1080p Projector Comparison Report
April 2012 - Art Feierman, Editor
A truly exciting year for home theater projectors, with a number of all new projectors and noticeably improved ones. This is a huge difference from last year, where there were first of all, few all new projectors, and several of those with the most potential, came up a bit short.
We cooked up this phrase about 4 years ago, when a new breed of projectors started offering better overall black level performance. I started using it to describe the projectors that, one way or another, end up with black level performance meeting a subjective standard that I have defined as: Having contrast and black level performance that is at least a step up from the rest, but most importantly:
"It describes those projectors whose black level performance is so good, that very dark scenes (and some mixed scenes) are still sufficiently good, that other factors become increasingly more important when choosing a projector."
That is, you reach a point, and might say something like: "The blacks are pretty darn good. I'd like them better still (of course). But, you know what? I would rather have a slightly sharper projector with these blacks, than a different projector this sharp, with better blacks." Or the trade-off might be color accuracy, brightness, etc. The point is, these projectors all have impressive black level performance, even if there is a good deal of difference between the best and least of them.
There are now many projectors with excellent blacks, and they start under $2000.
It gets old using this expression, but, for years, better black levels have been the "holy grail" for home theater projectors.
Of note, only the top end JVC accomplishes truly great black level performance without resorting to using dynamic irises (a topic for another time). Epson, on the other hand, relies on a dynamic iris, but delivers blacker blacks than any other projector I've seen, anywhere near its price.
Above, the Epson Home Cinema 5010 showing off its excellent black level prowess on this somewhat overexposed night train scene from Casino Royale.
The point of this non-feature, but rather, level of performance discussion, is that once you get up to these projectors, blacks are starting to get very black. What that means is that when choosing between these projectors, you may still focus on getting the best black level performance, but the incremental improvement is now less important to many, than other abilities, such as lots of brightness, especially good skin tones, easy placement, better warranty and support.
Those projectors we define as being ultra high contrast include:
Under $2000: Acer H9500BD, BenQ W6000
$2000 - $3500: All but the LG
$3500+: All projectors listed
Lens shift is all about a projector's placement flexibility. Projectors with adjustable lens shift definitely provide more placement options. Since virtually everyone wants their projector setup, up high, rather than just putting it on a table, lens shift is needed to allow you to place a projector on a shelf (in the rear of your room), instead of restricting it to ceiling mounting. This is a huge plus for many owners. First, it puts the projector behind where most people sit (rather than overhead or just in from of the viewer), which helps in making the projector's fan noise less noticeable. The other advantage for most installations, is that running cabling is usually simpler, and less expensive than ceiling mounting. This is true for several reasons. In most homes, people are likely to have power readily accessible on most walls, on the other hand, most likely people will find that they don't have a power source in the ceiling. Running power to the ceiling to power the projector tends to be an additional, potentially significant expense. Further, if one has high ceilings, getting cabling, as well as power up there, becomes a lot more complicated than to a back wall.
|(feet & inches)||(feet & inches)||Lens Shift||Ht. (inches)|
|Acer H9500BD||10 ft. 11 in.||16 ft. 5 in.||Y||12 in. unequal|
|BenQ W1200||10 ft. 2 in.||15 ft. 7 in.||N||16 in.|
|BenQ W6000||11 ft. 10 in.||17 ft. 8 in.||Y||0 in.|
|Epson HC8350||9 ft. 10 in.||20 ft. 11 in.||Y||22.7 in.|
|Epson HC3010||9 ft. 9 in.||15 ft. 9 in.||N||0 in.|
|Mitsubishi HC4000||11 ft. 1 in.||16 ft. 5 in.||N||16.5 in.|
|Optoma HD20||10 ft. 11 in.||13 ft. 1 in.||N||8 in.|
|Optoma HD33||10 ft. 11 in.||13 ft. 1 in.||N||7 in.|
|Panasonic PT-AR100||9 ft. 10 in.||19 ft. 7 in.||Y||32 in.|
|Viewsonic Pro8200||10 ft. 4 in.||15 ft. 7 in.||N||16.8 in.|
|Vivitek H1080FD||10 ft. 10 in.||13 ft. 1 in.||N||8 in.|
|$2000 - $3500|
|BenQ W7000||11 ft. 10 in.||17 ft. 8 in.||Y||0 in.|
|Epson 5010||9 ft. 10 in.||20 ft. 11 in.||Y||22.7 in.|
|Epson 6010||9 ft. 10 in.||20 ft. 11 in.||Y||22.7 in.|
|JVC RS45 / X30||9 ft. 10 in.||20 ft. 1 in.||Y||15 in.|
|LG CF181D||9 ft. 10 in.||17 ft. 10 in.||Y||10 in.|
|Mitsubishi HC7800D||10 ft. 2 in.||15 ft. 1 in.||Y||6 in.|
|Panasonic PT-AE7000||9 ft. 11 in.||19 ft. 9 in.||Y||varies|
|Sony VPL-HW30ES||9 ft.9 in.||15 ft. 9 in.||Y||8 in.|
|Vivitek H5080||11 ft. 3 in.||14 ft. 0 in.||Y||14 in. unequal|
|JVC DLA-X70R||9 ft. 11 in.||20 ft. 1 in.||Y||15 in.|
|Mitsubishi HC9000D||11 ft. 4 in.||20 ft. 7 in.||Y||25 in.|
|Optoma HD8300||10 ft. 10 in.||16 ft. 6 in.||Y||13 in.|
|Runco LS-5||12 ft. 11 in.||16 ft. 9 in.||Y||8 in.|
|Runco LS-7||13 ft. 5 in.||17 ft. 5 in.||Y||8 in.|
|Runco LS-10d||13 ft. 5 in.||17 ft. 5 in.||Y||8 in.|
|SIM2 Nero 3D-2||9 ft. 11 in. (T1)||28 ft. 5 in. (T3)||Y||0 in.|
|Sony VW95ES||10 ft. 1 in.||16 ft. 4 in.||Y||7 in.|
Another disadvantage of not having adjustable lens shift, is that without it, the projector must be mounted at exactly the right height, instead of over a wide range. As it turns out, those projectors without adjustable lens shift, are designed to be mounted above the screen top. That offset is typically about 18 inches above the top of the screen surface for a 100" screen, and more or less, depending on the screen size. In more than a few cases, people with normal or low ceiling heights (8 foot or less) find they can't use a projector with that much offset. For those going with really large screens, say over 120 inch diagonal, you may need a ceiling height of 9 feet, or more. I receive more than a few emails from folks telling me they really had their heart set on this projector or that (without lens shift), but that they couldn't mount it high enough due to ceiling height.
All projectors with lens shift have vertical lens shift, while not all have horizontal lens shift. Vertical is the important one for most. Horizontal comes into play if you can't mount the projector with the lens centered relative to the center of the screen horizontally. Thus, horizontal lens shift can be important if there is a reason the projector must be mounted slightly to either side.
Adjustable vertical lens shift means you can mount the projector over a wide range of height relative to the top of the screen. Most typically, a projector with lens shift can be placed anywhere from a couple of feet above the top of the screen, all the way down to below the bottom (talk about flexible). A few projectors have less shift range, although all, to my knowledge, can at least be mounted as high as the top of the screen. I won't get into horizontal lens shift here (it's dealt with in the various reviews). In the chart above, projectors that have lens shift have numbers indicating the lens shift range.
Home projectors without lens shift are mostly restricted to lower cost DLP projectors, and an occasional 3LCD projector.
Creative Frame Interpolation
Creative Frame Interpolation (CFI) has been a hot topic around here for the last three years. Today, about half of the projectors in this report offer CFI.
Two years ago, only four projectors in the report offered CFI. Now just about all of the new top of the line models offer it, except for the Runco LS-5, and some lower priced ones as well. The least expensive CFI equipped projectors this year, are under $2000.
Above: HDTV NFL image using the Panasonic PT-AE7000 which offers CFI
While a few people are really enamoured with the idea of CFI, I like it to a point. I think it's great for most sports, and for some other content. With most CFI implementations, I don't like the effect on standard 24 fps film based movies. At its best, it does improve sports viewing, and improve slow panning, but at its worst, it creates visible artifacts, sometimes annoying ones. For you to consider: If a projector smooths out a fast action scene, the scene can become too tame. The director knows what the scene is going to look like without CFI, but if they saw the effect of CFI, they just might say "hmm, the action now seems muted." In other words, CFI may well damage the "director's intent." Only the Panasonic, of these projectors, can do anything with a normal movie shot at 24fps on film, and there are times when it is over the top. One tendency is to make film movies look more like "live digital video" or as some call it, "the soap opera effect."
On the other hand, if your projector offers CFI, no one says you have to use it for content when you don't like the effect.
This year I've seen a couple of CFI's that are virtually free of any of the live digital video look when viewing movies. The Mitsubishi HC9000D is my take on what a great CFI looks like, for movie viewing, if one wants to smooth out 24fps.
The magic of dynamic irises have dramatically improved the overall quality of home theater projectors. We've reached the point where most of the under $10,000 home theater projectors now have a dynamic iris to affect black level performance. Only some of the least expensive projectors and a few of the most expensive, now lack a dynamic iris. In other words, it's a pretty standard feature at this point.
Let's explore the purpose and the effect of a dynamic iris, on the projected image, and your viewing experience.
Since projectors cannot actually produce black, only very dark grays (varying based on the projector's quality), intended blacks on the screen are actually that dark gray. A problem occurs when you are looking at a very dark scene. Without bright areas to cause your iris to close a bit, those blacks start looking mighty gray. When you have a dynamic iris working, on those very dark scenes it shuts down, blocking most of the light. That makes the blacks a lot darker, but slightly brighter areas still remain pretty bright. It's a real plus. If however, your dark scene has some very bright areas, if the iris is to close down a good bit, those whites and near whites are going to get darker too. That means a bright white in an otherwise dark scene, won't be as bright as white on a normal or bright scene. The point is, you are changing the way things are supposed to be.
That's all just fine. The best thing about dynamic irises, is that they are the most effective on those really dark scenes, when you most need blacks to be blacker. On other, mostly dark scenes that have some very bright areas, the eye is drawn to the light, so the blacker blacks are less critical.
The other aspect of dynamic irises that I discuss, is the visibility of their action. If you are looking, it's not hard to spot their action. Of course they are idle - wide open, on bright and mostly bright scenes. When you get scene changes, though, from dark to light, or the other way around, the iris has to react to that - opening or closing. If they wait too long, they can be visible. In the case of one projector, after a change in scene brightness such as that, the iris takes seconds to react, then snaps open, or mostly closed very quickly. Very annoying. Some irises are relatively slow - they average out the change and can take a while perhaps even a second to complete an adjustment. That can cause a yo-yo type effect when scene brightness fades in and out every few seconds (happens a lot on movie credits like Superman, Star Wars, but in real content too.) One thing I look for in particular is when a scene consists of a conversation in a fairly dark room, say one with paneled walls. A person in a conversation, say wearing a bright shirt, who moves around while talking, may cause the iris to open and close slightly as the amount of brightness varies. That can make the scene come off looking like: you, watching a guy in a bright shirt talk - while someone off camera is playing with the light dimmer on the wall.
The viewing experience: Please keep in mind, it's my job to look into these things for you. So, while you realize that dynamic iris action can be visible, try to remember that with most of the irises on these projectors you will rarely notice their action - unless you are looking for it. I'll let you know which ones are those more likely to be bothersome. There are only a few with issues sufficient that I recommend turning the dynamic iris off.
I spend a lot of time watching movies with dynamic irises engaged. The bottom line: While there might be an occasional noticing of iris action, with most projectors, that's a small price to pay for a significant improvement in black levels.
Anamorphic Lens Support and Anamorphic Lens Emulation
First, a brief on what is an anamorphic lens, and why people are interested in it.
An anamorphic lens is a second lens, placed right in front of the projector. Its sole purpose is to stretch the image horizontally (make it wider), while leaving the vertical untouched. All home theater projectors today have 16:9 aspect ratios. That's a perfect match for HDTV content, but it is not as wide an image (relative to height) as most movies. Most movies are shot in Cinemascope - a ratio of 2.35:1 - over twice as wide as tall. When you view them on a standard home theater projector, the movie fills the screen horizontally, but leaves you with a black (ok, near black) letterbox, at the top and bottom of the screen (about 10% of the screen height for each). I'd say everyone would rather not have the letterboxing, but 99% of us get along with it just fine. Because not everything you will be watching is in Cinemascope, you still need to be able to go back to standard viewing for HDTV, movies in 16:9, and even old 4:3 (standard TV). To accomplish that, you need to move the anamorphic lens out of the way. For that reason, almost everyone going anamorphic, buys not only the lens, but a motorized sled to remove the lens from the light path when not needed.
The cost of an anamorphic lens and sled is typically $3000 - $6000 for projectors in this price range, in other words, often costs more than the projector. It also means unless you are buying one with one of the better/more expensive projectors, you are going to get a lot more bang for your buck skipping the lens, and buying a much better projector.
Our classic Gandal image from LOTR The Return of the King. The projector: BenQ W7000. (Yes, it produces this type of accurate color at over 1500 lumens!)
Of the projectors covered in this report, most do have internal support for an anamorphic lens. That means you can buy the lens, etc., and it will work. That internal support consists of the correct aspect ratio for it all to look right. Any projector without that internal support can still work with an anamorphic lens, but you'll need to buy an outboard processor, typically from $800 on up. If you really must have an anamorphic lens, buy a projector that supports one.
Projectors supporting anamorphic lenses start below $1500
Lens Memory - Anamorphic lens emulation:
Panasonic's PT-AE7000 offers support for an anamorphic lens, but it also has something else, which is the ability to "emulate" an anamorphic lens. They called it Lens Memory, when first introduced many PT-AE's ago. Since then, the feature has appeared on a number of other projectors, and it seems today, most projectors that have motorized zoom and focus, are offering it.
The PT-AE7000 doesn't need an anamorphic lens to put a Cinemascope image on a 2.35:1 screen with no letterboxing! This saves thousands of dollars, but has some trade-offs. Panasonic accomplishes this trick by allowing you (once set up) to touch a button to change the lens' zoom to fill that 2.35:1 screen. Press another button and it handles your 16:9 and 4:3 content by zooming out, so the image doesn't extend above or below your widescreen. The trick to making this work, is that you can save the two different zoom settings in a lens memory area.
The downsides are: That letterbox is still there, it's just not hitting the screen, it's above and below it. That shouldn't be a problem if your wall is dark, but if not, you will see the faint light grays, above and below the screen. At the most, it will still be less bright than the darkest blacks on the projected image. In other words "don't worry about it too much." Also different from using a real anamorphic lens, is that the Panasonic and other brands projectors with Lens Memory, doesn't use all its resolution for the image itself. With a "real" anamorphic lens and stretch, every pixel is in use, not just the about 80% that get used for the movie in this case. As a result, you are giving up a fair amount of brightness.
All that considered, it's a really nice feature that allows you to go "Cinemascope" without the big expense. Of course you can do the same trick with any 1080p projector with a lot of zoom range, but it is the combination of the ability to save the settings (thus "Lens memory") that makes it convenient. I'd hate to have to get up on a ladder to change the manual zoom lens on, perhaps an Epson, or Optoma projector, each time I want to go from a Cinemascope movie to HDTV, or other none 2.35:1 aspect ratio content.
With Lens Memory, remember, you need the projector's zoom to stop in two different positions. That effectively cuts down the working placement range you can mount the projector, by almost 50% if you have a lens with a 2:1 zoom. If you consider the Sony VPL-VW95ES, it offers lens memory, but only has a 1.6:1 zoom. With a 100" screen you less than 2 feet placement, compared to over 6 feet without Lens Memory. Be sure to figure out if you can work with the more limited placement flexibility required for Lens Memory, before ordering that 2.35:1 or 2.40:1 aspect ratio projector screen.
I've been more and more enamored with the idea. I now have a 2.35:1 Stewart Studiotek 130 in my theater. I place projectors within their range, so that I can zoom for largest image and fill my screen's width, then for HDTV or 4:3, I zoom the other way, creating a smaller image that fits vertically. Note: I in terms of the three projectors I just mentioned, I have used the Lens Memory on all three: The PT-AE7000, JVC DLA-X70R, and the Sony VPL-VW95ES.
HDMI 1.4a is the latest and greatest standard. What is particularly important about HDMI 1.4a, is it called for if you want to run Blu-ray 3D. Older 3D capable projectors (typically 720p) can now run Blu-ray 3D by virtue of several HDMI 1.4a 3D Converter boxes - we reviewed the Viewsonic VP3D1, but the real trick is to have HDMI 1.4a capable devices.
Above, last year's Epson Home Cinema 8700UB filling a 128" diagonal 16:9 Stewart Firehawk G3 screen in a room (our old house) with moderate (but controlled) ambient light. Same brightness as the still current Epson Home Cinema 8350, around 1300 lumens
ISF, THX Certification
OK, you've got a new home theater projector and you want to get the most out of it. Some of you are hard core enthusiasts, you'll tweak your projectors constantly trying to improve the picture. Many of you will do this with end user calibration discs, some of you even own light meters (the really hard-core), but many of us, to maximize the investment, will seek out a professional to calibrate their projector and often related other gear.
Today, you see many projectors now sporting an "ISF Certified" label. ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) is an organization of professional, certified calibrators. The projectors that bear that logo, have two things. 1. Sufficient color controls to allow a professional calibrator to do their job properly, and, 2. Two additional saved setting modes, password protected, for the calibrators (ISF Day, ISF Night).
THX is a name you are well familiar with from audio. Just over a year ago, they got into the certification game as well, with their own standards of performance. The first THX certified projectors were $30,000 and up (Runco projectors). Today, in this report, we have a few under $10,000 THX certified projectors, the least expensive being the Epson Pro Cinema 6010, for under $4000, including a bunch of extras.
The Panasonic PT-AR100U looks great doing the Oscars off of HDTV.
Is it critical that a projector be ISF certified? No, not at all, there are fully excellent projectors that aren't. In fact, the lack of ISF certification is intentional with some manufacturers. Take Epson for example: Their Home Cinema projectors (3010 and 5010) are not certified. Those projectors are sold online. To provide "extra value" for their Pro series (7500UB, 7100) which are almost identical, the Pros have ISF certification, while the Home series do not. Considering even the Home Series has 10 presets What is important, is that you realize that there are things you can do to get the most out of your projector, and one of those is to hire a calibrator, or a dealer who has or works with one.
While ISF certification pretty much guarantees a color management system for a calibrator to work with, THX certification indicates that you have a specific mode that is pre-calibrated - not the individual projector but based on the performance of the model. We hadn't seen a THX mode in any projector,, that didn't look great, and wasn't really close to the ideal 6500K grayscale, until recently. The JVC DLA-X70R projector certainly looked great in THX mode, but we did measure a slightly cool white over 7000K. No matter, as I said, it looked great, and lamp variation might be at play here.
Above the Panasonic PT-AR100 ($1199) on the left vs. the Epson Home Cinema 5010 ($2699). This dark night scene is intentionally overexposed. The ultra-high contrast Epson has far more pop to the image, with the lower cost Panasonic seeming flat by comparison.^ Back to Top
There are several types of viewers: Those of us who have 3D capable projectors and really enjoy the experience any time it's done well, and not just gimmicky. Hugo, Avatar, Ultimate Wave, Revealing China...
Then there are those who are watching occasional 3D on their LCDTV's
Of those without... some have only seen 3D in the theater.
Others by looking through those nailed down glasses at some forty or so inch LCDTV at Costco, or Best Buy, or...whereever, and can't see what the fuss is about.
And those that for one reason or another have just decided 3D isn't for them - a fad, a gimmick.
Or those willing to wait and see.
When it's projector purchase time, then it's time to get off the fence and make a hard decision. There are usually three possible outcomes:
1) Buy a projector that's particularly good at 3D...reasonably bright, etc.
2) Buy a projector that has 3D, but can't deliver the "whole package." Perhaps too dim, or perhaps fairly poor color...with the idea that 2D is what you want to focus on, and a little 3D for fooling around is cool.
3) Buy a 2D only projector, or buy a 2D and 3D capable projector, knowing you'll never put on the glasses.
BTW, if you're running a family operation, those kids are probably more interested in 3D than many adults, and do remember, most new animated films are coming out in 3D, not to mention Disney seems to be dying to bring out all the old classics again, this time in 3D. And don't forget the boxed set now available in 3D: Cars, and so on.
While there can be various issues with 3D, the first thing that's important to consider is familiarity. If you see a movie or two a year in 3D, your brain - you - see it mostly as a gimmick. Perhaps a logical evolution perhaps, but your brain isn't naturally wired for 3D the way its being delivered in this case. 3D's getting pretty second natured for me now. I don't think much about it, beyond when scenes look really great.
What I'm saying is that I think a lot of people might get to watch just a couple of things in 3D, and remain very skeptical. But I suspect those that stick with it, have watched dozens of hours or more, are aclimated to it and get to enjoy it even more for not being something relatively "weird".
Crosstalk varies (DLP projectors mostly are the best), but brightness, I believe is the single main issue. I've had plenty - many folks, pass through my home theater to watch various programming in 3D, to have learned that a dim picture is the number one complaint. Oh, yes, I've had a small percentage of people who really don't like watching 3D - it bothers them, but mostly, people quickly get at least a bit comfortable with the watching of 3D.
Per those folks at the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), the minimum brightness standard for 2D movie theaters should be 12 ft-lamberts. Don't worry about what those are, just note that they also set the minimum standard for 3D as only 2.75 ft-lamberts - less than 1/4th as bright. I suspect the low number was due to that being all the early 3D digital projectors could produce on say, a 40 foot wide cineplex screen.
Well, most people coming through here, are not happy with 2.75 ft lamberts, or even 4 or 5. I agree. I'd love to be watching 3D at 12 ft lamberts but that takes about 1454 lumens to start with based on the assumption right below.
I work with the assumption that between the technology and the glasses, only an average of about 25% of the total light hitting the screen makes it to your two retinae. Here's the numbers for a 100" 16:9 screen:
1000 lumens results in 33 ft-lamberts. (That's the top end of the recommended theater range by the SMPTE). On the other hand, if we're losing 75%, then bingo, now we're down to about 8 ft-lamberts. Keep in mind a 100" diagonal screen is on the small side of average!
In 2D, most of us have 400 to 1000 lumens (calibrated) to fill our screens, with a fresh lamp. Even with 400 lumens that's a bright enough 13+ ft-lamberts. Now, though, in 3D, it would take about 1600 lumens to do what the least bright projector can do with 400. This is why we tend to favor the few very bright 3D projectors - Mostly Epsons and the Panasonic, and a few DLP projectors.
None of the LCoS projectors so far, gets much above 1100 lumens under ideal conditions with a brand new lamp, with almost all under 1000 lumens. My math says that mostly, therefore, with a brand new lamp, they will be capable of only about 8 ft-lamberts, and have less than six after a few hundred hours of use... Not exactly blinding.
And for that reason, brightness tends to be the single biggest factor in our consideration of 3D abilities. You can compensate with high gain screens, but there are trade-offs.
Bottom line: 3D as far as I'm concerned, and more than half the folks who have watched it here, is something to behold. At its best, it can add tremendous impact to the content. Hugo is a good example. Even if the actual production qualities aren't exceptional, watching Hugo in 2D after seeing it in 3D has to be a major disappointment.
So, the free advice is: Give 3D a shot. You just might like it, and your younger kids, if you've got them, almost certainly will (if you haven't traded the kids in for the new projector).
There should be plenty of information for readers at all levels of interest, from those just looking into a projector, to hard core hobbiests. Enjoy.