Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
The happy fact of life in the home theater world is that high performance home theater projectors get better and less expensive on almost a monthly basis. Furthermore this steady march forward in price/performance is occasionally punctuated by new products that represent significant steps forward in value to the consumer. Sometimes this is achieved by a notable improvement in one particular performance characteristic, such as contrast or onboard video processing. Then there are those products that incorporate a variety of improvements which collectively make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The Panasonic AE700, currently selling at an estimated street price of $2,199, is just such a product.
Native Resolution: 1280x720
Brightness: 1000 ANSI lumens
Lens: Manual zoom/focus, with 2.0x zoom range
Connection ports: One each--HDMI, RGB (VGA), 3-RCA component, S-video, composite, 12V trigger
Lamp life: 3000 hours in high brightness mode (more in eco mode)
Weight: 7.9 lbs
Brightness. As with all home theater projectors, after calibration for video the AE700 puts out less light than the theoretical maximum 1000 ANSI lumen rating would indicate. There are so many calibration and operational variables on the AE700 that it is impractical to quote actual lumen outputs for each. In practical terms, the AE700 is capable of adequately illuminating screens up to 150" diagonal in a dark viewing room. However for best image quality we would limit image size to no more than 120" diagonal.
Contrast. The contrast rating of 2000:1 is a significant boost from the earlier AE500 model. It is due in part to the dynamic iris feature, and in part to dynamic gamma control, with both iris and gamma being reconfigured on a frame by frame basis as determined by the material being displayed. The combination of these features works remarkably well. Overall contrast performance is noticeably improved over previous generations of LCD projectors.
Manual zoom and focus. The AE700 is the first digital projector to offer a 2.0x zoom range on its manual zoom lens. This means that you can get a 100" diagonal image anywhere between 10 and 20 feet throw distance. At this writing, no other digital projector has such an extended zoom range. This is a significant competitive advantage, because it means that you can set it up in almost any size room without worrying about the cost and inconvenience of ceiling mounting. No matter what your room size, and what size of screen you want, the 2x zoom lens substantially improves the chances that the AE700 can be installed on a shelf or in a bookcase on the rear wall.
Horizontal and vertical lens shift. The AE700 provides the ability to move the lens up and down or to the sides to reposition the projected image on the wall. This is a key feature for ease of installation.
Five video inputs. The AE700 offers the new HDMI port, which means it is compatible with DVI (HDCP) outputs from DVD players or set top boxes that offer DVI output. Furthermore the connection panel has a PC input (15-pin VGA) for PC, HDTV, and analog RGB video, and a separate component video input (3-RCA) for HDTV and component video. Finally it has an S-video and composite video input, both of which should be used only for VCRs, video game boxes, laser disc players, and any sources for which component outputs are not available.
"Smooth Screen" technology. Panasonic has been at the forefront of reducing visible pixelation and the screendoor effect, two problems that have been traditionally regarded as weaknesses in LCD technology. On the AE700 the screendoor effect has been eliminated entirely from any normal viewing distance. Pixelation is suppressed to the point that it is not visible except upon close examination of the screen. However, pixelation artifacts can still appear on occasion.
Lamp life and fan noise. Most projectors come with two operating modes-high light output, which also limits lamp life and increases fan noise, or low light output, which reduces image brightness in exchange for conserving the lamp and quieting the fan. The AE700 offers 3000-hour lamp life in high lamp mode, and even longer (but unspecified) lamp life in eco-mode. Furthermore, the fan noise in high lamp mode is very low in both volume and pitch. Therefore since you get low fan noise and 3000-hour lamp life in high lamp mode, the AE700 is the first of the home theater projectors that we would recommend be routinely operated in high lamp mode. The higher light output allows for a larger screen image-an obvious advantage to home theater enthusiasts looking for a very big screen experience. On the other hand, for those who have a small viewing space who might be opting for a smaller screen size, the low lamp mode reduces fan noise to almost zero and (presumably) extends lamp life somewhat. So that might be the preferred operating mode for some users.
Our location in Las Vegas is at 3200 feet elevation. The AE700's fan runs at a higher speed and thus a bit louder at 3200 feet than it does at sea level. This is normal since as the air gets thinner at higher elevations one needs to move more of it to remove any given heat load. If you live at an elevation above 4,500 feet, it is recommended that you use an optional high fan mode to maintain proper operating temperatures. Failure to do so will shorten lamp life. High fan mode may cause enough distraction to be problematic for some users. If it is a problem for you, the most immediate solution is to operating in low lamp mode. This reduces brightness by about 20%, but also brings fan noise back down to a comfortable level.
Color temperature. The AE700 has five preprogrammed user selectable color temperature settings, labeled, -2, -1, 0, +1, and +2. The 0 setting is the default, and closest to the ideal 6500 kelvins required for optimum display of NTSC color film and video. -2 and -1 are warmer settings (lower color temperature), that are best used for the display of classic black and white films. They deliver a warmer cast to the B/W film, much like the sepia toning of a B/W photograph. This enables you to view B/W films closer to the 5400 kelvins they were originally projected with in the commercial theaters of their time. Many projectors do not have this warmer color temperature option preprogrammed, and it works well on this unit. The higher color temperatures, +1 and +2, are colder and best used for computer presentation material.
Aspect ratio control. Since this is a native 16:9 format projector, a 16:9 signal from HDTV or DVD is displayed full frame in 16:9 mode. A letterboxed 16:9 image can be displayed full frame in Zoom mode.
You have several options for the display of 4:3 programming. First, you may center it in the middle of the 16:9 screen with black pillars on each side. This maintains the correct original aspect ratio of the material. Second, you may enlarge the 4:3 image to fill the 16:9 screen while maintaining its correct aspect ratio. In so doing, the system eliminates the top and bottom portions of the image. Third, you may use the "Just" option. This expands the 4:3 material horizontally to fill the 16:9 screen. However it expands the center portion of the image relatively little, while the outer edges of the image (where there is typically less relevant picture information) are stretched in more exaggerated fashion. The overall effect works fine for regular television programming. However the videophile purist would want to watch classic 4:3 films and other important 4:3 material with the natural 4:3 setting in correct aspect ratio. It is easy to toggle sequentially through each of the aspect ratio settings via a button on the remote, and quickly select the one that most appeals to you.
Color management. In addition to basic controls that include brightness and contrast for red, green, and blue, the AE700 has a unique color management system on board that lets you individually adjust the saturation, hue, and brightness of up to eight selected colors and save them in one of three user defined settings. This system adjusts color only, so there is no ability to use the color management system to alter black, gray, or white. You may or may not want to use this feature depending upon how serious you are about calibrations and minor adjustments. The novice can create as much distortion as improvement by using this feature. But fortunately there is always the option to default to the original settings, so no damage is done by experimenting.
Front exhaust. A critical design element for the successful rear-shelf mounting of a projector is that it must expel hot exhaust through the front of the unit. On occasion, side exhaust units will work as well, but care must be taken to ensure that heat cannot build up around the projector, especially if placed in an enclosed bookcase. Rear exhaust units cannot be rear shelf-mounted unless extraordinary steps are taken to use external fans to disperse the heat.
Therefore, exhaust through the front is best for the dispersal of heat. Yet it can create a problem of its own: if hot air is blown into the path of projected light, the heat can create instability in the image on the screen.
The AE700 provides a unique solution. Yes, it is designed to exhaust through the front bevel. However the exhaust is expelled at a 45-degree angle from the corner of the unit and away from the light path, thus eliminating the possibility that the hot exhaust will interfere with the projected image. This is the best solution we have yet seen for the cooling of a projector intended for rear shelf-mounted use.
In any professional sales training course one is taught that sales is all about overcoming the buyer's objections. It seems that Panasonic took this advice to heart and designed the AE700 to do just that. The AE700 eliminates the screendoor effect and bothersome fan noise, provides plenty of contrast and true HDTV 1280x720 resolution, extends lamp life, eliminates the nuisance of ceiling mounting in most cases, and delivers it all for an attractive estimated street price of $2,195. That just about takes care of most of the big objections many people have to front projection systems. Overall it is easy to see why people are enthused with this product.
Clearly the projector was designed with one primary customer in mind: the person who wants to put the projector on the rear wall. Though it can be ceiling mounted, the projector is designed to make it as easy as possible for the first time home theater user to set it up in a bookcase on a rear wall, and project to a screen on the opposite wall. The advantages of mounting the projector on a rear shelf are these:
* Eliminates the $200 cost of a ceiling mount.
* Eliminates the cost of long run video cables.
* Shorter video cable run ensures maximum signal quality.
* Positions the projector in a less visible location.
* Eliminates the need to run cables through dry wall.
* Easier access for periodic filter cleaning and lamp replacement.
* Bookshelf can help to buffer fan noise.
* Avoids need for aggressive lens shift or keystone adjustments.
All things considered, placing the projector on a rear shelf or bookcase is the easiest and best way to set it up, especially if you are doing it yourself. The fact that the AE700 was designed to make this type of set up as easy as possible is one of its strong attributes.
Lens shift issues. In neutral position the centerline of the AE700's lens strikes the center of the projected image, which is typical on many lens-shift enabled projectors. From that point the image can be shifted either up or down in a range equal to a maximum of 63% of the picture height. This lets you position the image either entirely above or entirely below the centerline of the lens, with a few inches to spare. The lens can also be shifted from side to side in a range of up to a maximum of 25% of the picture width.
However, the vertical and horizontal shifts do not have fully independent adjustment ranges-one cannot go to the maximum vertical and horizontal offsets at the same time. For example, if you drop the image by 50% in picture height from the center point, you can only move it from side to side by about 8% of the picture width. If you use the maximum vertical offset of 63%, there is no horizontal adjustment available at all. Therefore the AE700 has less latitude for adjustment when compared to many other projectors that feature physical lens shift. The good news is that if you are mounting the unit on a rear shelf, you are not likely to need much lens shift adjustment to hit the screen anyway. Realistically, the only time these limitations would become a factor is if you need to ceiling-mount or table-mount the projector significantly off center axis.
Ideal Image Size and Viewing Distance. Another consideration that is common to most digital home theater projectors is that of image size versus image quality. These products can be used to project images up to 200" in diagonal or more, and the AE700 is no exception. However there is a fixed amount of light thrown from any digital projector, and as you increase image size you spread that same amount of light over a greater surface area. That results in an increasingly dull and washed out image as you get larger and larger. As an example, if you increase image size from 100" to 200" diagonal, you increase the square footage of the screen by a factor of 4. That means that your image on a 200" screen will be only 25% as bright as the image on a 100" screen. On the other hand, as you reduce image size, the image becomes increasingly vibrant, rich, and higher in contrast.
Therefore there is always an aesthetic trade-off decision to make. Of course you want a very large image-otherwise you wouldn't be considering a projector to begin with. But where is the ideal trade-off point on image size versus quality? This is a matter of personal taste, and there is no answer that is right for everyone. However, assuming a light controlled viewing space, in our opinion the AE700 hits it optimum trade-off point in the range of 100" to 120" diagonal. Going larger than 120" diagonal begins to cost you noticeably in contrast and image brightness, and going smaller than 100" nets you some nice incremental contrast and brightness, but at the penalty of reduced image size.
If you do not have a light controlled environment, you should opt for a smaller screen size. If you have low indirect ambient light as a matter of course in the viewing room, we would suggest limiting the screen size to no more than 100" diagonal.
Of course for those who have a smaller viewing room or simply prefer a smaller screen size for whatever reason, a 90" diagonal image might be just right. In this situation the AE700 will deliver a beautiful, brilliant image that can be viewed either in darkness, or low indirect ambient light. So if 90" diagonal is the practical image size for your room, go for it. Don't oversize the image just because you can.
We would recommend a viewing distance of 1.6 to 2.0 times the screen width. Though there is no screendoor effect and pixelation is minimized, sitting closer than 1.6x the screen width will make compression artifacts and the digital structure of the image more visible and distracting. The eye will resolve the image to a more coherent film-like whole when viewed at a distance of about 1.6 times the screen width.
Deinterlacing/scaling. Deinterlacing and scaling is accomplished with proprietary Panasonic video processing electronics. Deinterlacing of standard definition component video is good, and 3:2 pulldown compensation excellent. Picture stability was better when using interlaced input from the DVD player, and thus using the internal deinterlacing system, than it was when feeding progressive scan. A progressive scan signal produced a lot of combing artifacts that the internal deinterlacer neatly eliminated when the signal was switched from progressive back to interlaced. Results may vary based upon the DVD player you use, so try it both ways and go with the set up that looks the best to you.
Upon initial review the scaling of standard definition material did not look as crisp as one would like. The image seemed a bit soft. However subsequent work with the unit has caused us to re-evaluate this assessment. The image from DVD looks extremely sharp at this point, and the conditions under which we initially detected some softness cannot be reproduced. This paragraph has therefore been updated as of 10/19/04 to reflect this correction to the initial review.
The ultimate strength of the AE700 manifests itself with HDTV. The 1280x720 panels are made to display HDTV 720p in native format. When feeding the unit a 720p signal, via either antenna or satellite/cable box, the AE700 produces a brilliant, crystal clear image that few projectors anywhere in its price class can rival. Those who are going for the best possible NFL football display will be amazed at what the AE700 can do with football broadcasts coming from ABC, ESPN, and Fox.
Vertical banding. There is some subtle vertical banding on the AE700. However in our opinion it does not rise to the level of a serious flaw. It is most apparent on a solid gray field like the mid-tone gray field test patterns on the AVIA calibration DVD. But once texture or pattern is introduced the effect is suppressed. For example it is less visible on the gray background of the Sharpness pattern than it is on a pure gray field. And it is so subtle that it is obliterated by almost all video material. On some DVDs it can on occasion become softly visible in low contrast mid-tone scenes. But for the most part it is invisible with most viewing material.
Screen compatibility. The AE700 can be used with good results with either a white or high-contrast gray screen. The choice of screen fabric has more to do with the room than the projector. If your room is a dedicated theater room that you can outfit with dark walls, carpets, ceilings, and so forth (like a commercial theater), then a white screen is the best choice. If on the other hand you are setting up in a living room with white ceiling, light drapes and carpets, etc., then the high contrast gray screen will be the better choice since it will absorb reflected light and give you better black level performance.
The Panasonic AE700 offers an excellent value proposition to those looking for outstanding high contrast HDTV performance at a modest cost, and to those looking for the simplicity of shelf-mounting their projector with no muss or fuss. In particular, the AE700 is an outstanding choice for football fans who want to get the highest quality images from 720p broadcasts. Furthermore every sports bar in America could use one of these for smaller screen applications (there is not enough light output for very large screen usage in ambient light). In a sports bar it would be a great 60" or 72" alternative to the 42" plasma flat screen. For HDTV in general and HD sports in particular, the AE700 is highly recommended. Less expensive alternatives lack either the physical resolution or the contrast to match the AE700 in detail, clarity, and image sparkle, and none of them can match its flexibility for installation in a wide array of viewing rooms.
For those who do not care about HDTV and are more interested in DVD and regular television, the AE700 still offers simplicity of installation, but it is not as uniquely competitive with standard definition material as it is with HDTV. For these buyers, less costly alternatives might be more appropriate. Nevertheless, Panasonic's achievements with LCD technology, both in improved contrast and reduced pixelation, are impressively manifested in the AE700. Overall it is a strong product release by Panasonic that continues the company's tradition in low-cost, high performance home theater projectors.
For current prices and availability, click here for AE700 dealers.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Panasonic PT-AE700U projector page.