Home Theater Projector Comparison Report - Best in Class Awards for 2011
08/19/2011 -Art Feierman
1080p Home Theater Projectors Our Award Winners:
Class: Entry Level Projectors: $2000 and under, Street Price
Best in Class Award: PT-AE4000
Our first repeat of this season. The PT-AE4000 is a returning winner, as Panasonic didn't bring out a new model for 2010-2011. The $1999 MAP price of the PT-AE4000 this year, puts it at the top of the Entry Level price class, where it faced some formidable competition.
The problem is, the PT-AE4000 is anything but "entry level" when it comes to many aspects of its performance, and especially when it comes to features. I'm not sure if any other projector in this report, regardless of price, has a more varied, and powerful set of features.
Below find much of the same information as in last year's report, with a few updates relating to the competition.
The key reasons for picking up the Best In Class award:
- Best black level performance in the class
- Excellent post calibration color, with an extremely natural "film-like" look to movies
- Creative Frame Interpolation (only projector in the Entry Level class to offer it)
- Great placement flexibility
- Lens Memory "anamorphic lens emulation" ability for working with 2.35:1 Cinemascope screens
- A whole host of additional features including dynamic ones
The Panasonic PT-AE4000 projector has a very natural look to the image. This Panasonic projectors is one of the more film-like 3LCD projectors. Skin tone handling is extremely good.
The Panasonic PT-AE4000, unlike earlier versions, has achieved average brightness for good quality, not really "entry level" projectors. Panasonic closed the gap a bit in "best" mode, compared to its most direct competitor, the Epson Home Cinema 8700UB, which competes in the Mid-Price class, although the Epson still has a brighter "bright" mode.
The PT-AE4000 has one of the smoothest and best implementations of Creative Frame Interpolation (CFI) to eliminate motion blur. Panasonic's first effort, the PT-AE3000 was well done, and the PT-AE4000, is at least as good.
Cinemascope fans: If you want to go with a Cinemascope aspect ratio screen to eliminate letterboxing, the PT-AE4000's Lens Memory feature (improved since last year), lets you emulate having an anamorphic lens. While that's not quite the same thing as a real anamorphic lens and sled, it does a good job, and saves you about $4000 compared to the typical price of the better known lens and sled combinations (from names like Panamorph) The tradeoffs are discussed elsewhere in this report, and in much greater detail in the full PT-AE4000 review.
An impressive color management system is complemented by some excellent tools including an oscilloscope type analyzer and split screen (before/after) views of the same scene as you make changes.
Placement flexibility is about as good as it gets. A 2:1 zoom is hard to beat (only Epson does, with a 2.1:1 zoom ratio - barely any difference). Panasonic's lens shift range may well be the greatest of any projector in this report.
The Panasonic beat out these other award winners for the following reasons:
The PT-AE4000 outperforms the Epson Home Cinema 8350. Superior black levels make a real difference on dark scenes. Then the Panny has Lens Memory, power zoom and focus, and CFI, all things not found on the Epson projector.
The Mitsubishi HC3800 does have a lot more lumens, but this DLP projector lacks a dynamic iris, and is no match for the Panasonic, in terms of black level performance.
As to the $999 projectors, none of them come close in picture quality or features, although two of those are drastically brighter than the Panny. All three have slow to very slow color wheels, so the rainbow effect also may come into play with these bargain projectors.
It would have been more fun if the Panasonic was more expensive. It would face a far more challenging class of projectors.
Best in Class Award Runner-Up : Epson Home Cinema 8350
The Epson Home Cinema 8350 prices out right in the middle of the Entry Level class. As of this writing, the least expensive 1080p projector is now $799, and the most expensive in this class is $1999.
Since I started talking about relative pricing, there's one more key factor in cost, and that is cost of operation. The biggest aspect of that, of course, is the life, and price of lamps. Epson rates their lamp at 5000 hours at any power level. That's one of the the longest of any projector in this report (many are 2000 hours at full power). Epson lamps are also relatively low priced, at $299. Most of the competition is $350 - $400, although sub-$200 lamps are showing up for the under $1000 projectors. The combination of the low cost lamp, and long life, actually makes the Epson one of the least expensive projectors in the class, in terms of total cost. That despite the average selling price. If you wanted to have enough lamp life to go 8000 hours, the Epson can save up to $900 in lamp costs, compared to some of competition.
Brightness: In "best" mode, the Epson is in the middle of the pack, one of those projectors with about 500 lumens, (mid-point on the zoom lens). True there are much brighter projectors in "best" mode, such as the Mitsubishi HC4000 (a DLP), but it is the brightest of the LCD projectors in the group, including the PT-AE4000, which is the most expensive projector in this class.
The Epson "really shines" when it comes to "brightest" mode lumens, with over 1300. This makes it one of the very brightest projectors under $2000, except for the low cost, even brighter home "entertainment" projectors, which can't match the Epson overall for picture quality.
It comes down to this. Although the Epson doesn't have enough lumens in its "best" mode to fill a much larger than 110" screen (standard screen surface, not high gain). For those that do want to go larger, Epson has multiple preset modes, and can still produce a good image capable of handling a larger screen. Alternately get a screen with a bit of gain. Over about 1.5, though and you can start noticing your screen's properties. LivingRoom mode won't end up as good as, say TheaterBlack 1, but it's not bad considering it's got double the lumens, and can fill a 130" screen effortlessly.
In "brightest" mode, the Epson Home Cinema 8350 is a "light cannon", it would have been no problem, a year and a half ago, in my old house on my old 128" Firehawk G3 screen, with moderate amounts of controlled ambient light.
For both the 2010 and 2011 Superbowl parties, I "pulled down" my JVC RS20, and used Epson's - actually the 9500UB in 2010, and the 8700UB in 2011. The extra brightness, plus good picture quality in brightest mode, has always made the 8xxx Epson Home Cinema series projectors a great choice for folks needing brightness, because they want to watch a lot of sports or TV without fully darkening the room. This is one key reason the Home Cinema 8350, is a top choice for the money.
Epson's Home Cinema 8350 projector offers some of the best black level performance in the price range, but hardly the best. The best is reserved for the ultra-high contrast projectors like the PT-AE4000. That said, only a couple of projectors in this class can beat the Epson. Most of the others fall somewhere between a "little short of the Epson's black level performance" to "not even close to the Epson".
Warranty is another strength of the Home Cinema 8350 projector. Epson delivers a two year warranty, with their overnight replacement program for both years. Although one of the projectors in this class offers 3 years, (Sanyo PLV-Z700), that Sanyo lacks a replacement program, and also, of note, Sanyo does not replace DOA units, they repair them (quickly, I must note, in all fairness - normally you'll have it back in a week.) Although shorter than the Sanyo's three years, we consider the Epson warranty to be about the equal to the Sanyo due to the other trade-offs, especially, the replacement program.
Placement flexibility has always been an Epson strength. It may be the key reason many of you buy the Epson over the Mitsubishi HC4000 that tied it for this award. Its 2.1:1 zoom lens range offers the widest placement range of the field (even if only a hair better than the Sanyo PLV-Z700 or the Panasonic PT-AE4000). A lot of lens shift, along with the zoom lens range, makes it the most flexible in terms of placement, with only the Sanyo and Panasonic coming close (the Panny has a touch more lens shift, but a little less zoom range).
Of the remaining projectors in the Entry Level projector class, all the rest are DLP, and none of them has more than a 1.2:1 zoom ratio, and none have lens shift. In other words, the rest have very limited placement flexibility, and among other things, cannot be shelf mounted in the rear. The Epson is just as at home whether you ceiling mount, shelf mount, or put it on a table top. As an added bonus, with this Epson, should you ceiling mount, you can change out the lamp without unmounting the projector. That's a nice feature found in perhaps half of the home theater projectors out there.
If you are a black level fanatic (as many say I am), you can definitely do better, with the Panasonic, a key reason why the PT-AE4000 took top honors in this entry level class of projectors.
The Sharp XV-Z15000, a DLP projector, comes close to the Epson in terms of black level performance. Most likely the two, are more different, than better/worse, overall.
This Epson does not support an external anamorphic lens, but that is not a significant factor. If you really want to spring $3000 - $4000+ for an anamorphic lens and sled, you almost certainly would spend the many hundreds more for one of the ultra-high-contrast projectors. Panasonic's ability to "emulate" having an anamorphic lens, for no additional cost. We value that option, but then the Panasonic is half again, more expensive than Epson's Home Cinema 8350.
Average "best mode" brightness, bright at "brightest", great placement flexibility, low cost of operation, very good picture quality with good black levels, and a great warranty. Although not the most fully feature laden projector out there (no CFI), it is rather well endowed, especially compared to most of the DLP competition.
Best in Class Award Runner-Up: Viewsonic Pro8200 Projector
The Viewsonic Pro8200 is the most recent sub-$1000 home 1080p projector to come through here. It also seems to have the best blend of features and performance of the group. The Viewsonic Pro8200 manages to produce impressive brightness - over 1400 lumens with a good looking picture, and over 1800 lumens max. It is a cross-over projector and shares some features with their biz/ed projectors. One of those is built in sound, and it's not bad for a small projector.
Of course, if you are planning to watch an action flick, it's not going to cut it, due to lack of any real bass. It does have a fairly warm (not tinny) sound. What I really like though is the provided audio output. This means you can add a nice powered subwoofer to your system to round out the sound with some low end, so that Star Wars can begin properly.
Black levels are not impressive, it's the Pro8200's weakness, but none of the sub-$1000 projectors are really better. The Pro8200 does give you more placement flexibility than the others, thanks to a 1.5:1 zoom.
Finally, if you want to compete at the entry level end, price is important, and equally so, is cost of ownership. The Viewsonic may well be the best in the whole Under $2000 Class. It offers a three year warranty, one of only two in this class. Lamp life is another cost strength, with Viewsonic claiming 4000 hours at full power, and 6000 in eco mode. This is a great family room projector. You can drop it in a theater as well, but, I figure if you are going to the trouble of having a theater, you'll want a step up projector, at least.
The Viewsonic Pro8200 just seems to combine the best elements found in most of the other sub-$1000 projectors, into one that comes out on top.
Special Interest Award: Mitsubishi HC4000
Demoted! A fine projector, but "demoted" nonetheless. Last year, the virtually identical HC3800 was a Best In Class Runner-Up. The HC4000 is a great low cost projector selling for around $1200. It's a single chip DLP projector with very good brightness, a sharp image, and most importantly, better black level performance than any of the lower cost projectors.
The HC4000 is essentially an HC3800 with some updated firmware, and a new number. I guess, the roughly $100 drop from the HC3800's price just wasn't enough to hang on to the Runner-Up award. In reality, the HC4000 got knocked out of the slot by the Viewsonic Pro8200 projector. While they are very different, and the HC4000 has the better blacks, the Viewsonic has the brightness, and versatility, to be a really excellent familiy room projector for less than $1000. If they HC4000 was the same price (under $1000), it would have been an interesting battle - a battle of DLP projectors; a great home entertainment projector (Viewsonic) vs. the solid, low cost home theater projector - the HC4000.
Well congratulations to Mitsubishi regardless. Hopefully this fall, at CEDIA, Mitsubishi will have something exciting and all new this year, to replace the otherwise very nice HC4000.