Sanyo PLV-70: Pure Home Theater Satisfaction
August 10, 2002,
Since competition in digital projectors is fierce, it is rare that a manufacturer can deliver a dramatic leap forward in price/performance. But hang on to your hats, folks, because Sanyo has created a product that you won't believe. The new PLV-70, shipping this month, will rock the home theater world.
As regular readers of this site know, last year's PLV-60, Sanyo's first entry into the widescreen arena, was not quite what we were hoping for. It was not a bad projector, especially for HDTV. But it failed to generate a lot of unbridled enthusiasm around here. This time the opposite is true. The PLV-70 delivers over-the-top performance that deserves an ecstatic standing ovation.
The PLV-70 is a WXGA class machine, featuring three 1366 x 768 widescreen format LCD panels with microlens array. It is rated at 2200 ANSI lumens, making it the brightest projector yet introduced for dedicated home theater use. The 900:1 contrast ratio pushes the limits of LCD technology and enables the PLV-70 to compete quite effectively with the most highly acclaimed DLP-based competitors on the market.
This projector accepts PAL, SECAM, NTSC, NTSC4.43, PAL-M and PAL-N. High definition formats include 480i, 480p, 575i 575p, 720p, 1035i and 1080i. There are three sets of inputs. Input One includes both 15-pin VGA for RGB analog, and a DVI port. Input Two consists of 5 BNCs for computer RGB, HDTV, and component video sources. Input Three consists of 3 RCA jacks for component input and an S-video port.
The PLV-70 has a power zoom and focus lens. It has a 1.2x zoom factor, relatively short for a projector of its size and weight (17.4 lbs). Unlike most home theater projectors, the PLV-70 also has a motorized vertical lens shift that provides for easy and flexible installation. This lets you adjust the position of the projected image relative to the projector. With the projector placed on a table and the lens set at the lowest lens shift position, the centerline of the lens hits the center of the projected image. As you shift the lens upward to the other end of the range, the projected image rises to a maximum position where the bottom edge of the image is about 10% of the picture height above the centerline of the lens. Of course, the inverse is true when the unit is in a ceiling mounted position.
In order to fill a 100" diagonal screen using the standard lens, the projector needs to be placed such that the lens is between 12.8 and 16 feet from the screen. Furthermore, the unit itself is 17" long, and the fan exhaust is out the rear. Sanyo recommends a 3 foot clearance behind the projector when ceiling mounting it to provide for adequate heat dissipation. This product cannot be mounted in a rear bookshelf or any other enclosure which inhibits rear exhaust. Therefore, assuming you adhere to the clearance spec, you will need a room depth of at least 17.5 feet to set up for a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen. Optional long throw and wide angle lenses are available. But they are not cheap, and most owners will want to do whatever they can to set up the PLV-70 using the standard lens.
LCD vs. DLP: The Technology War Continues
There are some who believe that DLP technology has firmly established itself as the elite digital technology for high-end video, and that LCD is on its way out. If you are one of them, the PLV-70 will challenge you to think again. The big issues in the LCD vs. DLP battle are pixelation (the screendoor effect), contrast performance, and color accuracy. Let's take them one at a time.
Pixelation. All digital projectors create an image by modulating discrete pixels on the screen. When the physical structure of the individual pixels is visible, it interferes with the enjoyment of the video image—the eye is attracted to the unnatural appearance of what is often called the "screendoor" effect.
There is a common misconception that DLP technology does not have the screendoor effect and LCD technology does. Not true. All digital projectors have visible pixelation if you stand close enough to the screen. The relevant issue is whether you can see the pixel structure from a normal viewing distance.
Now it is true that with any given resolution, DLP technology produces less visible pixelation than does LCD. From a viewing distance of 1.5 times the screen width, the pixelation of XGA resolution (1024 x 768) DLP machines is not visible whereas the pixelation of XGA resolution LCD machines usually is. At the lower SVGA resolution (800x600), pixels are fewer, larger, and more visible than they are on XGA resolution products. In SVGA, once again assuming a viewing distance of 1.5 times the screen width, DLP has a modest screendoor effect, and LCD a more pronounced one.
However, this does not mean that LCD by its nature always has a screendoor effect. The PLV-70's widescreen (1366 x 768) format uses 1,049,000 pixels to produce a 16:9 image. A standard XGA resolution machine uses about 589,000 pixels to produce the same 16:9 image. In other words, the pixel density for 16:9 material on the PLV-70 is almost double that of a standard XGA resolution projector. Furthermore, the microlens array technology used on the PLV-70 to boost the light output of the engine also slightly softens the pixel structure. The end result is that there is no visible pixelation on this unit from a viewing distance of 1.5 times the screen width. Bottom line -- there is no screendoor effect on this LCD projector.
Contrast. DLP technology is often favored by videophiles in part because of its performance advantage in contrast and black levels. And indeed this has been a chronic competitive weakness for LCD-based home theater products since high contrast is a vital component of high quality video.
However the PLV-70's 900:1 contrast is a vast improvement over the large majority of LCD projectors on the market today which are typically rated at 400:1. It is even an improvement over the 700:1 contrast achieved by several other Sanyo LCD products including the best selling PLC-XP21N. True enough, it does not quite match the contrast performance of the DLP-based Sharpvision XV-Z9000u (rated at 1100:1), but it is very close.
In terms of contrast and black levels, there are two key questions. First, do true blacks appear to be satisfyingly black, or do they look dark gray? Second, is the projector able to separate shadow details effectively, or do shadow elements block up as indistinct blobs of dark gray?
At 900:1, the PLV-70 moves into the range of elite performing projectors that deliver excellent snap and dynamic range. In our judgment it produces a very satisfying high contrast image. Black levels are superb, and blacks definitely look solid black. Some of the more expensive DLP products like the Sharp Z9000 or the Marantz VP-12S1 have a slight edge on the PLV-70 in this regard. But the differences are subtle.
However, regarding shadow detail, when putting the PLV-70 up against competing high-end DLP projectors, its most noticeable weakness is in the separation of shadow details. No projector is perfect, and this one is no different. The remarkable thing is that Sanyo would have achieved virtual perfection with the PLV-70 except for this one weakness in shadow detail. Everything is relative however. We put on U-571, a film with a lot of dark scenes, and were quite enthused with how the PLV-70 rendered it. In certain passages we'd like to have seen more strength in the separation of shadow elements. But overall it was a far more dynamic display of U-571 than any other projector in this price range has been able to muster.
Color accuracy. DLP advocates prefer the technology for its superior contrast and pixel-free images. But they tend to overlook the fact that most DLP projectors under $10,000 are relatively weak in color accuracy and color saturation. They simply look a bit flat or muted compared to good LCDs. On the other hand, LCD can err in the other direction (especially when miscalibrated), looking ridiculously oversaturated and garish. Meanwhile the more expensive higher-end DLPs have made great strides in color performance, and even the moderately priced Mitsubishi XD200 does an outstanding job in this regard.
The essential objective for any projector is to produce natural, accurate color that looks on the screen just like it does in real life. In this regard, the PLV-70 has few rivals. Color on this unit is, in a word, spectacular. It constitutes a resounding demonstration of one of the latent competitive strengths of LCD over DLP.
Thus we would encourage those who have written off LCD technology as inappropriate for home theater to forget everything you thought you knew about LCD. Take a close look at the PLV-70. The truth has changed.
2200 ANSI Lumens – The Big Brightness Issue
Several comments need to be made regarding ANSI lumen output. First, brightness is somewhat but not entirely overrated as a performance factor in home theater. In a dark room, a 700 lumen projector with good contrast can appear to be quite bright. And in fact with a typical size screen and a 700 lumen projector, there is more light per square foot coming off that screen than you'd get in a commercial movie theater. The fact is your eyes will adjust to the average light level coming off the screen, whatever it is. And the reason you are blinded when walking out of a commercial theater into daylight is because there was very little light on the theater's screen. Your eyes had become accustomed to a very dim picture.
In a dark home theater, your eyes will easily adjust to a tremendous range of lumen output. This renders ANSI lumen ratings relatively unimportant IF your theater is always dark. The projector needs to be minimally bright enough to illuminate the screen with good contrast, and not so bright as to be uncomfortably blinding. For a typical home theater space and screen size, that range is anywhere from about 400 to 2000 actual ANSI lumens. So in theory, any projector in this range is "bright enough" to deliver good home theater images, and from that point the other performance factors like contrast, color, scaling/deinterlacing, pixelation and so on become the more relevant issues.
The PLV-70 is rated at 2200 ANSI lumens. That makes it the brightest projector yet introduced specifically for home theater. Is it too bright for a typical 100" diagonal screen in a dark theater room? Actually, no. The reason is that the 2200 ANSI lumen rating indicates the maximum amount of light that the unit will deliver. However, at maximum light output blacks are not black and image quality is severely compromised. After calibrating the PLV-70 for optimum video quality, the operating lumen output is closer to 1650 ANSI lumens. At this optimal calibration, this projector can be viewed for hours without any eye-strain discomfort.
Now, if you DO have some occasional or routine ambient light, it's a whole different smoke. ANSI lumen output is certainly more relevant in this situation. Ambient light severely impacts the contrast on a front projection system. And the dimmer the projector, the more visible impact that ambient light has. So if you have a viewing room in which you expect ambient light to be a factor, you should avoid projectors with low ANSI lumen ratings.
Having said all of that, there is another reality to focus on. There is a real but subjective difference in the experience of watching a bright image vs. a less bright image, even in the dark after your eyes have adjusted. The PLV-70's bright picture has a commanding presence on the screen that one might describe as open or forward. It pulls you in and makes the experience more real. Dimmer projectors may have equal or better contrast and a great deal of elegance, but the picture on the screen will, by comparison, have a more reserved, understated quality about it. The picture may be awesome, but it remains a beautiful picture that you are not quite as emotionally engaged with. In this regard image brightness has a similar impact on the viewer's emotional involvement as does image size.
The brighter picture, as long as it is balanced, tends to accentuate drama of any kind, giving it a greater sense of realism. The attack sequence in Pearl Harbor is absolutely riveting on the PLV-70 because you almost feel like you are there. By comparison on a dimmer but yet still very high quality projector, you feel like you are watching a movie. So we find that there is an emotional engagement with the imagery produced by the PLV-70 that is qualitatively unique due specifically to its high light output. Some videophiles may find this difficult to accept since it is contrary to conventional wisdom. But we believe that experiencing the PLV-70 will convince anyone that ANSI lumen output can indeed be relevant to the viewing experience after all.
Scaling and deinterlacing
One of the strongest attributes of the PLV-70 is its scaling and deinterlacing. The on-board facilities for these functions are cutting edge. There is no need to consider the use of an external line doubler or video processor. Even plain S-video from a cheap DVD player is remarkably artifact-free. Standard television from DBS, though still a tad fuzzy to be sure due to the signal/source quality, is eminently more watchable on this projector than on any competing unit we have seen anywhere near its price range.
When you get to the better video sources, the PLV-70's image is the one we've always hoped to see. DVDs with good transfers look as close to HDTV quality as we could hope for. Keep in mind that when you get a projector with this resolving power, you will become sensitive to variations in the quality of DVD transfers. Though the cleanest DVDs will look close to HDTV quality, the downside is that you will readily see the deficiencies in DVDs that are not of the highest quality. For that matter you will also clearly see differences in production quality in your HDTV programming.
Other performance factors
Fan noise. Fan noise on the PLV-70 can be characterized as relatively quiet, low in pitch and low in volume. The unit is not silent, but it is quiet enough that very few will be bothered by it. The product will not need a hush box unless you require stone silence.
Remote and menus. The remote control is above average with a reliable range of about 30 feet. Particularly handy features include individual buttons for the selection of each of the three inputs, and a one-touch aspect ratio adjustment button. The projector is quickly responsive to the remote. The menu is typical for a Sanyo product—not particularly easy or intuitive to use until you become familiar with its layout. But it is straightforward enough once you get some stick time with it.
The menu pointer and select controls are cumbersome on the remote—a wobbling disc that can either move the pointer by touching its edges, or select the item currently pointed to by applying direct downward pressure on the center of the disc. This is a nuisance, although it is a skill that can be acquired with enough practice. We would hope that if there is to be a PLV-80 that Sanyo might give some further thought to the design of the remote.
Boxlight's Private Label Edition: the Cinema 20HD
At this writing the only private label version of the Sanyo PLV-70 is the Boxlight Cinema 20HD. The only physical difference is that the PLV-70 is dark gray and the Cinema 20HD is off-white, a color that will appeal to many HT buyers who intend to ceiling mount it. This private label edition is also worth noting because Boxlight's published price is $6,499, significantly less than the $9,995 MSRP announced for the PLV-70. However, this difference in MSRPs notwithstanding, dealers handling the Sanyo labeled product will be competitively priced, offering substantial discounts off of the MSRP.
We suggest you shop and compare not only prices but customer support, service, and return policies as well. And keep in mind that the projector is probably not the only thing you need. Professional dealers with an investment in the home theater market can often package together screens, cables, ceiling mounts, replacement lamps, etc., to give you a better deal on the total package than they can on just the projector alone.
The PLV-70 vs. the SharpVision Z9000
When considering both technical performance and street price, the PLV-70 may be said to compete most directly with the SharpVision Z9000. The Z9000 is also a WXGA class projector with a pixel matrix of 1280 x 720. Both of these units have outstanding scaling and deinterlacing capabilities on board. Both have quiet fans, although the Sharp is almost silent. Image resolution and smoothness are comparable when viewed at a distance of 1.5 times the screen width or greater.
The differences are the following: The Z9000 is a DLP-based unit rated at 800 ANSI lumens. Ambient light has a more immediate negative impact on its image quality. It has a slight edge in black level and shadow detail resolution. Its menu system and remote are more user friendly. On the other hand, the PLV-70 has a more brilliant image which gives it the impression of being more open and forward. It is the more versatile machine as it can function better in the presence of some ambient light without losing as much punch.
At this writing we anticipate that street prices of the PLV-70 will be a remarkable $2,000 to $3,000 less than the Z9000, although street prices are fluid and subject to supply and demand pressures. If this price differential should materialize as expected, our recommendation would be for the PLV-70 strictly on a price/performance basis. If price were not a factor and we could choose either one for our home theater, we would choose the PLV-70 due to its brighter, more engaging image. But others may quite reasonably opt for lower key presentation of the Z9000.
We generally recommend screens from Stewart Filmscreen for those who can accommodate them in their budgets. They are the elite maker of screens in the industry. In our experience the workmanship that goes into Stewart products is unsurpassed. Since your screen is a long term investment that you will keep for decades, we encourage you to get the best you can reasonably afford since you will be living with it for a long time. However, you can normally save money buy acquiring a screen from one of the other makers such as Da-lite, Draper, or Vu-Tec. Check the dealers who handle these products for pricing and configuration options.
For the PLV-70 the gray screen materials are most appropriate. The Stewart Grayhawk (0.95 gain) is the ideal match for it in a dark theater, or one with a low amount of indirect ambient light. The Grayhawk lends the image an incremental boost in contrast without imparting any increase in brightness. On the other hand, Stewart's Firehawk material has a gain of 1.35. It may be the better choice if your screen image is more than 10 feet wide, or if you have an unfortunate amount of ambient light to contend with.
Your screen's aspect ratio should be 16:9 to match the native format of the projector. The size of the screen should be balanced with the viewing room and the average viewing distance of the audience. There is no formula for what is "right" in this regard, just like there is no right seat to select in a movie theater. Some like the first row, and some like to sit all the way to the back. In our experience most people find a viewing distance of not less than 1.5 times, and not more than 2.0 times the screen width to be ideal.
The Sanyo PLV-70 changes the ballgame in the world of home theater projectors. Given its surprisingly aggressive price, it establishes a new price/performance benchmark that all other products at every price point will be measured by. We are rarely as impressed with a new projector as we have been with this one, and we give it our strongest recommendation. If we could choose any HT projector on the market selling at street prices under $10,000, it would be this one.
If you have set yourself a budget of $5,000 for a home theater projector, we have a suggestion for you. Do whatever you need to do to scrape together the extra sheckels and go for the PLV-70. We don't know what the actual street prices will be in the weeks ahead, but this product may be within your reach if you stretch a bit. We say this because a lot of folks write in asking for recommendations based on a $5,000 budget. The fact is there is currently no projector on the market selling at or near $5000 that comes close to the performance capability of the PLV-70.
Even if you are thinking of buying one of the high-end projectors in the $10,000+ range, you owe it to yourself to audition the PLV-70. It has both advantages and weaknesses when compared to the high-end WXGA DLPs. But we suspect that in side by side shoot-outs the PLV-70 would win in the view of many buyers even if price were not a factor. The fact that the PLV-70 can be acquired for a price less than half of some of the high-end competition makes it all the more compelling.
If you are in buying mode right now, be aware that very few production PLV-70s have entered the US as of this writing. Most dealers will be receiving their first shipments sometime over the next three weeks. Considering its price, we expect that consumer demand for the PLV-70 will be extraordinary. Dealers may not be able to meet demand with initially planned inventory positions. So anticipate waiting lists.