Panasonic PT-AE4000 Projector
The PT-AE4000, also known in the US as the PT-AE4000U, is the first "ultra-high contrast" projector to be reviewed in the entry level class. Truth is, though, that most of its most direct competition is more expensive and covered in the mid-price class. This is a change over last year, when the older PT-AE3000U was the least expensive mid-price class projector. What does this mean, besides that the Panasonic should have an easy time with most of the competition this year? For starters, no question that the PT-AE4000 has the blackest blacks of any projector in the entry-level class. Brightness is pretty average. Placement flexibility about as good as it gets.
The PT-AE4000, however, may also be the most feature laden projector anywhere near its price. Gizmo loving folks are drawn to the PT-AE4000, like moths to an open fire. Perhaps for it's signal generator, its split screen viewing so you can compare your settings changes to what you had before, or its full CMS - color management system. The PT-AE4000 is also the only projector in this class to offer CFI - creative frame interpolation. Then there's Lens Memory, allowing the projector to work with 2.35:1 screens (instead of the usual 16:9 screens), without an anamorphic lens. And more! I should note the Panasonic projector does excellent skin tones too. The warranty is good but far, far, from the best.
Samsung SP-A600 Home Theater Projector
Until recently Samsung has offered up some interesting, but rather expensive home theater projectors. The SP-A600 is the first to really sell in the lower cost range, and is more of a mass market product than the old SP-A710 I reviewed a few years ago, or the newer SP-A900. The SP-A900 is a projector I wanted to review and include, but I couldn't manage to talk Samsung into loaning me one for the review. (They sent me the A600 instead.)
The SP-A600 DLP projector is classic DLP - with limited placement flexibility, not a whole lot more lumens in brightest mode than best mode. Its two year warranty is overall, average, but definitely better than average in this entry level group of projectors, where there are a number of projectors sporting only a basic one year warranty.
The black level performance is not overly impressive, definitely entry level. The Samsung projector does not use a dynamic iris to enhance black performance. That said, blacks are definitely more like the $999 projectors than the DLP Mitsubishi HC3800, which still costs less. The Samsung's strength is very good color fidelity. It is a bit brighter than average in "best" picture mode (with 700 lumens), although strictly average in terms of its brightest mode - a bit over 1000 lumens.
I thought coming into this report, that the the XV-Z15000 projector would be classified (as it was last year) as an over $2000 projector. When I went online, just about everyone was offering it up for under $2000, and some under $2000 by more than a few bucks. I really liked this projector when first reviewed. Another DLP, it's very different from the Mitsubishi, in many ways. This Sharp projector has the best black level performance of any DLP in the sub-$2K class.
I described this projector as very Dr. Jekyl / Mr. Hyde, with the actual picture performance - blacks, color accuracy, shadow detail all a nice Dr. Hyde, while the rough Mr Hyde is more symbolic of the very limited placement flexibility, the less than sharpest lens (still does a sharper image overall, than most LCD projectors), and the basic 1 year warranty. Brightness is pretty average - neither Jekyl or Hyde.
Viewsonic Pro8100 projector
Viewsonic's Pro8100 is above average in brightness, in both best, and brightest modes. This LCD projector is typical in terms of black level performance among the non "ultra-high-contrast" projectors. The unit itself is rather good looking, and they even have interchangeable covers, in case your room design calls for a dark red, a gray, black or white look. (Nice touch!)
A three year warranty is better than most offer. The Pro8100 when launched in 2008 was priced above $3500 and sold through local dealers only. Viewsonic apparently figure out that wasn't working for them, and decided to go the volume route. Now the same projector seems to sell for under $1500, and figures to be a very good value.
As I write this, the final award selections have yet to be finalized. I wonder how the addition of this Sharp XV-Z15000 and the Panasonic PT-AE4000U, (two pretty formidable ultra-high contrast projectors) to the lower price class, will affect our final awards this year.