It's often been said that first impressions are the most important. My first impression Panasonic's new PT-AE8000U (AE8000U) was that it was utterly exciting and surprising. I was surprised that, for its asking price of $3,499, it possessed on paper many of the trappings befitting of a projector five times its price. In other words, before I even took it out of the box, it had the makings of a giant killer. Funny, no one really talks too much about second, third or even fourth impressions. Well, I'm about to, for Panasonic's latest LCD front projector inspired within me a great many varying impressions.
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While the AE8000U may retail for $3,499, its street price is often lower, much lower. One authorized retailer, VisualApex, has it listed below $3,000 - 2,999, to be exact. And what do you get for your three grand? At the outset, you get a handsome-looking projector clad in a sort of matte, gun-metal grey, complete with sloped edges and a large, off-center lens. Looking at the AE8000U head on, the lens rests off to your right with a series of horizontal vents to the left. Like I said, above the edges, both top and bottom are slightly tapered, bringing a few subtle curves to the otherwise boxy chassis. Speaking of the AE8000U's chassis, it measures 18-and-a-half inches wide by nearly six inches tall and 15 inches deep. It's hefty at just a hair under 20 pounds, something to keep in mind for those who prefer to ceiling-mount their projectors (doesn't everyone?).
Along the right side rest the AE8000U's manual controls for functions such as zoom, menu and the like. Around back, you'll find a host of standard input options such as three HDMI (1.4a) inputs, a single VGA input, a serial port, component input, S-Video and composite video input. There are two trigger outputs, one 12-volt and the other labeled "3D Shutter Out." A standard AC in and a master power switch round out the options available to you on the AE8000U.
Under the hood, the AE8000U is a three-chip, LCD design sourced from none other than Epson - more on that in a moment. The AE8000U boasts a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels in the 16:9 aspect ratio. Brightness is rated at 2,400 ANSI Lumens, thanks to the AE8000U's 220-watt UHM lamp. Contrast is reported to be 500,000:1 (full on/full off). The lens, despite featuring a motorized mechanism, splits its functionality between its motor and your fingers. What I mean by this is that the lens can be zoomed and focused via its motor assembly, but horizontal and/or vertical shift is dealt with in the manual domain via a small joystick hidden behind a door adjacent to the lens. Regardless of how you ultimately manipulate the lens, it and the AE8000U are capable of properly reproducing screen sizes as small as 40 inches on up to 300, though for best performance, you'll probably want to stick to screen sizes ranging from 80 to 120 inches diagonal. Because of its motorized zoom and focus feature set, the lens also possesses lens memory, a trendy new feature that allows you to save multiple lens settings and recall them at the touch of a button. Lens memory allows viewers with masking screen systems to enjoy both 16:9 and 2.35:1 content more freely without having to incur costs associated with third-party anamorphic lens attachments - at least, that's the theory.
The AE8000U is a 3D-capable projector, employing active 3D technology, which according to Panasonic is said to have been improved when compared to its predecessor, the PT-AE7000U. Panasonic claims 20 percent brighter 3D imagery with the AE8000U versus the AE7000U, with less crosstalk, resulting in a more natural and immersive 3D experience. However, Panasonic does not include any active 3D glasses with purchase, nor do they include the optional 3D transmitter for installations where the projector may be placed further away from the primary seating position. The compatible 3D specs will run you roughly $69 each and the transmitter an additional $225 (if needed). It should be noted that if you purchase the AE8000U via an online retailer, such as VisualApex, you'll receive two pairs of 3D glasses free with purchase.
This brings me to the remote. Surprisingly, the AE8000U's remote rather sparse and small, with not a great many buttons for the user to press or to cause confusion. The keys all light up once pressed. Higher functionality is all dealt with via the projector's onscreen menus, which is both good and bad in my opinion.
As with all entry or near-entry-level projectors, the AE8000U is designed to be straightforward to install. Positioning it and aligning it with my 120-inch acoustically transparent Elite Screen was easy, thanks to its combination manual lens shift and motorized zoom and focus. I called my friend and THX calibrator Ray Coronado, Jr. over, since he was the one who originally alerted me to the AE8000U, after he'd seen it at a Hollywood press event some weeks prior. I've owned my share of Panasonic projectors, so I too was excited to see what the company's latest offering had in store for us.
We connected the AE8000U to Ray's calibration setup, which consisted of a Windows laptop running SpectraCal's calibration software, controlling both a calibrated signal pattern generator and my C6 meter. In order to check our work, we also had on hand a Konica Minolta CS-200. Out of the box and in the AE8000U's "Rec 709" image preset, we measured a solid 10.2 foot-lamberts from the projector. It should be noted that, because I employ an acoustically transparent screen, light readings are somewhat diminished - on average, between 15 and 20 percent - so on a non-acoustically transparent screen, you could reasonably expect a light output of, say, around 12 foot-lamberts. Again, not bad for a 120-inch screen.
With the light measurement out of the way, we began to notice a few errors, starting with some serious panel alignment issues. The panels were misaligned by as many as two and three pixels, which we were able to resolve (mostly), but this was still quite alarming from a projector and brand as renowned as Panasonic. When we finished setting the white point, thus improving upon the AE8000U's out of the box grayscale performance, we noticed a definite uniformity issue when viewing a standard contrast pattern. While you don't typically watch test patterns, it did come as some surprise to see such a noticeable shift in the AE8000U's uniformity, shifting red in the upper and bottom corners, while skewing green through the middle. To make sure we weren't seeing things, we took measurements at both the center of the screen and the upper right-hand corner, and came away with dramatically different XY coordinates for each.
With no way to correct the AE8000U's uniformity issues, we pressed on and dove into the projector's bountiful CMS controls. Here is an area where, on paper, the AE8000U seems to possess tools and resources befitting a professional and/or much more expensive projector. Unfortunately, neither the projector's CMS nor its various professional features, such as its built-in waveform monitor, work properly. The AE8000U's waveform monitor, which is designed to show your incoming signal via lines on a graph, was repeatedly and wildly inaccurate; stating that incoming signals of test patterns possessing 80 percent black were in fact 100 percent or absolute black. The same was true for white values. Attempting to do a full calibration via standards and practices employed by THX and ISF resulted in a frustrating experience at best, not to mention a highly inaccurate picture in the end. Ultimately, we settled on making adjustments by eye, using optical filters and known test images for the AE8000U's calibration controls simply proved unwieldy.
Once we were satisfied that there was nothing further we could do to make the AE8000U's image exact, we disconnected our calibration hardware and, in its place, connected my Oppo BDP-103 universal Blu-ray player and Dune HD Max Blu-ray/media streamer. As I said earlier, you don't sit down to an evening of test patterns, so it was on to some known demo material.
I began my evaluation with a favorite of mine, the disaster epic 2012 on Blu-ray (Columbia). At first blush, despite knowing that the only thing calibrated was the projector's grayscale, the image appeared quite pleasing, even natural-looking. The initial scenes showcased the projector's light output, resulting in a vibrant, sharp and dimensional image with strong contrast and detail throughout. Low-light performance was above average, though the projector failed to hit true black, settling instead for 80 to 90 percent - still, not bad at this price point. Motion was smooth and artifacts were not at all present. Then the imagery gave way to more human interaction, specifically medium and tight close-ups, which allowed me to focus on finer detail, skin tones and textures. During several close-ups, the AE8000U's uniformity woes became readily apparent. Highlights such as those found along an actor's hairline had a decidedly different hue than those found on his or her face. While one might assume this was due to mismatched studio lights, it was not, for the shots in question were filmed outside, under natural lighting conditions and the shift in color was not natural, but instead consistent with my earlier findings. The top third of the image was pulling towards red, whereas the center was pulling towards green. This mean that, in one particular shot, John Cusack's white button-down shirt appeared both slightly red and green at the same time. That's bad. The color skew was not just relegated to the whites, as anything that rested mid-screen skewed ever so subtly green. For example, the already green tree line of Yellowstone looked positively teal when resting mid-frame. This concerned me so much that I thought perhaps I had a bad unit. However, a few calls to some calibrator friends of mine, specifically one Michael Chen, revealed the uniformity issue is a known problem that has plagued certain Panasonic projectors for years. Wait, what?
Read more about the performance of the Panasonic PT-AE8000U on Page 2.