When it comes to design and looks I think we need to get one thing out of the way first……this is an ugly looking plastic box. Of course, that can be said for all the Panasonic projectors that have come before this one. Indeed it looks identical to the PT-AE2000 and PT-AE1000. So, this is one machine you hide on the ceiling or on a wall mount in a dark room; its never going to win prizes in the design stakes. But that said, just what does the PT-AE3000 offer us over the previous models?
The size of the projector chassis is almost identical to the previous machines at (mm) Width 460, Height 130, Depth 300 and weighing in at 7kg. The same matt black finish is used on the plastic body, with the air intake and exhaust to the front and the lens centrally mounted. The top panel once again houses the lens shift wheels and the video connections are based at the back side of the chassis. Connections wise the PT-AE3000 does not disappoint with three HDMI v1.3a slots, a computer RGB slot, two component inputs, one s-video slot and a composite input to round things off. If you want to use the projector in a custom build it also has the necessary RS232 control port.
Positioning and initial set up - as with most digital projectors - was easy with manual lens shift and remote controlled zoom and focus. The manual controls for shifting the lens are a little basic and do not lock, allowing the lens to shift on its own accord with regular checking recommended. Once set up, we switched to what can only be described as comprehensive menu pages. This is where the Panasonic can stand well above the competition, with a plethora of menu options that control just about any parameter you could possibly want to tweak. The basic picture controls are joined with a waveform monitor, full greyscale white balance options and of course Panasonic’s strange colour management feature – more on these later in the review.
The optics on the PT-AE3000 has a new design to incorporate a piece of technology dubbed ‘Pure Contrast Plate’. This is said to eliminate stray light from the lamp in the optical path, and thus improve the dynamic range and brightness levels. Panasonic are claiming a native contrast of 60,000:1 and around 1600 lumens of brightness available; as always we will do our own testing of this in due course.
And then we move on to the biggest selling point of the PT-AE3000, the memory zoom lens feature. This is a simple yet effective way of watching 2.40:1 Blu-ray material on a scope screen, without the black bars at the top and bottom. There is a popular route within the custom installation market for projectors to do a vertical stretch of the image using video scaling and then for an anamorphic lens to be used between the projector and screen. This lens stretches the image again horizontally to get the image back to the correct aspect ratio on the scope screen and loses the black bars as desired.
However, Panasonic has approached this in a slightly different way, stating they don’t want to use what they describe as unnecessary scaling of the image. What the PT-AE3000 does is zoom the scope image so it fits the screen, with the black bars being projected on to the black areas around the screen. You need to set this function using the zoom, focus and image shift controls. Once you have the scope image in perfect focus and size, you then save this as a preset. Once this is done, you then set the 1.85:1 (or 1.78:1 for TV material) image zoom and focus and again save this as a preset. Once you have set this up, in future it is just a simple button push on the remote to move between scope and 16:9 materials.
Some forward thinking enthusiasts will also see an opportunity with this technology for set ups like constant area projection. But, what about images being zoomed in such a way, will they lose brightness? And will you now see the picture structure from excessive zooming? Depending on how well you set the system up initially and of course assuming you're not sitting right next to the screen, the answer to both of those questions is no. I ran quite a few tests going through each setting and from a normal seating distance of 1.5 x Screen width; any loss of brightness or increase in pixilation was never an issue. Indeed, even sitting closer than this did not present me with any visible screen structure issues. It wasn’t until I got to about 1 foot from the screen did I see any pixels and even then, I was looking extremely hard (it is a 1920 x1080 native display and also has a screen smoothing technology on board.)
So will this approach better an anamorphic set up? Well it certainly beats it on cost, with decent anamorphic lenses starting at around £3k. But is the picture quality better? Well each approach has its pros and cons and introduces their own slight issues if not set up carefully. I will say that I like both solutions and especially like the forward thinking that Panasonic has put into their approach. For the money, it’s a great way in to true 2.40:1 viewing from Blu-ray and I couldn’t see that much difference in the experience to using a more expensive lens solution.
Obviously, when it comes to the anamorphic route, you should be using a far higher specified projector to make full use of the expensive glass put in front of it. And some will recommend a curved screen to combat pincushion effects seen with the lens approach. So you’re soon talking about a serious financial outlay. The best cost effective route (and admittedly in my opinion a good step up on the Panasonic) will set you back at least £10k without the screen. So, even if we are only looking at the cost issue, the Panasonic offers what many call the true cinematic experience for a very reasonable price, and to be honest in performance terms, you would need to hit a much higher price point to better the impact from this budget approach.
Out of the box and Calibrated performance
No display we have measured is perfect out of the box, but the closer they manage to get, the better designed display and in turn a more accurate image. And, unlike what other display reviewers tell you, it’s not about what you prefer the image to look like. If you’re a true home cinema fan you want to see exactly what is on the disc you are playing and at the right levels for colour and shadow detail. Unlike audio, where there are no recognised industry standards, in video playback there are well defined standards that say what white, red, green and blue should look like. These same standards are in use from the film being shot, to the mastering for the video format it will be shown on. So it follows that a display should also be capable of showing these things. However only well designed displays achieve close to the standards out of the box, and bang on the money when calibrated professionally. Sorry, you won’t get there with a test disc – but it’s a good start!
So after going on about the standards, how well does the PT-AE3000 stack up in out of the box settings?
|Colour temperature out of the box||RGB out of the box||Luminance out of the box|
Well there are plenty of picture presets to choose from. Panasonic have also included one preset which they claim has been put together by a Hollywood colourist. This piqued my interest but on viewing it’s obvious that any colour work that was done is washed out with a bright 8400k temperature which pushes blue. The cinema settings are also slightly disappointing with the gamut wide and the greyscale mix looking too low on blue, giving a dull image around 4600k. Indeed the cinema 2 setting was quite dull, flat and surprising as Panasonic usually go for a more accurate temperature of around the 5800 to 7000k range. Eventually, I settled on the cinema 3 setting which seemed to be a good compromise, if still a little bit low in the greyscale mix. So, with this setting looking the most accurate out of the box it does give us some idea about the design? The greyscale although low, does track uniformly across the range with no significant dips or peaks, pointing to a good colour decoder and it should easily allow correction through ISF calibration. And the gamut although wide on the green end of the Rec.709 triangle, this wasn’t too distracting on screen with grass being the exception.
|Colour temperature calibrated||RGB calibrated||Luminance calibrated|
So moving on to calibration allows us to push the PT-AE3000 towards giving us the best possible picture performance it can manage. Greyscale did not take too much work to get good results under 1.3 DeltaE across the stimulus range of 20 to 100IRE. This immediately improved the image on screen adding back shadow detail and a correct ‘video’ white. Next was a look at the colour gamut and the tools we have available to see if we can improve the performance. The CIE charts shown are also 2D so you cannot see the luminance levels of the colour points (not to be confused with the colour temperature settings for greyscale). The Panasonic does have a unique colour management tool, which although not a fully linear tool, is capable of giving us some control over a limited area, which thankfully is within its range across various stimulus points. After a lot of work it was possible to hit Rec.709 with luminance DeltaE errors under 8.
For the price point and the fact it is a limited system, this result was very welcome. Gamma was well behaved with a good curve around 2.28 which is where we want to be for film material on Blu-ray. So overall, after some work using the tools at our disposal, the PT-AE3000 was now looking accurate and to the standards. For comparison in this review room and against previous projectors tested, the measured on/off contrast hit 4,228:1 calibrated, which for an LCD projector is very good indeed!
So, with the objective data collated and the projector calibrated how does it look?
Out of the box performance – Picture
Video processing has also been improved over previous Panasonic projector models with the inclusion of frame creation technology. I normally don’t find this kind of processing to work that well with HD material, but mode 1 didn’t make itself too noticeable whilst cleaning up image sharpness without any major artefacts being produced on fast moving scenes. Indeed, it managed to hit each cadence test with no lag or over processing seen in most cases. However, mode 2 didn’t fair quite as well and looked too much like digital video, robbing material of that filmic quality and making things look rather two dimensional. It also struggled with my usual set of test scenes too much for me to recommend using it.
With these options switched off the picture processing of the PT-AE3000 was above average and certainly BD playback at 24fps didn’t show up any problems. The digital clarity processing technology also behaved itself in most cases with nothing to suggest any obvious issues with BD images. It does add slight sharpening but does so only in certain areas of the image and this didn’t affect normal material in any major way. However being the purist I am, it was switched off after an hour of testing. Finally the in-built smooth screen technology cannot be defeated, but again I never once found an issue with image sharpness or detail levels.
So moving to movie material out of the box in cinema 3 preset and with the main controls set for the system, the PT-AE3000 produced some fantastic images which, on occasion, made me forget I was watching a 3LCD technology. The biggest improvement over previous models was immediately apparent with black levels and dynamic range receiving a major step up over the PT-AE2000. This certainly added a more realistic feel to the highly detailed images from our Blu-ray of Wall-E with no immediate concerns of lost shadow detail.
Colours were a little over saturated but this wasn’t as apparent with CG footage as it is with live action footage from the Hulk. Here, there was a green haze present (pun not intended) within the image which robbed it of some depth. However, out of the box, the Panasonic wasn’t going to look any better and in truth it produces very watchable images which in the most part get towards looking natural for a preset. By the way if I can just ask Panasonic quickly, can we have a THX preset in next years model, like you have done with this years TV range? That would certainly give most users a good starting point out of the box, rather than the disappointing colourist mode.
Calibrated Performance – Picture
Seriously, this crossed my mind over the course of a few days of viewing and testing, with the niggle that this projector was really starting to look like a bargain, that could compete with its peers easily. Alright, the JVC HD350 does the contrast and dynamic range better and is brighter in overall lumens output. But it suffers from a gamut you cannot correct in the machine and gives skin tones a sun tanned look. Obviously you could also do the zoom thing for scope, but it would be an entirely manual affair. So, looking at the pros and cons, the HD350 will give more dynamic range and deeper blacks, but the PT-AE3000 fights back with memory zoom function and a very natural colour performance and stunning detail when calibrated. It’s a little tighter when you then add in the Sony HW10 which is far closer to the Panasonic in terms of overall performance but maybe with slightly less shadow detail and overall contrast (In our measures the PT-AE3000 scores better with contrast, backing up my thoughts on the added depth from the increased dynamic range).
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