If a projector wants to be taken seriously these days -- especially if it's not an entry-level model -- it needs to provide a veritable army of fine-tuning options for its pictures. But no other projector we've ever seen (for anything like sensible money) has taken this maxim quite so far as Panasonic's £2,000 PT-AE4000.
Before we try to give you a flavour of just how flexible the AE4000 is, we've got to get something off our chest concerning the projector's design. It really is about as boring a black plastic lump of a thing as it's possible to imagine -- hardly a fitting, stylish chassis for a projector this ground-breaking.
Things start looking up fast with the AE4000's connections, which can be considered outstanding at this price, thanks in particular to the inclusion of three HDMIs and two 12V trigger outputs, so the projector can be used to fire up a motorised screen and curtain system.
You're more likely to use electronic curtains with the AE4000 than you are with other projectors, on account of its innovative aspect-ratio adjustment system. This lets you store preferred lens setups to suit 4:3, 16:9 and CinemaScope 21:9-ratio material. Excellent.
Also top-notch is the provision of straightforward manual horizontal and vertical shift adjusters, and a healthy 2x level of optical zoom.
The finest tuning available to humanity
The AE4000's onscreen menus are really quite intimidating in the amount of further fine-tuning options they carry. We couldn't possibly cover everything -- go to Panasonic's Web site for an exhaustive explanation -- but here are a few highlights, just to give you a flavour of things.
You can adjust the contrast and brightness of the red, green and blue colour elements, and adjust the gamma curve along no less than nine different points. If you really want to go to town, you can call up a more in-depth colour management system that freezes the picture for pixel-level adjustment of all six of the primary colours.
Also very useful in helping you fine-tune pictures to within an inch of their lives is a feature that splits the screen in two, with identical frozen images on each side, offering a before and after view of your tinkering.
You can even monitor the results of your colour dabbling via a waveform monitor, and save the results of everything you've done in 16 picture-preset memory slots.
While some of you might be salivating at the prospect of all the fine-tuning flexibility the AE4000 offers, many will doubtless currently be feeling rather scared. Not to worry -- if you don't want to get down and dirty with the murkier parts of the AE4000's calibration suite, the projector also offers a strong selection of presets, themed to suit different types of source material.
We would advise spending some time with the AE4000's adjustments, as it certainly allowed us to produce subtly superior pictures to anything found in the presets. That said, we never managed to get them looking absolutely perfect.
The main reason for this is that the AE4000's native black-level response isn't quite deep enough. This means we found ourselves either looking at a little more greyness over dark parts of the image than we'd like, or -- if we reduced the brightness far enough to remove the greyness -- dark parts of the picture that looked hollow and short of detail.
Another lesser issue means HD pictures look slightly less crisp than we'd like, unless you switch on Panasonic's new Detail Clarity Processor 3. This is a trade-off, however, as it tends to increase video noise levels.
That's definitely the end of the bad news, though. In many ways, the AE4000's pictures are excellent. Its colours are superb, for instance, with vivid saturations, subtle blends and really credible tones. Panasonic has introduced a new red-rich lamp for the AE4000, and this definitely helps reds look more evenly balanced in the image, as well as other red-containing colours look more realistic.
Detail levels look high in HD and standard-def material alike, despite the slight lack of crispness noted earlier. Crucially for the AE4000's World Cup aspirations, its motion handling is first-rate too. As with Epson's TW2900, the LCD engine allows footballers to run to and fro without blurring or motion noise. The AE4000 goes even further though, with Panasonic's Intelligent Frame Creation processing removing practically all trace of judder. You have to be careful not to set this feature too high though, or it can create processing artefacts. But it's still a most welcome feature overall.
Next, while black levels are a slightly tricky balancing act, they're still capable of looking more convincing than those of many rivals at the AE4000's price.
Finally, the AE4000 is capable of running very brightly if you want it to, making it a good option to use in the sort of gently lit room that's often more convenient than a total blackout if you've got a few mates round to watch England's latest humiliating defeat.
The AE4000 doesn't improve massively over last year's AE3000 model, but its pictures are still often excellent. It's got unprecedented amounts of setup flexibility for its price too, including a really innovative system for accommodating different aspect ratios. Only a slightly limited native black-level response prevents the AE4000 from becoming a true silver-screen superstar.
Edited by Nick Hide