Two 1080p projectors are getting a lot of attention this fall. One is the Epson Home Cinema 8500 UB, rated at a whopping 200,000:1 contrast, and coming in under $2,500. The other is the feature rich Panasonic PT-AE4000, priced at a remarkably low $1,999. In head to head competition, how do these two models stack up? We've been giving them both a workout for the past week, and here is our take on it ......
Contrast and Black Levels The 8500UB is rated at 200,00:1, and the AE4000 is 100,000:1. If you read this site regularly, you know we don't like contrast specs. Here's Exhibit A of why that's the case: the uninformed consumer will read these specs and conclude that the 8500UB must be double the contrast of the AE4000. In reality it is not that simple.
Both Epson and Panasonic have achieved higher contrast ratings on these new models compared to their predecessors, but they each took different approaches. Epson did it by improving the auto iris components. Panasonic got most of its improvement through refinements in their "Pure Contrast Plate." Essentially (if we understand this correctly) this improved precision of the polarizers and reduced stray light in the light engine. No change was made to the auto iris between the AE3000 and AE4000.
The net result is that the 8500UB has a deeper black level than either the 6500UB or the AE4000. Thus, side by side, with rolling credits or when the Sony Pictures logo appears against a black background, those backgrounds looks blacker on the 8500UB. No other projector anywhere near this price range achieves the blacks that the 8500UB is capable of. So in this regard, the 200,000:1 contrast rating (the highest in the industry) indicates something real and tangible about black levels on this model.
However, when viewing scenes that do not have substantial black components (which is most of them), it's a different story. In scenes with more typical average light levels, the AE4000 renders them in higher contrast, with deeper color saturation and a bit more three- dimensionality. This comes from the improved light control within the engine itself.
Brightness. The Dynamic and Living Room modes on the 8500 UB put out about 1800 lumens and 1600 lumens respectively. Both can be set to very acceptable color balance while still retaining high brightness. The AE4000's Dynamic mode produced 1362 lumens in default settings, and after some color adjustment we still were getting over 1300 lumens. So the AE4000 is capable of delivering a bright, well balanced image for ambient light use, but it is not quite as bright as the 8500.
The Cinema/Theater modes are much less bright on both projectors, but the 8500 retains an advantage here as well. Its THX and Theater modes put out 638 lumens to the AE4000's 548.
The AE4000 has a Normal mode which measured about 950 lumens. This is an attractive mid-range option that the 8500 doesn't have. If the Cinema modes on the AE4000 are not quite bright enough for the screen size or ambient light conditions, Normal gives the user an incremental boost without going all the way to Dynamic. This mode can also be calibrated to ideal color standards, and all you give up is a small bit of contrast and black level.
Color Balance. The THX mode on the 8500 tracks very closely to 6500K across the scale. So do the Cinema 1 and Color 1 modes on the AE4000. Thus, both projectors are capable of delivering precise color to industry standards. (The 8500's THX and the AE4000's Color 1 are both programmed to the REC709 standard).
The other operating modes on both projectors tend to be biased warmer or colder by design. For example, the 8500's Theater Black 2 is set to 5500K, which is a pleasing color temperature for b/w films. Both projectors have user memories to store custom calibrations.
Picture Quality. This is a catch-all category that is subjective. We set aside the technical stuff and meter readings and ask, "Which picture actually looks better?" In our experience, the 8500 looks better when the picture has a lot of black in it, simply due to its advantage in deeper black level. It also has a bit more pop when used in ambient light in its brightest modes. On the other hand, the AE4000 has a clarity and smoothness that edges that of the 8500. When viewed in a dark room, the AE4000 also has an incremental contrast advantage in most scenes that makes us prefer its image most of the time. We do not wish to make it sound like there are huge differences in the pictures however. These are both outstanding projectors, and the differences between them are subtle.
Frame Interpolation. Epson's frame interpolation is much improved over last year's version. Panasonic's was already very good, and they've added a third mode which is more comprehensive than the two modes they introduced last year. Thus, at this point in time, both projectors have four options for frame interpolation settings; the 8500 has Off, Low, Medium, and High, and the AE4000 has Off, Mode 1, Mode 2, and Mode 3, which are essentially low, medium, and high.
We tested the 8500's Low against the AE4000's Mode 1, Medium against Mode 2, and High against Mode 3. In each case the 8500 produced a slightly smoother picture with a bit less blur and judder. However, in each mode the "digital video" effect is more evident on the 8500. This does not matter with HD sports or animated film material, but for typical HD movies on Blu-ray, this is a matter of consequence. We don't find the digital video effect on the 8500's Low setting objectionable to the point where we wouldn't use it. But it is there to a modest degree. Thus, we prefer the AE4000's picture in Mode 1, despite the fact that is isn't quite as smooth, because it has virtually no digital video effect.
Sharpening Enhancement. Both of these models have a basic Sharpness adjustment that works in a conventional manner. The AE4000's default is at zero with no edge enhancement, and the control does not go below zero. The 8500's default is at zero, but this setting has some built-in edge enhancement, and the control goes down to -10 to turn it off completely.
Both products have an additional sharpening algorithm that can be set at varying degrees of effect. The 8500's is called Super Resolution, and it can be set to Off, 1, 2, or 3. The AE4000's is called Detail Clarity Processor, and it can be set from 0 to 7. Internally, these sharpening algorithms operate quite differently, as engineers at Epson and Panasonic have taken completely different approaches to the problem. But in the end, from the user's perspective, they have similar effects on the picture. Neither system is supposed to add any edge enhancement, but both of them seem to do so when turning them on high and examining their effect on the sharpness test pattern.
Our impression is that these are both very useful tools for increasing image sharpness, but they should be used in moderation based on the type of material being viewed. On both projectors, if you are watching a film-based movie, turning the sharpening features on to maximum will add graininess and an objectionable sandpaper texture to skin. Our preference for films on Blu-ray was to run the 8500's Super Res at 1, and the AE4000's Detail Processor at +3. For standard definition material, Super Res can be set at 2, and the AE4000 can be at +4. We tested both projectors with an animated film, Cars, and on this movie they can both be taken to the maximum without any apparent negative side effects.
Standard Definition. On both the AE4000 and the 8500, the combined use of frame interpolation plus a moderate setting on the sharpening enhancement features produces a particularly beautiful display of standard def DVD movies. Between the two, the edge in overall picture quality goes to the AE4000. But both of them are exceptional, and a significant step beyond most projectors that do not have frame interpolation or enhanced sharpening algorithms on board.
Frame Delay. All digital video systems take a moment to buffer and process a frame of video before writing it to the display device. In general, the more processing that is needed, the greater the delay. Thus, with both of these projectors, activating a subsystem like frame interpolation will lengthen the delay.
With all enhanced processing features turned off, the AE4000 delivers video to the screen a bit faster than does the 8500 UB. With frame interpolation set to Low on the 8500 and Mode 1 on the AE4000, the latter is still the faster of the two units. Once they are bumped up to Medium and Mode 2 respectively, the frame delay is identical. Taking them up to High and Mode 3, the AE4000 slows down a bit and lags the 8500. In the latter two modes, most users will want to use an audio delay to bring picture and sound into synch.
The AE4000 has a "Frame Response" feature that does not exist on the 8500. When this is activated, frame delivery is noticeably improved over anything the 8500 can deliver. For gamers who want the least delay possible, the AE4000 has the advantage. On the other hand, if your games provide the ability to compensate for video delay, this advantage is of little importance. And even with Frame Response on "fast," there are projectors which are just a hair faster--for example, the Optoma HD20 will get a frame of video to the screen a tiny fraction of a second faster than the AE4000 in its fast Frame Response mode.
2.40 Format Widescreen Use. The differences here are substantial. The AE4000 can accommodate an external anamorphic lens with its onboard anamorphic stretch. This does not exist on the 8500UB. If you don't want to use an A-lens, but would rather use the zoom capabilities of the projector, the AE4000 has a powered zoom/focus with a Lens Memory feature that will automatically reset the lens and the vertical picture position for the display of either 2.40 movies or 16:9 material at the touch of a button. You can even set it to detect whether the material is 2.40 or 16:9 format, and have it automatically reconfigure the lens without even touching the button. On the 8500, there is plenty of zoom range in its 2.1 zoom to adjust for 2.40 and 16:9 material on a 2.40 screen, but every move back and forth must be made manually.
HQV Tests. The HQV test patterns show very little difference between these two models. The jaggies test and rotation bar look identical on both machines. Both show relatively low digital noise levels, but there is somewhat less on the AE4000 than the 8500.
Fan noise. Fan noise on both of these models is low, and they are comparable to one another. The 8500 is slightly louder but lower in pitch, so their tendency to be noticed in a quiet room is about equal. Neither one is the quietest projector in the 1080p category, but we cannot imagine anyone passing on either one of these units specifically to get less fan noise.
Warranty. Epson offers a two-year warranty with no restrictions. Panasonic offers a one-year warranty that is extendable to two years at no charge with the submission of a claim form that is similar to a mail-in rebate. Panasonic also has a 2000 hour usage limit on the warranty, so it is two years, or 2000 hours, whichever comes first. If you plan on using your projector more than 2.7 hours per day, this will curtail the length of the warranty. You can run your 8500UB 24/7 and still get the full two-year warranty.
The Epson 8500 UB and the Panasonic AE4000 are both magnificent projectors. Neither one is better than the other for all situations. Each of them has unique advantages. Some of those advantages may be critical to you and tip your decision one way or the other. But we rate both of these projectors extremely highly, and give them both our most enthusiastic recommendation.