by Jim Bray
Projection TVs are the greatest thing to hit the home
theater since, well the home theater.
But even with today's advances in rear projection and plasma
technology, you still can't get many screens larger than about 65 inches, and
the bigger the screen the more it costs. Plus, with the possible exception of
plasmas, the bigger they are the more space they take up in your room.
This is why front projectors are the best way to go if youre
looking for a spectacularly large screen. They have disadvantages, of course,
especially in the fact that theyre more affected by the amount of light
in your room than RPTVs are. But as mentioned, they have the advantage
that, the farther you move the projector back from the screen, the bigger the
image it throws.
Of course the bigger the image the more it magnifies the flaws,
too. But Panasonic's PT-AE500 Home Cinema front projector, which is about the
size of a VCR, offers true 720p HDTV capability, as well as the ability to toss
a picture up to 200 inches measured diagonally, which is why I tackled with
Alas, since I was only testing the unit for a couple of weeks and
dont have a room (let alone a screen!) that can allow for such an awesome
picture, I had to fudge the installation to a certain extent. Actually, that
isnt quite true; I had to fudge the installation completely. I borrowed a
nifty portable screen and about a hundred feet of professional component video
cables and set the whole shebang up in my living room. The relatively small
room meant I couldnt mount the projector far enough back to do it
justice, and I was left with about a 60 inch diagonal screen (barely larger
than my reference 57 RPTV) that was sitting in a well lit room - the
worst case scenario. But what can you do?
On the other hand, that setup did allow me to notice one pleasant
surprise: the Panasonic performed much better in daylight than I expected. It
still wasnt acceptable for critical viewing, at least to this video snob,
but it was actually pretty darn good.
Anyway, the PT-AE500 is a native 16x9 widescreen aspect ratio, 3
panel LCD unit offering 1280x720 resolution. This means it wont display
1080i natively, which makes it like about 95% of its competition, but it will
accept the signals and show them at 720p.
What does this lack of 1080i mean in the real world? Very little.
I powered it with a Bell ExpressVu HDTV receiver that offers both resolutions
and noticed little, if any, difference when I switched from one to the other,
once you zoomed the picture to fill the same screen size with each
This zooming process is very easy: you just twist a ring around
the lens (just like you do to focus it), and presto! And of course youd
only have to do it once if you werent messing around with the unit for
test purposes; if I actually owned the projector Id leave it on 720p all
the time and be done with it.
You can set up the projector to operate as either ceiling or
table/floor/whatever mount and a software switch accessible from the menus
tells the Panasonic which way youre aiming it. I placed the PT-AE500 on a
coffee table and, thanks to its digital vertical and horizontal keystone
correction, it threw a very nice and very rectangular image onto our borrowed
Keystone correction compensates for image distortion when the
projector is mounted at an angle to the screen (i.e. not directly in front of
the screen, which is how it would undoubtedly be mounted in most
installations). Vertical keystone correction compensates for the projector
pointing up or down at the screen, while horizontal correction compensates for
left or right angling. Panasonic says its keystone correction works at up to 30
degrees in any direction; my installation was probably pointing up
about 15 to 20 degrees and almost dead on from left to right.
The Panasonic claims 850 ANSI Lumens of brightness and a 1300:1
contrast ratio. These figures are good for an LCD, though you can do better
with an old fashioned CRT. I proved this to myself by running an HDTV broadcast
upstairs on the Panasonic in 720p and downstairs in my home theater using my
reference CRT RPTV in 1080i (it pays to have two HDTV satellite receivers on
hand!). While the Panasonic was very good, I still preferred the contrast and
black levels on the old fashioned CRT unit.
But LCDs have come a long, long way from the days when they
were only suitable for PowerPoint presentations, with pixilized pictures that
made it look as if you were watching through a screen door.But CRT's are almost
dead - and LCD's are sure to catch up - so the point may soon be moot.
Anyway, overall, I was very impressed with the PT-AE500 when
watching HDTV broadcasts and imagine it would look even better in a permanent
installation and calibrated properly. I did adjust the picture parameters as
much as possible using the Digital Video Essentials tweaking disc,
but if youre going to buy a unit such as this Id recommend spending
an extra few hundred dollars and bringing in an ISF-certified technician to set
it up properly. I had that done to my reference RPTV a couple of months back
and dont know how I ever watched TV without it.
A real benefit to LCD TVs is that they dont suffer
from burn in the way CRTs and plasmas do, so you can run native 4x3
(1.33:1) aspect ratio programming with wild abandon. This means you dont
have to stretch or zoom old style TV programs or old movies made in
the squarish aspect ratio. This was a nice treat, since I'm forced to do the
stretch/zoom trick on my CRT RPTV.
I also managed to watch a few DVDs while testing the AE500
and was also quite happy with the results. As great as DVDs are, however,
they dont match true HDTV signals, so while you can expect an excellent
picture, be prepared for a certain amount of screen door effect
with DVDs. This isnt any more of a problem with this Panasonic than
it is with other TVs, though. Its the nature of the beast: the
difference between 480 pixels (DVD) and 720/1080 (HDTV) is noticeable.
The way around that is to shell out for a video processor
thatll double the pixels, which seems a tad excessive at this price
point. And it isnt as if the native 480i or 480p picture quality
Heres a listing of some of this Panasonics other
Smooth Screen II Technology for reduced
Screen Door effect
12V Trigger for Automated Screens or
Selectable Image Equalizer (6 Picture Modes: Cinema 1,
Video, Normal, Dynamic and Natural)
User-Adjustable Picture Equalizing
Low Noise level of 27dB (with
the lamp set to low power)
Colour Temperature Adjustable
Back-lit remote control
Speaking of remote, Ive been critical of some Panasonic
remotes, mostly because they seem really cheap and sometimes are quite
confusing. This one seems fine, though, and the menu-driven operation of the
projector is very straightforward.
I did notice that the units fan (which has two settings) is
a tad loud on the higher setting, and boy does it pump out the heat! I doubt I
would have noticed this if the projector had been mounted properly from the
ceiling instead of sitting on the coffee table about two feet from me,
The bottom line is that this is a nice performer. It offers very
good picture quality and brightness, with rich color and very nice detail. For
$2500 US/$4900 Cdn., you get a very nice projector that will throw HDTV signals
onto positively huge screens at a reasonable price.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think