Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
In the last couple of months we've seen two inexpensive widescreen LCD projectors hit the market--the Sanyo PLV-Z1 and the Sony HS10. Both have been very impressive entries. But now Panasonic strikes back with a dynamo of its own, the new PT-L300U. In this review we will refer to the unit as the PT-L300U or just the L300U for short. But note that this same machine is also sold by Panasonic's Consumer division as the PT-AE300.
The PT-L300U is the latest 16:9 widescreen format projector to hit the market at street prices under $2000. And like previous Panasonic machines used for home theater, it delivers truly exceptional value for the money.
The L300U features three 0.7" native widescreen LCD panels in 960x540 resolution. This is the new "1/4 HD" format, so called because the native HDTV 1080i signal of 1920x1080 can be compressed exactly 50% in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions. The advantage is that it yields a particularly clean scaling of HDTV.
The L300U is rated at 800 ANSI lumens of brightness and 800:1 contrast, the combination of which delivers a sparkling image in a typical home theater setup. Lamp life in full power mode is 2000 hours, but in low power mode (the preferred way to run it), Panasonic claims you will get up to 5,000 hours.
At just 6.4 lbs, this is one of the more compact of the home theater projectors on the market. Viewed from the top it is almost square, measuring about 11" in both length and width. It stands just 3.2" high. The casework is dark gray. There is no fancy high-style design work here, just a simple unassuming little box. All the visual drama of the L300U is packed inside. It shows up on the screen.
The L300U takes 525i (480i), 625i, 525p (480p), 750p (720p), 1125i (1080i). Color systems include NTSC, NTSC 4.43, PAL, PAL-M, PAL-N, PAL60, and SECAM.
It comes with a 1.2x manual zoom and focus lens. Throw distance is relatively short. A 100" diagonal 16:9 image can be achieved from a lens-to-screen distance of 10.2 to 12 feet. Note however that the cooling system vents exhaust out the back of the unit. That means you cannot restrict rear clearance by mounting this product in a bookcase or on a rear wall shelf without risk of heat build-up. It needs at least 18" of space behind the unit to allow for adequate heat dissipation.
The connection panel is on the rear of the unit. It offers an array of connection options, including one composite jack, one S-video port, one DVI-D input, one 15-pin VGA input, and a set of three RCAs for component video. There is also a set of audio input jacks to drive the single 2-watt onboard speaker should the need arise.
There is an SD memory card slot on the L300 as well. It enables you to load pictures or presentation data that have been stored on an SD card via a digital camera or computer. The SD card is a Panasonic product. The memory card reader on the L300U will read only SD cards. It is not compatible with Compact Flash, or other competitive formats such as Sony's Memory Stick.
The L300U has several pre-programmed operating modes including Dynamic, Cinema 1, Cinema 2, Music, Sports, and Natural. In addition to these you have the ability to set your own calibrations and save them in three user memories. Picture controls include contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness, color temperature, and black level and white level gamma adjustment. Color temperature can be altered with separate contrast and brightness controls on red and blue. With a PC or DVI signal, there is additional independent white balance control on red, green, and blue.
The L300U's remote control is small and easy to use once you get used to it. It has back-lighting for convenient use in the dark. Range is excellent (over 40 feet), and the projector's responsiveness to it is virtually immediate. The remote lets you select three input categories: video, which toggles between composite and S-video; component, which selects the component input, and PC, which toggles between the VGA and DVI ports.
Aspect ratio control can be toggled via a button on the remote, as can the picture mode. A freeze button freezes the video image. A "Normal" button causes all settings to default to factory presets. However it is not active unless you are already in a calibration menu, so you need not worry about hitting it by accident in the middle of a movie.
Horizontal and vertical keystone adjustments are also available either through the menu or via a button on the remote. This enables you to set the projector off axis from the screen and still square up the picture. As with almost all other projectors with this feature, the additional scaling required for keystone adjustment softens the image. Thus for best video performance, the projector should be placed so that no keystone adjustment is required.
There are several striking aspects to the L300U's image and performance. First and foremost is the remarkable lack of pixelation. From a distance of 1.5x the screen width, there is no screendoor effect and no visible pixel structure. In this regard it is the best we've seen relative to its resolution. The absence of pixelation in the image matches that of the higher resolution WXGA products like the Sony HS10 and Epson TW100. We did not expect to see this.
The other key advantage of the L300U is that contrast is the highest we've seen in any LCD projector, rivaling that of the much more expensive Sanyo PLV-70 and Sony VPL-VW12HT. Blacks are rendered as true black, and shadow details open up with definition that is not seen on other LCD projectors anywhere near this price range.
Color decoding is overall extremely good. The green and blue channels are virtually perfect. Red has a slight orange bias and is just a bit weak, but the error is not enough to complain about. (It is the reviewer's job to nit-pick.)
Another important area in which the L300U excels: fan noise. This projector in low power mode is the quietest of any projector in its class. Noise is very low in both volume and pitch, making it a non-issue.
As far as actual light output is concerned, the L300U varies like all other projectors based upon calibration. The brightest configuration is Dynamic mode with light output and fan on high. We measured actual lumen output at 610 in this mode. Switching from Dynamic to Cinema 1 for better contrast and color balance dropped the lumen output to 467. From this point, dropping it into low power/low fan mode reduces lumen output by another 15% to 392. These numbers don't sound dazzling, but the fact is that due to the solid black level and good contrast you can fill up a 100" diagonal screen with a lot of sparkle.
The L300U has DVI-D input, so you can use a computer with DVI output as a DVD player for the cleanest possible DVD signal. Internal deinterlacing on the L300 is very good, but you will get a sharper image from a progressive scan DVD player or HTPC.
With regard to HDTV, this projector is not HDCP compatible. That means you can't use the DVI output on your HDTV receiver if the material being broadcast is HDCP protected. Not a big deal however. You can input HDTV through both the VGA and component ports for truly awesome results. We watched a Carol Burnett special the other day in 1080i. Carol would have been mortified to see how the L300U rendered every little wrinkle around her eyes in amazing detail. Yes, it would be nice to have HDCP compatibility, but given the price/performance ratio of the L300U and the quality of HDTV analog, we won't miss it a bit.
In the world of widescreen LCD projectors under $3,000 there are now three giants at three different price points-the Panasonic PT-L300U, the Sony HS10, and the Sanyo PLV-Z1. All three of these are significant achievements, and all three deliver more video impact for the dollar than anything we've seen in the past. Most of the email we've received on these units asks for comparisons between them. Which is the best? Well, let's try to sort it out.
PT-L300U vs. Sony HS10: At the moment, there is at least a $500 difference in street price between these two units. At first glance the Sony would appear to win on specs alone-higher resolution, higher lumen rating, HDCP compatible, etc. Is the $500+ premium you'll pay for the HS10 worth it? Honestly, we would be hesitant to say so. The L300U is a much stronger overall performer than we expected to see.
First, the L300U and the HS10 are equal in terms of pixelation/screendoor, which is to say neither of them has a problem with it. In rolling credits you can barely detect some pixel structure from a normal viewing distance if you have great vision. So the higher resolution (1365x768) panels that you'd think would give the HS10 an edge in this regard do not in fact do so.
Second, even though the HS10 is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens to the L300U's 800, after calibration and the addition of the cinema filter on the HS10, the lumen output of these two machines is basically equal. There are differences that will vary based upon how you tweak them, but for all practical purposes they produce the same amount of light. Thus there is no comparative edge in brightness either.
In terms of HDTV, the HS10's ability to take HDTV via DVI with HDCP compatibility makes it a stellar performer with a clean crisp picture that is compromised only slightly by the need to scale it to 1365x768. The L300U must take the HDTV signal via an analog input. However, it gains an edge by rendering the HD signal more precisely into its ¼ HD format. The end of the story is that HDTV resolution on both of these machines is terrific, and neither has an advantage over the other.
Meanwhile, the L300U outperforms the HS10 in several key areas. Contrast and shadow detail are visibly better on the L300U. This by itself will tip the choice for most buyers toward the L300U. In addition, those sensitive to fan noise will definitely prefer the quiet L300U over the somewhat less than quiet HS10. And the 5000-hour life on the L300U compares favorably to the 3000 hours you may get on the HS10. For frequent users, this could save some extra cash down the line.
There are other differences but they get lost in the tall weeds. The L300U has an edge in color decoding, and the Sony has an edge in brightness uniformity, although the differences in both of these areas are subtle. We are now down to irrelevancies in the overall scheme of things.
The bottom line is that the Panasonic PT-L300U, primarily due to distinct advantages in contrast, shadow detail, fan noise, and perhaps lamp life, is in our estimation the stronger performer overall of the two machines.
PT-L300U vs. the Sanyo PLV-Z1: This comparison is an entirely different smoke. Current street prices of the PLV-Z1 are several hundred dollars below the L300U. Therefore those entry level home theater enthusiasts looking for the "best cheapest" solution will be drawn to the PLV-Z1. The L300U is the better of the two machines, but the question is whether the advantages that the L300 has over the Z1 are worth the extra money to the first time buyer. Only the buyer can make that call.
Both of these products use the ¼ HD LCD panels, and both render exceptionally sharp HDTV. The L300U however produces less pixelation at any given viewing distance than does the Z1. If you are planning to go with a 100" diagonal screen or greater, and plan to sit 12 feet or closer to the screen, the differences in pixelation/screendoor will become quite apparent and should be considered a major factor in choosing between these two products. If you are going with, say an 80" diagonal screen and plan to view from a distance of 12 feet or greater, the difference in pixelation is a non-issue and you should ignore it.
The L300U has a quieter fan than the Z1, but not by much. The Z1 is relatively quiet in low power mode as well. (By the way, please note that the earlier issue we found on the Z1 with the fan periodically kicking into high when in low power mode has been identified and resolved. After an adjustment was made by Sanyo, our PLV-Z1 has been running for hours with no problem at all).
When it comes to lumen output, believe it or not the PLV-Z1 is the brightest of the three machines after calibration. Though it is rated at only 700 ANSI lumens, we measured actual lumen output in high brightness mode at 646, and in low power/cinema mode it came in at 503. That is somewhat brighter than the after-calibration readings of either the L300U or the Sony HS10, both of which have higher lumen ratings as per manufacturer's specifications. (More reason to ignore published specifications!)
In terms of contrast, the L300U has a very subtle edge over the PLV-Z1 but they are very close. Both outperform the HS10 in contrast and shadow detail.
The L300U has DVI-D input, and the PLV-Z1 does not. Due to the fact that the L300U is not HDCP compatible, the advantage of DVI is to be realized by those who use an HTPC for DVD playback. This gives you the best possible picture, and you don't have that option on the PLV-Z1.
Again, lamp life may be a consideration. In low power mode the PLV-Z1 may deliver 3000 hours, compared to the L300U's possible 5000 hours. (Actual lamp life depends on user-controlled factors such as average on time, the ambient heat in the viewing room, the ability of the projector to dissipate heat within its immediate surroundings, etc.)
So is the L300U worth several hundred more than the PLV-Z1? It really comes down to two issues--screen size vs. viewing distance and whether you want to use a computer with DVI as a DVD source. If you want to stick with a regular DVD player, and you are not sitting too close to the screen, then save the money and go for the PLV-Z1. If you want to use a computer, or you want to sit in the range of 1.5x the screen width or closer to the screen, you will be better off investing the extra money to eliminate the pixelation that you'd otherwise have with the Z1.
Panasonic has combined all of the vital elements needed for resounding success-excellent contrast, plenty of brightness for home theater, no pixelation, no fan noise, small, easy to install, all for a street price under the magic $2,000 barrier. Dollar for dollar it is one of the best values we've ever seen in a projector. We are happy to add this beautiful new machine to our list of highly recommended products.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Panasonic PT-L300U projector page.