3D Home Theater Projector Review
Bill Livolsi, September 4, 2012
Almost every year, Panasonic comes out with a new home theater projector, and each time it incorporates several significant improvements to the previous year’s model. Last year’s AE7000 was a groundbreaking home theater projector that, in addition to being the world’s first LCD projector capable of full 1080p 3D, also raised the bar on what one should expect from 3D home cinema.
Now Panasonic has introduced the PT-AE8000. The AE8000 is not as outwardly different from its predecessor as was the AE7000 from its own, but outward appearances mean very little. The AE8000 has significant improvements in all areas of picture quality, from brightness (both in 2D and 3D) to contrast (both in dynamic range and shadow detail) to color accuracy and the clarity of detail. Any one of these improvements can seem rather small, but taken in sum they constitute a major upgrade that will interest both videophiles and more casual users.
Update September 12: We have received further information from Panasonic regarding the price of the AE8000 and its replacement lamps. We have also been told that Panasonic will offer consumers two free pairs of 3D glasses with the purchase of a Panasonic AE8000.
The Viewing Experience
The AE-8000 is Panasonic’s newest home theater projector, offering several improvements over the AE-7000 that will be of particular benefit in a dark room home theater environment.
We set up our AE8000 on a rear shelf above and slightly behind our seating area. The projector has manual H/V lens shift with a joystick-style adjustment mechanism. This system allows for a total shift range of three image heights by 1.5 image widths. In other words, you can move the picture one full image height either up or down from the central position, or a quarter of the image width in either direction. As always, the shape of the lens shift range is an oval, not a rectangle, so one cannot reach full horizontal and vertical shift simultaneously.
The AE8000 has received a brightness boost over its predecessor of 20% on paper, from 2000 to 2400 lumens. However, our actual measured increase is more than the specs indicate. The AE7000’s Cinema 1 mode measured 529 lumens on our test sample, whereas the new AE8000 cranks out 822 lumens in that same mode, which is more like a 50% increase. That’s enough light to power a 140" diagonal 1.3 gain 16:9 screen at 18 foot Lamberts.
Our AE8000 was set up for a 100" diagonal image on a Stewart Studiotek 100, a 1.0 gain screen, using Cinema 1 in low lamp mode with the lens at its widest angle setting. That produced 534 lumens, or 18 fL, and still left plenty of room to increase brightness when it came time for 3D. (Btw, Stewart doesn’t recommend the neutral Studiotek 100 for home theater; the Studiotek 130 (1.3 gain), is usually preferred for home theater installations.)
Viewed by itself, the AE8000 is a stunning projector. However, viewing the AE8000 next to the AE7000 is when things start to get interesting. There’s a clear increase in contrast, especially in low-illumination areas; shadow detail is better defined on the AE8000. The brightness difference is readily apparent to the naked eye. Detail appears more clear and sharp, though there is no sign of anything resembling an edge enhancement artifact. In 2D, these improvements combine to give the AE8000’s picture a touch of refined elegance as compared to the AE7000, a quality that will be appreciated by dedicated videophiles. In 3D, a substantial improvement in brightness and stability may have specific appeal to those who view a lot of 3D material.
3D Depth Control. Some 3D movies have entirely too much depth. By "too much depth," I mean the filmmakers intentionally or unintentionally abuse 3D technology to create exaggerated depth and pop in their films. What this ends up doing is causing eyestrain. To fix this, the AE8000 has a depth control for 3D in the form of its 3D waveform monitor. This tool allows the user to adjust overall picture depth to fit within a "safe" range, thereby protecting viewers from sore eyes and headaches.
The control has two modes. One of them is more involved, and shows 3D depth across the image in real-time. The other is more of a summary of this information and instead shows maximum depth of the image in each direction at any given time. Both allow for the adjustment of depth, so which one you prefer is a matter of taste.
3D Motion Remaster. The big 3D problems that everyone knows about are brightness and crosstalk, but they are not the only issues out there. For example: when an object is in motion, your left eye and right eye are shown the same frame at slightly different times, but your brain expects to see the second image advance slightly in the direction of motion during the time interval between left eye and right eye viewing. This creates an odd bulging or bowing effect as your eye interprets the images’ positions, also known as a parallax error.
The AE8000 includes a new 3D Motion Remaster feature designed to eliminate this parallax problem. Essentially, it is a highly-specialized offshoot of frame interpolation that detects 3D objects in motion and advances them slightly so your brain correctly interprets their motion. This is a hard effect to describe, but suffice it to say that 3D Motion Remaster makes 3D motion appear more natural. As with other frame interpolation systems, the user retains the option to disable it from the projector’s menu.
Detail Clarity Processor. The AE7000’s Detail Clarity system was designed to bring out superfine detail in HD content. The AE8000’s Detail Clarity Processor accomplishes the same task, but it has received an upgrade that makes it appreciably better at its job. Tiny details, such as foliage on far-away trees or the texture in fabric, is now easier to see than before. There is still no sign of artifacts related to this control, provided you use it at a reasonable level — cranking it all the way up will cause some artifacts. The default for this control is 2; we set our test unit to 3 for most viewing.
Lens Memory now works in 3D. A number of features that only worked in 2D on the AE7000 now work in 3D as well. Among these are the powered zoom, powered focus, and Lens Memory system. If you prefer a brighter 3D image and want to shrink down the picture when watching a 3D movie, you can set up a Lens Memory position in advance and save yourself some time.
Frame Interpolation now works in 2D to 3D. Previously, the Frame Creation system was unavailable in 2D to 3D conversion, but it now has its full functionality available.
Glasses have 3D to 2D function. Panasonic’s third-generation 3D glasses are light and comfortable, but they also have a neat feature for those who don’t enjoy 3D. By sliding the power switch all the way to the right, the glasses will show both eyes the same image, thereby turning 3D into 2D. Plenty of folks out there have family members or friends who just don’t enjoy 3D, and this feature means you can all watch a movie together, some seeing it in 3D and some seeing in 2D, so you can make everyone happy. The glasses are not included with the projector and cost $99 per pair. Edit: Panasonic now reports that they will offer two free pairs of third-generation glasses with the purchase of an AE8000.
Gamma adjustment. The AE8000 also has an overhauled gamma adjustment system that makes it easy to make subtle tweaks to get the gamma curve you want. For starters, the new system has 15 adjustment points instead of 9. When adjusting gamma, there is an option to place the adjustment menu in the bottom corner of the screen instead of the center, which makes it easier to either see the content on screen or use a meter without having to stop and disengage the menu every time.
Light output. The spec on the AE8000 is 2400 lumens, which is a 20% increase over the AE7000’s 2000-lumen rating. The spec understates the brightness differences we see on our test samples. Here, in table form, are the lumen readings we saw on our AE8000 compared to our AE7000 readings from last year:
As you can see, the average brightness increase between our samples is more like 35% rather than 20%. Some of this may be due to manufacturing variances in the individual samples, so the testing of two random samples cannot be used to make comparative statements about the product lines in general. Suffice it to say we are seeing more than the 20% increase claimed by Panasonic in all operating modes. This makes it possible to use the AE8000 on larger screens, but it also makes a significant and valuable difference in 3D.
Last year’s AE7000 did not quite have the brightness required to make a compelling 3D image at large screen sizes. 3D light output has received a 25% boost on a pure white signal, but in actual use the difference appears more substantial than that. We are eager to see how the AE8000 stacks up to this year’s crop of 1080p 3D projectors, as we expect it will fare better than the AE7000 did.
If the AE8000 produces too much light for your screen, you can either engage Eco lamp mode, which reduces brightness by 35%, or you can use more of the projector’s zoom range. Going from the wide angle to telephoto end of the 2.0:1 zoom lens causes a 39% reduction in light output. With a projector like the AE8000, many people will opt for the super-simple rear shelf mount and then zoom the projector to their screen. Even doing this, there will likely be lumens to spare.
Contrast. Dynamic range has been improved on the AE8000. The projector reveals quite a bit of detail in shadows that was not previously visible without causing those shadows to look too light. And despite a sizable increase in light output, the AE8000’s black level is still rock-solid.
Color. The AE8000’s Rec. 709 mode nails the specification almost perfectly, while Cinema 1 mode is more or less Rec. 709 that has been tailored to fit how humans see color in large images. As you may know, color perception is less black-and-white than other aspects of human vision (pun fully intended), so Panasonic has attempted to adjust for how the eye perceives color on large screens as opposed to smaller televisions. In other words, while Rec. 709 might look perfectly correct on a television or monitor, it can look a bit flat on the big screen — and that’s what Cinema 1 is for.
The AE8000’s Rec. 709 mode recreates the specification almost perfectly with no adjustment
Cinema 2 factory default settings produce a very different picture than Cinema 1. It is almost twice as bright and has less green in it. With a little bit of tweaking, Cinema 2 makes a beautiful bright picture that many users may prefer.
Normal mode is a staple of Panasonic home theater projectors, combining higher light output than the Cinema modes with decent color balance to make a pleasing "living room" picture, thereby allowing the projector to multitask when required. Normal mode does not have the typical washed-out colors, gray blacks, and green push found in the maximum light output dynamic modes of this and other projectors.
Sharpness and clarity. The AE8000’s Detail Clarity Processor has had an upgrade, and the difference is visible. Fine details in hair and foliage — really small details, in other words — are easier to see on the AE8000 than they are on the AE7000 when viewed side by side.
Frame Interpolation. The AE8000 uses the same frame interpolation system as the AE7000. At the moment, the AE7000’s FI system is still the best available. That might change as new projectors come to market, but suffice to say that the AE8000 has a clean, smooth frame interpolation system with comparatively little lag and very few artifacts.
Input Lag. The AE8000 has slightly less input lag than its predecessor. On the AE7000, Game mode measured 41 milliseconds of delay, whereas Game mode on the AE8000 is improved to 34 milliseconds. That improvement works out to half a frame at 60 frames per second. It’s not quite as fast as Panasonic’s AR100U, which at 25 milliseconds is their fastest projector for gaming.
As it turns out, Frame Creation does not have much of an effect on input lag in the AE8000’s Cinema or Rec. 709 modes. With Frame Creation set to Mode 1, Mode 2, or Off, Cinema 1 mode measured 67 milliseconds of delay — the setting made no difference. Mode 3 did increase delay slightly to 73 milliseconds. So if you are going to be playing games on the AE8000 and are concerned at all about input lag, stick with Game mode.
Fan noise. Despite its high brightness, the AE8000 is quiet during operation. In Normal lamp mode, which is the highest-power setting, fan noise is a low pitched whisper is only audible at distances closer than about five feet. Meanwhile, in Eco lamp mode the fan is barely audible at all.
4000/5000 hour Lamp life. The AE8000’s lamp’s life of 4,000 hours in Normal and 5,000 hours in Eco mode is state of the art and competitive with many competing home theater projectors. We know people are hoping for longer life LED-based projectors, but unfortunately, LED technology cannot yet generate the lumen power of high pressure lamps for anywhere near the price. Replacement lamps for the AE8000 have an MSRP of $379.
Two-year Warranty. The Panasonic projector warranty used to cover one year, plus an additional year if the purchaser filled out and sent in a warranty card. Since then, they have changed it to two years, standard, with no mail-in requirement. While the change went into effect in February, the AE8000 is the first home theater projector to launch with the new warranty coverage in place.
It is getting very difficult to find things to complain about on Panasonic’s flagship home theater products since they tend to be loaded with features that competing units don’t have, and picture quality gets better every year. Nevertheless, here are a couple nits we could mention:
Lens Shift. In a projector where everything else is polished to perfection, the AE8000’s non-motorized lens stands out as something less than perfect. The manual lens shift control is a small joystick, which is handy for quick-and-dirty adjustments but can be finicky when trying to make smaller, more precise changes. It is more refined than the AE7000’s joystick, but still not as slick as a finely geared motorized adjustment. On the other hand, let’s be practical. Lens shift is rarely used after the projector is installed. Does it make any sense to add the cost of a motorized mechanism to assist in an adjustment that is no longer an issue after installation? Not really. Power zoom and focus have a great deal more utility during actual use, and the AE8000 has both of those.
Menu system. The AE8000’s menus are detailed and extensive. As mentioned previously, Panasonic’s home theater projectors offer more unique and useful features than any other manufacturer’s products. That said, there is room for improvement in the menu system. For one, sometimes there is no indication of what a given control actually does, and the average user may not know the difference between Frame Creation and 3D Motion Remaster. It would be helpful to include an onboard help system, perhaps accessible via a button on the remote control, that would explain the function of a highlighted option.
In the AE8000’s menus, you can press "enter" on most items to pop them out. This makes the rest of the menu disappear while the item you’ve selected is presented in low-profile format at the bottom of the screen, which makes it easy to adjust while watching the picture for changes. This is great, except the menu pops back to the main screen after a few short seconds, and there’s no way to adjust this timing. There are exceptions; if you are using the waveform monitor or gamma adjustment system, then the menu will persist. But the single-line function would be more helpful if there were a way to adjust its persistence.
Panasonic has been making home theater projectors for many, many years. The AE series, of which the AE8000 is the latest edition, started with the AE100 way back in 2001 — ancient history by today’s standards. It is clear by now that they’ve gotten very good at it.
Last year’s AE7000 was a big step forward over the previous AE4000. Not only did the addition of 3D make the projector noteworthy, but the AE7000 also improved almost all of the projector’s core systems, resulting in a 2D picture that was significantly better than that of its predecessor. The step up from the AE7000 to the AE8000 may appear less dramatic on the spec sheets, but overall picture quality shows a very decided improvement. And for videophiles, that is what it is all about.
The AE8000 is easily the best home theater projector Panasonic has ever released, and has the most natural and film-like image in both 2D and 3D yet seen on a Panasonic home theater model. The3D brightness boost makes the AE8000 a more exciting option for 3D fans. With an MSRP of $3499, the same as last year’s AE7000, the AE8000 represents a strong value in today’s home theater projector market.