Saturday, April 19, 2008

Panasonic AE2000U Projector Review

If you’ve followed the progress of my new theater in my previous articles, you know the display is a Panasonic AE2000U projector. This unit is a 3 LCD design utilizing the same D7 C2Fine panels found in the Epson Ultra-Black series as well as the Sanyo line of home theater models. Native resolution is 1920x1080. There are 3 HDMI inputs which accept both 60 and 24Hz refresh rates. The projector’s actual refresh is 60Hz or 96Hz for 24p material. The cadence used for 24p is 4:4 where each frame is simply repeated 4 times. I’ll talk a bit more in detail about this later. Two component, one composite and one S-video input are also included. HDMI inputs are up to 1080p/60 compatible with Deep Color and xvYCC support. An backlit remote is included which controls all projector functions and is programmable for other devices. The projector responds very well when the remote is pointed at the screen. Also included is a 9-foot power cord. I was happy to see this as I am using a high shelf for the projector and the power is of course by the floor.

Installation is very easy and flexible with this unit. The throw range is quite large with the 2.0x zoom. You can project an image of 40” at 3’11” up to 200” at 39’4”. My theater uses a 92” Carada Brilliant White screen with a gain of 1.3. The throw distance is around 10’. Generous horizontal and vertical lens shift is available. You can go one full screen height above or below the lens axis. You can go about 40% off-center horizontally. The only caveat is if you max out one axis, you have less range on the other. There is rarely a reason to use horizontal shift for more than fine tuning however. I mounted my projector right around the height of the top of the screen and had no problem getting everything lined up. It’s critical for accurate geometry to have the projector and screen level and parallel in both planes. The front feet adjust independently for this purpose. I achieved a perfectly square and centered image. Focus from edge to edge was excellent with only the slightest aberration on the sides of a fine grid pattern. As with any 3-chip projector, convergence can be an issue and there is no adjustment for this available on the AE2000U. Fortunately, my unit had no problems. Color uniformity was excellent with only a barely perceptible green tint toward the right side. Focus and zoom are motorized so you can get right up to the screen and adjust them with the remote. Lens shift is accomplished with two dials on the top of the case. If you use a ceiling mount, these will point towards the floor.

The user menu has everything a tweaker (tweakaphile?) could ask for and more. You can fiddle to your heart's content and save all your work to one of 16 memories! The seven picture modes are labeled Dynamic, Normal, Color 1 and 2, and Cinema 1, 2 and 3. Color 1 measured almost perfectly to Rec 709. I did my initial calibration in this mode after running the lamp about 80 hours. All other parameters were very accurate and the projector was very easy to dial in. A complete set of grayscale controls are included as well as a three-point gamma control. I did all adjustments with the iris turned off. After calibration, I turned it on as it does improve shadow detail and black level quality. Though this projector won’t compete with a CRT or the new JVC RS2, its black level and gamma quality is superb, especially in my totally dark theater. There is a color management system which is quite unique. You display a target on the screen and sample a particular color. Then you can adjust Color, Tint and Brightness for that color. All you need to do is display a primary or secondary color pattern and adjust away! Unfortunately, this isn’t available in the Color 1 and 2 modes. After about a week of viewing, I decided to try adjusting the colors in Cinema 1. Initial measurements showed a bit of oversaturation but perfect decoding. After calibration, I was much happier with the overall image quality. I recommend Cinema 1 as the best mode for this display. If you have a color-neutral screen like the Carada, little adjustment is needed to the color space.

Video processing in the AE2000U is fair but not stellar. I engaged the Cinema Reality option to check out the inverse-telecine capability from standard DVD. Judder was reduced as expected but the overall image was softer when fed a 1080i signal from a Denon 2930CI. I preferred the picture with the Denon set to output 1080p. Even though there is some judder, the increased detail and almost total absence of artifacts is a worthwhile tradeoff. There is also a Detail Clarity control which I left on. It does a good job of reducing noise without softening the image.

Blu-ray image quality is simply amazing. If anyone is on the fence about whether to go for a new player, you won’t be if you see a movie on a quality 1080p display. It’s not just the increased resolution that’s in play here. It’s the total absence of video processing required to display the image. Blu-ray movies are almost exclusively encoded at 1080p/24. The data is decoded from the disc and output without modification. The AE2000U accepts the signal, does the YCbCr to RGB conversion and displays the signal at 96Hz. The appearance of an artifact-free and judder-free image must be seen to be appreciated. There is no more film-like display than this. Even real film must be projected under the correct conditions (mechanically sound projector, unworn print, color accurate light source) to approach what I’m seeing in my theater. The only drawback is how I’m going to afford to upgrade my entire DVD library to Blu-ray!

Obviously, I’m very happy with my purchase. If you’re looking for a comparison to the Epson 1080UB, here it is: these projectors are identical in image quality. I measured the same black levels from the AE2000U as I did from an Epson UB. You could pretty much toss a coin to decide which one to buy. The Panasonic is a bit quieter than the Epson but most people would not hear the difference unless the projector is right overhead. The only other difference is the Panasonic has an H-Fit aspect mode that will support an anamorphic lens setup. Doing a constant-height system with the Epson would require an external video processor. Other than that feature, you won’t be sorry with either projector. I’ve had the theater running for a few weeks now and I can say with certainty that I won’t be going back to a movie theater for the foreseeable future. The large high-quality image coupled with the amazing sound make for an experience far above any I’ve ever had in a commercial theater. There’s nothing like having an intimate space with the movie literally filling the entire space both visually and sonically with no extraneous sound whatsoever. Stay tuned for my Onkyo SR805 receiver review.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Pioneer Elite PRO-150FD Plasma Calibration

The Pioneer Elite line of plasma TVs has always represented the pinnacle of the technology. These displays are truly deserving of the title “reference.” The build quality, image accuracy and features of these displays are truly without peer. The latest generation of this line is called Kuro (the Japanese word for black), and with good reason. Pioneer has really gone after the holy grail of display attributes with the lowest black levels this side of a professional CRT. The PRO-150 is the 60-inch version of this panel. As this TV is very large (duh!) Pioneer thoughtfully made the side-mounted speakers removable. The bezel is a high-gloss piano black as is the pedestal stand which looks like a heavy glass plate (it’s actually Lucite). Four HDMI inputs are included along with one each of component, composite and s-video.

The glass for this panel is the same as used by the non-Elite models. Both lines also incorporate the same excellent video processing. The similarities end there. The Elite panels have a different front screen element to provide even higher contrast. In practice the difference between the Elite and non-Elite’s contrast ratios is small. It can be measured but not really seen. The main reason to go for the Elite is its more extensive calibration controls. There is a complete color management system and full grayscale controls. There are seven picture modes but for calibration purposes, I only explored two, Cinema and User. One of the first things I do with any display is measure the different picture modes to determine which one has the most accurate colorspace. There are also different picture “enhancements” in play but Cinema or Movie modes generally turn these options off. On the Pioneer I found the Cinema mode to be the closest to Rec 709 with nearly spot-on color decoding. I did attempt to adjust the color gamut with the Color Management system in User mode. I was able to achieve a perfect CIE chart but not without a tradeoff. When I attempted to adjust grayscale, I found it impossible to achieve decent tracking. I finally settled on Cinema with its almost-perfect color so I could have perfect grayscale tracking. The default Gamma setting of 2 produced a perfect 2.2 curve. It’s interesting to note that this curve remained correct regardless of the changes I made in other areas. It’s nice to see adjustments not interact for a change!

The other major area I addressed with this TV was motion processing. Since this display accepts 24p input and supports a correct-multiple refresh rate of 72Hz, I wanted to be sure and set up the signal path from the client’s Blu-ray player correctly. Blu-ray output is a no-brainer. Set the player for 1080p/24 and enjoy judder-free and artifact-free playback from hi-def discs. For standard DVD though, I experimented with 1080i. The only way to engage inverse-telecine in any TV or video processor is to feed in an interlaced signal. The processor reverses the 3:2 pulldown and tosses out the extra frame effectively giving 24p playback. Unfortunately, this combination did not look as detailed to me as feeding the TV 1080p/60. The judder was reduced but the image was softer. If you sit far enough from the display, the softness would not be a problem but my client was about 10 feet away and he preferred the 1080p signal. I experienced the same thing with my Panasonic projector. This demonstrates to me that there is still a need for high-quality standard DVD players. As we’ll all be watching NTSC for the foreseeable future, we need a good player to handle that format for displays that just get better and better every year. I’m really hoping a manufacturer will step up and produce a player that supports 1080p/24 output from standard DVD. This to me is the final frontier for NTSC video. Currently, the only way to do this properly is with an outboard video processor. To the Pioneer’s credit, motion processing of 60Hz signals was excellent. Zone Plate patterns showed virtually no loss of resolution. Even though judder was present, it was far less noticeable because detail was preserved during pans.

Obviously the end result of the calibration was superb. Even though this TV is better out-of-box than most, it most certainly benefits from a precise, instrumented calibration. Finding the right balance of picture modes, colorspace, decoding, levels, gamma and motion processing is the key to having the best possible image. Luckily with the Pioneer Elite, no compromises are needed. You really can have your cake and eat it too with this display. Yes, it’s very expensive. I believe the MSRP of the PRO-150FD is currently $7500. For the absolute best plasma display available however, I can’t really call it overpriced. Even the Panasonic commercial 65-inch panel is $6000. Big glass is big bucks! For anyone wanting the ultimate plasma, look no further than Pioneer Elite. It really is the best direct-view TV out there. If you can’t quite justify a $7500 TV though, don’t feel like you’re settling for a non-Elite Pioneer or a Panasonic. They are excellent displays sure to please even discriminating videophiles (like me!). It is my privilege however, to have the hands-on experience with the Elites that I do. They are a pleasure to work on. To quote Ferris Bueller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one of these up!”

Thanks for reading and enjoy the view!