Awesome Home Theater for under $5,000

Evan Powell, April 12, 2002

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UPDATE (7/19/02): The recommendations below were published on 4/12/02. Since that time there have been numerous developments in the "under $5K" market. Please click to our update report for the latest news. EP

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Home theater projectors just keep getting better and cheaper. And as great new products hit the market under the magic price barrier of $5,000, sales are soaring. Big screen TVs have been hot for a long time due to their attractive price points, while large screen front-projection systems have remained for many consumers far too expensive to think about. However with superb image quality now available in amazingly small and relatively inexpensive packages, consumer demand for the real theater experience in the home is booming.

What are the hottest products currently selling for under $5,000? There are a lot of good video projectors, but the cream of the current crop, in alphabetical order, are these six models:

InFocus Screenplay 110 ( Boxlight Cinema 12SF )

Mitsubishi Colorview XD200

Optoma H55

Panasonic PT-LC55U

Panasonic PT-LC75U

Sanyo PLC-XP21N ( Boxlight MP-38t )


So...which is the best? What should I buy?

All of these projectors are superb home theater performers for the money. Any of them will stun and amaze your friends and neighbors. The question is which is right for the way you want to use it? Hence, though the answer is a long one, here it is . . .

For multi-purpose entertainment rooms: Sanyo PLC-XP21N

IF you are installing a multipurpose room in which you either cannot or do not wish to control ambient light, you need a bright, high contrast projector. The best solution for this is still, as it has been for the past year, the Sanyo PLC-XP21N, also sold as the Boxlight MP-38t. Yes, it is over a year old. No, it is not being discontinued. It is one of Sanyo's hottest models and it will be around for a good while longer. And Sanyo was so far ahead of the market with this one, that even now a year later there are no rival brands that can match its combination of light output and sparkling 700:1 contrast. But the best news of all is that street prices have dropped below $5,000, making it a terrific value for the money.

The XP21N is a magnificent home theater machine. And it is the quintessential SuperBowl party machine also since it is bright enough to accommodate a reasonable amount of ambient light. However it is not so bright that it blinds you with the lights down low. This projector looks its absolute best with a low gain, high contrast screen such as the Stewart Grayhawk (0.95 gain) or Da-lite High Contrast Cinemavision (1.1 gain), AND low indirect ambient light in the room. [Repeat for emphasis: when you are using a high contrast gray screen, the XP21N looks better with low indirect lighting on in the room than it does in total darkness.] The Stewart Firehawk (1.35 gain) screen would be most appropriate screen choice if you plan to have anything more than low ambient light on a regular basis and if your budget can withstand the impact.

For formal, darkened home theaters:

InFocus Screenplay 110 -- Mitsubishi XD200 -- Optoma H55

For dedicated darkened theaters, the current projectors of choice under $5,000 are, in alphabetical order, the InFocus Screenplay 110, the Mitsubishi XD200, and the Optoma H55. Each has unique characteristics and advantages that the others do not, so we can't say that one is better than the others. All three are terrific and highly recommended. But there may be one that is particularly good for you.

First a note of caution. All three of these products feature Texas Instrument's DLP technology. Many people swear by DLP as the best technology for high quality video due to its relatively high contrast and smooth, pixel-free image. There are however a few people that are bothered by DLP due to the so-called "rainbow effect." This effect is the separation of red, green, and blue that can appear along the edge of objects in motion on the screen. It is caused by the spinning color wheel's inability to refresh pixel data on the screen fast enough to keep up with rapid motion in the image.

The most common technical solution to mitigating the rainbow effect in the latest crop of DLP projectors is to accelerate the color wheel, and thus the refresh rate, thereby reducing the error. All three of these projectors have accelerated color wheels. The XD200 and H55 have 2x speed, 4-segment wheels, and the Screenplay 110 has a 4x speed, six-segment wheel. I personally cannot detect any rainbow effect on any of them. Nevertheless, some people no doubt will be able to, and if you are one of the unlucky few that can see and are bothered by rainbow effects on these accelerated color wheel machines, you will need to opt for a non-DLP projector.

The Mitsubishi Colorview XD200 is a standard XGA-resolution product rated at 2000 ANSI lumens and a 450:1 contrast ratio. That means it is both the brightest and (technically) the lowest in contrast when compared to the InFocus and Optoma units. The XD200's unique advantage is in color fidelity, which is better than either of the other two products. In particular its ability to reproduce and define shades of red is virtually unparalleled in products in this price class. Most digital projectors to one degree or another impart a slight, and sometimes not so slight, orange tint to most reds. Not so the XD200. You get truly red Ferraris and red stop signs. And due to its ability to blend the red channel more accurately with the rest of the spectrum, the overall color performance on this product is in a class by itself. If the XD200 had slightly better contrast, there would be nothing to complain about at all.

[NOTE: An outstanding demo clip that shows a projector's ability to distinguish shades of saturated reds and oranges is to be found in the Gene Hackman movie "The Replacements," chapter 14. And it's a great movie, too.]

The Optoma H55 is also standard XGA-resolution. But it is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and a 1000:1 contrast ratio. So assuming the specs are accurate, that would be half the light output and a bit more than twice the contrast of the XD200. That sounds like some huge differentials, but in reality the pictures are not quite as dramatically different as the specs might indicate. The strongest advantage of the H55 is indeed its contrast, which is somewhat higher than either the XD200 or the Screenplay 110. Color saturation and image sharpness are outstanding also. However, its weakest characteristic is precisely the XD200's strength, for the H55's ability to define and separate highly saturated shades of red is less than ideal.

The InFocus Screenplay 110 is quite a different machine altogether. Instead of the standard XGA-resolution (1024 x 768) DLP chip, it uses a lower resolution "dual mode" chip which is 848 x 600. Dual mode refers to the ability to display 16:9 video in a 848 x 480 format (which is native for widescreen DVD), and also 4:3 computer and video in standard 800x600 SVGA resolution. However, don't even think about using the 800x600 matrix for 4:3 video; the Screenplay 110 gives you the option of displaying 4:3 video in its unscaled native 640x480 format, and it looks much better that way. So the Screenplay 110 is, for all practical purposes, a native 16:9 projector that displays 16:9 video full frame and 4:3 video in the center of the screen with bars on the sides. Its unique advantage over both the XD200 and H55 is that it does not need to scale a 480-line video signal into a different number of physical lines. No scaling means no scaling artifacts, and what you get is a superbly crisp, clean image from widescreen DVD.

The Mitsubishi XD200 vs. the Optoma H55

The strength of the XD200 is color, and its weakness is contrast. Conversely, the H55's strength is contrast, and its weakness is color, but the weakness is isolated to saturated reds. Flesh tones and lower saturated colors as well as saturated greens and blues look perfect on the H55.

Both are native 4:3 XGA resolution products that sell for roughly the same money. Both are HDTV and 480p compatible. Both are small, less than 7 lbs, and easy to install. Both have controls over picture characteristics, although the H55's more technical controls like those over R, G, and B gain and bias are not accessible from the main menu. (Optoma believes, correctly, that it is too easy for the novice user to mess up the picture by fiddling with these controls). Both display 4:3 video in 1024 x 768, and both display 16:9 material in 1024 x 576. Both have excellent, and comparable scaling. Both come with 3-year warranties.

In terms of differences, the XD200 has a 1500-hour lamp life, and the H55 is 2000 hours. On the other hand, the XD200 puts out a lot more light and is therefore more tolerant of low ambient light. The H55's contrast advantage goes away in a hurry when there is any ambient light present. Though the H55's official noise rating is 32 dB vs. the XD200's 34 dB, you may ignore these specs. The H55 is not loud; its fan noise is low to moderate. But the XD200 is a bit quieter. Furthermore, when you power down the XD200, it goes into a silent stand-by mode. On our sample unit, the H55's stand-by mode featured a fan that ran continuously after power down (cooling the power supply) until power to the unit was shut off-not a fatal flaw, but not a desired feature either. [Optoma says this may be resolved in a soon-to-be-released firmware update.] For those who want the option to use a computer with DVI output as your DVD source, the H55 is clearly your best bet since it takes DVI while the XD200 does not.

[Note: We saw one of the first H55's to arrive in the United States. During our evaluation we found a recurring synch problem on 480p that could be resolved by causing it to re-synch after initial power up, and the inability to interpret 1080i until the unit was manually switched from HDTV to RGB in the menu. According to Optoma, both of these problems are understood and will be fixed in the coming firmware update.]

Contrast would appear to be the big hot button issue here. And indeed the H55 is technically higher in contrast than the XD200. But the specs do not tell the full story. First, today's high contrast screen materials (which should be used with either of these products) will deepen blacks, give better definition to shadow areas, and expand contrast on both of them. However, these high contrast screens tend to have, relatively speaking, a stronger compensating effect on projectors with latent weaknesses in contrast. So the practical effect is that they tend to reduce the contrast performance gap between the XD200 and the H55.

Second, lumen output itself has an impact on perceived contrast; brighter projectors with moderate contrast performance can appear to the eye to be higher in contrast than dimmer projectors that actually have a higher contrast specification. In point of fact, the H55 with its 1000:1 contrast ratio does not appear to have quite as much snap as the Sanyo XP21N, which is rated at 700:1. The difference in perception comes from the fact that the XP21N is 2500 lumens vs. the H55's 1000 lumens.

Bottom line on contrast is this: the H55 at 1000:1 contrast has a definite edge in contrast performance over the XD200 rated at 450:1. But it is not as dramatic as the specs might lead you to believe once you factor in the XD200's higher lumen output and the compensating effect of the high contrast screen materials.

So after all of that, which is better, the XD200 or the H55? Both are outstanding machines, and we recommend them both. The question really is, would you give up a little contrast to get better color, or give up a little color accuracy to gain contrast? That is the essential trade-off between the two in terms of image quality.

The InFocus Screenplay 110 vs. Mits XD200 and Optoma H55

Is the Screenplay 110 (also available as the Boxlight Cinema 12SF) better than either the XD200 or the H55? There are several issues to consider here. First, as noted above the Screenplay 110 is for all practical purposes a native 16:9 video machine. (The native 800x600 SVGA matrix on the chip should not be used except for computer-driven SVGA data display). 4:3 video should be displayed without scaling in the center of the 16:9 screen with bars on either side.

Both the XD200 and H55 are native 4:3 machines. Based on conventional wisdom it is easy to assume that the Screenplay 110 would be preferred over the XD200 and H55 for home theater because of its 16:9 orientation. Do not make this assumption without questioning it. It may or may not be the right way to go for you.

[NOTE: If you have not given careful consideration to the issue of aspect ratio formats of both projectors and screens in your home theater, then please read through the article 4:3 vs. 16:9 - What is the Best Solution? before buying anything. Be aware that there are zealots out there ridiculing anyone who would be so dense as to consider anything other than a native 16:9 projector. But they have no balanced perspective on the issue. Many of them are salesmen who make their money by selling particularly expensive 16:9 models. The truth is that there are advantages and limitations to both 4:3 and 16:9 formats. You need to understand the trade-offs, then choose the format, as well as the projector, that best suits your individual needs.]

The key advantage to the Screenplay 110 is that it displays both widescreen DVD and NTSC video in their native 480-line formats without scaling. So the picture is extremely sharp and crisp. Rated at 1000 ANSI lumens, it is in the same general light output range as the H55. It has a 600:1 contrast rating, but in actuality it has similar contrast performance to the Mits XD200 once the high contrast screen is added to the equation. Like the H55, contrast on the Screenplay degrades rapidly when ambient light is introduced in the viewing room.

The Screenplay 110 is HDTV and 480p compatible, and it will take a DVI signal as well. Fan noise is above that of the XD200 and similar to the H55. The product comes with a 2-year warranty if purchased under the InFocus label, and a 3-year warranty if purchased under the Boxlight label.

The Screenplay has a few limitations also, as every projector does. All three of these units compress HDTV. The Mits and Optoma compress the 1080 or 720 lines of HDTV into a matrix of 1024 x 576 lines, and they use 589,824 pixels to create the image. The Screenplay compresses HDTV into its lower resolution format 16:9 format of 848 x 480. So it uses only 409,040 pixels to create the same image. With 44% more pixels to use the XD200 and H55 are capable of displaying a more refined HDTV image. The Screenplay 110 does an amazingly good job with HDTV despite this physical limitation, but for those who want to get the best HDTV performance, the higher resolution machines may be the better solution.

As compared to the XD200 and H55, color accuracy on the Screenplay 110 splits the difference between the two-it is not nearly as precise in the saturated reds as the XD200, but perhaps a bit better than the H55.

The lower resolution of the Screenplay 110 means that the image is a bit more pixilated than on the two higher resolution competitors. DLP technology is famous for reducing pixel visibility and largely eliminating the "screendoor effect" that has been an issue with LCD projectors, particularly in SVGA-class machines. On the Screenplay 110, at a reasonable viewing distance, there is no screendoor effect at all in the video image. However, one will notice pixel structure in text-opening and closing credits, subtitles, and so forth. If you sit too close to the screen, pixels become visible in the image as well. This is not as much of a problem on either the XD200 or the H55.

The Screenplay 110 is the poorest of the three in menu layout and user interface. The menu is truly a nuisance to deal with and it will have you muttering bad things about whoever designed it in short order. The remote is not reliable. You must remain within a very short range of about 8 feet before the projector responds reliably to the remote. The projector takes too much time to respond to a command even when it receives it, and you will find yourself clicking buttons multiple times wondering whether the projector is getting it or not. These are unfortunate quality issues that mar what is otherwise a superb effort.

However, despite these flaws, the Screenplay 110 is a terrific value for the money. Currently it sells for street prices a bit below the XD200 and H55. So for those who want to watch primarily or exclusively widescreen DVD in a darken theater room, we recommend the Screenplay 110 and its identical counterpart under the Boxlight brand, the Cinema 12SF.

Personal Preferences

In advance response to the emails this posting will stimulate, my personal preference was for the XD200 for the following reasons: I was extremely enthused by seeing reds like I've never seen them before on projectors in this price range. The contrast performance of the unit was quite satisfactory on my Grayhawk screen, and the incremental contrast I could gain with the H55 was not enough to give up the color performance of the XD200. Neither was the non-scaled acuity of a DVD image on the Screenplay 110-slightly better than the XD200 but not enough to give up the color.

However, my preferences hinge on factors that may not apply to you. First, I cannot detect rainbows on any of the three units. For those particularly sensitive to rainbow, the Screenplay 110 may be the best choice due to its six-segment, 4x speed color wheel that should reduce rainbow effects more satisfactorily for those who can detect them.

Second, I find color inaccuracies highly irritating. But others don't. The brain tends to compensate for what it knows to be red. So unless you are sensitized to the issue, an orangish-red stop sign will look red to you because your brain will say that a stop sign is red. Because of this, many people could look at the Optoma H55 and see no problem with the color at all. And in fact unless you are looking at subject matter you know to be red from experience, the color will look outstanding. For these people, the H55's higher contrast could be the most important factor in deciding in its favor, and they will quite legitimately prefer the H55 over either the XD200 or the Screenplay 110 for this advantage alone.

Third, I prefer not to use a computer with DVI as a DVD source. For me the relative nuisance of using a computer with DVI instead of a good DVD player is not worth the very slight incremental advantage in image sharpness and stability. I'd rather leave business tools in the office. You may not feel this way. For many folks the process of booting up a computer and dealing with Windows in order to launch a DVD program is seen not as a nuisance but simply the procedure one gladly goes through to get the clean DVI signal. If you are among them, the availability of DVI may tip the decision away from the XD200 and toward the H55 or the Screenplay 110.

The bottom line is that all three of these projectors are incredible performers for the money, and they stand out as the very best of an extremely large field of projectors under $5,000 for dedicated home theater use.

For Home Theater on a Smaller Budget: Panasonic!

If you are getting into front projection for the first time and want to spend well under $3,000 on a projector, Panasonic offers two great new options, the PT-LC55U and the PT-LC75U. Both are LCD projectors rated at 1200 ANSI lumens; both are HDTV and 480p compatible. Both have very satisfying color saturation, contrast, and overall image stability and clarity. Both have very low fan noise.

The PT-LC55U is an SVGA resolution LCD machine. This normally raises red flags concerning the screendoor effect (visibility of the pixel grid). However this unit has far less screendoor effect than you might imagine. Interpixel gaps have been shrinking, and with them the discrete visibility of pixels on the screen. So while the pixel grid is still visible, from a normal viewing distance it is much less apparent than it once was. XGA-resolution LCD machines have less pixelation than the SVGAs to be sure, but they are more expensive. Both are much better than they used to be.

Keep in mind that the actual visibility of the pixel grid on the LC55U depends on the ratio of screen width to viewing distance. At a viewing distance of 2.2 times the screen width, the screendoor effect is non-existent. At 1.8 to 2.0 times the screen width, it becomes slightly apparent, but not nearly as bothersome as earlier vintage SVGA LCD machines. At a distance of 1.5 times the screen width, the pixel grid is quite visible. So screendoor may or may not be an issue for you based on how you intend to set up your screen and viewing area. If it is an issue, you can step up in price to the PT-LC75U.

The PT-LC75U is simply the XGA-resolution version of the LC55U. It is largely identical in features with a couple of exceptions. They are both rated at 1200 lumens, but on our sample units we measured the LC55U to be about 11% brighter in actual lumen output and it appeared to have a slight contrast advantage. However, the visibility of the pixel grid is reduced on the LC75U due to the higher resolution and the use of Micro Lens Array. And for that advantage you get to pay an additional $700 or so for the LC75U. But overall both are great buys. For their current street prices, both are outstanding performers that stand above the crowd in the under $3,000 price class.