The Epson 6030UB and the Runco X-200i are each capable of producing bright, engaging, well-balanced video images. The most striking revelation was how competitive the 6030UB was against the much pricier competition. We were able to calibrate the 6030UB to render a picture that matched or exceeded the X-200i in color balance, sharpness, clarity, stability, and overall contrast. (The calibrations we used are included at the end of this article.)
While the pictures from these two projectors look extremely similar, they are not identical. When differences in the images appeared, they were most frequently related to one of three factors: (1) black levels, (2) the amount of digital noise in the source, and (3) the degree of motion and camera panning. The Epson 6030UB tends to outperform the Runco X-200i when the projectors are pushed in any of these ways.
Black Levels. The first noteworthy difference between the X-200i and the 6030UB is black levels. Here the 6030UB has the advantage. In a scene with a lot of black such as the Universal Studios opening logo or rolling credits, the 6030UB achieves a solid, rich black while the X-200i's image is dark gray by comparison. The 6030UB achieves its black levels in part with an auto-iris, which the X-200i does not have.
In scenes with higher average light levels and less black overall, the difference in black level is not as noticeable because the 6030UB's auto iris is opened wider and is thus less of a factor. Nevertheless, the 6030UB still maintains a modest advantage most of the time. The incrementally deeper blacks on the 6030UB overall help produce an image with more three dimensional depth.
The X-200i can approach the black level of the 6030UB if the Brightness control is reduced from its default setting of 100. When viewing HD material on Blu-ray we typically had Brightness set to 97. Blacks will go deeper the more you drop it below 97, but you begin to sacrifice shadow detail to an unacceptable degree.
Digital Noise. The presence of digital noise in a projected image can vary anywhere from just about non-existent to abundant, and it largely depends on the amount of noise in the source. Some of today's Blu-rays like the Bond film Skyfall and the magnificent Opus Arte productions of the Royal Ballet contain almost no noise at all. On the other hand, Blu-ray movies that are transfers from film often have elevated levels of noise, with some being obviously cleaner than others. Some Blu-rays and many standard DVDs can be filled with noise.
All good home theater projectors have noise reduction filters that you can activate to combat excessive levels of noise. However, using them can reduce image sharpness--the more noise you filter out the softer the picture becomes. Since HD 1080p projectors are all about getting the sharpest picture possible, most users tend to deploy noise reduction filters sparingly.
The noise vs. sharpness trade-off is quite different on the X-200i and the 6030UB. As a result, the amount of noise in the source has a huge impact on how the two pictures compare. Let's first consider a very low-noise disc like Skyfall. When this was popped into our Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, both projectors delivered a rather noise free image, even with all noise reduction (NR) filters off. However, there was an obvious difference in image sharpness. With all sharpness controls also set to zero/off, the X-200i had a clear advantage in sharpness and detail resolution. The lines and wrinkles in the close-ups of M's face were more acutely defined on the X-200i, and fine hair had more precise resolution.
But that's not the end of the story. Both of these projectors have a basic sharpness control. In addition, the 6030UB has a Super Resolution processor that enhances image acuity and clarity. It is similar in function to Panasonic's Detail Clarity Processor and Sony's Reality Creation processor. No analogous capability exists on the X-200i.
In Epson's factory defaults, Sharpness and Super Resolution are set to zero, but they can be increased to a maximum of +5. These controls must be used judiciously, and high settings must be reserved only for certain types of material. However, boosting the 6030UB's sharpness control modestly from 0 to +1, and the Super Resolution system from 0 to +2 ends up refining the detail in the Skyfall image without adding any detectable edge enhancement or other unwanted artifacts. These settings made M's wrinkled face look every bit as acutely resolved on the 6030UB as it did on the X-200i. In essence, the two projectors end up looking identical in detail resolution when displaying a low-noise source like Skyfall.
The story changes when we move to a source with more noise such as the Blu-ray of the original Ocean's 11 from 1960. When displaying this film, the X-200i shows quite a bit more noise than does the Epson. The difference is great enough that we suspected the 6030UB was doing some preliminary noise suppression even though the noise filters were off. We asked Epson about this, and their engineers say that no noise reduction is happening when the filters are at zero.
When displaying Ocean's 11, the 6030UB's picture is clean enough that the NR filter can be left off. However, this is not true of the X-200i. The noise in the source is amplified quite noticeably and it produces a grainy texture to the image that compromises apparent image sharpness. So on this movie, due to the effect of the plentiful noise artifacts on the X-200i, the 6030UB appears to be superior in clarity and detail resolution.
So... time to bring on the NR filter on the X-200i. This filter control defaults to zero, but runs up to a maximum setting of 200. When set to 200 or anywhere close to it, the X-200i eliminates all trace of noise but it also eliminates most image detail in the process, turning an HD picture into SD and making skin textures look like plastic. So high NR settings on the X-200i (as with most projectors) are not useful in anything but the most unusual of circumstances.
With an HD source, the X-200i's picture begins to soften once the NR filter gets into the 40 to 50 range. Unfortunately, taking the filter up to 50 has relatively little noise suppression effect. When viewing Ocean's 11 or any other movie with a reasonable amount of noise, the X-200i's picture contains more noise with its NR filter set to 50 than the 6030UB does with its filters off. But since the X-200i's image sharpness is already being compromised at 50, pushing the filter any higher is not a viable option. So in short, when the source has some noticeable level of noise, there is no way to achieve the combination of low noise and image sharpness on the X-200i that the 6030UB is capable of.
Motion judder. Another key difference between these two projectors is that the 6030UB has a frame interpolation (FI) system and the X-200i does not. FI is now found on numerous home theater projectors from Epson, Panasonic, JVC, Sony, and BenQ, but it is missing on the Runco. For a $15,000 projector currently in production, this is a momentous omission.
Frame interpolation systems look at two frames of video in sequence and evaluate the movement that occurs between Frame 1 and Frame 2. They use this information to create and insert new frames between Frame 1 and Frame 2 that interpolate the incremental movement between the two. The result is a smoother presentation of movement, and less judder and shake in the image when the camera pans over a scene.
FI systems as implemented by most vendors provide several settings that control how aggressively the FI is applied. On the 6030UB the settings are Low, Normal, and High. The Low setting typically removes some judder and instability, the Normal setting removes more, and the High setting can remove almost all of it. The downside is that FI technology can add new artifacts that did not exist to begin with, such as some ghosting around characters walking across a scene. In addition, FI can make a film image appear hyper-realistic, as if it were shot with an HD video camera. Most videophiles object to this "digital video effect" or "soap opera effect" as a disturbing aesthetic compromise of the genuine film viewing experience.
The ideal setting on the 6030UB's FI system depends on the type of material being viewed, and on personal preferences. We typically select Low or Normal on the Epson 6030UB's FI system for movie viewing. The undesirable digital video effect is usually non-existent on Low, and often subtle enough not to be distracting in Normal. However, this effect varies from movie to movie and is in part related to the noise level in the source--there is no single setting on the FI system that works well for every movie. On the other hand, if the source is an actual video of a live stage or music performance, you want to make that material appear as real and present as possible, so setting FI to High can be beneficial. Users who have home theater projectors equipped with FI systems will want to experiment and find their own personal preferences for how and when to deploy this feature.
When the 6030UB's FI system is activated on either Low or Normal and set against the X-200i, the 6030UB delivers a smoother and more stable image. It is actually an effective demo of just how much jumping, flickering, and juddering there is in a movie that is being displayed on a home theater projector without any FI technology to mitigate it. This is particularly visible in slow camera panning scenes, in which a picture can literally disintegrate for a few seconds.
The noise issue discussed previously might be alleviated with the use of an external video processor on the X-200i, but there is no way to do frame interpolation in a pre-processor and feed it into the projector.