Panasonic PT-AX200U: 1080p Home Theater Projector Review - Image Quality
The Panasonic PT-AX200U Home Theater Projector: Skin Tones
This PT-AX200U, when set to Cinema 1 mode, arrived, out-of-the-box, with slightly too cool a color temperature. Once corrected (really easy), the PT-AX200U produces excellent skin tones, natural looking and I'll subjectively describe it as being rather film-like.
Quicktip: Before we start looking at photos, first, my usual warning: The photos of screen scenes are here to support the commentary, not the other way around. There is so much lost and altered info trying to get from what is projected on the screen by a projector, to your computer monitor, that everything needs to be taken with a "pound" of salt (or at least more than a few grains of salt).
Neither of my digital cameras, nor your computer monitor can begin to match the dynamic range the projector offers. The camera and displays lose a lot of info (shadow detail, create non-representative black levels, and crush whites and blacks) and also are not perfect in terms of color accuracy. Still they can be helpful when taken with the comments. Certainly, they make the review prettier, if nothing else. In the case of this Panasonic review, as with the older PT-AX100U, for some reason, I encounter difficulties with the color balance captured on my camera. Again, there is a visible shift to red. I'm not sure why, but I did something I normally shun, which is to make a minor adjustment to the images to better reflect what the projector actually projects. Enjoy!
Also, I should note, that on some displays, these images all appear too contrasty. If that's the case, adjust your monitor, or graphics card controls. On the screen, these images definitely do not look too contrasty.
We'll start with my two favorite images from standard DVD; Gandalf, and Arwen, from Lord of the Rings - Return of the King, extended edition.
Moving to hi-definition, the rest of the images on this page, (except from Sin City) are all from Blu-ray disk, using my Sony PS3. (My HD-DVD player is on vacation.)
Impressed? You should be, I certainly am. I spent a good many hours watching various movies on the PT-AX200U in the Cinema 1 mode. The AX200U never disappointed when it came to producing natural looking, film-like skin tones.
The PT-AX200U also performed well on "black and white" and sepia type tonal scenes, such as these two. The first from the beginning of Phantom of the Opera, and the second from Sin City (SD-DVD), which is basically a black and white film, sometimes looking black and white, sometimes sepia or other shades, with spot colors added for effect.
Bottom line: The Panasonic does a great job when it comes to reproducing skin tones, to provide natural realistic colors, and shades.
Panasonic PT-AX200U Black Levels and Shadow Detail
As is typical for LCD home theater projectors, the PT-AX200U cannot match the black level performance of the better DLP projectors it competes with. The PT-AX200U, however does a very good job overall, one rivaling the best under $10,000 projectors - DLP or otherwise, of just, say 3 years ago, when technology improvements such as the DLP Darkchip3, took hold. This resulted in black level performance that reached acceptable levels, so that it no longer is the most important performance criteria. I used to write that "black levels are the holy grail" of projector performance. Today, though, even low cost projectors like the PT-AX200U do a sufficiently good job at producing "blacker blacks" (blacks that come out very dark gray). As a result, other aspects of projector performance now equal or exceed the importance of black levels.
The PT-AX200U does a very respectable job on black levels, but more impressive, is its handling of shadow details. Now these two are typically closely related. If a projector can't begin to produce really dark blacks - as was typical of projectors just a few years ago, it can't reveal the dark details that are supposed to be darker than the blacks it produces. Panasonic, though, like many other projectors, deals with this electronically. The end result, is that the Panasonic happens to be excellent at shadow details, rivaling most of the far more expensive 1080p projectors out there.
I'll start with this image from Aeon Flux. An excellent night scene with some bright areas (which severely limit what the Panasonic's dynamic iris can do to lower black levels), the blacks come out fairly black, easy enough to watch. The shadow detail, though is really very good, with really no dark areas where all the detail is lost.
Below is a closeup of the building above. Look in the dark areas to the left of the bushes, and the lowest part of the roof, the far right, and also the darkest area between the wall and the ground in front. You'll find some details in all these very dark areas. Now, for comparison, below that image, is a similar one from the lower cost BenQ W500, which, is definitely not a good performer when it comes to shadow detail. The amount of difference between these two projectors, is nothing short of stunning.
Above is the Panasonic, below, the BenQ:
Nothing like some good deep space scenes to show off black level performance. On these images from Space Cowboys, the blacks, overall were good, but not that ideal "inky" or "jet" black, that is ideal. There's always that awareness of a bit of gray, instead of pure black, unless the screen is extremely large, and high contrast, to lower the visibility of the blacks.
The satellite photo above looks very good, but blacks are not quite as dark - "inky black" as more expensive projectors, but do come very close to the comparably priced DLP projectors. Most of the dim stars are easily visible.
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Because the PT-AX200U relies on a dynamic irs, as do almost all LCD home theater projectors, they can do a really great job of producing the "blackest blacks" on very dark scenes. Where the DLP projectors have the advantage, is on mixed scenes, where there are some very bright areas as well as very dark ones. The bright areas prevent the projector from closing down the iris to lower black levels. In all fairness, if a scene has a fair amount of those bright areas, first, the eye is drawn to, and adjusts to the bright area, and second, because of that, you are less likely to notice the slightly lighter blacks.
Time to concentrate more on the shadow area details, than the black levels of the PT-AX200U.
From Phantom of the Opera, this cavern scene is a good test of shadow details. You can also find these images on almost all reviews done in the last year, for comparison purposes. Click on the thumbnail image for a large version that is seriously (intentionally) overexposed to reveal the details that the camera loses at normal exposure. This will allow you to look at all the details in the dark areas in the walls, and ground. The frescos on the walls are easily visible, the structure of the various ducts in the walls, which are very dark, are distinguishable, which is more than a number of other projectors can claim.
Another good image is this extremely dark scene from Space Cowboys. In a room illuminated by only a single table lamp, this truly is a dark scene.
This overexposed (above) image of Clint Eastwood in Space Cowboys, reveals a respectable amount of shadow information in the wall on the right half of the image, but the blacks don't get black enough to bring out all the information. In this case, although the blacks were never inky black, the detail is excellent, rivaling far more expensive projectors. In fact, you can make out on the back wall, that you are looking at mini-blinds, and there is plenty of other detail visible.
Next is an image frequently used, from Lord of the Rings. This image below is badly overexposed so you can see the details that the projector captures in the shed on the right, along the ground and the structure on the left. This image is available in most reviews done in the last couple of years. Click on the thumbnail, for an overexposed image. You can clearly see details in the shed on the right, on the posts of the open structure on the left, and along the bottom of the image.
Our last image is from Space Cowboys, and is an overexposed image of the re-entry scene. Click on the left thumbnail image. Look for subtle detail in the right side of the earth. The image on the right is from the $3300 1080p DLP projector - Optoma's HD8000, which was recently reviewed. Look to the dark areas on the right for differences in details. The exposures are obviously different enough that you'll have to "interpolate" a little.
OK, one last comparison. And an excellent one at that. Here is a scene that starts with both very bright and very dark areas. I've cropped it significantly, but you can still see part of the astronaut, whose suit is bathed in sunlight. The satellite on the left side of the frame is very dark. By overexposing the frame, and not worrying about the exposure of the astronaut or the Earth below, you can see how much detail there is in the dark components on the satellite. Click on the thumbnail image below left for the PT-AX200U image The right image is a similar frame, shot with of the competing (DLP) Mitsubishi HC1500. Unfortunately, the level of overxposure isn't identical (never is), but you can still understand which projector makes it easier to make out these shadow details.
Just to put all this in perspective, the enlargement from the third thumbnail (below), is the same scene from the JVC RS1, the best projector under $10,000 at black levels, and with excellent shadow detail to boot.
Below a pair of "dark" images from Sin City:
Our last image, is the table scene from Aeon Flux (Blu-ray Dvd): The detail of the table surface itself and the shadows, are good indicators of shadow detail. The Panasonic does a good job on this image as well:
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Panasonic PT-AX200U home theater projector: Sharpness
Last year, Panasonic introduced their Smooth Screen technology. Without getting into the technical aspects, the end result is that the pixel structure of the LCD panels, normally definitely more visible than that of DLP projectors, tends to cause some "screendoor effect" for those sitting on the close side of normal to their screens. You can almost always see the pixel structure on titling, credits, and signage, as well as large bright stationary areas, like cloulds. With the PT-AX200U, pixels are noticeably far less visible than even DLP projectors. In solving this one problem, however, there is a price, and that is a slight softness to the PT-AX200U's image. How soft is it?
Not bad at all, in fact, comparable to many of the DLP projectors out there. By comparison, other LCD projectors seem sharper, but many of us acknowledge that that perceived sharpness, isn't revealing more detail, but is an impression associated with the pixel structure being slightly visible or just below visibility with other LCD projectors.
Let's see what I'm talking about. Three very close-up crops of this DTS disk start screen. The one of the left, is the Panasonic, the middle is the Mitsubishi HC1500 (DLP), and the right, the BenQ W500 (LCD).
Our next image is from Aeon Flux, Blu-Ray. Please note the sharpness in her eyes, and in the strands of her hair:
Our last sharpness image is a close-up of this computer monitor from Space Cowboys on Blu-ray. You can click for larger images to compare the readability,
Click on the left thumbnail for a large, cropped version of the original frame on the PT-AX200U, and the middle for the BenQ W500 projector. On the right, is a 1080p projector, the Mitsubishi HC6000 (LCD):
When you are viewing 1080 sources, none of the 720p projectors can match the detail and sharpness of a 1080p projector, but then, that's why 1080p projectors start at over double the price of the PT-AX200U.
Bottom line: The Panasonic PT-AX200U is on the soft side for a 720p projector, but not much different than the typical DLP competitor. The LCD competition definitely looks a bit sharper, most notably the Sanyo PLV-Z5 and the Epson Home Cinema 400, but there is a major trade-off.
Both of the LCD competitors mentioned, do have slightly visible pixels, detectable on some scenes, such as those with signage. By comparison, the Panasonic never reveals any pixels or screendoor effect, giving the Panasonic a less hard looking, and more film-like image.
Panasonic PT-AX200U Overall Picture Quality
The Panasonic just tends to look really good, and rather film-like on most normal scenes. The combination of the brightness, natural colors and smoothness of the image creates picture quality, which I believe, is greater than the sum of its parts. Personally, despite the slight softness, I consider the Panasonic PT-AX200U, the 720p projector to beat. Below the first batch of images, I've added a section with images from HDTV (football) under different lighting conditions. The Panasonic definitely can handle more ambient light than any of the competition, and significantly more than most.
Let's look at some images:
Panasonic PT-AX200U - HDTV and Ambient Light
Below you'll find a number of images from a college football game over HDTV.
There are two points to this section, first, you can get an idea of how sports look on the PT-AX200U, from HDTV, but more importantly, how the Panasonic projector handles different levels of ambient light.
You'll see images with my blackout shades fully lowered (note, they lack channels so a tiny amount of light leaks in around the windows, but dramatically more around the glass doors, because of the bevels around the window frame of the doors.
The small image to the rightshows the door shades fully down. As you can see, more than a little light comes in. On the day I took these images, the sky was one of those hazy sunny/gray days, defiitely not as bright as a bright sunny day, but still pretty bright. Let's call it filtered sunlight. While there is enough light in the room to read a newspaper, you normally wouldn't want to, it's definitely low lighting!
Immediately below is an image taken with all shades, including the doors, fully down.
I then opened the doors shades part way, letting in far more light.
With this much lighting, I could easily sit in my chair and read a book or newspaper, without thinking about adding more light.
Directly below is the same frame from the game, taken with the brighter room conditions. Note that there is virtually no loss of picture quality. The exposures are, however slightly different. I tried to get them as close as possible. But this one is a slight bit darker.
Next, I opened the door shades all the way, bathing the back of the room in lots of ambient light. (image on right)
Even with the doors pouring in light, the Panasonic still performed brilliantly (pun intended), as you can see here:
There still isn't any blatant washing out of the image, but there is some differences, you'll note the yellow orange "post" on the left is losing some of its orange, while jerseys and pants are lighter as well. Still, an extremely watchable picture.
Here's a shot of the room from a different angle, showing the doors' shades open, and part of the screen, with the same image above:
Now for the real fun. With the Panasonic PT-AX200U, I tried something I've never before done in a photo shoot, and that is to check the abilities of a projector, with not just the door's windows unshaded, but also fully opening the "picture window" next to the screen, as shown in this room shot:
Note, the image below does not have a larger version.
As you can see, the screen is definitely taking a hit from the large closer window. However, as my screen is a Stewart Firehawk, it does help with side ambient lighting. In this case, however because of the angle where the picture was taken from, light coming in is reflected mostly to where the camera was. To better clarify, here's the same shot, but straight back where the Firehawk really helps:
As you can see, shot from almost straight back, the further left you look on the screen, the more damage ambient light is doing. Still it's a watchable but not great image!
Now for the best part. all the screen images in this section were taken with the PT-AX200U set for Living Room mode. This offers the best overall picture quality for HDTV, but it also is the dimmest of three modes one could chose for watching the game! The other two modes are Dynamic, which is noticeably brighter, yet still delivers good color fidelity, and Vivid, which is the brightest, but color handling leaves much to be desired, since the goal is to push everything to the limit for maximum brightness and dynamics. Generally most will be very satisfied with Dynamic mode if needed, but would prefer to avoid Vivid mode. That would be even more true watching other types of TV and HDTV, where color and picture accuracy is more critical, where you want really good skin tones, etc.
Let's look at two images. Both are taken with the same exact exposure. The purpose is to give you an idea how much brighter Dynamic is to Living RoomAll were taken with the doors and the picture window's shades open.
First is Dynamic mode, followed by the less bright Living Room mode:
Regretfully, I did not take a shot in Vivid mode, my error. Again, it is a step up in brightness from Dynamic, although less realistic looking!
Time to consider the PT-AX200U's menus, remote control, brightness, measurements and adjustments, as well as projector screen recommendations. Click on the General Performance link.