The State of the Art in 3D 1080p Home Theater Projectors
The 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) just wrapped up yesterday in Las Vegas. At this show we saw numerous demonstrations of the latest 3D-enabled 1080p home theater projectors, all either available now or scheduled to begin shipping this quarter. The products we saw demonstrated on the CES show floor were:
JVC DLA-X9 ($11,995)
LG CF3D ($14,995)
Mitsubishi HC9000D (price n/a)
Samsung SP-A8000 ($12,999)
Sharp XV-Z17000 ($4,999)
Sony VPL-VW90ES ($9,999)
Based on the viewing of these demos, we conclude the following:
1. For the most part, these new models are excellent conventional projectors that represent the most advanced 2D video and film projection from a digital projector we've ever seen. Among the product demos, only the JVC DLA-X9 was showing both 2D and 3D. We have seen the Mitsubishi HC9000 in 2D previously, but it was not running in 2D at the show. With conventional 2D content, the picture quality on these two models is nothing short of magnificent. Though we have not seen the Sony, Samsung, and Sharp units in 2D, based on their 3D capabilities, we expect to see excellent performance from them in 2D as well.
2. Though all of these models are 3D-enabled, none of them perform as well in 3D as they do in 2D. At the current state of the art, 3D projection introduces various artifacts that are not present in 2D. These can include ghosting, jerky/choppy motion, dropped frames, and momentary rubbery distortion of subjects in rapid motion. Sometimes there is an oily sheen over the image, as if one is viewing it through cellophane. For units that require a silver screen (the LG and any double-stacked system like that being demo'd by Da-Lite), the screen itself imparts a sparkle to the image that is not present on white or gray screens. Collectively these artifacts degrade the viewing experience to some degree.
3. In the CES demos, while all 3D projectors showed obvious artifacts in 3D, they did not occur to the same degree or frequency among the various models. Much of the frequency and intensity of artifacts was related to the demo material selected by the vendor. Some of the clips were simply more challenging to process than others.
If we had to choose a projector that showed the best on the floor, it would be the Sharp Z17000. The picture was brighter and more stable than most of the competition. Though not free of artifacts, the picture was thoroughly impressive (and the aggressive price made it even more so). However, Sharp was showing a clip of the animated film Despicable Me, which was probably the least challenging demo content being used at the show. Our guess is that if the other vendors had used this same clip, their projectors would have shown fewer artifacts than they did.
4. As is the case with trade shows, it was not possible to make any comparative assessment of these new projectors since they were all showing different material under different conditions. The only way to determine how they really stack up is to bring them in and evaluate them using the same sequence of 2D and 3D source material. We will get all of these units reviewed as the review samples come available, but the release cycle this year has been slower than normal due to the extra challenges of getting 3D to market.
A Little Perspective
Ten years ago, digital projectors manifested a host of artifacts and flaws that detracted from the viewing experience. People were concerned with deinterlacing artifacts, pixelation and screendoor effects, stuck pixels, DLP rainbows, dust spots, and so on. While these artifacts were all quite different in nature, they had one thing in common--they all distracted the viewer and disrupted the immersive viewing experience. They took you out of the alternate reality you were in, and reminded you that you were in your room watching a projector with a flaw in it.
Over the last ten years, the industry has made great progress in reducing or eliminating virtually all of these annoyances. It did not happen overnight, but over the years video processing got better, resolution increased, pixel grids became invisible, and DLP color wheel speeds increased. Along with all of that, color accuracy, contrast and black levels advanced steadily. Today, the state of the art in 2D is amazingly clean, and approaching visual perfection.
Now comes 3D technology, and along with it comes a new assortment of artifacts that either don't occur at all in 2D, or occur only rarely. This is not to say that the pictures are unwatchable. Quite often the pictures from these 3D projectors at CES were breathtaking and mesmerizing, and certainly the dramatic 3D effects are there in spades. And yes, there is a lot of visual excitement and pleasure to be gained from 3D projection that many consumers are going to love.
At the same time, the serious videophile will discover that the new array of artifacts ultimately create the same old problem--they distract the viewer and disrupt the immersive experience. You cannot watch for very long without thinking about the limits of the technology rather than the movie. And if you have seen Avatar in a 3D movie theater and anticipate getting the same experience at home, you may be disappointed. None of the home theater projectors we saw at CES were delivering 3D as cleanly as one experiences it in the commercial movie theater.
We encourage buyers to think of these new models not as 3D projectors, but as outstanding 2D projectors that happen to be 3D-enabled. They are fine for the occasional viewing of 3D content. And some types of 3D material will be much more successfully displayed than others--animated films and video games come to mind.
The existence of 3D artifacts won't stop people from buying these models any more than the existence of artifacts in 2D stopped people from buying 2D models over the past ten years. People have always loved the big screen experience of home theater, and they've always lived with the flaws inherent in the state of the art at the time. Until recently, the greater visibility of artifacts is the price one paid when blowing an image up to 120" diagonal.
And so it will be with this new wave of 3D-enabled 1080p projectors. Many people will be quite happy to overlook the artifacts, and sit back and enjoy the current state of the art in home theater 3D. Some of the material out there indeed looks very cool. After having seen the Despicable Me demo in the Sharp booth, I am anxious to see it end to end. Nevertheless, there are many avid videophiles among us who seek video perfection and find technical flaws in the picture annoying. If you count yourself as one of the video purists, you are likely to end up appreciating this latest crop of 1080p projectors primarily for their outstanding 2D performance, and not as much for the 3D capability that is creating all the hype.