Editor's Choice Award
Our Editor's Choice award goes to products that dramatically exceed expectations for performance, value, or cutting-edge design.
It was October, 2009, almost two years ago, when Panasonic began shipping its last home theater projector--the popular PT-AE4000. The company had been releasing new home theater projectors every year, regular as clockwork, since 2001. But they fell silent last year; no announcement of a new model, and no peep about plans for a future model. People wondered whether they had quietly bowed out of the home theater projector business.
Then came the announcement on July 28--the industry's first LCD-based 3D 1080p projector was on its way: the PT-AE7000U. And at the heart of the AE7000's light engine is an all-new, super high speed LCD technology that supports refresh rates of a whopping 480Hz--double the speed of the next fastest imaging technology released thus far.
The Viewing Experience
Before we get to the details of the review, let's go over how we set it up in our theater, and what we saw. After checking out the various operating modes, our preferred viewing mode was Cinema 1. We measured this mode at 526 lumens with the lens at the wide angle setting and the lamp on Normal (full). Now, the first question many will ask is--Is this enough light? After all, many home theater projectors put out quite a bit more than 526 lumens. But they generally don't carry a 300,000:1 contrast ratio.
We wanted to stretch it out to see what would happen. So in a fully dark room, we set up the AE7000 with a ten-foot wide, 2.40 Scope format Stewart Studiotek 100 (white, 1.0 gain). The projection distance was 13.5 feet, the lens was at its wide angle position, and we were viewing from a distance of 12 feet, or 1.2x the screen width. That's probably about as close as most people would want to view a screen of this format.
With this set-up, the picture was vibrant, engaging, and (believe it or not) slightly too bright. It would be visually taxing to view a two-hour movie at that screen size, from that distance, and at that level of illumination. Dropping the projector into eco mode reduced the brightness by 27%, to a bit under 400 lumens. This was a more comfortable light level. However, the picture lost some of its dynamic snap, in part due to the use of the Studiotek 100. This screen is great for lab tests but not recommended for home theater. If we were using a Stewart Studiotek 130 (white 1.3 gain), or a similar product such as the Da-lite Cinema Vision 1.3 gain white screen, it would provide incremental snap and render Cinema 1 eco mode quite serviceable at this screen size.
Keep in mind that for optimum results the room needs to have no ambient light, and walls, ceilings, furnishings, etc. should be dark and non-reflective. And don't overlook those LED status lights on electronic equipment in the rack; those lights can be screaming bright in a fully dark room, and they need to be turned off or covered to prevent them from compromising black levels on the screen.
So in this environment, the contrast of the AE7000 was sufficient to support a beautiful image on a ten-foot wide screen using Cinema 1 in eco mode. That's great for 2D, you may be thinking, but what about 3D? We always lose a tremendous amount of light in 3D operation. I was thinking we'd have to reduce image size to get a viable 3D picture. But we switched to 3D and left the picture at the full ten-foot width just to see how bad it would look.
In 3D the black levels drop like a rock and lumen output is severely curtailed. But the human eye is extremely efficient at adjusting to low light levels, and after a few seconds, we ended up with a sparkling 3D picture that was thoroughly engaging, even at ten feet wide in Cinema 1. I am not a huge fan of 3D, but the experience of seeing a clean, vibrant, high contrast 3D image on this large screen was impressive indeed.
For those who might want a brighter image, the AE7000 has an excellent alternate operating mode--Normal, which puts out 1300 lumens. In the 2D world it is useful for ambient light situations. By flipping the projector into Normal mode, lumen output is more than doubled and the 3D picture becomes more vibrant yet. Quite honestly, this 3D experience on a ten-foot wide screen right in my own home was, for me, more visually engaging than the viewing of Avatar in a 3D IMAX theater.
Panasonic's target market for the AE7000 is the dedicated videophile--the person who wants the best possible home theater image quality, and is willing to create the proper dark theater space to achieve it. Nevertheless, Normal mode puts out 1300 lumens of exceptionally high quality, color balanced video. So the AE7000 has the muscle to accommodate some ambient light without compromising image quality, if and when the need arises.
Picture Quality in 2D. The AE7000 delivers outstanding image quality for conventional 2D home theater. Descriptors like smooth, elegant, rich, and natural come to mind. The picture has excellent dynamic range, good edge to edge sharpness, and a low level of noise even with the noise reduction filters off. These factors contribute to an exceptional clarity and depth.
The AE7000's image is just sharp enough to look clean and natural, without pushing sharpness to an extreme that it looks digital or artificial. Visible pixelation is non-existent, due in part to the SmoothScreen filters that have been deployed on Panasonic home theater products for many years. Though there is little noise in the picture with the noise filter off, the filter can be set to low to reduce what little noise there is. This is accomplished without any apparent compromise in fine detail.
Though HD source material looks pristine, the AE7000 also does an outstanding job with DVDs. The high contrast and low noise contributes to a natural rendering of DVDs, assuming the DVDs are good transfers to begin with. Our DVD of U-571, upscaled to 1080p/60 on a Panasonic Blu-ray player, looks as close to HD quality on the AE7000 as we have ever seen it on any 1080p projector.
Picture Quality in 3D. The use of high speed 480 Hz LCD panels gives the AE7000 a competitive advantage in 3D imaging over 3D projectors that use 240Hz or 120Hz imaging devices. The speed of the devices allows the LCD shutters in the glasses to be open a greater percentage of the time. On a 240Hz system, the LCD shutters on the right and left eyes are simultaneously closed 50% of the time; each eye is individually open for half of the remaining 50% of the time. On a 480Hz system, the time that both eyes are closed is cut from 50% to 25%. For the remaining 75% of the time either the right eye or the left eye is open. This contributes to a brighter 3D image, but it also aids in the reduction of crosstalk. The result is a 3D picture that is clearer, cleaner, and more stable than that which can be achieved with slower imaging technology.
The AE7000 also features a proprietary 3D OverDrive Technology that analyzes and suppresses crosstalk. Essentially it shortens the time required for the LCD panels to respond to significant changes in signal level. The result is a 3D picture with substantially reduced crosstalk compared with other 3D projectors we have seen to date.
2D to 3D Conversion. Not only will the AE7000 display 3D source material, but it will convert 2D to 3D as well. When material is converted from 2D to 3D it does not have the full dramatic effect that a genuine 3D source has. The primary difference is that in genuine 3D, elements of the image will appear to emerge from the screen plane and move toward you, whereas in a 2D conversion the image material stays behind the plane of the screen. Essentially, what it looks like is a 2D image with greater depth perspective.
The AE7000 does this as well as any video display device that we've seen. However, since the effect is not as dramatic as genuine 3D, you'll need to decide whether messing with the glasses and sacrificing the image brightness is worth the incremental depth you see in the picture. Since a good 2D image gives you the illusion of three-dimensional depth already, many will probably not be as enthused by 2D to 3D conversion. However, it is a nice feature to have since not all 3D projectors offer it.
Frame Creation. Panasonic first introduced Frame Creation on the AE3000 in the fall of 2008. It was carried forward on the AE4000 and now on the AE7000. You have four choices for Frame Creation--Off, Mode 1, Mode 2, and Mode 3. Mode 1 is ideal for film sources. It substantially reduces judder without imparting ghosting artifacts or the digital video effect--that hyper-real look that some have called the soap opera effect.
But sometimes, the digital video effect is exactly what you want. For live performance video sources such as music concerts, ballet, opera, etc., the more real it looks the better. BBC/Opus Arte has published a series of performances by London's Royal Ballet on Blu-ray. These magnificent productions look spectacular on the AE7000 with Frame Creation set to Mode 3. One of them, Elite Syncopations (a modern ballet set to the music of Scott Joplin and other ragtime composers), is an absolute torture test for video. In one segment a dancer in a black and white striped costume jumps around and spins rapidly. Every projector we've seen previously chokes on this scene. But with Frame Creation Mode 3, this sequence is rendered with amazingly few artifacts.
Animated films are improved with Mode 3 as well. Ratatouille shows plenty of judder on the big screen if viewed on a projector with no frame interpolation. But Mode 3 virtually eliminates all judder without introducing any unwanted side effects. In animated films, the digital video effect is a non-issue, so Frame Creation can be turned up to max without any worries. Once you've seen Ratatouille with a robust frame interpolation system, you won't want to watch it any other way.
On the AE7000, Frame Creation works with not only 2D but 3D as well. Its impact on a 3D video like The Ultimate Wave Tahiti is not as dramatic as it is in 2D. But it does impart an incremental sharpness and stability that makes it worthwhile. It is noteworthy that Frame Creation works with 3D, because on some 1080p 3D projectors that have frame interpolation, the system can only be activated on 2D material.
Lens Memory. Most people opt for 16:9 format screens. But many prefer the wider 2.4 to 1 Cinemascope format that allows many of today's widescreen movies to be viewed in full frame, without the black bars that you'd see on a 16:9 screen.
If you want to go this route, it is easy to do with the AE7000. The Lens Memory system lets the projector memorize the zoom position and focal point of the lens when it is set for a 16:9 image. Then all you do is reset the lens and focus to display a 2.4 movie full frame on your screen, then press a button to have the projector memorize that information also. From that point on, you can reset the lens automatically to display either 16:9 or 2.4 Scope at the click of a button. The projector even has an optional auto-detect feature that will cause the lens to automatically reset depending on what you pop into the disc player.
If the centerline of the projector's lens is above the center of the screen (which it usually is), a switch from 16:9 to 2.4 will cause a vertical off-shift of the image. But it is easy to move the 2.4 image up and down within the display's 16:9 native frame. In setting up the Lens Memory position, the projector will remember not only the image size and focal position, but the vertical offset as well.
Basically, using this system is a piece of cake. The huge advantage to it is that it eliminates the high cost and cumbersome nuisance of an external anamorphic lens. And you end up with a sharper picture to boot. The AE7000 will display a 2.4 widescreen source in native one-to-one pixel match direct from the source. When an anamorphic lens is used, the signal is digitally stretched, then optically compressed. The result is always a softer image.
There are real advantages to going with a 2.4 Cinemascope screen, but there are disadvantages also. If you are just now planning a new home theater, choosing the right screen size and aspect ratio is a critical first step. To sort the issues out, please read this: Choosing the Right Screen Aspect Ratio.
Lumen Output. The AE7000 is rated at 2000 lumens, and our engineering test sample (not a production unit) measured 1965 lumens with everything cranked up to maximum.
This projector has seven pre-programmed operating modes. Lumen output at default settings on each of these modes, with lamp set to Normal and the lens at its widest angle position, were in descending order as follows: Dynamic, 1685; Normal, 1300; Game, 1204; Cinema 2, 1089; Rec709, 592; D-Cinema, 544; Cinema 1, 526.
Typically the brighter modes on home theater projectors tend to sacrifice color accuracy, black level, and contrast in exchange for the added brightness. However, among the highlights of previous generation AE4000 was a Normal mode that was remarkably well color balanced. And the AE7000 takes this to a new level. Normal mode is increased from about 900 lumens to 1300. But at the same time, color and contrast are noticeably better on the AE7000 as compared to the AE4000--not quite as pristine as the pure cinema modes, but the picture quality in Normal mode on this projector is outstanding. It could very easily be called Cinema 3 or Bright Cinema.
Many competing home theater projectors have goosed their Cinema modes up to 800 lumens or more, which is far too bright for classic home theater. Yet there is a tendency for people to compare Cinema modes between projectors and give extra points for brightness when they have some ambient light to contend with. In a head to head comparison, we would suggest comparing a home theater projector with an 800+ lumen Cinema mode to the AE7000 in Normal mode. In a side by side comparison the AE7000 is likely to win not only for brightness, but for overall image quality as well. I say this with confidence, because we have some 1080p home theater projectors on hand. When we set them up in their best cinema mode, they are not as solid as the Normal mode on the AE7000.
The bottom line is that if you want to set up a 200" screen in a dark theater, you can do it without sacrificing much at all in the way of overall picture quality. Alternatively, Normal mode gives you some flexibility to maintain superb image quality on smaller screens with some ambient light in the room on occasions when you might want to do that.
Color Accuracy/Color Perception. Color has always been a strong point on Panasonic home theater models. The AE4000 featured the introduction of what Panasonic called a "Red Rich lamp." On the AE7000, we have an improved and slightly brighter Red Rich lamp. And no, it does not make whites look red. The point of the Red Rich lamp is to strengthen the red component, which is notoriously weak in high pressure lamps. The objective is to end up with better color balance on the screen.
The AE7000 has a pre-calibrated mode for Rec709, the industry standard for ideal video that specifies a color temperature of 6500K and a gamma curve of 2.2. In theory this should be the ideal viewing mode for home theater. However, on the AE7000 as well as other 1080p models we have seen, the Rec709 standard looks dull on a 120" screen. Some will assume this is due to inadequate luminance, but there is a separate phenomenon at work. The human eye perceives color values differently in large scale. Let's presume you are in a black projection room with no reflected or ambient light. If you look at a red circle that is 30" diameter, and the same precise value of red in a circle that is three times the size, the smaller one will appear to the eye to be more saturated, even though it isn't. The same thing occurs no matter what color the objects are (I just used red as an example).
Panasonic runs this test at their Hollywood lab to demonstrate the effect of object size on perceived color saturation. Having participated in this test myself, I can say from personal experience that the phenomenon is real. Smaller objects of a certain color value look more saturated when placed next to larger objects of the same color value when there is no other light to distract one's perception.
Panasonic addresses this issue with the Cinema 1 mode on the AE7000. Cinema 1 is based on Rec709, but it is color enhanced to compensate for perceptual differences on a large screen. When you flip back and forth between Cinema 1 and Rec709 modes, the latter looks decidedly flat and dull, while Cinema 1 is more vibrant. Some will argue that the issue is exclusively a matter of inadequate luminance per square foot. In our experience, the phenomenon of differing perception of color in larger scale is a contributing influence. In any event, Panasonic has given the user both Cinema 1 and Rec709 calibrations on the AE7000, so you can choose which you prefer. For us, the Cinema 1 mode was preferable on large screen display, looking decidedly more natural and balanced.
The brightest pre-calibrated mode on the AE7000 is Dynamic, which measured 1685 lumens. On our sample, this mode is biased toward green. It is certainly watchable if you need the bright picture and don't mind that color is not quite on target. But we found Normal to be much preferred. It measured 1300 lumens. The difference in brightness that the human eye perceives between 1300 lumens and 1700 lumens is insignificant, especially when there is any ambient light present. But with the Normal mode you get decidedly superior color balance.
Lamp Modes/Lamp Life. The lamp can be put into Eco mode in any of the operating modes, including 3D. It reduces lumen output across the board by 27%.
Lamp life in Normal mode is expected to be 4000 hours, and 5000 hours in eco mode. Fan noise is a low whisper in Normal mode, and virtually silent in eco mode. It is not likely that fan noise or the incremental 1000 hours would be large enough issues to motivate the user to opt for eco-mode. The decision will be driven by how much light is needed in any given situation.
Therefore, our preference would be to choose a screen size and throw distance that allows you to operate in eco-mode during the first half of the lamp's life. As lamp output on all high pressure lamps diminishes with usage, the Normal lamp mode can be activated after, say, 1500 to 2000 hours, to maintain optimum screen brightness over a longer period of the lamp's life.
Versatile Installation Flexibility. The AE7000 has a powered zoom/focus, and a manual vertical/horizontal lens shift. The zoom/focus is the same 2.0x range as on the previous generation models. Vertical lens shift range is three full picture heights, and horizontal shift is one-fourth of a picture width in either direction from center.
The vertical/horizontal lens shift control is via a single joystick which is mounted just above the IR emitter and to the right of the lens in the front faceplate (see above). Once the projector is installed you rarely need access to the lens shift control, so in normal operation a panel slides into place that covers these elements to make them invisible.
These zoom and lens shift adjustments give you significant flexibility to install the projector either on a wall shelf or a freestanding rack behind the seats, or in a ceiling mount.
Panasonic PT-AE7000U Input Panel
Input Panel. The connection panel is located on the rear of the projector. It includes three HDMI 1.4 ports, one VGA, one component, one S-video, one composite, one 9-pin serial port, and two 12-volt triggers. One of these triggers can be used to drive an external IR emitter for 3D installations that require a throw distance longer than 6 meters.
Other Features. Panasonic home theater projectors are unique in the industry in the sense that they come fully loaded with a host of features that do not exist on many other home theater projectors. We've touched on some of them, but to discuss them all would turn this review into a novel. Nevertheless, we should point out that the AE7000 also has the following:
3D Picture Balance (adjust right and left signal level with Waveform Monitor)
3D Screen Size adjustments (to adjust parallax)
3D Detail Clarity Processor
3D Viewing Monitor (to control point of convergence)
Dual Core Processing (individual signal processing for right and left channel)
Viera Link (interlinked control of related products such as Blu-ray, DVD players, digital cameras and HD camcorders)
Lumen loss through zoom lens. While the 2.0x zoom lens is an attractive feature that maximizes placement options, the projector loses 42% of its light output at the telephoto end of the zoom range compared to the wide angle end. That means the longest throw distances you can get on the AE7000 will be accompanied by curtailed brightness. Sometimes that won't make any difference. If you want to hit a 100" diagonal screen from the maximum throw distance of about 20 feet, you can certainly do that. Normal mode will give you plenty of light for that screen even with the 42% loss in the lens. But for most situations, if you are planning to use the projector in ambient light or on a very large screen, you will want to install the projector at a distance that uses the wider end of the zoom lens.
Reduced horizontal lens shift range. The horizontal shift range on the AE7000 is reduced compared to the AE3000 and AE4000. On the earlier models, you could move the image side to side up to 50% of the screen width in either direction. On the AE7000 the shift range has been reduced to 25% of the screen width in either direction. If you happen to own one of these previous models, and have installed it in a location that requires aggressive use of the horizontal shift, you may not be able to upgrade to the AE7000 without relocating the projector.
Lens shift adjustment control. On earlier models the lens shift was controlled by two wheels that gave you rather precise control over the position of the lens. On the AE7000 these wheels have been replaced by a relatively flimsy joystick that makes lens shift adjustments more difficult. I found myself chronically overshooting the mark when trying to reset the lens for a new screen. Getting the image to square precisely with a screen frame requires both patience and luck. Fortunately, once it is set, neither your projector nor your screen are going to move, and you won't need to mess with this control again.
3D Eyewear. People will have different experiences with the comfort of any given set of 3D glasses. The glasses provided by Panasonic with our AE7000 have smaller lenses than are ideal for those who must wear them over a pair of regular optical correction glasses. When I put them on, the frames intrude into my field of vision a bit more than I would prefer. If I remove my optical glasses, the 3D glasses fit more comfortably and the size of the lenses is not a problem, so if you do not normally wear glasses, this is probably a non-issue.
Panasonic informs us that they will be offering glasses in three sizes once shipments commence--small, medium, and large. We have been testing with the medium size. It is unclear whether the sizes of the glasses is related to the frames only, or whether the large size glasses will have larger lenses. At the moment, we do not have info from Panasonic on this.
Also, when you must wear 3D glasses over regular glasses there is some reflection interference that occurs simply because you are viewing through two sets of lenses. This is true of all 3D glasses whether active or passive, whether in home theater or a commercial theater. This does not eliminate the pleasure of the 3D experience, but it is an occasional distraction that I wish were not there. If I get serious about 3D, it may finally push me to get Lasik.
3D Glasses optional. Panasonic does not package 3D glasses with the AE7000. They are an option at extra cost. However, the IR emitter is built into the unit and comes included with the base price. On some competing models the emitter is optional at extra cost as well.
3D Glasses Recharging. The batteries in the 3D eyewear need to be recharged periodically. If you don't do that, you may find the 3D effect suddenly disappear in the middle of a movie. This happened to me during testing yesterday since we hadn't been recharging them this past week. There is no way to know what level of charge the batteries have at any moment in time.
3D Emitter Range. In order for the 3D eyewear to synch with the projector, you need to be in the range of the IR emitter. Panasonic says that the projector can be no further than 6 meters from the screen, and the viewer can be no more than 5 meters from the screen. In our testing we placed the projector 5 meters from the screen and we viewed from a distance of 4 meters. We had no difficulty getting 3D to function reliably at this range. This is reasonably good range compared to other projectors we've seen. But if you are planning an installation that pushes the limits of the emitter range, we recommend testing the viability of the 3D communications link before drilling holes for a ceiling mount.
If you need to install the projector at a distance greater than 6 meters from the screen, you can get an optional external emitter. This connects to the back of the unit in one of the trigger ports, and lets you get around the 6 meter limit.
Unknown information. Since the AE7000 will not commence shipments until next month, several issues are still up in the air. Panasonic typically sets a Minimum Advertised Price (MAP, otherwise known as an official street price), that is lower than the official MSRP. At the moment, the MSRP is $3,499, but the MAP price has not yet been announced and probably won't be for another month or so. It will undoubtedly be lower than $3,499, but we don't know by how much. Also, Panasonic has not yet published a price for extras like 3D glasses or replacement lamps.
As far as warranty is concerned, in the United States previous Panasonic models have come with a two-year warranty included in the price, but the second year requires mail-in registration. If you are in the habit of not registering or taking advantage of mail-in rebates, the default warranty is one year. We presume, but do not know, that this same warranty policy will apply on the AE7000.
When all is said and done, the Panasonic PT-AE7000U is a projector for the true videophile. It certainly has a boatload of features and yes, it has remarkably clear, stable 3D performance. But even if the AE7000 did not have 3D or a wide assortment of features, it would still stand out as a major video engineering achievement based on the strength of its 2D picture quality alone.
Not only does the AE7000 represent a major step beyond the AE4000 in picture quality, it is a step beyond so-called "higher end" 1080p projectors. Viewed side by side it will outperform some competing products that currently sell for up to triple the price. And most of these competing units do not have the array of features found on the AE7000.
Since I am not a huge fan of 3D, the primary value of the AE7000 for me personally is the picture's depth, clarity, and stability for conventional 2D home theater. However, these same qualities are apparent in the display of 3D material. Home theater enthusiasts for whom 3D image quality is vital will be thoroughly impressed with the contrast, stability, and lack of crosstalk that the AE7000 delivers.
As of this writing, we know of no 1080p home theater projectors on the market priced under $4,000 that can rival the image quality of the AE7000, and there are quite a few priced much higher that can't either. So we don't need to wait for its official street pricing to be announced before awarding 5-star ratings for Performance and Value. However, the CEDIA trade show is just around the corner. We will be seeing several new 3D 1080p models over the next two to three weeks that are scheduled for release at CEDIA. Therefore, we will assign these 5-star ratings on the AE7000 today with the caveat that they are preliminary, and subject to potential change after we evaluate this fall's offerings. But we can say this with confidence: Panasonic has set the performance bar very high with the AE7000. Competitors will face a daunting task as they attempt to meet or exceed it.