When the Epson Home Cinema 4050 4K PRO-UHD projector was introduced at September's CEDIA Expo, Epson touted some improvements over earlier models. Among these was an update to its 1080p pixel-shifting technology that came with the claim of delivering equal detail to even some native 4K projectors. Alongside this, Epson also cited revised tone-mapping to benefit the rendering of HDR (high dynamic range) content found on UHD Blu-rays and some streamed content.

The release just a few weeks later of the Epson Home Cinema 4010, the consumer version of this projector, set off a bit of stir among projector enthusiasts. Along with the above-mentioned improvements, the 4010 came with a couple hundred more lumens of output than its predecessor, the Epson Home Cinema 4000, and with a marginally boosted contrast ratio. With its $2199 list price and $1799 street price, the 4010 was also starting out $200 below the initial price of the HC4000. ProjectorCentral's readers began asking how the Home Cinema 4010 compares with the Home Cinema 5040UB, which at this writing remains the direct step-up model to the HC4010. It offers similar features coupled with significantly higher rated contrast and deeper black levels, the result of Epson's Ultra Black "UB" 3LCD imagers. What is the value of the improved pixel shifting and HDR in the 4010—are these monumental or just evolutionary changes? And how about the impact of the additional contrast and light output? Would these two projectors now be so close in performance that one could more easily justify skipping the $500 premium for the HC5040? Let's try to get those answers.

Epson HC4010 and HC5040
The Epson HC4010 and HC5040 share the same housing and look identical from the outside.

What is the Difference Between the Epson HC4010 and HC5040UB?

As with the Epson HC4000 vs. the HC5040UB, which my colleague Evan Powell faced off in July 2017, the new HC4010 and HC5040UB have much more in common than they do differences. Both offer a number of higher-end projector features not typically found at their price points, including robust and heavy build quality; the same outstanding 2.1x zoom, 15 glass-element lens that Epson "over-engineered" a couple of years ago to insure its longevity into future model years; compatibility with 4K/UHD HDR content, resolution enhancement via 1080p pixel-shifting; powered lens functions including long-range lens shift and 10 lens position memories for use with constant image height (CIH) widescreen installs; a dynamic iris to help boost contrast performance on dark scenes; and 1080p 3D playback. Both projectors use exactly the same white housing, which is why one photo is used here to illustrate them. The obvious differences in specifications between the models are limited to the following:

Home Cinema
Home Cinema
$1,799 (street price)
$2,299 (street price)

Along with these measurable differences in rated brightness/contrast and the $500 price gap, are the previously mentioned updated pixel-shifting, which Epson calls 4K PRO-UHD, and the improved HDR tone-mapping, which are both found in the newer and less expensive model. Both of these new advances are expected to turn up in future Epson models, including a still unannounced but imminently pending update to the HC5040.

Except as otherwise noted, I had both projectors set to the Digital Cinema color mode in its default settings for all of my evaluations. Also, readers should note that my 5040UB sample was updated just prior to my evaluation to the latest firmware, which directly addresses HDR tone-mapping for older Home Cinema HDR models. Those with a HC5040UB or HC4000 can find the update instructions here and the firmware here.

Epson HC4010 vs Epson HC5040UB: Contrast & Black Level

Let's start with the elephant in the room: contrast and black level. These are, more than anything, how Epson delineates these two models, which are otherwise so close in max lumen output as to be virtually the same.

When Evan compared the HC5040UB with the HC4000, the gist of his findings were that the HC5040 had about the same perceived contrast on most content and noticeably deeper blacks that were visible only under certain conditions. Specifically, dark room viewing on scenes with low average picture level (APL) allowed the 5040UB to show off obviously deeper blacks in dark areas of the image and letterbox bars, as well as marginally better contrast in some areas of some images on more mixed scenes with a combination of bright and dark sections. These differences, particularly in the black level, could be detected in direct comparisons, but any contrast/black level deficiencies in the HC4000 were never egregious and it basically looked very good in this regard for projectors in this price range. Turn up the lights for ambient light viewing, and any contrast/black level advantages of the 5040UB were largely eliminated.

Well, after some hours of evaluation, I'm here to tell you that even with its modest bump in rated contrast, the new 4010 compares about the same with the 5040UB as the HC4000 did. In dark room theater viewing of many typical bright and mixed APL scenes, I was hard-pressed to find any differences at all between the two projectors. In that regard, I came away even more impressed with how the less-pricey 4010 over-delivers on the vast majority of program material.

But introduce really dark, challenging scenes, and the 5040 absolutely outclasses the 4010, with or without its dynamic iris turned on. On these dark scenes, which cause the viewer's own iris's to open wider and therefore delineate finer differences between gray and black, the 5040's advantage was not only noticeable but staggering at times.

Take for example an early scene from the Stephen King horror movie It, when the main character Bill sends his six-year old brother Georgie to the creepy basement of their home to fetch some wax for the paper sailboat he's making for him (chapter 1, 00:02:58). The whole scene is drenched in darkness and shadows to evoke the ominous and horrifying events yet to come. I used the UHD Blu-ray for this, with HDR Dynamic Range in Auto mode (Epson's recommended setting and equivalent to the manual HDR 2 mode). As Georgie stands atop the stairs and peers down, the black of the darkness behind him, as well as in the letterbox bars, is distinctly deeper and more solid on the 5040. In fact, the entire image on the 4010 appears to have a haze over it by comparison. At the same time, even in such a dim scene, the good contrast between the darkness and the highlights on Georgie's barely lit face adds greater depth to the image on the 5040, and there's a noticeable difference in color saturation in the boy's skin and hair that also makes the 5040 look more natural.

A quick look at everybody's favorite black-level torture test, the opening of Chapter 12 in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (00:46:05), revealed similar results. In this scene, Voldemort's army of Death Eaters is assembled in the moonlight on a rock outcropping overlooking Hogwarts, readying for their attack. Their faces are highlighted by the moonlight, while their black robes and the surrounding mountain landscape in the distance are drenched in dark shadows. On this scene from the Blu-ray (1080p SDR), the 5040 crushed some of the details in their robes and faces that the 4010 initially revealed, but a couple of clicks up on the 5040's Brightness control brought these out without any meaningful sacrifice in black level. Meanwhile, the depth of black on the 5040 gave its image a punchy solidity, while the 4010 exhibited the same shade of gray seen earlier.

I should put this in perspective: These are very difficult scenes for any projector—indeed, for any type of display—and while neither of these projectors should be considered state-of-the-art for contrast, these clips were not by any means unwatchable on the 4010. But if black level and dark-scene contrast are the holy grail that separates the good, better, and best home theater projectors, the 5040 was clearly the alpha here—and not by a little bit.

Round 1 for contrast and blacks goes to the Home Cinema 5040UB, hands down.

Epson HC 4010 vs Epson HC5040UB: Resolution & Detail

Epson has referred in the past to its 1080p pixel-shifting technology as "4K Enhanced" and now calls its improved tech "4K PRO-UHD." Technically speaking, the company has made adjustments in this latest iteration that have the effect of shortening the transition time between the pixel shifts while also keeping the pixels on-screen for a marginally longer period, which is said to improve rendering of detail.

Additionally, this and previous generations of Epson's pixel-shifting solution utilize a degree of image processing to enhance contrast characteristics. Some of this processing may be handled differently in this new version, though both systems appear to behave similarly in use. If you look at a Sharpness test pattern and turn on the 4K Enhancement function, as you move up the range from Preset 1 (least enhancement) to Preset 5 (most enhancement), it has the effect of adding white halos to horizontal and vertical black lines—essentially the effect of classic edge enhancement. The first two 4K Enhancement settings add little halo to the lines on the pattern but do noticeably crisp up the image. (Epson uses Preset 2 as its default in most of the preferred color modes.) The step between Preset 2 and Preset 3 is the most dramatic, with a much larger boost in edge enhancement (and perceived detail), while those between Presets 3, 4, and 5 are fairly subtle.

Epson 4K PRO-UHD Pixel-Shifting
Epson's 4K PRO-UHD technology accelerates the pixel shifting to enhance performance.

What you'll find with real program material is that the edge enhancement processing can become more noticeable and occasionally egregious in some content on the higher presets, typically with higher frame rate video as opposed to movie-based 24 frame-per second material. Also, the higher presets may begin to create a mottling effect in some out-of-focus areas in the frame, or on coarse film grain when it is present—an effect that is eliminated or greatly curtailed by dialing down to Preset 2. This mottling is subtle but definitely visible at seating distance, though it is restricted to these areas of inherent digital noise caused by lack of focus or other factors. When I reviewed the HC4010 recently, I typically left the Enhancement turned up to Preset 4 or 5 to pick up the maximum level of detail the system could offer and rarely felt the need to dial it back.

I worked hard to try to delineate the differences in how each projector handled test patterns and video scenes at similar 4K Enhnancement settings. With a 4K spiral pattern (SDR, 8-bit; see below), raising the settings from Off through Preset 5 increasingly sharpened the finest lines surrounding the black center and along the curved edges of the pinwheels. That is, areas previously mashed together as white revealed more black between the converging lines to bring them into greater focus. Both projectors tracked virtually the same on this pattern in every area of the frame and at every setting but one. The exception was Preset 3, where the 4010 appeared to do an ever slightly better job of delineating the spokes coming off the curved lines on the pinwheels as they fanned off from the center. But this difference was difficult to see even at close range, and diminished at my 10 foot viewing distance. It was almost literally splitting hairs.

UHD Spiral Test Pattern
4K Spiral Resolution Test Pattern

With real program material, differences between the projectors in the rendering of detail were infrequent and hard to spot without very careful examination of paused video frames. But when there was an advantage it went to the 5040. Critically —and I must strongly emphasize this—we have no way of knowing how much of this can be attributed to differences in the pixel-shifting scheme. Epson reminded me during a meeting with their technical team that the 5040's contrast advantage positively affects the perception of detail—and suggested that a better test of their old pixel-shifting against their new pixel-shifting would come from a comparison of the 5040 and its soon-to-be-announced replacement. There's also the slim possibility that some sample-to-sample variation in the lenses came into play, though I tend to dismiss this because the 5040's advantage could be observed at different times in both the center and toward the outer edges of the screen, but not on every scene. Whatever the cause, some areas of some images definitely displayed a subtle but noticeable improvement in detail on the 5040 that was observable at viewing distance.

A not-for-sale UHD demo disc supplied to the press years ago by Panasonic (8-bit, Rec.709 SDR) provided a number of useful 4K video clips for testing image sharpness. On one of them, a train makes its way through autumn woods (screen shot below). There are tons of fine details in this scene, including thin branches that have already lost their leaves, sections of crisply photographed leaves bursting with bright color, small mechanical details and signage on the train, and a black-painted brick industrial building in the background. The two projectors started out largely identical in all areas of the image at most of the Enhancement settings. They looked very soft with Enhancement off, and got marginally sharper through Preset 2. At Preset 3 and above, however, there was a noticeable difference in the moss-covered fence at the center-foreground of the image, which on the 5040 had a bit of additional depth and dimensionality. The 5040 was better able to bring out the sublte dark areas between the vertical fence slats. The 5040 also exhibited a touch more definition in the red, yellow, and green leaves seen at center frame, left of the tracks. On close inspection, it appeared that the individual pixels were better defined. Other areas of the frame, whether in the foreground or background, retained similarly sharp and matching focus on both projectors.

UHD Train Demo Clip (Courtesy of Panasonic)
UHD train demo clip (Courtesy of Panasonic)

Interestingly, this subtle advantage for the 5040 was really only seen on very fine, distant details in long camera shots. That advantage was lost on sharp close-ups, even those with equally fine details, where both projectors performed beautifully and with almost breathtaking clarity. For example, in another clip from this demo disc showing a woman in a kimono enjoying a cup of tea outdoors, the projectors were equals in their ability to reproduce the sharpness of the sunlit hairs coming off her head and eyebrows, and the smoothness of her make-up. And on super tight close-ups of Tom Cruise's face in Oblivion (Chapter 1, 00:01:29) and of Scarlett Johannson's eyes in Lucy (Chapter 18, 01:12:28), the projectors also performed identically and generated striking images.

In the end, it's safe to say that the differences between the HC4010 and HC5040 on delivery of picture detail are very modest and restricted to small, fine details in certain types of scenes that the HC5040 handled better. I again have to put this in perspective, because the 4010, with an unusually fine lens for its price point, is exceptionally sharp. Furthermore, I have little doubt that the difference between the two would be nigh impossible to detect in the absence of a direct side-by-side comparison, and totally lost in the presence of any object motion or a camera pan or zoom. These differences are that tiny. Still, this is a shoot-out, so I'll have to declare that Round 2, for resolution and detail, goes to the HC5040.

Epson HC4010 vs Epson HC5040UB:
HDR Tone-Mapping

The Epson 4010 and 5040UB are engineered to recognize content mastered for HDR10, the most common form of HDR that's found on UHD Blu-ray discs and some streamed content. HDR content is often mastered to deliver bright highlights of 1,000 nits or more, well beyond the capability of most projectors and barely within the capabilities of today's better flatpanel TVs. So all consumer displays have to remap the content to make it look best within their own usable dynamic range. This so-called "tone-mapping" inevitably leads to compromise. Sometimes, highlights are necessarily clipped in order to achieve maximum visceral impact and punch, but at the sacrifice of accepting blooming and a loss of detail in these bright sections of the image.

The 4010 and 5040 each offer the same manual settings for HDR, labeled HDR Mode 1, 2, 3, and 4. There are also two automatic settings that kick in when the projector sees an HDR10 flag in the conent: Auto (Bright) is equivalent to HDR Mode 1, and Auto is equivalent to selecting HDR Mode 2. As you progress in the settings from Mode 1 to Mode 4, the overall image gets progressively darker, and in doing so the the brightest highlights in the content are reduced in brightness to curtail or eliminate clipping and retain more detail. So, your HDR setting is by nature a trade-off. If you're watching in a dark theater and want super-bright, impactful highlights that render more emotional impact, set it for Mode 1 or Mode 2, but expect to lose, for example, the circular perimeter that defines the shape of a setting sun, and maybe some of the detail and contrast in the clouds or landscape surrounding it. If you want to see more of the detail in those areas, use Mode 3 or Mode 4, but you'll be sacrificing the bright highlights that give HDR its emotive effect.

I started my HDR comparison of the projectors by calling up the HDR grayscale test patterns that are hidden as an Easter Egg on many Sony-released UHD Blu-ray titles. You start at the Top Menu of any Sony UHD disc, call up the number entry function on your player or access the remote's numeric keypad, and type in 7-6-6-9. A variety of 100-nit color targets and 10-step grayscale patterns come up. The grayscale patterns cover the ranges from 0 nits through 100 nits, 100 nits through 1000 nits, 1000 through 2000 nits, and 2000 through 10,000 nits. (All displayed as 4K/24p, 12-bit, 4:2:2 HDR on the Epsons.)

HDR Grayscale Step Pattern
HDR grayscale step pattern with Epson HDR menu (pattern courtesy of Sony)

With the low-black step pattern, 0-100 nits, it was easy to see that when the projectors are in HDR Mode 1 or Mode 2 the 4010 slightly better handled the first very fine steps out of black, showing more distinction between the steps below 1 nit. In Mode 2, everything above 5 nits takes on less brightness and punch, and the 5040's lower black floor seems to come into play and further dulls things beyond what Mode 2 does to the image on the 4010, which retained a little more punch. Go to Mode 3, and everything below 1 nit on the 5040 is crushed into black, while the 4010 retains some modest delineation in the intermediate steps from black to that level. By the time you get to Mode 4, the 5 nit bar on both projectors takes a big hit in brightness along with all the higher steps, casting a kind of pall over the image on both projectors. But the 4010 still shows more even gradation below that 5 nit level compared with the 5040.

On the higher end of the scale, the 100-1000 nit steps showed that in Mode 1 or Mode 2, both projectors basically clip everything above 500 nits. The 4010 continued to show greater distinction between the steps below that point, however, with more natural gradation from 100 to 200 nits. Moving to Mode 3 or 4 allows display of all the steps in this pattern up to 1000 nits, though at much lower brightness. Mode 4 was also the only setting that doesn't fully clip every step on the 1000-2000 nit grayscale pattern. In that mode, both projectors showed all the steps, however they also both showed a lack of delineation in the steps from 1,300 to 1,500 nits.

Taken in total, the step patterns suggest that while there is not a huge difference in how the 4010 and 5040 render HDR, it would appear that Epson's tone mapping in the 4010 makes for somewhat better delineation of shadings coming out of black and less crushing of near black, and perhaps a bit more fineness in the handling of small differences in brightness up to perhaps 400 nits—near its peak output capabilties in HDR Mode 1 and Mode 2.

To check some real-world content, I dialed up a super-bright HDR torture clip from the movie Pan that I've seen used in manufacturer demos and as test fodder in the Value Electronics TV Shootout I recently helped judge. In Chapter 2, Peter gets kidnapped and taken aboard a flying pirate ship that makes its way toward Neverland. At 00:18:56, the ship navigates directly into a bright, setting sun in a sky punctuated by clouds and glassy-looking bubble spheres of water that contain swimming fish. The sun is so bright in this CGI-generated scene that most displays fully blow it out and turn the sun and everything around it into a giant, yellow blotch. If you turn the HDR setting on the Epsons down to Mode 4 on this scene you've dimmed the overall picture enough to tame it and make evident the sun's peripheral outline and the clouds in front of it. At that setting there was no clear advantage for either projector, but nor was the image quality really bright enough to provide any real visual impact.

However, in the brighter modes, despite losing the firm outline of the sun and seeing the surface textures blown out on the big bubble sphere at center screen, the 4010 delivered some subtle but noticeable improvements over the 5040. At HDR Mode 3 the 4010 showed more punch overall, and a bit more detail in the sun's outline in the clipped area. There was no doubt I was getting a little better contrast on this bright scene with the 4010—the wispy horizontal clouds that shroud the sun are in greater relief and the clouds can be seen reaching out further into the sun's halo. That contrast advantage became even clearer in HDR Mode 2, Epson's recommended mode, where the outline of the ship as it's heading into the sun appears darker and less washed out against the hyper-bright background. You can also see more of the darker shadings in some of the clouds, which gave them back some of their depth and dimensionality.

On HDR scenes that were darker overall or had a mix of dark and bright elements, the deeper native black level of the 5040 was sometimes visible, but not often in the brighter HDR Modes 1 and 2, which I always preferred for their punch and impact regardless of any loss of detail from the clipping. I mentioned earlier the scene from It, for example—an HDR scene that clearly benefitted from the 5040's contrast advantage. On mixed scenes that advantage was less pronounced. In the New York Library sequence in Oblivion (Chpter 3, 00:17:20), Tom Cruise's character is shown with backlighting behind him and the bright spot beam on his weapon facing toward the camera into the darkness. In HDR Mode 1, there was no difference between the projectors in the intensity of the spotlight when it's visible, but the 5040's deeper blacks brought out just a touch more shadow detail in the dimly lit debris visible in the darkness one floor below. Again, a subtle difference that would likely be missed in the absence of direct A/B comparison.

With all that said, we'll give this last round to the 4010 for its marginally better HDR performance on a range of material.

Epson HC4010 vs. Epson HC5040UB: Conclusion

To sum up the findings, there are three key takeaways from our shoot-out:

  • The HC5040 has better contrast and, especially, lower black levels that far exceed the capabilities of the HC4010, but which are really only brought to bear on very dark scenes, and in dark-room theater viewing. On most bright or mixed material, or in even moderate ambient light, both projectors are close in contrast performance.

  • The jury is still out on the added value of Epson's new updated 4K PRO-UHD pixel shifting technology. It did not appear in my testing to give the HC4010 any clearly discernible advantage over the 5040 in the rendering of detail, and in fact, the 5040's marginally better performance in this area on some types of scenes may have been the result of that projector's superior contrast overwhelming any modest benefit from the revised pixel-shifting. We'll wait for an opportunity to hopefully compare the 5040 with the 5040's successor before passing judgement on 4K PRO-UHD.

  • Epson appears to have made some small but noticeable improvements in the handling of HDR content in the 4010, though these are hardly significant enough to justify passing on the 5040's higher contrast and deeper blacks if one's inclinations and budget permits.

In the final analysis, then, I can't come to any conclusion that's radically different from what Evan arrived at when he faced off the 5040 with the 4000, the 4010's predecessor, other than to perhaps place higher value on the 5040's better blacks. My own opinion is that if you care about having a great picture for dark-room/dark-scene performance, it's worth seriously considering the 5040. Granted, it's a significant $500 premium over the 4010—about 28%—but $2,299 is still a fair price for such a solidly built, well-featured, high-performance projector. The passionate home theater enthusiast will come to appreciate what this projector does right with the toughest content.

On the other hand, if your budget is tighter, or your application calls mostly for viewing in ambient light, save the $500 or put it toward a UHD Blu-ray player or discs and buy the HC4010. It can't be described as the best overall performer among these two, a title still held by the HC5040 and one that will likely be inherited by the 5040's successor. But the HC4010 can be said to deliver most of the performance of the HC5040 on the vast majority of viewing material. And among these two, it most certainly remains the best value.