Epson Cinema 400 Projector Review - Image Quality
In this section I'll focus first on how well the Epson Cinema 400 does handling flesh tones, then black levels/shadow detail and overall color balance. Toward the bottom though, I'm going to kick the Cinema 400 out of its best modes (I primarily viewed movies in Theater Black 1 mode, and look at what it offers when you need a lot more lumens, for dealing with ambient light, or simply to view things, where you don't want the room really dark (like a nice football game).
I am impressed with the overall image quality of the Cinema 400. I'm going to try not to make too many comparisons here, to the older Cinema 550 it replaces, but some are in order.
So, let's get those out of the way. I found the older projector to be a bit soft when viewing content, regardless of the input resolution. We're talking subtle here, the Cinema 550 was, however, sharper than the Panasonic PT-AE900u with its "smooth screen" lcd's which reduced the visibility of the pixel structure, but added softness.
In talking with Epson, I was not able to solidly determine why I found the Cinema 400 to be sharper, but here's what Epson told me. The Cinema 400 uses newer, better LCD panels called D5+ instead of the old D5, so that, likely had much to do with it. Also, of note, the Cinema 400 (like the 550) uses a dynamic iris to enhance contrast, but the Cinema 400's contrast is rated 5000:1 instead of 3000:1, and the improved contrast, no doubt gives you the feel of a sharper image. Perhaps the key change is in the optics themselves, Epson said there are "improvements to the multi-lens array". The newer Cinema 400 also uses an improved lamp. Epson also tweaked the positioning of the panels, thus changing the light path slightly.
Enough speculation. Let's consider the end result - how did the Cinema 400 projector perform?
Let me start by saying I found the default color settings need a little work, out of the box, although, they were acceptable without tweaking. (I would recommend using a basic "end user" calibration disk, easy enough to do, even for those not inclined to fool with adjustments.) Although the out of box color accuracy isn't bad at all, it's not as good as some other projectors, either. I was in a rush when testing, with less time than usual due to leaving on a family vacation, so I didn't spend quite as much time calibrating. (I usually have a projector for about a week, in this case, though, only 2+ days.) I did, however, end up with an excellent picture - color wise, although a bit more tweaking should have further eliminated the tendency for warmer color handling (reds, etc.) when measuring brighter areas (gray calibration) , and a shift toward cooler temperature in the dark grays.
Let's talk flesh tones, always the first (and in my opinion, most important test of color). If a projector screws up flesh tones, everyone is immediately unhappy. No problem here, as seen in the (usual) images immediately below:
First, from DVD, images from Lord of the Rings, The Fifth Element, and Sin City.
Click on the image of Gandalf, above, for a larger image.
I found both the Gandalf and Arwen (above) images to be really excellent, with good tonal balance, and especially rich colors without appearing oversaturated!
Lastly is the image of Nancy, from Sin City, a movie using little in the way of color (a dark movie with much appearing to be black and white, but with subtle sepia-like shading, and occasional splashes of color.
Of course the world (or some parts of it) are going Hi-Def, so check out this image from Phantom of the Opera, from my Toshiba HD-DVD player.
Click for a larger version. (Both images are just a touch dark, unintended.)
The Epson Cinema 400 has a dynamic iris, to improve contrast and black levels. This is common on many new home theater projectors, especially LCD models, as they inherently can't match the contrast/black levels of DLP projectors. The Cinema 400 claims an increase of contrast from 3000:1 to 5000:1.
The very good news is that the dynamic iris is subtle, in normal viewing I never noticed its affect, as I have on some projectors, where frame by frame, the addition of a bright object in the frame causes even the dark areas to brighten.
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When it comes to black levels - getting those intended blacks as dark gray as possible, the Epson performed reasonably well, but, let's say, it isn't the great strength of the Cinema 400. The Cinema 400 offers a lot of control of white and black levels, and I played with them briefly, but this projector is not going to get you as black a black as the better under $2000 DLP projectors. On outer space scenes, though, it did perform well, achieving pretty good blacks, plenty of stars and a good amount of depth for a low cost projector. (I guess you just can't have everything in a $1600 projector - big surprise).
Here are some images - starting with a star field shot from standard DVD - The Fifth Element. You'll find this same image on most of our reviews, but until now they have been from standard DVD, not HD-DVD. The purplish caste of the starship appears on all projectors (to one degree or another).
Normally, I also have the time to go over the images I shot, and reshoot occasionally when unhappy with the exposure. (I always bracket though). In this case, the projector was returned and I was travelling. Unfortunately some of the images are a little underexposed.
I mention that for the sequence below. The first image is from Lord of the Rings, and is for checking out shadow detail (bottom and right). I always also provide an overexposed version for more clarity in those areas. In this case, the overexposed image isn't quite as overexposed as I intended. Sorry. You'll jus thave to work harder, if comparing to the same image on other reviews.
More dark scenes for your consideration, remember using electronics, dimming lamps or dynamic iris's to achieve blacker blacks, only works when there arn't any fullt bright areas.
In the case above, the moonlight, no doubt is preventing the iris from stopping down. Still the results are very respectable, but, for example, no match for my Darkchip3 DLP projector. This whole scene looked VERY good on the Epson.
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The image from Starship Troopers, has no full value bright areas, to prevent the iris from "doing its thing". And, although the image is a little underexposed, the Epson's performance was very good, with deep "rich" blacks.
General color handling: OK, fleshtones and dark scenes/shadow detail are important, but so is how a projector looks on normal scenes, daytime, and evening scenes with lights, etc. Overall, as you can see from the images below, the Epson performed very naturally, which, is what I expected from reviewing past Epson's. I would have to say, normal everyday scenes are perhaps its biggest strength.
First a couple of Hi-Def images from HD-DVD:
From Serendipity: Click to enlarge
Wow! from Phantom:
(I probably should have provided a hi-res version of this one as well.) Look at the rich, dynamic colors. I was particularly impressed with this scene when casually watching segments of Phantom. And if that's not impressive enough, it wasn't being projected on my normal testing screen for this shot, but outside, at night on the Gemmy inflatable screen (review recently posted). Not bad considering it was shot off of a basic vinyl surface. It looked even better on my Firehawk, with the Epson set up in my theater room.
Cranking up the Epson Cinema 400 Projector
One of this Epson's strengths is sheer "horsepower". It is certainly one of the brightest home theater projectors I have tested. The older Epson Cinema 550 was also bright and this one claims an extra 100 lumens (rated 1500). Unfortunately, a year ago, I wasn't measuring brightness of home theater projectors in their brightest modes.
First of course I measured the Epson in its best mode - Theater Black 1, and a very healthy 468 lumens (up about 10% from the 550). What the Cinema 400 really has going for it, is that, at 1500 lumens, it's conservatively rated, making one of the brightest (if not the brightest) under $2000 home theater projector on the market. Optoma's HD72 measured more lumens in its best mode (just over 500) but can't match the Epson in its brightest modes - Living Room and Dynamic.
Immediately below are three images of the same frame. The important point, is that all are shot with the same exposure, so it shows you how the brightness differs from preset mode to preset mode.
The first was shot, (yes, it is intentionally, slightly underexposed) in Theater Black 1 mode. I didn't photograph the slightly brighter Theater mode. Using the same exposure, the second image is somewhat overexposed, and the last one, overexposed - big time!
The 2nd image is Livingroom mode - ideal for most HDTV, or even movie watching if your room isn't very dark.
Lastly is Dynamic mode - big time brightness here. Color issues are evident, including a overly strong green, but most of the green should be easily removable with adjustment, without significantly impacting brightness at all.
As you can see immediately from these three images, the jump in "horsepower" is very dramatic, and the Epson really can deal with significant ambient light and still do a great job on a nice football game, sitcom or Discovery HD. The image used for these three shots, incidently, is from the Starship Troopers DVD:
Bottom line, if you are like a great many potential buyers of a home theater projector, who need a bright home theater projector, because you can't fully darken your room at night. The same is true, if you also want to watch it in the daytime and have only partial control of room brightness, or simply want to watch some content (such as sports, HDTV, or even video games) with significant room ambient light (I'm not saying really bright, I'm talking modest to moderate light with no sunlight pouring in, for sure), the Epson Cinema 400 home theater projector is going either near, or at the very top, of your short list for a projector in this price range.
In fact, the only home theater projector I can think of that may prove to be able to put a brighter image on the screen, in the under $2500 range, may be the just announced Panasonic PT-AX100U, which will be reviewed next. The new Panasonic is rated 2000 lumens vs. the Epson's 1500, but traditionally, Epson is the most conservative company out there, when it comes to rating their projector's brightness. I won't be at all surprised if the Cinema 400 proves to be every bit as bright as the Panasonic, and maybe even beat it by a few lumens. Stay tuned for the results.
I'll provide you with the brightness measurements for the various modes in the next section - Performance.
Overall, I was extremely pleased with the Epson's performance in terms of image quality. Great fleshtones, good black levels, and reasonable (not exceptional) shadow detail. Combine this with an unusually bright projector, and the Cinema 400 is going to be a top choice for a large chunk of the buying public - especially those who don't want to be limited to viewing in a fully, or almost fully darkened room!