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Home Theater Projectors - For "The Rest of Us"

By Art Feierman
Projectors for those of us who can't always darken our rooms, or just don't want to (sports fans, pay attention!) There are many truths, in the home theater projector world, some have been: Each generation of projectors gets better and better. Prices keep falling and price/performance keeps improving. There are more projectors to choose from each year. And for the most part: Home theater projectors are "dim" (OK, not bright), and not designed to work with any significant ambient light. Today, however I can say that this last statement is no longer true. What is true, is that there are still no home theater projectors that can survive a bright room, one with sunlight pouring in, or even just a well lit room. Editor's note:  2013:  The second last statement recently became untrue, with 2013 offering less new models than any recent year.  Just "goes to show you" about those "truths".  -art

here are, however, now some projectors that can deal with enough ambient light to make them suitable for family rooms with "modest" to "moderate" ambient light. I have just reviewed two of a new breed, Epson's Cinema 400, and Panasonic's PT-AX100U, both just started shipping (9/2006). Epson shown above, Panasonic, immediately below.

It mostly started last year with Epson. Their Cinema 550 and Cinema 800 definitely were brighter than any of the competition, in fact their brightness was a key reason they both received our Hot Product Award. We recognized that many people would be best served by them, because they could handle a decent amount of ambient light. Earlier this year (2006) Optoma came out with their $2000 HD72, brighter than the Epsons in "best (dimmest) mode, and almost as bright in its brightest mode, but that about covered it.


Home Theater Projectors - Movies and Lighting

Now, movie watching will always require a near fully darkened room, because movies are prone to have some very dark scenes, and even with a brighter projector, those scenes will easily wash out, providing no details in dark areas of scenes. But, not everyone buys a projector just to watch movies.

Home Theater Projectors - Sports fans - your time has come

Sports is probably the next biggest segment of projector buyers, and there are tons of sports fanatics looking for a projector. When I have friends over for NFL games, or, better yet, college football (Go Penn State!), I sure don't want to be watching in a dark room.

A quick note - general HDTV and TV viewing is much like watching sports - few or more typically no dark scenes to worry about, so whether you plan to catch the Oscars, or your favorite sitcom, these new brighter projectors may be just your ticket. Men, your non sports oriented significant others will also appreciate these brighter projectors.

Those Epson's I mentioned, allowed for a decent amount of light for my football viewing. By comparison, my own BenQ PE8720, can handle very little light, even in its brightest mode. I have to have all my motorized shades all the way down, (they are not sealed so some light gets in). Or, I can put on a couple of my recessed ceiling spot lights, which throw their light far from the screen.

When I reviewed Epson's new Cinema 400, I was impressed. Even brighter than the Cinema 550 it replaced, it had far more brightness than my BenQ, (almost 2000 lumens in brightest mode).

This week, I'm reviewing the new Panasonic PT-AX100U, and this replacement for the PT-AE900u (definitely not a particularly bright projector), is a light canon. It actually measured out over 2000 lumens, in its Dynamic mode. I could actually have a comfortable amount of light in the room and the HD football games looked just great.

The point of all this is - what will you be watching? And, how controllable is your room lighting?

So now we have two under $2000 projectors with some muscle, a very affordable $1599 Epson Cinema 400 and a slightly more expensive ($1999), and slightly brighter, Panasonic PT-AX100U. Another potentially bright projector is the Mitsubishi HD1000U, rated 1500 lumens, and if it can deliver that claimed brightness, it will likely be the brightest affordable DLP projector ($1495). The Epson and Panasonic are LCD projectors.

I'm so excited about these brighter projectors that I wanted to show you what is now possible and affordable, so here are some images of my room, the lighting, and what a bright home theater projector can do.

I'll start with the torture test. This first image shows as much light as I could let in, and still have a watchable, but not great picture. You'll note that a large picture window near the screen has its shade half open. That wall has a southern exposure, and it was a sunny day. Further back you can see one of the two french doors - both had their shades fully open, as is the high window above them. I can easily sit in my captain's chair and there's enough light pouring in for me to comfortably read a book if I want to.

I want to say, that, in both cases, the room appears significantly brighter in real life, than it looks in these photos. As you can imagine considering the amount of light coming in - especially in the first shot. (light walls, ceiling and carpeting).

Those are the two lighting situations for the images below. Let's start with the torture test. I found a golf game on HDTV, and took this image. The image as you can see, is still washed out a bit, but, in truth looked better live, than it does in this picture. Still, not a great image, but watchable (closing the rest of the picture window shade turned it into a very good projected image, but I don't have a photo for you.

Now comes the second (less bright) lighting scenario. And here comes football. Please remember to capture the best image with the camera, the exposure is set to the image on the screen. Since the image is much brighter than the walls around it, the walls end up appearing much darker than in real life. Remember, the room looks like the second image above - with plenty of light on the walls.

You should be seriously impressed by how good the image looks. Below is another, this time overexposed a little so the walls are starting to look like they  appeared in reality.

To demonstrate the difference between this bright Panasonic PT-AX100U with its real live 2000 lumens in Dynamic mode, immediately below is the same shot taken a minute later, using my BenQ PE-8720 at its brightest. Now, that truly is a significant difference!

In the case of the BenQ, the image is defintely washed out a bit. In fact, In this image, the overall picture looks almost as washed out, as the image of golf above, on the Panasonic, which had far more light coming into the room.

So, the Panasonic does almost as well with room lighting like image one, than the BenQ does with room lighting like image two. By the way, the Epson Cinema 400, though not quite as bright as the Panasonic, has to be 90% of the way to the Panasonic's brightness when compared to my BenQ.

What a difference an extra 1000+ lumens can make!! And, what a difference it can mean in your home.

So, sports fans rejoice, and those of you hooked on movies, well, with these new projectors you won't be able to have any sunlight pouring into your room and still see details in a dark scene, but you should be able to enjoy those dark movie scenes, with a little ambient light in the room, and still have a great movie experience.

All of you who can't fully darken your room, you can now choose a projector that will let you get by with "close to dark". Please, though, don't get me wrong. movies should be watched in as dark a room as you can create!

A couple of last thoughts:

First, my screen is huge - 128" diagonal, whereas most people have screens in the 92 to 110" diagonal. A 100" screen, for example would give you a significantly brighter image from the same projector and same lighting. A 92" screen would have the BenQ doing about as good a job, as the Panasonic on my much larger screen.

Second, these projectors in their brightest modes push color and contrast - they don't produce as "perfect" an image as the projectors' cinema modes, but I was able to get an excellent enjoyable image in brightest mode, out of both Epson Cinema 400 and Panasonic PT-AX100U projectors.

Lastly both these projectors have many modes (at least 7), so you have a wide range of brightness and image quality to choose from, to find what works best in your environment. And equally important, as you fiddle with your projector and find the best settings, both offer multiple user savable settings so you can quickly find that "football game under worst room lighting conditions" setting when you need it.

I have recently reviewed several new reasonably priced business widescreen projectors with 2000 - 2500 lumens with the thought that these may be the solution those of you with ambient light might have to choose. No longer. These home theater projectors are about as bright, and really know how to do movies, TV and HDTV, whereas the others have far more limitations in how they will perform as your home projector.

Welcome to the world of bright home theater projectors!

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