Panasonic PT-AE8000U 3D HD Front Projector Reviewed

Panasonic PT-AE8000U 3D HD Front Projector Reviewed

The Panasonic PT-AE8000U is part of the wave of affordable projectors coming to the market. Andrew Robinson puts the PT-AE8000U through its paces to see if it stacks up to its competition.

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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.

Additional Resources
• Read more video projector reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com’s writers.
• Explore screen options in our Projector Screen Review section.
• Find mounting options in out AV Mounts and Racks Review section.

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.

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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.

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The Hookup
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.

Performance
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.

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Supposedly the Epson-sourced LCD panels that Panasonic buys are not of the same quality that Epson chooses to keep and use in their own products. Whether this means that Epson is giving Panasonic faulty chips is open to debate. Suffice to say, the Panny has some issues. Now, I’m not suggesting that the problem is so bad that it appears as if there is a solid pink line and a solid green one splitting the screen; the shift is very subtle and most noticeable in the white values. Some may look past it or not even notice it at all, but nevertheless, it is present and is measurable, as well as visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, changing the image preset does little if anything to curb the error.

While 2012 is not as heavily stylized as some Hollywood films in terms of color, I went ahead and popped in an old favorite, Con Air (Touchstone Pictures), just to be sure. Con Air is mostly filmed in two environments: under the sodium lights of an airplane set and in the open air of the Nevada desert, where there is every color of the rainbow, so long as it’s yellow. Again, the AE8000U dished out a bright, punchy image rife with solid saturation, sharp detail and well-defined contrast. Only during the film’s many close-ups did the uniformity issue really rear its ugly head, again yielding slightly different colored highlights, depending on which portion of the screen the actor’s face fell on. Since parts of Con Air feature multiple actors sitting in rows of airline seats, the discoloration was very easy to spot, as foreground actors appeared cooler than those seated in the adjacent row or immediately behind. I looked past the error and continued watching. So long as I ignored the uniformity error, the remaining presentation was enjoyable. To be clear, the error is not one that jumps out at you. My wife only noticed it when I pointed it out to her, so it stands to reason many who either a) own this projector or b) have demoed it may never have observed this problem.

I ended my evaluation of the AE8000U with the prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien, Prometheus (20th Century Fox), on Blu-ray. The opening scene is about as beautiful as it gets, if your thing is sweeping vistas and gorgeous cinematography, and the AE8000U didn’t disappoint. About the only thing that caught my eye as out of the norm was some slight pixilation occurring in and around the white-capped rapids leading into the massive waterfall that serves as the backdrop in the opening scene. In many ways, the pixilation was reminiscent of what I encountered with the entry-level Epson projectors, which would make sense if both projectors, the AE8000U and the Epson, are utilizing the same chips. Still, the image was brilliant and the contrast, texture and motion superb. Skin tones appeared natural in their texture and fine detail, as did the rest of the film’s organic set pieces. Yes, the other problem was still present, but only just. When the film took to the outer reaches of space, the black levels were above average, not as deep or as rich as, say, those of the entry-level JVC, but a close second nonetheless. The film’s more obvious CG elements, such as computer displays and holograms, looked positively three-dimensional without needing to rely on 3D glasses. Thanks in part to the AE8000U’s light output and resulting contrast and natural sharpness, minute details that went somewhat unnoticed previously were now suddenly brought to life.

The Downside
It should go without saying that the chief downside facing the AE8000U is its uniformity issues. While I’m not certain what, if anything, can be done to correct the error, short of manufacturing a whole new projector, it’s worth pointing out and something any potential customer should know about.

Outside of the uniformity issue, my projector also had alignment issues that were largely able to be fixed or at least brought up to the same standard as other LCD projectors I had on hand. Any time you have to perfectly align multiple panels, you’re bound to run into alignment issues and no projector, high-end or entry-level, is immune.

For all the CMS and so-called professional control the AE8000U looks to afford you, few if any of these features work as they should, which begs the question: how much money could Panasonic have saved by simply leaving them out? I can’t think of any consumer shopping for a projector in the $3,000 range that would need waveform monitor functionality, even though it was a feature that initially excited me. But I’m weird like that.

Other notable issues include a noisy fan, especially when in normal or high lamp mode, and I believe the remote has a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to responsiveness, as it proved to be among the more directional remotes I’ve ever encountered.

Competition and Comparisons
The AE8000U is in a increasingly competitive category, one that cannot escape criticism by being a so-called entry-level product, for at its suggested retail price it squares off against what is arguably the best projector value in the business today, the JVC DLA-X30B. The X30B not only checks all the same boxes as the AE8000U, but also brings with it supremely functional CMS and other calibration controls that – wait for it – actually work, not mention having better panel alignment and color and light uniformity. In truth, I consider the two to be competitors in price only, for the JVC would clearly get my vote if it were my credit card on the line.

Also, at $3,499 retail, the AE8000U isn’t far behind other higher-end offerings, such as Sony’s VPL-HW30AES and Optoma’s HD8300. Suffice to say that there are a bevy of options at or near the AE8000U’s price point. For more on these projectors, as well as others like them, please visit Home Theater Review’s Front Projector page.

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Conclusion
Shortly after buying my first front projector, an Epson, I made the leap to Panasonic and, for four years after my initial purchase, I bought the new model every year without fail. Had I not switched to JVC about five years ago, I could assume I’d probably be a Panasonic front-projection customer even today. But shaking things up has a way of changing one’s perspective on things. I’m not suggesting that all Panasonic projectors have had issues that either a) their customers simply get used to or b) never notice, but the AE8000U does.

At first glance, there is a lot to like about the AE8000U, starting with its often sub-$3,000 price point. On top of affordability, it produces a bright, vibrant image with solid contrast and above-average black levels. Even some of the image presets appear to be functional, as well as enjoyable. But as you live with it and dive deeper into its feature sets, you begin to notice several flies in the AE8000U’s proverbial ointment. The AE8000U’s calibration controls, mainly its CMS, simply do not work as they should and its light and color uniformity issues cannot be ignored nor downplayed. Throw in some panel alignment issues and a few other, more trivial issues, and the good feelings surrounding the AE8000U quickly erode.

It’s not that I believe the AE8000U to be a bad projector, it’s just not a great one. Instead, it is merely average or maybe even a tick below, meaning you should proceed with caution and do your due diligence before drawing your own conclusions in making your final purchasing decision.

Additional Resources
Read more video projector reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com’s writers.
Explore screen options in our Projector Screen Review section.
Find mounting options in out AV Mounts and Racks Review section.

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