Panasonic entered the home theatre projector market in 2001. But the company already had decades of experience in the business projector world, beginning with CRTs in 1975 and later moving into its current mix of LCDs and DLPs. All of the company’s home theatre designs have used LCD imaging chips, however, and the PT-AE8000 is the latest link in a long chain dating back to that 2001 model, the PT-AE100.
Around the Block
The PT-AE8000U is average sized for a home theatre projector. The case is well sealed, with no obvious light leakage from its intake and exhaust ports. The fan noise is low in the Eco lamp mode but more audible (though not distracting) in the Normal (high) lamp setting I used for all of my tests and viewing.
On a 100-inch-diagonal (87-inch-wide), 16:9 screen, the Panasonic’s minimum and maximum throw distances are 117 and 236 inches. The lens has motorized zoom and focus, with six available memories for different settings. But the lens shift is manual. When you alter the zoom setting, the centre of the picture shifts vertically and must be manually readjusted. This makes the lens memories less than useful for their two most obvious applications: to accommodate a 2.35:1 screen for a constant-height setup without the need for an anamorphic lens, and for use with two different screens (such as one for 2D and a separate, higher gain model for 3D).
The projector has seven picture modes, but none of them was particularly accurate out of the box—not even the one tantalizingly labeled REC709. There are also 13 colour temperature settings, together with separate red, green, and blue high-level (Contrast) and low-level (Brightness) controls for further fine-tuning the white balance. The sharpness control can be used in either its Simple (overall) or Advanced (both horizontal and vertical adjustments) mode.
There’s a dynamic iris to enhance the contrast ratio, plus a full colour management system (CMS). The CMS Cursor mode lets you select a portion of the image and tweak its colour by eye. We don’t recommend this; the separate RGBCMY mode is the best choice for a traditional calibration.
There are eight Advanced Gamma settings that can be used as is or customized at 15 steps across the brightness range. The adjustments may be made in white alone (the overall gamma) or also, if desired, in red, green, and blue gamma. There’s also a Simple gamma option that offers adjustment of the (white) gamma at Low, Mid, and High brightness.
Playing randomly with the Colour Temperature, Colour Management, and Gamma controls will do little good if you lack the proper measuring tools and the skill to use them. Re- member the old story about the chances of 1,000 chimps pound- ing on 1,000 keyboards for 1,000 years and replicating the complete works of Shakespeare? You’ll have about the same odds of coming up with a well-calibrated picture. But you can’t damage anything by fiddling with these adjustments, and they’re easy to reset.
The projector also has a unique Waveform Monitor said to offer an accurate means of setting the luminance (brightness) level. And there’s a split-screen adjustment to highlight a particular area of the picture you’re trying to alter. I didn’t find either of these necessary and didn’t use them, but some users might.
Panasonic’s Frame Creation feature is designed to reduce motion blur. It’s usable in both 2D and 3D, but in 3D only on 1080p/24 sources or interlaced sources employing 3:2 pulldown (that is, film-based material). In 2D, with Frame Creation off and a 1080p/24 source, the projector refreshes its image at 196 hertz.
In all other situations, Frame Creation on or off, the refresh rate is 240 Hz in 2D and 480 Hz (240 Hz for each eye) in 3D. The extra frames required to reach these refresh rates are produced either by interpolation with Frame Creation on (or a combination of interpolation and repetition) or simply by repetition with it off.
Like all interpolation features, Frame Creation results in glassysmooth, slick motion, even in its lowest setting (Mode 1). I hate what this does to the look of film-based material (it’s often called the soap opera effect), and apart from checking it out, I left it off.
There are multiple memories for many of the previously mentioned settings, and several different setups can be saved in the projector’s multiple Profiles. If you go the full calibration route, your friendly neighborhood calibrator will likely save a limited number of Profiles to avoid giving you a confusing array of options. I’d recommend, at minimum, separate Profiles for 2D and 3D.
The 3D transmitter is built into the projector, but an outboard transmitter is also available to cover a wider seating area, if needed. The 3D menu offers the usual range of controls, including a 2D-to-3D conversion mode (no more effective than others we’ve seen) and a 3D Eyewear Brightness adjustment.
The Panasonic’s video processing was good, though it stumbled with 2:2 pulldown in either HD or SD—a fairly common failure. There was also some discoloration on the highest-level luminance (luma) resolution test burst. This is common to many LCD and LCOS projectors. It also showed up in the projector’s otherwise pristine performance on a pixel phase (1:1, input to output pixel perfect) test pattern but was never visible on real program material.
The PT-AE8000 produced watchable results out of the box (Cinema 2 picture mode, the colour temperature control on –2, with user adjustment of the other basic control settings), but I still strongly recommend a good calibration. Dialing in a decent grey scale with the right tools in the Cinema 2 picture mode was relatively straightforward. But mixing and matching this with the colour management system and all the custom gamma adjustments took me down more blind alleys than I care to recall.
The projector’s out-of-box colour gamut was far from correct, with significant oversaturation in green, yellow, and red. I can’t say this looked bad—manufacturers often deviate from industry gamut standards to make colours pop. But oversaturated colours don’t accurately reproduce the source. The CMS produced definite improvements, but the three controls provided per colour (Colour, Tint, Brightness) were highly interactive and required much trial and error to get right. I never achieved what I thought were fully satisfactory results for red, magenta, or blue, but corrections of green, yellow, and cyan helped put things on the right track.
Panasonic’s custom gamma feature received a standing ovation from my geeky alter ego, but my inner pragmatist found it too clever by half. It takes almost six pages in the (full) owner’s manual to explain, and it took me many hours to scope out. I finally decided that the factory Advanced3 setting worked as well or better for me than any of my tedious attempts to go the custom route. It looked far from perfect on the meter (particularly with the dynamic iris on—these devices juggle with gamma by design to produce a visually acceptable compromise). But none of my custom attempts measured significantly better or produced a better subjective result.
I did use the dynamic iris for all of my viewing and was never conscious of its operation. It produced no pumping or other visible artefacts. With a full black image, the corners of the screen were a little greyer than the near-black centre, but not enough to be bothersome. The iris didn’t appear to drop the black level all that much, but it did punch up the highlights in dark scenes and enhanced the subjective contrast. The projector’s black level and shadow detail weren’t the best we’ve measured, but they were visually satisfying, particularly for a budget projector.
At roughly 20 foot-lamberts on a 96-inch-wide Stewart StudioTek 130 screen (gain 1.3), the Panasonic produced a bright, punchy 2D picture with brightness to spare in its Normal (high) lamp setting. The screen I used is actually 118 inches wide, so at one point in my evaluation, I zoomed up the image to fill the entire screen. The brightness dropped by just under 24 percent, but there was enough spare gain left in the projector that I could increase the contrast setting and restore much of the loss—at least in 2D.
The Panasonic’s images were compelling at either size, but I did most of my watching at the 96-inch width, judging this to be closer to the size most buyers of a projector at this price will likely use. In its 2D form, The Avengers looked punchy and surprisingly three-dimensional, with rich colour, excellent resolution, good blacks, and respectable shadow detail.
Mirror Mirror may be the oddest take ever on the Snow White story, but there was no doubt about the projector’s ability to present it convincingly. This movie’s colour scheme is clearly sepia toned, but within that framework, its colours were vibrant. Small details were also impressively rendered, including the pores on Julia Roberts’ face, the stubble on Nathan Lane’s cheeks, and every crease in the elaborate costumes.
John Woo’s beautifully photographed and (some might say) excessively complex and overlong, two-part Chinese historical drama Red Cliff also came across spectacularly well. While this film’s colours aren’t brilliant, they’re warm and rich. The images were sharp, though with more film grain than on Mirror Mirror. Red Cliff was shot on film in Super 35, Mirror Mirror on 24-fps digital video, and the different looks of the two processes were clearly visible on the Panasonic.
There was, however, a small issue with white uniformity. With a full-white-field test pattern, the left and bottom of the screen had a subtle magenta tint in comparison with the rest of the picture. I also have a test disc with a variety of real images, one of which shows a mostly white table setting—plates, cups, napkin, etc. There was no mistaking the colour shift on that source, but it was impossible to spot on most normal images.
I started off my 3D adventures in the 2D calibration settings, but the image was too dim, particularly on dark scenes. I next tried switching to the Dynamic mode. While it offered a reasonably bright image, it also looked inconsistent from scene to scene and ultimately proved unsatisfactory.
I soon returned to the Cinema 2 picture mode but modified it as needed for 3D, mainly by increasing the contrast setting further than is technically optimum. I was able to achieve a reasonable white balance up to about 70 percent of peak white. As was the case in 2D, the dynamic iris looked better than it measured.
But the peak brightness in this 3D setup was less than 20 percent of the peak brightness in 2D, even with everything cranked well beyond the levels authorized in the calibrator’s catechism. The colours were a little pale but believable. Dark scenes—the night scenes in Avatar, the opening sequences in The Avengers, and more—looked dim enough to be happening in a real night environment. But 3D shadow detail was middling at best. The 3D effects, however, were good. I did see some ghosting on title lettering against a dark background and on some familiar scenes prone to it, but nothing I couldn’t live with.
The Panasonic is an impressive 2D projector with a load of useful adjustments. With its bright, bold picture, fine detail, good contrast and black level, and the ability to do all of this on a more than comfortably large screen, it offers impressive performance. The white uniformity issue may bother some perfectionists, but it was subtle and, on most material, invisible.
The Panasonic presented a bright, bold, and finely detailed 2D picture that can fill a more than comfortably large screen. Once calibrated, I definitely enjoyed my time watching it. But its white uniformity issue, while hard to spot on most program material, may well bother perfectionists. That, along with its acceptable but below-average contrast ratio for a projector in this price range with a dynamic iris, is the primary concern that keeps it from earning our Top Pick designation.
Then there’s the 3D brightness issue. To be fair, most relatively affordable home theatre 3D projectors have serious trouble with 3D brightness, and the PT-AE8000U is no exception. A higher-gain and/or smaller screen will help, but at some sacrifice in 2D performance.
Still, if most of your 3D source material is brightly lit (that’s true of most animated features but less so of live action) and 3D is more of an occasional event in your home than a daily feast, the Panasonic’s well-defined, deeply rendered 3D images just might get the job done.