Panasonic PT-L500U LCD Video Projector 
Home Theater Front Projectors LCD Projectors
Written by Matthew Evert   
Friday, 01 October 2004

Years ago, as home theaters were sprouting up around in homes across the globe, options for dramatic video were few. Of course there were enormous big-screen rear-projected TVs and tube sets up to 40 inches, but anything better and larger was for the mega-rich. Nowadays, there are dozens of options for those of us without a license plate frame proclaiming, “My Other Car is a Ferrari.” Many are going towards the plasma and LCD flat screens for their size and utter coolness, yet for many who want the real theater experience, anything short of 100 inches is too small and as boring as a Kenny G concert. With projectors ranging from $1,000 to a staggering $70,000 and more, the big question is how much do you need to spend on high-quality projection to get a satisfying picture?

The Panasonic PT-L500U LCD Projector is an HD-capable display and retails for $2,499, making it competitive with most of the larger sets today.

The Panasonic PT-L500U LCD projector is in rare company with the specifications it boasts, while keeping the price affordable for people not fortunate enough to be related to Donald Trump. Three seven-tenths-inch PolySi LCD panels with a native resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels are the power behind the PT-L500U picture. Although I will list a bunch of specifics throughout this review, perhaps the most important point PT-L500U’s native vertical resolution of 720 pixels. This is the minimum resolution if you want to watch high-def TV as it was meant to be.

The PT-L500U is small and somewhat boxy. It actually resembles an X-Box with a silver lens on the front. The hard plastic case is sturdy and compact. It is nearly perfectly square at eleven inches wide and ten-and-nine-sixteenths inches long. This shape (along with only being three-and-three-eighths inches tall) makes it perfect for shelf placement. The only caveat is that the two vents are on the left side (as you look at the front of the unit) and on the back panel. These vents need plenty of air circulation so that you do not overheat the unit and shorten the bulb life as a result. It weighs only six-and-a-half pounds, so mounting it on the ceiling is easy and requires only a few small screws. Panasonic thoughtfully included a padded carrying case for portability.

The control panel of the PT-L500U is located on the top of the unit and includes all the functionality of the remote. The power switch is on the side and should not be used to turn the unit on and off. Use the Standby button on the remote or the control panel instead. This will allow the unit to cool and warm properly and therefore increase the life of your bulb, according to Panasonic. The temp light on front panel will tell you if the unit is overheating and the lamplight will indicate whether it is time to replace the bulb. The onscreen menu can be accessed from the remote or the front panel, without an input signal. The remote is small and well-contoured to fit in my hand. A handy light located near the top of the remote aids operation in dark rooms. The input select buttons are the most commonly used buttons (other than power) and they are necessary to switch between different types of signal sources.

The PT-L500U LCD projector has an aspect ratio of 16:9, which is the same as that utilized by HDTV and most feature films. The PT-L500U is compatible with various video sources and picture standards (PAL, NTSC, SECAM), as well as computer graphics up to WXGA pixel resolution (compressed). The contrast ratio is 1300:1, which is not particularly high, yet very consistent with most LCD and DLP projectors.

The lamp has a brightness of 850 lumens, which is not as high as many other projectors, but depending on your room’s lighting, it should be fine for most applications. There is a high and low power mode for the bulb, the lower power setting extends the life of the bulb and allows for quieter fan operation at the expense of some luminosity. Again, with a few adjustments to the lighting in your room, this will likely not be an issue. The bulbs in high power mode will last about 2,000 hours. When you do need to replace the bulb, it will cost you about $300. By today’s standards, this is an inexpensive projector to run.

The throw distance is very flexible, depending on the size of picture you are trying to achieve. I found a distance of 10-12 feet to be optimal for the 100-inch screen I am currently referencing. This range, in the case of a 100-inch screen, is due to the lens having a manual zoom of 1 – 1.2, which allows for some good flexibility when placing the projector at the necessary distance from the screen. There is no horizontal or vertical lens shift, as with some other projectors, but there is a horizontal and vertical keystone adjustment that can be used to make slight corrections to the projected image without moving the projector itself.

Connectivity options are vast. There are many video inputs including a DVI-D input (with HDCP), a composite input, a component input, an S-Video input and a PC 15-pin connector. There is also a 12-volt trigger for synchronization, with an electronic screen if desired. The unit has retractable feet and a lens cover with leash for safekeeping. Conspicuously missing was a HDMI input.

In order to obtain maximum image quality and space optimization, I mounted the PT-L500U on the ceiling about 10 feet from my front wall. I used a PBL-UMS universal mount from Premier Mounts to securely fasten the projector to the ceiling. This mount has arms that look like spider legs that can cleverly avoid covering any cooling vents on the projector. It is important to make sure that the center of the lens is the correct distance from the ceiling and is as level as possible. The mount I used was extremely sturdy and used a swivel joint that had dozens of adjustment points. With the help of this mount, I could get the projector perfectly aligned with the screen and minimize the use of the digital keystone corrections.

For the purpose of this review, Stewart Filmscreen provided me with a 100-inch diagonal 16:9 Firehawk screen, which was utilized throughout this review. It is especially made for low-lumen output projectors with low contrast ratios. The material is gray, which helps black levels in lower contrast projectors and has little to no discernable effect on whites. Stewart makes some of the most innovative screens available, used by nearly every Audio Video Revolution reviewer in their reference systems.

The user manual of the PT-L500U is well done and provides clear instructions on projector placement for a large selection of screen sizes. Once the screen was mounted, the correct location of the projector was easily determined. I then connected a HDTV video signal to the projector and made minor corrections to the X, Y and Z axes, using the universal mount. I only needed a minor keystone adjustment, a simple task from the onscreen menu. Dozens of hue, RGB, color temperature and other settings are available within the onscreen menu of the projector for nearly limitless adjustability.

Since this is a HD digital projector, why not start the test drive out with some HDTV source material? Using a DirecTV satellite feed, I was able to witness a concert on the new HD Bravo channel. “European Concert 1996” (2003) was a classical performance from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra visiting St. Petersburg. Included in this concert was a performance of Beethoven’s “Romance For Violin - Nos. 1 and 2.” The clarity of the picture was enthralling. The resolution of HD is a monumental improvement over regular cable NTSC feeds wherever you choose to compare them. Some of the more obvious differences are in the close-ups of the musicians and their instruments. Strings vibrating on the violins were not blurred, but rather were crisp lines that jumped out of the screen. Individual gray hairs on conductor Claudio Abbado’s head can be counted and flow through space as he jerks his body to the rhythm of the music. The deep reddish brown tones of the violins and the shiny platinum-colored flutes are examples of how the PT-L500U was able to reproduce rich, saturated colors. The resolution was good, but as I tried to read the sheet music placed in front of the clarinet player, I could not make out the individual notes the way I could with more resolute and expensive projectors. Faces of audience members could be made out in the darkness, but the images were on the faint side and not strongly detailed. This is the result of the PT-L500U’s lower contrast ratios in comparison to more expensive digital technologies like DLP, D-ILA and specifically CRT devices. Also, Abbado’s black suit was hard to isolate from the mainly dark background of the audience during some of his close-ups. Distinguishing dark images from each other is a weakness of any LCD-based projector, but this was probably one of the more extreme cases where it was a noticeable issue.

“Gladiator” (DreamWorks Home Entertainment) also had some dark and murky backgrounds during the opening fight scene with the barbarians. Here the PT-L500U was challenged with displaying dark gray landscapes against the dull gunmetal armor of the Roman soldiers. In this case, the projector flourished and the Roman soldiers appeared to pop out of the screen. Gone were the issues as aforementioned with the concert footage and dark images. The moment where the archers light the gloomy gray soil with fire to ignite their arrows mesmerized me. Even as the frame was frozen to scrutinize the colors, the bright yellow flames did not spill into the gray or over-saturate the two distinct colors. Looking at the crimson shields, one will notice the golden wing-shaped emblems and how they are clearly defined despite the apparent distance from the viewer in that scene. No jagged lines were outwardly noticeable on the spears and other straight objects; everything looked pretty smooth. The black mane on the top of Maximus’s helmet contrasted beautifully against an overcast sky. Having seen this movie a dozen times on a 32-inch screen and at the movie theater, I still was amazed at how many new details I saw on my 100-inch screen with this projector. Plus, there was no snotty kid behind me kicking my seat and screaming every time a limb got hacked off.

Lastly, “Step into Liquid” (Artisan Home Entertainment) was placed into my DVD player to put the PT-L500U to the test. The footage of big wave rider Laird Hamilton tackling the 20-foot-plus waves of Pea’hi (aka “Jaws”) was breathtaking. The huge rolling waves were rich in light and dark blues and brought you into the movie. The huge crashing crests of the waves resulted in some massive spraying of white water. When I froze the screen, some pixilation in the form of little white squares was visible, but it is hard to be too critical of this. The white water crashing against the black lava rocks along the shore was stunning and rich with contrast. No rainbow effects were apparent, as with some of the DLP-based projectors out there. The rainbow effect occurs when the viewer sees short flashes of colors, especially when one’s eyes move quickly across the screen or with images with very bright and or black and white areas. If you ever wanted to learn to surf the big waves, be sure to watch the wipeout scenes on the Pipeline – ouch. I’ll stick to the six-foot San Diego waves -- thanks anyway.

The Downside
The bulb life, although somewhat standard, will be an issue for some. If you follow the guidelines in the manual, 2000 hours is possible. However, if you figure you normally watch three hours a day of movies and TV, that’s close to two years before needing replacement. If you watch six hours, it’s less than one year. Do the math: at $300 per bulb, this comes to just over a dollar a day or over $33 per month. This isn’t a major issue, because I would look upon this as the cost of doing big-time video. On the plus side, it might cause you to pay closer attention to your children’s viewing habits.

There is no horizontal and vertical lens shift, which would allow for an even easier set-up and would facilitate the possibility of moving the projector slightly to miss a ceiling obstruction. Also, if you plan on setting the PT-L500U LCD projector on a table or using it as a portable presentation projector, this missing feature would be very useful. True, the PT-L500U does have digital keystone correction, but the use of it for more than just a slight adjustment results in a reduction of pixels and lumen output.

The location of one of the vents on the left side makes for awkward shelf mounting if that is what you need to do. It would be better if the vent were located on the front of the unit instead.

No HDMI digital input is provided, which limits some of the connectivity possibilities, but DVI-D and component video will serve most users adequately.

An auto-signal sensing mode would be nice so that the projector could detect where the active signal is coming from, as opposed to having to use the remote. If my receiver switches from composite video to component video when I switch sources on the receiver, the projector should sense that and change, too. It does work when switching from one component source to another, but not with signals of different formats.

The growing trend in home theater is the ever-increasing desire to have bigger and higher resolution video displays. George Lucas has said that the most important element of today’s home theater is a big screen. Great sound is impressive to many, but everyone can appreciate a large dramatic picture. Cost is the limiting factor for most who desire to get a big screen and enjoy movies the way they were meant to be seen. The Panasonic PT-L500U has brought an affordable offering to the table. This projector provides great adjustability and performance to even the most scrutinizing eyes at a price that can’t be overlooked. There are so many projectors available today that the job of selecting one is no easy task. Everybody wants performance but want to find it somewhere prior to the point where little gains are made for large amounts of money. The Panasonic PT-L500U LCD projector is a great entry-level projector that financially works for the masses. In no way am I suggesting that $2,500 is not a lot of money, yet compared to many floor standing sets, it’s a huge alternative. Once you experience the splendor of a large projection screen, you will scarcely want to view anything on a smaller set again. Is this a breakthrough product? No, yet Panasonic has done a great job at providing a big-time theater option within reach of nearly everyone. I will purchase the review model for that very reason.
Manufacturer Panasonic
Model PT-L500U LCD Video Projector
Reviewer Matthew Evert

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