The two most popular home theater projectors around $2600 this fall are the Epson Home Cinema 5030UB which just began shipping last month, and the Panasonic AE8000 which was introduced a year ago in September, 2012. If you want to spend under $3,000 on a home theater projector, which of these two is the right choice for you? Let's take a look.
Before we get to the differences, let's note that they share a LOT in common. The Epson 5030UB and the Panasonic AE8000 are both native 1080p resolution, 3D enabled 3LCD projectors rated at a maximum brightness of 2400 lumens. Their sequential contrast specs are almost the same--the AE8000 is 500,000:1 and the 5030UB is 600,000:1. The two projectors are almost identical in size and weight, about 19 lbs each. They are both outfitted with long 2x zoom lenses and extensive horizontal and vertical lens shift that allows them to be installed in the same variety of locations with essentially the same throw distance ranges. Both achieve maximum light output when the zoom lenses are set to their widest angle position, and both lose about 40% of their potential light output when the zoom lenses are set to their longest throw, maximum telephoto positions. Their lamps are both rated at 4000 hours.
The 5030UB and the AE8000 both have a variety of programmed operating modes--bright options for living room or ambient light viewing, and less bright but higher contrast settings for dedicated dark theater viewing. The differences in light output between these two models in the various modes is so insignificant as to be irrelevant. Both have ample light output for virtually any light-controlled home theater installation, and neither one has enough power on the top end to produce a truly vibrant large screen image in full ambient light (at least without the aid of ambient light screens like the Black Diamond). Both have operating modes designed for industry standard calibrations--on the 5030UB it is called THX and on the AE8000 it is Rec. 709. Side by side these calibrations look practically identical, although the AE8000 is somewhat brighter and the 5030UB has a deeper black in dark scenes. Both have a Cinema mode which is a color enriched version of their THX/Rec709 calibrations. These Cinema modes may be preferred by many users since the THX and Rec709 settings tend to look a bit dull on a screen 10 feet wide.
So from a glance at the spec sheets you might get the feeling that choosing between the Epson 5030UB and the Panasonic AE8000 is a flip of the coin. Not so--these two projectors have many real differences, some of which may be critical to your decision on which to buy.
A Note on Screens: For the side-by-side testing of these two projectors we used the Stewart Studiotek 100, a neutral 1.0 gain white screen that is ideal for testing and evaluation in zero ambient light environments. It is not recommended for home theater use. Stewart offers the Studiotek 130, and now the less expensive Cima by Stewart Filmscreen, both of which are more appropriate for dedicated, room-darkened home theater installations. The Cima in particular is an appealing, cost-effective complement to the 5030UB and the AE8000. It is 1.1 gain, so slightly brighter than the 100, with the same wide 80 degree half gain angle as the Studiotek 130.
The 5030UB and the AE8000 have extremely similar image quality characteristics, although the 5030UB has an advantage in several key respects. Though they do not look the same out of the box, their various color modes can be tweaked to eliminate factory production biases such that the pictures look so similar that they need to be seen side by side to detect the differences. It would be absurd to say that one has "better" image quality than the other in all respects. However, there are some important differences:
Black levels. The 5030UB tends to achieve deeper blacks in very dark scenes such as night sky, deep space, and rolling credits because the auto iris is more aggressive with these scenes. The trade-off is that in darker than average scenes with a range of mid-tone subjects, the AE8000 will render those mid-tones with noticeably greater brightness, while black levels appear comparable. Thus if the 5030UB and the AE8000 are calibrated to produce equally brilliant renderings of a bright scene in full sunlight, the AE8000 will have the more vibrant rendering of scenes that are below the norm in average light levels, and the 5030UB will have decidedly deeper blacks when the subject matter goes to very dark. Since this phenomenon is a function of the auto iris systems, gamma adjustments are not capable of fully compensating for these trade-offs.
Clarity: Opus Arte's Blu-ray of the Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty is a great test disc for pushing a projector's limits. It has extreme amounts of color and detail in the rich, elaborate costumes as well as an abundance of rapid movement and camera panning. And when viewing this disc, the 5030UB was clearly more successful in rendering the fine detail with greater clarity and precision. However, most film transfers to Blu-ray do not contain the level of fine detail of an Opus Arte production. So in the movies we looked at side by side it was common for the two projectors to appear equally sharp.
Contrast: The 5030UB's black level typically achieves a deeper black in very dark scenes, and this gives it an edge in sequential contrast. In most calibrations the 5030UB measures incrementally higher single frame (ANSI) contrast as well, producing a greater three-dimensionality in the image. In practical terms, the 5030UB will appear to be higher in contrast in scenes where both deep blacks and bright highlights comprise significant portions of the image. The AE8000 will appear higher in contrast in scenes of middle to below average light levels due to its brighter, more open mid-tones. Overall, the 5030UB produces the more satisfying image most of the time.
Digital Noise: The AE8000 wins the comparison when testing with the noise patterns on the Silicon Optics HQV test disc. With this subject matter the AE8000 shows quite a bit less noise than the 5030UB (all noise reduction filters turned off on both units). Though the advantage of the AE8000 is quite obvious in these test patterns, it is much less so in most normal viewing since most scenes do not manifest a significant amount of noise on either projector. Though the AE8000 does an admirable job in this regard, the noise levels on the 5030UB do not rise to the level of objectionable. In normal use we found no instances where digital noise was a factor to worry about.
Visible pixelation: The AE8000 uses what Panasonic calls a "smoothscreen filter" which virtually eliminates visible pixel structure. The 5030UB's LCD chips have micro-lens arrays (MLA), which have a similar pixel muting effect. This is most apparent when the 5030UB is compared side by side with the less expensive 4030 which does not have MLA.
When standing next to the screen, the 5030UB has a more distinct pixel structure than does the AE8000. But nobody watches a movie one foot from the screen. In practical terms there is no visible screendoor effect when either of these projectors is viewed from any normal viewing distance.
Overall Assessment: Due to improvements in contrast and clarity, the 5030UB produces a more satisfying image in brightly lit scenes, and its higher contrast and deeper blacks will cause scenes with whites and blacks like rolling credits and deep space images in Star Wars to pop with greater sizzle. The contrast advantage can give the 5030UB's picture an incrementally deeper three-dimensionality. However, in scenes that are less bright overall, the AE8000 shines in a way that the 5030UB does not, with brighter more open midtones and better shadow definition. Neither of these projectors appears to have a significant image quality weakness when viewed alone; their strengths and weaknesses relative to one another only become noticeable when viewed side by side.
3D processing has improved to the point where crosstalk artifacts are no longer the issue they once were, and both of these projectors deliver exceptionally clean and stable 3D. One salient difference between the 5030UB and the AE8000 is in 3D brightness--the 5030UB delivers a 3D image that is about 40% brighter than the AE8000. That sounds like a lot, but this needs to be kept in perspective. To obtain equivalent 3D image brightness from both projectors, if you were to set up the 5030UB on a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen, you would need to use an 85" diagonal with the AE8000. (A 100" screen has about 40% more surface area than an 85" screen.)
The most obvious downside to 3D with any projector is the glasses which are often uncomfortable and visually distracting. In worst case scenarios you feel like you're wearing a helmet. Many people avoid 3D simply because the glasses can be annoying, so this essential component of the 3D system warrants more attention than it normally gets in a review.
Fortunately, the Epson and Panasonic 3D glasses are both relatively light-weight and better than many of the glasses we've seen. However, their differences are noteworthy. Panasonic's 3D glasses have a light, natural feel, almost as if they were normal sunglasses. The frames are constructed with an arc that causes the lenses to be positioned relatively close to the eyes. The benefit is that, at least when I look through them, the lens frames do not intrude very much into my peripheral vision. So I don't get as much of a sense that I'm wearing "special glasses."
Epson's 3D glasses are not any heavier than Panasonic's, but they are physically a bit larger and the frame across the bridge of the nose has less of an arc, so they have less of a wrap-around effect. This causes the lenses and frames to sit at a greater distance from the eyes, which in turn makes the frames of the glasses more visible in one's peripheral vision. One is therefore is more conscious of the glasses on the face. When viewing a 3D screen in the dark this sensation is mitigated somewhat. Nevertheless, Panasonic's glasses are designed to be less intrusive in the user's field of vision, thus making it easier to forget they are there.
As a side note, Panasonic's 3D glasses also have an optional 2D switch that displays left-eye content to both lenses, essentially allowing someone to watch a movie being display in 3D in 2D. Why you wonder? Because some folks just don't like 3D no matter what--it makes them seasick or gives them headaches. The 2D/3D switch allows a family or group of friends to all watch the same 3D movie in a social setting, and the glasses let anyone who does not like the 3D effect to turn it off.
On the other hand, Epson's 3D glasses have an advantage over Panasonic's in that they have RF communications while the AE8000 used IR. RF has the advantage of not requiring line of sight connection, and it doesn't have the potential to encounter interference from other equipment in the room that you might be controlling via IR.
This technology has the potential to substantially improve the viewing experience of very large screen images by reducing or eliminating judder during slow camera panning sequences. Judder is often a distracting artifact that can cause the picture to completely disintegrate momentarily, and getting rid of it is a wonderful thing. Frame interpolation systems evaluate the movement that occurs between two frames in sequence, then create and insert intermediate frames that approximate the movement and tend to smooth it out.
The downside is that frame interpolation ("FI") can introduce its own artifacts such as ghosting or what one might describe as oily artifacts around subjects moving across the screen. Another common complaint about frame interpolation is that it can enhance the image to where it appears to be real video rather than film (called the "digital video" or "soap opera" effect). This can interfere with the suspension of disbelief required for total immersion in the film experience. Basically, if the picture looks like it was shot with a high resolution video camera you begin to think about how eerily real the picture looks rather than the film's story. Some people like the effect, but it is clearly a departure from the authentic cinema aesthetic. Videophiles rightly regard it as disturbingly artificial.
The objective of FI is to eliminate as much judder as possible while minimizing ghosting and the digital video effect. There is a mysterious art to this, and both the 5030 UB and the AE8000 have three separate settings that are intended to balance these trade-offs, which are essentially low, moderate, and aggressive applications of the technique. On the AE8000, FI is called Frame Creation, and the options are Off, Mode 1, Mode 2, and Mode 3. On the 5030UB it is called Frame Interpolation, and the options are Off, Low, Normal, and High.
In the end, the AE8000's Frame Creation system tends to achieve more satisfying results than the 5030UB. When it is set on low ("Mode 1") with a 1080p/24 source, the AE8000 shows substantially reduced judder while imparting very little ghosting or digital video effect in most films. Once you bump the control from low to normal (Mode 2) the remaining judder is largely eliminated, but the digital video effect can become more apparent. However, this is dependent on the nature of the material. Mode 2 is too aggressive for a romantic comedy like 50 First Dates, but it works very well with Blade Runner, wherein no soap opera effect appears at all. The ideal setting depends (a) on the movie you're watching, and (b) the degree to which you like or dislike the soap opera effect.
On the 5030UB, the Low setting does not have quite the same judder reducing power as the AE8000, but it does have a beneficial effect that is better than leaving it off altogether. When resetting FI to Normal, the 5030UB does a superb job of eliminating most judder, but it can impart a more pronounced video effect than does the AE8000 in its Mode 2. Once again, this depends entirely upon the subject matter being viewed. The movie Vicki Cristina Barcelona is filmed with slightly soft-focus optics that imparts a dreamlike quality to the image. The movie contains numerous slow panning scenes of beautiful architecture and artwork. For this film the Normal setting of FI on the 5030UB works beautifully--it eliminated panning judder without introducing any distracting digital video effect due to the film's inherent soft focus. The few ghosting artifacts that appeared were rare and insignificant. I would not watch this movie on the 5030UB without setting FI to Normal.
In short, there is no "one size fits all" solution to frame interpolation. Its effects vary and are entirely dependent on the content. If you end up selecting either of these two projectors, the FI systems will definitely be worth exploring, as they both have the ability to improve the smoothness and clarity of the image.
Input Lag, Lip Synch, Gaming
Both of these projectors create a delay in getting the picture to the screen (as all projectors do). Overall, the AE8000 gets the picture to the screen faster than the 5030UB no matter what modes the projectors are in. When viewing side by side, with each scene change the AE8000 refreshes first, and the 5030UB follows a split second later. As a result, lip synch issues are comparatively minor on the AE8000. It is possible to watch a movie with no audio delay and not be distracted by any obvious lip synch problems. This is not the case with the 5030UB--with frame interpolation and/or super resolution active the buffer delay is as much as eleven frames compared to four on the AE8000. So lip movement is more obviously out of synch with the audio on the 5030UB, and you hear the gunshot before you see the flash of the gun.
However, I hasten to add that, though the AE8000 can be used in a pinch without audio delay, this is not the ideal way to set it up. Even a slight synch problem between audio and video that is not obvious will produce a subliminal unease in the viewing experience--viewers may sense something is not quite right but not be consciously aware of what it is. So taking care during installation to eliminate even slight timing issues is effort well spent. And as long as you're doing this, the relative magnitude of the adjustment is irrelevant. It does not take any longer to set up a 60ms delay than it does a 180ms delay, and as long as you're doing this, the the differences in buffer delay are of no consequence in choosing one projector over the other. Keep in mind that if you change video processing settings (say, change frame interpolation from low to medium) it is likely you will change the buffer delay which may in turn require a tweak to the audio delay.
Game Mode/Fast Processing: Input lag is a problem that can affect game scores, so having minimal lag between the signal's arrival and it's display is a big deal for serious gamers. The AE8000 has a specific Game Mode that is designed to minimize input lag. The 5030UB does not have a specific Game mode, but rather a "Fast" option (as opposed to "Fine") that can be applied to any of the operating modes. When in these operating modes, our test samples measured almost identical, 34ms on the AE8000 and 37ms on the 5030UB. However, the 5030UB's Fast mode imparts a noticeable softening of detail to the image, whereas there is no diminishment of sharpness on the AE8000.
2.4 CIH Cinemascope Options
IF you are in the process of setting up your home theater, one of the biggest decisions you can make is whether to go with a 16:9 format screen, or with the wider 2.4:1 format, classically known as CinemaScope. If you have not sorted out this decision, read this before proceeding with this section. The screen format you choose will have a direct impact on the best choice of projector. The reason is that the AE8000 is designed to accommodate a 2.4:1 Constant Image Height installation and the 5030UB is not.
Powered zoom/focus: The story starts with powered zoom and focus, which the AE8000 has and the 5030UB does not. That sounds like a nice feature, but it may or may not be of any consequence to you. If you install your projector in a fixed location and fit the image to a 16:9 screen, a power zoom/focus feature is something you may use just once. It becomes a valuable feature only when you have a need to reset the lens periodically, as you would if using a 2.4 format screen.
Lens Memory: If you want to go with a 2.4:1 Cinemascope format screen and a Constant Image Height set up, this is where the AE8000 trumps the 5030UB. The AE8000's power zoom supports a Lens Memory system that automatically resets the zoom and picture position to fill the screen for 2.4 format movies, or readjust to center 16:9 and 4:3 material on the 2.4 screen. So it gives you much the same viewing flexibility as you'd get with an anamorphic lens.
Anamorphic stretch: Do you want to use an external anamorphic lens to achieve your 2.4:1 Cinemascope home theater set up? The vertical rescaling needed to accommodate the A-lens is a standard feature of the AE8000, but it does not exist on the 5030UB. If you want to add an A-lens to the 5030UB, you can do it by adding an external video processor to your configuration that will perform the vertical stretch before the signal gets to the projector. Or if there are other features you like about the 5030UB you can step up to the 6030UB, which includes vertical rescaling as a standard option.
Remote and Menu
When it comes to ease of use, the AE8000 has an edge primarily because of the simpler remote and the better experience in negotiating the menu.
The 5030UB has a very large remote with lots of buttons, most of which are intended to short-circuit the sequential scrolling through the menu, which by itself is a good thing. However, some of these buttons are used so rarely that you don't have occasion to learn or remember where they are on the remote, so menu access for those functions becomes the natural default behavior. Some buttons are unnecessary--for example, you are given a separate button for each of the six video inputs, where one button used to toggle through the inputs (as the AE8000 remote has) would be as easy to negotiate.
The most problematic feature of the 5030UB's remote is that the Down Arrow which you use to progress through the on-screen menu, and the Menu button itself (which erases the menu if it is already on screen), are adjacent to and within ¼ inch of each other. So it is easy to close the menu by accident while trying to negotiate it.
The AE8000 has a much smaller remote with fewer buttons--the functions are accessed via the menu instead. From an ergonomic perspective the AE8000's remote is easier to use. You make fewer errors by accidently hitting the wrong buttons, and you spend almost no time studying the remote to figure out where the function button you want is located. In addition, the AE8000's menu system has a handy feature of remembering where you were and which control you just adjusted. It is easy to return to that particular control for an incremental adjustment rather than scroll sequentially through the entire menu to get back to that control, as is required on the 5030UB. If you want to run through and adjust picture controls such as contrast, brightness, color, etc., the AE8000 menu lets you cycle through them sequentially, while you must move back and forth between two levels of the menu to select and adjust each individual control on the 5030UB.
The bottom line--with regard to operation and system control, you can do everything you need to do on either the 5030UB or the AE8000. It's easier to learn and maneuver on the AE8000, but with enough repetition you can learn to negotiate either remote/menu system effectively.
Other Key Features
On-board panel alignment system: The 5030UB has on-board panel alignment and the AE8000 does not. This is a key feature advantage for the 5030UB. Over time any three-chip projector can drift out of convergence. If or when this happens, the 5030UB gives you the ability to realign the panels, whereas the AE8000 needs to be sent in for adjustment. The AE8000 has many extra features that most home theater projectors do not have, but the omission of on-board panel alignment capability is something we hope Panasonic will rectify in their next generation product.
Warranties: Epson and Panasonic both offer two-year warranties on these projectors, but Epson's is clearly the more comprehensive and service-oriented of the two. Panasonic has a 2000-hour limit, so the warranty is really two-years or 2000 hours, whichever comes first. If you plan to use your projector more than 3 hours a day, this limit comes into play.
Epson also pays for shipping both ways when the unit needs to go to the shop, and a replacement projector is provided while your unit is being serviced. Panasonic's warranty offers neither of these things.
Fan noise: You may have noticed a difference in the dB specs on these two models--the AE8000 is rated at 22dB and the 5030UB at 32 dB. There is indeed an audible difference when both projectors are run in full power lamp mode. The 5030UB simply produces more fan noise, so the specs are not misleading in this regard. When set to eco- or low-power mode neither projector produces any noticeable fan noise. And in full power, though the AE8000 is quieter, the 5030UB is not objectionably loud since it produces a rather low-pitch whirring that is not normally distracting. However, you may become aware of the fan noise on the 5030UB during quiet interludes in a movie, whereas you won't with the AE8000.
Connectivity: The AE8000 has three HDMI inputs along with one 15-pin D-sub, one RS232, one 3-RCA component, one S-video, one composite, and two 12-volt triggers. The 5030UB has fewer connections--only two HDMI ports, no S-video, and only one 12-volt trigger. We don't miss the S-video, but some users with more elaborate theater set-ups may appreciate the third HDMI port and second trigger on the AE8000.
Wireless options: Epson offers the 5030UB in a wireless enabled configuration designated as the 5030UBe, which costs $300 more. If you want to go wireless on either the 5030UB or the AE8000, you can acquire one of several third party wireless 1080p video transmission products generally priced under $300. However, if you know up front that you want wireless on your 5030UB, it is a matter of convenience to order it in the 5030UBe version.
B/W Cinema Mode: Epson introduced a B/W Cinema mode this year, which is calibrated to a warmer than standard color temperature of about 5500K. This is an excellent reminder for anyone who views older classic B/W films. They simply look a lot better when viewed at a warmer temperature. Beyond that, the warmer temperature that Epson calibrated into this mode approximates how B/W movies actually looked in theaters back in the day. Viewing Casablanca at 5500K, you're seeing it as audiences in theaters are thought to have experienced it in 1942. Epson's B/W Cinema mode lets you dial that in without having to think about it. You can achieve the same effect on the AE8000 by moving the color temperature control to the warm end of the scale, but you're just feeling your way along as to what might be the right setting. And since there is no B/W setting on the AE8000, there is no reminder that this is something you might want to think about anyway. We applaud whoever came up with this idea.
Auto-shutdown/sleep modes: If you fall asleep during a movie, the 5030UB will shut itself down either 5, 10, or 30 minutes (your choice) after it last senses a signal. The AE8000 has a sleep mode too, but your choices are a minimum of 60 minutes, with 30 minute increments up to four hours. Why anyone would want their projector to continue projecting a blue screen for anywhere between one and four hours after the signal stops is a mystery to us, but somebody might view that as an advantage. On the other hand, if you want your projector to burn all night long to keep the room warm, both the 5030UB and the AE8000 give you the option to turn the sleep modes off altogether.
Case color: If none of the differences enumerated in this extensive comparison has tipped you one way or the other, consider that the AE8000 is black, and the 5030UB is mostly white with a black faceplate. If you want a black version of the 5030UB, you may upgrade to the 6030UB, which comes only in black. If you happened to be installing your projector on a white ceiling, the 5030UB will end up blending in and looking less obvious. It might look almost invisible were it not for the black faceplate.
It is common to hear people say that the only differences between the AE8000 and the 5030UB are that the AE8000 has powered zoom and Lens Memory, and the 5030UB has deeper blacks. We've tried to dispel that superficial perception in this shootout. Though they share a host of features and capabilities in common, the differences between these models are many and varied, and you are likely to find that the distinctive array of features offered by either the 5030UB or the AE8000 will suit your needs better than the other.
The 5030UB's strengths lie primarily in image quality characteristics. Incrementally higher sequential and ANSI contrast and solid black levels combine with a clarity of image to produce a more satisfying image most of the time, especially with high contrast content that contains extreme detail. And the onboard panel alignment system can keep the picture razor sharp over time without the need to send it in for adjustments. This is a significant advantage since 3-chip projectors tend to move out of convergence over time.
The AE8000 has the obvious advantage of power zoom and Lens Memory to support a 2.4 CIH installation. This is a big deal for those who want this feature, and of no importance to those who don't. It also has advantages of ease of use. More thought has gone into ergonomics, so the remote and menu are easier to negotiate, and the 3D glasses are somewhat more comfortable and less obvious. And in full power mode it is the quieter of the two projectors.
The 5030UB represents a refinement of last year's model and it is an incrementally more formidable competitor to the AE8000 than was the 5020UB. Yet the 5030UB is not a major reworking of last year's 5020UB so does not radically change the ballgame; the AE8000 remains a competitive projector in today's market. On their own, they are both outstanding projectors for the money. And they each have a few quirks and limitations that we'd love to see resolved if we are to be favored one day in the future with an Epson 5040UB and a Panasonic AE9000.