We currently have six of the latest 1080p home theater projectors in house:
- BenQ W6000
- Epson Home Cinema 8100
- Mitsubishi HC6800
- Panasonic AE4000
- Samsung A900
- Sony BRAVIA VPL-HW15
Reviews on all of these units have been completed, so we can now post a report on how these models stack up against one another.
Shoot-outs are always a challenge, because there is always one more model coming just around the corner that we want to include. For example, we just received the Epson Home Cinema 8500 UB yesterday. We will begin the review on it today, but it won't be completed until later next week. So we are not yet prepared to include it in this write up. We are also awaiting delivery of new units from JVC and others in the weeks to come. Thus, this shoot-out will be updated as we finish reviews on upcoming models.
Three Preliminary Comments
1. Cinema Mode Light Output. If there is one consistent theme in this year's crop of 1080p home theater projectors, it is brighter Cinema modes. These projectors are all brighter than previous generation units when calibrated for optimum video. It used to be that Cinema modes measured in the 350 to 450 lumen range. Almost all of the models we've seen thus far are now pumping out at least 500 to 600 lumens or even more. These brighter images have been achieved with higher contrast as well.
2. Price Volatility. Epson and Panasonic have both been more price aggressive than usual this year, which caught us by surprise. We did not expect to see a model of the quality of the Epson Home Cinema 8100 coming in at $1,599, nor did we expect to see the Panasonic AE4000 at $1,999. These moves will create some pricing volatility in the market in the short term. The assessments we make today regarding price/performance on any given model will need to be revisited quite soon as prices shift and promotional rebates are offered.
3. Comparison Format. Since we've got six 1080p home theater projectors to discuss, we have the logistical problem of comparing any one against the other five and making this an endless article. To simplify it, we will use the Panasonic AE4000 as the basis for comparison, and discuss how each model either exceeds or falls short of the AE4000 in picture quality, brightness, features, and value. This approach will let us highlight the strengths and weaknesses of all six models in the group.
Notes on the Panasonic PT-AE4000U
The AE4000 is the most feature rich model among the six. It has a variety of features that do not exist on any of the competing models. These include Lens Memory for automated reconfiguration of 16:9 and 2.40 screen presentation, Frame Creation (frame interpolation), split-screen calibration, an on-board waveform monitor, and programmable inbound/outbound 12 volt triggers.
On the other hand, though Cinema 1 mode brightness on the AE4000 has been boosted to about 550 lumens, this is still not as bright as most of its competitors in this price range. Every other projector with the exception of the Samsung A900 is brighter in its precalibrated Cinema mode than the AE4000. If more light is needed, the AE4000 can be put into Normal mode, which raises light output to about 900 lumens with a minor reduction of contrast and color saturation. Therefore, we found that for users who need the extra light output, the most relevant comparison was between a competing model's bright Cinema mode against the AE4000 in Normal mode.
As far as sharpness is concerned, it is important to keep in mind that the AE4000 defaults to a setting of zero with no edge enhancement. Most projectors have some built-in sharpness enhancement at their zero settings. So until they are calibrated to the same standards, the AE4000 can look slightly soft in comparison. However, once sharpness controls are evened out, the AE4000 is competitive with any model in the group. Beyond that, the AE4000 has a Detail Clarity Processor which enhances fine details. With this set to about +3, the AE4000's image sharpness is second to none in the group.
For most videophiles, features and brightness issues are all secondary to the elusive concept of picture quality. What we refer to as picture quality is a combination of attributes that is experienced subjectively and cannot be measured. We can make all the observations we want about sharpness, contrast, noise levels, shadow detail, three-dimensionality, black levels, color accuracy and saturation, etc. But in the end, what we all really want to know is which picture looks the best?
In this six-way shoot-out, we found that the AE4000 ranked # 1 in the group as far as the picture we'd prefer to have on our screen, assuming we have a darkened viewing room with no ambient light and relatively little reflection. The smoothness, elegance, and natural quality of the AE4000's image stands out when it is put up against most competing products. However, there are a few models that come extremely close to the AE4000 in picture quality, and have some brightness advantages that could easily tip the buyer's decision in their favor.
BenQ W6000 vs. AE4000
The BenQ W6000's main asset is brightness. Its factory default Cinema mode measured a very substantial 853 lumens, and its Dynamic mode with BrilliantColor on was over 2000 lumens. Color balance was not very accurate in either mode, but it was particularly green in Dynamic. In every operating mode, highlights are extremely bright to the point of being brilliant. Thus, for ambient light situations where color balance is not critical, the W6000 has a key lumen output advantage over the AE4000.
When displaying these two projectors side by side, it is best to set the AE4000 in Normal mode. Its Cinema 1 mode looks dim in comparison to the W6000, but switching to Normal evens them out. When set up like this, the AE4000 shows deeper blacks, higher contrast, and a slightly sharper image. There is less digital noise, and this combined with higher contrast gives the AE4000 more clarity and three-dimensionality (that is, the impression of greater picture depth; we are not talking about actual 3D here, as none of these projectors do 3D). In short, picture quality on the AE4000 exceeds that of the W6000.
The AE4000 has a long 2.0x zoom lens, compared to the W6000's 1.5x zoom. However, the AE4000 loses 41% of its light at the long throw end of the lens compared to 25% on the W6000. For buyers who go for the W6000 because of its brightness, this may neutralize the AE4000's zoom range advantage.
Dealers selling the W6000 online offer it with a one-year warranty, and it is priced well under $3,000 on the street. If purchased directly from BenQ on the company's website, it comes with a three-year warranty, but you pay the full $3,495 sticker price. Either way, the AE4000's extremely low price of $1,999 makes it the better value for anyone except those who really need the super high light output that the W6000 is capable of.
Epson Home Cinema 8100 vs. AE4000
Here we have a collision of value-priced titans. The Epson 8100 is an extremely impressive projector, producing a beautiful, bright picture for its modest $1,599 price. The 8100 is brighter than the AE4000 in its high brightness Dynamic mode which measured 1749 lumens compared to the AE4000's 1362. Not only was the 8100's Dynamic mode brighter, it was impressively well color balanced compared to just about any high brightness mode on competing models. For those wanting a bright picture for ambient light settings, this is a key competitive advantage. The other of course is that it is the least expensive of the six models in this shoot-out.
The 8100's video optimized modes were more in the range of what we found on the AE4000. Natural mode measured 598 lumens, Theater was 525, Theater Black 1 was 442, and Theater Black 2 (a warmer 5500K setting for b/w film viewing) was 402 lumens. By comparison, the AE4000's Cinema 1 was 548 lumens. The 8100's Living Room mode measured 932 after color temperature adjustments, while the AE4000's Normal mode was 950. Zoom lens effects are identical on both units-both lose up to 41% of their potential light output at the extreme long throw end of the zoom lens.
In terms of picture quality, the AE4000 produces a more refined image, with deeper black levels, incrementally higher contrast, better color saturation, and general smoothness. With these advantages it has a greater impression of picture depth. Nevertheless, the differences here are not radical. They are visible when the two projectors are placed side by side, but standing alone the 8100 delivers a beautiful picture with plenty of snap, contrast and clarity. It has a "wow!" factor that will only be amplified when you tell your friends you paid $1,599 for it.
The AE4000 offers many features that don't exist on the 8100-powered zoom/focus, Lens Memory, Frame Creation, split-screen calibration, and so on. Some will find these extras invaluable; others may not care about any of them, and would rather save the $400 in purchase price.
In general, choosing between these two models is a trade-off based on your preferences. The 8100's super bright and well color-balanced Dynamic mode gives you more flexibility for ambient light events, Super Bowl parties, and such. The picture is extremely engaging and is a terrific value for the money. On the other hand, videophiles who have dark viewing rooms will prefer the AE4000 for its more refined picture quality when viewed in that type of setting.
The 8100 has a two-year warranty without conditions included in the price. The AE4000 has a one-year warranty that is extendable to two years if you file a request form. It has a 2000 hour limit, which is only a limitation for those who use their projectors many hours each day. If you watch one two-hour movie every day, you won't use up 2000 hours in two years, and you'll get the full two-year warranty coverage.
Mitsubishi HC6800 vs. AE4000
In the review of the HC6800, we wrote, "The single most striking attribute of the HC6800 is its natural looking image. For the videophile, the most desirable digital projectors are those that don't look digital. The HC6800 accomplishes this with flying colors. There is very little digital noise, virtually no pixelation, no overdriven sharpness, no overly brilliant or blown out highlights. The image is simply natural and filmlike, and a genuine pleasure to watch."
We stand by this description. The HC6800 produces a magnificent image which is the closest in picture quality to the AE4000 of any of the models in this group. The HC6800 has a brighter Cinema mode than the AE4000. Factory default settings in Cinema mode measured 703 lumens, compared to the AE4000's 548. Furthermore, its 1.6x zoom lens loses only 13% of its maximum lumen output when set to its longest throw position. This is remarkable. The AE4000's 2.0x zoom is longer range, but it loses up to 41% of it maximum light output when set to its longest throw position, which is more typical for a zoom of this range.
The HC6800's black levels are not as deep as on the AE4000. This is most noticeable in scenes of deep space in Star Trek, or rolling credits on a black background. These are scenes in which the AE4000 goes extremely black, and the HC6800 doesn't so much. On the other hand, due to varying behavior of the irises, the impression of contrast changes from scene to scene. Depending on average light level and dynamic range in a given scene, on occasion the HC6800 can appear to be the higher in contrast of the two projectors.
The HC6800 does not have frame interpolation or Lens Memory. It does have a 1.6x powered zoom/focus lens which lets you use the remote to reposition the lens back and forth between 16:9 and 2.40 if you have a 2.40 super widescreen set-up.
Many buyers are attracted to Mitsubishi's warranty. The projector is covered by a standard two-year warranty, but the lamp is covered for either one year or 500 hours, whichever comes first. This beats the typical 90-day lamp warranty on most models.
In the end it comes down to price. The HC6800 is a beautiful projector with a natural, noise-free image that we thoroughly enjoy. At the same time, at $2,495, it has some stiff competition from Epson and Panasonic.
Samsung A900B vs. AE4000
This is probably the most intriguing match up in the group-the venerated Samsung A900B designed by Joe Kane and priced at $12,999, with street prices around $10,000, going up against the AE4000 priced at just $1,999. Such a comparison offends the senses of those who assume that you always get what you pay for. Quite obviously, a $10,000 projector will be better than a $2,000 projector, right? So what does five times the money buy you?
We hesitate to say it, but not much. Actually, nothing that a typical viewer would ever notice. The A900B produces a beautiful, natural image that will appeal to videophiles to be sure. But the AE4000 actually edges even this beautiful projector in subjective picture quality. The AE4000 is visibly higher in contrast, has deeper black levels and deeper color saturation, and is virtually equivalent in color accuracy. With all sharpness controls off, they appear to be equal in image sharpness. However, the AE4000's Detail Clarity Processor can gently boost apparent detail without imparting bothersome artifacts, thereby creating a picture that looks noticeably sharper than the A900B. Some purists may object to this type of processing, but the fact is that it is available for use as an option on the AE4000, while it isn't on the A900B. Most viewers will prefer the AE4000's image with the Detail Clarity Processor set to a modest amount of resolution enhancement.
The A900B has more digital noise than the AE4000. In fact, the A900B has more noise with its Digital Noise Reduction filter on, than the AE4000 does with its filter off. The difference in noise level contributes to the AE4000's smoother and more three-dimensional image.
The AE4000's Cinema 1 mode at 548 lumens is brighter than the A900B Movie 1 mode at 490 lumens. But beyond that, the AE4000's Normal mode at 950 lumens is much brighter than any color balanced mode we could get from the A900B. Of course, the A900B was designed exclusively for use in a dark viewing space, so high lumen output was not ever intended to be one of its attributes.
Now, the A900B is a great projector, and the AE4000 does not stand head and shoulders above it in picture quality. But the AE4000 combines higher contrast, deeper blacks, exceptional color accuracy and options for sharpness control in a way that produces a picture most viewers would prefer over the A900B.
Beyond its edge in picture quality, the AE4000 runs circles around the A900B in features. It has powered zoom and focus, compared to the A900B's manual 1.3 zoom lens. If you want to set up a 2.40 format screen, you are required to purchase an anamorphic lens for the A900B. That is an option on the AE4000 as well, but you can use its Lens Memory feature as a less pricey alternative to achieve similar results. The advantage of an A-lens is that it uses 100% of the projector's light, whereas you lose 25% to black bars above and below the screen when using projector zoom lenses to fill a 2.40 screen. The advantages of using the zoom lens are that you save the price of the A-lens, and you usually end up with a slightly sharper picture since there is no vertical image scaling required to compensate for the A-lens' horizontal stretch. Thus pixel information from 1080 sources retains a one-to-one pixel match with the projector's display.
The AE4000 has frame interpolation, as do other models coming to market this fall (the JVC products, Epson 8500UB and 9500UB, and the Sony VW85). The A900B doesn't have this capability. However it does have less inherent judder than most lower priced 1080p models we've seen, so this is somewhat less of an issue than it otherwise might be.
We could go on, but you get the idea. The one thing you do get for the A900B's $10,000 selling price is an installer who will calibrate it, hopefully for free. But the bottom line is that if you ever have a chance to set up the AE4000 and the A900B side by side, the results will destroy any lingering notion you may have that expensive, boutique "high-end" projectors must be better than inexpensive models built for the larger consumer audience. That is simply no longer true.
Sony Bravia VPL-HW15 vs. AE4000
The Sony HW15 is clearly the best value in home theater projectors we've yet seen from Sony. Since buyers will pay $3,000 for it, it is priced somewhat higher than all of the other models in this comparison except for the stratospherically priced Samsung A900B.
The HW15 has an extremely bright Cinema mode. Though it is rated at only 1000 lumens, Cinema mode measured a whopping 830 lumens. That is simply too much light for many dark room installations, but the good news is that low lamp mode drops it by a good 30% down to 575. Still, the HW15's Cinema image in low lamp mode is a bit brighter than the AE4000's Cinema mode with full lamp power. In order to match the HW15's picture brightness the AE4000 must be put into Normal mode.
The 1.6x manual zoom lens loses a maximum of 22% of the projectors light when at its maximum long throw position, compared to the AE4000's 2.0x zoom with 41% loss. So it is difficult not to end up with enough light from the HW15 no matter how you set it up.
It is rare to find a feature on any home theater projector that the AE4000 does not have, but the HW15 has a good one....it has the ability to adjust the alignment of the three SXRD (LCoS) imaging devices. On any LCD, LCoS, or 3-chip DLP projector, the chips may eventually slip out of alignment over time. The HW15 has a way to correct that, which may save you from having to send it in for adjustment down the road.
As far as picture quality is concerned, the HW15 rivals the AE4000. Color accuracy is extremely close, and the images are equally sharp unless you turn the AE4000's Digital Clarity Processor up to +4, which is about as high as we'd ever want to set it. At that setting the AE4000 shows a bit more detail. The AE4000 has an edge in color saturation and contrast, but the differences are small.
The HW15 has a touch more digital noise, which imparts a very subtle graininess that is only noticeable when the two are compared side by side. With the lower noise plus the detail clarity advantage, the AE4000 is capable of a slightly clearer picture with a bit more three-dimensionality. But again, the differences are small.
The HW15 lacks many of the features of the AE4000. It does not have frame interpolation, or powered zoom/focus, or Lens Memory. So again, like with so many of the other competing units, if these features are important to you, they tip your decision in favor of the AE4000. If they aren't, it comes down to price, brightness, picture quality, and brand allegiance which Sony tends to have in spades.
Fan noise on the HW15 is almost silent. It is low on the AE4000, but not silent.
Overall, we feel the same about the Sony HW15 as we do about the Mitsubishi HC6800. It is a gorgeous projector, and anyone who buys one is going to love it. The primary concern is the $3,000 price tag. At that price, it faces some serious competition from Epson and Panasonic.