Best Home Theater Projectors
Performance
Features
Ease of Use
Value
Sanyo PLV-Z4 Projector Sanyo PLV-Z4
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7000:1 Contrast Ratio
1000 Lumens
Street Price: n/a
$2,995 MSRP

Sanyo PLV-Z4 Home Theater Projector

Evan Powell, October 14, 2005

The fall release of the hottest new home theater projectors is coming to be an annual event, stimulated in part by the fall holiday buying season, and in part by the CEDIA trade show that takes place in early September. Sanyo's release of the PLV-Z4 constitutes this company's strongest product yet in the consumer home theater market, and we've had a great time getting to know it in the past couple of weeks. We would have liked to continue our exploration of its potential for another month, but it is time to stop and report what we know thus far. This is one of the most versatile products we've ever seen, in that it can be calibrated to accommodate a wide range of room and viewing environments.

Features

The PLV-Z4 is arguably the most feature-rich home theater projector ever brought to market in its price class. Highlights include the following:

Latest generation high-contrast 1280x720 LCD panels.

Dual iris system with wide range of lumen output to accommodate a variety of viewing needs.

Very long 2.0x zoom range: The zoom range allows a 100" 16:9 image to be displayed anywhere between a 9.8 and 20.0 foot throw distance. This combined with the lens shift capability makes the Z4 adaptable to a wide variety of installation challenges.

Long range vertical and horizontal lens shift: At neutral position, the centerline of the lens intersects the center of the projected image. From that position the image can be raised or lowered vertically 150% of the picture height, or moved laterally 50% of the picture width in either direction.

Six precalibrated color temperature settings.

Six preprogrammed operating modes and four memories for user-programmable custom settings.

On-board color management system that allows selection and modification of individual colors on screen.

LCD panel adjustment to eliminate vertical banding, should it manifest itself in any given unit.

Auto-closing front panel: A motor-driven front panel opens to expose the lens during operation, and automatically closes when the unit is powered down. Over time, this minimizes the amount of dust that can settle on the lens.

Cleaning system: Introduced on the Z3, the Z4 also incorporates a user-cleaning system to remove dust particles that may settle on the LCD panels. There are three small holes in the bottom of the case that remain closed during normal usage. They can be opened to insert the nozzle of a manual squeeze-blower (included with the projector).

Auto-shut down: if the Z4 detects no signal on the active port for a period of five minutes, it automatically shuts down the lamp and closes the lens housing. For those who tend to leave the room and forget to power down the unit, this saves many hours of wasted lamp life.

Three year warranty--the longest home theater projector warranty currently available in the business, to our knowledge.

In short, before we even get to discussion of the image quality, we must point out that we've never seen a projector anywhere near this price range (or any price range for that matter) that is so loaded with features. The fact that it sells at a street price of about $2,200 makes it all the more remarkable.

Performance

The PLV-Z4 represents a huge leap forward in performance and value over last year's PLV-Z3. Though Sanyo makes fine projectors, the competitive strength of the Z4 is a large step beyond that which we have come to expect from Sanyo in years past. Evidently, someone at Sanyo decided to make a definitive strategic statement with this release. For not only does it respond aggressively to the success of last year's Panasonic PT-AE700, it is a direct challenge to every single-chip 720p DLP projector on the market.

It is difficult to know where to start with this one, so I will offer a summary assessment, and follow with more detail on various issues. In short, the PLV-Z4 offers the highest contrast we've yet seen from LCD, and indeed, contrast is higher than that of any DLP product anywhere near its price range. Color saturation sets a new benchmark. Furthermore, it can be set to generate a wide range of lumen output without seriously degrading contrast performance. Most viewers familiar with LCD projectors of the past will look at the Z4's image and say, "Wow, I can't believe that is LCD." We said this before of last year's models, but LCD has taken yet another leap forward, and it is all the more true this time.

In terms of the Z4's weaknesses, one can say that in the most satisfactory viewing modes, the black levels that you get in dark images with very low average light levels (say a view of deep space in a Star Trek film) are not as deep as they are on competing units, although they are adequate to generate a satisfying picture. You can obtain a more solid black level by closing the manual iris. But this sacrifices too much lumen output, and you would not want to do this unless you were using a relatively small screen.

Two other flaws must be noted. One is in the onboard standard definition de-interlacing, which is surprisingly ineffective considering the design strength of the product overall. However, since it is easy to bypass the internal deinterlacer with progressive scan inputs, the weakness here is of little practical concern unless you want to watch a lot of television with a straight 480i signal, or you still use VHS. One way or another, you need to convert 480i signals to 480p, or upscale them to 720p in order to get satisfactory image stability.

The other flaw is in color accuracy. Color overall is rich, vibrant, and natural-looking, largely due to gray scale accuracy in the mid-tone ranges of 30 to 80 IRE. However, the highlights tended to shift toward a subtle red. In addition, saturated reds overall manifested a slight orange bias that we were able to minimized but not eliminate entirely. For the large majority of home theater enthusiasts, these color issues are subtle and incidental, and would never be noticed. But those who have a need and desire to obtain perfect color may not be entirely satisfied.

The Z4 has six precalibrated operating modes, each of which can be modified by the user to adjust for particular environments, screen sizes, screen types, etc. The brightness range for video viewing can be set anywhere between 100 and 600 ANSI lumens. Our favored setting on a 120" diagonal Grayhawk screen in a darkened viewing room produced about 300 lumens. Compared to theoretical ratings, this does not sound like much, but it is helpful to bear in mind that typical 7" CRT projectors built for home theater tended to average about 150 to175 ANSI lumens, and the very expensive 9" CRT models produced 200 to 250 lumens. So assuming you have ample contrast, a 300 lumen image is plenty bright.

The precalibrated operating modes are listed in the menu as Creative Cinema, Pure Cinema, Natural, Living, Dynamic, Powerful, and Vivid. Each of these activates preset values for color temperature, gamma, iris setting, and auto-lamp. These can be used as defined, or modified to suit your preferences. In addition to these there are four user programmable memories in which you can store the ideal settings for your particular environment.

Lumen output differs radically between these modes, and your preferred operating mode will depend significantly upon screen size and viewing environment. For example, Pure Cinema closes down the iris to deepen black level, but in the process it renders a dimmer image overall. This setting will work fine on a small screen, but it does not produce enough light for a 120" screen. If you are going for image sizes in the 120" range, you will probably be most satisfied with the Living setting, which presets the iris to wide open. And not to worry—even with the iris wide open the projector delivers remarkably vibrant high contrast.

Brightness uniformity is well above average, measuring 90% when the lens is not set to the extreme ends of the lens shift range. If you do set the lens shift to its maximum vertical offset, brightness uniformity drops to 82%, and overall ANSI lumen output drops by 17%. This is normal and expected, since at the far end of the lens shift you are no longer using the sweet spot of the lens. Thus, it is advisable to avoid the extreme ends of the lens shift range unless is it absolutely necessary.

The good news is that the optical performance falls off noticeably only at the ends of the lens shift. If you shift the lens vertically to a point that is 50% of the maximum potential adjustment, there is no image degradation at all to worry about. So overall, the lens shift capability is a highly desirable and functional feature that can be used to make installation easy in a variety of viewing room situations.

Given the 2.0x zoom range, the ideal set up for many users will be to place the Z4 on a rear shelf, plenty high enough to clear the heads of the audience, and use a modest vertical lens shift downward to center the image on the screen. This not only produces the optimum optical performance, but it also saves the cost and installation nuisance of a ceiling mount, allows for shorter cable runs, and makes the projector easy to access for cleaning and filter changes.

The Z4 has a razor sharp image, attributable in part to the latest generation LCD panels. When the screen is viewed up close, the pixel structure is clearly apparent. Backing away from the screen, visible pixel structure disappears (resolves to a coherent whole) in video material such as rolling credits and subtitles at about 1.33 times the horizontal screen width. Pixel structure disappears from data graphics at a viewing distance of about 1.5x the screen width.

The sharpness control on video ranges from a setting of -7 to +7, with the default setting at 0. Though the edge enhancement at the 0 position is not excessive, video purists will want to set sharpness lower than that for the most natural video image. In the ranges of -5 to -4, the sharpness test pattern on AVIA shows no ringing, and is as clean as it gets.

In addition to the sharpness control there is a separate "transient improvement" option, which can either be set to Off, or at Levels 1, 2, or 3, with Level 3 being the most extreme. This is an edge enhancement feature that works beautifully, with a caveat. At Level 1, the picture is noticeably sharper than when the control is off. However, it introduces some noise into the image where details are in rapid motion. Both the sharpness and the potential noise are increased with each step up to Level 2 and Level 3. Nevertheless, it does have a noticeable effect on improving the depth, or three-dimensional quality of the image. The video purist would argue that this feature should not be used. We say baloney -- it can look sensational, and we would advise users to experiment with it to find the desired setting for each type of video material (the ideal setting will vary based on whether you are watching live football in HD or Shrek on a DVD player). The bottom line is that you may think that a little bit of occasional noise is a small price to pay for a picture that looks more clear, sharp, and three-dimensional.

There are five precalibrated color temperature settings labeled Low3, Low2, Low1, Mid, and High. On our test unit the ideal 6500K fell between Low1 and Mid, so some tweaking of the color controls was required to get it to track at 6500K across the gray scale. We were able to zero in 6500K up to 80 IRE, but there was a subtle pinkish hue at 90 and 100 IRE that we could not eliminate entirely. Nevertheless, other than this minor flaw, color accuracy after calibration was basically solid.

Internal scaling of 480p signals up to 720p presented no problems, however, the on-board deinterlacing was not particularly impressive. There is a menu option that is active only when an interlaced signal is being received which allows you to select "L1" for "moving pictures" which is 30 frame/second video, "L2" for still pictures, and "Film" for film source 3:2 pulldown. Optionally, you can disable it by selecting "Off." No matter which setting was selected, deinterlacing artifacts were apparent when they should not have been. Once the source output was switched to progressive scan, and the Z4 was receiving a 480p signal, the picture became rock solid. Thus we would caution against the use of the composite and S-video inputs, as well as the use of 480i component. Where possible, standard definition material should be converted to either 480p or 720p progressive scan in the DVD player or satellite/cable set top box prior to delivery to the Z4.

One question that always comes up on LCD projectors is whether there is any presence of vertical banding. On our test sample we found no hint of VB. When present this artifact is most apparent in mid-tones such as the 50 IRE and 60 IRE gray fields available on test calibration discs. On our Z4, these fields are perfectly solid gray with no trace of banding. However, the presence of VB can vary from unit to unit within a production run, as it is a flaw that occurs in the mass production of LCD panels. Accordingly, Sanyo has included on the Z4 the ability to adjust each LCD panel individually to erase any VB that might manifest itself on any given unit.

Fan noise on home theater projectors continues to drop with each succeeding model released. The Z4 is one of the quietest projectors we've seen yet. Even in full power lamp mode, audible noise is very low, and low in pitch as well. In low lamp mode, the fan noise is almost undetectable.

General Observations

As time goes on, home theater projectors keep getting better and less expensive. When considered in light of its overall price/performance proposition, the Sanyo PLV-Z4 is among the very best home theater projectors we have yet seen. Not only does it set a new performance standard for 720p projectors in its price class, it is the first LCD projector to truly challenge DLP as the leading technology for home theater video.

Moreover, the challenge is not just on relative price/performance, but on absolute performance. For the PLV-Z4 could be placed side-by-side with the most expensive high-end single-chip DLP projectors that are six times its price and hold its own in head-to-head performance. We dare suggest that in a shoot-out between the Z4 and any of the high-end DLP products wherein the models were not revealed to the audience in advance, the PLV-Z4 might actually be favored by some consumers for its exceptional contrast, deep color saturation, and image sharpness.

Thus we would say this to underscore the point: Currently the PLV-Z4 has a street price of about $2,200. If you are about to lay down $12,000 for a high end single-chip DLP home theater projector on the theory that the more it costs the better it must be, do not miss the opportunity to audition the Sanyo PLV-Z4. The Achilles' heel of single-chip DLP has always been color, and a side-by-side demo with the Z4 will illustrate in convincing terms why LCD is not dead. Heck, you might just save yourself $10,000.