Panasonic has enjoyed considerable success with a range of relatively inexpensive LCD projectors. But the technology has grown rapidly over the past few years, with performance gains and price cuts going almost hand in hand. Such is the general high-standard of projection technology today, that it takes a lot more to impress us.
The PT-AE700 follows the same evolutionary path as its predecessors, albeit with some crucial improvements. The unit is physically larger than previous models, but can still be considered sleek and contemporary. The extra girth has been incorporated to improve noise reduction.
Backside connections are comprehensive. There's component phono inputs, plus S-video, PC, Scart, DVI-D and HDMI terminals.
The PT-AE700 packs a lot of new tech. There's a scene-tracking dynamic iris that improves contrast ratio (quoted at 2,000:1) and delivers 1,000 ANSI Lumens of brightness.
There's also a 2x optical lens which allows for some versatility in placement, and a lens shift function. A 100in image can be enjoyed from between 3m and 6m, while the actual position can be manoeuvred by a protruding joystick beside the lens. This is a powerful setting up tool, as the image can be shunted by as much as 25 per cent in a horizontal direction and a whopping 63 per cent vertically. Effectively, you can site this PJ anywhere you want with the minimum of fuss.
The biggest difference though, is a new Cinema Colour Management (CCM) system which incorporates a pro-style colour correction facility, mimicking that found in Hollywood mastering suites. This allows you to isolate areas of the image and then fine-tune the hue.
Panasonic claims that you can adjust up to 1,070 million colours individually, without effecting other hues. This is staggeringly clever, and great for controlling difficult reds or greens. The PT-AE700 has seven preset modes to cope with different sources: Cinema 1, 2 and 3, plus Video, Normal, Dynamic and Natural.
The unit itself has been tuned by David Bernstein, an award-winning Hollywood colourist who initially forged an alliance with Panasonic on the PT-AE500. For this update, he has been given free reign to fine-tune the colour performance. The Cinema 1 mode is the one fine-tuned by Bernstein, and it's this which should be the default movie viewing choice.
At the heart of the projector are a trio of 0.7in high definition LCD panels with a resolution of 1,280 x 720, which makes this an ideal display for high-definition sources. An internal scaler will match any widescreen source to this resolution (4:3 sources are scaled to 960 x 720 pixels).
One characteristic of LCD projectors which makes them different from their DLP rivals is the chicken wire effect - a grid pattern caused by the LCD panel structure. On early LCDs it was disturbingly obvious, but as pixel density has increased, the grid has diminished in size. To further reduce the effect, Panasonic has championed a proprietary Smooth Screen technology which smudges out the grid structure from the image.
This is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the projector, as this trick creates visible artefacts. But they are only visible if you watch the image form an inappropriately close range. At 3m, a 100in image looks stunningly sharp and clear.
In general use, the projector is pleasingly quiet. Set the model to Low lamp mode (you'll need a fully darkened room for this) and fan noise falls to a whisper-quiet 26dB. Opt for the brighter High mode and it rises to 30dB. Panasonic rates lamp life at 3,000 hours. The projector employs a front-fascia exhaust, which you won't want to sit too near, as it gets very hot.
The menu is intuitive and easy to use. Although there are copious options, most users will probably stick with the presets.
DVD movie playback is excellent via the component inputs, and improves further with an HDMI hook-up (if your DVD player has DVI rather than HDMI, then it's possible to get adaptor leads). Colour vibrancy is outstanding, and the black level is surprisingly authentic, giving images a real sense of depth.
The scene-tracking dynamic iris is particularly clever, giving images a real sense of depth. The iris itself literally opens and closes in real time, according to the image signal. This AI system can detect as many as three billion combinations of scenes. You might imagine that this adjustment would be visible to the naked eye, but it's not.
The projector is capable of a natural image, with no banding effects. 10-bit digital signal processing and 10-bit gamma correction ensures subtle variations in hue and brightness.
With prices plummeting on both DLP and LCD projectors, Panasonic needed to produce something special to keep its AE series of models competitive. With the PT-AE700, though, it's done enough to keep ahead of the pack.
The low fan noise and outstanding image quality make this a very attractive option for film fans, and David Bernstein's contributions to the overall colour balance of the model gives it a cinematic edge. If you need another reason to check out the model, the PT-AE700 is currently being bundled with a free screen.