As of this writing, the five most popular 1080p home theater projectors on ProjectorCentral are (in alpha order):
• BenQ W5000
• Epson Home Cinema 1080 UB
• Mitsubishi HC5500
• Panasonic PT-AE2000
• Sanyo PLV-Z2000
To no surprise, these five models also happen to be the least expensive of the 1080p projectors on the market--they are all available for street prices around $2,500 or less. In the home theater projector market, money talks loudly. Everyone wants the best for the least, and low-cost 1080p projectors are where it's at. From the perspective of sheer unit volume, these five projectors currently dominate the market in home theater projectors.
Which of them is the best? Well the fact is they each have unique advantages over the others that may or may not be important to you. They each have limitations that you may or may not care about. So we'll just do our best to describe the differences, and let you figure out which one is best for you.
The five 1080p projectors will be discussed in alpha order. This is not the order in which we would rank them in terms of quality or value for our own personal use, so no inference to that effect should be made by the reader.
When we reviewed the W5000 on release at the retail price of $4,995, we gave it 4.5 stars for value. However, with the street price currently below $2,500, if we were to review it today it would definitely rate a solid 5 stars. This is an impressive projector, and the only projector in this group to feature DLP technology.
• Outstanding contrast. Though it carries one of the lower official full on/off contrast ratings in the group, 10,000:1, in reality it is quite visibly higher in contrast than any of its LCD competitors. We measured its ANSI contrast at about 500:1, whereas the LCD projectors measured in the range of 250:1 to 300:1.
• Very sharp image. The W5000 edges out the LCD projectors in overall image sharpness. Part of the apparent sharpness is due to the higher contrast.
• Image depth. Due to the sharpness and high contrast characteristics of the image, the W5000 shows more apparent three-dimensionality than its LCD counterparts.
• Less motion blur. In certain scenes where a camera is panning across detailed, high contrast subject matter, one can detect better resolution of detail as compared to the LCD competition. The differences are subtle, and appear only occasionally in certain types of scenes.
• Comparatively weak mid-tone performance. Though the LCD competitors lack the high ANSI contrast of the W5000, they render brighter, richer mid-tones. As an example, when the W5000 and the Sanyo Z2000 are both set for optimal cinema performance, they will give identical lumen readings on a 100 IRE white screen. However, at the same settings, a middle gray 50 IRE pattern is 40% brighter on the Z2000 than on the W5000. In the viewing of film images side by side, the Z2000 manifests a brighter, more open display of mid-tones. This can contribute to the impression that the Z2000 has the more natural or realistic image despite being lower in contrast. This same effect can be seen on all of the LCD projectors in this group.
• Limited throw range. The 1.2x zoom lens will allow you to place the W5000 about 16 to 19 feet from the screen to obtain a 120" diagonal image. If you don't have that much throw distance in the room, you must settle for a smaller image. By comparison, all of the LCD competitors can be placed as little as 12.5 feet from the screen to get the same 120" image. Thus, if you have room size restrictions, the throw distance on the W5000 may require a corresponding limitation on image size.
• Higher noise level. We see somewhat more digital noise on the W5000, especially in its brighter BrilliantColor mode, than we do on most of the LCD competitors. This is apparently only in certain scenes where whatever noise is present becomes more obvious. We do not consider the higher noise level to be a significant or hugely objectionable factor in the relative evaluation of these five 1080p projectors.
• No HDMI 1.3. The W5000 is the only model among the five in this article that has an earlier version of HDMI; the others are all version 1.3. However, we consider this to be an issue of little consequence since there won't be any video sources with "Deep Color" any time soon, and once there are, the odds of seeing anything but subtle differences are small.
• The W5000 comes with an industry-lagging one year warranty. The Sanyo Z2000 has a standard three year warranty, and the other LCD projectors in this group have two year warranties.
• Large, bulky casework. The W5000 is the largest and heaviest of the five projectors in this summary, weighing in at about 21 lbs. If you are concerned about size and perhaps portability, look to the Mitsubishi HC5500 and the Epson Home Cinema 1080 UB, which are almost half the size and weight.
The W5000 beats the competition in contrast, image sharpness and three-dimensionality. Its weakness in mid-tone performance becomes quite evident in side by side comparisons with its LCD competitors, but standing alone it looks impressive indeed. Overall, it is an outstanding value at prices below $2,500.
The Epson Home Cinema 1080 UB is designed to appeal to the widest consumer base possible. It is exceptionally bright, so it can be used in ambient light. It has a long 2.1x zoom lens and full 2.9 picture height lens shift, so it can be installed pretty much anywhere. It is small and shallow in depth, so it can be placed discreetly on a rear shelf. And it is white, so if ceiling mounted it will blend in and become invisible against a white ceiling. As far as practical considerations are concerned, Epson has done a great job coming up with a projector that will appeal to the masses.
• Very bright. The Cinema 1080 UB is rated at 1600 ANSI lumens, and it does indeed measure 1600 lumens in its brightest configuration. Its Cinema Day operating mode still pumps out 800 lumens, which is a lot more light than most home theater projectors in anything close to a video optimized calibration. So if you want, or cannot get rid of, some amount of ambient light in the room, the Cinema 1080 UB should be considered a strong contender.
• Great lens flexibility. With a 2.1x zoom lens, you can place the projector anywhere from 10 to 21 feet from the screen to get a 100" image. With a 2.9 picture height lens shift, you can put the projector anywhere from a coffee table to a rear shelf to a ceiling mount, and not have to worry about tilting the projector to hit the screen. And this unit has the widest range horizontal lens shift as well, which means you don't have to set the projector perpendicular to the center of the screen if objects in the room will not allow it.
• Auto iris. To be candid, we aren't sure whether to list the auto iris as an advantage or a limitation because it is both at once. Its advantage is that in dark scenes, it will take black levels to very black. If the screen fades totally to black, as just before a credit roll, it looks like the projector has been turned off. This is how Epson justified the original 50,000:1 full on/off contrast rating that was part of its promotion at the time of release. Since that time Epson has chosen to publish a more conservative contrast spec. They now quote 4,000:1, which is the full on/off measurement with the auto iris disabled. In fact, we measured our test unit at 3,780:1
With this switch in the quoted spec (which we applaud by the way), official contrast ratings have become even more meaningless than they were previously. Why? Other vendors who market auto-iris enabled projectors will most likely continue to include the effect of the iris in their contrast ratings since it always yields a much higher number. So the specs are not apples-to-apples comparisons, and the consumer now has no clue what the spec is based on. On the other hand, if the rest of the industry follows Epson's lead on this, we'll be taking some healthy steps toward a more coherent set of contrast ratings.
But I digress. Back to the iris on the Cinema 1080 UB. The downside of the auto iris on this projector is that it is the slowest of the auto irises in this group of projectors. The iris action on the Panasonic AE2000, the Sanyo Z2000, and the Mitsubishi HC5500 is virtually instantaneous, and undetectable by the human eye. Conversely, in going from a bright to a dark scene or vice versa, the iris adjustment on the Epson takes one or two seconds to catch up. If you are using the Cinema 1080 UB in ambient light, this is an insignificant issue since the brightness of the projector trumps black level performance. But if you want an optimized dark room theater environment, the slow action of the iris may become an occasional distraction.
• ANSI contrast. We measured the Cinema 1080 UB's ANSI contrast at 251:1, which is about the middle of the pack for home theater oriented LCD projectors. The Panasonic AE2000 measured 305:1, and it is in fact incrementally higher in actual contrast as you experience it on the screen. Meanwhile, the BenQ W5000 is quite noticeably higher in actual contrast.
• No anamorphic mode. For those interested in going to a super widescreen 2.35 set up with the addition of an anamorphic lens, an external video processor will be required since the Cinema 1080 UB has no onboard scaling to accommodate this through the HDMI port.
• Higher than average noise level in SD. If you plan to watch a lot of standard definition material, and DVDs in particular, the level of digital noise with this source is somewhat higher than it is on the other LCD products in this group.
The key competitive advantage offered by the Cinema 1080 UB is a bright and well balanced image that is great with some amount of ambient light. Since a large percentage of the home cinema audience has no ability or interest in setting up a darkened room as a dedicated theater, the Cinema 1080 UB is well designed as an attractive solution for the larger consumer audience.
Many folks these days are interested in a super widescreen Cinemascope 2.35 format for their home theater. If you are among them, the Mitsubishi HC5500 is worth a close look. It is the only projector among these five that allows you to place an anamorphic lens in front of the projector, and leave it in place no matter what type of subject matter you are watching. Typically, with the other projectors that have anamorphic lens compatibility, you need to move the lens into place when viewing a 2.35 movie, and then remove it when watching standard 16:9 or 4:3 material. Moving the lens can be done automatically if you install a motorized track, or it can be done manually if you don't. Either way, the HC5500 has a dual anamorphic scaling mode that lets you avoid the cost and the nuisance of moving the lens back and forth.
Other key advantages
• Up to 5000 hour lamp life when operating in low power mode.
• Powered zoom and focus lens (all others are manual except the Panny AE2000)
• Powered vertical lens shift (all others are manual)
• Small form factor, and 12 lbs total weight, for easy portability
• A 1.2x zoom lens that is relatively short throw-this means you can get a bigger picture in a smaller room than you can with the BenQ W5000
• Super quiet fan noise.
• One year, or 500 hour (whichever comes first) warranty on the lamp.
Though the HC5500 is a solid, competitive 1080p projector, there is nothing in terms of image quality that makes it stand out from the competition. We measured ANSI contrast at 260:1, which is about the same as the Epson Cinema 1080 UB, and a bit lower than the Panasonic AE2000 and Sanyo Z2000. It has a bright picture in video optimized mode, which we measured at 605 ANI lumens. However, it does not have the extra bright operating modes that are found on the Panasonic AE2000 and the Epson 1080 UB.
The short 1.2x zoom lens and lens shift of two picture heights imposes some restrictions on where it can be placed in the room. The BenQ W5000 has the same restrictions, but it has a longer throw distance that in smaller rooms can make it even more restrictive. Meanwhile, the AE2000, the Z2000, and the Cinema 1080 UB all have more flexibility with their 2.0x zoom lenses and greater lens shift ranges.
In short, if you are going to put a lot of hours on your projector, the 5000 hour lamp life may be of real consequence. And if you are going with an anamorphic lens, the HC5500 will save you the nuisance of moving the lens back and forth, and it will save you the cost of either a motorized lens track, or an external video processor that would accomplish the same thing as the HC5500's internal scaling.
Panasonic has succeeded in loading the AE2000 with a breathtaking array of features. Some of these features appear on other units as well, but some do not exist on any other projector in this class. The AE2000 doesn't have a GPS system or cruise control, but just about everything else you could think of comes standard.
• 2.0x zoom lens, and 3.0 picture height lens shift for easy placement in a variety of rooms.
• Powered zoom and focus, manual horizontal and vertical lens shift
• Highest ANSI contrast of any LCD projector we've measured yet (305:1)
• Excellent lumen output (over 900 ANSI lumens in Natural mode)
• Zero pixelation via use of SmoothScreen filter
• Superior connectivity (3 HDMI ports and two component video inputs)
• On board split-screen video calibration.
• On board wave form monitor.
• Anamorphic lens compatibility.
• Learning remote that will control up to four devices in the theater.
• Price. The AE2000 is priced up a bit in this group, with an officially advertised price of $2,695 and actual street prices somewhat less. All of the other projectors in this group are at least two or three hundred dollars less, and the Sanyo Z2000 with its current rebate is well under $2,000. So the question is, do you want to pay extra for the extras that you get on the AE2000? Of course, we can't answer that, since only you know how important a third HDMI port, or split-screen calibration, or powered zoom and focus, or a learning remote will be to you.
We can say this. If the extra features that are offered by the AE2000 are not that important to you, then the actual image quality and performance you get from the AE2000 may not, in and of itself, justify the extra cost. The Sanyo Z2000 will deliver a beautiful, natural, smooth 1080p image that rivals that of the AE2000, but it is at this writing about $700 less, with a three year warranty to boot. And since money talks, the Sanyo Z2000 is in a highly competitive position.
A closing word on pixelation. Clearly Panasonic has created a lot of enthusiasm with its SmoothScreen filter, for the simple reason that it really works. There is absolutely no pixel structure visible in the AE2000's image, even standing inches from the screen. And some of us used to think that the SmoothScreen filter tended to soften the picture a bit. It doesn't, at least on the AE2000. You get a sharp, clean picture with this projector despite the absence of pixel structure. If you are gun shy of pixel structure, the AE2000 is the only model in this group that is entirely free of it. However, in our experience, since 1080p resolution is so high and the pixels are so dense, none of the 1080p projectors have any screendoor effect or visible pixel structure when viewed from normal distances. However, if you are among those that prefer to sit close, say at a viewing distance of less than about 1.3 times the screen width, then the complete lack of visible pixel structure on the AE2000 should be considered as an important advantage.
Every time we fire up the Z2000 and look at it fresh, we end up looking at each other and saying the same thing: this really is an amazing projector. Somehow, the Z2000 is much greater than the sum of its parts. And now that the Mitsubishi HC4900 has been discontinued, the Z2000 stands alone as the only 1080p projector on the market selling for under $2,000.
Since everyone assumes you get what you pay for, the big question is, what do you sacrifice by going with the least expensive model? The answer-not much. The Z2000 really is an outstanding value in 1080p.
• A rich, well-balanced picture in with both HD and standard definition signals. The Z2000 probably edges all other 1080p models in its ability to render smooth, natural DVD and other standard definition material.
• Solid but not exceptional contrast and black levels.
• Extensive 2.0x zoom and 3.0x picture height lens shift.
• Very quiet fan.
• A unique lens door that shuts automatically when powered off (no other projector has this feature).
• An understated and rather elegant white case that blends in against a white ceiling when the projector is ceiling mounted. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, but we think the Z2000 is the best looking projector in the group in terms of aesthetic design.
• Industry-leading 3 year warranty---none of the other models have it.
We have never cared too much for Sanyo's menu layouts, and the menu on the Z2000 is no different. It is functional once you get to know your way around it, but it can be confusing when you first get into it. And from an ergonomic perspective, the remote control can be somewhat uncomfortable, with the menu button in a uniquely awkward location. It just does not fit the hand as comfortably as do the remotes of competing products.
The Z2000 has a variety of controls over contrast, sharpness, gamma, and basic controls over the relative intensity of red, green, and blue. But it does not have independent gain and bias controls for each color channel, so the ability to fine tune color adjustments is limited. Videophiles who use color calibration systems to tweak their displays to perfection will miss these controls. However, we believe the large majority of users will feel that the controls available on the Z2000 are adequate for their purposes and will never miss the more subtle color controls.
All things considered, the Z2000 is one of our favorite projectors of all time. It certainly does not have all the extras that come with the Panasonic AE2000. Nor does it have the contrast of the BenQ W5000. But it is selling for a lot less money than both of those, and it delivers a beautiful, thoroughly well-balanced, natural picture. Contrast and black levels are sufficient to give the picture a lot of snap, and as mentioned above, mid-tones are richer and more open than they are on the BenQ W5000. Overall, the Z2000 with a selling price of under $2000 is one of the spectacular values in the market today.
All five of the 1080p projectors in this summary will deliver a picture that you can easily get immersed in. The differences in image quality between the LCD models are not huge; rather they are to be compared more on features and price. Meanwhile, the image characteristics of the BenQ W5000 are notably different than the four LCD products. It is clearly higher in contrast, and side by side with any of the LCD projectors it appears incrementally sharper and more three dimensional. For many buyers, these are the critical factors, and nothing else is as important.
The LCD projectors, while lacking the contrast of the W5000, they all have more strength in mid-tone definition than does the W5000. The result is that in side by side viewing, the LCD projectors can look more natural or realistic, whereas the W5000 can on occasion look artificially enhanced as if there were too much contrast and not enough middle tone strength to integrate the entire picture.
These aesthetic interpretations will vary based on the inherent contrast in the scene being displayed. For example, the same viewer might easily prefer the W5000's display of a high contrast cityscape at night, while preferring one of the LCD projector's rendering of a lower contrast scene with warm, natural flesh tones.
No projector that we have found does everything perfectly, at least not anywhere near this price range. But this group of five 1080p models delivers great values in high resolution for not a lot of money. Each has its own set of features, price, and value proposition. We hope this commentary will help you identify which of them may be right for you.