on for an excruciating five minutes. In all fairness, we did pick up the same number of digital television channels on both televisions, and there were no differences in reception.

Motion control and de-interlacing

Being a plasma, the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A has an advantage when dealing with fast-motion content. While Pioneer doesn’t quote a figure for screen refresh rates, we're confident it easily matches the Panasonic TH-P50G10A’s 600Hz. When watching the wide panning shots in Planet Earth and the fast vehicle motion of Batman Begins we didn't notice blurring or juddering. The image shown was as good as any we’ve seen in our Test Centre, with 24p frame rate compatibility rounding out a suite of image-enhancing features for cinematic playback.

The Samsung UA46B8000 may have a lowly LCD panel at its core, but it’s one of the best we’ve seen in regards to motion control. The shining feature of the Series 8 LED TVs from Samsung is 200Hz motion smoothing, incorporating back-light scanning technology with regular frame rate doubling to create smooth video that’s free of distortion or judder. There’s a great level of adjustment available, with four separate motion control modes, including a custom mode with 10 increments for judder and blur reduction. It handles Planet Earth and Batman Begins admirably, although the 200Hz mode can sometimes be a little overzealous and give footage a too-smooth feel. We’d still give the Pioneer TV the edge, but the Samsung comes close.

Connectivity and menu system

The Samsung UA46B8000 and the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A both have a bundle of HDMI and analog inputs — enough to keep any enthusiast happy. We don’t like the Samsung’s approach to its composite and component analog connections, though: two 3.5mm to RCA break-out cables mean there’s extra bulk when connecting older devices. Both screens have good quality VGA inputs, with our test Dell Inspiron Mini 9 netbook displaying video content accurately and faithfully on both panels.

When it comes down to menus, it’s horses for courses. The Samsung has a flashy, full-colour menu that has smooth (if slightly jerky) transitions and appropriate graphical extras. The Pioneer plasma’s interface is far more minimalist and unobtrusive, with small notations appearing in the corner of the screen when changing channels and inputs. We prefer the simplicity of the Pioneer interface — it gets you into the spirit of movie-watching.

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The Samsung LED TV is a clear winner here. In a variety of static scenes, we found the average power consumption of the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A to be 414W, while the Samsung recorded an average of only 143W. Despite similar screen sizes, the Pioneer consumes almost three times as much power. You will notice the difference in your power bills.

Angle viewing, reflectivity and daylight usage

Both screens have reflective coatings and glossy bezels. While the Samsung’s mirror-finish bezel is more distracting, the Pioneer’s glossier screen finish means that it picks up more external light sources. In a room with bright downward-facing lights, both screens can be annoying to watch if you’re sitting at the wrong angle.

In a room lit by daylight — we tested in an east-facing room several times throughout the day — the Samsung is the superior choice. Higher brightness levels make it easier to watch with the sun behind it, and its screen isn't as reflective as the Pioneer's.

If you’re viewing the television from an angle, though, the Pioneer comes out ahead. It’s one of the inescapable advantages of plasma screen technology — the pixels are closer to the front glass of the screen, allowing more extreme viewing angles. The difference is mostly academic, though — we’d say there’s less than 10 degrees difference between where the Samsung UA46B8000 gives up and where the Pioneer loses its picture.

And the winner is...

It is close, but on the merits of better motion control and a higher contrast ratio, we’re giving the crown to the Pioneer KURO PDP-LX509A. The Samsung UA46B800 may be a better complete package, with a superior design and an on-board content library, but when it comes movie-watching the Pioneer is the one to pick.

As usual we recommend that if you’re buying a TV this expensive you take the time go into a store and directly compare the two models to see what works for you.