New life for plasma TVs?

January 9, 2008: 3:25 PM ET
Pioneer KURO TV
Pioneer showed off concept TVs that offer a first: near-absolute black in a flat-panel display, providing brilliant contrast. Image: Jon Fortt

LAS VEGAS - In the United States, plasma televisions are losing the high-def battle with LCD screens. But at the Consumer Electronics Show, plasma backers including Pioneer and Panasonic clearly believe it's not over.

Plasma's problem has always been the side-by-side comparison with LCD on the showroom floor. Because LCD screens tend to be brighter and thinner, consumers tend to judge it superior, even though good plasma sets can provide truer colors and better contrast ratios for a lower price.

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Pioneer had one of the more eye-popping previews in its booth: TVs based on its "Project Kuro," which alludes to the Japanese word for "black." Pioneer set out to achieve the blackest blacks it could in its plasma sets, reasoning that black is the canvas on which color is displayed, so high contrast will make colors pop more. Walk around the booth, and the effect is obvious: color oozes seductively from of the screen, particularly in scenes that offer high contrast.

Pioneer also showed a 50-inch display that's just 9 millimeters thin and 41 pounds – an offering that would certainly turn heads the local Best Buy or Circuit City. Still, there's no word on exactly how much the sets will cost and when they will be available -- Pioneer said only that it won't be this year.

Panasonic also voiced its continuing support for plasma, showing off a 150-inch set. Yoshi Yamada, CEO of Panasonic North America, told Fortune the company remains committed to big-screen plasma, though it offers LCD TVs as well. Some competitors are pushing just LCD, "because it's easy," Yamada said. With plasma, "there is more research and development required to make it a real TV." Panasonic has done that work, he said, and "as far as we are concerned, we see in a lot of the areas, plasma does a lot better."

It's not clear how any of this might change the game in store showrooms, where plasma is fighting an uphill battle.

Stan Glasgow, president of LCD-exclusive Sony Electronics (SNE), seemed to acknowledge the plasma camp's efforts, but couldn't resist slipping in a dig at his rivals. "I think it's going to be an interesting year in terms of plasma, what they're going to do as they keep losing share in the United States."

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