CEDIA Review: A Projector Revolution

Evan Powell, September 15, 2004
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Every year around this time we experience the CEDIA trade show. This year it happened last weekend, Sept 10-12, in Indianapolis, IN. CEDIA (which stands for Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association) is the trade show for the "high-end" home theater dealers, installers, and specialty retailers. As far as home theater projectors go, the subtext of this show is always the battle between DLP and LCD as the two leading display technologies used in projectors. This year LCD made the biggest splash with significant performance advances in low cost LCD-based home theater projectors.

(NOTE: We have linked all model names below to their respective database spec sheets. However, since these are new models many of the specifications and product photos are as of this writing unavailable. We will complete the spec sheets as data and photos becomes available.)

The New LCD Projectors

Two new LCD projector products established what appear to be new benchmarks in price-performance--the Panasonic PT-AE700U and the Sony VPL-HS51. These are scheduled to ship this fall with retail prices at $2,995 and $3,795 respectively. You may be thinking, "What...LCD is still alive and kicking?" Absolutely. And based on the demos we saw they are capable of producing highly competitive video images you won't believe.

First, consider the Panasonic AE700. This is a 1280x720 resolution projector rated at 2000:1 contrast and 1000 ANSI lumens. If you are a new reader to this site, 2000:1 contrast represents a new and vital breakthrough in LCD contrast performance. The increase in contrast is achieved in part through a dynamically reconfiguring variable aperture (iris), that adjusts itself to the brightness level of the image on a frame by frame basis. Practically speaking, it means you get better color saturation, shadow detail, and black levels than ever before from LCD technology. Furthermore, the AE700 appears to beat every other projector under $10,000 in one extremely remarkable way: pixel structure is almost invisible. Standing 12 inches from a 100" diagonal screen, the pixel structure is barely detectable. We did not expect that an LCD projector would ever outperform a high resolution DLP product in the area of pixelation, but last weekend we saw it live.

In addition, a variety of other features have been incorporated into the AE700--a 5000 hour lamp life, extremely low fan noise, horizontal and vertical lens shift, and an HDMI interface. It also has an extremely long 2.0x zoom range that lets you achieve a 100" diagonal image from a throw distance of anywhere from 10 to 20 feet. That means it will fit into a wide variety of different viewing room environments. But perhaps most importantly, it has an advanced 10-bit color processing system that is capable of producing over one billion colors rather than the typical 16.7 million, which is extremely rare on products in this price range. Thus it can deliver more realistic, natural color than was achievable on earlier generation products. Overall, we thought last year's entry from Panasonic, the AE500, was a great machine for the money. This one appears to be a thorough transformation of the AE500, improving upon it in virtually every important respect. The AE700 is expected to ship in the next four to six weeks. We will review it as soon as possible.

The other stellar release on the CEDIA show floor was Sony's VPL-HS51. This projector also features three 1280x720 LCD panels. It has a brightness rating of 800 ANSI lumens. But it has a contrast rating of a stratospheric 6000:1, which is also achieved via a dynamically reconfiguring variable aperture control. This projector has an audible noise rating of 24 dB, which means it is basically silent. Sony has also added vertical and horizontal lens shift which was not available on the previous model, the VPL-HS20. The system also incorporates a 1.6x zoom lens with a short throw on the wide-angle end of it, enabling the unit to be used in smaller rooms while still getting a very large image.

Of course the one question on everyone's mind is, "Does it really do 6000:1?" The answer is that it is impossible to tell from a demo, so we have no idea how close to the spec this unit's actual performance may be. We can say that the demo showed substantial improvement in contrast performance over all other LCD products of the past, and that it appeared to be at least equal in performance to DLP products rated in the 2000:1 to 3000:1 range. Thus once again we appear to have an LCD product that has neutralized what has been an important competitive advantage of its DLP competitors.

We didn't get as much spec detail on the HS51 as we did on the AE700, so there is much more to say about this product that we don't have at hand. Sony's demo space for this unit was small and cramped, and one could not step back to see the image from a normal viewing distance. But based on the demo it appears capable of delivering an outstanding image for an attractive price--Sony quotes the estimated street price on this unit at $3,495 and retail at $3,795. Sony plans to commence shipment of this unit in either late October or early to mid-November. We will review this one momentarily. (Watch the Projector News posting on the home page for anticipated review dates.)

A third new LCD projector debut was the InFocus Screenplay 5000. This one is noteworthy in that it is the first true HDTV 1280x720 resolution projector to be brought to market at a retail price under $2,000. It has DVI (HDCP) and can accommodate an HDMI interface with an adapter. It is rated at 1200:1 contrast, so it does not quite have the contrast capability of the two units just discussed. But it will sell for a lot less on the street as well. Given an aggressive street price, this one should be an attractive alternative for entry level home theater buffs on a tight budget. InFocus did not have it set up in a good demo environment at the show, so we cannot say much more about it at this time. But we look forward to reviewing it soon.

Considering the dramatic LCD product releases just noted, Epson was rather quiet at this year's CEDIA. The company released an improved version of the Cinema 200, calling it the Cinema 200+. This boosts lumen output from 1300 to 1500 ANSI lumens, and contrast is raised from 800:1 up to 1000:1. However, these are modest improvements and the price is still $2,999.

Contents: New LCD Projectors New DLP Projectors LCD vs DLP