As regular readers are aware, we are seeing quite a few dramatic new product releases in the world of 720p resolution home theater projectors at the moment. We have already reviewed the Sanyo PLV-Z4, the Panasonic PT-AE900U, and the Mitsubishi HC3000. We are currently looking at the Epson Cinema 550 and the Hitachi HDPJ52, but those reviews have not been completed as of yet. We are awaiting arrival of a new sample of the BenQ PE7700, as BenQ says that this unit has been upgraded since its release six months ago. My intent was to look at all of these units, then provide some overall commentary as to how they stack up. Ultimately we will do that.

However, we are getting email asking for us to compare the AE900, the PLV-Z4, and the HC3000. Waiting another month before posting a full assessment of all of the 720p products would lead to some frustration among readers who are eager to make some decisions for the holidays. So I want to take a moment to give you my personal impressions of what is going on in the world of 720p resolution home theater projectors, at least as I view it so far. These will be interim observations that I will modify and expand upon as we gain further experience with the entire complement of products in this category.

I'd also like to emphasize that the comments below are based upon my preferences and personal tastes. Be aware that my tastes may not be yours, and reasonable people looking at two different projectors side by side can come to different conclusions as to which one is "best." Thus, I will try to describe what I see, and why I prefer what I do. But take my comments, along with those of any other reviewer, with a grain of salt. There is clearly room for more than one opinion on the ideal trade-offs between features, image quality, and selling price.

Overview

Until several months ago, the traditional market dynamics related to DLP and LCD 720p projectors remained unthreatened: DLP continued to be recognized as a superior video technology, and LCD was the lower cost alternative that, while not matching DLP performance, offered exceptional price/performance. But with the release of the Sanyo PLV-Z4 and the Panasonic AE900, the truth has changed. These products represent major leaps forward in video quality, and they have largely closed the performance gap with their DLP competition. Moreover, they do so while retaining their aggressive price points, selling at street prices in the low $2,000 range as did their predecessors. Suddenly, then, we are seeing a startling paradigm shift-LCD projectors that can meet, and in many important respects exceed the performance of DLP projectors that are more expensive.

In prior generations, there was no question that DLP projectors were superior in black level, contrast, and muted pixel structure. Despite the fact that LCD projectors could often outperform DLP in color saturation, their comparative deficiencies in these other areas meant that DLP could continue to command higher prices. However, this is no longer the case. The Panasonic AE900 has eliminated all trace of pixel structure, and now outperforms DLP products in this regard. And while the Sanyo PLV-Z4 has a more distinctive pixel structure, the high resolution 1280x720 format along with the reduction in interpixel gap has made visible pixel structure an inconsequential issue.

Both the Panasonic AE900 and the Sanyo PLV-Z4 have improved black levels and dynamic range that substantially reduces the critical performance advantage that DLP has always relied upon. The PLV-Z4 allows the user to adjust the black level and contrast through a manual iris that can be set at any one of 64 positions between its maximum and minimum settings. As the iris is closed, lumen output decreases, and blacks and contrast are improved. This allows the Z4 to be set to optimize performance in either a completely darkened theater room, or in a room with modest ambient light and light-colored reflective surfaces. The ideal setting will depend upon the room environment, the screen size, and the user's aesthetic preferences. But when the iris is closed down toward the maximum end of the adjustment range, the Z4 can come reasonably close to replicating the performance of DLP in terms of black levels and contrast. Meanwhile, the AE900 is even better at approaching the black levels of DLP than is the Z4. Nevertheless, DLP still has an incremental advantage over both the Z4 and the AE900 in this respect, but it is no longer a difference of major significance that would outweigh other performance criteria.

The least expensive of the 720p widescreen DLP projectors at the moment are the Mitsubishi HC3000, the BenQ PE7700, and the Sharp Z2000, all selling for under $3,000. In addition, the HC3000 has the honor of being the first DLP projector to come to market with TI's new BrilliantColor(TM) processing. Yet these DLP products are still selling for more than the new LCD products from Sanyo and Panasonic. Is there any performance advantage that warrants the higher price?

Personally, I do not see it. I have spent a great deal of time viewing these projectors side by side with identical sources. And the simple fact is that, while each of them has unique advantages over the others, if I were to select one for my own use while ignoring price as a factor, I would select the Sanyo Z4. Here are the reasons: First, I see a sharper image on the Z4 than I do on virtually any other projector under $10,000 other than the BenQ 8720, which also has a razor sharp image. I value this extremely sharp image acuity over most other performance criteria.

There are a number of other features that I like about the Z4 as well. It has a combination of beautiful color saturation, black level, and contrast that makes me sit back and say, "Now that is a terrific picture." I like the ability to adjust the iris to meet the varying needs of my projection environment, from Super Bowl party to serious theater. The fan noise is non-existent. It comes with a three-year warranty. And I like the automatic shut down of the lamp after five minutes of inactivity to save lamp life. The automatic closing of the lens housing upon shutdown is very cool. Finally, the 2x zoom lens and extensive lens shift mean I can put it in virtually any room on a rear shelf without the muss and fuss of ceiling mounting. What more can one want from a home theater projector?

Of course, there are those who would take exception to this assessment. Many will prefer the Panasonic AE900 because it has zero pixelation. And if you sit very close to the screen, that is a very legitimate issue. I don't like to sit that close to a screen because I don't like the feeling of sitting in the front row of a tennis match-my head and eyes get weary moving from side to side. When I go to a movie theater I tend to sit more than half way back so I can see the full screen without a lot of physical head or eye movement on my part to assimilate it. Accordingly, I tend to sit back to a distance of about 1.7 times the screen width in my home theater for the same reason. However, there are those who like the all-enveloping feeling of a massive picture in front of their noses, and they sit closer to the screen-a good friend of mine thinks 1.2 times the screen with is just right for him. For these folks, the AE900 will offer a pixel-free viewing experience that the Z4 cannot. The Z4 has a sharper image than the AE900, but this is only obvious in a side by side comparison; standing alone the AE900 looks reasonably sharp, and certainly comparable to most DLP products it is put up against; it is not anything an AE900 user would notice as a deficiency.

Then there are those who would opt for the Mitsubishi HC3000 over either of the LCD products. The primary image quality advantage of the HC3000 is an incrementally deeper black level, and better shadow detail in dark scenes. For those who crave the deepest blacks possible, the HC3000 will have strong appeal. There is also the issue of the 768 line native display, which is ideal for XGA and WXGA computer signals. I don't use those formats in my home theater, so the 768-line format is of no use to me. But for those who do want to project native 768 line signals without compression or cropping, the HC3000 will do it, while the others will not. Then there is the filter-free feature that is unique on the HC3000--a great benefit that eliminates having to think about cleaning that filter every couple of months.

On the other hand, I personally find the HC3000's picture overall to be softer and noisier than that of the Z4, and the Z4's color saturation is superior; meanwhile, I find the black levels on the Z4, although not quite as deep, to be adequate to produce a thoroughly satisfying image. However, that is just my personal preference. Others would argue that incremental black level and better resolution of shadow details that are apparent on the HC3000 are hugely important, and that the HC3000's image is to be preferred for these reasons.

As noted in the HC3000 review, a limitation of the HC3000 is the short 1.2x zoom range and the lack of physical lens shift. Thus the optimal installation of the HC3000 for many users will be to ceiling mount it. Frankly, the last thing I want to do is ceiling mount a projector. I do not want to spend extra money on the ceiling mount and long run video cables; I do not want to run cables through the ceiling and walls and patch up the drywall afterward. And I do not want to pay a custom installer to do it all for me. What I want is to be able to tuck the projector away on a shelf on a rear wall, and simply adjust the zoom lens and lens shift controls to fill the screen on my front wall.

Last year Panasonic led the industry with the innovative 2.0x zoom lens and associated lens shift on the AE700. I was extremely enthused by that development, as it opened up a huge consumer market. It meant that no matter what your room size and desired screen size, the odds were significantly increased that you could install the AE700 on a bookshelf and avoid the cost and nuisance of the ceiling mount. People want home theater, but they want it to be easy and inexpensive to install. The long zoom range plus lens shift that Panasonic introduced delivers just that.

Conclusion

This year, Sanyo's PLV-Z4 has matched the 2.0x zoom range of its competition from Panasonic, and added the numerous other performance features noted above. For my tastes, it is an outstanding projector that outperforms every other 720p projector that we've put it up against so far, whether it be LCD or DLP. The fact that it is also the least expensive of the new 720p products, as well as one of the few to include a standard 3-year warranty, is a strange anomaly in the marketplace to be sure. But someone at Sanyo decided to get very aggressive this year, and they did it in spades. It is difficult to beat the overall value proposition represented by the Z4.

The Panasonic AE900 is also one of the elite price/performers on the market in the 720p category, selling for a very aggressive price in the low $2,000s. Many consumers will prefer it to the Z4 due to the absence of pixelation and its exceptional color accuracy. Together with the Z4, these two models represent a one-two punch that will cause many people to question the traditional supremacy of DLP as the preferred video technology. Few people expected LCD to show this well against its DLP competition.

The Mitsubishi HC3000 is an aggressively priced WXGA resolution DLP projector with unique features that are absent from the LCD competition, such as native 768-line display and maintenance-free operation as far as filters are concerned. It is one of the lowest priced DLP products in this general resolution group, and produces a picture that is equal to or better than many more expensive DLP products. Deep black levels and good shadow detail are strong suits, and for those who place a premium value on these picture attributes, the HC3000 is an excellent choice for the money. The optics produce some inherent restrictions as to where it can be placed to achieve a particular image size, but if it fits into your viewing space geometry it will produce a brilliant sparkling picture that will dazzle friends and neighbors.

Hopefully this overview will clarify some of the salient differences between these extraordinary new 720p projectors, and help you to decide which of them might be the right one for your new home theater. They are each strong enough competitors to attract an avid following, and there is certain to be ongoing debate among home theater enthusiasts as to which of them may be the "best" overall projector in this price and resolution class.