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Panasonic PT-AE4000 LCD Projector Review

Panasonic’s new PT-AE4000 projector looks the same as last years model, but is the performance?

by Phil Hinton
Home AV Review

54

Highly Recommended
Panasonic PT-AE4000 LCD Projector Review
SRP: £2,400.00

Introduction

The new projector season is upon us and we kicked off in style with the new JVC HD950 last week. But that model competes in a price level twice that of the Panasonic we have for review today. So you would expect some difference in performance and quality levels, but how much? After all, we are fond of the phrase, ‘diminishing returns’, so is that the case when looking at these new projectors? We will find that out, and more…

Design and connections

I have said it with the previous Panasonic projectors and I’m yet again forced to say it this year. This is an ugly looking brick of a chassis. The black box with sharp corners and square lines has been with us for 4 years now, and this year's model is no different. It's undoubtedly functional and has very handy in dimensions for stand or shelf mounting. But this projector chassis will never win any awards for beauty and design. With that said though, this unit will most likely be used in a dark room, or hidden at the back of a living room when not in use, so maybe looks aren’t that important.

There are no cosmetic changes of any kind to the outer skin of the PT-AE4000 over previous models and the connections, control flap and air vents are all positioned as they were last time around. Using the same chassis has obviously not prevented Panasonic from adding new technology and features over the years, so if it ain’t broke, I suppose I can see why they haven’t changed things drastically. The unit measures (W x H x D) 460mm, 130mm, 300mm and weighs in at approximately 7kg.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

The external box has the same black plastic feel, with air vents to the front left and right sides and the lens centrally mounted. On the top plate are the lens shift controls which, again this year, feel flimsy in their use. In this day and age it can’t cost that much more to add in some motors to make life a little easier. To the right side of the unit (when looking from the front) we have a flap covering the main controls (should you lose the small remote control) and around the back are the connections.

Looking at the back panel and its various connections, you could be forgiven for thinking this is identical to last year’s model, and you would almost be right. The only difference on this projector is the inclusion of two 12v triggers that can be used to send and receive signals in an automated set up. This kind of flexibility will go down well with custom installers looking to integrate such a projector in to a large audio visual system. Also present on the rear panel are three HDMI v1.3 slots, two component, one composite, an RGB/PC connector and one s-video legacy connector. Rounding off the back panel is an RS232C control port and the power socket.

Optics and Features

With the basics covered, we move on to some new or upgraded features available on the PT-AE4000 and start with its claims of 100,000:1 contrast performance. This claim is based on the unit using a new and improved optical set up with a full-HD-optimized lens unit comprising of 16 lens elements in 12 groups, including two large-diameter aspherical lenses and two high-performance ED (extra low dispersion) lenses. Each lens is carefully aligned by Panasonic to assure a uniform focusing balance from the centre to the edges of the screen. This should improve light spill and screen uniformity of the light path and projected image.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

Plus, there is the introduction of a new Pure Contrast Plate in the PT-AE4000 which uses a newly engineered crystalline material that is matched to the characteristics of the LCD panels to correct the passage of light leaving the panels. This enables the projector to block unwanted light leakage and should increase the dynamic range available on screen. Add to this the dynamic iris and Panasonic claim that the projector will achieve 100,000:1 in contrast levels. How they have measured that is anyone’s guess and it will be interesting to see just how the image looks when we switch the unit on.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

Some other new optical features include a new UHP bulb engineered by Panasonic for the projector. Dubbed ‘The Red Rich Lamp’, Panasonic are claiming that this new light source produces better luminance characteristics for colour purity in the spectrum produced by the lamp. In usual UHP lamps there is a high amount of blue and green (with green towards yellow) and a severe lack of red energy. This can affect the brightness and luminance points of the calibrated image as green and blue need to be dialled down so match red as close as possible for colour balance. This new red rich lamp has been designed and engineered to add in red luminance energy to much higher levels than a conventional UHP lamp, thus improving the colour balance and colour purity performance. We will fully test and measure this later in the review.

Adding on from the new lamp technology is the introduction of a new Pure Colour Filter which when added to the optical path claims to further improve the RGB colour purity to match the industry standards for HDTV (Rec.709 and D65) in the Colour Mode 1 preset, as well as following the DCI colour specification (SMPTE DC28) when the filter is used with the Colour 2 preset. Again we will measure and report on these claims later in the review.

This year sees the continuation of other technologies developed by Panasonic over the previous years projectors. Again the PT-AE4000 uses the ‘Smooth screen’ technology which attempts to hide pixel structure and produce a film-like image that retains sharpness while making sure there are no visible gaps between the pixels, using the double refraction property of the crystals to suitably arrange the pixels in that way. Some people claim that the Panasonic projectors look soft because of this technology, and it would be interesting to see an image without it in use, but sadly the Smooth screen technology is built in and not a feature you can switch off. However, in our experience with the Panasonic projectors you can’t call them soft as each one has displayed the full detail levels available from HD footage. Rather the image has a non-digital look that also graces the JVC projectors and can be described as film-like.

Another feature making a return this year is the ‘Detail Clarity’ processor, but it is in version 3 form here. Where on the PT-AE3000 it was a case of switching it on or off, the new version allows you to adjust the level at which the processing works. Basically the old system worked by looking at the focus point of the material and applying fine edge enhancement to straight lines and details it felt needed a boost. On the PT-AE4000 we are now given 7 steps of adjustment (default is level 2 out of the box) and can set it to any level we desire including an off option. This adds in edge enhancement and the higher you set the control the more it adds to the image. This kind of option is not required with HD material that is properly displayed by the projector, but may come in useful with some standard definition material if applied in reasonably small amounts.

The frame interpolation technology that is ‘Frame Creation’ arrives on the PT-AE4000 with 3 different modes including the welcomed off button. Panasonic claim they have improved the way the system works in reducing judder and loss of resolution in fast moving scenes. The new system is slightly different to that seen on the PT-AE3000 and it works like this. In mode 1 the projector buffers two upcoming frames at a time and uses those to construct a new frame to go in-between them. It then displays each frame at double speed so 50hz becomes 100hz and 60hz is 120hz. Mode 2 buffers three frames to calculate a new frame and works at the same speed.

For 24fps material 3 new frames are interpolated from either 2 buffered in mode 1 or 3 buffered frames in mode 2. In each case the material runs at 96 frames a second. This is identical to how the PT-AE3000 worked but the new PT-AE4000 adds in a new mode 3 selection. This works the same as mode 2 in terms of buffered frames but adds in a new motion vector algorithm to calculate more natural movement and reduce any artefacts. Because of the delay this causes - lip sync is likely to need to be reset in your processor or amplifier. Mode 3 is designed to eliminate judder and produce a smooth video-like effect. With Frame Creation turned off simple duplication of frames are used instead of interpolated ones, so in the case of 24p material each frame is repeated three times after the original.

The now famous and extremely useful Lens memory function has also been improved for the PT-AE4000 with a new Automatic Detection system added to switch aspect ratios on the fly.

The final new systems that are of interest to us with the PT-AE4000 are useful for picture calibration control. First of all is a new Gamma Editor feature that allows adjustment of the primary RGB channels and the Y channel in two options. The simple option allows just control over the low, mid and high end of the gamma curve. The Advanced settings allow a graphical display of up to 9 adjustment point on the curve for each RGB channel and Y. This looks like the same system that JVC employ in their projectors and we will fully test it to make sure it works correctly.

The last item is the somewhat strange Colour Management System that Panasonic employ. The cursor approach confused you into thinking that only the section where you placed the cursor would be changed. This is not the case as the changes are image wide and I had this confirmed at a recent meeting with the engineers who developed the PT-AE4000. The cursor approach returns again this year, but is joined by a RGBCYM option. This second option follows the two box layout previously seen, but to correctly calibrate the CMS we have to use a workaround method. The box approach will work but the results are not entirely accurate when measured against external window patterns. But if we use window patterns and make small adjustments and then save and measure, we can get the CMS system to work correctly and provide accurate results. So my advice to Panasonic is to drop the box system and just provide the CMS controls with a real-time adjustment so we can use external window patterns to set the colour points correctly, without having to use this workaround approach.

Menus and Settings

You certainly cannot call the PT-AE4000’s menus simplistic as you hit the remote key and are met with a plethora of options. And there is nothing wrong with a menu system being so comprehensive in its layout. But there is room for some improvements here as well. So let's start with the main picture menus.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

The menu opens with the picture selections and these include the standard front panel controls (Brightness, Contrast, etc) along with picture mode. The picture mode presets include Cinema 1-3, Normal, Dynamic and Colour 1 & 2. The Colour 1 option is the preset that Panasonic claim is closest to the industry standards for picture quality out of the box. Colour 2 attempts to produce the DCI digital cinema gamut and the other presets are variations of these. You cannot calibrate the Colour presets as they are set by Panasonic, but the Cinema presets can be fine tuned.

Under the front panel controls we have a colour temperature setting that should not be confused with the usual white balance settings for greyscale. This slider control moves the white point from normal in the 0 position, to adding blue in the + setting and more Red in the – setting. This is best left at 0. Next we have the selections for Dynamic Iris control (which I left off for a more consistent image) and also the Waveform Monitor. This is the same as last year's and is an interesting, if somewhat redundant feature. The Split Adjust selection allows you to make changes to the image on a frame split down the middle so you can see what adjusting the controls do on one side against the default image. The Advanced Menu selection opens up a sub-menu we will explore in a moment and under this we have the memory save, load and edit options.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

Moving to the Advanced Menu we find the colour temperature (white balance) RGB controls for greyscale correction. These work in the normal fashion and offer fine adjustment levels to allow accurate calibration. Under these are the Noise Reduction and Mpeg Noise Reduction controls along with the frame creation selection menu. Below these are some controls that are only available depending on the material and video signals being fed to the projector. These include the Detail Clarity settings I discussed earlier in the review and the Colour Management System.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

The interesting addition to the advanced menu this year is the new Gamma correction tool. This allows two options. A simple selection that offers three slider controls for low, mid and high areas of the gamma curve, and an Advanced option. In Advanced there is a graphical table display allowing correction of 9 points on the curve in the X and Y axis. This allows fine tuning of the gamma curve, or you can go mad and move as many as far as you like and marvel at the horror. Using it in the correct manner with a meter and software while calibrating the greyscale allows excellent results which you can see in the calibration section of this review.

The final important part of the menu system is the lens control section. This allows you to take advantage of the Lens Memory function 2 technologies for showing 2.35:1 material by zooming it to fill a 2.35:1 ratio screen – without using an anamorphic lens. This is the same system as that seen on the PT-AE3000 but with an added auto function. This allows you to set what you would like the lens to do with different aspect ratios and the projector then automatically applies these settings when it detects a 2.35:1 or 1.85:1 aspect image. This is a great little feature that takes about 6 seconds to kick in when switching aspect ratios. You can see my demo of this system from our IFA 09 video coverage below.

Out of the Box Measurements

So with all the new features explained and the projector set up with adjustments to the front panel controls it's time to measure the picture performance of the best presets out of the box. But before we do that, we need to see what the new lamp is capable of in terms of colour energy in a spectral scan.

Panasonic PT-AE4000

Comparing this scan with other projectors we have reviewed using UHP lamps, we can see the new ‘Red Rich’ engineered lamp in action. Looking at the colour spectrum we can see that the engineers have not added any filters between blue and green with the red wavelength looking far better than a typical lamp. This will help with image brightness when we come to calibrate later, as well has help the best preset out of the box.

The main preset that is of interest to us here is the Colour 1 selection which Panasonic claim is pre-calibrated to the industry standard Rec.709 and D65 picture points for HD (and has the same co-ordinates for Pal SD). This should work in the same way that the THX and Pure presets do on other displays.

The results from the Colour 1 preset are very impressive and point to Panasonic taking great care to try and get close to the industry standards out of the box. This is important if we are going to watch Film and TV material as they were mastered, something every enthusiast will want to achieve. This preset, whilst not perfect and likely to vary between models and in the environments they are used in, are also fairly accurate to the standards. This points to hopefully achieving excellent and accurate images out of the box in most cases. Plus we only need one calibrated preset to watch all our material as it's meant to be seen without having to fiddle with controls when switching sources.

Panasonic PT-AE4000
Panasonic PT-AE4000

Looking at the Greyscale first, we can see that while green is high, most of the points have less than 5% errors in tracking and dE errors are almost below 3 across the scale. Gamma also performs in an acceptable manner with the top end of the curve being somewhat off, but the rest trying to stay at the 2.2 point. Again moving to the CIE chart so we can see how well the colour points match up with the Rec.709 co-ordinates the results are not bad at all. While there are some errors in hue, saturation and luminance of the various points, nothing is so bad that image performance would be severely compromised. This preset from Panasonic is almost as good as a THX certified display for image accuracy and well done to them for listening to previous feedback on providing such a picture mode. All the other picture presets are nowhere near as accurate and if you want to watch films and TV as they should be seen, we would advise you to ignore those other picture modes.

Calibration

Moving to calibrating the PT-AE4000, I am struck that the majority of the controls we have to use on this projector really should be standard on their Plasma and LCD TVs, but that’s another conversation entirely.

The one area that doesn’t quite do what it should is the Colour Management System. I have spoken with Panasonic about this and hopefully next year's projectors will fix the issue. The problem is with the two box approach I mentioned earlier in the review with the new RGBCYM options. When you select a colour point to adjust the projector gives you two boxes, the left is the starting point of the colour and the right hand one is the adjusted colour. Both of these boxes and the colours in them are produced by the projector. It is possible to place the calibration meter on the right hand square and get this colour correct on the CIE chart. However, when you then feed that same colour to the projector using a calibrated pattern generator, it is not correct on the CIE chart. This means that the box colour is not representative of the source colour.

However, there is a workaround to this issue and after double checking at a recent meeting with the engineers that any changes are globally applied to source colours, I used this method: I displayed a source colour window as normal from my Sencore pattern generator and ignored the small boxes. Instead I moved whatever control I was adjusting (Hue, Saturation or Luminance) then saved the change which applied it to the source window. This was then measured to make sure it was correct. I did this for all the primary and secondary points and then checked that the CMS saved points did not introduce any issues at 50ire or 100ire (I calibrated using 75ire windows). I also checked for any banding issues or linear colour issues. Thankfully, after many hours working on this aspect I was happy with the results I obtained and that they were accurate and had no issues.

The Greyscale calibration was a far easier task and using the new Gamma Editor to tidy up the curve at 2.2 meant we achieved some very good results indeed.

Panasonic PT-AE4000
Panasonic PT-AE4000

As you can see, starting with the Greyscale and Gamma results everything came together nicely to hit the points we wanted to achieve and in the end the PT-AE4000 offers a reference level result here. And moving to the CIE chart (after all that hard work and effort) the results again are extremely good. Indeed, the results here can also be classed as reference level with errors well controlled and each of the colour points as correct as possible. So overall, it’s a reference level result in those two fields of the Panasonic and we will see just how good the resulting image looks below.

Now, if only Panasonic’s Plasma and LCD TVs had this kind of flexibility!

Video Processing

Moving to our now standard video processing tests for standard definition and HD material the PT-AE4000 continued to produce the goods. Standard definition cadences tests were passed and deinterlacing and scaling tests, such as jaggies also produced excellent results. And moving to 24fps material was also a pass with the PT-AE4000 playing back this material without any obvious induced judder or detail loss.

Frame Creation

I have already offered a full explanation of how the PT-AE4000 produces its frame interpolation, so how does it look? Well where the JVC last week produced some severe artefacts with 24fps material, this was what I checked first here on the Panasonic. In Mode 1 things don’t appear to look forced and there are no artefacts on show for the majority of what we viewed on both video and film. Film material did look slightly odd and not very cinematic, but video material like ‘Earth’ didn’t appear to be suffering from anything obvious with the image looking quite detailed. Mode 2 was a little more severe and ruined the look of the film material with overly smooth and fast looking motion. Video material, again, was ok and there was no sign of any artefacts being introduced very often.

However, Mode 3 with film material playing was hilarious, and not in a good way. The results on live action movie classics makes the image look like it was filmed for a ‘soap opera’ on a digital video camera (albeit with expensive looking lighting). Some might like this kind of thing, but for far more it will be switched off as it ruins the filmic look and changes the feel of a movie. There were a few more artefacts visible in fast moving scenes with Mode 3 but nothing that would spoil things more than the sped up look on film material. Video based material didn’t look nearly as bad, so I guess it’s a case of have a play and see what you personally think. For me, being the purist I am, it was switched off on all film material.

Picture Performance

Using the preset Colour 1 with just the front panel controls set for the room, screen and source, the PT-AE4000 offers a very impressive image which looks extremely natural and very accurate. The black levels are an improvement over the outgoing projector without the need for the dynamic iris to be called upon. Dynamic range is also very good with a nice depth to the image and plenty of shadow detail on show. The PT-AE4000 is not in the same price point as our new reference projector (JVC HD950), but it offers a very capable image that while falling ultimately short of the pure fidelity and deep blacks of the JVC, it does so by producing an image that looks more expensive than its asking price.

Moving to our calibrated settings adds in a slight improvement again to finer shadow detailing on faces with a natural skin tone. In both modes colour look natural and realistic with a performance that matches the mastered material. The Panasonic is going to be up against some tough competition in its price point, but it will compete with strong image quality and a picture that looks very cinematic (with frame creation off) yet which is very detailed. Image brightness is one of this projectors strong points with its new bulb technology, so it will perform quite well in rooms that cannot be fully light controlled. Overall the image looks very good in terms of colour and detail with a stronger black level than last year and a very good depth to the image when required. It doesn’t, however, quite compete with the best in class for absolute contrast and black levels, but it's not far away.

Verdict

9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

Pros

  • Good black levels
  • Good dynamic range
  • Excellent lens memory function
  • Excellent greyscale and colour performance out of the box in Colour 1 preset
  • Reference level colour and greyscale results when professionally calibrated
  • Good range of calibration tools including the Gamma tool
  • East set up and well built
  • New Red Rich lamp offers improved calibrated brightness

Cons

  • CMS system needs to be redesigned do you are not forced to use a workaround when professionally calibrating
  • Lens Function control needs to be on the remote control, a 16:9 and 2.35:1 button please
  • Lens shift controls are a little weak, these should be motorised in future

Panasonic PT-AE4000 LCD Projector Review

With its exclusive lens functions for cinemascope fans, along with an excellent calibrated performance combined with very decent black levels and image contrast, the PT-AE4000 offers exceptionally good images at its price point.

There are a few niggles here and there, but overall I am struggling to find anything that I would describe as a major issue. Sure the dynamic range and black levels lack what is available with the best out there, but at its price and market position there is much to like with the Panasonic, which offers a strong performance with a few nice touches thrown in. Highly recommended.

Highly Recommended

Pros

  • Good black levels
  • Good dynamic range
  • Excellent lens memory function
  • Excellent greyscale and colour performance out of the box in Colour 1 preset
  • Reference level colour and greyscale results when professionally calibrated
  • Good range of calibration tools including the Gamma tool
  • East set up and well built
  • New Red Rich lamp offers improved calibrated brightness
Cons
  • CMS system needs to be redesigned do you are not forced to use a workaround when professionally calibrating
  • Lens Function control needs to be on the remote control, a 16:9 and 2.35:1 button please
  • Lens shift controls are a little weak, these should be motorised in future

Scores

Contrast/Dynamic Range/Black levels

.
.
.
7

Colour Accuracy

.
9

Greyscale Accuracy

.
9

Image Uniformity

.
.
8

Video Processing

.
9

2D Picture Quality

.
.
8

Features

.
9

Ease Of Use

.
9

Build Quality

.
.
8

Value For Money

.
9

Verdict

.
9
9
AVForumsSCORE
OUT OF
10

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