Projector Comparison: Image Quality Sanyo Z4 vs Panasonic AE900u
Projector Comparison: Image Quality Sanyo Z4 vs Panasonic AE900u
OK, let's get started, but first a note. In all side by side images, the Sanyo PLV-Z4 home theater projector is on the left, and the Panasonic PT-AE900u home theater projector on the right.
Color Accuracy - Preset modes for viewing Movies, other content in a fully darkened or nearly dark room.. Out of the box, the Panasonic PT-AE900u has more accurate color. This isn't surprising as Panasonic has made a big thing about how they worked with Hollywood colorists, to make sure the color accuracy rivaled that of the big digital projectors used in movie theaters. I found in my testing that the Panasonic projector is almost dead on, in color, out of the box. If anything there is a slight yellowish cast, which is extremely easy to correct. By comparison, the Sanyo PLV-Z4 projector has more of a color shift and its towards blue, but with a touch of red cast. It definitely takes a touch more skill and effort to correct the PLV-Z4. That said, invest about $40 for the Avia Test disk (available at most online and specialty home theater dealers that sell home theater projectors). Just follow the tutorial instructions (they are easy), and in an hour, either projector will have great color.
If getting accurate flesh tones is a key to your satisfaction (who wants flesh tones that are too ruddy, or too anything), in the catagory of color accuracy for movie watching (or anything in a darkened room,, the Panasonic is the winner. Now, of course, you can have both of these projectors professionally calibrated, and no doubt get almost identical results, but who's going to spend $500+ to calibrate a $2000 projector?
Viewed side by side, the Panasonic is the immediate - though slight - winner in color accuracy, out of the box ! Buy a easy to use calibration test disk (no tech skills needed), and invest an hour, and both projectors will produce superb color.
For DVD viewing (or Hi-Def movies) I preferred the Cinema1 or Cinema2 settings on the Panasonic (Cinema1 is probably, technically the better setting, but I preferred Cinema2 with its slight increase in contrast). On the Sanyo PLV-Z4 projector, I strongly preferred the Creative Cinema over the Pure Cinema setting.
Picture Quality - Black Levels - Shadow Details - These are often referred to as the "Holy Grail" of home theater projectors. Those big, old, ugly 3 CRT projectors can do pure black, but DLP and LCD projectors cannot. The result - pure blacks come out dark gray, and therefore in scenes that are supposed to be very black slightly lighter details are lost as they all come out the dark gray. DLP projectors are inherently better than LCD projectors, in getting closer to being able to produce black, but new LCD projectors like these two, use lots of fancy technology to improve importance, like dimming/brightening the lamp frame by frame, having a dynamic iris in front of the lens, and "AI" ("articifical intelligence) to overall adjust the image to enhance black levels and retain shadow detail. A quick judge of performance in these areas is the contrast ratio, but due to the "smoke and mirrors" technologies I have just mentioned, that can now be misleading. A DLP projector with 4000:1 contrast can do much better "blacks", than either of these with their 5500:1 (Panasonic) and 7000:1 (Sanyo) claims.
Enough explanation. Again, with a full calibration the results will change, but out of the box, I found the Panasonic to have the advantage here. Immediately below is a side by side (Sanyo on the left) you can see an opening scene from Star Wars - Attack of the Clones. The Panasonic definitely displays far more stars than the Z4. (The Sanyo projector is in its best mode, Creative Cinema, the Panasonic projector in Cinema 2). If you get up close, not only can you see that the Panasonic has more stars, but that they are a bit brighter, yet, in the lettter box area along the bottom of the screens, you can also see that the blacks in there are almost identical (yes the Z4 is slightly bluish). The result is the Z4 is losing more shadow detail than the Panasonic projector. The second side by side is slightly overexposed so that you can see the differences more clearly. (Note, the Auto Lamp Iris is turned on, on the Sanyo - that will be discussed later.)
On the Times Square image, look at the dark building on the left (partially cut off on the Sanyo (left), and the the tall dark building about 3/4 to the right near the top. Again, more detail on the Panasonic PT-AE900u projector. On the image below, look at the detail on the right side of the Chancellor's face.
Picture Quality Modes - Handling higher ambient light conditions. Both projectors offer a wide array of choices in presets, with names like Cinema1, Livingroom, Dynamic, etc. As mentioned above I liked the Panasonic's presets better for typical viewing in darkened or very near darkened rooms. In rooms with significant ambient light, the Sanyo offers more choices, but all of these "bright modes", inherently sacrifice the best possible image for increased color saturation, contrast, brightness, etc. Sanyo has more choices, which is a plus, but I found the two projectors more similar when using the brighter presets.
No particular winner here. However, the Panasonic AE900u projector does appear to be slightly brighter, at its brightest, (very slightly) which has to count as a plus for it, over the Z4 projector, if you have challenging levels of ambient light, Yet at the same time, Sanyo's most tricked out mode does cut through the ambient light better, but the image quality (color, contrast, accuracy, etc.) is slightly poorer. In other words, these projectors are about tie when it comes to their brightest modes for dealing with too much ambient light.
Picture Quality - Intermediate modes - Watching TV, Sports . These are slightly brighter than the Cinema modes (Family room, etc.) and designed for non-movie viewing, sports (who wants to have friends over and watch a football game in pitch blackness) and dealing with modest ambient light. Both projectors performed well in these modes, but the Panasonic still had more accurate colors, giving it a slight edge.
Picture Quality - Low Res TV (and VCR)
While I have tried to pick apart all the differences between these two fine projectors above, they are really very close in almost any area of performance. Here is one area with a huge difference.
If you are watching regular TV from cable/satellite/antenna, you will find that the Panasonic PT-AE900u does an excellent job (considering the poor image quality of the source). The Sanyo is another story. It is suprisingly poor on regular low res TV. So if you will be using your projector for a bit of everything (hey, how many Hi-Def channels do you have?), the Panasonic has a huge advantage. I recall watching SportsCenter, and seeing Tiger drop a 20 or 25 foot putt, and for the most part, the ball looked almost square! (Screen door effect also probably lends severity to this problem (see later).
The Panasonic projector, is simply better at regular composite sources, much better. Sure this programming is significantly inferior to DVD or Hi-Def, but many of us watch plenty of it. Whichever projector you choose - remember the old adage: Garbage In (composite TV), Garbage Out! You aren't buying these projectors for "standard" composite TV. By definition, your huge screen, is just too big to provide a good image with such a low resolution source. The same is true for most Big Screen TVs.
If you plan to watch a lot of regular TV, this is one of the areas where there truly is a big difference and the PT-AE900u is the BIG winner. (You may recall, the Sanyo, on the other hand, is "slightly" sharper, on DVD, and the two are pretty much "tie" on Hi-Def 1080i source material.
Projector Image Sharpness - DVD: The Sanyo projector produces a slightly sharper image on DVD sources whether you feed it 480i and let it de-interlace the signal and upscale it to 720p, or if you feed it 480p, and just let the Sanyo upscale the signal. How slight is the difference? If you saw one projector and watched it for 10 minutes, took a 10 minute break and then viewed the other on the same source material, I seriously doubt if you would notice anything - even if you are looking for it. But side by side, you can pick it out. The Sanyo definitely does have a slight edge here - as long as you don't sit too close. (See Screen Door Effect, below).
Projector Image Sharpness - Hi-Def: When testing Hi-Def (at 1080i) from both my D-VHS deck or HD from cable, the Sanyo's advantage in sharpness dissapears, in fact, in some cases I felt the Panasonic AE900u was very, very slightly better, in others, the Sanyo Z4. Definitely a tie here.
In he two images below (Hawaiian Tropic Pagent), the first is the Sanyo, the second is the Panasonic projector.
Projector Image Sharpness -Key consideration - The future of DVD: Sometime soon (we all hope), Blu-Ray, or HD-DVD next generation DVD players and disks will hit the market (both store the content in 720p format, not the current 480i). And we'll all be going out and buying new Hi-Def DVD's of our favorite movies. As the sharpness differences were not detectable on Hi-Def. It may be that the edge the Sanyo has on 480 sources, is due to how they upscale the image to the projector's native 720p resolution. Therefore, it would seem likely that neither projector will have an advantage on 720p (Blu-Ray, HD-DVD) DVDs.
Screen Door Effect (SDE): The screen door effect is the result of the pixel structure of the projector's LCD (or DLP) device and it's effect on image quality, either in the form of just being able to see the pixels, but mostly in the artifacts that become visible on small objects. (Example), if you sit too close, and see the screen door effect, on a scene with grass, instead of the grass being highly defined, it looks like you were viewing it through a "screen door" and the distortion can be dramatic. The solution is to sit further from the screen. The first of the two images is the Sanyo, where pixels are clearly visible (this is a zoomed in shot from the Star Wars titling.
The second image is fromt he Panasonic with its "Smooth Screen" LCD panels.
The results of SDE are very different between these two projectors. The Panasonic PT-AE900u projector uses what they call Smooth Screen LCD panels, and their pixel structure is barely visible compared to typical LCD panels (like the Sanyo Z4's). The bottom line here, you can sit much closer to the Panasonic, than the Sanyo Z4, as the Panasonic projector's panels behave more like DLP chips than LCD panels. Screen door effect has been considered one of LCD's weak spots in performance.
I found that you can sit about as close as 1x or 1.1x (better) screen width with the Panasonic (that would be about 8-9 feet (9 feet is safer) from a 110" diagonal screen. With the Sanyo Z4, I would recommend 1.4x - 1.5x screen width, which would be about 12-13 feet back, at the closest. Those particularly adverse to seeing any pixelization at all in bright areas (and text) where they are most visible, wll want to sit a bit further back from both.
Personally I like to sit fairly close (but I am the exception), in fact I sit just over 11 feet back from a 128" diagonal screen. At that distance the Sanyo Z4's performance was unacceptable because of SDE. When I was watching ESPN Sunday Night Football in Hi-Def with a friend, and the Z4 was filling my screen, my friend (used to my normal DLP projector), immediately asked "what is wrong with the picture?" To watch from our normal seating distance, I had to adjust the zoom to about a 92" diagonal screen size before SDE ceased to be a problem. At that point, my friend agreed that the distortion he had seen was gone.
In other words, for me, after considering all the other differences between these two projectors, my preference for sitting closer to the screen, is enough, all by itself, to be the deciding factor in my buying the Panasonic over the Sanyo. I think this should be a major consideration for most home theater projector buyers. Afterall, it's the theater effect we want, in buying a projector instead of a 65" "big screen TV".
If you like a very large image (relative to your seating distance) this is a huge win for the Panasonic PT-AE900u projector over the Sanyo Z4 projector. If you like to sit half way back or further, in a movie theater, then, either projector will do equally well, but if you like being 1/3 back in a theater, then in your home, your seating is probably too close for the Sanyo.
Vertical Banding: What? With LCD panels, sometimes - mostly when you have a large area of neutral grays (fog, some backgrounds) you can see some vertical banding. (fine vertical lines) Worse, it seems to vary from projector to projector. With the predecessors of these two projectors - the Z3 and AE700u, vertical banding was a well known issue, that in some cases could be corrected.
With these two new models, however, it seems to be less of a problem. Neither of the two PT-AE900u projectors, nor the Z4 that I have used in the last few weeks, exhibited any vertical banding that would be visible at any normal viewing distance. (I could see it on the Panasonic at a distance of about 3 feet - on about a 100" screen size, on the Z4, it was visible slightly further away. I tried to capture the Z4 projector's vertical banding on my digital camera for the review, and it couldn't even pick it up so that you would be able to see it.
So, it is possible that you might get a projector with visible VB, but it seems very unlikely. The effect is likely so slight, that, even if there, you won't ever notice it. However, should you actually have a unit where it is visible and annoying at your seating distance, Sanyo provides a way to adjust it, that is in the manual. With the Panasonic projector, it can also be corrected but the adjustments are in their service menus, which means - stay out, and get a dealer (or Panasonic) to adjust.
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Lamp Auto Iris
When I worked on the Sanyo PLV-Z4 projector review (and the Panasonic PT-AE900u) review, much of what I do is freeze frames to compare various aspects. I also watch short clips of many DVDs and Hi-Def content. Over the same time period I do try to just sit and watch a movie or two (or three), for the experience.
After I had completed the bulk of the Z4 review and had it posted, I noticed something while watching the movie (from DVD) Romeo Must Die. When watching it, on some scenes I started to notice that if the scene is fairly dark and the camera is fixed (not panning or zooming), when an area of the image brightens and dims (such as a person in a white shirt moving closer/further from the camera), it causes the lamp brightness adjust. This has the effect of making the background to look like someone is fooling with the lights in the room. Once I noticed this, I found it annoying. I started putting in other DVD's (Lord of the Rings, etc.) and was able to see this effect repeatedly on the right type of scenes. I also noticed it happening when the projector would switch from a bright scene to one that is fairly dark.
A purpose of the Lamp Auto Iris is to improve black levels in darker scenes (where there is no pure whites or full intensity colors). It certainly works.
But, bottom line, I believe that in such scenes the background should not change like someone is turning down the dimmers on the room lighting.
As a result, I would recommend, for most, turning off the Auto Lamp Iris on the Sanyo Z4, even though that should take a slight toll on black levels and shadow details. I had reviewed the Panasonic before the Sanyo, and never notices a similar effect - although, I have since looked at the Panasonic again. It too has its issues with frame by frame adjustment.
So for now, I find the Auto Iris to be distracting during some movie watching on the Z4. That said, even with the Auto Iris feature turned off, the image quality is excellent, although not quite as good as on for darker scenes. As a result, I'll assume the Panasonic projector has an insignificant edge in black levels compared to the Sanyo with its lamp iris out of Auto mode.