New York - Sharp and Pioneer gave A/V specialty and custom-installation dealers reason to celebrate Thursday when both companies paired up to formally unveil the first Elite brand high-performance LCD TV line that is to be sold exclusively through Elite authorized dealerships.
The TV line, which is the first under the Elite badge since Pioneer dropped out of the plasma category two years, was developed by a team of engineers from both companies to deliver picture quality said to "set a new benchmark" for deep black-level performance and picture clarity since the demise of the Elite Kuro plasma line in 2009.
Those Kuro products have stood as an industry benchmark for flat-panel TV black-level performance in the minds of many dealers and consumers for the past five years and continue to hold the loyalty of enthusiasts to this day.
"In developing this product we sought to learn as much as we could about the Elite brand, its rich heritage and the expectations of Elite-brand consumers," said John Herrington, Sharp Electronics Marketing Company of America president. "We collaborated very closely with Pioneer to understand the essence of the Elite brand, the emotional connection that Elite consumers have with the brand and the expectations that they have around product performance, styling and the purchase experience."
Perhaps more unique than performance benefits of the TVs is the brand's dual-company sales and distribution structure.
Tom Evans has been named Sharp's associate VP and general manager of product and marketing for Elite televisions, and will serve as the sole bridge executive between the two companies.
The Elite TVs are being sold exclusively in North America at this time, with no current plan to replicate the business strategy in Japan or other international markets.
Sharp will supply Elite TVs while Pioneer will supply Elite A/V components and Blu-ray Disc players.
The brand will share one rep force and a newly restructured distributor network, selected to serve regional markets across the country.
Qualifying dealers will have the option to be sold on a direct-ship basis or via two-step distribution, depending on their needs and volume.
The TVs will be assembled in Mexico and shipped to three of Sharp's distribution centers across the U.S.
Initially, the line will be sold through Elite's 750 dealers, but the companies said they expect to soon expand that base.
Many dealers have told TWICE in recent months that the custom-installation electronics and high-end A/V specialty retail channels have been woefully under served by high-end flat-panel TV resources since Pioneer Elite dropped the Kuro plasma line in 2009 and Planar dropped the Vidikron brand after acquiring Runco.
In the meantime, many of those dealers have used to LG for flat-panel product to pick up the slack.
Elite will also work with select buying groups, including the Progressive Retailers Organization (PRO Group), which Russ Johnston, Pioneer home electronics marketing executive VP, said helped the companies put together the joint distribution plan for the past two years.
Sharp purchased a 14 percent stake in Pioneer four years ago and has been planning ever since to pair up with the fellow Japan-based company to bring Sharp's LCD technology to Pioneer's 25-year-old high-performance Elite brand.
Johnston said Elite product teams have met with some dealers in recent weeks, "spending numerous hours in dark rooms comparing the picture performance of the new sets to the competition, and there is nobody that can touch it."
Johnston said that while plasma held some key advantages over LCD in the past, the new technology now rivals the black-level performance of the former Elite Kuro products, adding that he now thinks they are worthy of carrying the Kuro badge, although there is no current plan to resurrect that sub-brand at this time.
"You need to see it for yourself," Johnston said of the performance level.
Initial products will include a 60-inch model (PRO-60X5FD), which will start shipping next week at a $5,999 suggested retail, and a 70-inch model (PRO-70X5FD), shipping later this month at an $8,499 suggested retail.
The line will give dealers as well as Sharp and Pioneer a new margin opportunity for flat-panel products. Comparably sized 70- and 60-inch Sharp Aquos TVs are now selling for $4,799 and $3,299, respectively.
Both new Elite sets are FullHD 1080p sets billed as "smart TVs." They feature built-in Wi-Fi support for entertainment content streaming, and will also support 3D video. Each model includes two pairs of active-shutter 3D glasses in the purchase price.
Exclusively for the Elite line, Sharp is introducing a new self-developed one-chip processor called an Intelligent Variable Contrast (IVC) chip that will drive a package of other picture performance systems including Sharp's RGB+Y four-color pixel technology, Fluid Motion system with better than a 240Hz refresh rate, Sharp Gen 10 LCD panel, and local dimming technology that controls light levels to hundreds of individual sectors of LEDs in the full-array LED backlighting layout.
The latter technology is said to yield optimum brightness uniformity across the panel.
Both sets are THX certified for 2D and 3D home-theater performance and conform to ISF calibration standards.
The sets' smart features include support for Skype HD video calling (a third-party camera package is available separately) and streaming video services from Netflix, Vudu, CinemaNow, YouTube and others.
In addition the sets include the Elite Advantage Live system, which offers remote service support via Internet connectivity, where a personal advisor can remotely connect to the TV and provide a variety of services such as setup, picture adjustment, or basic calibration.
Executives said Elite will launch "a very aggressive" promotion and advertising campaign stating this month in major trade publications and online. Evans said Sharp and Pioneer marketing teams have worked closely "to create a seamless look and feel to the Elite product" in marketing programs.
The new sets will be featured in an "Elite Showcase" in the Pioneer booth at the upcoming 2011 CEDIA Expo.