Panasonic PT-AX100U Home Theater Projector Review: Image Quality
There's a lot to cover in this section, and I have plenty of photos to help illustrate. Let me point out that the images (photos taken of the PT-AX100U) cannot fully capture the dynamic range (from darks to bright) that projectors are capable of. As a result, in a typical scene, if the overall exposure is right for mid and bright areas, the camera will lose all the details in the darkest areas. Therefore, there will be a couple of images where I show you the normal exposure, and then a seriously overexposed image of the same frame, so you can see the shadow details the camera lost on the first shot.
In other words, projectors look a lot better than the photos here indicate. It's sort of like trying to imagine how good HDTV is from watching a commercial for an HDTV on a regular TV with its poorer performance and lower quality TV signal.
PT-AX100U Home Theater Projector - Brightness
Before we get going with the the usual start - considering how well the Panasonic handles flesh tones - I want to start with brightness instead. This is the brightest home theater projector I have tested yet, with the exception of a $20,000 SIM2.
And that is a wonderful thing. The Panasonic PT-AX100U can work in brighter rooms than most other projectors. It's not a night and day difference, as you will see, but it's enough extra horsepower to make a real difference for most owners. I'm a sports fan - especially college football (go Penn State). When you have some friends over to watch, you don't want the room really dark, it's just not appropriate. The Panasonic has that extra edge that will let you have some lights on, or even a little light from outside, and still enjoy an excellent image.
True, movies are still best in a fully darkened room, because there are often very dark scenes, but that's certainly not the circumstances normally with sports, or regular TV/HDTV. And even for those movies, not everyone has a dedicated home theater room that can be made almost totally dark. Welcome to the age of the home theater projector that has the versatility to end up in the family room or bonus room with less lighting control than a theater would have. No, it won't work well if the room is bright, but again, the PT-AX100U can work in low to moderate lighting.
The image above and the one to the right, were taken with several shades partially open, letting in light from outside. The upper image has the projected image slightly overexposed so you can get an idea of the room lighting. The lower image was shot under the same lighting but properly exposed.
This makes the PT-AX100U a more versatile projector than the rest of the field, although a couple of projectors come close (Epson's Cinema 400 and Optoma's HD72 come to mind).
In best mode, it is just slightly brighter than the HD72, and in brightest mode, it is definitely brighter than that Optoma doing its brightest output. The Epson is darker in best mode, but close to the Panasonic when both in brightest modes. This makes the Panasonic projector excellent for those liking especially large screens, or having some ambient light in the room to deal with.
PT-AX100U handles flesh tones extremely well
If skin coloring looks unnatural (such as having a yellowish caste, especially on flesh tones in shadow), you won't be happy very long. The Panasonic PT-AX100U, like almost all projectors, does a pretty good job "out of the box", but can use a little adjustment. I recommend getting a calibration disk such as the ones from AVIA or Monster, they are inexpensive (under $50), and are easy enough to use. Invest an hour and get performance up a notch. (If you are really, really serious, get it professionally calibrated, but that will set you back hundreds).
So, let's look at what you can expect. Flesh tones are rich and very saturated. In my initial adjustments I ended up with a little more red than is natural, but corrected it later on. Skin tones look very realistic.
Overall this Panasonic home theater projector gets excellent marks for its handling of flesh tones. All of these images are shot in the the PT-AX100U's "best" mode, Cinema 1, unless otherwise noted. There is also a Cinema 2, similar but with a little more contrast and minor other differences. Which you choose will primarily be personal preference. Cinema 2 tends to provide a little more depth to the image, while Cinema 1, is probably more technically correct.
Our first two images below are from Lord of the Rings, on standard DVD, Gandalf, and Arwen:
Click for a larger version of these two images.
The image above of Leeloo and the one below of Bruce Wilis, are from The Fifth Element, also from standard DVD
Next I present a shot from Phantom of the Opera from HD-DVD, a larger version is available by clicking on it:
Overall, colors are rich, well saturated, but definitely not "over the top".
Lastly, here's a couple of HDTV images, of Jay Leno, and DiscoveryHD channel: (both shot in Normal mode). (BTW, I captured the Balloon image because our family took a balloon ride while on vacation last month. Much fun, so maybe you'll turn off your projector and go out for some fresh air! -art)
PT-AX100U - Black Levels and Shadow Detail
The real challenge for LCD powered home theater projectors is not color balance, but rather the ability to handle black levels and shadow detail. DLP projectors inherently do "blacker blacks" than LCD projectors. Neither technology can actually output pure black, there is always some light in any area, so blacks come out dark gray. The big question is - how close to black can those dark grays get? DLP projector's big advantage over LCD in this area, has been offset in the last couple of years, by the use of additional technologies. Primarily LCD projectors rely on a dynamic iris, which can stop down amount of light passing through the lens. This iris, which the Panasonic PT-AX100U has, adjusts frame by frame as you watch TV/HDTV, or movies on DVD or /Hi-Def DVD players. When a scene lacks very bright areas, the iris closes down, so that the areas that should be black get darker - closer to black. Other technologies are also used to adjust the image frame by frame so that the whole thing really works.
The question is, how well? And the answer this time, is the Panasonic does it extremely well. If you are looking for it in certain scenes where the image goes from bright to dark, you can sometimes see the effects of a dynamic iris. With the PT-AX100U, they have done a very good job, with it far harder to detect any flaw than the last generation.
So, blacks are very good, in fact beating out the Optoma HD72 that I like so much, and mentioned at the beginning of this review. I have a side by side image of these two, which you will see later.
Please note, that although I'm pleased with the PT-AX100U projector's black levels (they are, as said, very good), there are however, DLP projectors in the price range that are better. Notably, the Mitsubishi HC3000 is significantly better than the HD72, and although I don't have the Mitsubishi HC3000 here for direct comparison, it was sufficiently better than the HD72, that I have no doubt that it produces blacker blacks than the PT-AX100U. The Sony HS-51A, which until now had the best blacks I had seen from an LCD projector, I believe also still has a slight advantage over the Panasonic, but it should be a close call. Note, however that the Sony is not at all a bright projector, one of the least so in fact, and it also costs hundreds more!
Let's look first at my favorites - space scenes (I'm a big Sci-fi/Fantasy buff).
In this image above blacks look very neutral (no shift to blue, purple, red, whatever color). Immediately below is the same frame, but this time overexposed. You'll note that I have also included on the lower image some of the letterboxing at the top and bottom. I've placed the usual 4 pixel wide border around this (and all images). See if you can see the difference between the pure black of the frame, and the actual scene's blacks.
This scene below from StarshipTroopers is dazzling. The camera fails to capture how dynamic the actual projected image is, but still gives you a good idea.
You'll note plenty of detail in the shadow areas of the ship, on the left side.
Next is the standard image I use for "everyday" shadow detail, from Lord of the Rings. The first shot from the Panasonic PT-AX100U is normally exposed. Immediately below it is a seriously overexposed image. You can now see all the detail from the screen that was lost by the camera, in the dark areas on the left (the shed) and bottom. It's pretty much all there folks!
If you would like to compare, you'll find these images used in just about all home theater projector reviews done in the last year.
Our last image is from Sin City, an extremely dark film using very little color, or rather using color selectively to enhance a movie that is primarily black and white (and sepia).
LCD projectors are known for having more visible pixel structures, requiring you to sit further back than with a DLP projector. Last year's PT-AE900U sported what Panasonic named "Smooth Screen" LCD panels. Pixel visibility was no more noticeable that DLP projectors, but the image appeared a bit soft. The PT-AX100U, by comparison, has new panels, and the pixels are far less visible than DLP projectors, and yet the image of the AX-100U is definitely sharper than the older Panny. More on this in the General Performance section.
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PT-AX100U vs. Optoma HD72
The Optoma HD72 has been my favorite under $2000 DLP home theater projector since it launched. At this time though, despite my general preference for DLP projectors, I have to move my vote to the PT-AX100U. The Optoma is a bright home theater projector, but not quite as bright as the PT-AX100U. This first image below shows the Panasonic projector on the left, the HD72 on the right:
You can see the difference in brightness - certainly not drastic, but definitely there. Both projectors in this image are in their brightest modes - lamp full power, Dynamic mode on the Panasonic, and Bright mode on the Optoma. You can click for a larger image to better compare. You can also look at the sharpess of the two projectors, which is virtually identical.
The image below is from the same two projectors, but in best modes, Cinema 1 on the Panasonic PT-AX100U home theater projector, and Cinema mode on the Optoma HD72 projector:
And when it comes to pixel visibility, even here, the Panasonic PT-AX100U with its virtually invisible pixels, beats out the Optoma HD72.
The Panasonic also has a slight edge in black levels over the Optoma. On shadow detail, they are very close, and depending on the scene (due to AI, dynamic irises etc.), sometimes the Panasonic wins, although on other scenes, the Optoma may do better on shadow detail. Close, with more tweaking, the Panny may be able to beat the Optoma across the board, but with just quick adjustments, I'll have to give the Optoma a very slight edge on shadow detail, despite the Panasonic's more definite advantage on blacks.
That makes the PT-AX100U, the king of the hill, (for now) in my book.
Here are a few more images for your consideration:
Above - HD-DVD from Phantom, below, DVD images from Sin City, and Lord of the Rings (the city of Gondor)
The image above, should be enough to convince almost everyone. Rich, dynamic, great color balance, and not even the Panasonic's best mode, simply their "Normal" brighter mode.
Above, the HDTV from Sunday Night Football, was shot with low room lighting, The same mode was used for the image below, taking in some of the surrounding room. The room was brighter than it appears here, but to get the football field to expose correctly the room is underexposed. With low lighting, Dynamic mode (the AX100U's brightest) wasn't necessary to get a rich looking image on the screen.
That should give you a pretty good idea of how really good this Panny performs!
I am certainly impressed with the PT-AX100U's overall image quality. I would say it produces a refined image - a pleasure to watch, and I was unable to detect any real flaw or artifacts that would spoil viewing enjoyment. And that's saying quite a bit, for such a modestly priced home theater projector!
The next section is General Performance, where we'll look at the remote control, menus, lamp life, positioning the projector, screen recommendations, brightness measurements and some info on the calibration I performed.