Every fall, Panasonic and Sanyo release their latest home theater projectors, and every year there is a competitive face-off between them. These two vendors have been particularly innovative over the years, and both have been aggressive in price as well. Quite often, new ideas and features appear on Panasonic or Sanyo products before they appear on any other brands. This year is no different. Both the Sanyo Z3000 and the Panasonic AE3000 have the distinction of sporting unique features that exist on no other home theater projectors on the market.
The Panasonic AE3000 was the first home theater projector to come to market with on board frame interpolation. It also has a novel Lens Memory system that allows the lens to automatically reconfigure itself at the touch of a button to accommodate Cinemascope format projection on a 2.35 format screen. This provides a cost-effective and practical alternative to the use of an anamorphic lens.
As far as the Sanyo Z3000 is concerned, it is the first home theater projector to come to market with 5:5 pulldown, a unique feature that eliminates 3:2 pulldown judder for any NTSC source being transmitted at 60i or 60p. And it is just the second model to hit the market with a frame interpolation system.
Now, not everyone is interested in frame interpolation, or 5:5 pulldown, or 2.35 projection without benefit of an anamorphic lens. But the fact is, none of the other home theater projectors under $10,000 have any of these features. The marketing value of these capabilities is priceless. They get people talking and thinking and arguing about the relative merits of one feature or another. So the Sanyo Z3000 and the Panasonic AE3000 have stimulated a lot of new discussion of home theater projection technologies and solutions.
Which is the better projector?
Let's start with the basics. The AE3000 and the Z3000 are both 1080p resolution LCD projectors. They use the same inorganic LCD panels built by Epson. They both have 2.0x zoom lenses, the same throw distance specs, and extensive vertical and horizontal lens shift. They both have a variety of operating modes that offer a range of different lumen outputs that you can select based on your particular needs.
When it comes to basic picture quality, there is not much difference between them. The AE3000 is slightly higher in contrast, and can produce a somewhat deeper black. But we would not characterize the difference as earthshaking. The decision to go with one or the other of the two models is unlikely to be based on contrast differences since there are more important features and functions which distinguish these two projectors.
In terms of color calibration capability, they both have extensive controls that can enable anyone armed with a meter that measures color temperature to dial in optimum gray scale tracking close to 6500 degrees. With respect to digital noise, they are about equal. As far as image sharpness is concerned, neither has an inherent advantage over the other. At the arbitrary factory defaults, the Sanyo Z3000 appears very slightly sharper. However, either one can be made to looks slightly sharper than the other based on small tweaks to the sharpness controls that fine tune the image without introducing any noticeable or objectionable edge enhancement. Fan noise is not a serious concern on either unit. The AE3000 is the louder of the two. But we do not find the fan noise level on the AE3000 objectionable. In short, if we were buying for ourselves, none of these things would be factors to consider in choosing between the two.
In addition, though the Panasonic is somewhat brighter in all modes, the difference is not drastic. Both units, for example, have a very bright mode that can nevertheless be reasonably well adjusted for acceptable color balance. The AE3000's Normal mode on our unit measured 792 lumens, whereas the Z3000's Living mode measured 687 lumens. Either of these modes produces a vibrant picture, and viewed side by side the 100+ lumen difference is almost invisible. In more refined calibrations for maximum contrast and ideal color temperature, both products have modes that deliver about 400 lumens. If you want maximum brightness for lights-on viewing of a football game, the AE3000 can produce 1273 lumens in Dynamic mode, whereas the Z3000 measured 1187. Once again, the Panasonic is a bit brighter according to the light meter, but the difference would never be noticed.
The bottom line, then, is that the Panasonic AE3000 has a slight edge in contrast and lumen output, but the overall basic picture quality of the two projectors is comparable, and the lensing on them provides equal versatility for installations in a variety of room environments.
The Big Differences
The most significant performance differences between the AE3000 and the Z3000 lie in the unique features that you may or may not be interested in ... the aforementioned 5:5 pulldown, the frame creation systems, and the 2.35 auto lens feature that exists on the AE3000 but not on the Z3000.
Let's talk first about judder reduction capabilities. The Sanyo Z3000 offers two options-5:5 pulldown and a frame interpolation system called Smooth Motion. 5:5 pulldown removes the judder inherent the process of converting 24 fps film to 30 fps video for display on video systems in the NTSC world. This conversion, known as 3:2 pulldown, produces an unequal timing of frame display. This is never a problem with subject matter that is not moving, but when the camera is panning or an object is moving across the screen at a slow to moderate speed, some shake and instability can become visible. On a smaller TV screen it is for the most part undetectable, but on a projected, very large screen image it can become quite obvious and distracting.
The solution provided by 5:5 pulldown is, in essence, to restore equal timing to the display of each frame. In so doing, the instability and vibration that is the generic by-product of 3:2 pulldown is eliminated. (By the way, none of this is an issue if you are playing a native 24 fps source like a Blu-ray disc in 24p transmission. Nor it is an issue if you are living in a PAL/SECAM country, where all 24 fps film material is adapted to 50 Hz video systems by accelerating the playback speed by 4%, so it appears on screen at 25 fps. In either case, there is no unequal timing of frame display, and no need for 5:5 pulldown to address it.) In any event, 5:5 pulldown is a feature unique to the Z3000. It does not exist on the Panasonic AE3000.
On the other hand, frame interpolation options are present on both the AE3000 and the Z3000. On the AE3000 it is called Frame Creation, and on the Z3000 it is called Smooth Motion. Frame interpolation is a process by which the projector looks at two or three successive frames, evaluates the motion changes from one to the next, and then generates intermediate "created" frames to insert between the real ones. The objective is to reduce or eliminate the judder in motion that is derived from the low film sampling rate of 24 fps. This is a completely independent source of judder from 3:2 pulldown, so the solution to it is quite different. And for the most part, judder inherent in the low sampling rate is much worse than the judder that comes from 3:2 pulldown.
Though both of these projectors have frame interpolation, they are not the same in their technical implementation. The Panasonic AE3000 has the more comprehensive of the two solutions. On the AE3000, you have the option to run in either Mode 1 or Mode 2. Mode 1 bases its frame creation activity on the evaluation of two succeeding frames, and Mode 2 uses three succeeding frames. Mode 2 takes a bit more processing time, but produces a more accurate and smoother result. On the Z3000, Smooth Motion evaluates two succeeding frames, and there is no option to have it work on three at a time.
However, the number of frames being analyzed in the buffer is not where the difference ends. When displaying a Blu-ray or HD DVD source in 1080p/24 transmission, the AE3000 will evaluate either two or three frames at a time (Mode 1 or Mode 2), then it will create three interim frames for each real frame. Each of these interim frames are approximately 25% incremental steps in the motion between two real frames. They are displayed at the rate of 96 Hz each. Thus, during each 1/24 second, you actually see four different frames in sequence, one taken from the disc, and three generated by the projector.
On the Z3000, there is only one interim frame generated for each real frame. The playback rate is 96 Hz as it is on the AE3000, but each real frame is displayed twice, followed by the display of the interim frame twice. In essence, during each 1/24 second, what you see is the real frame from the disc being displayed for the first 1/48 sec, and the interim frame appears for the second 1/48 sec.
If the source is changed from 24p to 60i or 60p, then both projectors create one interim frame for each real frame, and they are played at 120 Hz. The AE3000 still has the ability to evaluate three frames instead of two, but the output of one interim frame is the same. Also, if you leave the transmission in 24p, and turn off all frame interpolation software on both projectors, then they both display native 24p at the rate of 96 Hz. That is, they both read out the same frame four times, which is simple 4:4 pulldown. Since LCD panels are steady state devices, there is no visual difference in running a 24 fps signal four times per frame at 96 Hz, or five times per frame at 120 Hz, or even once per frame at 24 Hz for that matter. No matter what, you get naked 24p with lots of motion judder.
As you might anticipate, the AE3000 is able to produce a smoother resolution of motion than is the Z3000. The degree to which this is evident in side by side comparison depends on the complexity of the motion. Often the motion on screen is not terribly difficult to resolve, and in these situations the Z3000 and the AE3000 look roughly equivalent in image stability. But in very demanding scenes, it is not unusual to see a completely smooth image on the AE3000, while there remains some residual judder and shake on the Z3000.
One thing to be aware of regarding the AE3000's Frame Creation system is that, since the video processing load is so heavy, there is a bit more video delay. Surprisingly, it is not much given the job that it is doing. But in Mode 2 in particular, you can detect a slight lag between the AE3000 and the Z3000. Each scene change hits the screen just a fraction of an instant faster on the Z3000 than it does on the AE3000. No matter which projector you use, the frame interpolation capability will introduce more processing delay than usual. This will prompt users to activate audio delays on their AV receivers or video processors to eliminate lip-synch problems.
How do they stack up?
We've looked at several Blu-ray discs and standard DVDs with the Z3000 and the AE3000 running side by side. A difficult scene on DVD which reveal a tremendous amount of judder is found in the movie Swimming Pool, a rather eerie and beautifully filmed art house movie in the film noir genre, from 1997. In chapter 3, at 9 min, 30 sec, a car pulls into the driveway and stops. A woman gets out, and the camera pans up to the rustic stone house in which she will be staying. Viewed on pretty much any home theater projector that does not have judder reduction technologies, the car and trees shake and shimmy as the camera starts to pan, and as the house comes into view it is a visual disaster until the camera panning stops. The judder in this scene comes from both 3:2 pulldown and the low film sampling rate.
When you put the Z3000 into 5:5 pulldown mode, this scene becomes somewhat less unstable. However, it is still difficult to watch. Most of the instability derives from the low sampling rate, and only a relatively small portion comes from 3:2 pulldown. So the 5:5 pulldown system helps, but does not clean up the picture as much as you'd want it to. The next step on the Z3000 is to turn off 5:5 pulldown and activate Smooth Motion. Once this is done, this scene becomes much more stable. We cannot imagine anyone would want to settle for the modest reduction in motion artifacts that 5:5 pulldown generates after seeing the more comprehensive effect of Smooth Motion. Ultimately, however, the cleanest rendering of this problematic scene is achieved with the AE3000, with Frame Creation set to Mode 2. Here we see a panning sequence that is about as free of motion artifacts of all kinds as one could imagine.
Bottom line...when it comes to reducing motion judder, the impact of the frame interpolation techniques on both the AE3000 and the Z3000 is huge. We love what it does for the stability of the picture, and we expect to be seeing a lot more of it in the future on competitive offerings. However, our opinion is just that--an opinion. Some people believe that frame interpolation (or at least the implementations they've seen) makes the picture too clean, or too much like video, and they would not use it for that reason. We don't see that as a problem on these projectors. But for folks who do, 5:5 pulldown on the Z3000 is an effective alternative to removing the artifacts related to 3:2 pulldown conversion. Just don't expect the picture to be free of all motion judder, because 5:5 pulldown is not designed to do that.
The AE3000's Lens Memory Feature
Leaving aside frame interpolation, the one other major feature that might cause you to opt for the Panasonic AE3000 over the Sanyo Z3000 is its Lens Memory. However, this is only relevant if you are interested in setting up a 2.35:1 super wide Cinemascope screen instead of the standard 16:9 screen. If you aren't, you can skip this section.
As discussed in the AE3000 review, Lens Memory lets you automatically set the zoom lens to a wide angle setting to fill a 2.35 screen, so that you can view a 2.35 format film in full frame without any black bars. Then when you switch to a 16:9 source such as HDTV or a 1.78 film, you can press a button, and the projector will automatically zoom the lens to a position where the 16:9 image fills your screen vertically. And, unless the projector is positioned exactly at a height equal to the middle of the screen, a vertical compensation adjustment is required to get the image to center vertically on the screen. The AE3000 automatically makes this adjustment as well. Essentially, this eliminates the expense of a separate anamorphic lens.
You can accomplish the same thing on the Z3000, but the zoom lens is manual. So for each change of material between 2.35 films and regular 16:9 material, you must manually adjust the lens to accommodate it. And, if necessary, you must then manually adjust the vertical height of the image as well. This can be a tedious procedure if you do it very often.
So in a nutshell, the situation is this: if you don't want to install a 2.35 format screen, the AE3000's Lens Memory is an irrelevant feature for you. If you want to install a 2.35 screen and want also to use an anamorphic lens, you can use it on either the AE3000 or the Z3000, so again the Lens Memory feature is irrelevant. However, if you want to get into 2.35 format and don't want to spend $4,000 to $7,000 on an anamorphic lens, the AE3000 gives you a very practical and easy to use alternative.
The Panasonic AE3000 and the Sanyo Z3000 are fascinating products that have interesting features that no other home theater projectors have. They both deliver superb image quality. Overall, the AE3000 has a small edge in brightness, contrast, and features. Its frame interpolation system is more powerful than that on the Z3000, but it lacks the Z3000's 5:5 pulldown system that users who object to frame interpolation techniques might want to opt for in its place. The AE3000 has been, and will probably continue to be, the more expensive of the two products by a few hundred dollars on the street, and it includes either a one-year or perhaps two-year warranty in some instances. The Z3000 is less expensive, and carries an attractive three-year warranty with the basic selling price.
We've still got a lot to say, and I could keep writing for hours about the intriguing quirks and capabilities of the Z3000 and AE3000. But this article is getting too long. If you are looking for an aggressively priced high performance home theater projector, we hope that this is enough of a comparison and overview to lead you to a good decision as to which of these two innovative 1080p projectors might be the right one for you.