Epson Home Cinema 8350 Black Levels & Shadow Detail
I must confess to be a little disappointed with the black level performance of this Epson. Please understand, that's not really a criticism of the Epson, but perhaps more about their contrast claims. As most of you know, once upon a time, contrast ratio gave a good indication of black level capabilities of a projector. Then, however, along came dynamic irises, and other "dynamic" features, including dynamic contrast, and so others.
Epson claims 50,000:1. Now, JVC projectors notwithstanding, that's a number not seen in projectors, unless they have a dynamic iris to enhance blacks on darker scenes.
The thing is, Epson was the first company to really offer superb black level performance in a consumer home theater projector, with the intro of their first UB (ultra black) projector, the Home Cinema 1080 UB, a few years back. Within the year, though JVC introduced over $5000 projectors that were better than the Epson, and they did it naturally, without a dynamic iris (which is a bit of a cheat, and has trade-offs).
That first Epson, had a 50,000:1 contrast ratio, if I recall correctly. I had expected the black level performance of this non-"UB" Epson, to rival that old 1080 UB. No such luck. The blacks are improved over the older Epson 8100, but still a good bit short of the UB.
What we end up with, therefore, is a projector with very, very good overall black level performance for under $1500, but a projector still just a bit shy of being a "cut above" - what I call - ultra high contrast projectors. This Epson has the spec, but can't quite deliver the performance to make that cut.
What is all this fuss about black levels
It really comes down to scenes that are fairly dark. Let's consider two projectors, overall similar, but with different black level performance; this Epson 8350, and its more expensive sibling, the 8700UB.
Both should have a very similar look and feel to the colors and overall image, once calibrated. The 8700UB, however, is capable of blacker blacks that the 8350 just can't match. The 8350 blacks, by comparison will be a shade or two lighter gray. Not a whole lot, but enough to be noticeable.
On an average scene, perhaps a daytime, no sunlight shot, if there is supposed to be a true black area in the image, perhaps parts of a black car, in the shade, the 8350 will do a very good job. The 8700's black car will be a touch blacker, but you probably wouldn't notice unless seen side by side. In other words, the difference would be very slight.
Now switch to a very dark scene, such as the night train scene I use below for shadow detail comparison. All of a sudden the difference between the two projectors is pretty dramatic. The lower black levels of the 8700UB would make its image pop, and the 8100's seem dull by comparison. That's the story. The darker the scene, the more the blacks matter. Thing is, most movies have some fairly dark scenes, and even a significant percentage have some really dark scenes. Now don't forget that if you've got a 15 watt light on in the room, the difference would once again be insignificant. Therefore, the black level performance matters when watching dark scenes, in as fully darkened a room as you can manage. Let me also mention: Even if you have white walls (not a good thing) the difference in the projectors would still be there, although not quite as great a difference as with dark walls/floors/ceiling.
Still, how important is it? Well, if you are the person who wants a nice big image, but never bothered to adjust your LCDTV (probably still using the "demo/showroom" or vivid setting), I doubt you'll notice. But, if you get hooked on image quality (become an enthusiast), you'll crave a bit better blacks.
I'm a big proponent of projectors with better blacks. This Home Cinema 8100 isn't going to compete with the better, more expensive models, but it does a most respectable job for the price. With its iris it should - on darker scenes - be capable of holding its own with any other projector I've seen so far, in its price range.
Below, a satellite image from Space Cowboys. These are intentially overexposed to so that the differences in blacks (and shadow detail) are more visible. As you can see, the Epson and the Mitsubishi are particularly close (you have to compensate for the slight exposure differences). The HC4000 is a bit more overexposed, and the BenQ still more.