The Art of Home Theater Projectors

Panasonic PT-AE4000 Home Theater Projector – A First Look review

Greetings everyone!

OK, I know a lot of folks have been waiting quite a while for this especially with the first online review of the PT-AE4000 published what is now several weeks ago.  And since I’m getting a whole ton of Panasonic PT-AE4000 vs. Epson UB questions by email, I’ll give you all my latest thoughts on that contest, throughout this blog.

As is usual, this is a “First Look” and not the full projector review.  I’ve been working with the PT-AE4000 projector since Panasonic brought it by last Friday, but I also was finishing up the JVC RS25 review, and as such haven’t spent quite as much time as I hoped to, before writing this.  (That’s probably just as well, – gotta save some goodies for the full projector review, which will go live this coming weekend.

Let’s start with the basics:

The Panasonic PT-AE4000 projector replaces the older PT-AE3000 model.  The new AE4000 started shipping about a week ago, according to several dealers now advertising the AE4000 on our site.

The price point – of $1999, caught most of the industry by surprise.  That translates to a lot of new performance, for less money, compared to last year’s AE3000.  It also puts pressure on other manufacturers – regarding price.  The Epson Home Cinema 8500UB was originally announced to be “under $3000″ in Sept., but following the Panasonic announcement Epson has changed their pricing to “under $2500″.  Of course they are still about 2 weeks or so from shipping, so you never know…   (A political thought: Considering that the US dollar is currently pathetically weak, and continuing to get weaker, I only hope Panasonic can maintain the price point. )   (Just as some of you may noticed that this year, LCDTVs don’t seem to be any less expensive than last year – sure – always a  few new features to be found, but pricing really hasn’t come down much in the last 18 months.)

Also in response to the PT-AE4000′s pricing, when I spoke to BenQ, the other day, they indicated that the Panasonic’s pricing is largely responsible for their decision to bring the pricing of the W6000 to $2499, from $2799 in the last week or so.

Bottom line, whether the Panasonic PT-AE4000 is the right projector for you or not, it’s agressive price point has also resulted in some of the best competition also costing less.  That has to be a win-win for the consumer!

OK, to the projector.

Physically, it looks almost identical to the PT-AE3000.  A very boxy, blackish commercial looking unit, it works out to about the same size and bulk as the Epson Home Cinema 85600UB, which btw, I had described as being smaller, in the review.  I guess it just goes to show you that a very black box, no styling, commercial looking projector can just “look larger” than a more sculpted and styled one of roughly the same size.  Few, of course, will particularly care.

In terms of improvements, the PT-AE4000 brings several new and improved aspects to their flagship home theater projector.

Of greatest note, is probably the improvement in brightness, in best mode.  While still only average in brightness, that’s a good bit better than last year’s AE3000 which was below average.  Doesn’t look like any significant improvement in brightness in “brightest” mode, where the older Panasonic was already about average.

In other words, this year’s Panasonic is pretty much average in brightness, certainly not brighter than average.  This increase in “best” mode brightness, however, may be enough to win over a number of folks looking at the PT-AE4000′s primary competition, the Epson Home Cinema 8500UB, which we’ve already reviewed.  True, the Epson is still rather noticeably brighter overall, but this Panasonic has the lumens needed for some mid-sized screens and room combinations – say 100″, 106″ and even 110″ diagonal.  Let’s say that in best mode, this year’s Panasonic moves up about two screen sizes, in terms of what it can handle.

Panasonic also definitely has improved black level performance.  (More so than the new Epson has, compared to its predecessor.)

It would seem, that when viewing normal bright and average scenes, that the Panasonic actually matches, and in a number of cases, ends up with a blacker black than the Epson.  The Epson, on the other hand, still will produce the blacker blacks on those really dark scenes, where they are most appreciated.  The important point, is that Panasonic as with the brightness, has closed down the gap somewhat this year, in terms of black level performance.

Panasonic has also improved all the usual dynamic features (as everyone tends to do each year).  CFI is supposedly improved, but I haven’t begun to play with it’s performance yet, other than to say, it’s propensity for that “live digital video” or “soap opera” look is minimal.

There are new sharpness algorithms as well.  As with most new 1080p home theater projectors this fall, the PT-AE4000, although sporting a number of refinements, is still an evolutionary product, without any breathtaking improvements over last year’s AE3000.

Is the Panasonic PT-AE4000 better than the older PT-AE3000?  Absolutely.   And with a starting price about $5000 lower than last year, that means you are not only getting better, but better for less.  Always a good thing!

Panasonic jumped the contrast (and improved the blacks), in part based on their polarizing contrast plate.  BTW the Epson projectors also have something similar, which they added to their light engine last year if I recall correctly.

For those going with 2.35:1 screens, and using the Panasonic Lens Memory feature, Panasonic has added what is essentially auto sensing.  With the PT-AE4000 if the projector sees that the content is a movie with a letterbox – (a  movie in Cinemascope – 2.35 or 2.37:1), it will automatically adjust the zoom and focus to fill the screen.  If the next content is, say 16:9, then the projector will again use lens memory to resize and refocus the image automatically.

Having this feature be automatic, is definitely a plus.  At this point in time, however, the real question is, are many people pairing the Panasonic 1080p projectors with 2.35:1 screens.  Until recently, however, 2.35:1 screens have been utilized by people our President considers to be rich, as adding an anamorphic lens and sled to a projector’s cost, is usually an extra $4000 or close.  And, for those upgrading, that also means scraping the existing 16:9 screen.

With the Panasonic, if you are almost exclusively movies, you can go to the Cinemascope format without letterboxing, knowing that it won’t cost you any additional beyond the screen price.  True, the whole concept has one issue – when you are filling that 2.35:1 screen, with a Cinemascope movie, the letterboxing is still there!  It’s just not hitting your screen, but rather, immediately above, and below it.  In other words, you end up with the black letterbox bars of about 10% of the total image hight each – one above the screen, one below.

And that means that if you have light colored walls, you will see that letterboxing, pretty much the same as if it was on the screen.  If your front wall, though, is very dark, then the letterbox will be essentially invisible.  I like the Lens Memory feature, but want to warn – for those really into the ultimate performance, Panasonic’s method of accomplishing this, is impressive and viable, but it will not yield quite as good a result as using a real anamorphic lens, which, if nothing else, should let you end up with both a brighter and more detailed picture.  I’ll discuss that all further, in the full PT-AE4000 review.

The new assorted “sharpening” controls (clarity…), I will also go into in the full review.  I do want to say that when the Panny folks were here, we did look briefly at the Panny vs. the Epson comparing their various sharpening controls.  Both have the ability to add a bit of sharpness, with minimal increase in “noise”.  Still, it works this way:   Anytime you do things to dynamically sharpen (or anything else) an image, there must be trade-offs somewhere.  Yet, like the Epson one can get a visible increase in relative sharpness with these controls, while at the same time ending up with a relatively slight increase in noise, or any other negative impact on the image.

I also viewed the PT-AE4000 along side the JVC RS25, who’s review just posted.

When it comes to black levels, although the PT-AE4000 may be gaining a bit against the Epson, which has had the advantage in the under $4000 price range, the Panasonic, like the Epson (but more so), still has a long climb to catch the JVC.

Color accuracy, right out of the box was extremely good.  We used the Cinema 1 mode, (Mike will be calibrating the PT-AE4000 tonight), and it looked very good, with just a touch too much red in the skin tones.

Here’s something interesting.  While Panasonic was here, we did run the PT-AE4000 side by side, with the Epson UB.  To get the brightness about the same, all we had to do, was reduce the Epson from full power on its lamp, to low power, while leaving the Panasonic at full power.  That got the two very close to each other (as expected).  Now, remember, we’re discussing out of the box color accuracy.  Despite the Epson being calibrated, we noted a bit too much green in the Epson, vs too much red in the Panasonic.  This was perplexing for a couple of minutes. Then, realizing that the Epson should look better (afterall, Mike really does no how to calibrate these toys), since it had been calibrated, I realized it must have something to do with the lamp mode.  Sure enough, when we put the Epson back into full power, it had the superior overall color and skin tones, – it was very “right on”, while the Panasonic had that slightly over the top red shift on skin tones.

No doubt the Panasonic, post calibration, will be about the same as the Epson, in terms of color accuracy, but I’ll save the final call on that until I’ve had plenty of time to view both of them – when they are both calibrated.

So far, it looks like Panasonic’s changes found in the PT-AE4000, are a bit more significant than that of the improvements in the Epson Home Cinema 8500UB, but, also, so far, the general positioning of the two projectors remains about the same as last year’s models.  Consider:

Last year, the two started out about $500 apart, with the Panasonic costing less.  Same thing this year (just $500 less overall).  Epson is able to argue, though, that for moderate and heavy users, that their projector in the long run doesn’t cost any more than the PT-AE4000, thanks to a custom lamp that costs less than half as much per hour to run at full power, than the Panasonic’s.   In other words, except for those people who can’t scrape up the initial price difference (about $500), and therefore buy the Panasonic, cost isn’t going to be much of an issue for most.  Of course someone “movie only” and just watches just 10 total hours a week, likely would have to keep the Panasonic for at least 3-4 years before the Epson’s total costs come down to match the Panasonic.  Thus the hobbyist, who upgrades his projector every couple of years will find the Panasonic a slightly better investment, price wise.

I said above that the positioning of the Panasonic and Epson remains unchanged relative to each other.  That is because that while it seems Panasonic has improved black levels more than Epson has, that the Epson still has a rather visible advantage on those dark scenes.  And while this year’s Panasonic is closer in brightness, in best mode, to the Epson, the Epson still retains the brightness advantage.  Because of the gains, in both areas though, more people will be torn between choosing the Panasonic or the Epson.

Panasonic will still have a significant (and slightly expanded) advantage in features – always their strength.  Motorized zoom and focus, plus the whole Lens Memory system, vs. manual everything on the Epson.  More inputs, (an extra HDMI, and an extra screen trigger), now favor the Panasonic (though input differences are not deal maker/breaker features).  The Panasonic is just dripping in features/gadgets, compared to the Epson, but ultimately both offer CFI, dynamic sharpness, dynamic irises, etc.

Last night was the first time I just hooked up the PT-AE4000 and watched a full length movie on it.  I really was impressed.   I started off projecting about a 110″ diagonal image, but after a bit, found myself happier down at 100″ diagonal for the slight extra brightness, which is where it remains.  I used Cinema 1 mode, with the only major change being reducing the color saturation about 4 steps (it definitely is a bit oversaturated “out of the box” (as was evident in side by sides with calibrated Epson and JVC projectors).

Overall, the image looked as good as expected.  No nasty artifacts. (I used CFI on the Sunday Night Football game, and also watched some of Quantum of Solace with CFI on low.  Only very occasionally did I notice the “live digital video” effect, but it was just enough that I got tired of it, and turned it off (similar to my thoughts on the Epson).

Panasonic vs Epson – Fall 2009:

Let me wrap this “first look” up this way:  The Panasonic is improved this year, in several areas.  At the beginning of this year, in our 1080p Projector Comparison Report, we ended up with the PT-AE3000 and the Epson Home Cinema 6500UB (last year’s models) in a tie for our Best In Class award – mid-priced projectors.   Despite, that, as our regular readers know, I personally favored the Epson, as extra lumens, and blacker blacks are my hot buttons.

For this year, it should be an interesting contest again.  Lot’s of features etc. that still need to be checked out, and compared.  As I said, fundamentally, the projectors still have the same advantages this year as last.  The major changes are that:

1.  Panasonic has cut the brightness gap in half, when comparing “best” modes, but still trails in brightness in both best and brightest modes by roughly 20 – 30% (preliminary numbers – final numbers, post calibration, in the full review).

2.  Panasonic’s Lens Memory, is further improved (by adjusting aspect ratio automatically)

3.  Epson’s CFI, which was not as good last year, as the Panasonic, is much improved, and probably roughly comparable now.

4.  While Panasonic has made more gains in black levels this year, than Epson, Epson still wins the war when looking at dark scenes.  Turns out though, that the Panasonic can do blacks at least as black as the Epson, on bright scenes, it’s just that it isn’t that important in such circumstances.

5.  Panasonic costs less upfront, Epson could cost less in the long run, though thanks to its far lower cost of operation.

Basically folks, this fall we have an “instant replay” of last year’s most important comparison.  While there are some new factors, and the gap has been closed somewhat in a number of areas – Blacks, best mode brightness, CFI… Ultimately, there likely won’t be any huge change in marketshare between Panasonic’s PT-AE4000 and it’s biggest rival.  Because, each projector is still superior, this year, at the capabilities it excelled at last year.  -art

OK, that’s it. Tonight (if Mike doesn’t steal the PT-AE4000 for calibration), I’ll be doing some side by side photo shoots with the Epson and the JVC, and also the BenQ W6000.

The goal will be to publish the full PT-AE4000 projector review on Friday, but I may lose a day or more, if Mike can’t get this panny calibrated tonight, and back to me tomorrow.   (It takes two evenings just for the photoshoot, and two more days for my daughter and I to go through the 600+ images, thinning them out, and then having her do all the cropping and resizes.  In other words, be warned.  Friday evening will be tough.  Sunday – no problem.  Hang in there.

News And Comments

  • Steve

    Art,

    Thanks for the review. I like to watch a lot of HD sports. Is the CFI a feaure I should want to have? I will be sitting 11 feet away, and I am looking at a screen size between 84 and 92 inches.
    Would the CFI make a noticeable sifference in sports viewing versus the epson 8100 that does not have CFI?

    • http://www.projectorreviews.com/members/lisasonfeier/ Lisa Feierman

      Hi Steve,

      I really do like modest CFI for sports. I’ve mostly avoided the higher settings, even for sports, on the various projectors I’ve worked with, with CFI – Sanyo Z3000, PT-AE3000 and AE4000, and Epson 6500UB, 8500UB, JVC RS25, etc.

      So, my answer would be probably – yes. It’s not so much that you will better see a tennis ball during a match, or a baseball with a smoother trajectory during the worlds series. The biggest benefit in my opinion, is that it deals with the background. It’s very effective with panning. Afterall, in most sports, the camera follows the action. That is, as the wide receiver goes streaking down the field, the receiver is in the middle of the picture, being followed by the camera, and it’s the background that goes zooming – no, panning, by.

      SAme thing is true of the “ball”. In that football game the camera follows the ball as the quarterback passes. The ball will remain pretty much in the same screen area, while the background – the field – streaks by.

      So again, most likely you will like it, and appreciate having it. But that gives you a pricing dilemma. For a few hundred more than the 8100 you can get the Panasonic, and probably the Sanyo PLV-Z3000. But for another $300, you can have the Epson 8500UB, which like the 8100 has that long life lamp, and therefore, in the long run, not cost you more, probably less than the Panasonic, but you need to plunk down more, up front.

      Ahh, the trade-offs. As the old Knight in the 3rd Indiana Jones movie recommends: “Choose wisely”. -art

  • Adam

    Art,

    If possible, could you please comment on lumen output for the Panny and for the Epson after 100-200 hours of use?

    Evan reported earlier this year that for last year’s models the Panny’s lumens dropped 9% after 200 hours and the Epson’s dropped 15% after 150 hours. If that is the case with the new models (and the new lamp on the Panny) then the Epson loses all of its lumen advantage on optimized modes after about 150 hours.

    It would be very interesting to see a graph of lumens vs hours of use for both lamps, wouldn’t it?

    • http://www.projectorreviews.com/members/lisasonfeier/ Lisa Feierman

      Greetings Adam,

      I would say that there’s no reason to make your assumption. From a logic standpoint, it wouldn’t hold up – not enough info, and distorted info. Here goes:

      Hmm, my first thought is that I’ve never found consistency in terms of dimming from one lamp to the next. That is, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a fair amount of difference in how quickly a lamp dims. Also to do that, and get useful results, you would have to restrict the usage to either low or bright modes. I know as a routine part of our review process I view primarily in bright mode, but do measure low power, and also look for color shifts when shifting to low power during use. (Example, the Epson 8500UB/9500UB definitely has an increase of green in the image, in low power, compared to full power.) I would think, that Evan, like myself does at least a moderate amount of playing, in low power, which, would theoretically help the Panasonic, but not the Epson (the Panasonic claims a 50% increase in life to 3000 hours in Eco mode, while the Epson claims the same in full or low, of 4000 hours. The 4000 hours represents how long that lamp will last until it has lost 50%.

      Over the years I was a dealer we did pay some attention to lamp life. I saw curves showing projected lumen output. I did find lamp rolloff to be inconsistent from projector to projector, from lamp to lamp.

      Remember this important point, as it is key to my statement that you can’t make your assumption from the data:

      The “official” lamp life rating is not how long a lamp lasts until failure, but how long it lasts until it’s down 50%.

      Thus, in your example, the Epson should still be putting out half of its original brightness at 4000 hours, while the Panasonic will be down half at 2000 hours (both in full power mode). Obviously we aren’t going to get linear rates of dimming, just based on what you reported of Evan’s measurements. At some point, that Epson lamp is going to decrease it’s rate of dimming until it catches, and far surpasses the Panasonic, thanks to the twice as long “life”.

      Also of note – Evan and I tend to work with pre-production units as often as not with these brands. Certainly we both had pre-production Epson’s this year (and last). Last year I had a pre-production Panasonic, although this year’s seems to be from the first full-production batch. Using pre-production adds a whole extra level of potential inconsistency. I wouldn’t read too much into them. For example, the Epson pre-production unit came to me showing 0 hours on the lamp. There was no way this unit did not have a bunch of hours on it before getting to me, so it was obviously reset.

      Consider, even with Evan’s numbers, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that although the Panasonic might be just about as bright in best mode – as the Epson, at, say 200 hours, no doubt by 400 or 500 hours, the Epson would be brighter again, and the Epson would continue to get brighter still, compared to the Panasonic, until you finally need to replace the Panasonic lamp.

      By 1000 hours, the Epson should be significantly brighter than the Panasonic (let’s say it’s 500 lumens dims 20% at the quarter life point of 1000 lumens, so you end up with 375 lumens at 1000 hours. The Panasonic, at 1000 hours (half way through its life, would likely lose about 35% so yield only about 280 lumens compared to 375 for the Epson. All of a sudden, the difference has grown to the Epson being over 1/3 brighter, and just short of 2000 hours, the Epson will be far brighter as the Panny which will be at half brightness – 215 lumens in best mode, and the Epson would probably (at the lamp’s half life), still maintain about 70-75% of original brightness, so about 350 lumens vs. 215…more than 50% difference. At 2001 hours, though, the Panny would have a new lamp, and likely be about 15% brighter. And it continues in that cycle. Then by a few hundred more hours, the Epson would be brighter again, and continue to gain the advantage. By 3000 hours, the Epson will be the brighter, but close (Panasonic lamp 50% used, Epson 75%. Either way, though, overall, the Epson should be, on average, almost 20% brighter, in best mode, and 25+% in brightest. There may be some times the Panasonic will be brighter, but the Epson will average that 20% brighter, and peak at over 1/3, brighter around when both lamps are around 1500 – 2000 hours old…

      Without some serious multi-unit testing, I’d suggest just forgetting the whole issue, as there’s no reasonable way to predict anything from Evan’s pair of measurements. That’s particularly true since this Panasonic has a brand new lamp design, who’s characteristics are no doubt at least as different in performance compared to last year’s Panasonic lamp, as between any two different projectors. That’s a big lamp change, and there is no reason to believe a lamp with such a radically different color temp would behave more like the old Panasonic lamp, than any other projector’s lamp. It’s just as likely that the new Red Rich lamp has characteristics like the Epson (in terms of short term rolloff, than it does with the previous Panasonic lamp.

      Now, if Evan comes out with more measurements this time around, we might learn something different. Who knows, the Red Rich lamp might be better or worse, than the typical UHP lamp. What is most interesting, though is that both Epson and Panasonic claim to have their own lamps now. Until a year or two ago, they relied typically on Philips or Osram for their lamps.

      When comparing cost, as well as brightness, remember, the Epson lamp is $300 vs. Panasonic at $400. That also means that if you want to really have higher lumens, you could replace the Epson lamp at 3000 hours not 4000 hours. In that case it’s lamp would still be well above the minimum brightmess it would experience (so less than 50% dimming, lets say only 35-40% of 500 lumens, whereas the Panasonic lamps you would still be using until 2000 hours would be much lower – 50% of it’s 430 lumens.

      Any way you slice, it the Epson will be the brighter projector, and far less expensive in operational costs for those putting on moderate to heavy hours their projector. For most people keeping the projectors say 2-4 years, the Epson will have the lower total cost of ownership. Afterall, there’s only a $300 difference currently in selling price, and that savings, favoring the Panasonic, dissappears completely at 2000 hours when you need to spend 400 extra for a Panny lamp, but won’t need a spare Epson lamp until 4000 hours, when the Panasonic will need its second spare. ($800 vs. $300) -art

  • Jerome Gaudet

    Hi Art,

    I bought a Viewsonic PR08100 and i like it very much. When I choosed it, my choice was very money oriented (1300$) But now with the release price of the Panasonic PT-AE4000, I was wondering if I would notice a big image quality upgrade with the Panasonic?

    Thanks,

    Jerome

    • http://www.projectorreviews.com/members/lisasonfeier/ Lisa Feierman

      Hi Jerome,

      OK, let me answer this way. When I originally reviewed the Viewsonic it was both expensive, and flawed. It got a so-so review from us. With the firmware fix that several readers have advised improved the iris making its performance still not great, but acceptable, and the huge price drop, there has been a lot of interest. And I’ve had several recent emails back from folks who just bought the Pro8100. The feedback has been very positive. Like you, most were looking for an bargain, at a pretty entry level price, and the Viewsonic seems to deliver on that.

      Now, to the PT-AE4000.

      On the average bright scene, there will be differences between the Panny and the Viewsonic. In most cases the Panasonic will have the advantage, such as black levels or shadow detail (slight). In dark scenes though the Panny will shine. It is on those that it will leave the Viewsonic “in the dust”.

      After adjustment both should be roughly comparable in overall color, but the Panasonic now has the better tools and color management system, so for those really wanting to dial in perfect color, the Panny has the advantage.

      The Viewsonic though should prove to be a little brighter in best mode, and a little dimmer in brightest mode compared to the Panasonic.

      Let me put it this way: 1. You might really like CFI for sports viewing. 2. The panny will have a slight edge on most scenes. 3. When you get to those darker and really dark scenes, all of a sudden there should now be a very big, very visible difference, as the black look gray and flat on the Viewsonic compared to the Panny.

      If you’ve got the “bug” you’re going to want to move up, sooner or later. Short of returning the Viewsonic (don’t know if that’s something you are thinking about), I would at least say hang in a few months. There might be some reduction in pricing after the season. Rebates perhaps, that might lower the Panny a little or even the Epson 8500UB, which has the advantage of long term lamp expense that is less than 40% that for the Panny.

      Your call, your budget. Meantime you’ve got what has to be considered a very good value and it certainly has some respectable performance. Especially if it’s your first projector! (Hey, I do get a little jaded at times.) -a

  • Paul

    Hi,
    I really enjoyed your review of the AE-4000. I own the Sony hw 15 & enjoy it tremendously. I am curious though, how does it compare to the Panasonic ae-4000?
    Thanks

    Paul

    • http://www.projectorreviews.com/members/lisasonfeier/ Lisa Feierman

      I’ll be publishing the PT-AE4000 competitors page in a couple of days, you’ll find it there. That said, both projectors while different in a number of ways, reminde me of each other, picture wise. A natural look, but not overly dynamic. Let’s say that the HW15 and PT-AE4000 likely will appeal to the same folks, a different group than those that would choose, say the Epson 8500UB. And fo that matter, the BenQ W6000 has a whole different feel than the Epson, or the Sony/Panny…

  • http://projectorreview Brian Ray

    Art, I have the AE3000U which I bought just after release in 2007. It’s been great. I’m primarily movies…and need to replace the lamp very soon. I am wondering if there is any chance the AE4000U lamp would be backward compatible in the AE3000U. Is there any way to find out? Thanks, Brian

    • http://www.projectorreviews.com/members/lisasonfeier/ Lisa Feierman

      Hi Brian,

      I’d be really surprised if it was, as they would have to drastically redesign the color tables, and the limited CMS to compensate. That said, I have just sent an email, inquring! -art

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