Best Cheap Home Theater Projectors
Home theater projectors are getting amazingly affordable. Not only can you buy a Full HD 1080p resolution home theater projector for just $499 to $650, there are at least eight projectors to choose from at the moment. They are, in alpha order:
Compare Projector Specs: To see a complete side by side comparison of the specs of all eight of these projectors click here.
To at least some extent, all of these projectors are candidates for a traditional home theater setup, a family-room TV substitute, or setting up as needed to take them from room to room or to the backyard for a movie night. Most--not all--are good choices for gaming, with input lags in the 16 ms range. Some are good choices for 3D movies. One doesn't support 3D. Some support it, but with some limitations.
The question, of course, is which projectors are best for what applications. You can find details on each projector in its own review. In this overview we'll discuss how they compare to each other in features that can be critical to some applications (like brightness level) or personal tastes (like fan noise or tendency to show rainbows).
If you can't stand fan noise... All of the projectors in this roundup are small enough that they don't have room for much sound dampening. That translates to fan noise being noticeable for most during quiet moments in a movie. The Optoma HD29Darbee is a notable exception.
In a family room with ambient sound from, say, a ceiling fan, the HD29Darbee is the only projector in this round up that is quiet enough in its full power mode so most people won't be bothered by it even in quiet moments. In Eco mode, it is almost silent - you'd have to be sitting within two or three feet to notice it even in a quiet room.
The fan noise for most of the others is about the same in their Eco modes as is the HD29Darbee in Bright mode. When comparing High Altitude modes, the HD29Darbee is also the quietest for both full power and Eco modes.
Lowest Input Lag. For serious gamers who won't settle for anything but the lowest input lag they can find, five models are essentially tied for that honor at 16.4 or 16.5 ms: The Optoma HD143X, HD27e, and HD29Darbee, and the ViewSonic PJD7720HD and PJD7828HDL.
Fewest Rainbow Artifacts. If you hate rainbow artifacts and try to avoid DLP projectors as a result, you will be pleasantly surprised to find that this is essentially a non-issue with this batch of projectors. As a three-chip 3LCD model, the Epson HC 1060 can't produce rainbow artifacts. But we also saw virtually none with any of the Optoma models, and we saw few enough with the ViewSonic and BenQ models that it is hard to believe anyone would find them annoying.
Black level, shadow detail, and contrast. The eight projectors in this roundup fall into two groups for black level and shadow detail, with the Epson HC 1060 in one group and everything else in the other. As with most inexpensive 3LCD projectors, the HC 1060's black level isn't all that black, which leads to not holding shadow detail very well and makes the HC 1060 far less suited to use in a dark theater room. The trade-off is that the Epson 1060 is by far the brightest of the projectors in this group, making it best suited to stand up to ambient light without losing significant contrast.
All of the other projectors use DLP chips, and all score better than the Epson projector on both black level and shadow detail. They are also closely matched to each other. In testing each one separately, we would rate them all as good in both areas, but not great, which is to say they aren't a match for more expensive home theater projectors.
In side by side comparisons, it is hard to see any meaningful differences between the DLP projectors in shadow detail separation. There are some differences in black level, but any comparison is complicated by auto irises and automatic power adjustments, both of which adjust image brightness based on the contents of the image. With images with black or near-black areas, each projector can wind up adjusting the brightness differently, so which one has the darkest black varies depending on the image. When viewing images that have less dominant black elements, there is no visible difference. In short, from a practical perspective, all of the DLP models offer similar shadow detail and black level.
With respect to contrast, the Epson HC 1060 is notably lower in contrast than any of the DLP models when viewed in the dark. However there are more significant differences between the DLP projectors for contrast than for black level or shadow detail. Those differences are discussed in the reviews.
Audio. Hopefully you will be using external surround sound for big audio to match the big pictures produced by these home theater projectors. However, all eight models have built-in speakers that you can use in a pinch. If you will be depending on the projector's onboard sound, the ViewSonic Pro7827HD delivers the best sound quality in the group, while the other two ViewSonic models and the Optoma HD143X and HD27e are all bunched together as close seconds.
Also note that all of the ViewSonic projectors offer higher volume than any of the other models, making any of them a better fit for larger rooms. The BenQ 1070A delivers the lowest volume in the group. Plan to use an external sound system with it in most cases.
Almost all of these projectors offer a stereo output so you can use the projector to switch audio sources along with video. The only exception is the Epson HC 1060.
Warrantees. The ViewSonic PJD7828HDL and ViewSonic Pro7827HD offer the best warranties in this group: three years for the projector, one year for the lamp, and one year advanced exchange. The Epson HC 1060 comes next, at two years for the projector and 90 days for the lamp, followed by the BenQ HT1070A, at one year for the projector and lamp. All the others are one year for the projector and 90 days for the lamp.
Lamp Replacement Cost. Which projector will cost less in the long run will vary depending on how many hours a week you plan to use the projector as well as the lamp power level you use, since the level determines the life of the lamp. Since these projector all have fairly long lamp lives, many users will end up wanting to upgrade their projector before they ever need a replacement lamp.
However, if you do plan to put a lot of hours on your projector with the lamp in full power, you can anticipate the need to replace the lamp at some point. At this writing the replacement lamp prices are these:
|Epson HC 1060|
|ViewSonic Pro 7827HD|
Most Portable. None of these projectors is big or heavy, but if you need a projector that's particularly easy to move around, the Optoma HD29Darbee is the smallest and lightest (5.1 pounds), and the ViewSonic PJD7720HD and PJD7828HDL are close seconds (5.3 pounds each). The heaviest are the Optoma HD143X and Optoma HD27e (6.75 pounds each).
Most flexible Setup. The Epson HC 1060 and ViewSonic Pro7827HD have about equal right to the claim of offering most setup flexibility. All eight of these projectors are designed for setup either in a ceiling mount or on a flat surface. However, the vertical offset for all of the DLP projectors places the entire image above the centerline of the lens when sitting on a table. So these projectors have to be placed on a relatively low surface to avoid having to use keystone correction, which can lower brightness, soften edges, and introduce artifacts in images with finely detailed repeating patterns. This offset is ideal for ceiling mounts since the projector shoots the image downward, entirely below the centerline when it is inverted.
The Epson HC 1060 is a bit different with a lower vertical offset. The bottom edge of the image is 6% of the image height below the centerline of the lens. This makes it somewhat easier to place on a shelf behind the seats and project over the heads of the audience -- although the HC 1060's relatively short throw may or may not require you to sit closer to the screen than you would like if you install it this way. Check throw distances for the screen size you want to make sure it fits your desired installation plan.
The HC 1060 also offers a slightly greater zoom, at 1.2x, than most of the other models, at 1.1x. It is also the only projector among the eight models with four-corner correction, built-in Wi-Fi support, and the ability to read files from a USB key. All eight offer vertical keystone correction, but only the Epson HC 1060 and ViewSonic Pro7827HD add horizontal keystone.
The Pro7827HD doesn't have four-corner correction, Wi-Fi, or the ability to read files from a USB key, but it offers even greater zoom than the HC 1060, at 1.3x, and it adds a small vertical lens shift which can be extremely helpful in targeting your projector to an installed screen. Vertical lens shift is a feature common to expensive home theater projectors but rarely found at this price level. The Pro 7827HD is also the only projector in the group with three HDMI ports rather than two.
Best Projectors for Each Application
The Chart below summarizes our picks for the best projectors in each of the most common applications:
- Classic Home Theater (dedicated dark viewing room)
- Family room TV substitute (ambient light, parties, etc)
- Portable use (room-to-room, backyard movie nights)
- Video Gaming (rapid response, short input lag)
- 3D Display (with glasses in a dark viewing room)