Home Theater Booms at INFOCOMM 2002

Evan Powell, June 15, 2002

INFOCOMM 2002, the leading international trade show for the commercial projection industry, has just wrapped up a terrific convention in Las Vegas. And one of the biggest stories of the show was the explosion of new home theater solutions coming from traditionally commercial manufacturers. Home theater had more visibility at this INFOCOMM show than it has ever had in the past.

Why is this happening? Well, in a nutshell, the "high-end" home theater systems offered by boutique consumer manufacturers are fine for the very wealthy. People who spend $15,000 on a projector, also spend $5,000 on a screen, $5,000 on source components, $15,000 on audio, and maybe another $10,000 on seating, wall treatments, and other cosmetic niceties. Sinking $50,000 into one's own personal rendering of Mann's Chinese Theater is fine for those who can afford it. But it is unrealistic for the vast majority folks who have neither the budget nor the floorspace for such a luxury. And even many of those who can afford it have more practical uses for their money.

Low-end home theater is already addressed well. Anyone can get a big-screen TV, a $1,000 home-theater-in-a-box audio system, and set it up anywhere. The needs of that consumer are being met. But there is a huge gap in the middle between mass market cheap solutions and the high end. Many people want high performance home theater but at mid-range prices without all the fluff. The problem is that nobody really addresses this audience. Mass consumer retailers can't do it because they have neither the products nor the sales expertise to deal with it. But high-end custom installers can't do it either. They are set up to deliver complete design and installation services, the costs of which are covered largely by the margins on the expensive limited distribution products that they sell. It is difficult for them to extend their product lines into lower cost, lower margin, higher volume lines, and sell them to people who have relatively little need for their unique skill sets.

Thus unfulfilled demand for mid-range home theater solutions has been building. Buyers are out there on their own trying to learn as much as they can, so that they can assemble high performance home theaters at costs in the $5,000 to $20,000 range, all inclusive. So one of two things was bound to happen. Either the high-end makers would extend their product lines downward, and find higher volume distribution beyond their network of custom installer reps. Or the big commercial manufacturers would eventually notice the opportunity and move in to fill the gap.

Welcome to INFOCOMM 2002, home of the commercial projector manufacturers. The sleeping giant has awakened. He's still groggy and needs some coffee. But he's about to get up and flex some major technological and marketing muscle in the mid-range home theater market.

New Products

The PLUS HE-3200 "Piano" was the most stunning breakthrough product of the show. It raises the bar on image quality performance in its price range, which is $3,299. The earlier version HE-3100 (now reduced to $2,699) is a very nice machine for DVD display. But it has no HDTV capability. And let's be honest, most people spending $3K on a new video system want HDTV. Well, the HE-3200 has it, and has it in spades. The HDTV 1080i image in the demo was the best we've yet seen on a product anywhere near this price range. There is virtually no indication that this signal is being compressed into 480 lines. Assuming no more than a six-foot wide screen (which is as large an image as you would want to create with this projector), anyone viewing it without being told what the projector was might easily assume it was a 1280 x 720 DLP, rather than the 848 x 480 matrix that it actually uses to produce the 16:9 image.

Furthermore, the HE-3200 incorporates the upgraded Silicon Image SIL504 chipset. So even plain ole S-video was as stunning, clean and artifact-free as has ever been seen on a product in this price range. We will definitely be getting an evaluation unit in for a closer look and a formal review as soon as it starts shipping next month. Barring any unforeseen flaws we might encounter in the lab review, it looks like the designers at PLUS Corp may have hit a grand slam with this one.

Another great surprise was to be found in the Sony booth. Sony introduced its fourth edition of a widescreen LCD home theater solution, the VPL-VW12HT. The three previous models, the VPL-W400Q, the VPL-VW10HT, and the VPL-VW11HT were chronically contrast-challenged, although incremental progress was made in each succeeding iteration. Now with the VW12HT, it is apparent that Sony has broken the code on the contrast limitations of LCD technology. So much so in fact that they have for the first time published a contrast spec—a dramatic 1000:1 for the VW12HT.

And the proof was on the demo screen. This is the first of Sony's widescreen projectors that truly has a "wow" factor rooted in genuine image quality rather than the mere technical novelty of its widescreen panels. Equally as impressive, the picture lacked much of the characteristic graininess of LCD. Overall the VW12HT produced the finest video image we've yet seen from an LCD projector. Like the VW11HT it is replacing next month, it is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and uses Sony's 1366 x 768 native 16:9 LCD panels. Unlike the VW11HT, this one uses Micro Lens Array.

Unfortunately, as of showtime, Sony was displaying some uncharacteristic confusion concerning its marketing plans. Sony said no decision had been made regarding either price or distribution channel—rather odd for a product they intend to ship in four to six weeks. Perhaps their hesitation comes from their recent experiences. The widely distributed VW10HT dominated the mid-range market for two solid years, a virtual eternity in the projector market. And on the strength of the earlier W400Q and the VW10HT, Sony enjoyed a solid reputation for bringing leading edge "widescreen format" technology to market.

However, with the release of the VW11HT, Sony made a momentous change to its distribution strategy. The company decided to restrict distribution of the VW11HT and market it through a network of low-volume custom installers and specialty resellers. Accordingly the product was withheld from the higher volume resellers. Many Sony dealers who had sold the VW10HT were not allowed to sell the VW11HT, and Sony did not show it at last year's INFOCOMM. The marketing decision to restrict distribution severely curtailed the visibility of the VW11HT in the marketplace, causing it to drop off the radar screen for many buyers. And it had the unintended side effect of granting Sharp an uncontested No. 1 market position in the WXGA product class with its excellent XV-Z9000U.

Sony appears now to be internally conflicted about what to do with the VW12HT. They debuted it in the exhibit hall at INFOCOMM, which in itself suggests another shift in strategy. But it was quite a peculiar unveiling. They placed it in a remote and isolated part of their booth without any signage, and gave it no attention. There was no attempt to limit access to it by invitation only, so anyone who happened to stumble across it was welcome to take a look. But there was no product manager or sales rep on hand to pitch it or answer questions. There was no confirmation that professional a/v resellers would be allowed to handle it. No price was determined. But it presumably ships next month anyway. What does Sony have in mind? We don't know. But it will be interesting to see how the company resolves this marketing dilemma. Stay tuned, we will all know shortly.

Meanwhile, speaking of widescreen format LCD products, Sanyo debuted its new PLV-70, the replacement product for the PLV-60HT. The PLV-70 features a necessary boost in contrast performance over the PLV-60HT, from 500:1 to a sparkling 900:1, the highest yet achieved by Sanyo. However from the home theater buyer's perspective, it also features an unnecessary (some might say counterpro-ductive) boost in ANSI lumen output, from 1300 to 2200. The system has a unique, easy-to-use color calibration system that gives the novice user a simple way to alter color balance, usually for the worse. Nevertheless, it may have some advantages as well in the hands of someone who is familiar with the system and knows how to optimize it. As with the PLV-60, HD 1080i looked magnificent on the PLV-70. But DVD sources looked less than impressive, with an abundance of deinterlacing artifacts. Sanyo reps did not seem to know what the source signals were, or what screen material was being used for the demo. It is hard to say what type of signal processing will be required to get the PLV-70 to perform optimally.

No official price was quoted by any Sanyo rep, but they were ballparking $9K to $10K. In this price range the buyer needs to ask what advantage the PLV-70 brings to the party that the Sharp Z9000 and the Sony VW12HT do not. There appears to be only one real advantage, which is lumen output. In most dedicated home theaters this is not an advantage at all. Contrast, color accuracy, and quality scaling/deinterlacing are the Big Three when it comes to quality video. Lumen output is almost irrelevant except when the projector is too bright for the screen, in which case it can be a blinding nuisance. However for those with larger theaters utilizing 12 foot wide or larger screens, the extra light from the PLV-70 will be an advantage. Also in applications in which ambient light is either desired or cannot be avoided, the extra lumens should give the PLV-70 a competitive edge. It will begin appearing on dealer shelves in about three weeks. However, the rollout will be uneven as dealers around the country are still working to deplete inventories of the PLV-60HT (buyers will find some great deals on this unit in the next month or two).

Another noteworthy debut was the Epson TW100, Epson's first entry into the home theater arena. This is a 16:9 widescreen format (1280 x 720) LCD projector priced at just $4,995. Judging from the specs and price, this could be a strong offering. Contrast is rated at a respectable 600:1, which is a notable improvement over Epson's commercial projectors. Epson rates the TW100 at 700 ANSI lumens. That means it is probably equal to the light output of competitive units rated at 1000 lumens or higher. (Epson is among the few manufacturers that publish accurate lumen specifications despite the competitive penalty they pay in reduced sales for doing so). The TW100 is fully HDTV and 480p compatible. It features an extremely quiet fan and an impressive lamp life of 3000 hours.

Epson is new to the home theater marketplace. So the company is in the learning curve for optimizing the impact of its video demos. They had a semi-theater set up, but even so there was too much ambient light on the screen. The screen itself was a Stewart Studiotek 130, a great screen for high contrast CRT projectors, but not ideal for digital projectors of moderate contrast performance. And the demo unit was set to factory presets, which means it can probably be adjusted to more optimal settings. Bottom line, the demo did not show particularly well, but it was not possible to draw any conclusions about it under the circumstances. We are anxious to get one into the lab to see what it can really do. It begins to ship at the end of this month, so we will see it soon.

There is no company in a more radical transformation of its products and market focus than Optoma. Coming from a background of mobile presentation projectors and still delivering high quality products in that market, Optoma seems to be morphing into what appears to be a company dedicated to high performance home theater systems for the mid-range market. The surprise release of the outstanding Optoma H55 at CES in January of this year has now been followed by the announcement of two more units, the H50 and the H56. They also featured a 65" rear-projection HDTV and a 46" plasma in the booth.

The Optoma H56 is standard XGA resolution and rated at 1200 ANSI lumens, but with a truly startling 1800:1 contrast ratio derived from the latest DLP chip design. The HD source in the demo was a bit unstable, but the pre-production demo unit appeared to have excellent potential from what little could be seen. This product is scheduled to ship in October at a retail price of $8,995, and street prices well below that.

The H50 is an SVGA-resolution economy edition for home theater, also rated at 1200 ANSI lumens and contrast of 800:1. Considering its lower resolution, this pre-production demo unit was delivering an impressive picture from DVD. The H50 is scheduled for release in October at a retail of $4,995.

Christie Digital's Vivid Red has just commenced shipment, and was demonstrated in their suite off the main convention floor. The Vivid Red (1300 ANSI lumens, 500:1 contrast) is an LCOS machine using JVC's 1365 x 1024 high resolution D-ILA chip, particularly noteworthy for its pixel-free images. This unit retails at $9,995. The machine was not set up to display its true capabilities. It was calibrated to factory presets, the signal was S-video from a DVD player, the screen was Da-lite Matte White, and there was ample ambient light in the room to wash out whatever contrast the unit was capable of delivering. In short the product was not being shown at its best. It has been sold as a home theater unit, and it may have the potential to deliver a very fine image. We'd need to get it into the lab before commenting further on it.

Missing in action altogether was the Panasonic PT-AE100, the 858 x 484 widescreen LCD projector priced under $3,000. Panasonic's consumer group ended up selling this product, so it is not being distributed through the professional a/v channel. Meanwhile, Panasonic's professional group staged the PT-LC75U in their home theater room. This is a fine machine for the money and has been on our recommended list for home theater. However, it didn't look nearly as good in Panasonic's booth as it did in our lab, once again due to lack of attention to optimizing its presentation. Commercial vendors in general are on a learning curve with respect to preparing their products for competition in the home theater world, and it is not surprising to find these products not being demonstrated at the peak of their performance ability.

We have seen the AE100 but have not yet evaluated it in the lab. Nevertheless we can say at this point that anyone considering the purchase of either the AE100 or the PT-LC75U for exclusive home theater use may want to give careful consideration to the PLUS HE-3200 instead. It is priced at $3,299 and it will not be discounted--$3,299 is what you will pay. Yes, that is several hundred (perhaps quite a few hundred) more than you will pay for either the AE100 or the PT-LC75U. But the PLUS demo at INFOCOMM left no doubt that there is a refined elegance in the HE-3200's image that the Panasonic products, or any LCD products in this price range for that matter, are not able to approach. For those with a dedicated (dark) home theater, we believe the superior image quality of the HE-3200 will be well worth the extra expense. We expect to confirm this in our pending lab evaluation. So we suggest that home theater buyers in $3K budget range wait a few weeks until the HE-3200 hits the market and we can give it a closer look.

Conclusion

None of the traditional high-end brands come to INFOCOMM. Runco, Marantz, DWIN, Sim2, and Yamaha distribute their projector products through lower volume custom installers and specialty retailers on a limited distribution basis. Accordingly they promote their products at CES and CEDIA, but there is no reason for them to have a presence at INFOCOMM.

Therefore, what we see at INFOCOMM is a whole new culture of mid-range home theater solutions beginning to emerge from an entirely new group of suppliers. New methods of distribution, new alliances, and consumer education are evolving along with it. Both manufacturers and high volume dealers are getting up to speed in a hurry, as the revenue potential in the mid-range market will far surpass that of the high-end once an effective distribution, education, and support channel matures. Now that truly high-end video quality is available in products like the PLUS HE-3200 for as low as $3,300, market dynamics will begin to shift in rapid fashion.

A lot of buyers want more than the big-screen TV and home-theater-in-a-box. But they don't want to get the second mortgage needed to finance a high-end system. These people want practical high-end performance without the cost and elaborate glitz of the custom art deco installations found in the high-end home theater magazines. And they are beginning to find it.