Editor's Choice Awards 2009
November 20, 2009,
Next week is Thanksgiving week, and we want to get Editor's Choice Awards posted prior to the holiday. As always, this means giving awards before we've seen all of the models coming out this fall. In particular, we have not seen the Sony VPL-VW85, nor have we had a chance to evaluate the Optoma HD8600, both of which are priced at $8,000. We do not know how either of those will stack up against the JVC RS25, also priced at $8,000, so we are not yet announcing an award in that price category.
At the very low end of the 1080p price scale we've got the Optoma HD20 and the Vivitek H1080FD, both priced at $999. These are both very appealing, solid projectors for the money. You can enjoy the true 1080p resolution from Blu-ray for a mere pittance. It is impossible to make a call between these two projectors due to the DLP color wheel issue-the Optoma HD20 has a 4x wheel, while the H1080FD is 3x. The fact is that the H1080FD edges out the HD20 in contrast and picture quality, and if it had a 4x wheel it would get an Editor's Choice Award. But due to its 3x wheel, we see more rainbow activity on the H1080FD than we do on the HD20.
The color wheel difference balances them out, and causes us to say this: If you are sensitive to DLP rainbow artifacts, you will likely prefer the HD20. If you do not see rainbow artifacts on DLP projectors, then you will prefer the H1080FD due to incremental performance advantage in contrast, black level, and color saturation. While both of these projectors deliver fine image quality for the money, neither one can match either the Mitsubishi HC3800 or the Epson 8100, which are selling for $500 more.
This year the sweetspot in 1080p price-performance is in the $1500 to $2300 price range. Due to the superb image quality being delivered at these modest prices, it is no longer possible to isolate just one winner and say "price-performance of this model beats all the competition." Therefore, several awards are being given, along with the rationale for each one.
Editor's Choice Awards, Fall 2009Products under $3,000, in Alpha Order
Epson's product line has shown both significant improvements and large price reductions compared to last year's models. The 8100 and 8500 UB are hands down the most competitive home theater projectors ever introduced by Epson.
The Home Cinema 8100, at a net of $1,499, is the most fully featured projector at this price. Picture quality is excellent, its lensing provides maximum installation flexibility, and its brightness range makes it equally versatile in dark rooms or in ambient light. Its black level in very dark or black scenes is unrivaled at this price point. You need to step up $500 to the Panny AE4000 to get deeper blacks, along with more features and a step up in overall picture quality.
For those who want to limit their spending to $1,500, and want to shelf mount their projector and/or want to use it in both the dark and in ambient light, the 8100 is an outstanding choice. If you are more interested in dedicated dark room theater and you want to ceiling mount your projector, the Mitsubishi HC3800 is a strong alternative at this same price. The trade-offs are discussed below.
The king of the black level producers in this price range, the Epson 8500 UB's maximum black beats everything we've seen so far this year except the JVC RS25, which is more than triple the price. Frame interpolation is vastly improved over last year's models, to the point where it actually edges the performance of the AE4000 (which is extremely good itself). Super resolution provides detail enhancement that, when used in moderation, is very effective.
Like the 8100, we love the high brightness modes on the 8500 UB. Living Room mode at over 1600 lumens is capable of a very sweet, remarkably well balanced picture that is ideal for Monday night football parties and other ambient light situations.
Overall picture quality is competitive with the AE4000. It exceeds the AE4000 in brightness and black levels, but falls short in other picture attributes. The 8500's THX and Theater modes fall slightly short of the Panny AE4000 in image smoothness, or what we'd call filmlike character. Despite black levels that exceed those of the AE4000 in black scenes, it is slightly lower in contrast than the AE4000 in the large majority of scenes with average light levels and high dynamic range.
The 8500UB is not as feature rich as the AE4000. It does not have powered zoom/focus, nor the automatic CinemaScope Lens Memory feature of the AE4000. It does not even have an anamorphic stretch mode to accommodate an external A-lens, which the AE4000 has. So it is not the first choice for anyone contemplating a 2.40 screen format. The AE4000 has split-screen calibration, which is not available on the 8500. Picture controls can be applied to one-half of the image, and one can see the impact of those changes on the same half of the image that is duplicated side by side. Conversely, the 8500 has split screen frame interpolation monitoring, which the AE4000 does not have. This applies FI processing to the right half of the image while leaving the left half untouched. Frankly, this feature is not as useful. It is more instructive to watch an entire scene at full screen with and without FI engaged to appreciate the difference in impact. The AE4000 has three HDMI ports to the 8500's two. The AE4000 has two programmable, two-way 12 volt triggers; the 8500 has a single one-way trigger.
But despite this shortfall in features, the 8500 UB will be the ultimate choice for those who want a projector that works equally well in both dark and ambient light. We would choose the 8500 UB over the AE4000 for use in ambient light. For those who want the deepest possible blacks when scenes go very dark, the 8500 certainly beats the AE4000. However, in our estimation, the difference is marginal enough that it would not be a deciding factor between the two projectors.
The Mitsubishi HC3800 gets an Editor's Choice Award because it would be our choice under certain specific circumstances. It is perfect for those who (a) do not want to step up another $500 to the AE4000, and (b) plan to ceiling mount their projector.
The HC3800 has an overall image quality that is virtually identical to the Epson 8100 in image smoothness, sharpness, and noise level. It can edge out the 8100 in contrast and three-dimensionality in scenes of average light levels, especially those with high dynamic range, but the differences are subtle. On the other hand, it falls short of the 8100 in black level, so in dark scenes you get more shadow definition and deeper blacks on the 8100. Dark scenes, especially those with low dynamic range, are rendered better by the 8100 than the HC3800.
In Cinema mode, the HC3800 puts out a very bright 621 lumens, which is about equal to the 8100's Natural mode (598 lumens on our test sample). However, the 8100's Theater Black mode that delivers the advantageous black levels puts out only 442 lumens. These measurements were taken with the zooms set to wide angle. When ceiling mounting, you have the option to place the projector at or near the wide angle end if you feel you need the maximum light output. But when mounting on a rear shelf, you might often need to use the longer throw capability of the 8100. This can curtail lumen output by up to 41%. The bottom line is that if you are comparing a ceiling mounted HC3800 to a rear shelf mounted 8100, odds are the HC3800 will give you a brighter video-optimized picture after lens effects are taken into account.
The Epson 8100 obviously is more fully featured, with a longer zoom range, lens shift, a brighter Dynamic mode for ambient light, two HDMI ports to the HC3800's one, and so forth. But if you are ceiling mounting, and if you are running one HDMI cable to your projector from an AV receiver as many people would, the extras on the 8100 are not going to be used.
The HC3800 is filter-free, and requires little maintenance, whereas the 8100 needs to have the air filter cleaned periodically. In ceiling mounted installations in particular, this gives a decided advantage to the HC3800.
Since the HC3800 and the 8100 are the same price, the choice between them really comes down to what is most important to you in picture attributes, and how you plan to install it.
No projector on the market has the remarkable array of features of the Panasonic AE4000. Many buyers are attracted to its automated Lens Memory system, which automatically adjusts the zoom lens to fill a 2.40 CinemaScope screen when 2.40 movies are being shown, and adjusts it back for the display of standard 16:9 material in the center of a 2.40 format screen. No other projector under $10,000 has this capability. And, if you want to go all the way with an A-lens, the AE4000 is ready to accommodate it with an on-board anamorphic stretch mode. Neither of the Epson models have this feature.
In addition, the AE4000 has an excellent frame interpolation system that produces little or no digital video effect, depending on the mode it is set in. While the Epson 8500 has a very slightly smoother FI implementation in terms of judder reduction/elimination, the digital video effect is a bit more evident than it is on the AE4000. So one cannot say one is better than the other; they each beat the other in important respects. Both of them are much better than anything else on the market.
As far as picture quality goes, the AE4000 has an edge in filmlike clarity over all of its competitors. For this reason we would prefer it to any of the other models in this group if we were using it in a dark theater setting, and we had at least $2,000 to budget for a projector. Black levels are deep and rich, though not quite as deep as the 8500 UB when a dark scene is being displayed. But the difference here is not dramatic when they are viewed side by side. Meanwhile, the AE4000 has somewhat higher contrast and picture depth (apparent three-dimensionality) than the 8500 UB in most average light level scenes, especially those with high dynamic range.
The 8500 UB has a THX mode which indicates conformance to industry standards for color temperature, gamma, and Rec 709 color gamut. The AE4000 does not have the THX certification, but its Color 1 operating mode is calibrated to these same standards. On our test units, the AE4000 Color 1 mode shows more color saturation in factory default than the 8500UB's THX mode, but both projectors allow adjustments in color balance and saturation in these modes, so they are able to be tweaked to your taste if you don't care for what you see.
Overall, the Epson 8500 UB's brightness is comparable to the AE4000 in dark room cinema modes, and somewhat brighter and better color balanced in its very bright Living Room mode. Thus the 8500 UB has an edge in ambient light situations. Both models have long zoom lenses that lose about 40% of their light potential when set to their maximum long throw positions.
In summary, the AE4000 is an outstanding projector that delivers both magnificent picture quality and a boatload of features that don't exist on any other model, for the price of $1,999. While the 8500UB can outperform it in maximum black levels and brightness, and the 8100 and HC3800 undercut it in price, the AE4000's overall price-performance proposition is # 1 in the market right now.
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