What You Need To Know About the 2013 Best Home Theater Projector Report
Those of your who are regular readers of our reviews and articles should find this overview helpful, but this particular section is written primarily for those who are new to ProjectorReviews.com and new to home theater projectors.
Those of you who read last year's reports will recognize that many topics discussed within, are slightly updated versions from the previous report.
3/14/2013 - Art Feierman
Greetings, this is our 2013 edition of our Best Home Theater Projector Report.
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
While my writing style definitely can ramble, I do pay close attention to word crafting. This is important so you can understand subtle differences. You should get different feels from phrases like very good, impressive, really good, especially good, rather excellent, excellent, superb, and others. Don't think that I use terms like "excellent" and "very good" interchangeably. By the same token, when I say "this $999 projector has excellent image quality for the price," that doesn't mean it's as good as a projector that's "excellent" in the $3500+ class.
Above, Runco LS5 projector, projecting IronMan 2
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 how hard it is to actually see a demo of most of these projectors before buying.
With that in mind, I take my reviewing seriously. I get to watch each projector extensively and play with each at length. From that, I draw my conclusions. Because there is subjectivity, my opinion isn't fact. I try more to help you define which projector will serve you best, than to figure which projector is the best.
Unless you are on your 2nd or 3rd projector, you will almost certainly find your purchase of a home theater projector is most likely to significantly exceed your expectations.
When people ask me what I do: "I pay myself a bunch of money to sit home and watch movies and football games (HDTV)". It's not going to make me rich, but I do get to enjoy most of what this "job" entails!
Take your time. Consider your room, your expected viewing habits, and your budget, a few other questions, and it should all come together. We truly hope (and expect) that this year's report will be useful to those that read it.
What's In This Report
Here are some quick facts, starting with the mix of projectors covered in this report.
Organization: This report considers 27 1080p home theater projectors organized into three price tiers or "classes": Under $2000, $2000-$3500, and $3500+.
These counts do not count "twins". Thus, the Epson HC3020 and HC3020e are counted as one, and, the JVC DLA-X35 and DLA-RS46 are counted as one. In some cases I may have both present, but still count as one.
31 Home Projectors considered in this year's report. By the Numbers:
- 14 Projectors in the Under $2000 price class
- 5 of these projectors sell for under $1000
- 1 seems to be borderline price wise: The Sharp, sometimes available below $2k, sometimes not
- 12 are DLP projectors, 3 are LCD, none are LCoS
- 3 have what we call "ultra-high contrast" black level performance
- All but 4 produce 1400 lumens or more in measured "brightest" mode
- Surprisingly, 6 of these projectors have some amount of lens shift
- 10 is the number projectors that are back again from last year's report
- 7 are definite "light canons" that are very at home in "the family room"
- 2 of the 3 LCD projectors are 2 of the 3 brightest of the 14 projectors
- About half the projectors have built in speakers
- Only one projector has Lens Memory (Sharp), 5 have CFI
- The majority of projectors have a 1 year warranty, two have 2 years, the rest 3 years (see the warranty chart)
- 9 Projectors in the $2000 - $3500 price class
- The mix: 3 LCD (Epson, Panasonic), 2 LCoS (Sony, JVC) the rest DLP
- All have at least some lens shift except the Viewsonic
- 3 are "light cannons" they are the 3 LCD projectors
- 7 of the 9 are 3D capable (the exceptions: Viewsonic, Vivitek)
- The same 7 of the 9 offer "ultra-high contrast" black level performance
- None of these projectors has an internal speaker
- Lens Memory is found only on two projectors: JVC, Panasonic
- Only the Viewsonic Pro9000 has a long life solid state light source (no lamp)
- The LCoS projectors and the Mitsubishi HC8000D cost the most
- Only the Viewsonic is back from last year, but the newer H5085 has started shipping
- 8 Projectors are covered in the $3500 and up class
- 3 of the 8 are very high end, costing $20,000 or more
- True 4K is only found on the Sony VPL-VW1000ES, nothing comes close
- All 8 have lens shift
- 1 3-chip DLP (Runco LS10d), 3, single chip DLP, 4 LCoS, 0 LCD
- All have CFI
- All have ultra-high contrast black performance
- Calibrated the 3 chip Runco, and the Sony, are by far the brightest
- 5 of the 8 offer 3D (exceptions: 2 Runcos and the Optoma)
- Only the LS10D comes with an outboard processor
- Only the JVC and Sony projectors offer superb black level performance
- Only the JVC projectors lack a dynamic iris
Note, we have four projectors over $10,000 in this 2013 report. A Runco projector (LS10d), SIM2 Nero 3D2, Sony VPL-VW1000ES are all $20,000 plus. There is also the JVC DLA-X95R at $11,999.
BenQ W7000 tackles some NFL football in a room with modest ambient light and still looks solid, not washed out.
Projector pricing, for our different price classes, 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.
Due to promotions and price changes, we don't always get it right. For example, this year, putting The Sharp XV-Z30000 in the under $2000, may have been a less than great choice. The Sharp was apparently available for under $1900, but now seems to be back around $2100.
These are the sections to the review, excluding this guide:
Home Page of the Best Home Theater Projector 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 highlighting key aspects and features of each projector, organized by Class, and listed alphabetically
- Special Features: Discusses a number of special features found on different projectors, such as dynamic irises, creative frame interpolation (CFI).
With one page for each of the three price ranges, these pages provides give you a 2-3 paragraph overview of each projector considered in this year's report.
This page links you to the individual awards pages for each of the winners this year. It is broken down by price range and by award.
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
- Extended Tours (AKA links to the in-depth tours of each projector in their reviews)
Image Quality Page
This page touches on:
- 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, including when ambient light is present)
This page covers:
- Audible Noise
It primarily consists of charts showing best and brightest modes of each projector.
Discusses calibration briefly, and what it can do for you and your system.
Provides links to the individual Calibration pages in each projector's review.
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, many have a screens section.
Compare Projectors Page
Provides an overview for comparing projectors, and for using the many individual head-to-head projector comparisons.
It also includes links to 3 different comparisons between projectors considered this year.
This page 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. It also has a short list of all the award winners by price. On that note, only projectors that have won one of our Hot Product Awards, when reviewed, are eligible for Best In Class awards. That makes sense, I trust!
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.
A couple of Hobbits from LOTR, projected using the pricey Runco LS10d projector
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.
Above, the same image (ok, they are a few frames apart), the first on the $27K Runco, the second on the $2700 Epson. Interesting (the Epson is a touch brighter in terms of exposure, but they are similar enough for me to point out, that seeing these images isn't the same as seeing these projectors in action.)
The Purist, more often than not, is an enthusiast, but by my definition, they go one step further. Not satisfied with just a great looking image, that would blow everyone elses minds away, Purists 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 technically more accurate.
Above, from the movie Red. The projector: Panasonic PT-AE7000
The Purist seeks the projector that can reproduce content that is most faithful to the original, rather than just a great looking image.
The purist, for example, may prefer a projector who's black levels are a touch less great than another, but accomplish their blacks, without a dynamic iris - naturally, over a projector that can beat it in black performance, but only with an iris hard at work.
They are seeking the projector that is closest to the "director's intent" (or what we believe it to be). In other words, Purists 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: Home Theater Projector Addiction
There had to be some bad - or less than great news as you embark on your first projector quest! The bad news is simply:
Most of you folks start out as "Typical Consumers", just looking for a great experience in your home. But many "typical consumers" get the bug, addicted, 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.
A projector purchase will almost always exceeds your 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 buy an even better one to further improve the experience. . Bingo - instant Enthusiast!
And you never, know, that Enthusiast might even become a Purist!
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. Few become true purists.
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 home theater projectors that meets your initial needs. This would allow you to save some bucks so that you can upgrade sooner.
Remember, prices keep falling, and performance keeps improving - don't you love "high tech"?
Second guessing your projector purchase 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."
Know yourself! - Where do you see yourself, in this quest, a year from now, three years, five years? Still on your first projector, or...
The other big question comes up when making a final choice between two good projectors at different price points:
Six months from now, will I be unhappy that I didn't spend a bit more money to get the projector I liked better, but didn't really "need"?
Six months from now, will I be sorry I didn't save money, instead of buying the more expensive projector.
I'll bet you know which scenario is more likely the way you think! If you ask your self these questions, it should help you to "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, typically cannot. That is the inherent weakness of front projection.
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 and hitting your screen from 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.
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.
Use of rich dark colored walls has become popular, at least out here in California. That's a help. Faux walls too, such as I came up with for my old room, in the image above. Hardly a fully dark surfaced room, the improvement in picture quality was quite obvious.
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.
Portable Audio? Many of the less expensive projectors, including BenQ, Viewsonic, Epson and others, have some decent (not awesome) speakers in their lower cost projectors. That's most helpful for "portable use", such as carting the projector outside at night to show Cars 2, on your garage door, or perhaps X-Men First Class, on an inflatable screen in your back yard. Some even have an audio output, making it easy to add a small powered sub-woofer so that your sound has some real punch.
Only as good as the weakest link - Go Blu-Ray (or download HD)
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 $60, 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. Sure, suffer your old DVD's but most projectors will do fine on DVD, and it will never look as good as Blu-ray, so we focus on hi-res!
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 2013 report, can be clicked on, to open a much larger version in a new window, for closer inspection.
Please! As point out several times in this report, and once in every review:
Take these 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 old Olympus E510 (dSLR), and now my Canon 60D, 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!