The great thing about front projection-based home theater is that today’s technology lets you experience picture quality that competes with what you see on the big screens at the multiplex cinema. With 4K and HDR, projectors now deliver the detail and color found in Hollywood films. And now, thanks to Epson’s Pro Cinema 4050 ($2399), the cost of entry of a full-featured projector that delivers high-quality imagery is lower than ever.



Features and Specifications

OK, let’s get something out of the way: This projector does not do the “deepest blacks” of some pricier offerings. Nor is it a native 4K projector. But, given its feature set—including support for 4K and HDR content—and the picture quality it offers, it is a compelling option for home theater buffs on a budget. For example, this projector comes with a sharp, 2.1X power zoom lens featuring lens memory, which can be a highly useful feature that’s missing from other projectors in this price range. Fans of Epson projectors will be familiar with this feature set, owners of other brands might be surprised at what a nice lens you get for your money.

Epson's excellent Pro Cinema 4050 4K PRO-UHD projector
Pleas note, this projector only has one HDCP 2.2 HDMI input (Input 1) so you’ll want some sort of input switching. I’d expect many users to attach the Pro Cinema 4050 to an AVR, in which case it’s not an issue. For this review, I used a Denon AVR-X8500H AVR with various sources connected to it including a  Sony UBP-X800 Ultra HD Blu-ray player, an Apple TV 4K , a Chromecast Ultra , and an Xbox One X .

The motorized lens is in nice feature, especially if you have a 2.40:1 aspect ratio screen. You can enjoy many movies zoomed in, so that the image fills the screen, it needs no anamorphic lens, and when you want to watch TV or play video games, you can have the projector zoom out and fully show 16:9 aspect ratio content instead. This is a very nice feature that Sony does not include in its entry level 4K projector (VPL-VW295ES) costing twice as much. And, thoughtfully, Epson has included dedicated buttons for the first two lens memory positions (out of 10 total), so if you have implemented a 2.40:1 screen, switching between that and 16:9 ratios only requires a single button push.

Epson’s Pro Cinema 4050 is functionally the same as the company’s Home Cinema 4010 ($1799) . The main difference is that the 4050 ships with a spare bulb, a ceiling mount, an extra year of warranty (3 not 2) and comes in a black (rather than white) chassis. As far as performance goes, you can regard this review as also applying to the Home Cinema 4010. The bulb life rating 5000 hours in Eco mode and 3500 hours in High mode, so if you buy this kit you are all set for years to come, even if you use this projector several hours a day, every single day (i.e. use it like a TV).


Epson's Home Cinema 4010 is the same projector as the 4050, dressed in consumer clothes.

Okay, I hate to have to dwell on the fact this is a 1080p projector using pixel shifting, but the reality is it cannot properly replicate a 4K test pattern. Technically the projector can only reproduce 4 million pixels (2X HD, but  only ½ UHD) because the imaging chip shifts between two positions (not four) in order to offer enhanced detail.

While native 4K is great, and home theaters offer an opportunity to sit close enough to the screen where you will see the extra detail when it is present, I need to stress that with most content, the fact this is a pixel-shifter and not a full UHD projector is practically irrelevant. Most of what you want out of 4K HDR content, like DCI/P3 color, smooth gradations and well rendered details during busy action scenes, comes through thanks to higher bitrates. Pixel count is not the only determining factor for picture quality when you watch a movie, being able to ingest UHD is key to how great the image put out by this projector looks.

Another 4K limitation with this projector is that it does not handle 4K/60p HDR, but you can feed it 4K SDR. This is a largely avoidable issue since most movies can now be streamed at in 4K 24p HDR, but I can see (some) gamers being disappointed by this limitation. The input lag on this unit is approximately 30 ms, which is not competition-grade, but is more than fast enough for casual gamers.

The key here is the high-quality lens puts a lot of detail on screen, regardless of what the “native” resolution of the Pro Cinema 4050 happens to be. Clearly, taking this approach results in significant savings, with a negligible impact on perceived sharpness and detail.

Both subjectively (to my eyes) and objectively (to my meters), the image produced by the Epson 4050 is accurate, colorful, with good-to-great contrast depending on the scene you watch. Even so, with a lot of content, it possesses all the “pop” you could ask for. But, something like an outer space scene (Star Wars, etc.) will reveal somewhat greyish blacks. If you feed this projector Ultra HD Blu-ray source material, it will impress you with the holistic picture quality it achieves. That includes clean gradations and plenty fine detail, along with smoothly rendered motion.

To get the full scoop on Pro Cinema 4050 features and specs, head over top Epson's website.



Setup and Use

I have two screens in my home theater, one is a Stuart Filmscreen StudioTek 130 that is 120 inches wide, with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The other screen is a 110” (diagonal) 16:9 Seymour-Screen Excellence Ambient-Visionaire XL ALR (ambient light rejecting) screen with a 0.9 gain. It’s amazing how much like a giant TV the ALR screen lit by the Pro Cinema 4050 looks, even with the lights on the contrast is high—it has as much “pop” as a TV when watching sports. The ALR screen and this projector are a compelling combo that’s tough to beat for the money.

I set the projector up in the back of my room, on seven foot shelf. Consequently, the lens is about 15 feet away from the screen. The one thing I’d note is that if power/bulb to High (as opposed to Normal or Eco),  the fan is not exactly silent on this projector. Then again, it’s rated at 2400 lumens output, so there’s a fair amount of heat to dissipate. When watching basketball on the big screen (hooray for the Sixers!) I never heard it, but during a quiet scene in a movie, it is audible, especially if installed fairly close to the main seats. If your screen size and gain support using Normal or Eco modes, the projector is much quieter.

Cinema and Bright Cinema are my two favorites among the numerous picture modes. Switching between the two, it’s like having two projectors in one. With Bright Cinema, rec.709 is covered 100% and DCI/P3 coverage is 87%, which frankly is good enough for most movies that are not animation, and considering how bright it gets, it’s fantastic performance.  I manually dialed in a gamma of 2.0, perfect for simulating the look of a TV in a room with some ambient light. Peak brightness was exactly 100 nits with this combination, which is spot-on for a “giant TV” look.

Turn on the Cinema mode and things change. You lose a fair bit of brightness (it’s basically cut in half). The payoff for using this mode is you get deeper blacks (it acts like a neutral density filter) and you also get what I measured to be 99.8% DCI/P3 coverage—which is great. Fantastic. Amazing. This projector covers the full color gamut used in commercial cinema; I feel like I should go toast to this fact right now.

Using Cinema mode with the Stewart StudioTek 130 provided a theatrical feel that you cannot get with a smaller screen, and as long as you sit far enough back to not see individual pixels—for me, that’s 10 feet, as far back as the screen is wide—the image it produces is effectively seamless. And since it’s a 2.40:1 screen, it leverages the motorized lens memory, making it easy to switch from fully immersive movies to brighter, but smaller 16:9. According to CalMan, the native on-screen sequential contrast, with no iris or other brightness adjustments, measures around 5000:1 in my room. Make of that what you will, to my eyes it looks good.



Movies

Before talking about this specific projector, a quick note on native contrast and black levels. While I certainly agree 100% with the notion that black levels and how they relate to contrast are one of the most important picture quality parameters, unless you have a Batcave style home theater, the native contrast of the display is only one of the factors involved in how you perceive those deep shadows and blacks. Also, technological progress has resulted in affordable projectors and TVs that offer good black levels when compared to what premium gear could achieve in the past.

While it’s true that current state-of-the-art gear continues to push the boundaries of what’s achievable in terms of native contrast, affordable gear has, IMO, passed the “good enough for most people” stage. So what I’d say is that if you are the sort who is sensitized to and triggered by anything other than absolute, black-hole darkness in those deep shadows, you will have to spend more to scratch that itch. But I also think the Epson Pro Cinema 4050 will thrill most people watching a movie on this projector with the picture quality it provides, and that includes how it renders deep shadows and black.

In a dedicated home theater with dark walls, you can use a 2.40:1 wide aspect ratio screen and have option of going acoustically transparent, for the ultimate in realism. If you want to use the regular Cinema mode, consider the luminance limitations versus Bright Cinema. With my 120” (wide) 1.3 gain screen and using zoom to fill the screen, I measured 64 nits peak brightness (post calibration). That provides leeway to use a lower gain screen and still meet the DCI brightness spec of 48 nits for SDR presentation in a commercial cinema. Larger screens and screens with a lower gain (for example woven screens) may require Cinema Bright mode, which still offers rich color along with a huge boost in brightness. The main tradeoff is is black levels also go up in that mode—bad for sci-fi but not an issue for animated flicks. I queued up Incredibles 2 and even the reds in that movie look a deep crimson in Cinema Bright mode.

Here’s where you catch a lucky break with HDR and this Epson: It’s tuned so that you get a great picture with HDR content. Even if the highlights don’t twinkle like on a TV; the overall image looks phenomenal, thanks to the 10-bit 4K with DCI/P3 color. Why? Because Epson has an Auto Bright setting that explicitly addresses the “HDR is too dim” issue. Using Bright Cinema mode and the Stewart StudioTek 130 screen and HDR content, I was able to get results that come surprisingly close to the overall viewing experience you get from a projector that’s twice the price (or more). Sure, now and then a scene would reveal elevated black levels… and yes, native UHD content can look a bit sharper.  But I got 130-nit peak luminance with this mode, and that just about matches what you see in a commercial Dolby Cinema for HDR highlight rendition.

3D fans will be happy to know this projector supports 3D in its Dynamic and Cinema modes. However, I have not tried watching 3D on the Pro Cinema 4050 ,nor do I own any 3D movies at this time, so I cannot speak to its performance.



Streaming and Live TV

I’m not much of a TV watcher, but I am into sports, and in particular I like NFL football plus NBA basketball. In order to scratch that itch, I subscribe to YouTube TV and use the 1080/60p stream option. The quality is high for broadcast content, and I can speak explicitly to a Sixers game I watched last night (against the Boston Celtics) that felt different, more immersive, more like being there, than basketball has ever felt on any television I have reviewed—even an 85-incher. Size really, truly does matter when it comes to displays.

Cinema Bright is the perfect mode for TV watching with the Pro Cinema 4050. It’s color accurate, and it covers 100% of the rec.709 color space used in HD broadcasts as well as Blu-ray. Given how much of the entertainment that’s available out there is HD, and not 4K UHD, this projector’s ability to deliver practically “perfect” HD with an ALR screen and some ambient light in the room stands out as a great reason to consider it. And with that extra bulb plus the three-year warranty, you really could use this projector as a TV.

With sports, the perceived contrast on screen has all the “pop” you expect from a TV and the projected image looks cleaner than a TV. For example, there is no dirty screen effect, or FALD algorithms machinating in the background creating halos, or issues of image retention.  The Seymour-Screen Excellence Ambient-Visionaire XL material offers wide viewing angles, which had been a weak spot for ALR screens in the past. When combined with the sheer impact of a 110” screen size, the clean output of this projector plus the ALR screen (despite not being true 4K) looks genuinely better than a TV.

Perhaps the most impressive show put on by this projector was using the Stewart and zooming to fit the 16:9 image on that screen. The diagonal measurement here is 102 inches, with a peak brightness in Cinema Bright of around 240 nits, which makes it a great way to watch Netflix and Amazon streaming HDR in the dark. You get a “real” HDR look from this rig in terms of highlight handling, and the overall cleanliness of the video is impressive. I don’t follow any of those shows that people binge watch, but just playing a few minutes of 4K HDR Netflix content helped me appreciate the incredible fidelity you can enjoy from that service.

What’s more, Cinema Mode with the Stewart still managed to deliver over 100 nits peak brightness. I’m more a fan of the ALR screen for 16:9 TV viewing, but the picture quality achieved here is sumptuous. With 100 nit highlights, 100 inches of screen, plus 100% full DCI/P3 from HDR source material, streaming Amazon and Netflix HDR with this projector looks shockingly great.



Games

The Pro Cinema 4050 is not the “ultimate” gaming projector, OK? But it is a very, very, very good one. When paired up with the 110” Seymour ALR screen, the Epson is able to put you right inside of a game. No question Cinema Bright is where it’s at for gaming, playing Forza Horizon on my Xbox One X created a visceral sense of speed, with graphics that are awe inspiring to someone who grew up playing an Atari as a kid.

With Red Dead Redemption 2 being so popular, and such a cinematic experience, I had to put in some time playing it on the Epson. What I saw was clean, detailed, with crisp motion (no judder). First person games benefit from a “life size” screen, it changes how you perceive interactions with other characters when you perceive them as life-sized and not merely existing in a small box. And with the Epson, the picture quality in RDR2 is shockingly clean and detailed.

What’s key here is this projector gets nice and bright, so it can fill a large 16x9 screen and make it look just like an enormous TV or monitor. I’m not sure what else to say here, home theater gaming: don’t knock it till you try it.

Importantly, I didn’t have issues seeing shadow detail (for example while playing Grand Theft Auto 5, at night). You don’t get the deepest blacks around, but the Epson can delineate individual shades right down the last step. So, your enemy will not be able to “hide in the shadows” thanks to camouflage from black crush.

The brighter the color scheme of the game, the more awesome it looks on this display. The most colorful game I’ve got is Super Lucky’s Tale, a fun, lighthearted, cartoonish arcade-like game that happens to include Dolby Atmos sound. It sure makes me feel like a kid again to play it, and I know that a 12-year-old me only dreamt of experiencing games like this as I dropped quarters in a mall arcade.

Last up… Pinball simulation. Here, the rich color and high brightness of this projector creates an almost 3D illusion. It may be a bit eccentric to use a home theater in this manner, but the feeling you are playing real pinball is uncanny.



Conclusion

For movie lovers, there’s nothing like experiencing favorite flicks in a dedicated home theater with a high-quality projector and sound system. The catch is that typically, budget-oriented projectors sacrifice picture quality first. Not so Epson, a company that is super-serious about color, given its involvement in the printer industry and the scanner industry, besides projection. Color science is in this company’s bones.

What the Pro Cinema 4050 offers AV enthusiasts on a budget is a “Goldilocks Zone” price/performance/feature set. It’s far more flexible than budget DLP models, thanks to that power zoom lens. It’s also amazingly configurable, with tons of options and plenty of memory slots to use once you have dialed in those options.

Simply put, there’s a ton to like about this projector. When you wrap your head around all the features you get, and then witness the quality of image it can put up on screen, the price seems incredibly low. With this projector, I achieved picture quality that did true justice to cinematic Hollywood productions, while also providing a “giant TV-like” viewing experience for sports.

Hard-core home theater enthusiasts are of course going to shop for higher-performing models. But, the Pro Cinema 4050 puts an extremely satisfying image on screen, and could easily be all the projector you need, regardless of whether the goal is to light up an ALR screen in your living room, or to create a legit high-performance home theater without breaking the bank. Enthusiastically recommended.





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