Monday, January 28, 2008

Panasonic AE1000U LCD Projector Calibration

The 1080p projector market is white-hot these days with several superb units priced at under $3000. Even one year ago, this was almost unheard of. Epson, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and the subject of today's article, Panasonic, all make models. The model I calibrated is the AE1000U. It has been recently replaced by the AE2000U. This unit uses a new LCD panel set and is slightly brighter. In fact, the 2000 uses the same panels as the new Epson HC1080UB. But I digress: The AE1000U has every possible calibration control available in the user menu. You have complete control over color primaries and secondaries, grayscale, and a neat 3-point gamma control. There is also a waveform monitor that makes setting black and white levels very easy. You can have the waveform on the screen while you navigate through the various menus and make your adjustments.

The AE1000U has 2 HDMI inputs as well as component, s-video and composite inputs. There is also an RS-232 port for control systems. There is no IR hookup but the receiver on the front of the unit is very sensitive. I had no trouble bouncing the remote off the screen to control the projector. My client had the projector ceiling mounted with about a 12-foot throw to a 100-inch Da-Lite fixed-frame screen. I measured the screen's gain at 1.1

First up was geometry. It's important to have the image perfectly positioned without visible distortion. There are horizontal and vertical lens shift controls for this purpose. There is also a 2x zoom for lots of flexibility in sizing and placement. Vertical shift range is one-half screen height above or below the screen. Using the extremes of the vertical shift will limit the horizontal shift. This is not an issue if you place the projector's center-mounted lens within a few inches of screen center. Once image geometry was set, the calibration was pretty much the same as a direct-view display. Black and white levels were set with pluge patterns and checked with the waveform monitor. I measured gamma before grayscale calibration and came up with a disappointing 1.71. After turning off the dynamic iris, it improved to 2.0. I was able to get it to 2.2 with the 3-point gamma control, which has sliders for high, mid and low. I only needed to lower the low control to get a perfect curve. Given this result, I left the iris off permanently.

Grayscale was no problem with the complete set of RGB gains and cuts available. Color decoding allows several approaches. You can adjust the primaries with the color management system. This involves displaying a pattern, a 75% color window works for me; then setting a target to adjust. You can tweak the color, tint and brightness of the primaries (or any other color for that matter) this way. After some very small adjustments to the color profile, I had a perfectly aligned decoder and primaries and secondaries were spot-on. At this point, I should talk about the different picture modes. The 2 to be concerned with are Cinema 1 and Color 1. Cinema 1 is claimed to be "Hollywood style colors" in the manual. It places a filter in the light path that darkens the image. It also appeared to me to introduce a slight yellow shift. Color 1 does not use the filter and is pretty much right on Rec 709, HD standard. Obviously, I left it on Color 1. The other modes are progessively less accurate.

When I was finished, I was able to save the settings in the first of the AE1000U's 8 memories. There are also 3 memories for the color profile should you wish to have multiple color gamuts available. My client's sources were an HD cable box and a Toshiba A20 HD-DVD player. The image simply leapt off the screen! Planet Earth in HD-DVD looked simply stunning. I cued up a scene where a colorfully-clad base jumper jumps into a giant cave shaft in the middle of the South American jungle. The blackness of the hole was very impressive. Any stigma LCD projectors might have had about black quality was not apparent with this model. In fact, I measured the minimum black level on a 0IRE field at .02fl. This is in the same range as any plasma I've measured. Max light output was 14fl, plenty bright for a totally dark room and a 10-foot seating distance.

I can't imagine a better projector for a small theater than this Panasonic. Other reviews I've read seem to bear this out. This projector is also the quietest I've ever worked on. You have to put your ear right up to it to hear the cooling fan. The color is very accurate, the gamma is perfect and dynamic range is very wide. At this point, I plan to add an AE2000U to my personal theater. For the same or less money than a quality 50-inch plasma TV, you can go front projection. I guess for me 92 is the new 50! Stay tuned for an article I'm preparing on my selection process for a projector and screen. There are many factors to consider when choosing the right equipment for your theater. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Importance of Seating in Home Theater Design

I recently got the recliners pictured below delivered for my mancave project. I ordered them from the Theater Seat Store. I can't say buying furniture without trying it out first is the smartest thing I've ever done but they looked just perfect in the photos on the vendor's website and sure enough, they are! All seating surfaces are leather and the padding has the ideal firmness. They recline quite far back as you can see and can still be set pretty close to the wall. The chairs are made by Vanguard HTS and are called Charlize.

One warning about Theater Seat Store. They are a good company and their prices are very reasonable. Their shipping method however was not clearly spelled out. They advertise free shipping and it was indeed free. The problem arose when Fedex Freight called to schedule the delivery. They informed me that it was curbside only. The driver would be alone and he would not bring the 2 immense boxes weighing about 150 pounds into my house. I had to arrange for a friend to come over and help me. They do offer a "white glove service" which costs 10% of the purchase price. For that fee, they will bring the furniture in and unpack it for you. If you buy from Theater Seat Store, just be sure to have some strong help available when your seats arrive.

Once the seats were in place, I spent some quality time sitting in them and envisioning the display area at the front of the room. I had planned to build a flexi-rack to accomodate all the electronics with the center channel speaker and plasma panel on top. I say "had" because after staring at the wall for awhile, I had a revelation: why not a projector? I had considered a projector a few months ago and dismissed the idea based on cost and thinking "do I really want to sit 10 feet from a 92-inch screen?" I found a white sheet and folded it so it would match the dimensions of a 92-inch, 16:9 screen (80" x 45"). I taped it up on the wall and had my wife join me for a look. After about 1 minute, she said "why can't we get a projector?" Honest, this really happened. This is a milestone in WAF (wife acceptance factor) history.

I do plan more detailed reports on the projection setup in the near future but for now, here is the updated gear list:

Panasonic AE2000U LCD projector
Carada 92" Brilliant White screen (1.4 gain)
Panasonic BD30 Blu-ray player (just arrived today in fact)
Oppo 980 DVD player
Lumagen Vision HDP video processor
Onkyo TX-SR805 surround receiver
Axiom Epic 60 surround speaker system

As you can see, the seating makes a real difference in how you perceive a viewing environment. Because of my experience, I recommend making chairs among the first purchases. I originally designed this room around a purpose: ultimate sound and light control to allow me to choose any display I wished. The seating really changed my vision from a viewing room into a screening room. Oh yes, the cost, I did mention that earlier. It seems that the sub-$3000 portion of the projector market is white-hot right now. Epson, Panasonic, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and Optoma all have superb units boasting full 1080p and excellent image quality. Thanks to the information at Projector, I chose the Panasonic. My choice of the Carada screen was based on quality for the money. The reviews on it were all exemplary and the value is the best in the business. You can read more about there products here.

I'd better end this article before I get too far off topic. My advice: choose your seating and get it in your theater before you commit to any display. You may find the chairs will tell you how the rest of the room should be done. Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pioneer Plasma 5010FD Calibration

Much has been written in praise of the current line of Pioneer plasmas called Kuro. These TVs are reputed to have contrast ratios and black levels comparable to CRTs. I can say after spending some quality time with a 5010FD that this reputation is well-earned. The 5010 is part of a line that includes 42 and 50-inch 720p panels and 50 and 60-inch 1080p panels. Each variant is available as an Elite model as well. The 5010 is the 50-inch 1080p, non-Elite version. The glass and video processing is the same across all the 1080p sets. The Elite TVs add more adjustments and more precise setup at the factory. They also have a different screen coating to improve contrast and ambient light rejection. They also add $1000 to the retail price!

My subject today is the calibration of a 5010FD. Sources were a satellite tuner and a Denon DVD player, both connected via HDMI. The client had made no adjustments prior to my visit so I was starting with an out-of-the-box TV. There are the usual picture modes but only Movie and User allow access to all adjustments. These are in a sub-menu called Pro Adjust. I started in Movie mode. All enhancements were turned off. I immediately found a lot of interaction between Brightness, Contrast and the 3 Gamma settings. I also discovered differences in grayscale and gamma between Movie and User modes. Staying with User mode, I optimized Brightness and Contrast and achieved the best Gamma with setting 1. After adjusting Color and Tint with my CA6X analyzer, I found the grayscale to be within a whisker of D65 without having adjusted any Gains or Cuts. These controls are available in service but they just weren't necessary in this case. I really took my time to maximize the overall contrast ratio. In the end, I achieved a perfect gamma of 2.2, a grayscale within 150k of D65 and an ANSI contrast ratio of 448:1. Some of the black squares in the pattern read below .005 foot-lamberts, the lower limit of my meter! 100 IRE measured 21.97 fL with a full field and 49.5 fL with a window. This is the highest contrast I've ever measured. This was with a fully-resolved Pluge pattern and nearly perfect color accuracy.

Moving on to the DVD player, I noticed a change in gamma when I copied my new settings to its input. I tried changing to the Movie mode and things greatly improved. Gamma was back at 2.2 and the grayscale was again within 150k of D65. The player was a Denon 1940, an excellent player in the $350 range. A few tweaks to the other controls to dial in the player and my job was done.

All in all, this was a very pleasurable calibration. This TV is extremely well-made and color accuracy is obviously a priority for Pioneer. I still believe it benefits from professional calibration (of course!). There are interactions between most of the controls and without the benefit of instruments and experience, it's easy to become lost. This is truly a high-end video display. Why not set it up for maximum performance? One side note: this is one of the few displays on the market that supports 24p input, displaying the signal at 72 Hz. This makes it a perfect display for hi-def disc players that output 1080p/24. A new Blu-ray player is the perfect match for this excellent TV. Pioneer has really raised the bar with the Kuro line.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Samsung BD-UP5000 Mini-Review

I got this player in from Crutchfield sooner than expected. Rumors had it shipping in mid-January but it showed up on December 19 while I was away. I finally had time to hook it up last weekend. I'm calling this a mini-review because I didn't test the player completely. I had no HD or Blu-ray discs on hand. I decided to do a thorough test using Avia Pro patterns and some familiar DVD content.

This is a dual-format optical disc player. It supports HD-DVD, Blu-ray and DVD as well as CD audio. It features HQV video processing via the Silicon Optix Reon VX chip. It is advertised to support the Blu-ray Final Profile 1.1 as well as Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS, DTS HD, Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio. It features output at every resolution from 480i (analog only) to 1080p and it will output 1080p/24 to a compatible display. It will scale DVDs to 1080p over HDMI only. The component output will play HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs up to 1080i if the Image Restraint Token is not present (no current titles have this). It has an Ethernet port for interactive content and firmware updates. The chassis is identical to the Blu-ray only BD-P1400 player. A shiny black finish (which shows fingerprints if you even think about touching it) covers the entire box, front, top and sides. Interestingly, my player had many fingerprints on it when I unpacked it. There were no other signs that it was used however. I guess the factory worker who boxed it didn't wear gloves that day! Rear-panel connections include HDMI, Component Video, Composite Video and S-Video. There are optical and coaxial digital audio outputs and stereo and 7.1 channel analog audio outs. The overall look is attractive and would certainly look good in any rack.

In this section I'll only report what I tested. There are some other issues which I'll highlight later that I didn't test but are well documented on the AVS Forum in this thread. I hooked up to my Samsung DLP via HDMI and connected a coax cable to my Denon 3806 for audio. I powered on the player after the TV to be sure of a correct HDMI handshake. I had read this player was fussy about the EDID of the display so I didn't want to cause any problems. The player correctly reported all my available resolutions. I set it for 720p and set the audio to Bitstream audiophile. This ensured a direct bitstream of Dolby Digital for decoding in the receiver. I began with Lost Season 3 on DVD. I chose this because my wife and I had just spent the last 2 weeks watching this (our favorite show) so it was familiar and fresh on the brain. I immediately noticed a difference from my reference player, the Denon 2930CI. Unfortunately it was for the worse. Blacks appeared somewhat crushed, color was a bit flat and the overall image seemed a tad soft. This surprised me as both this player and my Denon use the same HQV video processor! Sound quality was excellent. I detected no difference in audio from my Denon player.

After about 20 minutes of Lost, I reached for Avia Pro to view some test patterns. My suspicions about black crush were confirmed. The bottom end was mostly gone. I also noticed the grayscale was not a uniform color of gray. There were color errors at several IRE levels. A smooth ramp pattern showed this even more. At least 15% of the grayscale had a noticable color shift. Some parts were blue, some red and some green. I ran a luma pattern that shows black pluge bars on the left and a steadily increasing field on the right. By the 50% level, the pluge bars had disappeared. My TV does float black levels normally but this player seemed to intensify the effect! I was able to cure the black crush by raising Brightness 5 clicks. This did not affect the color shifts in the grayscale. To the player's credit, it aced all the HQV tests for motion processing and noise reduction. Silicon Optix really does make an excellent product. I just don't think it was implemented well in this player.

Another issue which I found inexcusable was the player's lack of an Auto-Squeeze aspect mode. Even cheap players have this. When playing a 4:3 DVD on a 16:9 TV, the player will automatically change the output aspect ratio so as not to stretch 4:3 content. This player will stretch whether you want it to or not! You can change the aspect on your display if you want but not all TVs support a 4:3 mode over HDMI. It's also very inconvenient when you're watching mixed content like DVD featurettes which change aspect ratios midstream.

After verifying the test patterns again with my Denon player (they were fine and dandy), I decided to return the player to Crutchfield. They are an excellent company to deal with. Their 30-day return policy includes return shipping on their dime so I wasn't out a cent.

Other Things I've Learned
There's a great FAQ on this player compiled by a poster on AVS. Click here to check it out. I'll give you a few of the more important points. DTS HD Master Audio is not yet supported. Dolby TrueHD is only output over 2 channels. Final Profile 1.1 is not supported in firmware. These issued are supposed to be addressed with the first firmware update coming in the next few weeks. There have been reports of various Blu-ray titles not working properly with this player. It is interesting to me (and others) that only Crutchfield, Circuit City and Best Buy seem to have this player for sale. Amazon is telling pre-order customers February 15. Could this be some sort of soft launch or public beta? Who can say?

Needless to say, I am disappointed in this player. I really wanted a one-box solution for all movie formats. I've spent the last 2 days re-thinking my new system and I've come to the realization that I'm going to have to live with 3 players going through a Lumagen video processor to achieve the imaging nirvana I'm seeking. The last straw was the discovery that the 5000 doesn't output 480i over HDMI. This is a must if I'm to use it as a transport for DVD. My new plan is to use an Oppo 970 and separate HD and Blu-ray players. I'm leaning toward the Panasonic BD-30 for Blu-ray and the Toshiba HD-A35 for HD. The cost of the Panny/Toshiba combo is about the same as the Samsung 5000 so no loss there. I have plenty of HDMI switching capability with my new Onkyo 805 receiver and the Lumagen HDP. For now, Samsung still has some work to do to make the BD-UP5000 ready for prime time.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!