I get asked why premium home theater projectors, like a Sony 4K SXRD, cost nearly double that of other projectors that have similar or even higher brightness and dynamic contrast specifications.
There is more to a great user experience than just the manufacturer's specifications. We could spend this entire article talking about how differences in picture quality cannot be differentiated by specs alone. However, many of the important notable features that separate a good custom integration focused projector from a standard home entertainment projector are often overlooked on a spec sheet. While picture quality is essential, ease of use and placement flexibility matter just as much to many users.
In this article, sponsored by Sony, we are going to discuss how certain features will make it easier to install and control a projector as well as how some of these features can be used to optimize the viewing experience based on the content that is being viewed.
While aligning the image to a screen may seem simple, many installations can be challenging due to limitations on where you can place the projector. When replacing an older projector, a broader zoom range along with horizontal and vertical lens shift makes installation much easier.
Utilizing these things means you don't need to relocate the projector mount, which can take hours off of an install project. Another benefit of a projector with a lot of installation flexibility, is that you can use the same type/model of projector in several different jobs. A projector like a VW715ES offers 2.06:1 which is a lot of zoom range compared to most home theater projectors where the zoom lenses usually range between 1.1:1 to 1.6:1, depending on the brand and model.
In addition to a larger zoom range, horizontal and vertical lens shift also increases a projector's installation flexibility. The VW715ES has a Lens Shift Range of +85/-80% Vertical and +/-33% Horizontal.
When projecting a 100″ diagonal 16:9 image, 80% of the image height is approximately 39 inches, while 85% of its width is about 41 ½ inches. This means the bottom of the projected image can be shifted down 39 inches, or you can shift the top of the image up 41 ½ inches.
While +/- 33% horizontal shift means you can shift a 100" image to the left or right about 28 inches. Just remember, like most projectors, the more horizontal shift you use, the less vertical adjustment you will have available.
Having a large amount of zoom and shift capability makes installation a breeze, especially when you are trying to replace an older unit that was previously fixed mounted. So if you are familiar with a good custom integration projector's menu system and programming, you can use that projector series as your go-to solution in many of your projects.
So, while this feature may seem minor, for someone like me, it could be a deal-breaker. For example, in my media room, I have a small cove where the projector sits above my couch, which is not centered on the screen. For years this was not a big deal because I always had a Sony home theater projector in this location. Regardless of the Sony model, I had enough horizontal/ vertical lens shift and enough zoom to align the image to my 120" SI screen easily. If I had a projector with more limited horizontal/vertical lens shift, it will not work in my space. The picture would either be too big, too small or off-center.
While I have screens in my office/lab, I also like to spend a few days evaluating Home Entertainment focused projectors in my media room. However, due to their lack of lens shift and limited zoom range, many projectors just won't work where I need to place it. While I could use digital keystoning to correct the image distortion, doing that means sacrificing resolution, which is something a passionate projector enthusiast is not willing to do. So even if two projectors can theoretically deliver similar picture quality, how it integrates into the room can result in one projector producing a better picture in a real-world environment.
Another feature that I really like is when the lens is motorized. Call me lazy, but I hate getting off the couch to make fine adjustments to things like focus and zoom. For hardcore movie enthusiasts, when a motorized lens is combined with position memories, you can quickly optimize the viewing experience whether watching TV or widescreen movie content.
A notable step-up feature of the VW715ES over the VW295ES is Picture Positioning, which is Sony’s name for lens memory. These lens memories offer the ability to save different motorized lens settings, like one for HDTV and one for widescreen movies. This is a useful feature for someone who opts for a 2.35:1 screen because they want to take advantage of the entire screen area when watching widescreen movies.
If the projector is adjusted so a widescreen movie perfectly fits the screen both horizontally and vertically, and then the viewer switches to HDTV or a made-for-TV movie, in a 16:9 aspect ratio, the picture will overshoot the top and bottom of the screen by about 20%.
To correct this issue, you would have to manually zoom the projector out a bit, making a smaller image and adjust the lens shift so that the entire 16:9 image fits the widescreen. Note that when viewing 16:9 on a widescreen, you will see black bars on the sides.
If a projector does not have a motorized lens with memory, you would have to manually adjusted the zoom and shift settings each time you switched from movies to broadcast content. This would be extremely cumbersome, especially if the projector is ceiling mounted. With Lens Memories, once you create a setting for HDTV and widescreen content, it's just a quick press of a button for the right size image to be projected.
A higher level of motorized lens adjustment, combined with better optics, requires a bigger projector chassis. This is one of the reasons why many premium custom integration projectors are larger. So while horizontal and vertical lens shift increases the units cost as well as its size, I truly believe that it is worth the extra money.
Many movie enthusiasts want to incorporate an anamorphic lens along with a widescreen (2.35:1 or 2.4:1) into their Home Theater systems. Most popular movies are filmed in a wider aspect ratio using anamorphic lenses, so it makes sense when watching these movies to utilize the same type of lens to project them, in order to get the best image quality.
Many movies appear letterboxed when viewed on a 16:9 aspect screen. Letterboxing refers to the practice of projecting a film that was shot using a widescreen aspect ratio (using an anamorphic lens) to a standard-width format, which results in black bars above and below the image.
Letterbox zooming can be used to zoom black bars off the screen, so movies completely fill a full cinema-formatted screen. This keeps those black bars off the screen by projecting them on the wall above and below the screen, but the approach sacrifices resolution. After all, a 4K projector should be using the entire 4K for a full-screen movie experience, not the 3K performance that happens when letterbox zooming is utilized. Since about 25% of the total picture area is wasted generating the black bars, some of the projector light output is not used to light up the screen. Anamorphic lenses can improve the brightness and visual performance of home theater movie experiences by projecting all the pixels from your image onto your screen.
There are two ways that an anamorphic lens is used in conjunction with the projector. In the past, the anamorphic lens had to physically move in and out of the light path. When the lens is engaged, the projector can be switched into one of its anamorphic viewing modes, which stretches letterbox content vertically before it is projected to fill the screen top to bottom. As the image passes through the anamorphic lens, it is stretched to fill the screen's entire width.
A better custom integration projector, like a Sony 4K SXRD model, also has a squeeze mode, which allows the anamorphic lens to stay in place when viewing 16:9 broadcast content. The projector actually includes several different anamorphic lens modes that zoom, squeeze, and crop a 16:9 image when projected on a wide screen. Not having to move the lens in and out of the light path simplifies installation and increases reliability since no mechanical adjustments are needed post-install.
The projector's zoom and focus also must be adjusted depending on the type of content being viewed and how the anamorphic lens is being utilized. This is easy and can be done with the touch of a single button if the projector has a motorized lens with position memories.
It does not matter how good the home theater system is if it difficult for the owner to use. A projector is usually part of a more elaborate system, which might include multiple sources, a motorized screen, and an audio system. Most users would prefer to control everything via one remote control.
Many high-end customers care about the experience, not the technology, so the easier it is for their entire family to operate it, the more satisfied they will be. They are willing to pay more to easily access their favorite movies, video games, or TV shows on their projector with just a touch of a single button.
Many control systems allow control of the AV system and can control things like lighting, blinds, and curtains. Whether the system is complex or simple, the ability to easily control everything will enhance the user experience, whether it be a classroom, conference room, or home theater. Companies like Crestron, RTI, and URC have been doing this for years and, in the last decade, this category has exploded with many other companies offering solutions that are more intuitive and less cost prohibitive. These systems provide virtually everything needed to control the projector and connected AV components.
Features like discrete IR codes, RS232, and IP control ensure a home theater projector can be seamlessly and reliably integrated into the control system. Better projector manufacturers work directly with the control system companies during and after their products are developed to make sure their products work well together.
Since install jobs can get quite complex, custom integration focused projector manufacturers also offer dedicated technical support to help installers with any issues that may arise while installing their products. Sony, for example, provides certified custom integrators access to a dealer support hotline staffed by CEDIA Certified product and integration experts in their San Diego headquarters. Should an installer run into a problem on site or at their workshop, they know that help is just a phone call away. This helps you avoid headaches and ensure that your customers satisfied with the job you have done.
For many home theater enthusiasts, sound quality is just as important as the picture. Projector fans can be noisy, which could be distracting especially during quieter scenes.
Sony claims the VW715ES generates just 26 dB, which is indeed very quiet. This is significantly quieter than just about any other Home Theater projector that I have reviewed except for other Sony and JVC models.
Whether in a dedicated home theater, or a media room, it is very unlikely you will notice the low-pitched background fan noise. Quieter fans usually are larger, which Is another reason why many premium home theater projectors or bigger.
Premium LCoS projectors from companies like Sony and JVC are targeted at more discerning customers who demand high performance, reliability, and simplified operation. There is no doubt that you can find a good 4K capable DLP home theater projector for less than $3000 and we have reviewed several units in this price range. While they offered good image quality for the price, their custom install focused features are limited, so I could not utilize one of them in my own home theater system.
By the time you matched the performance (black level, contrast, color reproduction) of a premium 4K unit and added custom integration features like motorized lenses, horizontal/vertical lens shift, lens memories and reliable control, the price would quickly approach that of a projector like a Sony VW715ES.