If you want a true cinematic experience at home, nothing beats a front projector and a separate screen, just like they use in commercial theaters. Such a system can provide a much larger picture than just about any flat panel. On the downside, projectors are trickier to set up than flat panels, and in most cases, the picture washes out with even a little ambient light in the room. You can combat this by getting an ambient light-rejecting screen and/or a very bright projector, but both of these options increase the total cost.
Lamps & Lumens
Most consumer projectors use a UHP (ultra-high pressure) lamp as the light source, which has a finite lifespan—typically a couple of thousand hours—before it must be replaced. (A few very expensive projectors use LEDs as the light source, which last much longer than conventional lamps, but they're not as bright.) Depending on the projector's design, it's fairly easy to replace the lamp, but they often cost $100 to $300 or more. At four hours per day, seven days per week, you'll need to replace the lamp every 16 months or so—and you'll need to recalibrate the projector every time. Many projectors include an "Eco" mode that drives the lamp less hard to make it last longer, but this also decreases the brightness.
Projector manufacturers specify the brightness of their products in lumens, which is a measure of the total amount of visible light emitted, taking into account the sensitivity of the human eye to different wavelengths. There are various ways to measure lumens, including a procedure developed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), so if you see a projector's brightness specified in ANSI lumens, the manufacturer presumably used the ANSI procedure. This spec is most useful in comparing one projector to another, especially if they are both in ANSI lumens—the higher the number, the brighter the image will be on a screen of a given size. If one is in ANSI lumens and the other isn't, it's like comparing apples to oranges—in other words, the comparison is meaningless.
Then there's the specified contrast ratio—the ratio of the brightest white to the darkest black that the projector can produce. This spec is relatively meaningless to begin with, because the measurements are usually performed under ideal rather than real-world conditions. Also, most manufacturers specify dynamic contrast, in which a dynamic, automatic iris opens up for bright images and closes down for dark images. If you measure the contrast ratio with a dynamic iris, you'll get a much larger number than the projector's native contrast. Unfortunately, the operation of a dynamic iris is often visible—the brightness seems to "pump" up and down—so I usually disable the dynamic iris and leave it at a fixed value.
Don't forget the screen in your budget. Some people think that simply shining a projector on a white wall is sufficient, but it's not. Walls have dips and bumps that can distort the image, and the paint might not be uniform in its reflective properties. There are special thick paints that can be used as a screen, but most people buy a fixed or retractable screen made of a special material that reflects the light from the projector in a very uniform way. As mentioned earlier, some screens can mitigate the effect of ambient room light, which would otherwise wash out the picture.
Of course, you can get a screen in a range of sizes, typically from 80 to 120 inches diagonally or more, and the price varies accordingly; plan to spend around $1000 to $2000 or more for a high-quality fixed screen. (Projector manufacturers often claim that their projectors can fill screens up to 300 inches, but that is wildly overoptimistic in most cases.) Keep in mind that the larger the screen, the less bright the image will be, though the blacks will be deeper as well.
"The larger the screen, the less bright the image will be, though the blacks will be deeper as well."
Also, virtually all projectors have a zoom lens, so they can fill a screen of a given size from a range of distances, which is called the throw range. Conversely, they can fill a screen of various sizes from a given distance. However, there are limits to these ranges, so if you know the distance your projector will be from the screen, you can calculate the range of screen sizes it can fill. On the other hand, if you know the screen size, you can calculate the range of distances at which the projector can be placed to fill it. Many projector manufacturers provide a screen size/distance calculator on their websites.
Ideally, you should place the projector so its lens axis—the imaginary line extending through the center of the lens to the screen—is perpendicular to the plane of the screen. If it's not perpendicular, the image won't be rectangular to match the edges of the screen. Most projectors provide controls in the menu called horizontal and vertical keystone that can electronically correct the shape of the image, but this also reduces the visible detail, so I don't recommend using it if at all possible.
In addition, the projector should be placed so the lens axis is horizontally centered on the screen. You might think that the lens axis should be vertically centered on the screen as well, but many projectors shoot the image upward or downward with respect to the lens axis, so they might need to be placed so the lens axis points at the top or bottom of the screen.
If you can't place the projector as recommended above, many models provide lens-shift controls that move the lens—and thus the image—up and down as well as left and right. This greatly increases the flexibility of placement, and I highly recommend getting a projector with these controls. Lower-cost models have manual lens-shift controls, while more expensive units have motorized lens shift.
Aspect Ratios & Black Bars
Nearly all consumer projectors produce an image with a native aspect ratio (the ratio of the width to the height) of 16:9 or, equivalently, 1.78:1, which is the same aspect ratio as most flat-panel TVs and broadcast HDTV images. But most movies use a different aspect ratio—typically, 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. When played from Blu-rays and broadcast signals, these movies have black "letterbox" bars above and below the active image area within a 16:9 screen.
To eliminate the black letterbox bars, some projector buyers get a screen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 so the image of a 2.35:1 movie can fill the screen. There are two basic ways to do this. The first is to add an anamorphic lens (which is usually very expensive) if the projector has the processing to accommodate one. The other is to zoom the projector's main lens so the movie fills the screen and the black letterbox bars are "pushed" above and below the screen.
If you use an anamorphic lens and you want to watch something with an aspect ratio of 16:9, you can move the lens out of the way or have the projector process the image so it looks correct. If you zoom the projector's main lens for 2.35:1 movies, you can simply zoom it out to see 16:9. Some projectors provide what are called "lens memories" that store the motorized zoom and focus settings for different aspect ratios, letting you switch between them with the push of a button. For more on these approaches, see the poll here.
The projectors in this buying guide were selected as the best 1080p models available at the end of 2013 by consulting various review outlets such as CNET, Sound & Vision, ProjectorCentral.com, and ProjectorReviews.com as well as AVS reviews and owner threads and a special call out to members for their top picks.
This little gem is well-liked by AVS members for its surprisingly good picture quality and 3D capabilities, though you must buy the active-shutter 3D glasses separately for $100 a pop. And being a single-chip DLP model, some people will see something called the rainbow effect—momentary red-green-blue rainbows trailing bright highlights on a dark background as you move your eyes around the screen. But single-chip DLP also means the alignment of red, green, and blue is perfect, making for a sharp picture. It provides vertical lens shift (not horizontal), which you adjust using a small screwdriver—kind of a pain, but better than nothing.
Note: The BenQ W7000 (MSRP $2000) is another AVS favorite, but it's been discontinued, so it's not included in this buying guide.
Scott Says: If you want a good projector for the least amount of money—and you're not sensitive to the rainbow effect—this is a great choice.
Like the BenQ W1070, the Epson 8350 has been around for a while, and it's still going strong. It offers no 3D capability, but it does provide easy-to-use vertical and horizontal manual lens-shift controls, which makes placement very flexible. Because it's based on LCD technology—as all Epson projectors are—there is no rainbow effect. The blacks aren't that deep, but the colors are excellent, as is the shadow detail.
Scott Says: If you don't care about 3D and you're sensitive to the single-chip DLP rainbow effect, this is an excellent entry-level projector.
Sony projectors are based on SXRD (Silicon X-tal [Crystal] Reflective Display), Sony's version of LCoS (liquid crystal on silicon). The VPL-HW30ES offers 3D capabilities, but the glasses and IR emitter must be bought separately; if you want those items bundled, you can get the VPL-HW30AES with two pairs of glasses and an emitter for an extra $300. It's also quite bright, which is great for 3D, and the colors are excellent; deep blacks, too. The lens zoom, focus, and shift are all manual with no memories, and it can't accommodate an anamorphic lens. However, its SXRD panels can be electronically shifted to improve red/green/blue alignment if necessary.
Note: Two other Sony models—the VPL-HW50ES (MSRP $4000) and VPL-VW95ES (MSRP $6000)—have been discontinued, so they're not included in this buying guide. If you can find either one at a deep discount, they are well worth grabbing while you can.
Scott Says: This projector gets most things very right and few if any things wrong. A top choice in this price range.
The Epson 5020UB delivers on its model designation (UB = "Ultra Black"), at least with the dynamic iris engaged. Colors are beautiful, shadow detail is excellent, and it's a bit brighter than the 3020; in fact, it earned CNET's Editors' Choice award. And it's THX certified, which means it conforms to the well-established video standards for color and grayscale out of the box when you select the THX mode. The "e" version includes a WirelessHD transmitter, which has five HDMI inputs (including one MHL for mobile devices) that can be selected and sent wirelessly to the projector.
Note: The PowerLite Pro Cinema 6020UB ($3500) is essentially a 5020UB in a black housing. It comes with an extra lamp, ceiling-mount kit, 3-year warranty (other Epson models have a 2-year warranty), ISF calibration modes, and an anamorphic-lens mode, which is important if you want to fill a 2.35:1 screen, since none of the Epson models have motorized lens controls with memories. It does not offer a WirelessHD option.
Scott Says: This is a superb projector; in fact, it's what I'm using in my home theater at the moment.
JVC uses LCoS technology—which JVC calls D-ILA (Direct Drive Image Light Amplifier)—in all of its projectors. Also, they don't use a dynamic iris, and their blacks are among the best in the business, even compared with projectors that do use a dynamic iris. The DLA-X35 is the company's least-expensive model, and it's a beauty, with great colors (after adjustment) and deep blacks as well as motorized zoom, focus, and lens shift with five memories, which lets you easily switch between 16:9, 2.35:1, and three other aspect ratios on a 2.35:1 screen. It's not the brightest projector on the market, and if you want 3D, you must buy the IR emitter and glasses separately.
Scott Says: This projector offers videophile picture quality without spending a fortune, though you should add the cost of 3D peripherals if you like 3D.
Another AVS fave, the LCD-based PT-AE8000U is a superb performer, with great colors and 3D. It's also brighter than the competing DLA-X35, though its black level is not as deep, even with a dynamic iris. Better still, it has motorized lens adjustments and memories to recall different aspect ratios.
Scott Says: If you're into 3D, this projector has the brightness you need along with a great feature set.
This step up from the DLA-X35 is JVC's least-expensive model with the second generation of its e-Shift technology, called e-Shift2. This feature rapidly shifts the pixels back and forth diagonally by half a pixel, and the color of each pixel in each location can be independently controlled. JVC claims this effectively doubles the number of perceived pixels horizontally and vertically to achieve "4K" resolution (3860x2160). It's not really 4K—leading some to call it "faux-K"—but it does eliminate any visible pixel structure.
Like all JVC projectors, the X55R produces exceptionally deep blacks without a dynamic iris, beautiful colors, and great shadow detail. It also provides five memories for the motorized zoom, focus, and lens shift. Another great feature is the ability to adjust the alignment of the pixels from the red, green, and blue D-ILA panels in 121 independent zones across the screen in increments of 1/16 of a pixel, letting you dial in perfect alignment.
Scott Says: e-Shift2 may not offer true 4K resolution, but it does produce a sharply detailed picture with no visible pixel structure, and everything else that makes JVC projectors so great is here in spades.
Some cinephiles prefer the look of DLP projection—even single-chip DLP with the potential for rainbow artifacts—over LCD or LCoS. For one thing, the image is often a bit sharper and more punchy with DLP, and single-chip models have perfect alignment of the red, green, and blue portions of the image, though the blacks are not usually as deep as the JVC models.
The Runco LS-5 single-chip DLP projector strikes a great balance of performance and price. It's the least-expensive model in the company's LightStyle line that provides both horizontal and vertical lens shift (the lower-cost LS-3 and LS-1 provide only vertical lens shift), though these controls are manual, not motorized with memories. However, it can accommodate a fixed anamorphic lens for 2.35:1 screens. The colors and shadow detail are both top-notch, and the blacks are quite good thanks to its dynamic iris, but it offers no 3D capabilities, unlike all the other projectors in this buying guide except the Epson 8350.
Scott Says: If you want the look of DLP and you don't care about 3D or lens memories, this is a superb choice in this price range.
This exceptional projector ups the ante from the DLA-X55R with better contrast, THX certification, and 10 lens memories along with deep blacks without a dynamic iris, gorgeous colors, great shadow detail, e-Shift2, and 121-zone pixel alignment.
Scott Says: It's expensive, but better contrast means this JVC's picture really pops, and THX certification means it comes out of the box conforming to well-established video-system standards.
JVC's flagship is definitely worthy of the title, offering super-deep blacks without a dynamic iris, better contrast than any other JVC model, totally accurate colors, great shadow detail, THX certification, 10 lens memories, e-Shift2, and 121-zone pixel alignment.
Scott Says: If you want the best projector you can buy without being Bill Gates, this one's hard to beat.