Apr 1, 2007 12:00 PM,
By Jeff Sauer
LCD-based projector blurs the line between home theater and professional quality.
About a year ago, Panasonic re-organized its display products into new divisions, putting “home theater” projectors into a different division than business and professional projectors. There’s nothing earthshaking about that; larger electronics companies have regularly had separate consumer and business divisions that catered to different audiences and dealer channels. Yet the PT-AE1000 is an example of how splitting the portfolio can be awkward.
Granted, Panasonic’s AE1000 is a native 16:9, 1080p, LCD-based projector that would be the pièce de résistance of many a home theater installation. And at a remarkable less-than-$4,000 street price, it will surely make it into many such installations. Yet the AE1000 has professional features that would also make it an excellent choice for professional applications where video quality is at a premium.
For example, Panasonic has endowed the AE1000 with a built-in digital waveform monitor, borrowed from its very professional, studio-quality LCD panels. You can even look at the waveform of the individual primary colors. That should be a treat during installation and possible troubleshooting. There is also a deep selection of individual color controls — individual contrast and brightness adjustments for RGB, as well as high-, mid-, and low-gamma adjustment — to help accommodate just about any lighting situation. And you can save up to five custom setup configurations in the AE1000’s memory.
The AE1000 should be a relative joy to position during install, perhaps aside from its big, bulky black-box chassis. A 2X optical zoom lens affords nice freedom (great freedom for the price range) for placing the unit, as does vertical and horizontal lens shift of about 40 percent. Interestingly, the lens shift controls are manual dial knobs on the unit’s top rather than power controlled — but that’s probably quite a fair tradeoff if it helps keep the cost so low, and focus and zoom are powered. Befitting potential public installation, the chassis appears at first glance to have no unit-top menu or navigation controls (beyond the aforementioned lens shift knobs) — they are hidden under a panel on the right side.
The handheld remote control has universal remote functionality, which, when programmed, can control up to eight accompanying devices such as a DVD player and audio system. The remote also has three function keys that can be programmed to go directly to specific menu functions.
The AE1000 is not loaded with connection options, but it does have a solid offering. There are two HDMI ports, two RCA YPbPr component inputs, a 15-pin RGB input for computer inputs (such as Windows Media HD files), and the obligatory S-Video and composite. The only thing missing is BNC jacks for professional installation. There is no audio I/O, although that is appropriate for this class of product.
IMAGE, NOT STYLE, IS EVERYTHING
Admittedly, the AE1000’s big-black-box look isn’t going to win many design awards. Indeed, it’s an 18in.-wide block and little more. But the AE1000 certainly delivers where it counts in picture quality.
That starts with excellent grayscale tracking. I could clearly distinguish between all 32 sections in a standard 32-level split grayscale pattern from an Extron VTG 400D. The grayscale ramp pattern was nice and smooth, as was the graphed grayscale curve from a ColorFacts test system, ramping up almost right away at 10 IRE. Compare that with typical 1X DLP-based products that usually start to differentiate grays at 20 IRE or 30 IRE. The result is more detail in darker scenes. The same thing is true on the bright end of the spectrum, and it translates directly to more detail and smooth gradients in brighter scenes.
Panasonic’s color reproduction was very good, too — with the exception of magenta, which tracked far toward blue in the default configuration. On the other hand, the primaries were almost spot-on, and cyan and yellow were exactly where they should be. But more than that, the combination of fine grays and strong LCD color makes the picture wonderfully vibrant and adds a depth to the image that you simply don’t expect from a $4,000 projector.
Sharpness had been a question in some of the early critiques of the AE1000, particularly in preproduction units. However, I saw nothing of the sort from my production unit. To the naked eye (the AE1000 does have an intriguing freeze feature for scrutinizing still images), video detail on a variety of content was crisp and clean — and that’s due to both the 1080p resolution and Panasonic’s Smoothscreen technology, which virtually eliminates any visible pixels on the screen. The AE1000 was absolutely rock-solid in my tests when it came to displaying 1×1-pixel VTG 400 test patterns, including 1×1 on/off patterns. What’s more, it handled the scaling up from 480p, 480i, 720p, and 1080i without a hitch on those 1×1-pixel patterns: rock-solid grays, no hum.
The best way to talk about the light output is to say it is appropriate to a variety of situations. Using the normal mode preset, I measured just more than 600 ANSI lumens across the entire image (with a brightness uniformity of more than 81 percent), and that’s just about right for a light-controlled movie viewing environment. It’s probably not enough for more public spaces — perhaps excepting dimly lit nightclubs — but Panasonic’s Dynamic mode preset bumps that brightness up more than 37 percent, and without any significant loss to uniformity. In the other direction, an Eco, or low-light, lamp mode reduces brightness by about 16 percent, thus saving energy.
Contrast is also extremely good. Panasonic claims 11,000:1, but those bizarre numbers are all over the industry and mean nothing in the real world. I used a meter, with the projector turned on when I measured the blacks, and still got 3775:1, which is just great. Both brightness and contrast are no doubt enhanced by Panasonic’s smart use of the Dynamic Iris.
Indeed, that’s the theme for the AE1000. It’s a remarkable statement on the state of the industry that a $4,000 video projector could deliver such good images, and it certainly raises some questions about the true value of more “premium” products. I don’t know if Panasonic was going retro with the design, going back to the days of the boat-anchor chassis. But there’s nothing but state-of-the-art technology in the AE1000 when it comes to the moving pictures it produces. And it’s technology that installers should look at, whether they’re working in residential or video-oriented commercial environments.
Company: Panasonic www.panasonic.com
Pros: Excellent image quality, rxcellent install features — including lens shift, digital waveform monitor, and sharp remote — remarkable value.
Cons: Black-box look won’t win awards.
Price: $5,999 (MSRP); $3,999 (street)
Brightness: 1100 ANSI lumens
Contrast: 11,000:1 full on/off
Native resolution: 1920×1020
Configuration: Three .74in. LCD panels
Light source: 165W UHM lamp
Lens: Manual focus, F=1.9mm-3.2mm, f=22.4mm-44.4mm
Lens shift: 40-percent horizontal and vertical
Zoom: Manual 1.2:1 optical zoom
Projection distance: 3.11ft.-39.4ft.
Screen size: 40in. to 200in. diagonal
Keystone: +/-30° vertical and horizontal
Dimensions: 18.1″×5.1″×11.8″ (W×H×D)
Warranty: Two years parts and labor