Until recently, videophiles haven't had much good to say about budget home-theater projectors. The pictures they produced may have looked impressive enough to the average consumer, but the discerning eye saw cringe-inducing flaws that made them practically unwatchable without a few drinks. However, in the past year, a handful of new, relatively cheap models are earning kudos from even the toughest--and soberest--of critics such as ourselves. Panasonic's PT-AE500U, which can be had for less than $2,000 from online stores, is one of them.
For starters, the PT-AE500U is capable of delivering the full 720p HDTV resolution (it has three 1,280x720-pixel, high-res LCD panels), which, until recently, was rare for a projector in this price class. On top of that, the picture it delivers is actually decent--again, until recently, a rarity for a budget projector.
The unit runs quietly and is quite compact. Measuring 3.3 by 11 by 10 inches (H, W, D) and weighing a svelte 6.4 pounds, it's lighter than either the Sanyo PLV-Z2 or the and is arguably sleeker, with a brushed-metal facing that matches some of company's other home-theater components. The small remote has backlit buttons that are thoughtfully laid out for easy operation.
From a features standpoint, the PT-AE500U is well appointed. It's equipped with the requisite RGB (for computers), S-Video, and component-video connections, as well an all-digital DVI input with HDCP for connecting a cable or satellite box, a DVD player, or a computer with DVI outputs (arguably, DVI offers slightly better picture quality than component output). Keystone is onboard, so you can mount the projector at a tilt relative to the screen--though we recommend that you avoid using it since it reduces image quality--and there's a manual zoom on the lens, so you have some leeway on how far back you can set the projector.
While an optional ceiling mount is available for around $175, we set our review unit on a table behind the couch in our A/V lab and projected onto a 106-inch 16:9 Da-Lite Da-Mat screen designed to improve an LCD projector's picture. The minimum throw distance for a screen this size (we recommend going no larger, or the picture may appear too dim) is 10.3 feet, and the maximum is 12.9 feet. The PT-AE500U can also be placed on a coffee table in front of a couch, but remember that you'll need to connect a DVD player and a set-top cable or satellite box, so be wary of power-cord and cable placement.
Depending on your picture source and room lighting, you can choose from six different preset picture modes (we found Cinema1 to be the best for watching movies). For our tests, however, we manually calibrated the projector for optimum performance from our V Bravo D1 DVD player.
Once we had everything to our liking, we kicked back Tony Soprano style for a little sampling of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and some high-def programming from HDNet and the Discovery Channel. All in all, we were pleased with what we saw.
Color saturation may be the PT-AE500U's strongest suit. We saw deep greens in the forest of Fangorn, and Arwen's delicate skin was appropriately pale. Although not quite up to DLP standards, black-level performance topped our expectations for an LCD. The big Helm's Deep battle scene showed good detail in the shadows. We could make out chinks in the Orcs' armor and their snarling facial expressions. The blackest blacks still looked dark gray, but they were as good as those we saw on the Sony VPL-HS20.
Panasonic has "softened" the pixels in the PT-AE500U, so you get a smoother-looking image. Even so, if you're sitting closer than 10 feet away, especially when viewing in bright scenes, you'll notice some screen-door effect (where it seems as if you're looking at the picture through a screen door). It's pretty faint compared to the screen-door effect of many other LCD projectors we've looked at in this price class, but we still recommend that you don't sit too close.
Sure, you won't get the same picture quality as you would with an $8,000 DLP projector, but for $3,000 (including screen), you're going to have a gigantic, high-resolution image that will impress all but the staunchest critics. If that's the budget range you're working in to build the video side of a true home theater, the PT-AE500U is a hard deal to beat. The Sanyo PLV-Z2 is its closest competitor in terms of price, while the higher-resolution Sony VPL-HS20, which we also like, costs close to a grand more.
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.