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Panasonic PT-AE700U Three-Panel 16:9 LCD Digital Projector

Part I

February, 2005

Steve Smallcombe

 

Specifications:

● Resolution: WXGA (1280 x 720)
● Brightness: 1,000 ANSI Lumens;
    Lamp Life - 3,000 Hours
● Contrast: 2,000:1 with Dynamic Iris
● Display Type: Three 0.7" PolySi LCD;
    16:9
● Lens: 2:1 Zoom Lens; Manual
    Zoom and Focus
● Lens Shift: Manual Optical Lens Shift
    (Vertical and Horizontal)
● Keystone Correction: Digital
● Inputs: HDMI with HDCP (High
    Bandwidth Digital Content
    Protection) x 1, Computer RGB x 1,
    Component RCA (Y,Pb,Pr) x 1, S-
    Video (Mini DIN 4-pin (Y/C)) x 1,
    Composite Video (Single RCA) x 1
● Size: 3.7" H x 13.3" W x 10.6" D
● Weight: 7.9 Pounds
● MSRP: $2,999 ($2,199 from ProjectorPeople)

Panasonic

www.panasonic.com

Introduction

The PT-AE700U is the third 16x9 LCD-based projector from Panasonic that we have reviewed in the last 18 months or so. We really liked the PT-L300U, even though it had a fairly modest resolution of 960 x 540 and one might have thought that a lower resolution LCD-based projector would have a significant Screen Door Effect (SDE). But it didn’t; it had a nice smooth image, presumably due to Panasonic's use of Smooth Screen Technology (SST). The measured contrast ratio on the 300U was 316:1.

Then came the PT-L500U, which we first saw at CEDIA (2003), where Panasonic described the double refractive technology of the crystal device used in the 500U’s Smooth Screen Technology. The pixel structure on the screen at CEDIA looked like each pixel had been split into four sub-pixels and thus the apparent grid was essentially four times smaller.

The PT-L500U was considerably better than the 300U with 720p (1280x720) resolution, and even smoother image, and what Panasonic called Intelligent Lamp Modulation where the lamp intensity is modulated in response to changing scenes in an attempt to improve black levels and effective contrast ratios. We measured a contrast ratio for the PT-L500U of 500:1 with the lamp modulation active.

The PT-AE700U

The PT-AE700U is an LCD-based 720p projector that specifies a contrast ratio of 2000:1 and of course, Smooth Screen Technology. This contrast ratio is achieved with the help of a “Dynamic Iris optical system that constantly adjusts the brightness and gamma characteristics in real time”. Thus the 2000:1 contrast ratio should more likely be referred to as a “Dynamic Contrast Ratio”, as the dynamic iris enhances the raw contrast ratio (the frame contrast) of the LCD panels.

All three of these projectors have been around $2000 in price, and the 700U currently is available for ~$2,199.

It was not too long ago that LCD-based projectors seemed on their way out – they just couldn’t compete with DLP in terms of contrast ratio and SDE. What LCD projectors could offer was rich saturated colors and lack of the “rainbow effect” that bothers some people watching single-chip DLP projectors as color is created by use of a spinning color wheel.

So, DLP advocates would brag about contrast ratios and the smooth image achieved with the better fill factor associated with DLP, while LCD aficionados would put the emphasis on color saturation and lack of rainbow effect. (LCD-based projectors have three LCD chips, and all colors are always present at all times on the screen.) Of course, both sides have their points, and we really want it all.

So, now we come to the PT-AE700U with SST that dramatically reduces SDE and has a specified contrast ratio of 2000:1, definitely well into DLP’s contrast ratio territory. Is the PT-AE700U a projector that has it all, and for only $2,199? Sound too good to be true? Read on.

Inputs and Connectivity

The back of the PT-AE700U looks simple enough, but it has one of everything you are likely to need, including HDMI, component, composite, S-Video, and RGB (VGA) inputs.

One of the very convenient features of the PT-AE700U is the lens and its various control functions. Most HT projectors come with a zoom lens but with a fairly limited zoom range. The PT-AE700U has an optical zoom range of 2x essentially allowing me to place the projector where my reference short throw Sony 11HT projector is located, above the seating area, or on a shelf on the back wall.

The PT-AE700U also has a manual lens shift controlled by a joystick on the front of the projector, that allows the projector to be offset both vertically and/or horizontally from dead center at the top or bottom of the screen. The only catch is that the lens shift ranges are coupled and if you are at one extreme of one axis, shift along the other axis is more restricted. In any case, such flexibility of the zoom and lens shift made setup in my room a snap. The cooling fan, rated at 26 dB (low mode) was also one of the quietest fans I have ever heard, or should I say not heard. As is typically the case, in the high fan mode, it was too noisy for HT usage, and I only tested that mode briefly.

Controls

The lighted remote control for the PT-AE700U is simple, but more than adequate for the job at hand, with thankfully the normal arrangement of menu navigation and enter buttons.

The only unusual aspect of the remote is the “Color Management” button that activated a feature that I did not really feel the need to explore, as once grayscale tracking and the normal color adjustments were calibrated, the colors looked very good without further “management”.

The user menu system is quite sufficient, with the main menu allowing adjustment keystone and access to the other menus. The Picture menu allows control of brightness, contrast, sharpness, color, and tint, as well as color temperature, control of the dynamic iris, and access to the Advanced menu. The Picture menu also allows selection of several Picture Modes.

The Picture Mode, also a toggle on the remote, can be set to Normal, Dynamic, Cinema 1, Cinema 2, Video, and Natural. The manual suggests that Natural will reproduce the color from the image faithfully from the image source.

The Advanced contained gain and bias controls for the three primary colors, labeled Contrast and Brightness, as well as gamma controls for tweaking the gamma tracking in three ranges low, medium, and high. It is very nice to see such a complete set of controls in the user menu, and fortunately this is becoming the norm for HT projectors, and no longer the exception.

The Options menu allows access to the normal front/rear and desk/ceiling/ mounting options, the Lamp Mode, high and low, a separate fan mode for high altitude installations. The Cinema Reality control allows automatic or manual switching of film and video processing modes.

On the Bench

I used the Denon 1600 DVD player for viewing and calibration with the Avia test disk. I also watched HD and standard definition materials on my DISH 921 HD PVR. Most calibrations however, were performed using an Accupel HDG-3000 Component Video Calibration Generator, a device capable of generating video calibration test signals in a wide range of video formats, including 1920 x 1080.

I did not use or test the HDMI input, as I did not have a DVI-to-HDMI adaptor available, but having an HDMI or DVI input is essentially mandatory for any new projector I would even consider for purchase, as it is where digital projection technology is going, and HDMI is clearly replacing DVI as the digital interface standard.

User Level Adjustments

Based on my previous experiences with Panasonic projectors, I started my calibrations and viewing in the Natural picture mode, as a brief look at the Normal mode suggested that the picture was a bit extreme with oversaturated colors. I did return to the Normal mode later for a complete calibration.

Using the Natural picture mde, I found the default 0,0 values for color and tint were right on. A Brightness setting of –3 and +2 for Contrast were found to be the optimum values for those settings.

Measurements

When I evaluate a projector, I not only look at images, I measure the color balance of the projector at various light intensity levels and determine the quality of what is called Grayscale Tracking. The idea is that black, white, and all shades of gray, should have the correct ratio of the three primary colors used in video projection Red, Green, and Blue. You can read more about the testing method in my past projector reviews on Secrets, or at http://www.smartavtweaks.com.

Using a Color Temperature of 0, both my Gretag MacBeth Sol Source D65 reference light source and SMART suggested that the image was a bit strong on red and weak on green at IRE 70, as shown above. I used the Advanced menu to bring the colors into balance at IRE 70 and IRE 20 before proceeding further.

The graph above shows the color balance of the PT-AE700U as a function of IRE level using the corrected color balance at IRE 70. The PT-AE700U has excellent grayscale tracking over almost the entire IRE range, but with a shift to the blue at IRE 0 (black). Slightly blue blacks were also perceptible to the eye, although not a real problem. These measurements were done using the Accupel generator and with the Natural picture mode, Dynamic Iris off, and the lamp in the Low mode. Very similar results were obtained using the Avia test disk as a source for the IRE windows. The measured IRE 100/IRE 0 contrast ratio in this mode was 400:1.

In the Natural picture mode, an IRE 100 window measured 9.7 ftL at my 102” diagonal screen giving an ANSI lumens rating of 306. With the Lamp in the high mode, the light level at the screen rose to 11.3 ftL or 360 ANSI lumens. With the Dynamic Iris turned on, the reading at IRE 0 dropped a factor of 2, suggesting that in this mode the Dynamic Contrast ratio was approximately 800:1.

Clearly, all these measurements suggested performance well below specification, so I decided to explore other modes of operation. I had noticed earlier in my quick survey of the various picture modes, that the Normal mode seemed much brighter, but with overblown colors. Upon exploring the Normal mode further, I found that the color could be corrected by lowering the Color control to –9, and adjusting the Tint to +2. Brightness went to +8 and Contrast to –4.

In the Normal mode, grayscale tracking remained excellent, as can be seen in the graph above, but now the contrast ratio, climbed to 560:1 with the Dynamic Iris off, and the black level fell a factor of 3 when the iris control was activated, suggesting a Dynamic Contrast ratio of 1665:1. In the Normal picture mode, the light level at the screen was 22.8 ftL (IRE 100 full field) suggesting a light output from the projector of 720 ANSI lumens in the low lamp mode. If an IRE 100 window was displayed however, with the IRIS control on, the light level at the screen dropped by almost a factor of 2. This will be discussed in some detail below.

Go to Part II
 

 

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