Mitsubishi HC1500, Sub-$1000 Home Theater Projector Review - Image Quality
There are now a few under $1000 720p resolution home theater projectors on the market, plus there are plenty of models between $1000 and $2000. The HC1500, being one of the four least expensive 720p projectors on the market, is certainly priced right. So the question is, how does the HC1500 perform, in terms of image quality, and how it stacks up against the primarily more expensive competition.
Please note, that some of the images (primarily those doing side by side comparisons with other projectors regarding black levels and shadow detail), are from the HD1000U review. Performance in this area, of the older and newer Mitsubishi projectors should be the same. Any images from the HD1000U are so noted!
Let's start with how well the HC1500 projector handles flesh tones. I have always been a proponent of the belief that, overall, this is perhaps the most important single aspect. If flesh tones look unnatural, it is going to immediately be far more annoying than, say, some loss of shadow detail, or less than stellar black levels.
As you can see from the image of Gandalf, above (HC1500) from Lord of the Rings, the flesh tone appears very natural.
Also from Lord of the Rings, (by the way, this is from standard DVD), is this image of Arwen (HC1500), which exhibits an almost grayish caste to the skin color, which compares very well with my recollection of the movie in the theaters. (Lord of the Rings does have different color castes in use for almost every different part of Middle Earth, where the story takes place). It does seem a little softer in terms of reds, but that, in part, is the result of inaccuracies in a quick calibration, and easily corrected.
The image below is from the HC1500, from the standard DVD The Fifth Element. (I'm switching to the new Blu-Ray version, starting the next review).
Fresh off the presses, to demonstrate flesh tone handling of the HC1500 are these images from House of the Flying Daggers (Blu-Ray), and Aeon Flux (HD-DVD):
The skin tones are extremely believable. And note the textures and richness of colors in the enlargements, when you click on them.
From Aeon Flux (HD-DVD):
The Phantom of the Opera images shown below are all from the older HD1000U
Quicktip: There are real limits to what you can get out of photos of projected images. My digital camera lacks the dynamic range to get all the details from brightest to lowest, and, even more importantly, what the camera sees, what I see on my laptop display while cropping and resizing, and what you see on your monitor, are all going to be different. There is no viable way to calibrate your monitor to display accurately the colors that were projected, and even with a good camera, it too, is not going to precisely and accurately capture the colors seen on the screen. Nor can your monitor match the black levels these projectors produce. Bottom line: especially for color balance, take the images with a "pound of salt". These images should impress, and sometimes can show flaws that exist, but they are there to complement the commentary and opinions put forth, not the other way around. As nice as they look, in this case, for accuracy, one might change old saying to "why use a picture, when a thousand words will do". That may be the best advice.
Just remember: No matter how good these images may look on your computer monitor, the projector will look better in your house when properly set up, in an appropriately darkened room!
The image below is also from Phantom, and considering the "stage lighting" the skin tones look great!
Overall I was extremely impressed with the flesh tone handling, even right out of the box, and with a basic calibration, they can be even more refined.
For comparison's sake, I recently reviewed the new Panasonic PT-AX100U, one of the most impressive values I have ever seen (street price right below $2000), although half again more expensive. As noted in the review, the Panasonic after my (in that case, quick and mediocre) calibration, tended to be too rich in reds, and overall, colors were oversaturated a bit on the photos (both easily corrected).
So, below is the same approximate scene from above, taken with the projectors set up side by side, both in "best modes." Also, note the similarity in overall brightness which will get discussed later. You may click on for a larger image. The Mitsubishi HC1000 is on the left, the PT-AX100U, on the right.
HC1500 Black levels and shadow detail
As you are probably familiar, one of the challenges of a good home theater projector is to handle blacks well. None of the current technologies (except CRT) can actually project a true black (that would be projecting no light at all) LCD, DLP and LCOS technologies differ in how close to black they can do, with DLP being the reigning champ, and LCD and LCOS a step down in this critical area. Fortunately, today's non DLP projectors and also a number of DLP home theater projectors, use other advanced techniques, such as frame by frame, AI, and opening and closing of an iris in the lens, or brightening or dimming the lamp, frame by frame, to improve overall black levels. This has made some LCD projectors come out with amazing specs, but they cannot consistently lower the black levels to that of the better DLP projectors.
Unlike its more expensive sibling, the HC3000, the HC1500 home theater projector lacks a dynamic iris, and this results in a lower contrast rating (2500:1). Until all that AI, and dynamic irises and lamps, the contrast rating was a pretty consistent indication of black levels, but that is no longer true. 2500:1 is typical of DLP projectors using the Darkchip2 DLP chip (virtually every DLP projector shipping in the US for less than $2000).
After providing you with all that background, let me say that the HC1500 would have surprised me in its overall performance relating to black levels and shadow detail, except of course, for my familiarity with the HD1000U. Black levels were good overall, whether or not the scene you would be watching has bright areas or not. (Bright areas affect all those fancy adjustments). Not stellar, but perfectly acceptable for most people. Matching it with the right screen takes black level performance up a notch, for those who want to focus on this aspect of the picture.
More importantly, the shadow detail was excellent. In this case, it definitely beat out the more expensive Panasonic. If you go back to the comparison image above, and click on the larger view, look to the dark areas for detail, the HC1500 will reveal slightly more than the PT-AX100U.
I have some additional comparison images, so I'll start with another comparison with the Panasonic. We will look at space scenes and star fields, always a challenge in terms of black levels and shadow detail. Again, the Mitsubishi HC1000 - representing the similar performance of the HC1500, is on the left. The image is intentionally slightly overexposed, to bring out maximum stars, as well as in the letter box area, show you any differences in black levels.
The image above, from The Fifth Element, standard DVD. Click to enlarge.
Without a doubt, the Mitsubishi has a slight edge in detail, over the Panasonic, despite the much lower spec'd contrast levels.
The image above from Lord of the Rings is inherently extremely dark. The HC1500 does a very good job however. Clicking on this image, will bring up a much larger closeup of the lower right portion of the screen. That image is also intentionally overexposed to reveal what my digital camera can't capture with a normal exposure. Very good, also you'll note some colors in parts of the buildings - these are very dark, and often lost on other projectors.
This next image, shot using the HC1500, is from Space Cowboys (HD-DVD), and is extremely challenging because of the extremely bright space suit and all the detail in the portion of the space station on the left. Click on the image for a larger, cropped view, that is intentionally overexposed to show the details in the space station, lost on the "normally exposed" image, but perfectly visible when watching this scene with the HC1500.
This dark "table" scene, below, from Aeon Flux, shows good shadow detail, and rich colors. You'll find this image in almost all recent reviews, for comparison:
The next image is from the DTS sampler, and provides a high contrast night scene in a bazaar. This is an image I am now using regularly:
From Space Cowboys (HD-DVD) this image of Clint Eastwood in an extremely dark room, with only light from a down pointing desk lamp, is a good test of shadow detail. Note the wall behind him for detail. Most of that wall should be inky black, and is on the best, most expensive models. Still, the HC1500 manages to pick up some details in the dark areas that some more expensive projectors lose.
The next pair of images are also used in most reviews. Since the camera cannot properly expose the projected image and still show any details in dark areas, the first image is "normally exposed", while the second one is the same frame, overexposed. In the overexposed version, you can clearly see the level of details in the shed on the right and along the bottom. (Again, these are the older HD1000U images).
All that detail you see in the "dark areas" is readily visible when watching this scene on both the HD1000U, and the HC1500 home theater projectors.
As noted above, the kind of enhancements many projectors are using to improve black levels and shadow detail, are dynamic. Projectors using these techniques, can get great black levels on scenes lacking extremely bright areas, but those techniques mostly cannot affect images with a really bright area.
Overall, the Mitsubishi HC1500 impressed me with better than expected shadow detail. Although slight, it proves to be better than the Panasonic PT-AX100U, and I suspect it to be better than the Optoma HD72, although I didn't have that one around for direct comparsion to the HD1000U or the HC1500. When I wrote the original HD1000U review, it was before I had obtained an Optoma HD70 for review. Of course, the HD70 has long been reviewed, and I give the advantage in black levels to the HC1500!
Since I had the Panasonic here when I started the review of the old HD1000U, I played around and have come up with some images to reveal how the two projectors stack up in terms of black levels on scenes with and without bright areas.
In summary, black levels overall were suprisingly good relative to the claimed contrast spec, and very good relative to what would be expected for a good DLP projector without fancy irises, etc. The HC1500 uses a seven segment color wheel, adding a "white" filter (clear). This allows for extra brightness that is reflected in the HC1500's performance. It also doesn't help black levels at all.
That said, the Mitsubishi should match the black levels of the very popular and bright (one of my favorites) Optoma HD72, which is more money, but is also the projector most similar to the HC1500 in design and performance. (The Mitsubishi is the brighter of the two as well).
Comparing to the new Panasonic LCD PT-AX100U, in terms of black levels. As noted, the Panasonic uses AI and a dynamic iris. As a result, the Panasonic, on scenes without really bright areas, does reduce black levels well below the HC1500. On scenes with lots of dark areas, but with some bright spots, the two are almost identical, with my best estimate being that the HC1500 has a slight edge.
Want to further enhance the black levels of the HC1500? Match it with a high contrast gray or high contrast light gray surface, such as the Stewart Firehawk, that I use, or less expensive screens like Elite's ezFrame high contrast gray, Da-lites HC Da-Mat, Elite's CinemaTension HC gray, etc.
Please note, this next section is more than 90% of you want to know, but to keep the other 10% happy, here goes:
HD1000 home theater projector vs PT-AX100U home theater projector - black level comparison on scenes with and without bright areas:
In the image above, with the projectors receving a frame that is supposed to be fully black, with no areas with anything but black, you can see easily that the Mitsubishi HD1000U projector on the left, puts more light on the screen than the Panasonic, on the right. The image is slightly overexposed so that you can see these near fully dark "blacks". The Panasonic projector and the Mitsubishi projector in the modes (cinema) they were in for this shot, are nearly identical in brightness, so that would not be a factor here.
In the images below, I cropped the images and seriously overexposed them. You are looking at the same two projectors side by side again (HD1000U on the left, as always). You are seeing the very top of a scene that had some very bright areas, so that the dynamic iris was barely able to stop down, thus the Panasonic's black levels are far worse than the image above. As you can see if you look closely along the top, you will make out the letter boxing of both projectors.
In the image you can make out that the two are very similar, but the Mitsubishi HC1500's blacks are just a little bit darker.
In the image below this is a closeup of a frame with some bright areas. What you see on the two projectors is different, since you are seeing the top right of the Mitsubishi HD1000U, and the top left of the image of the PT-AX100U.
Again, the black levels are virtually identical, with the Mitsubishi being just the tiniest bit darker. A truly, I repeat, truly, insignificant amount, that the eye would not normally be able to discriminate even side by side, because of the brightness below, on the actual image frame.
So the bottom line- on the darkest scenes, the more expensive Panasonic can deliver blacker blacks, but not on more typical frames where there are some bright to very bright areas.
Please note, that dynamic iris action can often be visible to the eye, in some scenes, such as a fairly dark one where a bright object enters the scene. As soon as it does, the iris has to open and all the objects get a little brighter. (It's sort of like someone is playing with a dimmer on the lights in the room - when the white object enters the image the walls all get slightly lighter). Note: The PT-AX100U did a particularly good job of minimizing the visibility of the iris opening and stopping down, but if you are looking for it, you can spot it - on the right scenes, or on scene changes in some cases. Not a real issue in this case.
Mitsubishi HC1500 General Color Handling and Image Quality
All of the images below are from the test HC1500, none from the older HD1000U review. Overall, the HC1500 should truly please consumers. Image quality, after minor color adjustment, is really impressive for such a low cost projector! Go out and buy that $30ish dollar calibration disk and invest an hour or less - they are designed for non-technical folks. I particularly like the Avia disk, which most AV resellers offer.
Mitsubishi manages, despite only good black levels, to still produce great looking star fields, as shown in the image above from Space Cowboys (HD-DVD).
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The Mitsubishi HC1500's Ability to Handle Ambient Light
OK, sports fans, your turn, first. I took photographs mid-late afternoon, with my wall of windows facing southwest - in other words, plenty of sunlight streaming in through the doors in the first image. Because the goal was to check performance under significant ambient light conditions, I selected the gamma preset Sports, and also increased Brilliant Color, to 10, the highest setting, and combined the mode where the HC1500 is brightest. The photo is an a good representation of how the room looked (if anything the room appears brighter in real life.) Of course, viewing the screen from such an off angle isn't accurate, so the next image is that same screen, but shot from straight back.
As you can see, the image is pretty washed out, but then, the room is also rather bright, despite the shades.
The next image is of the room again, but with the shades on the doors partially closed, the room is definitely darker, but still moderately bright. No separate image, but you can see how the image appears on the screen toward the right, and compare it with the first room image. (Again, the shot is off angle, so the screen doesn't look as good as it would head on.) Viewing with this much light was much better, and while hardly perfect, good enough to be considered a good picture.
Lastly, I closed the shades on the doors all the way. They still leak lots of light, as you can see, and the room lighting is still far, far, from dark. I could easily sit in my chair and read a book or newspaper. Below is the head on shot with this lighting. Also, you can see the shuttered window on the staircase. It was open and pouring plenty of light into the room, for all these images. The game (Superbowl 2007 on DVR), looks great with this room lighting, and as you can see, I'm filling just about all of my screen's 128" diagonal!
To give you an even better idea of how good the HC1500 looks with this room lighting, here is a diferent play, same projector, same room lighting, different exposure, and cropped so you only see the image on the screen (darker to better show what the screen really looked like):
And, you can click on it for a larger version!
While I was doing the sports shoot above, I also did some shots from music videos and The Tonight Show. Please note that all were taken with the shades closed, and window with shutters open, so that these images reflect performance with a significant amount of ambient light. Sadly, I forgot to take the HC1500 out of Sports mode, and drop brilliant color back down, so these don't reflect the best the HC1500 can do, but it sure did well considering the huge screen size, and the ambient light!
(Click to enlarge!)
By now you should appreciate that the HC1500 is impressive when it comes to image quality! Fleshtones and colors in general are fairly accurate even right out of the box, without any tweaking of the settings. While black levels are very acceptable, they cannot match the best of class, which are more expensive DLP projectors, without the clear filter on the color wheel, and those that may also have a dynamic iris. the Mitsubishi HC3000 comes immediately to mind, being very similar, except that it does have an iris, and only a six segment wheel. the HC3000's black levels are easily a step up, if you have the properly darkened room to fully appreciate the difference. In tradeoff, the HC1500 is almost twice as bright! Other projectors with significantly better black levels include the far more expensive Optoma HD7300, with its Darkchip3 DLP chip, or for that matter the Sharp XV-Z3000. Of course the Optoma and Sharp are at least twice the price. Sony's HS-51A, an LCD projector, also will have a significant advantage, but it too costs significantly more. By comparison, the Panasonic PT-AX100u, the new Sony AW15, and other lower cost LCD projectors, have an advantage on really dark scenes, thanks to their dynamic irises and other tricks, but really don't do any better, and often worse, on mixed scenes with very dark and very bright areas.
I am pleased for all you out there in the market, that, for less than a thousand dollars, there is now a projector, that overall, performs this well. Overall, the HC1500 is much brighter, and is at least comparable to older home theater projectors like my old BenQ 8700+ which was almost $5000, just 3 years ago.
Time to consider other aspects beside image quality. We'll next look at measured brightess, pixel visibility, remote control, menus, inputs, screen recommendations and more (not necessarily in that order) in the General Performance section.