Not long ago, entry into the world of LCD front projection came with a very hefty price tag, and picture quality was often less than awe-inspiring. Recently however, thanks to companies like Panasonic and Sanyo, there has been a mini-revolution in the LCD market, with prices tumbling and picture quality soaring. My first foray into the world of LCD front projection was the PT-AE100 a mere 14 months ago. At the time, the AE100 offered excellent picture quality through a set of 858x484 16:9 LCD panels at a very modest price point. Since my original purchase Panasonic has moved two generations beyond the AE100, and the latest addition to its stable is the PT-AE500U (I will be reviewing the PT-AE500E, which includes all features found on the US model and a 21-pin SCART RGB peritel euroconnector for the European market) which can be found online for less than $2000. Features found on the PT-AE500E include:
[*]Three 0.7” 1280x720 LCD panels (RGB)[*]DVI-D input[*]1300:1 contrast ratio[*]5000 hour 130W UHM bulb[/i][*]Quiet 27dB fan[*]Component/*SCART (21-pin RGB)/D-SUB (15-pin RGB)/S-Video/composite inputs[*]12 volt screen trigger[*]Smooth Screen technology[*]Digital keystone correction[*]Digital Cinema Reality de-interlacing
(* Not found on US model PT-AE500U)
The PT-AE500 is a High Definition compatible model; a fact that it displays proudly on its front fascia. The projector's LCD panels (made by Epson) are widescreen with a resolution of 1280x720 pixels, matching the resolution of the 720p HD format. 1080i is accepted through the component, RGB D-SUB and DVI-D inputs, but scaled to 720p (1280x720).
480i/p (NTSC) and 576i/p (PAL/SECAM) signals can also be displayed, allowing users to import PAL DVDs from Europe and Australia, for example, and play them at their native resolution (DVD player allowing). The AE500's inputs include the above-mentioned DVI-D input, (PC) D-SUB RGB, RCA component inputs, S-Video and composite in descending order of quality, although I would recommend using only the component or DVI inputs (or RGB D-SUB for those with HTPCs).
For the purposes of this review I fed the projector's component and DVI inputs from a Sony DVP-NS900V and Momitsu DV880, respectively, using Straightwire cables and a generic DVI-D cable. All viewing was performed in a light-controlled room with a 92” horizontal image projected onto a finely sanded light grey wall and black cloth matting. The projector was calibrated with Video Essentials and the bulb set to low power.
Upon opening the AE500's box I was met by the projector, a thick user manual, one remote control with batteries, a plastic carrying bag, a sturdy detachable power cable and a three-metre length of video cable (which quickly found itself in the closet with the assortment of other cable refugees provided with equipment over the years). The projector was firmly secured in the box and wrapped in plastic and foam.
Pulled from the box, the AE500 is a light 3kg (about 6-1/2 lb) and quite small: 11 inches wide by 3 inches high by 11 inches deep. That's approximately the same width and height as the AE100 but with about two inches of added depth. The AE100's front panel was highly reflective plastic, but reassuringly the AE500's front panel appears to be metal (or at least metalised plastic) and the projector feels solid and well built.
Initial setup was simple, the projector simply sliding into the position previously held by my AE100 (front/table). I was up and running in less than five minutes. Both horizontal and vertical keystone correction are available for those who find it necessary to place the projector at an awkward angle to the projection surface. Unfortunately I found that using this feature softens the picture so I recommend avoiding it if at all possible. If you’re likely to be installing the projector off-centre, the Sanyo PLV-Z2 may be a better choice with its lens shift feature. Luckily I could place the projector face-on to the screen so avoided this problem entirely.
Image focus is adjusted using a ring around the short–throw lens (allowing an 80" image from 2.5 metres away) and the picture may be zoomed manually to between 1 and 1.2 times magnification. The interior lens housing is threaded, and accepted my 55mm Marumi F-DL lens without any problem (I can finally say goodbye to securing the lens in place with Sellotape!). The outer lens ring is also threaded, although exactly what size filter it will accept I'm uncertain of; perhaps 67mm.
The fan exhaust is on the rear panel, so the projector must be given at least six inches of breathing room at the rear; cabinet installation appears to be out. The air filter is easily accessed from the side of the projector and slides down and out for easy cleaning. The projector is controlled from five conventional buttons and a four-way arrow cursor on the top panel of the unit, or through a small backlit remote control, which I found had a very good range. The main power button is located on the right-hand side of the projector (unlike the AE100, causing a few moments of confusion… erm, for a friend ).
After spending a few minutes calibrating the image with Video Essentials I settled down with a nice chilled bottle of RC Cola for some serious viewing. As always the sheer scale of the image was the first thing that struck me; nothing can match a truly huge image for home theatre tingles down your spine. Right off the bat I noticed an absence of visible pixel structure (the notorious 'screen door' effect, something that the AE100 was notably affected by) and it's clear that Panasonic have made enormous strides in this area using their 'Smooth Screen' system. If you're at all worried about the LCD curse of viewing your movies through 'chicken wire', don't be. Screen door is not a problem here, even when viewing from a distance of 1 x screen width (although my final viewing position was at a distance of 1.3 times screen width).
The projector's contrast ratio of 1300:1 was also immediately evident, and although blacks are still short of truly black, shadow detail is more than sufficient to provide a very pleasing picture. Colours are outstanding: vibrant and natural looking. But a word of caution, if the colour level is set too high images can easily take on a fluorescent appearance. Overall, the picture produced was outstanding, with a very smooth, razor-sharp image. As with all LCD projectors, geometry was perfect, one of the great advantages of this technology. Watching the R4 anamorphically-enhanced DVD of True Lies the opening title's edges were flat as a ruler, something I've never seen on a CRT television. Switching to X2, Blade, Star Wars: Episode 2 and Finding Nemo among others, the picture was often breathtaking. More than once I found myself caught up by the movie rather than tracking the projector: always a good sign.
Rated at a medium 850 ANSI lumens, the AE500 was more than bright enough in a light controlled room, and the picture was still perfectly viewable (if washed out) with artificial lighting. I viewed the projector with the bulb set to 'low' as this improved the black level, but many may prefer the brighter image of the 'high' setting. Bear in mind that bulb life will be reduced to a maximum of 2000 hours at this setting, though. In its low power setting the bulb will last up to an amazing 5000 hours: that's the equivalent of watching two movies a day every day for over four and a half years!
The fan is worthy of special note as it is impressively quiet. From three feet away I could barely hear it functioning when playing a movie at normal listening levels. It is pitched much lower than the fan on my AE100, making it altogether less intrusive.
Like all LCD projectors, the AE500 de-interlaces all incoming interlaced video. The quality of this de-interlacing, using the 'Digital Cinema Reality' system, is very good and a huge step up from the AE100. Using a non-progressive source, only occasionally did scan-lines become visible, and the picture was very smooth and generally free of stair stepping. Only once did the projector seem to trip up, playing Star Trek Nemesis. It appeared to drop permanently into video mode, producing a noticeably soft image. If you don't own a progressive scan DVD player, you really aren’t losing out. Switching between progressive and interlaced outputs, I was unable to detect any significant difference (in fact, any at all most of the time).
Now for the downside. The AE100 produced some mild ringing (appearing like edge enhancement) when fed through its component inputs, and while this is reduced with the AE500 it can still be seen; this effect is eliminated by using the DVI or D-SUB inputs, however (I didn't have a SCART cable handy so couldn't check this connection). Mild vertical banding can also be seen sporadically in low-light grey or off-white scenes; this was also a problem with the AE100 and the (few) other LCD projectors I have seen, but is invisible most of the time. This banding is visible when using all connections, including the DVI and RGB inputs. Like the AE100, the AE500's de-interlacing is also a little less sure-footed when being fed PAL software, and seems to randomly switch between de-interlacing modes when dealing with interlaced PAL (this is best illustrated with films' closing credits, but isn't noticeable during normal movie viewing). This may be a result of the incorrect flagging of most PAL DVDs; I have yet to see a film-based PAL DVD correctly flagged as such. For those in PAL-land, I wouldn't use this projector without a decent progressive scan DVD player that doesn't rely on flags (try www.hometheaterhifi.com, the gold standard for progressive scan DVD player reviews).
Switching from component to the DVI input, picture quality improves significantly. This digital connection allows the projector to show its true colours. Sharpness, contrast and colour are all improved (the latter most dramatically). Using DVI, the ringing of the component video connection vanishes and the image seems 'smoother' and more natural. Short of a truly digital connection (such as DLP) this is the shortest chain from the DVD to the screen.
DVI-equipped players are now available from Marantz, Pioneer, Denon, Samsung, LG and others (HDMI players can be connected using an HDMI to DVI adapter cables) as well as DVI video cards for those equipped with HTPCs (But note that the AE500's DVI port is DVI-D only, so check the compatibility of your video cables: the analogue pins on a standard DVI-I cable will prevent it from plugging into the AE500). Anyone wanting to get the most from their AE500 should undoubtedly be using the DVI input.
Using the Momitsu DVD player to scale DVD's native 480i image to 720p caused no problems and the projector happily recognised the 720p signal from the V880 (calling it '750P' for some unknown reason rather than the expected '720P'). The images I got with the combination of the Momitsu and AE500 using DVI were nothing short of outstanding: I genuinely had no idea DVD could look so good, with well-mastered DVDs looking more like film than video.
The projector's user adjustments include the usual sharpness, colour (not available when using DVI), tint, brightness, contrast and colour temperature controls but unusually also include three gamma levels and individual control over red, green and blue brightness and contrast levels. Once adjusted, up to three custom settings can be stored in the projector's memory (for each input), and the remote allows direct one-touch access to these memory settings. Nice! Speaking of the remote, although it's a small unit an indent allows it to sit very comfortably in your hand and all buttons can be reached with one thumb; this remote is a big step up from the credit card remotes or yore (and hopefully I will no longer be constantly losing the remote down the side of my chair!). Video input, keystone correction, video aspect ratio, picture mode and user video memory are all directly accessible from the remote, with internal functions using a traditional menu button and arrow keys.
The AE500 is a tremendous improvement over my old AE100, with an outstanding feature set and groundbreaking picture quality. As with all other LCD projectors, black level isn’t perfect, but the AE500's contrast level is currently cutting edge and very good indeed for an LCD. Overall picture quality is excellent and the image thrown on the wall very cinematic. For the price this is an indisputable bargain. If you're in the market for a front projector around the $2000 mark (or even a conventional RPTV) then you should definitely take a cruise down to your local retailer to check the AE500 out.
Update: Momitsu DV880 Custom Resolution
Instructions for setting a Momitsu custom resolution for the AE500:
If the following procedure doesn't work, you probably don't have the latest DV880 firmware version (only recent versions allow custom resolutions). The most recent firmware version, and instructions for upgrading your player, can be downloaded from http://www.manowa.co...layer880FW.html.
The following procedure assumes your Momitsu DV880 and AE500 are already successfully connected with a DVI-D cable.
1) With the DVD player stopped (blue default screen showing), press the setup button on the V880's remote control to access the setup menu.
2) Scroll to the video output option screen and press the right arrow key on your remote to select any of the available DVI resolutions.
3) With a DVI resolution selected (any will do) point the remote control directly at the player and press the following keys: 9, 7, 1, 3.
4) In the custom resolution menu that appears, use the remote control's cursor keys to navigate and the number keys to enter new values. Enter the following values:
5) Save the custom setting (instructions for saving or abandoning without saving are shown at the bottom of the 880's custom resolutions setup screen). The custom resolution menu will now close and 'Custom DVI' will display in the top right-hand corner of the screen.
6) Use the AE500 remote to switch to another video input (video or cmpnt) and then switch back to the DVI input (by pressing the 'PC' button). This will re-sync the projector to the new resolution.
7) Press menu on the AE500's remote and select 'Picture'. The menu should display 'WIDE720' as the current signal mode. Congratulations, your Momitsu and AE500 are now mapped for 1:1 resolution at 60Hz. Enjoy!