Best Home Theater Projector Report 2013 - Image Quality
4/2/2013 - Art Feierman
Home Theater Projector Image Quality
The goal of this Image Quality section of our home theater report, is to allow you to quickly read over our findings for different home theater projectors. A portion of the content below will be snippets from the original reviews. That seemed to work well in past year's report, so we're sticking with it.
Above, Epson Home Cinema 3020e: Iron Man 2
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 look good, and others make you think "awesome", even though they may technically be very, very similar).
Let's get started!
1080p Home Theater Projectors - Overall Picture Quality
Below a "snapshot" of how we feel about each of the roughly 30 projectors considered in this year's report. Depending on what I consider noteworthy, comments may touch more on some aspects of image quality than others. I might rave about black levels with one projector, paying less attention to the actual color balance. The goal is to give you a feel for how each projector does. Consult the full reviews for more detail. In some cases the focus is on 3D and relative brightness, in others, great 2D viewing...
$2000 and under 1080p Home Theater Projectors
While operationally both this Acer and the H9500BD below are a bit "rough around the edges", picture quality is reasonably good for the price. This is a very entry level 1080p home theater projector. I don't consider this an enthusiast's projector, rather a nice projector for movies, HDTV, sports in particular, and gaming. As to the color I said this in the review:
"It has acceptable color for most non-enthusiasts, and it can handle at least a little more ambient light or other room "flaws" than any of the most direct competition, and a lot more than the rest."
Although still a good deal less expensive, which should protect Acer sales of the H6500, the advent of the BenQ W1070 recently, for $999 will likely have some potential H6500 owners finding the extra hundreds for the competition.
Definitely my favorite "rough around the edges" projector. But it's the picture that counts, and the H9500BD at the moment has the best black level performance around for the under $1500 street price. In fact few under $2000 projectors even come close to it. Color was OK, when first reviewed, but since then Acer has upgraded firmware, expanded color calibration controls, and is now capable of a much more accurate picture than before, making it true enthusiast's projector. Just make sure you can survive the "rough edges", as mentioned in the review. This projector definitely needs the ability to save more than one memory's worth of settings.
Picture quality and color accuracy in particular is one of the reasons this BenQ W1070 is the proud receipient of our Best In Class Value Proposition award. The W1070 calibrates very well. We said this in our review of the W1070 projector: "On everything but the darkest scenes, the BenQ produces a really enjoyable, watchable picture," also regarding how it looks right out of the box: " Impressive, especially for an entry level priced 1080p projector. While we did calibrate the projector, it looks pretty good even in default modes such as Cinema and User 1, as well as Standard."
Blacks could certainly be a lot better, but I'm not aware of any sub $1000 projector that is truly better.
The DLP BenQ W7000's image quality has always been rather excellent post calibration. This is one of two projectors this year, that I feel we slighted in this year's Best In Class awards. It was a Runner-Up last year, but this year I let the Sharp XV-Z30000 take the honors - but not because of superior image quality, rather more for the Sharp's feature set.
The W7000 is a 3D and 2D light cannon, and it really has a lot of "wow factor" when viewed. Black levels are excellent for the sub-$2000 price.
Epson Home Cinema 8350
From the original 8350 review: The Epson Home Cinema 8350 is impressively good out of the box. Color temp (grayscale balance) is very close to 6500K. Not bad at all, in fact better than most projectors out of the box performance. What really surprised me though was Dynamic mode, which also defaults to 6500K. I'm pretty sure this is the best looking default Dynamic (or Vivid) mode Epson has produced.
Also of note, from the review summary: Picture quality is very good. The color on this Home Cinema 8350 looks just great. Mike did a great job of calibrating it, but, the bottom line is that it almost always looks good. The Epson isn't quite as forgiving of poor quality content as some others, but I'm not talking great differences. On HDTV and Blu-ray, it impresses.
Even by today's standards, the picture quality is very good. Black level performance is above average for the not much more than $1000 selling price. The 8350, picture wise is rather forgiving. Brightest mode has a bit too much green, but better than many, and alternate "bright" modes are downright good!
Epson Home Cinema 3020 and 3020e
I could say mostly the same thing about these Home Cinema 3020 projectors when it comes to color and image quality: Really good right out of the box, and they calibrate well. Despite having a dynamic iris, black levels are the HC3020 and HC3020e's weakest image aspect, yet, the Home Cinema 3020's blacks aren't any worse than most other under $2000 projectors. As an added benefit, the iris action is very smooth. It's just that there are a few that really beat the Epson there, including the W7000, Acer H9500BD, and the Sharp. Well, at least two of the three sell for more, and the one that sells for less - the Acer, although it has much better blacks, its iris action is sometimes too easily noticeable.
Really nice color, and an overall forgiving picture helps the HC3020 and HC3020e tie the Acer for a Best In Class Runner-Up award. Add to that being essentially the brightest 3D projectors under $2000, and the value proposition is a good one. They put the "wow" into 3D by having enough brightness for vibrant 3D, but these Epson projectors really will rock the house in 2D, with plenty of great color, even with a fair amount of ambient light around. Really only the Panasonic can out msucle these powerful HC3020 projectors, and not by any significant amount.
An old favorite projector of ours, the HC4000 is certainly getting old. With little change in four plus years (counting the HC3800 before it, which was almost identical), and prices still not dropping below $1000, you can buy brighter projectors for less, even with 3D, but the DLP based HC4000 was never really about bright. It was always about a classic DLP look and feel in terms of picture quality, with perhaps the best black levels among the under $2000 projectors that lack a dynamic iris.
As time changes this has become more of a projector suitable for family rooms on moderate or smaller screen sizes, and less than great lighting control. I always liked the HC4000 and it's won it's fair share of awards, but consider it seriously threatened by the slightly less expensive BenQ W1070 on the DLP side, and by far brighter 3LCD projectors for a bit more money.
"The HD20's "out of the box" picture quality is rather good. From a color temperature standpoint, the HD20's "best" mode is almost dead on the ideal 6500K, but that number doesn't account for green being a bit down from red and blue. Still, very watchable." That's one of the things we pointed out in the original review now more than 3 years ago. The HD20 just won't go away.
One strength of the HD20 we noted, that's still true, is that it had about the best black level performance of the entry level DLP projectors we'd seen at the time.
I'm not sure that it is still true, and there are more feature laden projectors for around the price, but the HD20's strength is a really good picture, especially after some minor adjustment. And, don't forget, it's a classic DLP projector with the rich dark colors that seem to be a DLP strength.
Out of the box: "Cinema is a touch thin on red, but skin tones still look very respectable."
Ultimately I summarized the HD33's image quality rather nicely on that page of the review: "The HD33 looks and cooks like a DLP projector, and while a bit rough around the edges, seems to always put up a clean, enjoyable image on the screen. Darker scenes have that richness that I associate with DLP projectors." Note, the rough around the edges title fits the Acer projectors better these days.
"Generally scenes look very natural. As I said elsewhere, the HD33 is rather forgiving."
Don't get me wrong. Blacks may not be great (consider the price, though), but this projector is also very nicely at home in a decicated theater.
Panasonic PT-AR100U and PT-AR100 (non-US version)
Back again, the PT-AR100U is a projector so bright, (remember it is 2D only), that it can still produce a rather impressive image, even with ambient light levels that would choke a lesser projector. A great family room/ bonus room/ whatever room you have available, projector, the overall image quality is really rather good! Out of the box I reported as being "downright impressive when it comes to out-of-the-box image performance."
"After calibration, skin tones, which were already rather good using the REC 709 color profile, got even better."
Blacks were OK for the price point, but no better. This is a projector built for your family room, or other tough environments, including sports bars. It's got the horsepower to cut through a fair amount of ambient light and still put up a good looking image without being washed out like much of the competition. Check out our video on the PT-AR100U and also our videos about family room projectors and screen selection.
This is a straight repeat from last year: Out of the box, we reported that Brightest mode looks pretty good (for a bright mode). Standard looks best "out of the box", just reduce saturation a bit. None of the modes, without adjustment was close to the targeted 6500K, but that didn't stop them from all looking reasonably good.
Once calibrated: "Skin tones aren't as perfect as I would like, but most won't notice...Daytime scenes, really do look good, the brightness and vibrant colors do the trick. The darker scenes are where the Pro8200 no longer impresses." That said, none of the sub $1000 projectors are impressive on really dark scenes. Folks, that's why people pay the "big bucks" for ultra high contrast projectors with much better blacks. None but a handful of projectors under $2000 can do a significantly better job. Most of those are a lot more expensive.
All considered, when it comes to picture, it's pretty good for sub $1000, and for that matter, properly set up should look a lot better than your typical LCDTV (not to mention screen size - which - at least for projectors - matters - a lot!)
I said last year that these lowest cost 1080p projectors are the ones most likely to end up in the hands of folks who just want to fire'em up and enjoy. Considering the H1080FD projector: "The out of the box color is pretty good, which is a very good thing, since the Vivitek lacks the tradtional R,G,B brightness and contrast controls for doing a grayscale balance."
That said: "Skin tones are very good. There is a very slight, almost paleness to faces like Gandalf's in LOTR, due to the touch less red than there should be. When viewing, the projector doesn't really feel like it's a little thin on red, as the image has a good bit of contrast, and a lot of punch."
The Vivitek H1080FD's black level performance is not impressive, and while none of the sub-$1000 projectors is very good at blacks, this Vivitek comes up a little short of the Optoma HD20, BenQ W1070 and the Viewsonic. I may be quibbling, these are slight, but discernable differences. If you have any ambient light happening, you probably couldn't spot those differences at all.
Ultimately this projector has a picture for the LCDTV family, that wants something much bigger and has the room. For those not interested in calibrating or tweaking, the Vivitek produces a good looking picture.
$2000 - $3500 1080p Home Theater Projectors
Above, some NFL action, image taken with the BenQ W7000
Out of the box color of the W7000 has never been as good as one would hope, but it is easy to tweak. Our settings should make for a nice improvement.
That said, BenQ projectors always calibrate nicely. "The skin tones the W7000 displays are rich and accurate, as one would expect from a very good DLP projector." Later on, I continued with: "Great looking colors and skin tones, great shadow detail. The BenQ really pops." Although we found the pre-production W7000 to be mediocre on blacks, a terrible surprise since we expected the same performance as the older 2D W6000 (now discontinued). Fortunately, when we were able to bring in a full production W7000 projector, it, as expected, delivered the "ultra-high contrast" blacks we anticipated. Not the best at blacks, but definitely up there with the likes of the Panasonic PT-AE8000U and other more expensive projectors.
All told a great picture, just be sure to calibrate it, or use our settings, because either should really improve the "out of the box" experience.
Epson Home Cinema 5020, 5020e
Overall, Epson UB (Ultra-black) projectors, the HC5020 and HC5020e produce a well balanced image. These Epson projectors are best known for exceptional black level performance for the price, but the overall color starts out really good, out of the box in several modes, including THX.
Don't forget the really great dark shadow detail. The simple truth it is on dark scenes where the Epson Home Cinmea 5020 and 5020e are at their very best, not that a beautiful afternoon scene isn't just dandy.
Calibrated, skin tones almost always look excellent, but not quite as natural as on a few more expensive projectors. Until this year when we started calibrating projectors' individual colors the Epson's oft had the slightest tinge of green yellow to skin tones, that the average viewer would never notice. With the CMS calibration, I've truly enjoyed the HC5020UB I have here these past four months.
Below, off of HDTV, the Epson Home Cinema 5020UB shows off it's dynamic range and black level performance
3D is brilliant, or as close to it as today's under $10,000 home theater projectors get. The Cinema 3D and THX 3D modes both look reasonably natural for being in 3D mode. Dynamic 3D however, slightly over the top, and a bit off (we didn't try to adjust it at all), though comes in handy when you need bright. Not bad.
Overall, Image quality only rivaled by the Sony VPL-HW50ES, which is the one I find a touch more natural.
Epson Pro Cinema 6020
We did receive a Pro Cinema 6020 UB as well as an HC5020. I ran some measurements and the two performed about as close as you would expect two essentially identical projectors to perform.
Just for fun, you could say the picture of the Pro Cinema 6020 should be insignificantly better in a dedicated home theater due to the black case reflecting less light in the room than the HC5020's mostly white case. How's that for splitting hairs?
JVC DLA-X35, DLA RS46
A really nice picture. Nothing to offend anyone. Skin tones are good, although not exceptional, and that's due to the inability to calibrate this JVC perfectly. Blacks can't quite get as black on dark scenes as two others in this class, but are still great for the price range. Besides, these JVC X35 blacks are always blacker than any other competiting projectors on brighter scenes, as this JVC has more dynamic range to it's picture than the competition.
The DLA-X35's only real weakness is lack of a full set of calibration controls. You just won't get the color as perfect as most other top competing projectors, but it's still a great picture.
Mitsubishi makes great "little" DLP projectors that look really good when filling reasonable sized screens. The HC7900DW's overall picture would have to be considered most impressive. This is a DLP projector without any real rough edges. Rich, vibrant colors comes to mind. Blacks are decent, but this is Mitsubishi's "family room version", while the $500 more HC8000D similar but targeting the theater, has the better blacks.
The second sentence I wrote on the Image quality page of the HC7900DW review, sums things up: "It is a projector that has especially good image quality, most notably in terms of the naturalness of skin tones."
So similar to the HC7900DW, the picture of the HC8000D is just slightly better than the HC7900D's but for that it gave up some real brightness when calibrated. The HC8000 is a DLP projector that might be described as having a precise picture quality. In describing skin tones in the review I said this: "Hard to beat the Mitsubishi HC8000D in terms of reproducing skin tones post calibration. Impressive!"
Remember, I didn't review these two projectors at the same time, or even sequentially, but the conclusions were essentially the same.
While the HC8000D is not great on lunens to start,it manages to muster up about the same 3D brightness as the HC7900DW, perhaps a little brighter even, when using the HC8000D's proprietary 3D glasses. That's still not enough for bright on anything but small screens, but the HC8000D has particularly good color in 3D.
I think Panasonic's PT-AE8000U is a great projector, it's just not one of my favorites. Colors are excellent post calibration, with probably more modes than any other projector, count a few of them to be very good, right out of the box. My only complaint about image quality, is that the PT-AE8000U just can't match the black level performance of the best in the class, the Epsons, JVC, and Sony.
On the other hand, I do really like it's ability to let you see your changes as you adjust some of the image features, via a side by side, so that half the screen shows you what you started with, and the other half reflects the changes you made.
Below, PT-AE8000U, from Star Trek
Other than black levels, I could only criticize the PT-AE8000U for having a little less "pop" than the best of the competition, but that's likely at least part the lesser black level performance. The Panasonic PT-AE8000U is another "forgiving" projector, that tends to look really good, no matter what content you send its way. The PT-AE8000 is almost as bright as you can get in a high quality, under $10,000 projector when it comes to 3D brightness. Great color that's dim, isn't great. This projector is a light canon when it needs to be.
Despite my love of a good DLP projector (notably in moderately dark scenes), for image quality, this Sony VPL-HW50ES is my favorite in the $2000 - $3500 price class. Not only does it do great blacks, but the skin tones are the most natural, in my opinion. Or perhaps I should say: The HW50ES is the most transparent projector in the group. It's the one that seems to least 'be there".
Below: HW50 projecting the Victoria Secret Fashion Show recorded from HDTV (DirecTV)
When watching some projectors you say, "wow, this projector looks great". With this HW50ES you say, "the movie looks great."
In a perfect world your projector neither adds nor subtracts anything from the content, it passes everything through without compromise. Of course the perfect projector doesn't exist. Still the HW50ES, like the more expensive Sony projectors this year, all seem to be among the few that seem very neutral and transparent. I've often described a couple of more and way more expensive Runco projectors that way. Blacks are great in the class, even if the Epson might just beat out this Sony by a very small amount, in terms of blackest blacks. Close enough to be an effective tie.
Great picture! And for those who dream of single chip DLP sharpness, Reality Creation can't undo 3 panel convergence imperfection, but this very smart detail enhancement solution will likely have you thinking it is as natively sharp as a good DLP, even if that sense is accomplished with advanced image processing.
$3500 - $10,000 Home Theater Projectors
Above, the SIM2 Nero 3D2, scene from The Fifth Element
JVC DLA-X75R and DLA-X95R
True, we haven't seen the DLA-X75R here. But we did have a good run with it's genetically superior DLA-X95R "identical twin".
These two JVC's still have the best blacks of any projectors we've played with, ever. OK, sure the $25,000 Sony 4K can get blacker, but the JVC will have those exceptionally dark blacks, even in the brightest of scenes, which no projector dependent on a dynamic iris can match. Dark shadow detail is very good, but definitely not the very best based on our viewing.
Calibrating the JVC was pretty straightforward, and the bottom line is that the THX mode provides very good color right out of the box. But since you are a discerning home theater enthusiast, or just someone with the ability to throw a lot of money at a projector to make sure you have a great one that impresses, the thought of NOT having the X75R projector calibrated, makes little sense.
Skin tones are especially natural, although the Sony competition might have a slight edge, both are great.
Of course dynamic features like JVC's e-shift2/MPC will make the image seem sharper, but will reduce the naturalness of the picture. The more you use the dyanmic feature. the less natural. That's always going to be a trade-off.
I summarized with this comment about the DLA-X95R when I reviewed it. It really says it all:
"The JVC DLA-X95R is the whole package when it comes to having a great 2D projector sporting a great picture. Not only is the color really good, but add in the blacks, the better than most, dark shadow detail, and it's hard to find fault."
Image above from the JVC DLA-X95R, the Victoria Secret Fashion Show
So, what does the JVC X95R bright to the picture quality equation, compared to the X75R projector? Clarity! Twice in past year's, I've seen predecessors of the X95R / X75R combination. One of those two times, I had both base and "best components" projectors simultaneously. When I had that opportunity, the real, visible difference seemed to primarily be the optics. The X95R is going to get the best of the lenses, and it makes a difference.
A tale from the editor: I've always been into photography, and have owned a great many SLRs and dSLRs over the decades. When I had Nikon cameras "back in the day" I had the standard Nikon lens (probably 55mm, can't recall), for a couple of years, then had the opportunity to buy a used, far more expensive standard focal length lens for relatively cheap. Basicallly I had two lenses that were extremely similar. But, especially with fine grained films, (and doubly so when in black and white), there was a visible improvement in detail/clarity with the fancy optics. Those two lenses were very different in optical design. In this case of two JVC projectors, , it's the same lens design, but there will still be a visible difference by having the best of breed lens in the X95R. -art
Do you need to spend the extra $4K for that additional image clarity? That is for you to decide. Just understand, with the DLA-X95R, you get the same picture as weith the X75R, except, it's better.
The HD8300 is a repeat from last year. Optoma's HD8300 projector is a really solid mid-priced DLP projector. To start, right out of the box: "Overall, Cinema is but a touch thin on red, but skin tones still look very respectable, before calibrating the projector."
There's more from the review, the image does earn attention: "Color is great. Skin tones, football fields, action flicks, romantic comedies, Lady Gaga, neon signs, starships, even beer commercials, all look pretty impressive. When I consider the HD8300 overall, the projector has some shortcomings, but, when I think of the image itself, the HD8300 does a great job."
I also like watching sports and HDTV with limits of brightness and screen size being the only concern. Nice and sharp, and a good CFI for smooth motion. Folks this is a great picture on a projector designed for a dedicated home theater.
Black levels are very good among DLP projectors but not up to the current crop of JVC and Sony projectors. The dynamic iris action is smoother than on some earlier Optoma's and not normally a problem.
The main thing to say is that the Runco LS5 has perhaps the most natural looking picture - the projector that may well be most invisible all the under $10,000 projectors in this report.. Yet, the LS5 does not have world class blacks, nor the very best dark shadow detail.
This says it all about out of the box performance: "In Native lamp, the projector looked about as good as most other projectors - after we calibrate them."
The picture is what the Runco is all about: "for those most concerned with filling their theater with a beautiful image, no rough edges."
This is a relatively simple projector, not a lot of fancy features, but in the under $10,000 price range, you'll be hard pressed to find a projector more natural, even if others can best it in areas such as black level performance, or with fancy image enhancement tools. A very fine projector for the "purist" I've had a few people ask me about this projector. A couple bought used ones. They all bought LS5s knowing that an Epson or Panasonic for half the price would be "dripping in advanced features" by comparison. I recall two Runco LS-5 buyers telling me how pleased they were with their purchases, well after the fact. At least one of them was a seasoned projector enthusiast who had previouly owned several projectors. (That's the best I can recall!)
Ah! You thought I liked the image quality of the LS5? Here's how I started off the Out Of The Box section of the Runco LS10: "Stunning...First time I set it up it just knocked my socks off. Why? The differences between the "out of the box" Cinema and Mike's calibration of Custom 1, are small."
And as you might expect, it only got better from there. "Sure skin tones look great, and that's not all that hard on brighter scenes, but maintaining that natural skin look in darker scenes is often a real challenge." I went on from there to compliment the skin tones in those darker scenes. Black levels are very good, but despite the expensive "real estate" they probably can't quite match Epson's $2600 HC5020UB. (On the other hand, the LS10D is brighter calibrated than many lower cost projectors can muster at the brighest.)
A bit of praise (well it is an over $20,00 projector): "From my perspective, (compared to this Runco) superior blacks of, say the top of the line JVC projectors, just isn't enough to make up for the even better skin tones, (especially in darker scene lighting), and the sheer extra brightness that makes you feel like you can feel the heat, when the sun's shining."
SIM2 Nero 3D2:
The dealer is going to calibrate it for you, you probably don't have a choice. Post calibration: "the Nero's skin tones are about as believable as I've seen..." not to mention when describing overall picture quality: "Post calibration, great." Other words like natural and believable are common in the review. This is one of SIM2's more "affordable" 3D projectors (ouch!) That said, I recall 3D color being rather good (usually we don't worry too much about great 3D color, as it's rare.) This is another one of those natural / invisible type projectors. I don't have the money to rationalize the value of the Nero 3D-2, but I understand that in this case, the big bucks will get you a sweet image. Of that I'm sure.
"All considered, the general color and skin tones in several modes are really good for right out of the box." That after noting that the presets were all a bit cool, measuring around 7000K. We were much more impressed with the VW95ES's picture than the old 90ES it replaced, but in the category of "out of the box", last year's Sony was a bit better.
After that, however, the VPL-VW95ES improves over the 90ES in most ways. "The flesh tones of the VW95ES projector are one of its great strengths. Perhaps it's the accurate color gamut Mike has pointed out, but the Sony does really great on skin tones on bright scenes. Running the Sony side by side against the lower cost Epson Home Cinema 5010, resulted in the Epson looking really good, but the Sony was just more natural."
I wasn't quite as happy with skin tones in dark scenes where they did pick up some extra red, but they still very good. If I was owning it, I would have asked Mike to readjust some of the calibration. Calibrating a projector is part art, part science. Unless you do things in the exact same order, it's unlikely you would get the same results twice as some color and other controls overlap each other.
When it comes to black level performance, my take was, and is, that only the JVC's - the X75R and X95R projectors have slightly better blacks, so that's high praise. Shadow detail is good but hardly exceptional in the class.
Missing in terms of image quality, is the latest Reality Creation system found on the newer HW50ES and the 4K VPL-VW1000ES.
Finally: "Pre-calibration, very good. Post calibration, great," is how I started my Overall Color and Picture Quality section in the review.
Sony VPL-VW95ES - scene from Red:
This concludes the general image quality section, but we're not done. Below we look at all the same projectors from a standpoint of watching sports and general HDTV.
The image below is from the movie The Hunger Games, the projector used is the JVC DLA-X95R