Guide to the 2010 Home Theater Projector Comparison Report
Those of your who are regular readers of our reviews and articles should find this helpful. This particular section, however, is written primarily for those who are new to ProjectorReviews.com and new to home theater projectors.
April 2010 - Art Feierman
Welcome! This 2010 edition of our 1080p Projector Comparison report has been renamed the Home Theater Projector Comparison Report - 2010. It is once again, rather massive. This report, I should note, is still restricted to today's 1080p resolution home theater projectors. We do not include 720p projectors, as there are relatively few new 720p projectors hitting the market. To assist those not familiar with our site, or for that matter, our projector review layouts, and writing style, this guide should prove to be helpful.
The topics covered are:
- What's in this Report
- Defining your expectations: Are you an average consumer, enthusiast, or purist
- Understanding your room environment in selecting the proper projector equipment
You'll find the writing style of the report to be long on explanations. As you get the hang of things you will be able to scan though some content quickly. Because of the many sections here, and the overlapping effects of some features, you may find somewhat similar, fairly in-depth, explanations of the same feature, on the same projector. A good example are the discussions about Creative Frame Interpolation. (We'll explain that to you elsewhere.)
While my writing style can be a bit rambling, I do pay close attention to word crafting so that you can understand subtle differences. You should get different feels from phrases like very good, really good, impressive, especially good, rather excellent, excellent, and others.
On a personal note:
Much of this report is subjective. You are reading my opinions as to how these projectors look and feel, and my take on which are best. I realize some people get to see one, maybe two projectors "live" before buying, and most who buy on the internet buy sight unseen. With that in mind, I take my reviewing seriously. I get to watch each one extensively and play with it at length. From that, I draw my conclusions. Because there is subjectivity, my opinion isn't fact, but I do get very positive feedback from almost everyone that emails me. Those who bought based on the information I provide, tell me I'm hitting the mark. I wouldn't have it any other way! Of course, as I tell you all, unless you are on your 2nd or 3rd projector, you will almost certainly find today's home theater projectors end up looking a lot better in your home, than you imagined!
As I like to say when people ask me what I do: "I pay myself a bunch of money to sit home and watch movies and football games (HDTV)". Well, it's obviously not that easy, but it works for me. (And bunches of money aren't huge amounts, nope like bushels or wheel barrels or tractor trailers full.
I digress. Time to move on.
What's In This Report
This is as good a place to start, as any.
Organization: This report considers about 30 1080p home theater projectors.
The 30 projectors consist of:
- 26 have full reviews
- 2 additional projectors that are almost identical to ones reviewed, but for a couple of extra features (the Epson Home Cinema 8500UB info is based on the almost identical Pro Cinema 9500UB, and the Pro Cinema 9100 performance and positioning are based on the Home Cinema 8100..
- 1 projector in mid-review - the Mitsubishi HC6800. It's calibrated and I've been watching it, but the review will follow this report
- 1 projector mentioned briefly, that I felt important to mention, even though I was not able to get one in for review. (Samsung SP-A900)
Projectors are organized into three tiers, or as we call them Classes:
Entry Level Projectors: Under $2000
Mid-Priced Projectors: $2000 - $3500
Premium Priced Projectors: $3500 - $10,000
Awards are issued in each of the classes. The awards are:
Best In Class, Best In Class - Runner-up, and Special Interest
Pricing is based on estimated "street price" from authorized dealers. We say authorized, because once in a while you may see what seems to be a price ridiculously lower than everywhere else, from a non-authorized dealer. Remember - "let the buyer beware". If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
There are NINE sections to the review, excluding this guide:
Home Page of the 1080p Projector Comparison Report:
This page provides additional guidance, and offers information in three topics:
- Overview: General information to get everyone started (including some basics from this page). Also in this section:
Projectors listed by price Class, with direct links to the individual reviews, and to each projector's Specs page in our database
- Highlights: A paragraph or two, highlighting key aspects and features of each projector, organized by Class, and listed alpabetically
- Special Features: Discusses a number of special features found on different projectors, such as dynamic irises, creative frame interpolation.
This page covers a number of topics. They are pretty much self-explanatory. The topics are:
- Appearance (and physical layout)
- Control Panel
- Inputs and Outputs
- Remote Control
- Lens Throw and Lens Shift
- Anamorphic Lens Support
Image Quality Page
This page covers:
- Out of the Box Picture Quality
- Skin (Flesh) Tones
- Black Levels and Shadow Detail
- Color and Picture Quality (post-calibration)
- HDTV (how well a projector is at handling general HDTV, and TV programming, and sports)
This page covers:
- Audible Noise
Discusses calibration (detailed information on our calibration and the resulting settings and results are found in the individual reviews)
Projector Screen Recommendations Page
Discusses some basics regarding matching projector to screen to room. It summarizes some things appearing in our multiple Projector Screen articles. For specific screen recommendations for a particular projector, visit that projector's review.
Compare Projectors Page
Provides an overview for comparing projectors, and for using the many individual head-to-head projector comparisons. The Compare Projectors page navigates differently than the rest of the pages found in the outline.
Talks about typical warranties, shows the projectors listed by price class, discusses replacement programs briefly, and indicates the warranty of each projector.
One of the shortest pages - just a brief wrap up, and final thoughts - it is written last, and may touch on some things overlooked elsewhere.
Defining Your Expectations Regarding Projectors and Your Final Theater Experience
In general terms, I believe there are three types of people who buy home theater projectors:
The Typical Consumer
Many people setting up a home theater in their homes, or even just putting a projector in a common room, such as a family room or den, are just looking for an enjoyable viewing experience. They may willing to pay more for better quality, but for them, they just want it to look great. They aren't overly critical, and are not bothered by the most minor of imperfections. Once it's all set up, they want to just kick back and enjoy the content, and the overall experience.
The Enthusiasts are folks that not only enjoy the content, but essentially have turned home theater, and home theater equipment into a hobby. These folks tend to want to tweak their equipment, often changing it out regularly (as budgets allow), seeking better and better performance. The enthusiast in some cases, I believe spends as much effort admiring, or being critical of the equipment and projected image, as they do enjoying the movie, TV program or sporting event they are watching. As a group, they love their hobby. I notice a large percentage of these folks are engineers, computer/creative folks, such as graphics designers, etc., but anyone can be an enthusiast.
The Purist far more often than not, is an enthusiast, but by my definitiion, they go one step further. Not satisfied with just a great looking image, that would blow everyone elses minds away, they seek image perfection. Looking magnificent, isn't their goal. They are into it looking exactly as it should be! Most people, for example might find a projector that exhibits what I refer to as, a lot of "pop and wow" factor to be far more fun to watch than one that has less "wow" factor (a little dull, by comparison), but is a bit more natural, and, in the case of movies - more film-like. For them, really good skin tones, for example may be considered marginal. Exceptionally accurate ones are what they "insist upon". The same goes with almost any characteristic. They are seeking the projector that is closest to the "director's intent" (or what we believe it to be). In other words, they want a system that is as close to what the movie director would say is "perfect", whereas many of us prefer a little more color saturation, or perhaps a touch of oversharpening to make the picture look (but not be) sharper. You get the idea.
The Bad News
There had to be some! The bad news is that most folks start out as "Typical Consumers". They are just looking for a great experience in their home. But many "typical consumers" get the bug, and find themselves as "Enthusiasts". When a "typical consumer" (you?) brings that first projector home, and gets it properly set up, they are generally amazed. It almost always exceeds their expectations. The problem is, many get so enthralled with how good it looks, that the next thing they know, they are looking into how to make it even better. Bingo - instant enthusiast!
The Bottom Line
You might just want to think about where you are right now, of these three types, and whether it is your nature to stay that way. The temptation to become an enthusiast is definitely there for many.
If you have a good understanding of how this might play out for you, it can help you tremendously, in making the right purchasing and setup decisions.
Consider: Let's say your budget for a projector is $1500 - $2500. As a typical consumer, most of the projectors in this range will provide you with a great experience. Most likely you'll pick one out that fits the budget, and is best at the things you consider most important (a brighter one, if you want a larger screen), one with great black levels because you are really into sci-fi, and horror flicks (tons of dark scenes), and has other features you consider important.
On the other hand, if you think, "yup, this is going to be fun, and yup, I'll probably be hooked, and want to improve my system every couple/few years as prices fall, and quality further improves," then it probably should affect your purchase decision. You might decide, for example, that, "you know what, I suspect Projector B will do a perfectly fine job, but I can see where what I really want is projector D, to be truly happy, but it's out of my budget." In a case like that, you might decide to start with one of the least expensive that meets your initial needs, saving the bucks so that you can upgrade sooner. (Remember, prices keep falling, and performance keeps improving - don't you love "high tech"?)
Second guessing your decision. I rarely hear from anyone who says - "I bought this projector, and it's great, but, you know, I probably should have bought that less expensive one, I could have been happy with that one too."
What I do hear a lot of is the opposite: "I was looking at Projector A - a lower cost/lower performance, and Projector D - more money, but a step up in performance. I bought Projector A, and months later, I'm still thinking I made a mistake - I should have gotten the one I really wanted."
So, choose wisely! -art
Understanding your room environment
First and foremost: Ambient light is the enemy of all home theater projector systems. A 50" LCDTV can withstand a fair amount sunlight pouring into your room, but a home theater projector and screen, cannot.
Movies are intended to be watched in dark rooms - a "cave" as it were. Dark scenes start washing out, with even the dimmest lights on. You'd be amazed at what a huge difference a 20 watt light bulb on, in the back of your room can do to a gorgeous image.
Sports and general TV and HDTV viewing is normally done with some lights on. We don't generally like to have their room pitch black for a sitcom, or The Tonight Show, or your favorite sporting event. That's OK, most projectors have what we describe as "best" and "brightest" modes (and several in between). In the brighter modes, you sacrifice some picture quality, but, that's ok, what's left normally still looks great. (And do you really care how perfect skin tones are when watching football - I think not!). Keep in mind that some projectors can muster as much as three times the brightness in their brightest modes, but most projectors increase brightness 50% to 100%, and some only increase as little as 10 or 20%.
That is why some projectors are best for those only interested in movie viewing, and others much better for a wide mix of content and lighting levels.
As you plan your room for your projector and screen, a good first question is: Do you have any windows? If so, decide what you are going to do about that if you plan to use your projector during the daytime. Ideally, you'll want some form of blackout shades. If your shades turn out to motorized, like mine, some have side channels to prevent light from leaking in around the edges of the windows, others do not.
Even without the channels a good setup with blackout shades, drapes, etc., will limit the light coming in to very watchable, if not great levels for movie viewing.
Walls, Ceiling, and Floors
A perfect home theater has flat black walls, ceilings and floors. That said, even those that have that option, probably won't go all black. That's OK, the trick is to get the whole room as dark as possible in terms of reflective surfaces. 50 years ago, movie theaters were so dark, that in the moments nothing was on the screen, you'd be lucky to see your hands in front of your face. Today, due to fire laws, movie theaters just aren't as dark. Here in California, there are sconces on the walls, emergency lighting signs and emergency lighting on the steps, etc. I can certainly get my own theater, which doesn't have black anything, darker than anything at the local cinemaplex.
You can certainly have a good viewing experience if you have off white walls and ceilings (and whatever for a floor), but, the more you can darken all those surfaces, the more the experience improves. Consider:
Lighter surfaces reflect more light back onto the screen, even if you have zero lighting in the room. That will degrade your black levels, making the image less dynamic.
I finally made the move in my room. For the last three years, my larger theater (a "great room" with high ceilings) had off white ceiling and walls, and a medium gold carpet. Picture viewing was wonderful, but not anywhere as good as it could be. Finally, a few months ago, everything was ready, and the room was repainted a dark rust color. My wife wasn't going to tolerate black anything, as we use the room for general use, and entertaining. The dark rust is dark enough that only a tiny percentage of the light that used to reflect back, now does. It's so small, that there is no detectable color shift from the rust color.
At the same time, I had the off-white ceiling darkened about 5 shades. I'd say it now reflects no more than 20% of the light it used to, probably less.
Oh what a difference. everything that looked great, became spectacular.
So, take a look at that room. Do what you can to darken the surfaces.
Two primary issues here to consider - size and type (screen surface)
Figure out where you will be sitting, how large a screen you would like and make sure that the projector can be placed in your room, to fill that screen from where it needs to be placed.
In addition if you have side lighting, or some ambient from those windows, consider what screen surface to choose.
High contrast gray screens will reject a large amount of side light. I have always had a HC gray screen, and believe me, it really helps compensate for some of those room "problems".
We have a number of articles about choosing screens, and the differences between different screen surfaces. In addition, you'll find screen recommendations in each full projector review. Some additional info will also be found in on the Screen Recommendations page in this report, but not specific recommendations for individual projectors.
How far back to sit
That's up to you. You already know where you like to sit in a movie theater. In your home, most likely you'll want the projected image to take up about as much of your view as it does in the theater. Due to reasons I won't get into, you'll probably end up with the screen in your room, taking up a little less of the view than when you are in the theater.
Keep this in mind - a big part of getting immersed into a movie, and the ability to "suspend disbelief" that we get in movie theaters is due to the huge amount of your view that the image takes up. A good chunk of the rest is due to everything else around being dark and therefore "not on your radar". You are looking to be immersed in the movie. The right screen size and seating (and other room conditions) are all part of that immersion.
Sound baby, sound!
While the image on the screen is the key, don't skimp too much on the audio. Typically a $499 "Home Theater in a Box" may provide decent sound, and play loud enough, but, boy is it great to have some really good sound. (I'm an old audiophile, and my system is ridiculous, but boy does it make for amazing sound.) Room size and speaker placement come into play in your selection. You don't have to spend a ton of money - a nice $300 - $500 AV receiver can handle your source switching for the projector (cable/satellite box, Blu-ray/DVD player, computer, even a game machine like the PS3). Then pick out a good set of 5.1 (or 7.1) set of speakers/subwoofer. If you are planning a major room changeover, you may well want to have your speakers "in-wall" instead of free standing.
Only as good as the weakest link - Go Blu-Ray
I get so many emails about, "do I really need to get a Blu-ray player" Personally, I always recommend it. The difference betweens standard DVD and Blu-Ray of the same movie is often startling. It's not just the higher resolution and therefore significantly sharper image, but also the production qualities. Almost all Blu-Ray discs have been remastered to deliver a superior picture in terms of color fidelity, dynamics, and everything else. The best source material on standard DVD - such as Lord of the Rings, barely comes close to the most average Blu-ray disc. With players to be found for under $200, go for it. Or, as most people do, buy a Sony PS3 and have a great Blu-Ray player, and a top of the line game machine. The final word - get a Blu-ray player.
Enough. It is not my goal to intimidate you. You will do what you can to get the best viewing experience. If you can't do everything - that's fine - even I can't, and this is how I make my living. Still, even a pretty basic setup, with compromises, is, basically jaw-dropping!
Photos Found In This Projector Report
The vast majority of images in this report, can be clicked on, to open a much larger version in a new window, for closer inspection.
Take the images "with a grain of salt". While many images give you a good relative idea of projector performance, especially those about black levels and shadow detail, they should not be used to determine which projector, for example, has the best color or film-like qualities. There is so much loss in getting the picture off the screen through my Olympus E510 (dSLR), through resizing and format converting (we start with RAW format - roughly 9 megabytes per image, and end up with about 100K (for the large images) jpgs when done). Color depth, dynamic range, and more gets compromised. Then there is other software related aspects, your browser, and, rather significantly, your monitor, which on its best day, isn't remotely capable of faithfully reproducing the full original, even if we could get it to you.
The images are there to support my commentary, to educate you, to give you very useful comparisons (such as black level performance where the images are good guides), and finally, to entertain you. Hey, it's fun looking at many of these images, from major movies, etc.
OK, that's more than enough info to get you started. Have a blast!