Most of the current breed of 1080p projectors are capable of delivering a super-sized picture that's sharp enough to rival anything you might see in your local cineplex, and few would disagree that Panasonic's PT-AE1000E projector was one of the standout products in last season's LCD projection range.
So it was with some excitement that I unboxed the PT-AE1000E's (cheaper) successor, the cunningly-named Panasonic PT-AE2000E.
Not a looker
Not that the its outward appearance will curry favour. For it is really quite ugly; a surprisingly large, rectangular extrusion of heavy-duty black plastic with a few grilles down its sides.
Panasonic defends the AE2000E's design deficiencies by explaining that the model is aimed at serious home theatre buyers who wouldn't want to sully their viewing rooms with anything suffering design pretensions.
This sounds like nonsense to me - and anyway, first impressions count. Stick this monolithic beast opposite, say, Epson's sexy TW2000 in a beauty pageant, and it's obvious which one would attract the attention of the judges.
That said, there are a couple of practical things about the AE2000E's exterior that I do like, such as the two wheel arrangements on the projector's lid - or bottom, if you ceiling-mount it - that provide simple horizontal and vertical image shifting, and the generous video connectivity.
The projector's connections panel plays host to three HDMI v1.3 sockets, two component video inputs, as well as a PC input and RS-232C control jack.
It would have been helpful for Panasonic to have provided a 12V trigger output for driving an electronic screen (a simple nicety which a surprising number of projector manufacturers continue to ignore), but you can't have everything.
Extreme contrast ratio
The AE2000E's specifications are ambitious. It offers Full HD resolution and an eye-catching contrast ratio of 16,000:1 - one of the highest I can recall seeing attributed to an LCD projector.
As ever, though, there is a caveat, in that you can only get close to so much contrast if you use the dynamic iris. The iris dictates how much light is allowed through the lens when dark scenes are detected; it reduces light in a bid to make blacks look, well, blacker.
Our Tech Labs measure all projectors with the dynamic Iris trickery switched off, even though improved blacks are likely with it engaged. In this regard, the PT-AE1000E offers up a very respectable rating of 1,250:1 after calibration.
Totally updated from the projector's previous iteration is a new lens unit, comprising no fewer than 16 lens elements. The projector can throw a 120in picture from between 3.6m and 7m, thanks to a versatile 2x powered zoom.
The AE2000E's black level can be considered very good, particularly with the dynamic iris active; shadow detail retrieval is excellent. Yet over the course of the audition, I decided to dispense with the dynamic iris, as I became sensitive to overt brightness shifts.
While the iris reacts faster than that seen on the AE1000E, I still noticed the telltale brightness 'jumps' as it opened and closed. That said, the black level is truly remarkable for a £2K LCD projector.
Panasonic's PT-AE2000E offers more control over colour than virtually all its rivals.
A Cinema Colour Management tool, which allows colour correction to a much finer degree than was possible on the AE1000E, is joined by a waveform monitor that provides a handy graphical representation of any changes made to the unit's colour settings.
There's also the brand's proprietary Pure Colour Filter Pro technology, designed to allow improvements to colour reproduction and black level.
To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced by this Pure Colour Filter Pro malarkey.
For while images delivered by the AE2000E are for the most part very impressive, there are times when rich reds and greens take on a slightly inaccurate appearance; cinephiles need to be prepared to delve into the unit's sub-menus to obtain a colour accuracy they'll feel truly comfortable with.
Terrific image clarity
The Pixar animation The Incredibles (DVD) is a great tester of red accuracy. The super-suits of our titular heroes have a tendency to look somewhat orangey.
Using the projector's split-screen mode and by individually tweaking the RGB elements of the picture, it's possible to nullify this, although care needs to be taken lest your drain all vibrancy from the image.
It's easy to spend hours fiddling within the menus to create just minuscule differences onscreen. That said, the projector has an impeccable greyscale, and delivers a level of clarity that's rare indeed without spending megabucks.
The projector looked terrific with the relatively muted, colour-free cinematography of Steven Spielberg's Munich (Sky HD).
Some of this can be laid at the door of the unit's 16bit digital signal processing (which results in super-smooth gradations) and its Detail Clarity Processor, which analyses the frequency characteristics of each image frame in three dimensions (horizontal, vertical and time) and dynamically tweaks the image's sharpness for the best results.
Resolution and movement is fast and snappy, particularly with 1080p/24 source material.
Traditionally, Panasonic has used so-called Smooth Screen technology (actually a prism device) for reducing the perceived onscreen gap (or aperture) between pixels.
This had a legitimate use on projectors of limited resolution, but its value here on a Full HD PJ must be questionable. Two million pixels means there's scant 'chicken wire' effect to disguise.
At least the image softening attributed to Smooth Screen on previous models does not seem to be an issue here, even over extremely bright areas of the image.
One striking aspect of the AE2000E is how noiseless its pictures are. The projector imparts no grain to HD pictures, and even standard-definition images are scaled up with surprisingly little artefacting.
Other points to consider when shortlisting models is the purity of the viewing experience (there's, obviously, no DLP rainbow effect) and pleasingly little fan noise to distract you from what you're watching.
Compared to Epson EMP-TW1000 LCD PJ, for example, it virtually whispers. Indeed it's so quiet, you can actually hear the dynamic iris opening and closing.
A diamond in the rough
Overall, I'd rate the AE2000E as a black diamond, albeit one that requires a little polishing; you'll need to fine-tune it to really eke the best from it.
After it was calibrated I was often wowed by its image clarity, particularly when I factored in its modest price tag (the AE2000E's images are sharp and its black level very good indeed), but I think it could stand some improvement to the operation of the dynamic iris and its colour fidelity.
The quality of the optics though, given the low price point, is outstanding.