One of the best things about attending CEDIA 2013 was the opportunity to view a number of projector demos. All the projectors at the show were higher-end than my budget allows for, but I did happen to notice one thing: in general, I liked how Epson's projectors looked, especially considering the price points. The end result—I wound up buying a projector that was introduced back at CEDIA 2010—the 2D-only Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350.
My new Epson projector, on its stand, which was once a car subwoofer.
My home theater is really designed for an audience of two, with perhaps a couple of guests squeezing in on occasion. In other words, it is a sofa. For the past couple of years, I have relied on a 55-inch Vizio M550KD LCD TV I acquired because I really enjoyed watching 3D with passive glasses. Prior to the Vizio, I had a Panasonic GT30 plasma, but I found that watching 3D on it to be headache inducing at best. Of course, plasma technology—and active 3D glasses—have improved since then, and subsequent generations feature very good 3D, which I have witnessed at manufacturer line shows for Samsung and Panasonic. But for the last few years, the Vizio served as my primary display. It did a great job with 3D content, but its rendering of 2D content left something to be desired. I didn't know how much was missing until I started digging into high-end televisions over the past year, in the capacity of an AVS Forum Newsbreaker. While I already understood that deep blacks are a key component to image fidelity, I was less aware of other issues that plague LCD televisions, such as motion resolution, flashlight artifacts on edge-lit units, limitations of viewing angles, etc.
However, the solution for me was not buying another plasma—I really wanted a much larger image size than I can afford with LCD or plasma flat panels. When I first joined AVS Forum almost a decade ago, it was because I had purchased my first projector—the InFocus Screenplay 4805. It offered the tantalizing promise of full resolution DVD playback, and I quickly became interested in do-it-yourself screen building.
Fast-forward a few years and I found myself the proud owner of a pair of the 720p projectors—the Optoma HD70 DLP unit and the Sony VPL-AW15 LCD-based projector. Between the two, I wound up enjoying the Sony just little bit more. Whereas the Optoma had deeper blacks, I could see the dreaded rainbow artifacts that can be an issue with single-chip DLP projectors. Watching LCD-based projection was so much more relaxing to my eyes, but I knew that I would have to give up something—in this case, the deep blacks of DLP.
Skip to just few days ago, and I found myself pining for a new projector. I'm always on the lookout for open-box specials, and my local Best Buy served one up for me: the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350. For a cool grand, I walked out with a projector that is a bit of an anachronism in this modern world: It is 2D only. When I got it home and turned it on, it reported zero hours on the bulb, which was consistent with my impression that it had never been used—just bought and returned.
Despite the lack of 3D capability, the Epson 8350 had attributes that endeared it to me, one of which is a lens that is about as adjustable as it gets in the world of affordable projectors. It is also a well-understood projector, having been around as long as it has. In fact, when I was doing my research, one of the articles I relied on turned out to be written by the one and only Scott Wilkinson. Needless to say, his observations were totally accurate—the 8350 is a good performer, except that it is not capable of reproducing those elusive, extremely deep blacks. Instead, it does a good job of rendering details in shadows; according to most reviews, it is better in that regard than its main DLP-based competitors at this budget price point, the BenQ W1070 and Optoma HD20.
After picking up the projector, the first thing I needed was a screen—and it had to be portable because of the way my studio is set up. A quick online search turned up an Epson Duet screen, which is an 80-inch diagonal, 16:9, freestanding screen. The Duet moniker refers to the fact that it can also display 4:3 content because of the way that it folds. It is a relatively inexpensive, bright white screen that seems to perform well, and I am sitting approximately 95 inches away from it—just slightly farther than my typical viewing distance for the 55-inch TV. Now, my screen is the closest that THX recommends for 1080p viewing at home, which happens to be the screen's diagonal measurement divided by 0.84.
Unpacking and Setup
The 8350 is a relative large projector for a budget unit. Weighing a somewhat hefty 16 pounds and measuring 17.7" x 15.5" x 5.4", it is much larger than the DLP units I have owed in the past. However, size is a non-issue for me—of far greater importance was placement flexibility. The 8350 features a 2x-zoom, manual-focus Fujinon lens with manual horizontal and vertical lens shift—rare at this price point—that made setup a breeze, and the image filled my screen perfectly within just a couple of minutes of tweaking the controls.
The next step was to tweak color, brightness, and contrast for my room. I use the projector as the primary display for my DIY workstation PC, which also doubles as a home theater PC and a gaming rig. I used the AVS HD 709 material to establish basic settings for contrast, brightness, and gamma. As for color, I had to wing it since I don’t currently own a colorimeter—but at least I got to wing it with Photoshop and a catalog of hundreds of thousands of photos that I have taken over the years. I know exactly what the accurate color for many of them should look like, and that formed the basis of a somewhat laborious manual calibration process.
The end result of my tweaking looked great and is based on the Natural picture-mode preset—as opposed to the Cinema preset. I had to go to the RGB controls to tweak away a slight green cast, and I actually had to reduce the overall saturation to -3. Power is set to Eco mode, while Epson Ultra White and noise reduction are both set to off. For what it is worth, I am probably going to use the auto iris for some movies, but not all. It is a bit distracting because it does not react quite fast enough to be imperceptible, but it does help with black levels.
The menus on the 8350 are perfectly clear and easy to navigate. The full-sized, backlit remote made programming simple enough, although there was an occasional lag—perhaps a second or two—registering commands. The 8350 is a basic, budget projector and as a result does not have too many bells and whistles such as frame interpolation. That is not an issue for me, since I tend to disable such features and watch video that is as close to the pure source as possible.
I wanted to inaugurate the new projector with a long-time favorite film, Contact. There are aspects of the Robert Zemeckis sci-fi film that look dated (check out the phones and the TVs), but the overall impact of the space-trip scenes featuring Jodie Foster were not diminished—and the opening "Power of Ten" zoom-out effect looked as good as it ever has. While the 8350 does not come anywhere near the black-level performance I recently witnessed on numerous fantastic projectors at CEDIA—as well as with this year's crop of plasma televisions—I was definitely able to enjoy what the budget Epson had to offer.
Aside from the mediocre black levels, I found little to complain about regarding my new projector. The most noticeable improvement versus my TV—aside from the awesome huge picture—is the handling of motion in movies. Properly cadenced 24p movement looks smoother than it ever did on my Vizio, and there is so much more motion resolution, it totally changed my viewing experience. I had to reconsider what I find acceptable for movie night in terms of the quality of the content.
Allow me to digress for a moment… Last spring, I performed a number comparisons between Blu-ray and several online-delivery formats. As expected, I found that Blu-ray was notably superior compared with Vudu HDX and iTunes HD 1080p, the two online-delivery formats that were consistently the best in terms of quality. Using a 55" TV, iTunes HD performed similarly to Vudu HDX. Not so when viewed on this projector—suddenly the extra bandwidth afforded to Vudu HDX became apparent. Quite a few of the iTunes movies that I had previously enjoyed on my Vizio looked hideous on the projector. I suppose this is a good thing, because it means that when the quality is there, the Epson renders it with greater fidelity—plus the fact is that defects in the signal are generally more visible on a larger screen, all other things being equal.
When it comes to online content delivery, there is still quite a bit of variation in quality from movie to movie. It does not help that iTunes cannot play back proper 24p, or that the audio is inferior. The main problem is clearly the compression itself, which was suddenly obvious in terms of visible blocking artifacts and nasty, pulsating shadow noise. Even when it comes to new releases, the quality of the compression and transfer can vary widely.
One great example of quality variation from a given provider is Life of Pi, which actually looked pristine on iTunes. This is consistent with what I found when I performed a format comparison for that movie on the Vizio. However, Star Trek: Into Darkness did not have enough bandwidth to reproduce the intense, hyper-detailed special effects served up by that movie. Whereas the limited motion resolution of the Vizio glossed over this particular limitation of streaming video, the projector laid bare the damage done by excessive compression.
In past comparisons, Vudu HDX often came closer to Blu-ray in terms of detail. For example, Wreck-It Ralph—Vudu HDX was much closer to the Blu-ray ideal when it came to reproducing details during fast moving scenes, translating to a more cinematic experience than what iTunes HD offered. Despite that, Blu-ray was always better than any online format—as a result, I am now 100% in agreement with the AVS home-theater purists who insist on Blu-ray whenever possible, especially when the image is projected. The quality difference is just too obvious, when a movie is shown on a big screen.
Viewed on the Epson, Wreck-It Ralph looked best on Blu-ray, good on Vudu HDX, mediocre on iTunes
To me, the lesson here is that for $1150 (screen included) I can enjoy image quality that will likely elude anybody who opts for a LED-backlit (or edge-lit) LCD television of a similar size—and an 80" LED-LCD TV will cost a hell of a lot more! While plasma and OLED flat panels (or curved panels, in the case of OLED) can offer superior image quality, neither technology can match the cost per inch of front projection, especially at larger sizes. Naturally, there are pricier projectors offering higher performance, but my budget is what it is—limited. And of course, I dream of owning a 4K/UHD projector one of these days, but as appealing as the new technology is—and I can see a clear difference between 1080p and 4K—Blu-ray offers tremendous value and selection while featuring quality that comes incredibly close to the movie-theater experience. As a result, it is hard to get excited about spending exponentially more money for 4K, a format that is currently very limited in terms of content availability.
Sometimes I am an early adopter, and sometimes I am a late adopter. When it comes to display technology, I am typically a late adopter. I feel good about purchasing a three-year-old model Epson that does not even support 3D. Instead, the venerable PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 does what I need it to do—and when I want to watch something in 3D, the screen folds up and the Vizio is right behind it, ready to spring back to life doing what it does best.
One of the great pleasures of shopping for this projector was how Google searches would lead right back to AVS forum. I know there are fans of each projector technology, and of course, the first thing I expect to see in the comments is the suggestion that I should have saved up some money and bought a LCOS-based unit with super-deep black levels. Well, there's always next year, and at some point I do hope to get a 4K/UHD 3D capable projector. But for now, I am once again hooked on front projection, and this time there is no going back.