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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.

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