Comments on the New High Contrast LCD Projectors

Evan Powell, November 19, 2004

It has been quite a remarkable couple of months. The appearance of three new LCD projectors, the Panasonic PT-AE700, the Sanyo PLV-Z3, and the Sony VPL-HS51, has changed the competitive dynamics of the home theater projector industry. It is a combination of factors that makes these releases so dramatic. First, they all feature 1280x720 resolution LCD panels which are ideal for both HDTV as well as widescreen DVD when cleanly scaled. Second, the high resolution LCD panels virtually eliminate the "screendoor effect" and visible pixelation as flaws in the image. Third, these three projectors feature high contrast performance previously unseen in LCD technology—the AE700 and Z3 are both rated at 2000:1, while the HS51 is rated at 6000:1. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, they are as a group much lower in price than comparable DLP projectors of the same resolution and similar contrast. So they will undoubtedly inspire some repricing of DLP-based competition.

Click here to see side-by-side comparison of these 3 models.

Thus if there is one message to be taken from this series of product releases, it is this: LCD technology is exhibiting a forceful resurgence in the mainstream consumer home theater marketplace. The traditional belief that DLP is the better technology for great home theater has been vigorously challenged in a way that it never has been in the past.

Clearly, DLP still dominates in the high end marketplace. All of the expensive boutique brands remain largely committed to DLP for their flagship products. But as video quality in the lower end products takes quantum leaps forward, the percentage of consumers willing to drop $10,000 or more on a "high end" projector continues to shrink. Why spend $10,000 on a projector when you can get surprisingly close to the same image quality spending $2,000? Yes, the expensive models have features and incremental performance advantages that the low end products lack. Those who are flush with cash and want the best regardless of price will still go for the higher end units. But with the newest low-cost, high performance LCD projectors, the average consumer with a couple grand to spend on a projector will end up with a very close approximation of what the rich guy up the street has in his home theater.

Which of the new LCD projectors is the best?

This is the most frequently asked question in the email correspondence we have received lately. It is an understandable question, but in some ways it misses the point. It is like looking at an array of screwdrivers in the tool department at Home Depot, each with different head type, size, length, and weight, and asking which is the best screwdriver? The question cannot be answered except in reference to a particular application. Projectors are simply tools for delivering video images. Each projector is better for different applications and environments and budgets. So they cannot really be ranked from best to worst, nor can they be assigned rating numbers that mean anything useful—they might all get 95 out of 100, but for different strengths and different faults.

This posting will make comparative observations about six projectors, all of which are 1280x720 LCD products except for the InFocus Screenplay 4805, which is a lower resolution DLP projector. The 4805 is included because it is an inexpensive alternative, and we have had many emails asking whether the Panasonic AE700 or the Sanyo Z3 are worth the extra investment over the 4805. The six projectors are the following:

Hitachi PJ-TX100
InFocus Screenplay 4805
InFocus Screenplay 5000
Panasonic PT-AE700
Sanyo PLV-Z3
Sony VPL-HS51

In order to give this commentary some structure, we have chosen the Panasonic AE700 as a common standard against which the others may be compared. By itemizing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each model against the AE700, it is hoped that the reader will be able to assess the relative merits of any two of the projectors against each other. Meanwhile, we avoid having to write an "A vs. B" comparison of every possible combination of projectors.

In choosing the AE700 as the standard for this set of comments, the reader should not infer that we recommend it above all the others. The AE700 is indeed a very strong competitive offering. However, as will become clear, many users may be better off selecting one of the other models as their budgets, intended usage, and installation constraints dictate.

Panasonic PT-AE700. If there is one projector that sets a new standard for value, it would be the Panasonic AE700. This is because it combines breakthrough performance in contrast and overall picture quality with the flexibility of a very long 2.0x zoom lens, all for a street price of about $2,000.

The long zoom lens on this unit is valuable because it allows the user to extend throw distance like no other projector in the group. And all other things being equal, using the longest throw distance possible narrows the cone of projected light. That means light strikes the screen from edge to edge as close to perpendicular as possible, producing the most even reflection back to the viewer. Conversely a short throw distance with a wide cone of projected light will cause light toward the edges of the screen to bounce off to the sides rather than back toward the viewer. Panasonic is the first vendor to integrate a 2.0x zoom lens into a projector in this price class, and we view it as a significant performance feature that other vendors.

The AE700 is not the brightest, nor the dimmest of the units in this group. After calibration we measured light output to be about 300 ANSI lumens. It is not a projector that we would push beyond about 110" diagonal. However others may have different aesthetic preferences, and may opt for a larger image with the attendant compromise in contrast and color saturation.

AE700 vs. Sanyo PLV-Z3. Of all of the models to be discussed here, the closest match to the AE700 in overall image quality and characteristics is the Sanyo Z3. Once we set the Z3 to our favored settings for video, including setting the iris to its minimum aperture, lumen output was identical to the AE700. As we stated in the review, the AE700 has an impressively smooth, film-like image. However the Z3 matches, and some might say even surpasses the AE700. Scaling on both of these units is first rate.

The Z3 does not have a dynamically reconfiguring iris like the AE700, and in fact the AE700 can produce somewhat deeper blacks and better overall contrast. However the differences between the AE700 and the Z3 in this regard are small compared to other LCD projectors with much lower contrast ratings. These differences are visible in side by side viewing, but they are not dramatically different.

Perhaps the most important differences between the two are the zoom and lens shift ranges. The AE700 has a 2.0x zoom range that lets you set the projector anywhere between 10 and 20 feet to get a 100" diagonal image. Meanwhile the Z3 has only a 1.3x zoom, and it must be placed between about 10 and 13 feet for the same 100" image. This could tip the advantage toward the AE700 for those who have the room to set the unit back and use its long throw distance capability. On the other hand, for those who have space restrictions anyway, the long zoom on the AE700 may be irrelevant.

While the Z3 has a restricted zoom range, it has more flexibility for vertical and horizontal lens shift. The Z3's vertical shift allows for a total shift range equal to a bit over three picture heights, while the AE700 gives you about 2.25 picture heights. This extra shift range that the Z3 offers could be quite handy (some would say critical) for those planning to ceiling-mount their unit, or place it on a coffee table.

As a practical tip in planning your installation, keep in mind that you do not want to position the projected image too high on the wall such that you are required to look up at it from the seating area. Looking up for long periods of time puts stress on the neck. Therefore, the greater vertical lens shift range on the Z3 becomes of great value if you are ceiling mounting, and do not want to use an extension tube to drop the projector down from the ceiling. On the other hand, if you are ceiling mounting the AE700 you are more likely to need to use an extension tube to get the image placed in optimum position.

At this writing the MSRP of the Z3 is $500 less than the AE700. Normally this means street prices will follow a similar ratio, and if so the Z3 will be the lower priced unit on the street. Given its zoom restriction, and the fact that it doesn't quite match the AE700's black level and contrast, this price differential is appropriate. But both units represent outstanding values for the money.

AE700 vs. Sony HS51. Sony's VPL-HS51 represents a different value proposition for the user than does the AE700. The HS51 has better black levels in dark scenes, and incrementally better shadow detail. Like the Sanyo Z3, it has greater lens shift range, equaling a total of three picture heights. Its 1.55x zoom lens offers somewhat more throw distance flexibility than the Z3, but not as much as the AE700. The AE700 has a smoother, more film-like image through its component and S-video ports due to cleaner scaling and less noise. Both units are capable of excellent HDTV in 1080i and 720p, with the HS51 having an edge due to higher contrast and better black level.

One of the downsides on our HS51 test unit is light output, which does not match that of the AE700. However, despite the fact that Sony checked this unit out before sending it to us, we now suspect there may be a problem with the lamp. So we have requested a replacement lamp, and will reserve further comment until we've had a chance to test it again.

AE700 vs. Hitachi PJ-TX100. We were planning to post a full review of the PJ-TX100 this week. However we have come to suspect that our review sample may not be representative of the units in production. We see a softness in the image that should not be there. This is true of all inputs, whether analog or digital, video or data, scaled or unscaled, standard def or HD. Since the same subtle lack of sharpness exists no matter what we feed it, we assume that it is not related to the electronics but to either the optical precision of the lens itself, or something related to the optical alignment of the light engine. If it is the latter, it is possible that there is a slight misalignment in our test unit that does not fairly reflect the typical PJ-TX100 being shipped. Since none of the user's comments have complained about a lack of image sharpness, we do not wish to proceed with a full review until we see a second unit.

However, we can make some preliminary observations that have nothing to do with the sharpness issue. If one operates the Hitachi PJ-TX100 with the iris wide open, at setting 10, it produces a much brighter image than does the AE700—actual measurement had the PJ-TX100 at 500 ANSI lumens, compared to the AE700's measurement of 300 lumens with the dynamic iris on. However at this wide open setting, contrast and black level performance is not optimized. If you close the iris on the PJ-TX100 down to 4, which is the default Natural mode, this marginally improves black levels and contrast and brings lumen output down to 300 ANSI lumens, or equal to the AE700.

However, the PJ-TX100 is not capable of generating the black levels and contrast that we get on the AE700, no matter where the iris is set. Shadow details are, comparatively speaking, blocked up and muddy, and though the picture can be brighter it does not have the snap and sparkle of the AE700.

These two units are selling for almost the same street prices. The essential trade-off between the two, simply put, is the PJ-TX100's brightness vs. the AE700's contrast and shadow detail. If you have a darkened, light-controlled viewing space the AE700 is clearly the stronger alternative. If you plan to view with lights on most of the time, your contrast and shadow detail will be compromised anyway, and the PJ-TX100's incremental brightness could be beneficial.

The current MSRP of the PJ-TX100 is $3,999, which is quite high in the current marketplace. However, dealers discount this product substantially, which is a good thing because deep discounts are required to make this projector price competitive.

AE700 vs. InFocus Screenplay 4805. The 4805 represents a viable alternative to the AE700 for those looking for a good home theater solution on a more modest budget. The 4805 is at least $500 less on the street, and for the money it is a superb unit. It is slightly brighter than the AE700, measuring about 350 ANSI lumens compared to the AE700's 300 lumens. And despite their common contrast rating, the 4805 in operation has slightly better black levels and better shadow detail than the AE700.

On the other hand, the 4805 is a lower resolution product (854x480 vs. 1280x720). Therefore, though it scales 480-line DVD beautifully since it only needs to scale it horizontally, its lower resolution produces more visible pixelation than you get on the AE700. Consequently the scaled image on the AE700 looks smoother unless you are sitting back at a viewing distance of 2.0 times the screen width or more.

Fan noise on the 4805 is notably higher than on the AE700. In addition, the 4805's short zoom range and lack of lens shift severely restricts the placement options of the projector relative to any desired screen size. The AE700 has a clear advantage in HDTV due to its higher resolution. Finally, despite the 4805's slight edge in contrast and black level, the AE700 produces richer color saturation.

Overall the AE700 is clearly the more substantial product, and the price differential is warranted. But there are lots of consumers who don't want to spend $2,000 on a projector, and for these the Screenplay 4805 represents a solid, but less costly alternative. Both are excellent values for the money.

AE700 vs. Infocus Screenplay 5000. Unfortunately we encountered a technical problem with the test sample Screenplay 5000. InFocus has indicated they wish to supply an alternative unit before we complete the review. Another unit is being sent, and we hope to have more comment on it next month.

However, we can make a few preliminary comments. The 5000 is the least expensive 1280x720 resolution projector on the market. As such it provides a very inexpensive way to get a beautiful HDTV picture on your wall. It is a very bright machine, measuring well over 800 ANSI lumens. So it is almost triple the light output of the AE700.

The weaknesses of the 5000 include lower contrast, higher fan noise, and less comprehensive video processing for standard definition sources--the image is both softer and grainier than that of the AE700. For those interested in high quality DVD performance on a tight budget, the InFocus 4805 is the much better choice.

Our initial take was that the Screenplay 5000 should be used where high light output for HDTV is required. We think primarily of sports bars as the ideal application area for this unit. But for a refined presentation of DVD for home theater, the 5000 has some deficiencies. We will examine it more thoroughly once we receive another sample.

Competition from DLP-based products

With the exception of the inexpensive InFocus Screenplay 4805, this posting has focused on the relative merits of moderately priced 1280x720 resolution LCD projectors. But LCD is not the only game in town. In particular, within this same price range are two noteworthy DLP projectors—the BenQ PE7800 and the Mitsubishi HC900. These are both 1024x576 resolution machines rather than 1280x720. However, they represent significant competitive alternatives that should not be overlooked. We have both units on hand, and intend to comment on them in detail after the Thanksgiving break.