NOTICE [Friday, 12/15]: In November, we reviewed a late pre-production sample of the Panasonic AE1000, and notes based on that review were used for this Shootout article, originally posted November 17. However, we received a final edition production model of the Panasonic AE1000 on Wednesday of this week that incorporates some last minute improvements. These improvement have been incorporated on all production units shipped, so the buyer need not worry about getting the final production improvements in models being sold by dealers. The AE1000 review has been updated, and the notes in this shootout comparison have also been updated as of this posting. [EP]
We've just spent a few weeks looking at four of the most exciting digital projectors to hit the market in a long time. They all feature high resolution HD 1920x1080 light engines, and they all bring 1080p to the consumer at prices previously unheard of. Perhaps the most important observation we can make about them is this: no matter which one you buy, you will be thoroughly delighted with the results. Our task has been to evaluate them closely side by side, so that we can detect the differences between them. Many of those differences are quite subtle, and some are more apparent. In most cases, unless you have them sitting side by side, you'd never recognize the particular advantages and limitations to each of them since on their own -- they all look great.
Another important conclusion we came to is this: there is no single projector that could possibly "win" this shootout. Each projector does something better than the others. It is up to you to determine which of the features and image quality characteristics are most important to you, and which you can accept a little compromise on. These are matters of personal taste, and what is important to us may not be to you.
Here are how these four great projectors rank on various performance and feature characteristics.
Sharpness/Clarity of High Definition 1080p Images
1. Mitsubishi, Panasonic
The Panasonic and Mitsubishi projectors deliver the sharpest images of the four when the source is 1080p from HD DVD or Blu-ray, and they are tied for first place. The Optoma ranks a very close second and has quite a sharp image as well, being just slightly less sharp than the first two. However, one would need to see them side by side in order to detect the difference. The Sony manifests a more apparent softness with HD sources, and falls short of the other three.
Sharpness/Clarity of Standard Definition DVD Image
2. Optoma, Mitsubishi, Sony
The Panasonic wins hands down in this category, delivering a DVD image that stands apart from the rest. It has less digital noise and ringing than the others. Meanwhile, the other three are essentially comparable.
2. Panasonic, Optoma
There is some real nitpicking going on here. The Mitsubishi is the best of the group, and the Panasonic and Optoma are tied for a very close second. Sony comes in third, but even the Sony is extremely good. With HD 1080i signals, the Mitsubishi is as stable as it gets, with very few flickering and motion artifacts even in the most difficult scenes. The Panasonic and Optoma will manifest some occasional deinterlacing artifacts that do not appear on the Mitsubishi, but the picture is for the most part solid and stable. We needed to look hard to see the differences.
These readings describe video optimized ANSI lumens in high lamp mode with zoom in wide angle position. Subtract zoom lens factor if lens is in maximum telephoto position (Note: The reason for the radical difference in zoom lens factors is that lumen variances on a given projector generally correlate to the zoom range of the lens, which differs greatly among these models):
1. Optoma: 655 lumens, -6% at max telephoto
2. Mitsubishi: 532 lumens, -24% at max telephoto
3. Panasonic: 500 lumens, -45% at max telephoto
4. Sony: 404 lumens, -25% at max telephoto
The Sony can achieve the highest contrast of the four at the expense of lumen output. The Optoma offers an excellent combination of high contrast and high lumen output. The Panasonic ranks third, and the Mitsubishi has the least contrast of the four. However, these are all high contrast projectors, and their performance is relative to one another. Even the Mitsubishi shows excellent dynamic range and sparkle.
Sony takes first place honors with the deepest, richest black level of the four. Black levels will depend upon calibration, but in general the Optoma and the Panasonic are equal for most anticipated settings that people will opt for. Black level is still quite satisfying on the Mitsubishi, but the picture is a bit brighter and blacks are less deep in optimum calibrations.
1. Panasonic: 2.0:1 powered
2. Sony: 1.72:1 powered
3. Mitsubishi: 1.60:1 powered
4. Optoma: 1.20:1 manual
1. Panasonic: 3 picture heights, 45% horizontal, manual
2. Mitsubishi: 2.5 picture heights, 10% horizontal, powered
3. Sony: 2.0 picture heights, no horizontal, powered
4. Optoma: none
1. Optoma 3 HDMI, 4 component, 1 VGA
2. Panasonic: 2 HDMI, 2 component, 1 VGA
3. Sony 2 HDMI, 1 component, 1 VGA
3. Mitsubishi 1 HDMI, 1 DVI, 1 component, 1 VGA
Audible fan noise:
3. Panasonic, Sony
The Mitsubishi is the quietest of the four, being almost silent. The Panasonic and Sony are very low in fan noise to where it is not a concern. The Optoma is the only one of the four that has enough fan noise to be concerned about. In high lamp mode, it could be a distraction unless steps were taken to isolate and baffle the noise. In low lamp mode it is a bit louder than the Panasonic and Sony, but it would not be a distraction if ceiling mounted behind the seating area.
1. Optoma and Panasonic: 3 years
2. Mitsubishi, Sony: 2 years
Extended warranties are often optional at extra cost. Check with dealers for price and availability.
- Maximum image sharpness and detail with 1080p sources
- Relatively bright in video optimized mode
- Excellent versatility for installation
- Virtually silent fan noise
- Aggressively priced at $4,495, a great value
- Contrast and black level are good, but not quite as good as the competition
- Digital noise is average with standard definition sources
For us, the overriding advantage of the Mitsubishi HC5000 is extreme
image sharpness with HD DVD and Blu-ray sources, a sharpness that is not exceeded by any 1080p projector we've seen to date, and is matched only by the Panasonic AE1000. The reason we want to spend premium dollars for a 1080p projector is to get that pristine clarity and fine detail. The Optoma comes very close, but the Sony falls somewhat short of the HC5000 in its ability to resolve fine detail in HD. While the HC5000 does not match the black level and contrast of the competing units, its razor sharp image gives it the appearance of having excellent three dimensionality in HD.
- Brightest projector in the group-great for larger screen theaters
- Excellent sharpness and detail with HD sources
- Great black level and contrast
- Extensive connectivity
- No air filter to maintain-the only one in the group that is filter-free
- Three year warranty - the longest in the group
- Lensing places restrictions on installation options
- Added cost and effort to ceiling mount
- Fan noise is above average
- Most expensive model of the four
The Optoma HD81 is the ideal solution for a larger scale home theater. It comes very close to matching the Mitsubishi HC5000 and Panasonic AE1000 in sharpness of an HD image, but it has superior black level and contrast. Even in low power mode it pumps out about 500 ANSI lumens, so it is capable of lighting up a 150" diagonal screen or larger in a way that none of the competition can. In larger viewing rooms the fan noise becomes much less relevant. It is more expensive than the others, but if you are going for a large scale theater with an image size of 150" or more, you've already putting more money into the room and screen, and going for a larger budget solution. For this type of theater, ceiling mounting is preferred, and the cost and effort to ceiling mount are non-issues. If we were building a big theater room, the Optoma HD81 is the first 1080p projector we'd be considering.
- Spectacular picture quality with DVD
- Outstanding image resolution in HD
- Reasonably bright if installed properly
- Superb black level and contrast
- Excellent versatility with zoom and lens shift
- Low fan noise
- Low price
- Short one-year warranty-extensions may offset price advantage (ask dealers about extended warranty options)
- Some calibrations and lens settings seriously curtail brightness
We were overwhelmed by the superior image quality that the AE1000 produces with standard DVDs. None of the other projectors in the group can match the AE1000's capabilities with this material. Furthermore, with the updated review of the production sample, we find that image acuity with HD sources is as good as it gets as well. Overall, due to exceptional performance with both HD and DVD, the Panasonic AE1000 is our favorite among the 1080p models we've seen so far.
- Deep black level and very high contrast
- Excellent color saturation
- Long zoom range for ease of installation
- Beautiful casework design
- Low fan noise
- Least bright of the four units
- HD & SD images are the softest of the four
- Average digital noise in standard definition
If the Sony VPL-VW50 is the only 1080p projector you've seen, then you will love its bold, rich picture with its very deep blacks and great color saturation. On its own it is a pleasure to watch and we certainly understand the enthusiastic accolades it is receiving from users.
One of the anticipated hot features of the reflective SXRD technology is the lack of pixelation. In this shootout, only the Panasonic AE1000 had zero pixel structure when viewed up close, while the other three models each had some degree of visible pixel structure. Of those, the Sony had the softest pixel grid. The Optoma HD81 (DLP) and Mitsubishi HC5000 (LCD w/ Microlens) had pixel grids that were more distinct, with the Mitsubishi being just a bit more distinct than the Optoma. But in 1080p resolution, none of the technologies are producing any pixelation that is visible from normal viewing distances, so it is not as much of a competitive issue as it once was. It is noteworthy that the two projectors with the softest images were also those with the least well defined pixel structure.
Once the Sony was set up against the competition, we found its softness to be distracting to the point that it outweighed its black level and saturation advantages. The Mitsubishi and Optoma both produce much sharper images in HD, and the Panasonic delivers a much superior image in SD.