Highly Recommended Award
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Panasonic's second new 1080p projector this year, the PT-AR100U, caters to fans of home entertainment by combining a bright 2800 lumen output with a sharp 1080p image that is both high in contrast and almost perfectly color balanced right out of the box. The AR100U is designed for any multi-use room, as it functions as a home theater projector almost as well as it does as a home entertainment projector. With the lights on, its Light Harmonizer adjusts color to compensate for room lighting conditions. With the lights off, the AR100U does not show quite as well as home theater projectors in its price range, but still holds its own. While the AR100U lacks 3D capability and frame interpolation, it does include a 2.0:1 manual zoom lens and horizontal and vertical lens shift. The AR100U has an official street price of $1,499.
Editor's note: Confusing language regarding lens shift has been corrected as of 1/2/12. -bl
In a pitch-black room, the AR100U's default Vivid Cinema mode shines like a flashlight at nearly 2,000 lumens. Unless you're using a 150" diagonal low-gain screen, this is way too much light (though it is an ideal mode for living room use). Cinema 1 and Rec709 modes are brighter than average but reasonable options for a traditional dark-room home theater installation. In high lamp mode both presets weigh in around 980 lumens. After switching to low lamp mode and accounting for light drop-off from the 2.0:1 zoom lens, our theater setup was just about perfect: 600 lumens on our 120" diagonal 1.0 gain screen gave us 14 foot-lamberts.
Where you'll run into trouble is if you have a smaller 100" diagonal screen, especially if (like most screens) it has positive gain--say, 1.3 or more instead of the 1.0 gain Stewart Studio-tek 100 we're using for this evaluation. Even if you set the AR100U up for minimum light output (Cinema mode, low lamp, using the longest possible throw distance for your screen size), you're still going to get 480 lumens, which equates to 21 fL on a 1.3 gain 100" diagonal screen. This is a little brighter than the 16 fL ideal. In all likelihood, though, your room is not perfectly pitch-black, so the extra light will help compensate for any ambient light that is present.
In a dark room, the AR100U's image is a little rough around the edges, especially when it comes to black level. But contrast is solid, and the auto iris keeps black level from becoming a nuisance. Default color calibration in the Cinema 1 mode is close to ideal before you make any adjustments at all. The image is sharp and detailed, and the AR100U's focus ring has some resistance to it, which actually makes it easier to fine-tune focus without overshooting.
The Panasonic PT-AR100U
The AR100U's performance in a dark room is more impressive because that is not its primary purpose. The AR100U is mainly designed for living room use, where ambient light and a more reflective environment is a fact of life. The projector's Dynamic, Sports, Normal, and Vivid Cinema modes stand as testament to this fact, each measuring around 2,000 lumens or greater. Dynamic, the brightest mode, clocks in at almost 2500 lumens. In a room with a small window or a couple of 100W lamps, the AR100U is more than capable of holding its own. Screen sizes will be constrained somewhat, but an 80" diagonal image is still pretty large, especially when compared to most people's televisions.
Picture Quality. The AR100U produces a bright, beautiful 1080p picture. Contrast is solid and the AR100U is competitive with other projectors in its price range as far as dynamic range is concerned. Our test sample's default color calibration in Cinema 1 averaged 6400K. Detail is crystal-clear and razor-sharp, especially when the projector is given good source material such as The Dark Knight on Blu-ray, one of my personal favorites. The IMAX scenes in that movie are just overflowing with fine detail, but the AR100U did a good job of putting it all on the screen.
Placement flexibility. The AR100U has a 2.0:1 manual zoom lens, plus manual lens shift. The lens shift uses the same joystick controller found on the AE7000, complete with the same protective cover to keep it from getting jostled when not in use. With the lens shift, you can place the bottom edge of the image 15% of the image's height above or below the centerline of the lens, which makes both ceiling mounting and coffee table mounting a possibility. Of course, using the center position of the shift also allows for a rear shelf mount. The horizontal shift can move the image 25% of the image width in either direction, which allows for some creative installations should something prevent you from placing the projector on-axis with the screen. When planning your installation, think of the lens shift range like an oval, rather than a rectangle; you cannot reach the extreme horizontal and extreme vertical ends of the shift range simultaneously.
Light harmonizer. The AR100U has one more trick up its sleeve when it comes to ambient light performance. The Light Harmonizer, a feature first seen on Panasonic's AX100U from way back in 2006. There have been some significant improvements since then. In the presence of ambient light, the AR100U will use built-in sensors to determine light level and color, then apply color and gamut changes to maximize contrast and color performance automatically. This is a big help if you're bringing the AR100U out into the living room and don't want to spend time recalibrating it. Testing this feature in a typical living room revealed that it works as advertised, and its performance is several steps above that of previous versions.
Other features. The AR100U wouldn't be a Panasonic projector without some extra goodies. Included are Panasonic's Waveform Monitor, which is a tool to assist in calibration, as well as their split-screen adjust feature which allows you to preview calibration changes before committing them to memory. Their Motion Effect system helps to smooth out fast scenes, though it is not as comprehensive as a frame interpolation system. Rather than adding interstitial frames, Motion Effect detects moving objects and applies the projector's Detail Clarity processing to these objects. The effect is a subtle improvement in clarity.
Light output. The projector's brightest mode is Dynamic, which at default settings produces 2487 lumens on our test sample. Dynamic mode has an average color temperature around 8800K, which imparts a bluish cast to the image that may be helpful when trying to compensate for the presence of warm incandescent lighting. Dynamic mode sacrifices black level in exchange for this extreme brightness, but in ambient light black level is already compromised so this has no negative effect on apparent contrast.
The next brightest mode is Sports, which at 2312 lumens is almost indistinguishable from Dynamic, at least in terms of brightness. Sports mode has slightly better black level than Dynamic, as well as a less aggressive blue coloration. Following Sports mode is Normal mode, which bears little relation to the Normal mode appearing on other Panasonic projectors in the past. Normal mode on the AR100U produces 2067 lumens, so it is plenty bright. However, it has an average color temperature around 9000K, which makes it nearly the same as Dynamic mode minus about 20% of the brightness. Normal mode is a slightly less aggressive option that is suitable for the same kind of situations in which one would use Dynamic mode.
If you want an image preset that is both bright and color balanced, you're looking for Vivid Cinema. Vivid Cinema is plenty bright, at 1981 lumens on our test sample. It has slightly better black level performance than some of the other bright modes. What really weighs in its favor, though, is its default color calibration. Without any adjustment at all, Vivid Cinema has an average color temperature of 6400K, with the highlights a few hundred degrees lower than the shadows. Vivid Cinema mode, while great for a living room with some sort of light control, is also a good option for very large screens in darkened theater rooms. With almost 2,000 lumens at your disposal, screen sizes of 150" diagonal are attainable without the image ever looking washed-out or dim.
For more traditional home theater installations, the presets of choice are Cinema 1 and Rec709. Cinema 1, at 977 lumens, has a more consistent grayscale than Vivid Cinema with less variation between low and high IREs. Black level is considerably improved and the auto iris' function is more appreciable. Rec709, on the other hand, has a more accurate default gamut but a less accurate grayscale, at 6175K average. This means Rec709 will require a touch of calibration before it looks "correct," but those corrections are easier to make (gamut adjustments are notoriously tricky while grayscale adjustments are not). Rec709 is the mode of choice for the ambitious do-it-yourselfer who wants to take a crack at calibration.
Two things can affect light output within a given image mode: lamp power and lens position. The AR100U's 280W "red rich" lamp can be put into Eco mode, which boosts lamp life from 2,000 to 3,000 hours and cuts light output by 23% in all operating modes. The projector's 2.0:1 zoom lens will also reduce output when used at any position other than the widest angle possible (which is where all of our measurements were taken). At the longest throw distance for a given screen size, the lens will cut light output by 46%. Since the AR100U is so bright, this rarely becomes a problem in darkened theaters, though in ambient light it can be a serious concern--that 2,500 lumen Dynamic mode isn't quite so impressive when it's only putting out 1,600 lumens.
Grayscale tracking in Cinema 1 mode.
Color. These days, most home theater projectors can be calibrated to 6500K without too much trouble. The differences come in how easy it is to get there and how good the default factory calibration is. The AR100U succeeds on both of these counts. In Cinema 1, color temperature starts off around 6380K in the shadows and gradually rises to 6450K in the highlights. After several iterations of adjustments, our test sample calibrated to 6500K with the following adjustments:
As for gamut, the AR100U shows very good accuracy even without adjustment. However, those interested in calibrating the projector will be happy to hear that there are two adjustment methods. In the first method, you use an "eye dropper" to pick the color you'd like to adjust. In the second, you gain access to hue/saturation/brightness sliders for both primary and secondary colors, allowing a more direct method of fine-tuning. In any case, our CalMAN software indicated that the default gamut in Cinema 1 was accurate enough that the human eye could not detect any differences, so we left it alone.
Default color gamut, Cinema 1 preset
Contrast. In the living room, ambient light will ruin your black levels, so it is brightness that creates contrast. In this situation, the AR100U's high light output saves it from looking like a washed-out mess, and it is those same high light levels that make it a great living room projector. In the dark, though, the AR100U can still hold its own. While black levels are not the best we've seen, dynamic range sacrifices very little compared to competing projectors. The AR100U has a bright image with plenty of pop, and there is no loss of shadow detail to speak of. Gamma at default measures about 2.1, but some adjustments bring it to the proper 2.2 without much fuss. On large screens, where high black levels are less noticeable, the AR100U can be a solid home theater projector in a dark room.
Black level. Bright projectors often lose some black level performance, and the AR100U is no exception. Compared to other home theater projectors in its price range, the AR100U's blacks are not as deep, even in the image modes meant for dark-room home theater. While the projector's auto iris helps keep black level in check, it is not always successful, and in a truly dark environment it is easy to see the outline of the image on screen (black bars of a 2.35 movie displayed on a 16:9 screen, for example). In brighter scenes, the iris is of no help and shadows appear to push towards dark gray, rather than deep black. While not a problem in ambient light, this can become an annoyance in a darkened theater.
Frame interpolation. While the Motion Effect system does help to smooth out fast-moving scenes somewhat, it is no match for a true frame interpolation system like that on the AE7000. As the AR100U is a living room projector and sports programming benefits from FI more than just about any other type of content, this is doubly unfortunate. In addition, Panasonic has one of the smoothest, cleanest frame interpolation systems in production, so its presence is missed.
Fan noise. The AR100U's fan is not overly loud nor is it high-pitched, but it is more evident than that found on most home theater projectors. During operation fan noise tends to cycle higher and lower seemingly at random, and the transitions are easily audible. The best remedy to this is to place the AR100U away from the audience whenever possible--either far overhead, or under a low table, or even at the back of the room. If you have it on a shelf immediately behind your couch, you will likely become aware of the fan noise. You won't be conscious of it during a football game, but the whisper of the projector will be there during quiet interludes in a movie.
Digital noise. When compared to other home theater projectors in its price range, the AR100U displays an above average amount of digital noise. In fields of solid color, a subtle dancing noise is often visible, causing the picture to shimmer slightly. This effect is more often exhibited in bright areas of the image, and is also more evident in standard definition than in high definition. While the AR100U has not one, but two noise reduction circuits, they do not completely eliminate the problem. Keep in mind that driving noise reduction too hard will result in a loss of fine detail. The AR100U loses less detail than most projectors, but the loss is still evident.
Focus drift. When the AR100U first starts up, the projector needs about five minutes to warm up before it reaches peak operating levels. During this time, the projector's parts expand and shift just enough to knock focus ever so slightly out of alignment, though it is all but impossible to notice unless you are standing within a few feet of the projected image. There's a simple fix for this issue, should your projector exhibit it: allow the projector to heat up for five minutes, then adjust focus. In our tests, the focus always drifted to the same spot, so post-warmup focusing will effectively eliminate the issue.
The AR100U's connection panel
Lamp life. The AR100U has a lamp life of 2,000 hours with the lamp at full power and 3,000 hours in Eco mode. A few years ago, this was the standard. These days, with home theater projectors boasting 5,000 and even 6,000 hour lamp lives, 2,000/3,000 falls short compared to other projectors in this price range. On the other hand, projectors with longer lamp lives do not have the lumen power of the AR100U.
Panasonic AR100U vs. Epson Home Cinema 8350
The AR100U's primary competitor for sub-$2000 1080p non-3D home theater is the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350, which is another LCD projector with a 2.0:1 zoom and H/V lens shift. The two projectors cost about the same and can be used in many of the same situations, but it is interesting to see where they differ.
Light Output. The Home Cinema 8350 is designed for dark-room home theater, and its preset image modes reflect this. Cinema mode on the 8350 measures 560 lumens with the lamp at full power and the lens at its widest setting. Dynamic, the brightest mode, measures 1507 lumens under those same conditions. Compare this with the AR100U, which measures 977 lumens in Cinema 1 and 2487 lumens in Dynamic.
What conclusions should you draw from this? The Home Cinema 8350 is easier to configure in a dark room, since lumen output can be reduced to appropriate levels very easily. The AR100U is better suited to the living room, where ambient light would cause the Home Cinema 8350 to appear washed out and low in contrast. Either projector could be used in the opposite situation, but they cannot match or outperform each other in the uses they were not designed for. In essence, they both have their strengths, and it is best to pick the projector that you need based on the type of usage you anticipate.
Contrast. When it comes to black level in a dark room, the Home Cinema 8350 has a clear head-and-shoulders advantage. Under the right conditions, black becomes nigh invisible, while the AR100U cannot achieve the blacks that are as solid. With regard to dynamic range, though, the projectors are more or less evenly matched. The AR100U's more brilliant highlights make up somewhat for its lackluster black, while the deep inky shadows of the 8350 compensate for its relative lack of brightness. Again, they each look better than the other based on whether they are being used in ambient light, or in a dark room.
Color. Both the 8350 and the AR100U have excellent color at default, though the 8350 is a touch warmer than the AR100U. Either one can be calibrated to near-perfect 6500K without much fuss. Both have default gamuts that do not need adjustment unless one is aiming for absolute statistical perfection, as our measurements indicate that the discrepancies are invisible to the human eye.
Digital noise. In fields of solid color and mid-tones, the Home Cinema 8350 shows less digital noise than the AR100U. Moreover, the noise reduction circuits on the 8350 are more effective at removing what noise does appear without losing fine detail.
Fan noise. Neither projector is loud by any means, but the Home Cinema 8350's fan does not cycle during use, making it easier to ignore. If some quirk of your viewing room requires that the projector be placed close to the audience's heads, the 8350's less obvious fan noise may be of some benefit.
Placement flexibility. While both projectors have 2.0:1 zoom lenses, the AR100U's lens shift range has about 20% more vertical range than the 8350. This may make the AR100U easier to install in certain situations. The AR100U can be easier to ceiling mount without the use of an extension tube, and it can be placed under a low table without forcing you to lower the screen on the wall. Of course, either projector can be placed on a rear shelf. The 8350 loses 39% of its potential light when used at the telephoto end of the zoom compared to 46% on the AR100U. So in both cases you should take potential light loss from the 2.0x zoom lenses into account when planning your screen size and throw distance.
Other features. Neither the 8350 nor the AR100U has frame interpolation, nor does either projector have 3D capabilities. The AR100U has Panasonic's suite of calibration features, such as Waveform Adjust and Split-Screen Adjust, which arguably make it easier to calibrate. The Home Cinema 8350 has a lamp life of up to 4,000 hours in Eco mode, but some reports indicate that these lamps can fail earlier than expected. Epson has extended their lamp warranty to cover the full two year term of the overall projector warranty, but lamp replacements are still an annoyance.
The Panasonic PT-AR100U is a strong multi-purpose projector that's ideal for the ambient light of a typical living room. Following in the tradition of the AX100 and AX200 models from several years ago, the AR100U makes some improvements to the Light Harmonizer feature that sets these projectors apart from other home entertainment models. With the Light Harmonizer, you won't even need to change image modes, especially if you're using a preset like Vivid Cinema, which combines high brightness with accurate color.
In a classic home theater situation, where ambient light is not a factor, the projector's less than solid black level becomes more noticeable and digital noise can be distracting. When compared to the Epson Home Cinema 8350, it becomes clear that Panasonic made some compromises in order to design a better home entertainment projector, and these compromises make it less effective as a home theater projector--though not by much.
The bottom line is this: if you want a projector that performs in the living room, whether that be for games, or sports, or just television, the AR100U is about as good as it gets. The fact that it can multi-task as a home theater projector is a bonus, and a good one, but its faults in that area in no way take away from its performance in its intended niche.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Panasonic PT-AR100U projector page.