The single most influential competitive duel in the home theater projector market is the annual face-off between Panasonic and Sanyo in their respective offerings of LCD-based 16:9 widescreen projectors aimed at the mass consumer market. In the last few years Panasonic as debuted (in chronological order) the PT-AE300, the PT-AE500, the PT-AE700, and now the PT-AE900, while Sanyo has responded in kind with the PLV-Z1, the PLV-Z2, the PLV-Z3, and their latest offering, the PLV-Z4. Each year they get better and better, but this year the leap forward in price/performance is likely to rock the industry in a way we have not yet seen.
The annual battle of the LCD products between Panasonic and Sanyo has had a significant impact on the otherwise DLP-dominated home theater projector market. The presence of competitive 720p resolution LCD projectors in the street price range of about $2,000 has forced the prices of the more expensive DLP-based 720p projectors to erode more rapidly than they otherwise would have. Furthermore, with each new release of the latest LCD models, the earlier models drop in price. Since consumers can often find last year's 720p models selling at street prices under $1500, this has forced the price of the lower resolution 480p DLP products down to street prices of $1,000 and less. The bottom line is that without the aggressive annual face-off between Sanyo and Panasonic taking place in the sweet-spot of the consumer home theater market, projector prices across the board at every level of performance would have been higher than they are today.
In last year's competition, the Panasonic AE700 became the most successful of the 720p LCD projectors yet released by either Panasonic or Sanyo. The AE700 captured a much greater market share than did the Sanyo Z3 for several reasons, including Panasonic's innovative move to incorporate a 2.0x zoom lens in the AE700, which made the product more adaptable to a wider variety of installations. It also featured improved "smooth screen" technology that reduced visible pixilation and largely eliminated the traditional screendoor effect that has always been a downside to LCD technology. Consumers loved the AE700's compelling combination of features and went for it in droves.
Evidently, someone at Sanyo said, "enough is enough." For Sanyo's brilliant response this year in the form of the PLV-Z4 constitutes a clear message that Sanyo will not concede long term market share in the consumer home theater market to Panasonic, or anyone else for that matter. The PLV-Z4 is Sanyo's strongest home theater product by far. The big question is--how do these two formidable products compare?
The PLV-Z4 vs. the PT-AE900U
The Z4 and the AE900 both represent major steps forward in LCD technology. Contrast is increased significantly beyond last year's models, and high contrast is most important in the delivery of a satisfying video image. The Z4 is rated at 7000:1, and the AE900 is rated at 5,500:1. However, these are theoretical ratings based upon the behavior of the dynamic iris and dynamic gamma configuration. Furthermore, it would be difficult for the eye to perceive the difference between these two ratings. The only relevant issue here is how the projected images appear to the viewer in a side-by-side test.
We recalibrated each of these projectors for various viewing conditions. We used the preprogrammed settings for each as starting points, and optimized them for small, medium, and large screen applications. In general, we found it to be easier to achieve somewhat higher contrast with the Z4, which manifested a noticeable edge in contrast particularly in shadows and mid-tones.
A related but different characteristic is black levels. On both of these units, black levels will vary based upon how the dynamic components of the system are adjusted to average light levels in the material being displayed. When there is a preponderance of black matter in the scene, as in a view of deep space in a Star Trek film, the AE900 routinely adjusts to achieve a deeper black than does the Z4. Meanwhile, the Z4 manifests some low level illumination that translates into a lighter shade of black. Conversely, when the average light level in the picture is higher and there is a mix of bright, mid-tone, and dark elements in the image, black objects are rendered with deeper black on the Z4 than on the AE900, producing a perceptibly higher contrast in the image overall.
This comparative black level effect will vary based on the calibrations chosen to "optimize" overall performance. One could, for example, adjust gamma on the AE900 to deepen blacks in the brighter scenes so that it more closely approximates the Z4's image. Conversely, you could close down the manual iris on the Z4 all the way to its minimum position, and thereby achieve a solid black level on the Star Trek deep space image comparable to that of the AE900. However, in so doing, the overall luminance of the Z4's image is diminished to an unsatisfactory level. In point of fact, we preferred to operate the Z4 with its manual iris in wide open position, for even with the iris fully open it was able to match the AE900's contrast while delivering and overall brighter image.
The combination of calibration variables available to the user of either of these projectors is virtually limitless. With dynamic lamp modes, dynamic iris, dynamic gamma, and a manual iris on the Z4, there is no such thing as a uniquely optimum calibration. They are built to be used in a variety of viewing situations.
There is a difference in visible pixelation between these two models. The AE900 incorporates a feature known as Smooth Screen technology which eliminates pixel structure entirely, even when the image is viewed up close from just a few inches away. When examined from a close distance the pixels are blurred such that they blend with one another. In a graphic line that consists of, say, three rows of pixels, there is no evidence of them-they are blurred into a solid continuum. Thus the AE900 has no pixel artifacting, and no screen door effect.
Conversely, a close examination of the Z4's image reveals very sharp and distinct individual pixels, and the pixel matrix upon which the image is constructed is obvious. In our graphic line consisting of three lines of pixels, the three lines are sharp and well defined. However, the visibility of the pixel grid disappears fairly quickly as one backs away from the screen. In video imagery the pixel grid disappears at a viewing distance of 1.3 times the screen's horizontal width, and in graphics it disappears at about 1.5x the screen width. Thus if your screen is 7 feet wide, visible pixel structure in video becomes inconsequential at a viewing distance of about 9 feet.
Overall, we were able to achieve a slightly sharper image on the Z4 even with all edge enhancement controls turned off. However, the Z4's advantage in sharpness became particularly noticeable when its "transient improvement" control was activated (see Z4 review). Though this gave the Z4 image an obvious boost in sharpness, it came with a penalty in the form of noise when objects were in motion. Nevertheless, we would suspect that many users would prefer the sharper image along with the noise for most viewing applications.
By comparison, the AE900's image has a subtle softness to it that is not really noticeable until you see it side by side with the Z4. Standing by itself, the AE900's image does not appear fuzzy by any means, and overall there is a filmlike smoothness that is gained by the smooth screen feature. However, when the two images are viewed from a viewing distance of 1.5 times the screen width, the Z4 can be adjusted to deliver an incremental sharpness and clarity as compared to the AE900. This holds true for both standard definition and HD sources.
Overall, the Z4's higher contrast and greater sharpness combine to produce an image that can be described has having greater depth-in other words, it tends to appear more three dimensional. So there is a trade-off to be aware of. If you plan to set up a very large screen presentation, and sit at a distance of about 1.3 times the screen width or closer, the lack of visible pixel structure on the AE900 will give it a distinct advantage over the Z4. On the other hand, if you plan to view from a distance of 1.5 times the screen width or greater, visible pixelation on the Z4 becomes a non issue, while its higher contrast and potentially greater sharpness give it an advantage over the AE900.
In terms of color accuracy, the AE900 has an advantage here. Panasonic has put great effort into ensuring as close to perfect color reproduction as possible. We were able to obtain a gray scale on the AE900 that tracked very close to 6500K across the entire step scale with relatively little effort. Conversely, it took some work to get the Z4 into line, and even then we had a persistence of subtle red in the highlights that we could not quite get rid of entirely. While we were able to maintain 6500K from 30 IRE to 80 IRE, color temperature was falling off to 5600K at 100 IRE. Furthermore, saturated reds contained a slight orange bias on the Z4, whereas they were more accurate on the AE900.
One final performance difference between these two products relates to their deinterlacing capabilities. The AE900 will render a standard interlaced 480i signal with rock solid performance. Standard television broadcast material still has its inherent limitations that no projector can overcome, but this type of programming is reliably clean and stable on the AE900. Conversely, the Z4 delivers an abundance of deinterlacing artifacts along with a standard television signal to the point where it is difficult to watch. Therefore, users of the Z4 will be best served by avoiding the internal deinterlacer. This can be achieved by using a good progressive scan DVD player, and a satellite or cable set top box that cleanly converts to 480p or upscales to 720p, or an external video processor.
No vertical banding was visible on either the Z4 or the three AE900s that were available to us. That does not mean that nobody will ever encounter vertical banding on either of these models. This is something that occurs in the manufacture of LCD panels, and though the quality controls have been tighened up enough to weed out most problem panels, a few can slip through into production units. The Z4 has an on-board adjustment mechanism to correct for this. But in any event, you should make it a point to buy from a dealer who has established good customer satisfaction ratings, and who has a consumer-friendly return policy in case of problems with the unit you receive.
Fan noise is generally not a problem for either unit. In high lamp mode, the AE900's fan noise is noticeable if the projector is sitting close to the viewer, whereas the Z4 is quieter. In low power mode both units are very quiet, but once again the Z4 is the quieter of the two.
Sanyo offers a three-year warranty with the price of the unit, and Panasonic offers a one-year warranty.
Each of these units has particular features that are covered in the individual reviews. For more details, click here for the review of the Panasonic PT-AE900U, and here for the review of the Sanyo PLV-Z4. They are both formidable products, and both set a new bar for price/performance in the home theater industry.