Editor's Choice Awards 2009

Evan Powell, November 20, 2009

Next week is Thanksgiving week, and we want to get Editor's Choice Awards posted prior to the holiday. As always, this means giving awards before we've seen all of the models coming out this fall. In particular, we have not seen the Sony VPL-VW85, nor have we had a chance to evaluate the Optoma HD8600, both of which are priced at $8,000. We do not know how either of those will stack up against the JVC RS25, also priced at $8,000, so we are not yet announcing an award in that price category.

At the very low end of the 1080p price scale we've got the Optoma HD20 and the Vivitek H1080FD, both priced at $999. These are both very appealing, solid projectors for the money. You can enjoy the true 1080p resolution from Blu-ray for a mere pittance. It is impossible to make a call between these two projectors due to the DLP color wheel issue-the Optoma HD20 has a 4x wheel, while the H1080FD is 3x. The fact is that the H1080FD edges out the HD20 in contrast and picture quality, and if it had a 4x wheel it would get an Editor's Choice Award. But due to its 3x wheel, we see more rainbow activity on the H1080FD than we do on the HD20.

The color wheel difference balances them out, and causes us to say this: If you are sensitive to DLP rainbow artifacts, you will likely prefer the HD20. If you do not see rainbow artifacts on DLP projectors, then you will prefer the H1080FD due to incremental performance advantage in contrast, black level, and color saturation. While both of these projectors deliver fine image quality for the money, neither one can match either the Mitsubishi HC3800 or the Epson 8100, which are selling for $500 more.

This year the sweetspot in 1080p price-performance is in the $1500 to $2300 price range. Due to the superb image quality being delivered at these modest prices, it is no longer possible to isolate just one winner and say "price-performance of this model beats all the competition." Therefore, several awards are being given, along with the rationale for each one.

Editor's Choice Awards, Fall 2009

Products under $3,000, in Alpha Order
_______________________

Epson Home Cinema 8100

$1,599, less $100 MIR

Epson's product line has shown both significant improvements and large price reductions compared to last year's models. The 8100 and 8500 UB are hands down the most competitive home theater projectors ever introduced by Epson.

The Home Cinema 8100, at a net of $1,499, is the most fully featured projector at this price. Picture quality is excellent, its lensing provides maximum installation flexibility, and its brightness range makes it equally versatile in dark rooms or in ambient light. Its black level in very dark or black scenes is unrivaled at this price point. You need to step up $500 to the Panny AE4000 to get deeper blacks, along with more features and a step up in overall picture quality.

For those who want to limit their spending to $1,500, and want to shelf mount their projector and/or want to use it in both the dark and in ambient light, the 8100 is an outstanding choice. If you are more interested in dedicated dark room theater and you want to ceiling mount your projector, the Mitsubishi HC3800 is a strong alternative at this same price. The trade-offs are discussed below.

Epson Home Cinema 8500 UB

$2,499, less $200 MIR

The king of the black level producers in this price range, the Epson 8500 UB's maximum black beats everything we've seen so far this year except the JVC RS25, which is more than triple the price. Frame interpolation is vastly improved over last year's models, to the point where it actually edges the performance of the AE4000 (which is extremely good itself). Super resolution provides detail enhancement that, when used in moderation, is very effective.

Like the 8100, we love the high brightness modes on the 8500 UB. Living Room mode at over 1600 lumens is capable of a very sweet, remarkably well balanced picture that is ideal for Monday night football parties and other ambient light situations.

Overall picture quality is competitive with the AE4000. It exceeds the AE4000 in brightness and black levels, but falls short in other picture attributes. The 8500's THX and Theater modes fall slightly short of the Panny AE4000 in image smoothness, or what we'd call filmlike character. Despite black levels that exceed those of the AE4000 in black scenes, it is slightly lower in contrast than the AE4000 in the large majority of scenes with average light levels and high dynamic range.

The 8500UB is not as feature rich as the AE4000. It does not have powered zoom/focus, nor the automatic CinemaScope Lens Memory feature of the AE4000. It does not even have an anamorphic stretch mode to accommodate an external A-lens, which the AE4000 has. So it is not the first choice for anyone contemplating a 2.40 screen format. The AE4000 has split-screen calibration, which is not available on the 8500. Picture controls can be applied to one-half of the image, and one can see the impact of those changes on the same half of the image that is duplicated side by side. Conversely, the 8500 has split screen frame interpolation monitoring, which the AE4000 does not have. This applies FI processing to the right half of the image while leaving the left half untouched. Frankly, this feature is not as useful. It is more instructive to watch an entire scene at full screen with and without FI engaged to appreciate the difference in impact. The AE4000 has three HDMI ports to the 8500's two. The AE4000 has two programmable, two-way 12 volt triggers; the 8500 has a single one-way trigger.

But despite this shortfall in features, the 8500 UB will be the ultimate choice for those who want a projector that works equally well in both dark and ambient light. We would choose the 8500 UB over the AE4000 for use in ambient light. For those who want the deepest possible blacks when scenes go very dark, the 8500 certainly beats the AE4000. However, in our estimation, the difference is marginal enough that it would not be a deciding factor between the two projectors.

Mitsubishi HC3800

$1,499

The Mitsubishi HC3800 gets an Editor's Choice Award because it would be our choice under certain specific circumstances. It is perfect for those who (a) do not want to step up another $500 to the AE4000, and (b) plan to ceiling mount their projector.

The HC3800 has an overall image quality that is virtually identical to the Epson 8100 in image smoothness, sharpness, and noise level. It can edge out the 8100 in contrast and three-dimensionality in scenes of average light levels, especially those with high dynamic range, but the differences are subtle. On the other hand, it falls short of the 8100 in black level, so in dark scenes you get more shadow definition and deeper blacks on the 8100. Dark scenes, especially those with low dynamic range, are rendered better by the 8100 than the HC3800.

In Cinema mode, the HC3800 puts out a very bright 621 lumens, which is about equal to the 8100's Natural mode (598 lumens on our test sample). However, the 8100's Theater Black mode that delivers the advantageous black levels puts out only 442 lumens. These measurements were taken with the zooms set to wide angle. When ceiling mounting, you have the option to place the projector at or near the wide angle end if you feel you need the maximum light output. But when mounting on a rear shelf, you might often need to use the longer throw capability of the 8100. This can curtail lumen output by up to 41%. The bottom line is that if you are comparing a ceiling mounted HC3800 to a rear shelf mounted 8100, odds are the HC3800 will give you a brighter video-optimized picture after lens effects are taken into account.

The Epson 8100 obviously is more fully featured, with a longer zoom range, lens shift, a brighter Dynamic mode for ambient light, two HDMI ports to the HC3800's one, and so forth. But if you are ceiling mounting, and if you are running one HDMI cable to your projector from an AV receiver as many people would, the extras on the 8100 are not going to be used.

The HC3800 is filter-free, and requires little maintenance, whereas the 8100 needs to have the air filter cleaned periodically. In ceiling mounted installations in particular, this gives a decided advantage to the HC3800.

Since the HC3800 and the 8100 are the same price, the choice between them really comes down to what is most important to you in picture attributes, and how you plan to install it.

Panasonic PT-AE4000U

$1,999

No projector on the market has the remarkable array of features of the Panasonic AE4000. Many buyers are attracted to its automated Lens Memory system, which automatically adjusts the zoom lens to fill a 2.40 CinemaScope screen when 2.40 movies are being shown, and adjusts it back for the display of standard 16:9 material in the center of a 2.40 format screen. No other projector under $10,000 has this capability. And, if you want to go all the way with an A-lens, the AE4000 is ready to accommodate it with an on-board anamorphic stretch mode. Neither of the Epson models have this feature.

In addition, the AE4000 has an excellent frame interpolation system that produces little or no digital video effect, depending on the mode it is set in. While the Epson 8500 has a very slightly smoother FI implementation in terms of judder reduction/elimination, the digital video effect is a bit more evident than it is on the AE4000. So one cannot say one is better than the other; they each beat the other in important respects. Both of them are much better than anything else on the market.

As far as picture quality goes, the AE4000 has an edge in filmlike clarity over all of its competitors. For this reason we would prefer it to any of the other models in this group if we were using it in a dark theater setting, and we had at least $2,000 to budget for a projector. Black levels are deep and rich, though not quite as deep as the 8500 UB when a dark scene is being displayed. But the difference here is not dramatic when they are viewed side by side. Meanwhile, the AE4000 has somewhat higher contrast and picture depth (apparent three-dimensionality) than the 8500 UB in most average light level scenes, especially those with high dynamic range.

The 8500 UB has a THX mode which indicates conformance to industry standards for color temperature, gamma, and Rec 709 color gamut. The AE4000 does not have the THX certification, but its Color 1 operating mode is calibrated to these same standards. On our test units, the AE4000 Color 1 mode shows more color saturation in factory default than the 8500UB's THX mode, but both projectors allow adjustments in color balance and saturation in these modes, so they are able to be tweaked to your taste if you don't care for what you see.

Overall, the Epson 8500 UB's brightness is comparable to the AE4000 in dark room cinema modes, and somewhat brighter and better color balanced in its very bright Living Room mode. Thus the 8500 UB has an edge in ambient light situations. Both models have long zoom lenses that lose about 40% of their light potential when set to their maximum long throw positions.

In summary, the AE4000 is an outstanding projector that delivers both magnificent picture quality and a boatload of features that don't exist on any other model, for the price of $1,999. While the 8500UB can outperform it in maximum black levels and brightness, and the 8100 and HC3800 undercut it in price, the AE4000's overall price-performance proposition is # 1 in the market right now.


Reader Comments(19 comments)

Posted Nov 29, 2010 3:22:58 PM

By Singh

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When will be new Panasonic Projector is expected to be released in 2010, replacement for PTAE4000?

Posted May 26, 2010 9:36:52 AM

By Ortizimo!

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After reading the Editor's Choice article, I'm not only convince that the best projector for me is the AE4000U, but that Mr. Powell is a master of his craft. Kudos to you for making this article so informative; by hitting the important points us customers really care about and making it simple enough to understand.

Posted Apr 25, 2010 11:10:07 AM

By DAVID STADTMUELLER

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i owned the ae900 and all the way up to 2400 hrs of service i never had 1 problem, i sold it to a kid for 600 bucks and he is still using it today, with same bulb i might add. i replaced it with an ae2000, and this projector is remarkable. panasonic builds a great product and projector people will get it there so it works as promised. i am poised to buy a ae4000 ,and the 2000 will go out in the backyard for summer movie nights.

Posted Feb 18, 2010 2:41:32 AM

By Max

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I think anyone outside the USA would have to be crazy to purchase the Panasonic. In the US,you can buy them at a reasonable price and decent warranty and service, Outside the US, prices are ridiculous and service non existent. You will learn this the hard way when your Panasonic developes a fault (and it will)Just check the list of faults on all the previous models.

Posted Jan 31, 2010 1:53:43 PM

By Shawn

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Looking to buy: My situation is a large living room with lots of ambient light during daytime hours. Ceiling mount at about 14-19ft from the screen [~10'], and we ran 2 Cat6, 2 mini Hi Res, 1 Coax, 1 HDMI to the receiver location. Leaning Mitsubishi HC3800.... Should I look at something else?

Posted Dec 26, 2009 9:35:22 AM

By paul

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I am a bit of a novice but any answers would be helpful. I would like a big screen but not sure of a 50" plasma flat screen, or keep my original rear projection for day use and a projector for night time viewing. Any comments would help?

Posted Dec 26, 2009 8:48:34 AM

By RAUL

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I had the AE900 and now I have the AE3000. Believe me, there is a big diference, not only with HDMI materials.

Posted Dec 15, 2009 1:46:58 PM

By Ricardo

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It's a shame that the AE4000 cost almost the double in Europe, where the best prices are around 2700€. In this days, where the prices tend to be the same all-over, it's a doubtfull price-policy.

In Europe you can ger the Sony for less, and if you go for the antique model (the diferences aren't big) it's yours for 1650€.

Posted Dec 8, 2009 10:29:42 PM

By Gus

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I don't know what all the fuss is about with these new line of projectors.If people would stop being so trigger happy to get them and wait a couple of years,then they get them with L.E.D.'s as their light source! Not having to replace expensive lamps ever again sounds like a good idea to me!

Posted Dec 6, 2009 10:03:30 AM

By Eric

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I have seen problem projectors but I won't name them here. I have three projectors and my favorite is an AE900 with 2,900 hours. I am on my third lamp and at 2,100 hours the Dynamic Iris went out but I self-replaced with a new one for the AX200. I went from low lamp/Theater 1(?) mode to Normal Mode (much brighter) and the image significantly improved overall -with black levels a bit better than the AE2000. I do not have any dead pixels or apparent degradation in the organic LCD panels, but I may just be lucky. All of this said I have another projector gathering dust after making 2 trips to manufacturer repair. I suggest you buy from a leading manufacturer and hope for the best. Lamps and parts are more available in the high production models and search Japan for your parts, I have never paid high prices for lamps and parts. I look forward to a sealed light path, when replacing a bulb I would wonder how you can have a great image with tons of toasted gunk on the first element (I use about 50 Q-Tips and Isopropyl Alcohol)and protective film in front of the bulb.

Posted Dec 4, 2009 4:00:18 PM

By BillC

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Is the lifespan really that short. I'm aiming for an AE4000 this spring and it will be my first projector but I dont like the sounds of 4 years being good.

Is there no way to fix the ghosting problem that occurs?

Posted Dec 2, 2009 8:53:42 PM

By bujee1

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westcott, If you got 4 years out of your projector, you got your money's worth. This hobby is much more affordable than it sed to be but it still isn't for the faint of pocket book.

Posted Dec 2, 2009 4:27:22 PM

By westcott

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I was very happy with my Panasonic AE700U, performance wise and I have no doubt that the 4000 is a stunning machine. My only concern is whether or not it will be reliable. My projector gave up the ghost after 4 years and was almost the same price as the 4000 back then. That is $375 per year plus lamp costs.

Can make for some very expensive movie watching in the end!

Posted Nov 30, 2009 10:27:43 AM

By Eric

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Thank you Evan, I appreciate your opinion and reviews. I want to add my two cents on upgrading for better picture quality. I have owned several projectors over the years and have access to friends who have budget for Runco's and other high end PJ's I have seen some very expensive projection! Starting at about Panasonic AE-900 and JVC RS-1, the best cheap projectors had reached the near perfect image excepting for CRT. Before these projectors there were large improvements each year, and after, there were smaller improvements. If you own one of the best projectors of the last 4-5 years you will only gain about 20% picture improvement with a new model. 1080P was only an improvement on larger screens, and black levels have improved by only 4 to 5 shades -they are now nearly as good as can be. Lately the big improvements are useful extra features and better pre-calibration image quality. My suggestion is that you buy the cheapest and best projectors -the AE4000 or 8500UB, I prefer the AE4000. The JVC is way too big and expensive and while it looks better in very dark screens it is not as good in the brighter ones. You will upgrade sometime, and it is better to junk a 2K machine instead of an 8K-45K JVC or Runco as some of my friends have done.

Posted Nov 23, 2009 11:00:34 AM

By wyatt

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when factoring value, it would be nice to mention bulb life/price and also warranty. for example: the epson 8500 bulb lasts longer and is cheaper than the AE4000 bulb, epson's overall warranty is better too.

these factors actually offset the difference in pricing over the long run.

Posted Nov 22, 2009 5:45:32 PM

By Jeremy Black

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Any thoughts on how the Viewsonic Pro8100, now about $1300, compares to these models?

Posted Nov 21, 2009 8:48:04 AM

By Irfan

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Hotch Potch, Although it difficult to say, but readers would like to hear which has the best picture quality in average theater. Based on your reviews I purchased Panasonic AE4000 to Replace Optoma HD80. I was dissappointed with the quality, my older Optoma outshines in almost every aspect, Picture quality, reds are truely red, whites are bright white, picture is sharp. Contrast ratio of 1:100,000 is so misleading.

Posted Nov 21, 2009 8:04:49 AM

By Bernard

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Got my Panasonic AE4000 3.5 weeks ago from the US (I live in Switzerland, where it is just now becoming available, at about 250% of the US price...). It is astoundingly good -- trivial to set up and adjust, fast to come up to full lighting levels, nearly silent (I can only hear it while watching a silent movie), and the picture!!!

I can now easily wait until the extended version of LOTR comes out on Bluray, as the DVD version (using the British release in PAL format, which is 576p instead of 480p for the US release) comes out looking just as good as current Blurays, such as Half-Blood Prince. (I assume that Jackson and New Line will set a new standard for Bluray quality when the extended release of LOTR comes out, as they did for DVD quality.) I must have watched LOTR nearly 200 times in my home theater (using a 768p Sony home theater projector), but when I sat down to watch Fellowship with this projector, I was transported right back to my first experience in the movie theater and I was once again in the LOTR setting, part of the movie and not just watching something on a flat screen.

Believe the review posted here of the 4000: your entire DVD library will come alive as never before with this projector. Use the frame interpolation (it makes a *huge* difference on DVD material -- use it at setting 2 or 3) and put the sharpness settings just a bit above zero (I am using +2, in a very dark home theater). Even old B&W classics (e.g., Kurosawa's Seven Samurais) look fantastic!

Posted Nov 21, 2009 7:15:25 AM

By Stephan

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It seems all about the Panasonic and Epson lately as there weren't any other models. The Mitsubishi HC6800 looks like a good competitor to the AE4000 with it's remote lens control and similar price point. Didn't you say it has a great picture?

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