NOTE: This article, written and posted on February 25, replaces a preliminary article on the same subject that was posted on February 6. It includes new and updated information on a number of topics related to the Epson 6500UB and Panasonic AE3000.
Effective this week, Epson is offering a $500 mail-in rebate on the 6500 UB and 7500 UB. This means that the Epson 6500 UB and the Panasonic AE3000 are both selling at official street prices of $2500. As of this writing, there are no other 1080p models around this price that offer the combination of brightness, contrast, color performance, image sharpness, and features that these two models offer. There are less expensive 1080p models like the Sanyo Z700 and the Epson Home Cinema 6100 that do not offer the performance or features, and sell for under $2,000. And there are certainly a wide range of models at every price point above $2,500 that each have their own price/performance proposition. Some of them are excellent values. But for buyers wanting to budget around $2500 for a projector, these are the two models that, at the moment, are the most formidable offerings in this price range. We say "at the moment" because the SharpVision Z15000 is coming to market later this spring and is expected to be priced at $2500 as well.
So, without further ado, the latest notes comparing the Epson 6500 UB with the Panasonic AE3000 are as follows:
Brightness. The 6500UB and the AE3000 are both rated at 1600 ANSI lumens. However, the brightest image we can get out of the 6500 measured 1805 lumens, whereas the brightest image on the AE3000 measured 1273 lumens. These measurements were taken with fresh lamps. Due to the long test period, we were able to put more hours on these units than we normally do for a review. So we remeasured lumens and found that after 150 hours of operation, the 6500 UB's light output had diminished from 1805 to 1531, or 15%. Meanwhile, after 200 hours of operation, the AE3000's light output had diminished from 1273 to 1152, or about 9%. Thus at this point in time, in their brightest modes, the 6500UB is brighter than the AE3000 by about 33%. This extra light will give somewhat more sizzle to a picture in a well-lit room. These dynamic modes are best used for lights-on projection, say for Super Bowl parties and such. They are far too bright for use in a dark theater environment.
Cinema/Theater modes. Since light output has eroded in all operating modes on both the 6500 UB and AE3000 since we first measured them, we have taken new measurements across the board. In their respective cinema modes, after 150 hours of operation on the 6500UB and 200 hours on the AE3000, the current lumen readings are as follows:
6500UB Theater Black 1.....408......(480)
6500UN Theater Black 2.....490......(577)
AE3000 Cinema 1 ............358......(385)
AE3000 Cinema 2 ............438......(470)
AE3000 Cinema 3 ............422......(459*)
(*Note: due to some confusion in our notes, the original AE3000 review reported an erroneous reading in Cinema 3 of 566. It actually measured 459. Mea culpa.)
Thus, the Theater and Theater Black 2 modes on the 6500UB are brighter than any of the Cinema modes on the AE3000. However, even the AE3000's Cinema 1 option is entirely functional in a dark viewing room. I watched a film over the weekend in my theater using the AE3000 in Cinema 1 mode and a 120" diagonal Stewart Grayhawk (gain 0.9). The walls of the theater are dark gray, the furnishings are dark, but the 12' ceiling is white. The zoom lens was set to its midpoint, which curtails light by about 20%. Thus, I had about 300 lumens on the screen, and it was quite sufficient. A significantly brighter image would have produced eyestrain over a long period of time.
Intermediate Brightness Options. In addition to the dynamic and cinema/theater modes on the two projectors, each has a brighter option that is between the cinema/theater options and dynamic. On the 6500UB it is called Natural, and on the AE3000 it is called Normal. The 6500UB's Natural mode with Epson Super White turned off and a new lamp measured 659 lumens, or just slightly brighter than the Theater setting. After 150 hours of operation, Natural now measures 561. Activating Epson Super White (which is an option in this mode) reduces lumen output, and causes the current reading on Natural mode to drop from 561 to 490. Thus, with Super White on, the light output isn't any different than the Theater settings.
The AE3000's Normal mode originally measured 792 lumens with a fresh lamp, and after 200 hours of operation it now measures 726. So this option is definitely a major step up in brightness from the Cinema modes, but not as bright as Dynamic. It is also a step up in brightness as compared to any of the 6500's Theater and Natural modes. It is possible to color adjust this mode to an excellent level of cinema performance. Select Normal if you have a white ceiling, light colored walls and furnishings, and some indirect ambient light in the room. It is also the mode to select for a much larger low-gain screen, say about 200" diagonal, in a dark viewing room.
Contrast and black level. Both the 6500UB and the AE3000 have advantages over the other when it comes to contrast. The 6500UB has a higher on/off contrast rating (75,000:1 vs. 60,000:1). That is primarily because the 6500UB's auto iris will close down more than will the AE3000's. So when a scene fades to black, you get a noticeably deeper black from the 6500UB. Similarly, in dark scenes that have a lot of black, the black will be richer on the 6500UB in those scenes.
However, the AE3000 has higher ANSI contrast. We measured it at 446:1 as compared to the 6500UB's 389:1. What that means is that in scenes with a lot of mid-tones, plus highlights and dark elements, contrast will appear a bit higher on the AE3000 than it does on the 6500UB. Blacks are blacker and whites are brighter on the AE3000 in this type of scene.
In order to see the difference, you need to set them up side by side in operating modes that are essentially equivalent in light output, such as the 6500UB's Theater Black 1 against the AE3000's Cinema 3. You also need to have gamma settings adjusted for equality in mid-tones, and you need to be in a dark room. Once you add ambient light into the mix, the contrast differences become irrelevant.
So... the 6500UB wins the black level contest in very dark scenes like cityscapes at night, and images of deep space in Star Wars. It wins in fading to black, and in rolling credits with a black background. In these instances, the 6500UB can produce a black that is deeper than any black the AE3000 will produce. Conversely, in scenes of average light level with a lot of mid-tone values, the AE3000 will deliver somewhat greater dynamic range, and incrementally deeper blacks than the 6500UB.
Color accuracy and saturation. Though the 6500UB has a variety of modes that are brighter than their counterparts on the AE3000, the AE3000's operating modes are superior to the 6500UB in color balance and color saturation. The 6500UB's default settings, though brighter, typically look cooler and less saturated. You can get into the 6500UB's color and brightness/contrast controls and dial in a picture that has better saturation and balance, but in so doing the brightness of the picture is reduced somewhat. Conversely, if you want to get a brighter image out of the AE3000, you can boost brightness and contrast, increase color temperature, and sacrifice some color saturation. You end up with a picture that looks quite similar to the 6500UB's default settings. The bottom line is that with some adjustment of color, contrast, brightness, and gamma controls, each of these projectors can be made to look almost identical to the other.
By the way, there is no question that the factory default settings on the 6500 UB have more visual appeal out of the box than do the settings on the AE3000. The 6500 has a brighter picture in its Theater modes, the sharpness control has some built in artificial edge enhancement, mid-tones are more open, and blacks in dark scenes are blacker. To the casual observer, the 6500 appears immediately to be brighter, sharper, and more engaging than the AE3000. What is less visually obvious in a side by side comparison is that the AE3000's picture at its default settings is higher in dynamic range in the average scene, and it has more accurate color and better color saturation. Moreover, you can go into the AE3000 picture adjustments to increase sharpness, open up mid-tones, and make the picture look very close to the 6500. Conversely, on the 6500 you can reduce the edge enhancement, increase color saturation, and adjust color controls to make it look very close to the AE3000. There are some differences in picture characteristics between these two projectors. But they are not as dramatic as you'd imagine based on a side by side demo at their factory default settings.
Digital Noise. Both projectors have noise reduction filters that default to the Off position. When the filters are off, the 6500UB shows quite a bit more digital noise in the picture as compared to the AE3000. The 6500UB's noise reduction filter gives you four settings, which are Off, 1, 2, and 3, with 3 being the most aggressive. If you could set the 6500UB's noise filter half way between 2 and 3, you'd end up with a picture that has about the same level of noise as the AE3000 has with its filters off. With the 6500UB's filter set to 3, you get a very clean picture. But there are some occasional artifacts that make the picture look a bit unreal, and when they occur it can be distracting. Each user will have different opinions about where the noise reduction filter on the 6500UB produces the best overall solution, so we have no recommendation in this regard.
The AE3000 has noise reduction filters as well, and activating them does reduce noise in the image. However, noise is less apparent overall on the AE3000, so we suspect that many users will choose to leave the filters off. Once again, we have no recommendation on the best setting-it is a matter of personal preference for each user.
Sharpness. There is no difference in image sharpness between the AE3000 and the 6500UB. I posted a separate article on this subject two weeks ago, so for more on this issue, please read this piece.
Audible noise. The AE3000 is the quieter of the two projectors, although neither one is very loud. Fan noise from the AE3000 is a low-pitched whisper, and the auto iris is silent. Meanwhile, fan noise from the 6500UB in full lamp mode is a bit louder and higher in frequency. However, the fan noise on the 6500UB is not objectionable. On our test sample, the 6500UB's auto iris creates an additional audible presence, a sort of rattling sound, that we wish was not there. However, our 7500UB is much quieter in this regard.
Pixelation. The AE3000's Smooth Screen filter reduces visible pixel structure to almost nothing. On the 6500, pixel structure is distinct and visible when examined close up. At normal viewing distances of one screen-width or greater, neither projector has any visible pixelation.
Connectivity. The AE3000 has three HDMI ports, the 6500UB has two. The AE3000 has two component video inputs, the 6500UB has one. Both projectors have one each of composite, S-video, VGA, and RS-232C. The 6500UB has a 12-volt trigger, and the AE3000 does not.
Frame Interpolation. Both of these projectors have the ability to create interim frames that are intended to reduce motion judder. Between the two, the AE3000 has the more robust system. We were originally informed by Epson that the 6500UB, with a 1080p/24 signal, will look at two frames and create a single frame that is a half step between them. However, that appears to have been an inadvertent error. More recently, Epson says the 6500UB actually creates four interim frames for each real frame.
Meanwhile, the AE3000 will analyze either two frames (in Mode 1) or three frames (in Mode 2), and generate three interim frames that are each a quarter step between two real frames. The AE3000's Mode 2 is by far the more powerful of the two modes. It is capable of rendering a picture that is virtually free of judder, without introducing any bothersome artifacts.
Regardless of how many interim frames the 6500 is creating, its frame interpolation system is less successful. It does not render quite as smooth a picture, and it introduces some occasional ghosting, tearing during rapid panning, and other unusual artifacts that can be distracting. Moreover, the 6500's picture is much more prone to the digital video, or Soap Opera effect than is the AE3000. Looking at the two side by side with both systems on and the AE3000 in Mode 2, the 6500UB can look like live HDTV broadcast, whereas the AE3000 usually retains a more film-like look and feel.
As of this writing, Epson is planning to release a modified version of their FI system in order to address the weaknesses in the current implementation. After we've had a chance to review it, we will update this section as well as the 6500 UB review itself.
2.35 CIH Options. Some people are going for screens that are wider than 16:9 these days. Since many films are being made in 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 format, a lot of folks are opting for screens in this format so you can see these films in CinemaScope widescreen format without any black bars. The system is set up to display all aspect ratios less than or equal to 2.35:1 at the same screen height, which is where the Constant Image Height (CIH) designation comes from.
Most people who are setting up 2.35 CIH rigs are using anamorphic lenses which optically stretch the image to the full width of the screen. In order to accommodate an anamorphic lens, you need to have the image digitally stretched vertically, so that the lens can undo the distortion and end up with a picture in proper aspect ratio. The AE3000 comes with the vertical stretch mode on board, while the 6500 UB does not. In order to use an anamorphic lens with the 6500UB, you need to use an external video processor to accomplish the digital vertical stretch.
In addition, the AE3000 makes use of its powered zoom lens by including a feature called Lens Memory. With this feature you can set up a 2.35 CIH system without incurring the substantial cost of the anamorphic lens. Basically, it lets you zoom the lens to a wide angle setting to fill an entire 2.35 screen when watching a 2.35 movie. Then when you switch to 16:9 or 4:3 material, the projector will zoom the lens forward such that the material fills the screen vertically. It will also, within limits, adjust the height of the picture in the frame so it fits your screen. It accomplishes all of this at the press of a button.
Since the 6500 UB has a manual zoom lens, no similar automatic feature exists on it. However, you can accomplish the same thing by manually adjusting the zoom lens and lens shift each time you switch from 2.35 subject matter to 16:9 or 4:3. If you plan to do this, ceiling mounting your projector is not recommended.
Lamp life. The 6500UB has a standard 4000 hour lamp life whether you run in full power or low lamp mode. The AE3000 has a standard 2000 hour lamp, with lamp life extended to 3000 hours in eco-mode.
Warranty. A two-year warranty is included standard with the price of the 6500 UB. A one-year warranty comes with the price of the AE3000, and a free second year extension is available with a mail-in rebate.
The Epson 6500UB and the Panasonic AE3000 are two industry-leading 1080p projectors priced at $2,500 (straight price in Panny's case, and after a $500 mail-in rebate in Epson's case.) They are both capable of delivering outstanding image quality. How does one choose between them?
There are simply too many factors to consider to make a blanket statement about one being better than the other. As I have tried to make clear in this comparison, each has unique features that trump the other. It is up to you to examine these differences, and determine which one are important to you, given your own theater and projection needs. I can make you just one promise...whichever one you choose, you are going to love it.