Posted on September 4, 2019 By Art Feierman and Nikki Kahl
Summer is coming to a close, and with it, comes that time of year where we look at all the home theater – and home entertainment projectors – we have reviewed (or a model that is a modest variation on one we have reviewed), and compile our findings in a detailed report. The purpose of our report is to aid you in your projector-buying journey as you seek out the projector that is best suited to your needs.
The report breaks down projectors in four price ranges. Fortunately, except for very low-end projectors (under $500) we managed to review a significant number of the models out there. This year, our report includes projectors from: AAXA, Acer, BenQ, Epson, JVC, LG, and Sony.
This year’s report – which you may have noticed – is called the 2019-2020 Home Theater Projectors Report. We are switching to a two year description for two logical reasons:
Projectors for home are mostly announced at one of two major US shows (the EU has equivalent shows) those are CEDIA in September, and CES in January. By the time this report publishes in August, we have normally reviewed just about everything we can handle that had been announced in the previous 12 months.
Not always, though. This year at CES in January, LG, Optoma, VAVA, and a couple of other manufacturers all announced DLP ultra short throw, 4K capable projectors – most were quoting June for first shipments, but they have all shifted to at least August. In fact, the LG we just reviewed was the only one of those shipping at this time (late August).
Another, the heavily promoted P1 from Optoma (a pre-production unit), just arrived in time to be included. First shipments of that are now supposed to be around Sept 15th, one of their larger dealers told me just last week.
The rest – well, we want to do an early 2020 update to this report, which will deal with these laggards, and new products announced at CEDIA in September that will ship before our February update. And, of course, we’ll at least cover new models first being shown at CES in January. A lot of those shown at CES last January are just starting to ship, 7 months later!
We adapt our price “classes” regularly, changing the price points for the classes to group projectors in an intelligent fashion. For example, a few years back, our “Entry Level” Class was defined as projectors under $2000. Because of changes in the market – especially lower prices in general – we started an Under $1000 Class for Entry Level.
Now, we have that Entry Level Class called “Under $1000.” Next up this year is the $1000 – $2000 Class, whereas the 2018 Report had a $1000 – $2500 class. The next Class tier for our Home Theater Projectors Report are $2500 – $5000. This year, we are putting all over $5000 projectors into a single price class.
I thought I would take a paragraph to explain exactly why we have $1000 – $2000 this year, instead of $1000 – $2500 last year. Here goes:
This year, I point out that most of the projectors in the $1000 – $2000 range that we reviewed in the past 12 months, are 4K capable. Whether they are 4K UHD DLPs or 1080p pixel shifting 3LCD projectors, they tend to all lack the great black level performance found in many more expensive projectors. So, for example, there’s the really nice BenQ HT3550 (4K UHD) doing battle with a more feature-laden Epson HC4010, which are two highly competitive projectors – but neither have really impressive black level performance.
In the $2K to $5K range, that means that the more expensive BenQ HT5550 (with a $2499 list price and better black levels) gets to go up against the Epson HC5050UB – basically the same projector, feature-wise, as the HC4010, but with much better black level performance. Otherwise, the HT5550 would have ended up in the $1000 – $2499 Class, and therefore not “doing battle” with the projector I consider its single most direct competitor. Got it?
Note: Our classes are organized by List Price (or, in more than a few cases, what the manufacturer sells that projector for on their own site – when their on-site price is below list price). Also, when we speak of “street price,” we are referring to the typical price when the projector is sold by authorized dealers. There’s always some low baller, and sometimes they offer gray market goods, and therefore not full US warranties, so I prefer not to let those folks distort the normal selling price for purposes of our evaluating value.
I do consider the street pricing, if significantly lower, in making decisions relating to awards, but, even if that won’t affect what price Class the projector is placed in. In other words, in the $1000 to $2000 class, the fact that one projector sells for $1200 and another for $1900 will affect our rankings, as it should! But, if the list price is $1999 and a few dealers are at $1799 – that would have little impact.
Entry Level Projector Compromises: To state the obvious, the projectors in the Entry Level Class – Under $1000 – are loaded with trade-offs, (that’s even true for most more expensive ones, but especially true for these entry-level/near-entry-level models).
Some things, these projectors can do rather well, and other things, poorly. That’s only fair. One of my favorite lines has long been: “If they did everything well, they wouldn’t be ‘entry-level,’ would they?”
Lots of trade-offs is what makes good reviews subjective. My picks are subjective, and they reflect my well-known biases, or, if you prefer – my priorities. Bias isn’t a bad thing, it’s just one more piece of information, if you know what the biases are. I proudly announce mine. Consider one bias that I will now remind you of, in these awards – I’m big on black level performance in home theater projectors (although not near as concerned about black levels with “home entertainment projectors” – none of which really have good black levels anyway). To me, when you put a projector in your cave or home theater and get to a really dark scene in a movie, that’s what separates a great projector from a good one. Another reviewer might not give as much weight to black level performance, instead having biases for extra brightness, or color accuracy, or sharpness, etc.
There are plenty of under $2000 projectors that do a great job on bright and average lit scenes, as good as many significantly more expensive projectors, but the differences on very dark scenes are technically not the difference between “night and day” but can be extremely dramatic. To me, achieving excellent black levels, for example, is more important than a small improvement in sharpness. Other reviewers might disagree. I will at least try to always point out, for example, that “why this projector beat out that one for such-and-such award was the great black levels, vs, lower price, or quieter operation” where applicable. I recall years ago, Evan Powell (of Projector Central fame) and I often disagreed on how much to weight better black level performance.
The Truth: There are no single best home theater projectors or home entertainment projectors – at any particular price point.
Our goal is to help you find and choose the best projector at your budget, for what you need: one that works in your room conditions, for the type of content you watch, and for what you think most important (that subjective stuff again).
That’s why our awards vary so much: Because it’s not always this one is better than that one, but this one is better than that one, if your situation is… (fill in the blank).
Since last year, there has been another generation of 4K capable projectors. We have been seeing and reviewing new 4K UHD DLPs, 1080p 3LCD pixel shifters (very similar to 4K UHD in a practical sense), and LCoS projectors as well. As a result, they are plentiful in the $1000 – $2000 Class, in the $2000 – $5000 Class, and the over $5000 class. 4K capable projectors have come a long way in the past 3 years. Four years ago, the only thing out there were some very expensive Sonys (that also happened to be native 4K, a step up from 4K UHD DLPs and 1080p pixel shifters).
Thanks to the new “lower resolution,” smaller DLP chips that now dominate the 4K UHD DLPs, we have 4K capable projectors in all price Classes but Entry Level, and street pricing is getting very close to $1000 on a couple of models.
Mixing 4K capable projectors with 1080p projectors that are not makes for some interesting decisions – for example:
At $1999, there’s a pure 1080p Sony – the VPL-HW45, then there are 4K UHDs like that BenQ HT3550 or the Optoma UHD51A (1920x1080x4), 1080p pixel shifters, like the Epson HC4010, for around the same price. Decisions get murky – the Sony, for example, is the least natively sharp of the three (as expected, being the lowest in resolution – no pixel shifting), but it has a really excellent picture. The Epson and BenQ and Optoma both handle 4K, but the Epson does less pixel shifting and is loaded with features, the Optoma and BenQ are natively higher resolution… but as I often point out, when looking at the image on the screen, thanks to all kinds of image processing, you may find the 1080p pixel shifter seems sharper (my term for that is “perceived sharpness”).
These paragraphs are for our Millennial friends, those “cable killing cord cutters.”
One important part of my job as a serious reviewer of HT projectors is convince you that Avatar, or Gone with the Wind, Game of Thrones, the Superbowl, Breaking Bad, or Rocket Man shouldn’t be watched on something as small as a phone, tablet or laptop.
Hopefully, you will at least agree that they probably would be more fun, more intense, etc., on a drastically larger screen.
If you don’t have a LCD TV on the wall and are limited to small screens, perhaps you should consider a small projector you can quickly set up when you have something worth watching on the big screen.
I get it that many of you millennials love to watch and stream content on your laptops, tablets or phones. You may want to consider perhaps opting for one of those small, but high resolution, pocket LED projectors, or other home entertainment projectors to occasionally take out for viewing the content that begs for a large immersive image! I mean really – Dunkirk and Avengers Endgame were definitely not meant to be viewed on a 13” laptop display.
Old story: When my daughter moved to NYC four years ago and lived with a roommate, they had no LCD TV in her apartment, no cable, no antenna, no satellite. They were streamers. I managed to procure them a “pocket” LED projector to use and review (with MHL of course), when they wanted to watch on something larger than what their phones or laptops could provide.
They just plugged in one of their streaming sticks and put on Netflix, or other content. Lisa reviewed the Optoma ML750ST in her Millennials Series. Since then, we’ve received and reviewed more 720p and 1080p pocket projectors!
In this report, we’re focused on projectors that appeal to people whose interest is in high-quality pictures for movies, sports, and HDTV. That said, in our individual reviews, we do test most of the home theater projectors for their lag times. Also, for you millennials, we definitely focus on whether a projector is a good gaming projector that serious gamers will love. Nikki, one of our reviewers, is a hard core gamer, as is my future son-in-law. For a lot of serious gamers, many of the projectors covered in this report are only mediocre or poor choices, and then there are some great gaming projectors, even if none have as low input lag as special dedicated computer monitors.
OK, let’s get into the report, starting with this year’s winners. We’ll get into the whys behind their wins and help you figure out if one of these will work best for you.
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