Epson Ensemble HD 1080 Complete Home Theater System Review: Image Quality
Epson Ensemble HD 1080 System: Image Quality Sections
Epson Ensemble HD Home Cinema 1080 Projector; Out of the Box Picture Quality
Skin Tone Handling
Home Cinema 1080 Black Level Performance and Shadow Detail
Home Cinema 1080 Sharpness
Overall Image Quality (post Calibration)
Home Cinema 1080 for HDTV and Sports
Bottom Line Image Quality (and additional images)
Most of the images in this review can be clicked on for a larger, higher resolution version (except for equipment images).
In this section, I have gone into the image quality performance of the Epson projector itself - the Home Cinema 1080 - with about the same level of detail of any other projector I've reviewed. I must say though, that while you may find the details found here to be interesting, and possibly enlightening, the only real important point is that this projector is one of the better lower cost 1080p projectors available, and works extremely well as part of the complete system. It's easy to debate the fine points between projectors, but the typical buyer of this system will be more than pleased with the picture quality.
Home Cinema 1080 Projector: "Out of the Box" Picture Quality
Not bad, not bad at all! Like virtually any other home theater projector, the Epson Home Cinema 1080 projector's "out of the box" image quality will improve with calibration. Due to timing, I found myself watching the system for about a week, and at least 15 hours of viewing with the default settings. The best movie mode - Theatre Black 1, using the default setting, produces pretty impressive color, if slightly oversaturated. The color is not dead on, but skin tones look pretty good, and the gamma provides very good balance between dark, mid, and bright areas. Few projectors have better "out of the box" color performance in their best movie mode.
Moving to the other settings though, you immediately see the need for some real improvement. Living Room mode definitely needs to be recalibrated, and Dynamic, which is just that - the brightest setting, is way strong on green, a common technique to get the highest lumen measurements. Further, overall, green is somewhat oversaturated in all modes. Whites take on a slightly yellowish green hue.
As with other projector reviews, when the Dynamic mode (or whatever other manufacturers call it) is off significantly, my goal when calibrating, is to tame it a bit, sacrificing a bit of the brightness as a compromise, in exchange for better color. This is very successful with the Epson Ensemble HD's Home Cinema 1080 projector.
Bottom Line: All-in-all, the Epson's best mode is very watchable, but the brighter modes need some work. If you don't want to pay your dealer to calibrate it, at least get one of the calibration discs, either the AVIA dic, or the DVE-HD disc which we recently reviewed. It will be worth the hours or so of your time, and both are designed to be usable by non-technical folks. Plan B, so to speak, would be to get your system installed, and then simply use the data we provide from our calibration (General Performance section), and set up a few User memory modes with our results. There will be variation from projector to projector (mostly due to variation with lamps - and how many hours they have on them), but for the most part, our results should make you extremely pleased with your system!
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Skin Tone Handling
As mentioned, Theater Black 1 - the best mode, does a very respectable job on skin tones. After calibration though, they are gorgeous. Not the best I've ever seen, but downright excellent. As to the best - post calibration, that honor goes to the InFocus IN83 recently reviewed, but then, that projector, by itself, costs almost as much as the complete Ensemble HD 1080 system ($5999 vs $6999 for the full Ensemble HD 1080).
Here are a few images demonstrating the post calibration settings:
From Lord of the Rings, standard DVD (SD-DVD):
From Aeon Flux on Blu-ray disc:
Remember, when considering what makes for excellent skin tones, that the perceived lighting (and the director's intent - think The Matrix), have a lot to do with it. The same person's skin tone will be markedly different in different lighting scenarios. To give you a taste of what I am talking about, here are three images of James Bond from Casino Royale. In the first one, full sunlight, the second - fluorescent lighting in an airport, and lastly filtered sunlight:
Home Cinema 1080: Black Level and Shadow Detail
Black Level Performance
All considered, black level performance is good, but hardly exceptional. Here lies my biggest complaint about Epson's decision to provide the Home Cinema 1080 projector as the heart of the Ensemble HD 1080, instead of the newer Home Cinema 1080 UB. While the older Home Cinema 1080 does a good job in terms of those black levels, the Home Cinema 1080 UB is exceptional, with definitely the best black level performance of any projector under $3000, and only matched or beat by 3-4 projectors selling for up to twice the price.
What does this mean? It's true that the hard core enthusiast would really prefer the better black levels from the UB. That said, most folks - and I mean the vast majority of potential owners of the Ensemble HD 1080, simply would never notice the difference, unless seen, side by side, and even then, most probably wouldn't care.
Overall, the black level performance is still much better than most projectors of just a few years ago, and while there are "blacker blacks" out there, like with many of todays competing home theater projectors, the Epson has achieved an acceptable level of black level performance that will please the typical buyer.
Nothing like space scenes for black levels. Here are a couple of images to give you a good idea. Remember that the monitor you are viewing this on, is probably an LCD monitor, and even if the Epson had perfect blacks, your monitor can't even approach the black levels of the most average projector!
The starship image above, is from the Blu-ray version of The Fifth Element
Since we don't spend all our time watching sci-fi, here is an image of a building and surrounds at night, from Aeon Flux. (Ok, it is a sci-fi flick too, but, at least it's not stars and space ships.)
Ensemble HD 1080 Shadow Detail Performance
Epson has been very consistent when it comes to shadow detail performance. They do a very good job, but a number of competing projectors can do a little bit better. What they lose in dark area shadow detail is still very slight, compared to the best of the competition. This can be helped a little with some tweaking of the system's gamma settings (great controls), but for the typical consumer of a product like this - they will never know, nor appreciate the subtle differences. Even the newer UB version shares the shadow detail performance of the Home Cinema 1080, and falls a tad short of the best.
Below is a sequence of images from Space Cowboys. This is an extremely dark scene, and so that you can overcome the limitations of my dSLR, and see into the darkest areas, these images are overexposed. Look to the details in the blinds in the back of the scene. The Epson does well, you can see the faint white lines (cords), that run vertically. The first image is Epson, below that the new Mitsubishi HC5500, a direct competitor, and below it the legendary JVC RS1 (which I own). The JVC when released last year pretty much set the standard for black levels and shadow detail in the under $10,000 projector category.
Below we have six "thumbnails" of this cropped HD scene from Space Cowboys. Click on each for an overexposed version. Look to the satellite on the left for dark shadow details. By row, starting top left:
Home Cinema 1080, the "newer" Home Cinema 1080 UB,
Sony VW60, JVC RS1,
JVC RS2, Sony VW40
In the images above, look for the details in the satellite in the front left of the image. The images are over-exposed to assist you.
Below, again from Space Cowboys, is the re-entry scene. Here's another direct comparison between the two Epsons with the Ensemble's Epson Home Cinema 1080 on the left!
Next is the casino image at night from Bond's Casino Royale. Again, first the Epson, then competing projectors. The images below are normally exposed, and from the same projector. Click on each for an overexposed version from the projector listed above each image. Look to the shadow details in the roof, and in the trees and lawn areas.
Epson Ensemble HD Home Cinema 1080 projector:
(Note, all five images below are the same. Clicking on each brings up the higher resolution, and overexposed versions that allows you to compare shadow detail abilities in the dark areas. Look to the roof tiles, and the trees on the left.)
Sony VPL-VW40 projector:
Epson Home Cinema 1080UB projector:
Sony VPL-VW60 projector:
Mitsubishi HC5500 projector:
These next two images are found in almost all recent reviews. Click for large, and seriously overexposed versions of the thumbnails. You can look to the dark areas of the shed on the right, plants along the bottom, and the wood structure on the left, to compare shadow detail.
Click on left thumbnail image for the Ensemble HD, and the right for the InFocus IN82.
Lastly, here's a shot from the black and white beginning of Casino Royale. The image is intentionally overexposed, so you can make out the details in the furniture, especially on the back wall. This same image can be found in most reviews done in the last year.
Epson Home Cinema 1080 Projector: Sharpness
The sharpness of the included Home Cinema 1080 is about average for 1080p projectors. There are definitely a number that are sharper, and a few, not quite as sharp. While sharper is better, keep in mind, that the Epson doing a nice clear 1080i signal from your cable or satellite box, something shot digitally, like football, or the Olympics, is still going to appear visibly sharper than a movie, originally shot with film, even on slightly sharper projectors. That is to say, movies from film are inherently less sharp than a pure 1080 digital source.
The Epson looked fantastic while watching hours of the Olympics, although I could go into the other theater and see that the InFocus IN83 (currently in use there), is sharper. I also know from experience, that my own projector, the JVC DLA-RS1, which just a year ago, was considered by most reviewers to be the best overall home theater projector under $10,000, isn't quite as sharp as the Epson. So there!
Bottom line: There are sharper projectors, but the Epson looks great. Again, the "hard core" enthusiast seeking perfection in all areas, might have a bit of a problem with the sharpness, but millions of potential buyers will not!
I've got a car analogy for you. I own an Infiniti G35. When I bought it there was a second "sportier" version that was slightly faster. When it comes to cars (I also own a Mazda Miata, so, you can believe that I really do enjoy driving), my G35 with its 0-60 mph, in under 6 seconds, is just fine by me.
When it comes to the Epson's sharpness, it's like my G35's acceleration - sure you can do better. The question is, is it important, especially since this projector, like my Infiniti, is a strong performer to begin with!
The DTS test disc main menu is a good test of sharpness. Click for an even more cropped look at the text and logo.
Top left: Epson Ensemble HD Home Cinema 1080, Top Center, Sony VPL-VW60, Top right: Panasonic PT-AE2000U
2nd row left: Sanyo PLV-2000, middle: Optoma HD8000, right: InFocus IN82
Below, left to right, a close-up of the monitor image in Space Cowboys, from left to right: Epson Ensemble HD, InFocus IN82, and the particularly expensive Optoma HD81-LV.
Bottom Line Sharpness: Good for the 1080p class of projectors but definitely not the sharpest. The fact that live 1080i broadcasts appear a little sharper than Blu-ray 1080p movies, just makes the point that with movies from film, there is enough loss of sharpness due to film grain and resolution, that movies can't push the Epson enough for it to be considered an issue. HDTV looks stunning. Yes there is sharper, but unless you get to play with projectors like I do, you'll almost certainly never miss that last few percent of sharpness.
Epson Ensemble HD 1080 Performance: HDTV and Sports
It just looks great! I've now watched at least 10 hours of Olympics, perhaps one hour of pre-season football, a little general TV (actually HDTV), and even some of the televised in HD McCain vs. Obama event that was held last night at a mega-church near here (Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA). Beautiful!
Again, sure there's always something that can do a bit better, but on these assorted HDTV broadcasts, the Ensemble HD 1080 looks great. When you also consider that the next best "great" image most people have ever seen, is a 50" plasma TV, it's no contest. Put your 50" or 42" plasma back in the 2nd bedroom, or kitchen, where "tiny TV's" belong, it's serious home theater time!
We're talking "knock your socks off" picture here. I am, of course completely spoiled with all the toys I get to play with including the sharpest of projectors. Still, I would, well, have "no tribble at all" (sorry, for the Star Trek reference), watching my sports and TV on this system for a long, long time to come. (Note, for normal HDTV broadcasts of things like normal programming and sports, those black levels discussed above, are nowhere near as important, as for movie watching). The reason is, that you rarely have really dark scenes on TV programming, and never in sports programming (ok, maybe some Discovery HD special on caving)!
Although not from HDTV, here are a couple of images from the DVE-HD calibration disc. Like live events - no film, so maximum crispness to the images:
I trust you have noticed the rich, gorgeous colors on these images above.
Overall Image Quality
I think you should have a handle on this, by now. After a nice calibration (or feel free to commandeer the settings we came up with in the General Performance section), the Epson Ensemble HD 1080, produces a great image. It suffers slightly only in two areas, and even there it is comparable to most of the competition: Shadow Detail performance, and Sharpness.
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Skin tones are excellent! Black levels are very typical of lower priced 1080p projectors and only the aforementioned Epson 1080 UB, does a visibly better job on black levels. Comparing the included Home Cinema 1080 with most of the competition, including Sanyo, Panasonic, Optoma, and others, has the Epson in the middle of the pack, but they are all close.
Below are a few more assorted images to try and capture the picture quality of the Ensemble HD 1080:
Overall Picture Quality: Bottom Line
If you are a hard core fanatic, and the Ensemble HD is in your budget, you will probably want to try to get the dealer, somehow to trade out the Home Cinema 1080 for a UB version, for an increase in cost.
For most of the people in the world, (and I'm including discerning people but not true fanatics) who really can enjoy the difference between a very good and a great picture, will be perfectly satisfied with the quality of the Epson's picture!
It's that simple!