Panasonic PT-AE900U LCD Projector
This may very well be one of the easiest reviews I've ever done. Within five minutes of watching HDTV through Panasonic's new PT-AE900U LCD projector, I was hooked. I fully expected, as the review process progressed, to have to play the standard "on the one hand; on the other" game we play with most mid- or entry-level projectors: On the one hand, this projector has nice detail; on the other, its color points aren't very accurate. On the one hand, this projector has a surprisingly good black level; on the other, it's so dim, even the LEDs on your A/V gear will wash out the picture. Happily, the other hand never presented itself here.
The PT-AE900U is the follow-up to the PT-AE700U that Geoffrey Morrison reviewed back in our March 2005 issue. That model received generally good marks but exhibited some of the shortcomings common to LCD projection technology. The new 900 projector retains many of its predecessor's positive attributes while improving, sometimes dramatically, on its few shortcomings.
As with the PT-AE700U, Panasonic has included ample adjustments to tailor the projector to your room and your viewing preferences. Physical adjustments include adjustable feet, a 2x optical zoom lens, and the same joystick-style manual lens shift that Morrison praised on the PT-AE700U. This joystick provides more precise movement of the image to center it on your screen. To further aid in the setup process, the menu system includes adjustments for keystone, horizontal/vertical lens position, overscan, and desk/ceiling and front/rear placement options.
As for image quality, you can choose between seven picture modes for both HDMI and component video. (I found Cinema1 to look the most accurate and produce the best black level.) And each mode has contrast, brightness, color, tint, sharpness, and incremental color-temperature adjustments available. Professional calibrators and ambitious videophiles will appreciate easy access to the advanced gamma and color management controls through the menu.
The remote is a keeper. It's not perfect, but at least it aspires to be useful beyond the setup process—something we can seldom say about the projector remotes. This backlit model is a universal remote that can control up to seven additional devices. It features a small LCD, plus basic volume, channel, and transport controls. While it lacks dedicated buttons for each input, it does give you three sets of source buttons—video, component, and HDMI/PC—so you can jump directly to the type of input you want.
Like the PT-AE700U, the 900 features one HDMI input, but Panasonic has added an extra component video input, so you can accommodate two component video sources directly without the need for an external switcher. Automatic aspect-ratio detection is aboard for 480i and 480p sources; 16:9 and H-FIT, which stretches 4:3 material across the screen, are the only aspect ratios available for HD sources.
The Numbers Game
These days, no manufacturer dare bring an LCD projector to the party without an automatic iris that adjusts gamma and light output in real time, according to what's being displayed on screen. The PT-AE700U was one of the first models we reviewed to have one. Now the PT-AE900U delivers on its full promise of improved blacks and contrast ratio.
No, numbers don't tell the whole story, especially the ones quoted by manufacturers. But they do come in handy when comparing two projectors that are measured in the same manner—as the AE700U and AE900U were in our lab. With the dynamic iris turned on, the 700's contrast ratio was just 711:1, with a high black level (0.019 foot-lamberts) and adequate light output for a front projector (13.5 ft-L). These numbers improve dramatically in the 900 model: The new contrast ratio is 2,174:1, and Panasonic has cut the black level in half (0.008 ft-L) while increasing the light output to 17.9 ft-L.
We obtained these numbers using the more accurate Cinema1 setting, which is intended for a dark room. Indeed, with the lights off, the image has excellent depth and richness, be it through the component video or HDMI input. The black level is just a hair higher than some other LCD projectors we've reviewed recently, and I occasionally noticed a lack of precise detail in dark areas (such as the black bars in the background of the "Cell Block Tango" scene in Chicago). Overall, though, I never felt as if I was being deprived of contrast in a dark room. And, thanks to better light output than many projectors we've seen, you can enjoy a watchable image with the lights on—without having to switch to a different, less-accurate picture mode.
Color and detail are also excellent. HDTV material looked sharp and vivid on my 60-inch screen. The PT-AE900U has excellent color decoders and a gray scale that tracks pretty closely to the 6500 Kelvin standard before calibration. After calibration, the numbers get a little better, but you don't have to calibrate this one if you don't want to. As for its color points, red and blue are close to SMPTE standards. Green is somewhat oversaturated, but at least it's oversaturated in the right direction, so greens still look correct. All of the colors are in proportion to one another, yielding a wonderfully balanced, saturated image.
Cinema Reality is Panasonic's name for 3:2 pulldown detection. Turn it on, and the projector picks up and holds the 3:2 sequence in our Video Essentials and HQV Benchmark test discs without issue. It ably maneuvered through my complex Gladiator and Bourne Identity test scenes without creating anything more than a bit of occasional shimmer. The projector also does a respectable job with video-based signals; it didn't rid my test DVD of all jaggies, but it performed solidly overall.
The PT-AE900U uses 10-bit digital processing and 10-bit gamma correction, which helps it to better render subtle transitions between whites and blacks. The light-to-dark ramp in Video Essentials' quantization test was impressively smooth—with only hints of banding throughout and, more importantly, no large jumps in the gray areas. In real video material, that translates into a smooth, clean image with almost no digital noise in grays and solid colors.
Speaking of noise, this projector doesn't generate much of it during operation, nor can you hear the dynamic iris perform its automatic adjustments. This makes tabletop placement a viable option.
Yep, there's a lot to like about the PT-AE900U, but versatility is undoubtedly its greatest asset. We've looked at several HD LCD projectors over the past year, some of which carry lower MSRPs than this one. However, all of those projectors came with some caveats, while the PT-AE900U is wonderfully caveat free. It's simply a great choice for someone looking for a well-rounded, midpriced projector.
• Great black level and light output
• Advanced color and gamma correction
• Resolution out to limit of the 1,280-by-720 panels