Projector Reviews

2011 Home Theater Projector Comparison Report-13

Anamorphic Lens support and Anamorphic Lens Emulation

irst, a brief on what is an anamorphic lens, and why people are interested in it. An anamorphic lens is a second lens, placed right in front of the projector. Its sole purpose is to stretch the image horizontally (make it wider), while leaving the vertical untouched. All home theater projectors today have 16:9 aspect ratios. That’s a perfect match for HDTV content, but it is not as wide an image (relative to height) as most movies. Most movies are shot in Cinemascope – a ratio of 2.35:1 – over twice as wide as tall. When you view them on a standard home theater projector, the movie fills the screen horizontally, but leaves you with a black (ok, near black) letterbox, at the top and bottom of the screen (about 10% of the screen height for each).

I’d say everyone would rather not have the letterboxing, but 99% of us get along with it just fine. Because not everything you will be watching is in Cinemascope, you still need to be able to go back to standard viewing for HDTV, movies in 16:9, and even old 4:3 (standard TV). To accomplish that, you need to move the anamorphic lens out of the way. For that reason, almost everyone going anamorphic, buys not only the lens, but a motorized sled to remove the lens from the light path when not needed.

The cost of an anamorphic lens and sled is typically $3000 – $6000 for projectors in this price range, in other words, often costs more than the projector. It also means unless you are buying one with one of the better/more expensive projectors, you are going to get a lot more bang for your buck skipping the lens, and buying a much better projector.

Of the projectors covered in this report, most do have internal support an anamorphic lens. That means you can buy the lens, etc., and it will work. That internal support consists of the correct aspect ratio for it all to look right. Any projector without that internal support, can still work with an anamorphic lens, but you’ll need to buy an outboard processor, typically from $800 on up. If you really must have an anamorphic lens, buy a projector that supports one.

Of all the projectors in this comparison, these are the ones that Do Not support an anamorphic lens:

BenQ W1000
Epson Home Cinema 8100, 8500UB
Epson Pro Cinema 9100
Optoma HD20
Samsung SP-A600
Sharp XV-Z15000
Sony VPL-HW15
Vivitek C1080FD

For you Epson fans, note that of the four Epson projectors considered in this report, only the Pro Cinema 9500UB supports an anamorphic lens. Epson saves such extra capabilities for the Pro series over the Home series, but, they also don’t offer the anamorphic support for Pro Cinema 9100. I believe the logic behind that decision, is that anyone wanting anamorphic support, who can afford it, would definitely pay the extra to go from the 9100 to the 9500UB for the better performance, since that difference is far less expensive than the cost of an anamorphic lens and sled.

Sony’s VPL-HW15 does not support the lens, but their noticeably more expensive (and better) VPL-VW85 does.

None of the three new sub-$1000 projectors supports an anamorphic, and again, that makes sense. This year, we have our first two affordable entries from S. Korea, the LG CF181D, and the Samsung SP-A600B. Neither supports an anamorphic lens.

Finally, there’s also the Sharp XV-Z15000 another projector that was also included in last year’s report. It too lacks anamorphic lens support, something noted in its review, but last year, we failed to point out the lack of support in this same section of the 2009 report. Sorry about that!

It should be noted that only a few percent of home theater projector owners go with the anamorphic lens solution, and many of those folk are high end people buying expensive 3 chip DLPs where the cost of an anamorphic lens doesn’t seem very significant, compared to the projectors’ price. Still, according to the screen manufacturers I talk to, they are selling a higher percentage of anamorphic shaped screens, than in the past. And one reason just might be Panasonic’s solution:

Emulate it!

Panasonic’s PT-AE4000, like the PT-AE3000 last year, does offer support for an anamorphic lens, but it also has something else, which is the ability to “emulate” an anamorphic lens.

The PT-AE4000 doesn’t need an anamorphic lens to put a Cinemascope image on a 2.35:1 screen with no letterboxing! This saves thousands of dollars, but has some trade-offs. Panasonic accomplishes this trick by allowing you (once set up) to touch a button to change the lens’ zoom to fill that 2.35:1 screen. Press another button and it handles your 16:9 and 4:3 content. The trick to making this work, is that you can save the two different zoom settings in a lens memory area.

The downsides are: That letterbox is still there, it’s just not hitting the screen, it’s above and below it. That shouldn’t be a problem if your wall is dark, but if not, you will see the faint light – grays, above and below the screen. Also different from using a real anamorphic lens, is that the Panasonic projector still isn’t using all its resolution for the image itself. With a “real” anamorphic lens and stretch, every pixel is in use, not just the about 80% that get used for the movie in this case. As a result, you are giving up a fair amount of brightness.

All that considered, it’s a really nice feature that allows you to go “Cinemascope” without the big expense. I had expected to see a couple more projectors this year, offering a similar solution to the Panasonic “Lens Memory”. Of course you can do the same trick with any 1080p projector with a lot of zoom range, but it is the combination of the ability to save the settings (thus “Lens memory”) that makes it convenient. I’d hate to have to get up on a ladder to change the manual zoom lens on, perhaps an Epson, or LG projector, each time I want to go from a Cinemascope movie to HDTV, or other none 2.35:1 aspect ratio content.

With the Panasonic, remember, you need the projector’s zoom to stop in two different positions. That effectively cuts down the distance range you can mount the projector, by about 50%. You need to see if you can work with the more limited placement flexibility required for Lens Memory.