Trice erosion in digital HD-capable displays is rampant these days. Plasma-panel pricing is tumbling like an avalanche in the middle of winter in the Rocky Mountains. The same goes for high-resolution front projectors. What was once the sole arena of the $10,000 price point is now dipping below $4000.
We’ve picked two sub-$4000 front projectors that have the moxy to deliver a true big-screen cinematic experience without breaking the bank. In fact, there are so many choices in this price/performance category that the real challenge is figuring out which one delivers the best picture and the most theater-like experience for your hardearned spondollas. I tested one LCD (liquid crystal display) model and one DLP (Digital Light Processing) model.
I should state at the outset that I am a big DLP fan, especially when it comes to comparing that technology to LCD. The two main reasons for this are, of course, related to overall picture quality. First, high-resolution DLP, defined as a minimum of 1280x720, generally delivers much better blacklevel performance, which determines the display’s potential perceived contrast ratio. This is primarily due to the smaller inter-pixel spacing of the mirrors on the DMD (Digital Micromirror Device) chip versus the spacing between pixel elements on virtually all LCD panels.
The second reason is related to the first. The better the black-level performance, the better the color saturation the display is capable of providing. According to a study done by SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers), contrast ratio and color saturation happen to be the two most important aspects of a picture that the human eye perceives.
There is one potential drawback to single-chip DLP displays that is dependent on each person’s sensitivity to it. The spinning color wheel used to sequentially separate red, green, and blue light out of the white light from the lamp in these displays can produce a rainbow effect during fast-motion sequences and dark scenes with bright highlights. LCD projectors do not suffer this particular problem because they all use three separate imaging panels for red, green, and blue, so there is no need for a color wheel.
I happen to be one of the lucky folks who aren’t plagued by this distracting artifact, but you may not be. If you are considering purchasing a DLP display, whether front or rear projection, you should audition a few models with fastmoving video and dark scenes with highlights to determine if you are one of the unfortunate souls susceptible to seeing these artifacts. Fortunately, color-wheel design has improved dramatically over the last several years, so it is less of an issue than it used to be. OPTOMA H78DC3 The Optoma H78DC3 is a $3999 single- chip DLP projector with Texas Instruments’ new DarkChip3 imageenhancement technology that supposedly delivers even better blacks than the previous version, dubbed DarkChip2. The projector’s native resolution is 1280x720, which makes it capable of natively displaying 720p HDTV sources.
The H78DC3 is quite basic in its design. The white, rectangular-shaped box certainly won’t win any industrialdesign awards, but you can’t expect that from a projector at this price point. The unit runs very quiet and cool, and weighs in at a mere 16.5 pounds.
The remote is on the small side, and to my delight, all the keys are backlit. This is very important in a front projector, for which all setup needs to be done in a completely darkened room. Custom installers who want to program the remote’s functionality into a touch-panel controller will appreciate that there are direct-access buttons for all picture controls (Contrast, Brightness, Color, Tint, etc.), zoom and focus functions, and all inputs. The remote is intuitively laid out, relatively comfortable to hold, and easy to use.
As with most front projectors, the feature set is related solely to setup. Simply put, consumer features like CableCARD or PIP are not found here. There are three Picture Modes (NORMAL, CINEMA, VIVID), which apply different preset values of the color controls, and three Image Modes (FILM, TV, VIDEO), which apply different preset gamma values. Three color-temperature presets and three gamma settings give you the ability to adjust the picture in perhaps too many ways. Of course, there are the obligatory aspect-ratio choices, which are selected with the FORMAT button on the remote. The H78DC3 can also display PAL and SECAM signals for European and Asian users.
With one DVI input, one component- video input, and one RGBHV input that can also double as a second component-video input, the connection options on the H78DC3 should be adequate for most users. For standard-definition NTSC sources, there is also one S-video and one composite-video input. Custom installers will appreciate the RS-232 port for programming the projector’s functionality into AMX and Crestron touchpanel control systems.
The H78DC3’s color decoding is not accurate, but interestingly, rather than pushing red or green, it underemphasizes both. The usual transgression is to push red in an attempt to get more color in flesh tones with a bluish grayscale that results from factory settings designed to attract attention in a dealer showroom. In this case, you typically have to de-saturate (turn down) the color in an attempt to get natural-looking skin tones, which also results in a loss of color saturation from the green and blue channels.
Fortunately, this is not the case with the H78DC3, and I did get good color saturation and natural-looking skin tones from all sources after calibration. The grayscale was reasonably close to the desired mark prior to calibration, but plus green in the dark parts of the picture.
I found that the best gamma setting was 1, which produced the slowest rise out of black and the best grayscale-tracking performance. A color-temperature setting of 1 measured the closest to the broadcast standard of D6500, which made grayscale calibration relatively easy.
I chose the Cinema mode as a starting point for the setup. I must say that the Contrast control has way too much range, and it should be set very carefully. The correct contrast setting for DVD (standard-def NTSC) and HD were wildly different, and way down from even the center of the range, much less its maximum level. The correct setting in my rig was –25 for DVDs and –41 for HD sources on my 72- inch-wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen. Setting the contrast above these levels resulted in severe clipping of whites, which results in a loss of detail in bright scenes. The H78DC3 is certainly capable of driving larger screen sizes if need be. However, I recommend that you don’t go too much over 84 inches wide, because when set up for optimum performance the light output would be insufficient on anything larger.
Thanks in large part to the DarkChip3 enhancement, blacks are deep, rich, and inky. In fact, the black-level performance on the H78DC3 comes very close to a properly set-up CRT projector. Starting with DVDs, deep-space shots from the opening scenes of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back were rendered beautifully, with plenty of shadow detail and deep blacks. X-Men 2 also looked awesome, with good color saturation and naturallooking skin tones. Dark material on both discs was impressive, coming so close to my reference CRT projector, the Runco DTV-991, as not to matter. I believe that DarkChip3 has brought black-level performance in DLP projectors to the point that it is simply nothing we can complain about in comparison to CRT technology any longer.
HD material from my Time Warner cable system was quite impressive as well—after a separate calibration. Unfortunately, as with many digital displays these days, the DVI input falls just shy of fully displaying a 720p HD image from a signal generator, but when viewing real program material, this was not obvious to the eye. The picture was not visibly soft, a problem I have seen on many RPTVs with this resolution that roll off the horizontal resolution. HD material from a variety of channels looked great, with realistic colors and an overall crispness you would expect from HD on a display like this.
There is a real war being waged between LCD and DLP front and rear projectors in terms of both price and performance. Over the years, I have learned that, in most cases, you get what you pay for. Be wary of buying on price and specifications alone. The lowest-cost projectors with the highest resolution and light output specs are frequently the least capable of delivering good video performance.
SANYO’s new PLV-Z3 LCD projector has a native resolution of 1280x720, which qualifies it as an HDTV-capable display. The projector is quite compact and weighs a little over 10 pounds. It lists for $2495, about 60% of the H78DC3’s price. However, the PLV-Z3 does have some performance shortcomings that I’ll get to shortly.
The PLV-Z3 is a small, squarish box finished all in black; a flip-down door on the front of the projector exposes the lens assembly. The ventilation system’s intake and exhaust vents provide for extremely quiet operation. There are some key function buttons, including the MENU, INPUT, SELECT, and arrow keys on the top of the projector’s chassis. The remote is small, well designed, and intuitive to use. It’s also fully backlit, making setup in the dark much easier. The internal menu system or GUI (graphical user interface) is also well designed and intuitive to navigate.
The PLV-Z3 offers a slew of pictureenhancing features and no real convenience features. Five selectable color-temperature settings give you a wide variety of color balances to choose from. I chose Low 1, because it was the closest in grayscale-tracking performance to the broadcast standard of D6500.
A total of 14 different gamma settings give the user way too many choices, making it very time consuming to figure out which is optimum. The - 1 setting was the closest to a c c u r a t e gamma as I could find among the choices. While most projectors give you three or four different picture modes, the PLV-Z3 offers seven, which is too much choice not to confuse most people. I chose the PURE CINEMA setting for my setup and evaluation.
FILM MODE must be turned on to engage 3:2 pulldown to eliminate motion artifacts with film-based material— namely, all movies and 75% to 80% of primetime TV broadcasts. There is an OVERSCAN control that comes set at 10, which significantly overscans the picture, trimming off substantial portions of the edges. However, when you set it to 0, you actually get 0, which means you can get back all the picture you were missing. Setting OVERSCAN to 0 will be fine for most DVDs, but you should probably set it to 2 or 3 for cable or satellite TV because 0 will probably result in visible artifacts.
By far the coolest feature from a setup standpoint is the horizontal and vertical lens shift, a feature normally only found on much more expensive projectors. While vertical lens shift is becoming more common in low-cost projectors, horizontal lens shift is still a rarity.
Connection options on the PLV-Z3 are on a par with the Optoma. One HDMI input is joined by two component- video inputs, one S-video input, and one composite-video input. Also included is a VGA input for use with a PC, but I was a bit disappointed at the projector’s lack of an RS-232 port, which is a negative for custom installers who typically need it for programming purposes.
Blacks are the key to good contrast ratio, and for an LCD projector, they are decent on the PLV-Z3. However, the SANYO’s black-level performance is not even close to that of 1280x720 single-chip DLP projectors currently on the market. The Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back DVD revealed muddy and dark-gray blacks rather than the rich inky blacks I’ve become accustomed to with good DLP projectors. Measuring the 720p resolution at the HDMI input of the PLV-Z3, I was disappointed to find fully 20% of the horizontal resolution was lopped off. On the other hand, the component-video inputs delivered nearly all of the resolution from my Sencore VP403 signal generator. The so-called screen-door effect, which is common to LCD projectors, was clearly visible on a 72- inch-wide screen from a seating distance of 13 feet on both DVD and HDTV sources. This is generally much less visible on a DLP projector with the same resolution, because the interpixel spacing between the micromirrors on a DMD chip is far smaller that between the pixels on LCD panels.
This is also the reason you get better black-level performance and color saturation from DLP. In addition, the screen-door effect contributes to an overall softness of the picture. Combined with the poor black-level performance of the PLV-Z3, this gives the picture a soft and somewhat dull, lifeless quality when compared to DLP projectors with the same resolution.
The color accuracy of the PLV-Z3 leaves a bit to be desired as well. The color decoding of red isn’t bad, with only minor red push, but green is down significantly. The pre-calibration grayscale was decent compared to most projectors out of the box, and the post-calibration measurements were reasonably close to the broadcast standard.
HD material from my Time Warner cable box looked pretty good on bright material, but it really fell apart with anything dark. A concert with a dimly lit stage on HDNet revealed muddy-looking blacks that rob the picture of the “snap” it could have.
The bottom line here is the Optoma handily outperforms the SANYO, but at a premium of close to twice the price. With that said, the PLV-Z3 delivers relatively good performance for the money. Color saturation was decent, and bright scenes—particularly with my Time Warner HD cable feed— looked pretty good.
On the other hand, if you are looking for solid performance in every respect, then a single-chip DLP projector like the Optoma H78DC3 is the way to go. Good, deep blacks help produce an impressive perceived contrast ratio and much deeper, richer color saturation, which gives the picture a nice “snap” in both dark and light scenes. Both of these key performance parameters help make DLP the clear winner when it comes to picture quality. Like I said, you get what you pay for.