The Best 1080p Resolution Home Theater Projectors of 2007
Home Theater Projector Image Quality:
Please remember, you'll find far more details relating to each home theater projector's actual performance, within the individual reviews.
Image Quality is what it's all about. The goal of just about all home theater projector buyers is to put an image up on the screen that pleases and impresses:
Editor's notes: Over the last 6 months since the 1080p projectors have it, I have significantly changed the selection of images shown in image quality sections of reviews. This is due to adding a HD-DVD player last summer, and slowly migrating to more hi-def content shots, as I bought more hi-def dvds, and picked out movies and frames for comparison. Unfortunately, that means the the same images are not available on every 1080p projector. Of particular note is the review of the Mitsubishi HC5000 which lacks photos from Aeon Flux, and Space Cowboys, which are now the two movies most heavily used. As usual, the images have limitations anyway, and are there to support the commentary.
As a result, in this section you will see a few comparisions but mostly for more images, you'll need to seek out the individual reviews.
A last note, until I started shifting recently from my Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player to Blu-ray (Sony Playstation3), I had to deal with one tricky issue, which degrades the quality of the photos, but has no impact on the projectors actual picture quality. Here's the scoop. When feeding the 1080i signal from the Toshiba, most of the projectors, when I hit pause for a photo shot, only display one of the two interlaced fields. As a result, the image isn't as sharp, and you see more jaggies. This is a bane for sharpness comparisions, which is why for the last three reviews most of the sharpness related images have been done with scenes from the Blu-ray PS3, which outputs 1080p and therefore displays the frames properly.
For image quality, our primary concerns will be:
Out of the box color (without adjustment)
Naturalness of Flesh tones
Black levels and Shadow detail
Overall image quality "feel" of the projector: My partially subjective opinions on "film-like performance" ease of watching, and for lack of a better term, "wow factor" (some projectors just just look good, and others make you think "awesome", even though they may technically be very, very similar.
1080p Home Theater Projectors: Out of the box color
None of these projectors are really weak in how they look out of the box, but some need more adjustment than others, and a couple are near perfect.
A few comments on each projector:
Out of the box color was very good, in that from white down to dark grays (30 IRE), the measured color temperature was very consistant. The Mitsubishi offers menus including Color Temperature adjustments. Interestingly, the warm setting - which one would normally expect to be very close to the idea 6500K temperature, was too warm. The Medium setting, was about equally too cool. A standard grayscale balance, however allows you to hone in on the 6500K goal. Also, out of the box, there is a slight shift to green (which doesn't impact color temp). Reducing this slightly is also easy.
Even without adjustments, the Mitsubishi produces a pleasing color balance, but the choices are just a bit too warm or cool, so a slight adjustment is called for. Those of you less critical, most likely would find the out of the box performance to be just fine...but why not make it even better.
Out of the box color was excellent. Despite all the neat tools provided by Panasonic (the waveform generator), the Panasonic PT-AE1000U, is probably the least in need of any tweaking to put an excellent, color accurate image on your screen. Contrast and Brightness were almost ideal, however I found the image to be slightly oversaturated, cured by a simple changing the Color setting from 0 to -3. Piece of cake!
So, bottom line, I might say that the Panasonic has the kind of out of the box color one has expected for decades with Sony Trinitron TVs... Everything tends to look just about perfect.
Epson Home and Pro Cinema 1080
Out of the box color accuracy in Theater Dark 1 was very good, but there is a definite shift towards red in the darker ranges. This is easily correctable with a basic calibration disk. The shift is a bit more significant than the Mitsubishi's or the JVC's. I should note, that the Epson, which has by far the brightest output of any of the projectors, when in it's brightest mode, suffers from a heavy shift to green in Dynamic mode. This can be adjusted as well, but you will be giving up probably a couple hundred lumens to get a much more natural image. Even doing so, it will still be the brightest of the group. Only the Pro version is ISF certified. Still, even the Home version has plenty of user savable settings so that a professional calibrator can do a proper job.
BenQ W9000 and W10000
Another case of good out of the box color handling, but with the W10000 (and I assume, the W9000), the color temp was a bit cooler than the other projectors. Instead of gray levels all being around 6500, they clustered around 7150K, thus a little thin on reds. Again, a basic end user color calibration disk can get that color temp centered down around 6500K with little problem. The W10000, produces very respectable performance in Family Room mode, as well, but can be tweaked to be much better (see the review), not only improving color slightly but allowing the W10000 to come in second in brightness to the Epson's in brightness, when ambient light is an issue, and you are willing to sacrifice some color accuracy for sheer power. The BenQ is ISF certified, and has all the bells and whistles to allow a professional calibration
The HD81 is almost the least accurate color wise - out of the box. Not really bad, but further from ideal than the others. That said, you really must consider at least using a user oriented color calibration disk like the Avia, or "steal" the settings recommendations from various reviews. Out of the box color is definitely significantly cool, even with Color Temp set to Warm, with, over the grayscale range, averaging around 7400K instead of 6500K. This is significant enough for me to say, this one needs some work, whereas, the other projectors many would find to be just fine without adjustment.
Once adjusted, however, the Optoma's color balance rivals any of the others. Of particular note, however, is that Optoma always seems to handle dark colors by reproducing them a bit richer than others. It is very impressive, something I have always commented on favorably. The JVC RS1 is another that shares that trait.
Sony VPL-VW50 Pearl
Although the Sony produces good colors out of the box, it definitely needs adjustment, as it is too cool (blue) out of the box. Measurements averaging out of the box, at around 7600K, are easily dropped to the 6500K range (see review). Interestingly, I believe the Sony is the only one of these projectors, that, out of the box tends to shift cooler (more towards blue - from red) in the dark ranges. As noted most of the others are more red in the dark ranges. Adjusting, of course changes all that.
Worth special note, is that the Sony, out of the box produces the least color saturated images of the nine projectors. (Basically, that's having the Color turned down). I had the opportunity to run the Sony side by side against the JVC, and immediately, you could see that Sony was on the right track. If anything, the Sony Pearl is only slightly undersaturated, while all the other projectors tend to be a bit oversaturated (a good thing, perhaps with ambient light). Myself, for example, I reduced the color saturation more than just a small amount on the JVC, while raising the Sony only slightly, before they became similar and "right.
Since I just mentioned the JVC above, I might as well finish it off. Out of the box color is excellent, not only consistant from dark grays to white in color temp, but damn near perfect. In Cinema mode, all measurements (30 - 100 IRE) were tight - less than an 70K shift, and all in the 6600's. If there is one projector in this group, that really can live without any grayscale adjust, it is the JVC (Panasonic close behind). About the only thing really called for is a slight reduction in color saturation. Piece of cake.
Because of the other strengths of the JVC, including brightness, it also is immediately the most stunning of the projectors in image quality "out of the box.
1080p Home Theater Projectors: Natural Flesh Tones
This obviously ties closely to color balance, and is based on performance after grayscale adjustment.
Each review is loaded with images, however, remember, there are many compromises in how they look on your computer - your monitor is different than mine, monitors in general lack the contrast of the projectors, and the digital camera inherently loses some dynamic range. In addition I find variations from projector to projector in accurate my camera is in recording those colors. It seems some projectors, most notably the Panasonic and the Epson, have photos that appear a bit more red, in those photos than the actual projected image. You are invited of course to view the many images in each review.
For this comparison, I have limited the flesh tone photos to two per projector.
Panasonic PT-AE1000U: (remember my comment, that the Panasonic images appear redder, than what was actually up on the screen).
Epson Home Cinema 1080 (and inferred - the Pro Cinema 1080): (the other projector where the images came out too red, compared to what was on the screen)
Sony VPL-VW50 Pearl: Very natural looking although prehaps a little undersaturated
From standard DVD, the same projectors - same order, same warning about reds:
Epson Home Cinema 1080:
Sony VPL-VW50 Pearl:
So, images above notwithstanding, here's how I see the projectors stack up, in terms of Flesh tone handling (after grayscale balance):
Excellent: JVC RS1, Sony VW50, Mitsubishi HC5000, BenQ W10000 (and W9000)
Very Good: Panasonic PT-AE1000U, Epson Home Cinema 1080 (and the Pro Cinema 1080), and Optoma HD81.
1080P Home Theater Projectors - Black Levels and Shadow Detail:
Sorry, no wide selection of images here. There are a great many in each review, for your consideration. Black levels are usually the telling requirement for good shadow detail - a projector that can't produce really dark blacks, can't resolve shadow details in really dark areas. Here's how our field of 1080p projectors stack up.
None of the projectors tested have anything less than very good black levels - superior to almost any home theater projector (under $10,000) that is more than 2 years old. Today's LCD projectors, thanks to improvements in LCD technology, combined with dynamic systems to enhance black levels (in the form of dynamic irises, and in some cases dynamic lamp control, enhance black levels to rival DLP projectors.
There is a limit, however to dynamic solutions - and I should define what I mean. A dynamic iris, for example is controlled, frame by frame, and constantly opening up and closing down (in increments) to adjust to each frame. If a scene has not full white or full bright individual colors, this method allows the iris to close down, letting less light through, thus "blacks" get blacker. Individual pixels that are brighter are adjusted so they maintain the same brightness as if there was no iris working. That system works, which is why not only all four LCD projectors discussed here, use a dynamic iris, but also the Sony Pearl and Optoma HD81. In addition, the BenQ DLP projectors use a manual iris, which can help a little (but not the same thing). There is a drawback to dynamic solutions - actually two:
First, they are ineffective if the video frame has any (significant) white or full intensity color. If it does, closing down the iris means that white also gets darker, and since that is unacceptable, the iris can't function. The other downside tends to be very minor, which is once in a while depending on the projector, you can actually detect the iris at work. As scenes change, you may notice the effect of the iris opening and closing. One example I have used, is a dark scene, with dark panelled walls, and no really bright areas. The iris closes down a bit, lowering black levels, and equalizing everything else so they remain in proportion. Then, imagine a person entering that scene in the next frame, with a bright white shirt. The iris must fully open, and you may see the dark panelled wall get a little brighter. (like someone working a light dimmer). I should note that this is rarely evident, and never a real issue on any of this group of projectors, but in the past, I have recommended in some reviews to limit the dynamics - (one case was the Sanyo Z4, where the iris was ok, but their dynamic lamp dimming was noticeable too often).
I do think a couple of images are worth looking at here, however. I have chosen the same image from two projectors, the JVC, which is now the benchmark for great black levels, and one of the LCD projectors, the Epson Home Cinema 1080.
This scene from Space Cowboys (hi-def) is excellent for seeing how black levels affect shadow detail. Click on the first thumbnail for a basic shot of this scene of Earth from space. Most of the scene is very dark. On the first image (normally exposed), you get a good idea of what appears on the screen, except my digital camera really can't cope with the shadow detail and dark areas. As a result the second and third thumbnails show the same image dramatically overexposed, so that you can see all the detail the projectors can resolve, on the very dark right side. The first image of those two large images is the JVC RS1, the second, the Epson. Looking carefully, you can see a lot of detail on the JVC image where there is nothing on the Epson. When watching, that large area on the Epson, it all looks "flat", while the JVC reveals enough details to have the image look "right". Note, that the JVC "overexposed" image is a touch less overexposed than the Epson's.
And one more - grouping:
The first image again, is from the JVC, the second, from Panasonic PT-AE1000U. The exposures are very similar, yet the JVC image reveals far more stars, simply because it's blacks are lower.
I've even provided below, the same frame from the JVC, but shot overexposed, to reveal all the stars I could actually see on the screen, but the camera was losing. No other projector came particularly close.
OK last set, and finally something not in "outer space".
This set of Phantom of the Opera images is available for (I believe) all of the projectors in this review. In this case, clicking on the first image gets you a large, and overexposed version of this scene, from the JVC once again, and the second one, from the BenQ W10000.
I have said that the Sony is second only to the JVC. Well, here is an overexposed image of the two of them, shot side by side. The left is the JVC (you can click to enlarge, as usual). That's a pretty huge difference considering they are #1 and #2
All I can say, is that it's a lot easier to analyse this when watching scenes, than to capture what I am seeing, and showing it to you here.
Almost Perfect: JVC DLA-RS1 (I use "Almost Perfect" because this is a projector with breakthrough performance). Others still deserve to be considered Excellent. To date, the only projectors I have ever encountered that did better black levels than the JVC, were the old style CRT projectors, which, by their nature, can actually do a true "black". The JVC, however, comes so close, that even the diehard CRT fanatics will almost certainly be swayed, especially considering all the disadvantages of CRT projectors.
Excellent: Sony VPL-VW50 Pearl
Extremely Good: BenQ W10000, Optoma HD81
Very Good: Epson Home, Pro Cinema 1080, Panasonic PT-AE1000U, Mitsubishi HC5000, BenQ W9000
The first three rely on dynamic irises, and therefore cannot deliver the kind of excellent blacks when bright areas are part of the frame. The Sony Pearl, and Optoma HD81, also use "gimmicks" (the Sony - dynamic iris, the Optoma, electronic image adjust), but the Sony starts out inherently with much blacker blacks, and is well above these. The last one, the W9000 mentioned here, was not tested. It is the only (so far) 1080p DLP projector with a Darkchip2 DLP chip instead of Darkchip3. I presume, from the less expensive (and lower contrast Darkchip2, that the W9000 will fit well into this grouping.
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1080p Home Theater Projector Brightness
If you try to use a projector on a large screen, and it just doesn't have enough lumens to do the job well, or if you are dealing with some modest ambient light, brightness becomes a factor of image quality. More than a few projectors that I can name (Panasonic PT-AE1000U, Mitsubishi HC5000, Sanyo Z4, Z5, Sony VPL-HS51 for example) are all very good projectors, but not one of them was able to give me a watchable image on my 128" diagonal Stewart Firehawk. They simply were not bright enough. Each of the mentioned projectors however, "came into their own" simply by my reducing the image size down to around 100" to 110" diagonal (depending on the projector). I should note that, when I say this, I'm talking about the projectors operating in their "best" (and dimmest) modes, with lamp on full power.
If you are planning a 92" diagonal or 100" diagonal screen in a fully darkened room, brightness really isn't a serious issue, but the most popular screen sizes seem to be 100", 106", 110" and, it seems that more and more people are looking to go larger - 115" - 130", or larger still. For the "larger still" crowd, none of these projectors really is bright enough to tackle a 150" diagonal screen, at least not in its best modes. And, since we are talking image quality - I want to keep this to "best modes".
Remember: Best modes here (I'll briefly discuss brightest modes later) Lumens are based on the Lamp being in its brightest mode:
Excellent: I've perhaps arbitrarily set 1000 lumens in best mode as the minimum for an Excellent rating. Although none of these can reach that, most 3 chip DLP projectors, including 720p and 1080p models exceed 1000 lumens in best mode and some produce several thousand lumens.
Very Good :
JVC RS1 - The JVC cranks out well over 700 lumens in its very best mode, which makes it the brightest of the field.
Optoma HD81 - Plenty of horsepower here, in best mode, outputting a most impressive 674 lumens, although that dropped by more than 100 lumens after calibration
Epson Home Cinema 1080 (and Pro Cinema 1080) I found the Theater Black 1 to be my preferred setup, although Theater Black 2 is not as bright. 597 lumens in Theater Black 1.
BenQ W10000 (note run with iris open - theirs is not a dynamic iris) a very repectable 506 lumens. The W9000 should be similar to the W10000.
Sony VW50 Pearl - 430 lumens
Mitsubishi HC5000 - 480 lumens
Panasonic PT-AE1000U - 295 lumens
1080p Home Theater Projector Image Sharpness
It's a strange world. For years, LCD projectors have generally been considered the sharpest of the technologies, trailed by both DLP and LCOS (Sony SXRD, JVC DiLA).
There are some mitigating factors. But, first, what is sharpness? We all have our idea of a sharp image, but the question is: Is sharpness the ability to resolve detail? Those heavily into photography would probably say yes. The issue, though, is that with projectors, perceived sharpness, and the ability to resolve detail, are not necessarily the same.
Consider: Especially with lower than 1080p resolution projectors, the pixel structure of LCD projectors is normally slightly visible much of the time at normal seating distances. Even DLP projectors, at those same seating distances, have pixel structures that are slightly visible only on large bright (near stationary) areas, and things like movie credits. LCOS projectors have pixel structures that are never visible at normal seating distances.
Anyway, the visibility of the pixels is the issue. Since they are effectively black - no, actually dark gray, frames around each pixel, I believe they tend to make the image appear a touch sharper. This was always my experience in the old days selling LCD and DLP business projectors. I suspect that even if you are just beyond the distance to make out the pixel mask, that your mind is still aware, and gives you that feel of "a little sharper".
The real point though, is that, technically, all projectors of the same resolution should have the same amount of information, and sharpness in reality is going to be a function, primarily, of the lens quality and related optical aspects.
With 1080p projectors, only two of those considered here - the Mitsubishi HC5000 and Epson Home Cinema 1080 (both LCD) have pixel structures that are visible at all, at normal seating distances, and then barely, and on the right content (large white areas, credits...). The third LCD model, the Panasonic PT-AE1000U, uses their smoothscreen technology, with makes their pixel structue less visible than even DLP, but does create some softness.
The bottom line on this, is that when I discuss image sharpness, I'm talking about perceived sharpness, whether it's due to optical aspects, the type of engine (LCD, DLP, LCOS) or other aspects. Some projectors just seem sharper than others. My point, is that this doesn't mean you actually get to see more detail, you just assume you are. In fact, especially for those of you who do like to adjust the sharpness on your TV's projectors etc, for a sharper image, increasing the sharpness setting on most display devices, engages algorthyms that most often use techniques that most often reduce detail (like edge sharpening), by increasing the contrast between pixels with different content.
For this discussion on image sharpness, I'm speaking of perceived, rather than actually being able to resolve detail. In fact, when testing projectors, more often than not, I actually reduce the default sharpness setting to bring back detail, since manufacturers tend to want to impress you with an oversharp image.
So, here goes, remember - perceived:
Excellent: Mitsubishi HC5000, BenQ W10000 (and W9000), Optoma HD81
Very Good: JVC RS1, Epson Home Cinema 1080 (and Pro), Sony Pearl
Good: Panasonic PT-AE1000U (It's that smoothscreen technology they use), the trade-off, I should note, is that compared to the other LCD projectors, the Panasonic PT-AE1000U has that more "film-like" feel, which you might think of as a "natural" or just "less there" - that the projector doesn't make itself obvious. That the image is the image, and not an image from a projector. (I've been trying for years to describe "film-like" and I guess in this arena, its being less aware of the technology, in the image.
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Overall Image Quality
Most of you by now know what I'm going to say. So I'll get it over with:
Best Overall Image Quality:
The JVC RS1, hands down, is the king of overall Image Quality. It simply outperforms the competition, in almost every area. It has a WOW factor that none can rival (although the Sony is at least somewhat competitive, and all of these projectors - on their own, are still very impressive.
The thing about the JVC, is that it is strong in all areas. Out of the box, as noted is respectable, and it adjusts beautifly, Black levels and shadow detail are also unmatched by any of the competition, although the Sony comes closest. While sharpness isn't the JVC's strength, it comes close enough to the sharpest, that I didn't consider it's slight softness compared to the Mitsubishi, Optoma or BenQ.
Perhaps, these five images from the JVC show best why the JVC is, solidly, at the top of my list:
Now getting to the rest of our field of projectors.
Runner-up: Overall Image Quality
If I had to pick my second choice for best image quality, things start getting a bit murky. Overall, I have to go with the Sony Pearl, primarily by virtue of it's second best black levels and shadow detail, but, because it is a bit softer in sharpness, and not that much better than the Optoma and BenQ W10000, it's a close call. The Panasonic too, is very film like.
A couple of excellent examples from the Sony VW50 Pearl:
The W10000 and the Optoma HD81, in my opinion, when properly set up and adjusted are a tie, the differences lie more in their physical attributes and other general performance areas.
The BenQ W10000 images:
The Optoma HD81:
And that brings us to the three LCD projectors. While I think I favor the two DLP's over any of the LCD's (for image quality), I don't believe that others will necessarily share my priorities.
The Mitsubishi HC5000 will have lots of appeal, it's perceived sharpness is stunning, it may be just those pesky pixels, but I can apprecate that look of "razor sharp" a term I wouln't really use to describe any of the others.
On the other hand, even though the Epson uses the same LCD panels as the HC5000, it seems to me that the Epson Home Cinema 1080's pixels are a bit less visible (softer?), and that is going to be a plus for many.
Epson Home Cinema 1080:
The Panasonic, the softest appearing (but only by a slight amount), of the field, makes up for it by looking very natural - film-like, as mentioned before. As such, of the three LCD's I personally favor the Panasonic for those with good light controlled rooms working with smaller screens (100" diagonal or less). Also, please keep in mind, that when I describe the Panasonic as having a soft image, don't get me wrong, it easily produces a much sharper image than any of the lower cost 1080p projectors. It is much closer to the sharpest 1080p projector in terms of sharpness, than any of the 720p projectors.
As you can see, we have trade-offs, when considering overall image quality, too many factors, and some will be biased towards projectors with certain strengths - i.e. some will favor those with better perceived sharpness, others brightness, still others, shadow details and black levels...
Generally, I prefer the two DLP projectors overall, in terms of image quality, over the three LCD projectors, although the Panasonic's film-like quality is very close to the DLP's and perhaps as good, in that regard. Remember, this is just my 2 cents, and that these LCD projectors are far more flexible in terms of placement, so many of you simply can't opt for the DLPs.
Let me put that into English: You will have to weigh the tradeoffs. (And remember, we aren't even discussing pricing at this point). What's your preferred? The projector with good shadow detail and sharpness, vs the one that's not as bright, or as good on shadow detail (and black levels) but more film-like..., and with slightly better color balance? Too bad we all can't walk into a room and see all the projectors side by side on the same material. (At least I get to play with them all extensively, and often have two or more for comparison, at one time)
Time to consider some of the other performance aspects - those not related directly to overall image quality, so let's move to the General Performance section.