The two most popular home theater projectors around $2600 this fall are the Epson Home Cinema 5030UB which just began shipping last month, and the Panasonic AE8000 which was introduced a year ago in September, 2012. If you want to spend under $3,000 on a home theater projector, which of these two is the right choice for you? Let's take a look.
Before we get to the differences, let's note that they share a LOT in common. The Epson 5030UB and the Panasonic AE8000 are both native 1080p resolution, 3D enabled 3LCD projectors rated at a maximum brightness of 2400 lumens. Their sequential contrast specs are almost the same--the AE8000 is 500,000:1 and the 5030UB is 600,000:1. The two projectors are almost identical in size and weight, about 19 lbs each. They are both outfitted with long 2x zoom lenses and extensive horizontal and vertical lens shift that allows them to be installed in the same variety of locations with essentially the same throw distance ranges. Both achieve maximum light output when the zoom lenses are set to their widest angle position, and both lose about 40% of their potential light output when the zoom lenses are set to their longest throw, maximum telephoto positions. Their lamps are both rated at 4000 hours.
The 5030UB and the AE8000 both have a variety of programmed operating modes--bright options for living room or ambient light viewing, and less bright but higher contrast settings for dedicated dark theater viewing. The differences in light output between these two models in the various modes is so insignificant as to be irrelevant. Both have ample light output for virtually any light-controlled home theater installation, and neither one has enough power on the top end to produce a truly vibrant large screen image in full ambient light (at least without the aid of ambient light screens like the Black Diamond). Both have operating modes designed for industry standard calibrations--on the 5030UB it is called THX and on the AE8000 it is Rec. 709. Side by side these calibrations look practically identical, although the AE8000 is somewhat brighter and the 5030UB has a deeper black in dark scenes. Both have a Cinema mode which is a color enriched version of their THX/Rec709 calibrations. These Cinema modes may be preferred by many users since the THX and Rec709 settings tend to look a bit dull on a screen 10 feet wide.
So from a glance at the spec sheets you might get the feeling that choosing between the Epson 5030UB and the Panasonic AE8000 is a flip of the coin. Not so--these two projectors have many real differences, some of which may be critical to your decision on which to buy.
A Note on Screens: For the side-by-side testing of these two projectors we used the Stewart Studiotek 100, a neutral 1.0 gain white screen that is ideal for testing and evaluation in zero ambient light environments. It is not recommended for home theater use. Stewart offers the Studiotek 130, and now the less expensive Cima by Stewart Filmscreen, both of which are more appropriate for dedicated, room-darkened home theater installations. The Cima in particular is an appealing, cost-effective complement to the 5030UB and the AE8000. It is 1.1 gain, so slightly brighter than the 100, with the same wide 80 degree half gain angle as the Studiotek 130.