1080p Projector Report - Best in Class Awards for 2009
March 2009 - Art Feierman
1080p Home Theater Projectors - Our Award Winners:
Awards are organized by the three Classes of Projectors:
Entry Level Projectors: $2100 and under (street price)
Medium priced projectors: $2100 - $3500 (street price)
Higher End Projectors: $3500 - $10,000 (street price)
Class: Entry Level Projectors: Under $2100, Street Price
Best in Class Award: Epson Home Cinema 6100
While the Epson Home Cinema 6100 prices out higher than three of the other four projectors in this price range, it delivers a lot of extra performance over the competition. The Epson's strengths fall in four categories: Brightness, black level performance, warranty, and placement flexibility.
Let's start with brightness. In "best" mode (TheaterBlack1), the Epson is in the middle of the pack, just slightly less bright than the InFocus X10. White it is dramatically less bright than the Optoma HD806's "best" mode, we don't consider that a real factor, as the Optoma's "best" mode performance isn't as good as the Epson's "brightest" mode performance. The Epson in "best" mode, easily tramples the other two 3LCD projectors in this group, in terms of sheer lumen output.
When considering "brightest" mode, however, the Epson is the brightest of the group, crushing the other 3LCD projectors in measured brightness, as well as the InFocus (which has well less than half the lumen output). The Optoma HD806 is the only one of the other four that comes close in brightness, but it can't match the picture quality.
It comes down to this. Although the Epson doesn't have enough lumens in its "best" mode to fill a larger than 110" screen (normal screen surfaces, not high gain), for those that do want to go larger, Epson has multiple preset modes, and can still produce a good image capable of handling a larger screen.
In "brightest" mode, the Epson is a "light cannon", easily able to handle my own 128" Firehawk G3 screen, with moderate amounts of controlled ambient light. Only the Optoma comes close, and when comparing the two, in "brightest" mode, the Epson wins in terms of image quality.
In the quest for the best black level performance, none of these projectors can match any of the more expensive "ultra-high-contrast" projectors, but the Epson is the best of these five. Although the differences aren't great, there is enough difference between the Epson and the others, to give it a real advantage with those seeking best overall image quality. Only the Mitsubishi HC5500 comes really close.
Warranty is another plus for the Home Cinema 6100 projector. Epson delivers a two year warranty, with their overnight replacement program for both years. While the Sanyo PLV-Z700 has a three year warranty (the only one of this group), the Epson replacement program is a real plus, putting the Epson warranty close overall to the Sanyo. The other three projectors have either a one or two year warranty, without any replacement type program.
As an added bonus, the longer than typical life lamp will save you money. It's 3000 hours at full power is 50% longer than almost all projectors.
Placement flexibility has always been an Epson strength. Its 2.1:1 zoom lens range is the best of the field (even if only a hair better than the Sanyo PLV-Z700). A lot of lens shift, along with the zoom lens range, makes it the most flexible in terms of placement, with only the Sanyo PLV-Z700 coming close. The other three projectors all offer 1.2:1 zoom lenses, and no lens shift, restricting them, first of all, to ceiling mounting only (or tabletop). The Epson is just as at home whether you ceiling mount, shelf mount, or put it on a table top. As an added bonus, if you are ceiling mounting, you can change out the lamp without unmounting the projector. That's a nice feature found in only about half of the home theater projectors out there.
No projector is perfect, but we're talking "entry-level" 1080p projectors here. We looked and did a side by side with the not that much more expensive, Sanyo PLV-Z3000 (less than $500 more), an award winner in the next category up. The Z3000 is the least expensive of the ultra-high-contrast projectors, and the one with the weakest black level performance, but it still did noticeably better black levels. It would be easy to recommend to people looking for image performance to spend the extra for the Sanyo, but then there's also the issue of the brightness differences, with the Sanyo PLV-Z3000 having only about 2/3rds the lumens in both "best" and "brightest" modes. So, yes, for less than $500 more, you can get better black levels, but only if you are willing to stick with a smaller screen size.
As you can imagine, the Epson's own, more expensive 6500UB matches or beats the 6100 at everything, but the primary difference is dramatically (perhaps "drastically" is a better descriptor), better black levels. In other words, you can get the 6500UB with a couple of extra features, but primarily you are paying for black levels in a different class. The higher end Epson will set you back almost $1000 more, and that's really enough price difference that the two Epsons aren't really competitors.
The Epson does not support an external anamorphic lens, but that is not a significant factor. If you really want to spring $3000 - $4000+ for an anamorphic lens and sled, you almost certainly would spend the many hundreds more for one of the ultra-high-contrast projectors.
Bottom Line: We consider this Epson to be the Best In Class, of the lower priced projectors. The real challenge for most potential buyers, will be to determine if it's worth the difference over the least expensive in this group. And, on the other side of the equation, you'll need to decide if any of the few lower cost projectors in the next more expensive category, are within financial reach, and worth it to you for the extra black level performance (and other features).
The sheer brilliance of the Home Cinema 6100 really sets it apart from others in this class. When you need the lumens, it can deliver far more than the competion (at least 50% more). That, along with a rich dynamic image, with lots of "pop and wow" should keep all but the black level fanatics thoroughly happy.
Best in Class, Runner-up Award: Sanyo PLV-Z700 Projector
I really like Sanyo's PLV-Z700. First of all, it is the lowest cost of all the 1080p projectors covered in this report. While it is currently (3/09) close to the $1500 price point, it's still a good $500 more than most of the 720p projectors. Let's say it's the one 1080p projector whose price is within striking distance, for those with 720p budgets, but who really wish they could afford a 1080p projector.
First things first. The PLV-Z700 does a pretty good job, right out of the box, in terms of color accuracy, and general image performance. That's better than most projectors. Still, a nice calibration will improve it further, and, of course, we recommend getting the best out of your investment. Once nicely adjusted, skin tones were "extremely good overall" (the phrase I used in the review). Shadow detail is really good as well.
Although the Sanyo has a significant price advantage over the Epson, there are areas where the Z700 cannot match the Epson:
First, the black level performance of the PLV-Z700 is a bit disappointing. Oh, it's not bad, but most of the competition in this category are just a little better, especially the Epson. However, we may be quibbling here, all in this price range are fairly comparable. Consider that the Z700 is much closer to the Epson 6100 in black levels, than the Epson is to the least expensive ultra-high-contrast projector, Sanyo's own flagship; the PLV-Z3000.
The other item is brightness. I won't go into the details here (see the review), but in its very best mode, the Sanyo is noticeably not bright at all. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to set this Sanyo up to get a respectable amount of lumens out of a "slightly modified" "best" mode. As we point out in the review, however, to get the most lumens out, you'll need to turn off the dynamic iris, which futher reduces black level performance. Fortunately, there are steps in between, but no matter how we slice it, the Epson 6100 is brighter, both in "best", and "brightest" modes, and more suitable for screens larger than 100" diagonal. In "brightest" mode, using settings we discuss to get more brightness, the Sanyo is still just average.
You can't argue with the Sanyo's placement flexibility, like the Epson, it has lots of lens shift, and its 2:1 zoom lens offers almost the same range as the Epson.
One big plus for the Z700 is its warranty, a three year parts and labor warranty. Now that's hard to beat. Other niceties include a motorized door that covers the lens (keeps out those pesky spiders and their webs, dust, etc.) when the projector is turned off. The lens shift has a nice lock to hold the settings firmly in place, and the Z700 has a way for the end user to clear the light path of one of those faint dust blobs, should one appear on your screen.
Bottom line: Hey, it's the most entry level 1080p projector. True, black levels could be a bit better, and it could be brighter, too, but the PLV-Z700 puts a really good image on the screen, with great color. The Z700's appeal to those on a tight budget, who otherwise are limited to 720p projectors, will be strong. For those not enthusiasts, the Z700 should prove very satisfying. It also makes great sense as a first projector for many who, once starting with this Sanyo, expect that they will eventually move up to one of the ultra-high-contrast projectors. That strategy means shelling out the least money now, leaving more cash for an upgrade a year or three down the line. I must say this, I ask a lot of people whose emails I answer to provide me feedback after they buy. So far, the word back is that PLV-Z700 owners are generally extremely pleased. What more is there to say?
Best in Class Special, Interest Award: InFocus X10
There's still something about DLP projectors (even though they've lost their black level advantage over the other technologies), in terms of overall picture, that still has many enthusiasts favoring this technology. In addition, as a group, the DLP projectors generally are considered a little sharper than 3LCD and LCoS projectors (though slight). These factors, for a significant number of buyers, are more important than the lack of placement flexibility.
The X10 from InFocus is their least expensive of four 1080p projectors in their lineup! It starts with a nice, sharp image, it offers average black level performance for an entry level projector, but has particularly good color, right out of the box. So good, in fact, that the only significant change needed is a dramatic reduction of the Contrast setting. The InFocus X10 also can claim extremely impressive shadow detail.
The X10 is the only projector in this group that is ISF certified. (that means it has extra modes available for an ISF certified calibrator to set up).
When it comes to brightness, the X10 is absolutely brilliant in "best" mode, in fact the brightest of the projectors in this category. That means movie only type folks can enjoy a large screen, a size, even two over 110" diagonal. If you need extra lumens for some viewing (sports/HDTV?), the InFocus again comes through. You'll need to engage their version of TI's Brilliant Color, but that will increase brightness by about 60%, and put it roughly comparable to the Sanyo, though not as bright as the Epson.
The limited placement flexibility is an issue, and costs the X10 significantly in this comparison. With a typical (of DLP projectors) 1.2:1 zoom, and no lens shift, this is a ceiling mount projector only- rear shelf mounting just won't work. There is another issue, though, as well, and that is the large amount of fixed lens shift. It requires the InFocus to typically be mounted about 18" above a 100" screen surface. This makes it tough to place in a room with an standard 8 foot high ceiling. (With a 110" screen, and the projector mounted six inches below the ceiling (about as close as one can get), the bottom of the screen would only be about 20 inches off the floor). With a 100" screen, that increases to about 2 feet, which for most, is as low as they would want to go.
Bottom line on the X10: An excellent projector, and particularly so, right out of the box. It's one of the brighter projectors - a plus, but offsetting this, is limited placement flexibility, which in this case, means the projector likely won't work in the rooms of the majority of potential buyers. Black levels definitely could be better, but even the best in this group is only slightly better. I really do like the sharp image, and the natural colors. The X10 performs great, except on those really dark scenes.
Class: Medium Priced 1080p Home Theater Projectors: $2100 - $3500
Best In Class Award (tie): Epson Home Cinema 6500UB Projector
In a sense, I guess Epson could be said to be losing ground. Last year, the 6500UB's predecessor has this Best In Class Award all to itself, but this time, the Home Cinema 6500UB ends up in a tie. This is discussed in greater depth in the Home Cinema 6500UB vs. PT-AE3000 head to head article that is part of this comparison.
OK, down to business. First, this Epson is a definite jump in performance over any of the projectors in the lower price range class. Nothing there even comes close. Among the projectors in this class, there is some very interesting competition, but none of them can beat out the Epson, overall, although different projectors have different strengths.
Despite the Epson 6500UB's less than stellar start (CFI and de-focusing issues), when you look at everything, it is definitely hard to beat. A projector with the image quality it offers, can handle a little criticism, so we'll get to that further down.
The first and perhaps most important strength of the 6500UB, is its ability to do better black levels than any other projector anywhere near its price. The Panasonic and the Mitsubishi HC7000 come close, but that's all. Black levels have been the "holy grail" for years. Epson set the black levels standard for "affordable" projectors with their 1080 UB, last year. The 6500UB, by comparison, is only slightly better, but enough so, to keep it a noticeable distance ahead of the competition.
Color accuracy out of the box isn't bad, but, as with almost all projectors, gets a significant improvement with calibration.
What is spectacular is the combination of the Epson's post calibration color accuracy, combined with the excellent black levels. The end result is a dynamic, rich image with plenty of lumens, and lots of "wow" factor. Epson UB owners (including the older 1080UB) who have emailed me, generally rave about their choice.
OK, so you have to spend a lot more for better black levels. What about the rest of the projector's image quality? Shadow detail is very good, but can be bested slightly by a number of projectors. While color accuracy after calibration is excellent, the Epson picture lacks some of that subjective term "film-like". Instead, you get a picture with a little more "pop and wow factor". Dark scenes are just spectacular compared to almost all of the competition, thanks to the dark, rich blacks, and rich dynamics of the projected image. On normal scenes, some may favor slightly, the more muted "film-like" look of, say, the Panasonic PT-AE3000, but, for example, both do very good skin tones. Let's put it this way: On the wrong scene, the Epson image can be a touch "over the top", while, by comparison, a projector like the Panasonic, can be thought of, as going the other way - a little bland looking.
The next key aspect of the Home Cinema 6500UB is brightness. As is typical of 3LCD projectors, it is not overly bright in its "best" mode, but in its "brightest" mode it is a "light canon". Further, you can get some really good image quality results by calibrating one of the intermediate modes, such as LivingRoom. Epson uses a special color filter in its "best" and similar modes (TheaterBlack1...) and that eats up a lot of lumens.
Still, and perhaps more to the point, it is the brightest in both "best", and "brightest" modes, of all the 3LCD projectors in this price class. While there are some DLP models that are brighter in their "best" modes, none come anywhere close to matching this Epson, when you need maximum lumens for tackling ambient light.
I do believe brightness, (strangely), is often an area that is not given the importance it deserves. Extra brightness of 20-30% can mean you can handle a screen a couple of sizes larger. More to the point for many, is that they start with a projector that is bright enough, but as the lamp dims over time, they find themselves a bit underpowered. The Epson has lumens to spare, in most environments.
You also can't beat the Epson for its placement flexibility! The combination of 2.1:1 zoom and lots of vertical and horiztonal lens shift can't be beat by any projector covered in this report, regardless of price, although a few units pretty much are equal to the Epson.
Epson offers a much better than average warranty. Two years parts and labor, plus an overnight replacement program for both years. (I'm a big fan of having that replacement program). Epson also has a superb reputation for support and service.
Although the 6500UB has been tagged with two issues, neither is a deal breaker. One issue relates to their implementation of Creative Frame Interpolation, and the other to a de-focusing issue. I've blogged at length about both of these, so I'll keep this short. Epson has tried to do more in terms of creative frame interpolation, than the other two projectors with CFI (the Panasonic PT-AE3000 and the Sanyo PLV-Z3000). Unfortunately, where Epson have tried to "boldly go, where no other projector has gone before", they ended up with some modes that are not really usable. The 6500UB tries to take a 24fps movie and add 4 created frames between each original to achieve 120fps with no motion blur. Sorry Epson, the final product just isn't very watchable. (Only Panasonic has even tried creating FI with 24fps (blu-ray movies), and they only add one frame.) The end result, however is this. Epson's FI works just fine for sports coming in off of your HDTV, and their 4:4 (taking 24fps to 96fps) works very well for movie watching. Just don't try using it with 24fps off of disc, or movies on 24fps coming across at 60fps on HDTV. You likely won't like the effect, which I refer to as a "live digital video" look to movies, and what some others call a "soap opera" look. With 40+ under $10,000 home theater projectors out there, and I believe, only 3 even messing with CFI, it's hard to take points away for a weak implementation of an option almost none of competition even offers.
I also mentioned de-focusing, which appeared in most units, but to varying amounts with the initial shipments in January. Now a month or so later, Epson already advises that they have identified the problem, changed manufacturing to correct it, and will take care of anyone with an earlier unit, who has enough de-focusing to be unhappy with it.
Before we start on the Panasonic PT-AE3000, which shares the Best in Class award, let me interject my own preference. Of the two, I personally favor the Epson, although I fully understand the reasons many others have cited for choosing the Panasonic over the Epson.
Best in Class Award (tie): Panasonic PT-AE3000
Panasonic has built an excellent, well balanced projector. As one of the ultra high contrast 3LCD projectors, it has extremely good black levels, although not as good as the Epson projector it shares the award with. That still makes the Panasonic the next best thing in this class and it has better black levels than a number of the more expensive projectors. The PT-AE3000 produces a natural looking, "film-like" image, with very good skin tones.
The PT-AE3000 is about average in brightness, making it suitable for screens up to about 110" diagonal, or, under the right circumstances, a little larger. It's actually a little brighter than average in "brightest" mode. That said, it shares the award with an Epson this is significantly brighter in "best" or "brightest".
Placement flexibility is outstanding, and almost identical to the Epson. Having a motorized zoom and focus is a nice plus.
Panasonic has the most comprehensive/best implementation of CFI (creative frame interpolation) of any projector in the review. And, it does it rather well, with a minimum of artifacts. It works with both 24fps movies as well as 60fps HDTV/TV content. The Sanyo, by comparison, has a good CFI capability, but only for 60fps, not 24fps movies. The Epson does well enough on 60fps, but has serious artifact problems (mostly image jerkiness) with 24fps. While I don't consider CFI an important feature, there are those who do like it. (I expect "next generation" CFI to be better.)
The PT-AE3000 also has a most interesting anamorphic lens emulation mode, which is discussed elsewhere, let's just say it's a low cost way to go Cinemascope (2.35:1) screen, to eliminate letterboxing, without spendng thousands of dollars for an anamorphic lens and motorized sled.
For those who like to play with their projectors, it has a powerful color management system and oscilloscope like image analysis tools, and a split before/after screen, for seeing your changes.
The Panasonic receives its Best In Class Award for being extremely good at everything, though not necessarily the best. You should really like the PT-AE3000, as long as you don't put it in an environment where it runs out of lumens.
Put it all of that together, and have a projector with not a single major flaw, and a great picture. You can expect one fine viewing experience.
Best in Class, Runner-Up: BenQ W5000 Projector
The W5000 is an excellent DLP projector. We really liked it last year when it cost well over $1000 more than today. Last year it was tie for Runner-up, in this class, so you may well ask, "if the price dropped so much, how come it didn't do better this year?"
The answer is straightforward - this year it's facing a large number of projectors not around last year. For example, last year, only the Epson 1080 UB (in this price range) had black levels dramatically better than the W5000. This year, we have four ultra-high-contrast 3LCD projectors in the class, instead of one.
Still, the W5000's overall picture quality is most impressive. The more than typical image noise, which hurt it last year, has been solved, and is no longer an issue. The only remaining issue, is that the HDMI inputs are 1.2 not the newer 1.3. This does mean that when we start getting Blu-ray content with Deep Color (a larger color palette), the W5000 won't be able to take advantage. The BenQ W5000 only comes with a one year warranty, which is shorter than most.
The image the W5000 projects is very sharp.
As is typical of DLP home theater projectors, the W5000 is well, brighter than the average home theater in "best" mode, so handling a large screen for movie watching is not a problem. Also typical, is the less than great increase in lumens when going to its brightest mode (Dynamic). Like virtually all DLP projectors, it offers Brilliant Color. Using brilliant color gives you a further boost of lumens which, in Dynamic mode makes the W5000 on the bright side of average. If you are looking for the best, most faithful image, you'll want Brilliant Color off, but for "brightest" mode when you need it, you'll almost certainly want it on.
The BenQ has a manual iris. The more you stop it down, the less lumens, but you do get a slight improvement in black levels. We found black levels to be very good, even with the iris almot fully open, and when it is, you have that better than average brightness I've already mentioned.
I'm an old BenQ projector owner, and was always pleased (despite my slight sensitivity to the rainbow effect). The W5000 is a projector I have recommended often, to those favoring the DLP "look and feel" and also for those bothered by "motion blur", a group that tends to favor DLP.
The BenQ is more versatile than many other DLP projectors, in that it offers lens shift. In addition, the 1.2:1 zoom lens is longer throw than most DLP's offer, so it actually can be shelf mounted in the rear of a lot of rooms, if that works best for you.
Bottom line: It starts with better than most color accuracy, and it calibrates very nicely. Good black level performance combines with those DLP film-like tendencies (including very rich dark colors), to make a well balanced, sharp, and bright projector.
As I pointed out last year, in the lower price ranges, the W5000 is one of the very few projectors I would consider as a replacement for my JVC, if I had to lose it, and buy something far less expensive.
Special Interest Awards
After much consideration, we have decided to award two Special Interest Awards to projectors that are (at least supposedly), only available from local installing dealers. As most of you already realize, projectors sold by local dealers tend to cost consumers more than projectors purchased online. The reason is obvious - local dealers are installation and support oriented (by nature), or certainly should be. Because they sell relatively few projectors compared to online dealers, and have much higher overhead, per sale, they need to charge more (higher profit margins) to stay in business.
This, to us, makes sense. Not everyone is a hobbyist, who has no problems putting in their own ceiling mounts, opening walls to run cables, etc. Many, if not most home theater projector buyers are more of th,: "I want a home theater, and I'm wiling to pay others to make it happen." and "Do it myself? I wouldn't know where to begin." variety.
As such, these two awards below, go to projectors that are not available online, but provide an excellent value proposition (and performance), that makes them particularly good values among the many "local dealer only" projectors out there.
Special Interest Award: Epson Pro Cinema 7500UB
Epson makes two versions of their "UB" projector (for the US market - only one overseas - the TW5000). The Home Cinema 6500UB, which receives our Best In Class award, has already been discussed. Our Special Interest award winner from Epson is their "Pro Cinema 7500UB". For the most part, they are the same projector, with a handful of differences, to, quite honestly "differentiate" them, so that local dealers won't necessarily lose a projector sale to an online retailer.
The Pro Cinema 7500UB offers these "extras", in exchange for pricing that is about 20% or so higher:
Internal support for an anamorphic lens and sled. If you want to go with a Cinemascope screen (2.35:1) to eliminate letterboxing on Cinemascope (most) movies, the 7500UB makes more sense than the lower cost 6500UB, because it doesn't need an external scaler (figure about $800 or more extra, depending on the brand).
Black finish instead of white. For those doing fancier theaters - with darkened ceilings, that's a plus, aesthetically, when the lights are on, and the projector is off.
The Pro Cinema 7500UB is ISF certified - which means two extra memory modes (the Epson already has plenty), but reserved (by password) for a professional calibrator to use.
An extra year of warranty (three total) and Epson's replacement program for all three years (instead of two). That should be worth a few hundred extra for most buyers.
Spare lamp and mount: The 7500UB comes with a spare lamp (we value that at $350), and a ceiling mount (figure worth $100 for those planning to ceiling mount, or worth nothing except as a boat anchor for a very small boat, for those planning to put their 7500UB on a shelf).
Subtract out the value of the warranty, lamp and mount, and the 7500UB likely costs only about $600 more than a 6500UB. For that extra, you should be getting local dealer support that should really be appreciated by those who are of the, "I want to enjoy my theater, not build it," crowd.
The things we like most, however about the Epson Home Cinema 6500UB remain unchanged for the 7500UB:
- Superb black level performance - best in class in this price range.
- Brightness - the 7500UB is brighter than any other 3LCD projector, in both "best" and "brightest" modes, and while some non-3LCD projectors are brighter in their "best" modes, none comes close when you need lots of lumens
- A dynamic looking image - lots of "wow factor"
- Long life lamp - rated 3000/4000 hours (full and low power), which can save some real dollars compared to most projectors claiming 2000/3000 (or less).
Bottom line: The Epson Pro Cinema 7500UB is about as good as you will find for its price, if you are looking for a projector found locally, from an installing dealer. It is also one of the brightest, a real plus for those who want larger screens, or just need to watch some content with significant ambient light present.
Special Interest Award: Mitsubishi HC7000
The HC7000 is, for all practical purposes, the most direct competitor around to the Pro Cinema 7500UB. These two projectors are very close in overall performance, but with the usual trade-offs. We present the HC7000 as another projector, comparable to the Epson. It is one that will be a better choice of the two for some, while the Epson will make more sense for the rest.
The HC7000 is another "ultra-high-contrast" projector, and delivers on that promise with excellent black levels. The HC7000 can't quite match the Epson's black levels, but it is sufficiently close, as to be of little consequence. This Mitsubishi does have an advantage in black level performance over the Panasonic PT-AE3000.
The HC7000 comes with an "industry standard" two year parts and labor warranty.
Perhaps the only potential shortcoming of this projector is that the HC7000 is not one of the brighter projectors in this class. In this regard, it is best when used with typical screens of about 100" diagonal. You can push it a little larger, but not by that much.
On the other hand, there is a great deal to like about the HC7000. It's quiet, almost silent, and is actually quieter in its high power lamp mode, than most projectors can accomplish with their lamps running on low power, and the matching slower fan speeds.
And it's automated - power zoom, focus and lens shift, all very nice touches. Styling is pretty impressive as well, the HC7000 scores very high in terms of "wife approval factor." I should note that it has a little bit less placement flexibility than some others, but enough that shelf mounting should work in the vast majority of rooms. It, of course, has almost infinitely more placement flexibility than the typical DLP projector that it competes with.
The real strong point of the HC7000 though is the overall picture quality. Properly set up, the HC7000 is more than the sum of its parts. The excellent black levels, very good dark shadow detail, and very natural color accuracy (post calibration), combine with a lot of "pop and wow" (for a projector without an abundance of lumens), to provide what I described in the full review, as "one of the most enjoyable projectors to watch." In fact this concluding line in the Overall Picture Quality section of the review, says it all:
"The point here, is that the HC7000 has no significant weaknesses in any areas directly dealing with color and overall picture."
Bottom line: A first class projector for the bucks, for those not planning to go with really a large screen. Sharp, silent, and a great picture - what's not to like.
Category: Higher End Priced 1080p Home Theater Projectors: $3500 - $10,000
Best In Class Award: JVC DLA-RS20
Simply stated, the JVC DLA-RS20 is the best 1080p projector we've ever reviewed.
Is it perfect - no, but it is not only extremely good in almost every category we consider, but it is also better in many of those categories, than any other projector. Some projectors are particularly good at some things, whereas the RS20 is extremely good at almost everything that counts.
Black level performance is unmatched. Shadow detail is definitely very good. Sharpness is on the high side of average for 1080p projectors, but then none of them is weak in this area. It can't quite match the sharpness of the best, but for most of us, is close enough as to not matter.
And then there's brightness. In "best" mode it is almost the brightest projector around. In "brightest" mode, however, the JVC is only average. Still, I find it sufficient enough for my large room, with 128" HC gray Firehawk screen, with acceptable low to moderate ambient lighting I favor for sports viewing. For viewing movies with the room fully darkened, it is brilliant, bright enough, in fact, that even with my large, not bright screen, I occasionally dial down the brightness with the manual iris. Most of the projectors in this entire review, don't even have the lumens to fill my large screen for movie watching, at least not in their "best" modes.
The biggest complaint I have about the RS20 is in terms of calibrating it. It is probably the trickiest calibration job I've encountered. Due to their somewhat funky CMS (color management system), we had to seek some outside help to get the most out of the DLA-RS20. We strongly recommend that those buying an RS20 make a point to have their calibrator read our section on calibration, and the links about calibrating it that we have provided. Our settings do, however work splendidly. I took the final results of the review unit's calibration and dropped them into my own new RS20 which arrived last week. I then put the two projectors side by side, and they were almost identical. I couldn't peg one as better than the other, just very, very, slghtly different.
Bottom Line: The JVC RS20 gets my highest commendation. If I wasn't sufficiently dazzled, believe me, I could have easily waited another year, getting by nicely with my older JVC RS1! I've already got almost 50 hours on the RS20 and have enjoyed every minute of it, whether watching movies, sports or those great looking Discovery HD (and similar) channels with superb imagery.
Best In Class Award, Runner-Up: JVC DLA-RS10
Well, the JVC DLA-RS10 isn't the best thing around, as its big brother, the RS20 has that honor. But, it is a close second. This is the second year running that the two JVC LCoS projectors have swept the two top spots.
Last year, though, there were three distinct trade-offs. The RS1 (and RS1x) were noticeably brighter than the RS2 (the reason I didn't buy an RS2 was not enough lumens for my room). The RS2 had even better black levels, and the last difference was that the RS2 cost significantly more.
This time around, the two projectors are almost identical in brightness, but the other two differences remain the same: The RS20 wins in black level performance, and the RS10 is a couple thousand dollars less!
None of the other projectors reviewed can match the RS10's black levels (except of course the RS20), however a few come close. There's the lower cost Epson UB, BenQ's W20000, and the Planar 8150 is pretty good too.
The real dilemma for most people considering the RS10 is balancing budget with performance. Think of the DLA-RS10 as the product in the middle.
It costs a chunk more than the excellent, but not as refined (in picture quality) Epson UB projectors, and it saves you a similar chunk compared to the RS20.
The main thing is this. Compared to those other two, the JVC RS10 (for those that can afford), by my take, is worth the difference over the Epson. On the other hand, if you are looking for the very best performance, one could say that the RS20 is worth the difference over the RS10.
As an owner of an older Epson UB, and one who just sold my JVC RS1 for a new RS20, my best advice, is this. The RS10 is a great performer. If you can't quite afford the RS20, the RS10 should thoroughly please you with its performance. And that's why it gets our Runner-up award.
Special Interest Award (tie): InFocus IN83
The InFocus IN83 is all about the great color accuracy, and natural image. Of all the projectors I've reviewed, the IN83 still, in my opinion does the most natural, accurate skin tones, and for that matter, great color across the board.
That's the most important great thing about the IN83. The other major strengths include its brightness, both in "best" and "brightest" modes. There isn't anything significantly brighter anywhere near its price, and most competitors are no where near as bright. The other key strength is an exceptionally sharp image. I loved watching my college football on the IN83, filling my 128" screen - the picture was always razor sharp, and had plenty of lumens even with the amount of lighting I like on when friends are over. (If only my new JVC RS20 had the brightness of the IN83 in "brightest mode", I would be even more thrilled with it.)
With all that praise you may wonder why it's not a Best In Class winner. Here's the scoop: Black levels are only average, and not up to any of the ultra-high-contrast projectors. That puts it at a distinct disadvantage when watching content with a lot of very dark scenes. The other downside is the typical, limited placement flexibility of a DLP projector. The 1.2:1 zoom lens, no lens shift, and a lot of vertical offset, limit you to ceiling mounting.
All that brightness, may not benefit a lot of potential buyers. Because of the large amount of vertical offset, the projector needs to be mounted well above the top of the screen (about 18" above a 100" screen). One reason to want a bright projector is to tackle larger screens - say 120" diagonal and larger. The IN83 has the power, but if you don't have a fairly high ceiling, you won't be able to mount the projector high enough to be practical. For a 120" screen, if you are willing to have the bottom of your screen surface only two feet up from the floor, you'll need a ceiling height of at least 9.5 feet.
I should note that it was a close decsion between the IN83, and another excellent DLP projector, for this award. The other being the Planar PD8150. The Planar does have more placement flexibility (thanks to lens shift), and better black levels, but ultimately the almost flawless color performance, especially in terms of skin tones, and the lower cost won the day for InFocus, despite the Planar's very good out of the box color accuracy.
The IN83 therefore receives a Special Interest Award. A bright, sharp, great picture (black levels notwithstanding), but a projector that won't work for a lot of people due to limited placement. Still, if it will work in your room, and you can live with black level performance that was considered excellent 2 and a half years ago, go for it.
Special Interest Award (tie): Planar PD8150
Here's another excellent DLP projector. The Planar PD8150 offers the best black levels of any of the DLP projectors, and its out-of-the-box color accuracy is one of the best we've seen.
A bit of background. Planar is relatively new to home theater projectors - just a couple of years and change. One of their first actions as part of their entry, was to buy Runco, getting them the two top US brands of high end home theater projectors: Runco, and Vidikron. Those two lines are sold primarily though very high end home theater dealers. This allowed Planar the entry into that market, and the Planar branded projectors nicely serve as "entry level" products for those dealers. The PD8150 is the flagship of the Planar line.
Keeping in mind that projectors sold through local dealers will cost you more, but you get more support. With higher end dealers, that support tends to be better still. Thus, the Planar is not a projector for hobbyists, but for those who want a real quality picture, no hassle support, and are wiling to write the check.
With a price of $7999, the PD8150 is anything but cheap. In fact that puts it slightly higher than our Best In Class winner, the JVC RS20 (the projector I just bought for my main theater).
Placement flexibility - normally a real weakness of DLP projectors - is pretty good. The Planar has a good amount of lens shift, and it offers a 1.3:1 zoom lens - a bit more range than the 1.2:1 found on most DLP projectors. The two combine to allow a significant number of users who prefer to rear shelf mount, to use this projector. Those with a 100" diagonal screen can typically make it work in a room as much as 19 feet deep.
Brightness is a weakness of the PD8150. It's just above average brightness in its "best" mode, but is not much brighter at its "brightest". This makes it stronger as a projector for primarily movie watching, than one for those planning to watch a lot of everything else, including sports. Still, it has more than sufficient lumens for smaller screens, handling a 110" screen for movie watching, without breaking a sweat.
Still, it can't match the greater brightness of the IN83 that it shares this award with, especially in the "brightest" mode where the IN83 is one of the brightest.
As is typical of good DLP projectors, the image sharpness is excellent.
Post calibration, the Planar is excellent overall in terms of color accuracy, and a well balanced looking image.
It's got very impressive black levels for a DLP, thanks to use of a dynamic iris. That gives it a significant advantage over the InFocus IN83 above, but it still comes up a little short of the JVC RS10 and RS20, but makes it into that "ultra-high-contrast" class of projectors when it comes to black levels.
Bottom line: As I stated in the review: "I've now managed over 50 hours viewing on the Planar - and I never put in that many hours on a review projector, unless I'm impressed." The Planar is an excellent projector overall, albeit, not a particularly bright one. It has all the positive attributes that many people like about DLP projectors, and black levels that come close to the best. This is a projector that will have a lot of appeal to those not intimidated by its price, and who seek a quality local installing dealer, not only for a great viewing experience, but also want to set up a home theater with the mimimum of hassle.
Complete Home Theater System - Epson Ensemble HD 1080
Last summer, I reviewed the Epson Ensemble HD 1080 complete home theater system. I was so impressed, that it received our Outstanding Product of 2008 award.
The Ensemble HD is an outstanding solution for those not inclined to design and install their own home theater, but want a great solution, that will work in most rooms, provide really good picture quality, and impressive sound. It was designed to be easy to install, easy to use, and provide an excellent overall value. Now I know there are plenty of enthusiasts who tell me that they can piece together a solution with better picture and, as good as, or better sound, for less, sometimes citing as much as $2000 less, but my feeling is that they are missing the point. The Ensemble HD is not designed for them. It is designed for friends of those people. The ones who want a simple solution. Write a check, have it installed in less than a day, and start enjoying the world of large screen home theater.
I had long since reviewed the Epson Home Cinema 1080 which is the projector in the Ensemble HD 1080, so when Epson came to me to review the Ensemble I said, it only makes sense to review the concept, rather than the technical aspects, as those have already been addressed in the old Epson review. As it ended up, Epson sent a local dealer down to do the full installation in my testing room.
At the end of this section, you will be pointed to the Ensemble HD 1080 review, for those interested. In the meantime, here's what the Ensemble HD 1080 is all about.
It sells for $6999. That does not include installation. Generally installation should run only about $500 extra. It is sold only through authorized, installing dealers.
The projector, as noted, is the older Epson Home Cinema 1080. This model has just been replaced by the Epson Home Cinema 6100 which is, just slightly better - both projectors offer similar overall performance. The projector sits in a white, curved cradle that is typically ceiling mounted. The cradle also houses the left and right rear speakers. In the front of the room, is a 100" diagonal white surfaced screen that can be ceiling or wall mounted. The unique aspect of the motorized screen is that the top section, that houses the screen when up, also has the front left, center, and right speakers in it.
There are three other components. The AV Controller, is essentially an AV receiver that also has a standard DVD player (yes, and AM/FM tuner). There is a good sized powered sub-woofer, and an equipment stand that holds the AV Controller, the sub-woofer, and room for at least one other piece of equipment (in my setup, I managed to fit in my cable box, and a Nintendo Wii). To make it all work, it comes with a pre-programmed universal remote control.
To do the wiring, you don't need to open up a single wall. The Ensemble HD comes with channels, thin, powder coated white, that you can run along your ceiling or walls, that hide the wiring. The powder coating means you can paint over the channels with paint that matches your walls/ceiling, to make it all very neat, and barely noticeable. For my review, however, I wanted to see what a worst case scenario looked like, so I had them not use the channels, and instead open the walls and ceiling as would be done with a normal installation. Even doing it "the hard way", the total installation time was about 9 hours. The dealer says 4 to 5 hours for an installation using the channels. (Thus the approximate $500 cost to install.)
In those nine hours, over two days, not only did they open the walls, run all the wires, and dry wall them back up again, but they also painted over the drywalling with the matching paint I already had. It's that easy.
The only critical item I added (besides the cable box), was a Sony PS3 to serve as my Blu-Ray player. Figure almost everyone can buy one of these systems, with a blu-ray player add-on, installation, etc., and still get it done for under $8000 (sale tax in some states will put you over that).
The Ensemble HD 1080 has been in use in our house, as my 2nd theater for more than a half year now, and, well, it's a big success. While I mostly stay to my larger theater, I do use it from time to time. My wife and daughter - and their friends, all love it. I should note, that for the last 2+ months, I have managed to wangle an Epson Home Cinema 1080 UB to replace the base projector, but, my family never noticed the difference. If you want simple, effective, pleasureable, easy to use, and hassle free...If you want a solution that can be in use the same day, or day after you order it, and the price tag I mentioned doesn't intimidate you for a complete solution, then check out the full review!
A last thought. The Ensemble HD 1080, and its lower cost Ensemble HD720 are the first of a class of products that should bring real home theater (not 50" plasmas and LCDTV's) into the (fairly expensive) mass market. If home theater is your hobby, this isn't for you, but for all those friends you could never convince to go though all the details to pick out and have installed a custom home theater, point them this way. This is something that will make sense to them.
It's going to be up to Epson to figure out how to get the word out, to market this effectively. I hope we will see this product in Best Buy and other big-box houses really soon. I've got to go now. I need to tell my wife, daughter, and three or four friends to turn down the Ensemble HD. They are watching American Idol, and they are playing it loud enough that Simon is distracting to my writing.
NEXT: JVC DLA-RS20 warranty