Do You Need a 1080p Resolution Home Theater Projector?
The Battle Between 1080p and 720p projectors: Image Quality
Image Quality Relative to Price
Now first, (no screaming from LCD and LCOS fans) general consensus is that DLP projectors have a natural edge in image quality. There are, however, so many variables that there are plenty of people who prefer LCD. Still for purposes of this article, DLP has at least the advantage in black levels, and film-like qualities. However, most LCD projectors now use dynamic irises to increase contrast on some scenes, but still can't match the black levels and shadow details of DLP's on brighter, mixed lighting scenes.
When we look at DLP projectors at the 720p range, we see a significant number of them with very limited zoom and no lens shift. These are small, lightweight projectors, often a bit noisy, etc. Then, at a price above the LCD models, we see additional DLP projectors - this time with more range in the zoom lenses, lens shift, and also usually, the better Darkchip3 DLP chip.
Shown here is the BenQ PE-8720, one of the best 720p single chip DLP projectors around (and the one I'm currently planning to replace with a 1080p projector in my own theater). The PE8720 is known for a very sharp image, a zoom lens with decent flexibility, and lens shift. Although not exceptionally bright, it would be described as being brighter than the average home theater projector. (It does a great job on my 128" Firehawk screen!)
If we compare this assortment of 720p DLP's with 1080p DLP's there are significantly different dynamics in play.
First of all, at the 1080p level, all the DLP models are more expensive than the more flexible LCD 1080p projectors. There are no "entry level" DLP based 1080p projectors. BenQ's two 1080p DLP's both offer limited zoom range, but do have vertical lens shift. By comparison, the Optoma also has limited zoom range, but no lens shift. It costs more, but has input flexibility and external processing. The SIM2 D80, is the entry level 1080p from SIM2, Europe's high end projector manufacturer, (the equivalent to Runco in the US?) As such, it is a local dealer-only line in the US, and does command the higher prices of specialty home theater local dealerships. I mention that, since it is the most expensive mentioned, yet has no lens shift (unlike more expensive 1080p SIM2s).
Arguably the BenQ and Optoma (and we expect the SIM2 when it arrives) produce a slightly more film-like image than the lower cost LCD projectors, but they also have another advantage we will discuss next - they are brighter than the LCD projectors.
Before we go there, it's time to bring the LCOS projectors into the mix. LCOS projectors just aren't around in the lower resolution marketplace. Most LCOS projectors currently being sold have been extremely high resolution business-type models. That said, JVC has offered a 1080p 3 chip D-ILA (LCOS) projector for more than 2 years, and the older Sony VW100 has been out well over one year.
From a performance standpoint, LCOS projectors have advantages and disadvantages, but for this part of the article, let's say, that the big strengths of LCOS are first, essentially invisible pixels (far less than even DLP), and, since like LCD these are 3 chip projectors, no rainbow effect. The downside, at least in the past, has been native contrast ratios that are as low or lower than LCD, and a far, far cry from the great black levels and contrast of DLP projectors. Both of these projectors, however sport great contrast specs, and at least with the Sony, attributable to "AI" , like their dynamic iris.
This is the first time really that LCOS is in the fray, and consider that they are priced in the middle, not as low cost as the two lowest LCD, (in the case of the Sony), and in the middle of the DLP 1080p units (JVC RS-1). I should note, that like Sony, JVC has other, more expensive 1080p models, but we won't deal with them in this article.
So the key elements that the LCOS projectors bring to the "party" are - invisible pixels (no screen door effect) , and no rainbow effect, whereas LCD's have no rainbow effect, but slightly visible pixel structure for possible screen door effect, and DLP's the reverse - no visible screen door effect, but some will be bothered by the rainbow effect.
Sounds like the best of both worlds? Possibly, but we digress from the big issue of which is right for you (at this point in time), 720p or 1080p projectors.
720p vs 1080p Projectors: Brightness
Herein lies the weakness of LCD "powered" 1080p home theater projectors. They just aren't particularly bright. To enjoy them in best mode (Panasonic and Mitsubishi) you are going to be limited in screen size, handling ambient light. On the two reviewed so far, they have just enough muscle in best modes to fill a typical 100 to 106 inch diagonal screen, maybe a touch larger if your walls are dark as well. Of course, screen type can play a big factor, but I'm talking screen size relative to the popular matte white (with some gain) and brighter HC gray screens, that are discussed in reviews and in screen articles on the site.
By comparison, the DLP 1080p's are brighter, while using the same definitions of bright enough, the BenQ and Optoma projectors can handle room/screen sizes of about 20% larger than, say the Panasonic, not quite that much with the Mitsubishi. I am, however looking forward to reviewing the soon-to-ship Epson Pro Cinema 1080p, which should be a bit brighter than the other two LCD 1080p projectors.
This image from Phantom of the Opera (HD-DVD) projected by the Mitsubishi HC5000 looked absolutely great. But instead of filling my 128" diagonal screen, I watched Phantom using only about 106" diagonal, to have sufficient brightness to really enjoy it.
For example, in my own search for a 1080p projector to replace my BenQ PE-8720, I quickly concluded (when reviewing them) that neither the Panasonic PT-AE1000U, nor the Mitsubishi HC5000 could provide enough lumens for the 128" Firehawk screen in my theater. The BenQ W10000 (their 1080p version of my PE-8720) by comparison, is just a touch brighter than my 8720, and will have enough "horsepower" should that be my final selection.
So, if you need a bright projector, the price difference starts stretching out. The brightest of the 720p projectors - the Panasonic PT-AX100U and Epson Cinema 400 both are around $1500 (the Panny is more, the Epson typically less). (Don't forget Optoma's HD72, also, a very bright 720p.) Both of these are a bit brighter than any of the 1080p projectors, and capable of about 2000 lumens in their brightest (least accurate) modes.
So for a fairly bright projector, it's around $1500, vs close to $6000. Wherever the street price of the BenQ W9000 ends up, will be the low end of the bright 1080p projector price range.
Both LCOS 1080p projectors are considered to be not very bright! (Sony claims 900 and JVC 700 lumens).
Consider, of the "affordable" 1080p home theater projectors, only a couple of DLP projectors really have the muscle to handle screens of 120" or more (assuming typical screens, not super high gain ones with very narrow viewing cones). Since those projectors start at over $5000, those looking for larger screen environments need to shell out more money, or wait until we get a 2nd generation that offers more bright choices, at lower prices.
720p vs. 1080p Projectors: Sharpness
There is no doubt - a 1080p projector will produce a sharper image. Of course you need high quality content, such as HDTV (preferably of the 1080 variety) or hi def DVDs, to really appreciate the difference.
When you are talking especially sharp images, these two 1080p projectors; the BenQ W10000, and the Optoma HD81 (DLP models), come to mind. Shown here first is the BenQ, and below that, Optoma's HD81, which is a "two piece" solution, with all the processing done in the outboard unit that sits with the rest of your equipment, and just a cable connecting the processor to the HD81.
While the BenQ W10000 is fairly traditional, and has lens shift and has the usual assortment of inputs, while the Optoma offers far more inputs than any of the other projectors mentioned, thanks to the outboard processor box, but lacks lens shift.
Even the softest of the 1080p projectors - the Panasonic PT-AE1000U and the Sony VW50, are slightly but visibly sharper than the sharpest of the 720p projectors, such as the Sanyo PLV-Z5, and my "beloved" (until I upgrade to 1080p) BenQ PE-8720.
For your consideration, here is an image from the "soft" Panasonic PT-AE1000u 1080p projector, and below it the same image produced from the Sanyo PLV-Z5.
Perhaps, better still, first the BenQ W10000 (1080p) then the Sharp XV-Z3000 (720p)
Click on the images above for larger versions easier to see the differences. Note the detail in the hair, and the sharpness, and gleam in her eyes, on these HD-DVD images from Aeon Flux.