Many AV enthusiasts believe that the best way to enjoy a true home theater is by using a projector rather than a flat-panel TV. A projector can generate a much larger image than any TV, often at much lower cost than the largest flat panels. On the other hand, a projector normally requires a very dark room to look its best, though an ambient light-rejecting (ALR) screen can help if you want to be able to watch with some light in the room.
Speaking of screens, selecting the one that's best for you is a topic worthy of its own list, which I'll post soon. For now, those considerations are not included here.
There's a lot to consider when shopping for a projector; here are some important things to think about
1. DLP, LCD, or LCoS?
- In very general terms, single-chip DLP projectors tend to be the least-expensive option, followed by LCD, then LCoS, and finally 3-chip DLP, though of course, there is some overlap.
- LCoS projectors tend to have the best black levels and native contrast.
- LCD and DLP projectors tend to offer more light output than LCoS models.
- DLP projectors tend to exhibit less motion blur than LCD or LCoS models.
- DLP and LCoS projectors tend to have a higher "fill factor" (less space between pixels) than LCD, resulting in less "screen door effect."
- Single-chip DLP projectors can exhibit the "rainbow effect," in which viewers see momentary rainbows, especially in dark images with bright highlights, such as streetlights or car headlights in a night scene. Some people are more susceptible to this than others.
- LCD, LCoS, and 3-chip DLP projectors do not exhibit the rainbow effect.
- If you're considering a single-chip DLP projector, try to watch one for a while to see if you're bothered by the rainbow effect.
- In single-chip DLP projectors, the red, green, and blue components of the image are perfectly aligned or "converged" because there is only one chip rendering all three colors. In LCD, LCoS, and 3-chip DLP models, the three color components might not be perfectly aligned. Most offer convergence controls, but they might not completely correct all convergence errors.
2. Light Output
- The maximum light output of a projector is measured in lumens or ANSI lumens.
- Like the power ratings of audio amplifiers or AV receivers, manufacturers measure light output in such a way that they obtain as high a number as possible, which might not reflect real-world usage.
- In single-chip DLP projectors, the maximum brightness of white light is often much higher than adding together the maximum brightnesses of red, green, and blue. The difference between white and color light output can potentially result in dimmer colors than the light-output spec would seem to indicate. This not an issue with LCD, LCoS, and 3-chip DLP projectors.
- The higher the light output, the larger the screen that can be used with the projector, and the easier it is to use the projector in a room with some ambient light.
3. Throw Distance
- This is the distance between the projector and screen. In general, the greater the throw distance, the larger the image will be. Also, the larger the image, the less bright it will be from a given projector.
- Throw distance is determined by the size of the image you want to project and limited by the size of your room.
- Most projectors have a zoom lens, which allows a range of throw distances.
- Zoom lenses are normally specified with a zoom ratio—for example, 1.5x means that the largest image size is 1.5 times as large as the minimum image size. The larger the zoom ratio, the more flexibility you have in throw distance.
- The range of throw distances offered by different projectors is best identified using an online calculator, such as this one on ProjectorCentral.com
- One option is an ultra short-throw (UST) projector that is placed on the floor, in a cabinet, or on the ceiling very close to the screen, which typically measures around 100 inches diagonally. This mimics the appearance of a large flat panel and can look quite good in some ambient light if you use an ALR screen.
4. Lens Shift
- This function shifts the image horizontally and/or vertically to align the image with the screen.
- Very inexpensive projectors often do not provide any lens shift.
- I strongly recommend getting a projector with horizontal and vertical lens shift, which makes placement much more flexible.
5. Lens Memories or Anamorphic Lens?
- The native aspect ratio of virtually all home-theater projectors is 16:9 (1.78:1), which is the aspect ratio of modern television images. However, projectors are often called upon to generate images of different aspect ratios, including 1.85:1 and 2.39:1, which are the most common aspect ratios for movies.
- When a 16:9 projector displays a movie with a wider aspect ratio, there are black "letterbox" bars above and below the active image area. Some of the projector's pixels are used to reproduce the black letterbox bars, leaving fewer pixels to be used in the image.
- If you get a 2.39:1 screen, there are two ways to fill it completely with the image of a 2.39:1 movie: adjusting the zoom, lens shift, and focus controls or using a separate anamorphic lens.
- Adjusting the zoom, lens shift, and focus so the screen is entirely filled with an active image "pushes" the black letterbox bars above and below the screen.
- In some higher-end models, the zoom, lens shift, and focus settings are motorized and can be stored in one of several "lens memories" and recalled for content with different aspect ratios.
- An anamorphic lens optically stretches the image horizontally, while the projector electronically upscales the image vertically, creating a 2.39:1 image that uses all the pixels in the projector's imaging system. A projector must have anamorphic capabilities to use such a lens.
- The anamorphic lens can be mounted on a "sled" that moves the lens into and out of the light path, or it can be permanently placed in the light path, and the projector's processor compensates for it with content of different aspect ratios.
- Buying a projector with lens memories is generally less expensive than using an anamorphic lens, which can cost thousands of dollars all by itself.
- Using an anamorphic lens for widescreen movies generally produces a brighter image because all the projector's pixels are used in the image. However, it also requires electronic scaling, which can generate visible artifacts. It can also exhibit optical distortion on the left and right sides of the image.
- This consideration applies only to 2.39:1 screens; if you get a 16:9 screen, you will have to live with black letterbox bars when watching movies.
6. 4K/UHD or HD?
- There are only a few 4K/UHD projectors on the market for home use, and they are more expensive than 1080p models.
- Sony's 4K projectors have been the only ones in the market with true 4K resolution—that is, 4096x2160, the same as digital cinema. The recently announced JVC DLA-RS4500 also has true 4K resolution.
- Several companies, including Digital Projection, Optoma, SIM2, and Vivitek, have announced projectors that use the new 4K/UHD DLP chip, which has a resolution of 3840x2160 using a "pixel-doubling" technique. None of these projectors are available as of this writing.
- Epson and JVC offer projectors with 1080p imagers that quickly shift the pixels back and forth diagonally by half a pixel, resulting in what some have called "faux-K." JVC calls this e-Shift, while Epson calls it 4K Enhancement. This technique displays 4 million pixels on the screen; 1080p displays 2 million pixels, while true 4K and UHD display over 8 million pixels.
- If you're shopping at the high end of the budget scale, I recommend getting a projector with true 4K/UHD resolution.
- The biggest advantage of a "faux-K" projector is that it will accept and display a 4K/UHD signal while remaining less expensive than a true 4K/UHD model, and the image can be somewhat more detailed than 1080p.
- If you're budget is more limited, a 1080p model is fine.
7. HDR or Not?
- High dynamic range (HDR) and its inseparable sibling, wide color gamut (WCG), are still in their infancy and, in some ways, not fully baked.
- This is especially true for projectors; there are no standards or even recommendations for peak brightness or color gamut. Also, the peak brightness you experience depends on the size of your screen.
- There are currently two main HDR formats: HDR10, an open, free-to-implement standard, and Dolby Vision, a proprietary, licensed system from Dolby. HLG is a third format that could become important in broadcast content, but content using it is not really available much right now.
- Only a few projectors implement HDR10—several Sony and JVC models as well as the Epson LS10500—while none implement Dolby Vision as of this writing. The new Sony VPL-VW675ES (US) and VPL-VW550ES (Europe) are expected to support HLG with a firmware update.
- The maximum light level that most current HDR-compatible projectors can generate is often no more than some conventional projectors. And because of the way HDR works, the overall image brightness on real-world content is often lower, though the picture quality is generally considered to be better than SDR.
- Because there are no HDR-performance standards for projectors, I don't think it's time yet to get an HDR-compatible projector, though it certainly does no harm if you have the budget for it.
8. Lamp, Laser, or LED Illumination?
- Most home-theater projectors use a UHP (ultra high-performance, originally ultra high-pressure) lamp for illumination.
- Lamps change in brightness and spectral profile over time, dropping to half brightness after only a few thousand hours of use; they are also expensive to replace, often costing several hundred dollars.
- Some high-end projectors use lasers as the light source. They are typically rated to last 20,000 hours or more with very little change in brightness or spectral profile, but the laser light engine typically can't be replaced.
- Most laser-illuminated home-theater projectors use a blue laser that causes a yellow phosphor to glow; the yellow light is separated into red and green that, along with the blue laser light, illuminates the red, green, and blue imaging chips. This is called a hybrid-laser or blue-pumped phosphor (BPP) system.
- Laser-illuminated digital-cinema projectors use red, green, and blue lasers; these units are very expensive, but they can be used in the highest-end home theaters.
- A few expensive projectors use red, green, and blue LEDs as the light source; like lasers, they are rated to last 20,000 hours or more with very little change in brightness or spectral profile, but the LED light engine typically can't be replaced.
9. Pay for Calibration?
- A professional calibration can cost several hundred dollars, so if your projector cost less than $1000, it's not worth it. Simply adjust the basic user controls using something like Disney's WOW disc, and the projector will look as good as it can without a pro calibration—which is often pretty darned good. For more on how to do this, click here
- If the projector is over $1000, a pro calibration is more worthwhile, because it occupies less of the total budget.
- I'm a big advocate of viewing content as the creator intended, so a full calibration is important to me.
10. Budget & Recommendations
- As mentioned earlier, I strongly recommend getting a projector with horizontal and vertical lens shift, which gives you flexibility in placement. The least-expensive projectors often don't provide lens shift, so in general, I recommend spending at least $1500.
- The prices given here are all MSRP; street prices are often significantly less.
- If your budget is up to $3000, some good choices include the BenQ HT4050 ($2000, single-chip DLP); Epson Home Cinema 3100 ($1300, LCD), 3700 ($1500, LCD), 3900 ($2000, LCD), and 5040UB ($3000, LCD); and Sony VPL-HW45ES ($2000, SXRD/LCoS). All but the Epson 5040UB are 1080p with manual zoom, lens shift, and focus. The Epson 5040UB offers motorized lens adjustments and lens memories, pixel-shifting resolution enhancement from 1080p imagers, and HDR compatibility, and it can accept 4K/UHD video signals.
- If your budget is in the $3000-$6000 range, some good choices include the Epson Pro Cinema 6040UB ($4000, LCD), JVC DLA-RS400U ($4000, D-ILA/LCoS), and Sony VPL-HW65ES ($4000, SXRD/LCoS). The Epson and JVC have motorized lens adjustments and lens memories; the Sony has manual lens adjustments. The Epson and JVC offer pixel-shifting resolution enhancement from 1080p imagers and can accept 4K/UHD video signals; the Sony is 1080p. The Epson offers HDR compatibility; it's basically the same as the 5040UB with a black case, mounting hardware, and extra lamp.
- If your budget is $6000-$10,000, some good choices include the Epson LS10500 ($8000, LCoS), JVC DLA-RS500U ($7000, D-ILA/LCoS), JVC DLA-RS600U ($10,000, D-ILA/LCoS), and Sony VPL-VW365ES ($10,000, SXRD/LCoS). All have motorized lens adjustments with lens memories, and all can accept a 4K/UHD video signal. The Epson and JVC models offer pixel-shifting resolution enhancement from 1080p imagers; the Sony is true 4K (4096x2160). The Epson is HDR compatible and employs a laser-hybrid light engine.
- If your budget is over $10,000, some good choices include the JVC DLA-RS4500 ($35,000, D-ILA/LCoS), Sony VPL-VW675ES ($15,000, SXRD/LCoS), Sony VPL-VW1100ES ($28,000, SXRD/LCoS), and Sony VPL-VW5000ES ($60,000, SXRD/LCoS). All have a native resolution of true 4K with motorized lens adjustments and lens memories. All can accept a 4K/UHD video signal and are HDR-compatible. The JVC DLA-RS4500 and Sony VPL-VW5000ES employ a laser-hybrid light engine.
I'm sure that AVS Forum members have many opinions about all of this, so I invite you to share them in the comments. What are your most important considerations when shopping for a projector? What models do you recommend at different price points?
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