Panasonic AE700 vs. Sanyo PLV-Z3

Evan Powell, October 19, 2004

Having posted reviews of the Panasonic AE700 and the Sanyo PLV-Z3 and listed them both on our Highly Recommended list, readers will want to know how they stack up against each other. They are both great products for the money, and each has features the other does not. If you are looking for a low cost, high resolution LCD projector, read on. Hopefully this comparative write-up will help you decide on a product that is just right for you.

Before getting to the differences between them, we should say that the AE700 and the PLV-Z3 have a lot in common. Both are native 1280x720 resolution LCD projectors, with high contrast ratings of 2000:1. Both have HDMI and component video inputs, and both take the wide array of common video, HDTV, and computer signals people are using these days. Both units are small, portable, and have reduced fan noise compared to their respective prior generation products. Both have zoom lenses with horizontal and vertical lens shift, and both have vertical keystone adjustment in case you need it (which we always hope you won't).

A detailed listing of every feature these products have in common would require a duplications of both Owner's Manuals, which is beyond the scope of this article.

In terms of installation, you have four options for setting up these units for front projection. These projectors may be table mounted, stand mounted behind your seating area, bookcase or shelf mounted on a rear wall, or ceiling mounted. With both units you will be better off if you can position the projector so that the horizontal and vertical lens shifts are used to their minimum in order to use the sweet spot of the lens. Usually either rear shelf or stand mounting behind the seating area will help you achieve this. Table and ceiling mounting will often require more lens shift to hit the desired screen location.

Noteworthy Differences

The AE700 is inherently brighter than the Z3. There is no way to state how much brighter since user options for setting up the picture heavily influence lumen output on both units. For example, the Z3 has a Theater Black lamp mode which cuts lumen output to gain better black level performance. In this mode the Z3's color saturation is maximized and black level is marginally better than the AE700. However, in Theater Black mode the Z3's lumen output is about half that of the video-optimized AE700. Thus the AE700 delivers a brighter image with crisper highlights. Taking the Z3 out of Theater Black mode increases its lumen output by about 1/3, but the image is not as high in contrast and color saturation. When the Z3 is not in Theater Black mode, the AE700 has the better overall contrast, black level, and color saturation in addition to higher lumen output.

Despite the edge in lumen output offered by the AE700, buyers should not assume that its brightness advantage will make it more suitable for use in ambient light. Yes, for any given screen size the AE700 will be less affected by the presence of a limited amount of ambient light. But both of these units require a dark room for best performance. The additional brightness of the AE700 will enable the user to go to a larger screen without sacrificing as much overall image snap-say 100" to 110" diagonal. If the user is intending to use the Z3 in Theater Black mode for optimum image dynamics, we would suggest a limit of about 90" diagonal in order to avoid too much light dilution on the screen. (By the way, this is a matter of personal taste-some people are not as bothered by contrast reduction in ambient light as others, and can be quite satisfied to watch the AE700 with lights on.)

Color performance is another area where these two units differ. Overall the AE700 has incrementally better color processing. Both look good standing alone on the screen, but side by side the AE700 has an edge in natural color reproduction. Flesh tones in particular have an incremental realism that we cannot get from the Z3.

On the other hand, the AE700 has a couple of flaws as well. The AE700 manifests much more signal noise than does the Z3. The Z3's image is smooth and clean, whereas the noise on the AE700 can produce a slightly grainy, unstable effect, and smaller details in the image can appear ill-defined. However, the AE700 has a noise reduction (NR) filter to compensate for this. It normally defaults to the Off position, but the NR filter cleaned up the noise artifacts quite effectively without appearing to compromise the picture in any negative way. With the NR filter on, the AE700 delivers as stable an image as does the Z3.

Some subtle vertical banding (VB) is also present on our AE700, while it is entirely absent from the Z3. As reported in the review, for the most part VB is not visible on the AE700 with normal video material on the screen. Though not dramatic, it can be detected in low contrast mid-tones. It is most visible in gray field test patterns in the 30 to 60 IRE range. The Z3 displays these patterns without any hint of banding.

In practical usage, the VB phenomenon is not visible on the AE700 except when low contrast, untextured mid-tone values comprise a large percentage of the image. For example, we saw it appear in passing from time to time on The Lion King, since the animated material lacks the typical texture of real world video and film. We saw it also on an HD soccer broadcast when the entire green soccer field filled the frame and the camera panned across it. So for the most part the AE700 is free of this artifact, but it can appear on occasion, whereas it is absent entirely on the Z3.

Due to the high resolution of their LCD panels and small interpixel gap, there is no screendoor effect on either product. Of the two, the Z3 has a slightly more distinct pixel structure. Therefore pixelation is less visible on the AE700 than it is on the Z3 from any close viewing distance. However, pixelation is so muted on both of them that it is not a factor from typical viewing distances.

On a final note regarding image characteristics, I want to correct an error in the initial AE700 review in which I reported that scaling of standard definition material looked a bit soft. It did indeed look soft at the time. However, in the days since that review we have worked more with the AE700, in particular doing side by side display with the Z3. We cannot replicate the conditions under which that perceived softness was occurring. The image now looks as sharp as can be expected, and based upon what we see today we would describe the scaling as excellent. As reported earlier our Z3 delivers a very sharp image in standard definition. However in side by side viewing with the Z3 the AE700 actually edges the Z3 in image sharpness.

Installation/ownership issues

As discussed in the reviews of these two units, the AE700 and the PLV-Z3 present somewhat different installation scenarios. A primary difference between them is that the AE700 has a 2.0x zoom range that will throw a 100" diagonal image anywhere from 10 to 20 feet. Meanwhile the Z3 has a 1.3x zoom range, and a 100" diagonal image can be managed only within 10 to 13 feet throw distance. This gives the AE700 some additional flexibility to install it on a shelf or bookcase on a rear wall some distance behind the seating area.

For those whose rooms allow options on projector placement, a longer throw distance is the better choice. That is because you want to create a narrow cone of projected light so that the light strikes the screen from edge to edge as close to perpendicular as possible. This will produce a more even reflection of light from the screen. Ideally, we like to avoid the extreme ends of the zoom range also since lenses tend to be less optically efficient at their extremes. Therefore, as an example if you were planning to install the AE700 to accommodate a 100" screen and you could choose anywhere between ten and twenty feet throw distance, then somewhere in the range of about 18 feet would be an optimum placement for best overall results. (There appears to be a subtle increase in pixelation on the AE700 at the extreme long end of the lens which goes away quickly as you move the lens a bit away from the end point.)

On the other hand, between the two projectors the Z3 has greater vertical lens shift range-100% of the picture height vs. just 63% of the picture height on the AE700. That means that for those planning a coffee table or ceiling mount installation, the Z3 has more flexibility to place the image at the desired position on the wall. In the case of both projectors you should avoid the extreme ends of the lens shift range if possible, since once again these are points at which the lens is least efficient. Nevertheless, the Z3 has more flexibility in this regard.

On the Z3 Sanyo has incorporated a unique ability to clear dust that might accumulate on the LCD panels, thus avoiding a periodic trip to the service center. All projectors without sealed light engines may at some point manifest a problem with dust particles landing on the display panels or chips. We cannot realistically assess the propensity for any given projector to be susceptible to this. However, operation in dusty environments or without regular cleaning of the air filter will increase the chances of dust landing on a display panel and creating a soft, indistinct spot on the screen. Sanyo's novel approach to user maintenance on this is a welcome new development. We hope other vendors will follow suit in addressing what can be a periodic nuisance for projector users.

With regard to lamp life, Panasonic quotes 3000 hours on the AE700. Sanyo does not as a matter of policy quote lamp life on any of its projector products, on the grounds that lamp life will vary based upon environment and usage. This is true of all projectors with high pressure lamps, not just Sanyo products. Furthermore a rating of a certain lamp life does not guarantee that the lamp will last that long. Absent further data, we suspect that the lamp in the Z3 could be expected to last as long as any lamp rated at 2000 hours, and this is the assumption we would make if we were considering the purchase of a Z3 ourselves.

Conclusion

The Panasonic AE700 and the Sanyo PLV-Z3 are both excellent products that push the envelope on LCD technology. They are both capable of delivering beautiful HDTV and DVD images in high resolution with their 1280x720 LCD panel format.

The AE700 sells for a few hundred dollars more than the Z3. Based upon our comparative review, this price differential is justified. The AE700 can deliver a brighter image while retaining excellent contrast and color saturation, and it offers some unique flexibility for shelf mounting with its longer zoom lens.

Nevertheless, the Sanyo Z3 may be the better choice for those who want to ceiling mount or table mount their projector since the lens shift affords more range of image placement. Setting the unit on a table between the viewing seats or on a coffee table is a simple way to get started in home theater, and it is easy to remove the projector from the room when not in use. Those who have a dark viewing room may wish to take advantage of the Theater Black operating mode to maximize the black level, contrast, and color saturation potential that the Z3 is capable of.

These are great times for projector buyers. We've never had so many great, inexpensive home theater projectors on the market. It is not surprising that consumers are moving past the big-screen TV and going for the larger scale theater experience at a more rapid pace than anyone had ever expected.