JVC DLA-NX7 4K D-ILA Projector Review
4K/HDR Viewing. Darkest Hour, in which the actor Gary Oldman eerily brings to life every aspect of Winston Churchill's personality and physical presence, focuses on the few days leading to and following Churchill's appointment as prime minister just as England and all of Europe is forced to face the reality of Hitler's full ambitions. The opening scene shows Parliament's House of Commons in a daytime session, lit by skylights that allow the sun to stream into the chamber and spotlighting the Opposition Leader orating at the central table while his collegues sit in the surrounding bleachers.
With its HDR10 mode engaged, the the NX7 did a spectacular job of first pulling out details in the faces of the legion of MPs (members of Parliament) in the dark, showdowy bleachers, then delivering beautiful pop to the speaker's face as the camera swings around and catches him with a close-up. The highlight on his bald head reflected the bright sun with vivid punch, but did so without any blooming or blow-out, and his skin tone was natural with no excessive pink or red lean. Here again, the NX7's 4K imagers and superb lens revealed all the finest details: the make-up on his nose, the craggy lines in his face, the deeper lines in his jowls, the texture and color of his gray suit with its black pinstripes. The white pocket square that emerged from his pocket popped nicely off the screen and showed perfect neutrality, with no hint of pink or blue tint.
I explored the Auto Tone-Mapping function with this and some other HDR discs. As a baseline, my calibrated settings for the HDR gamma menu were Picture Tone 2, Dark Level -1, and Bright Level 0. Darkest Hour, for example, is a relatively dark movie with a MaxCLL of just 662 nits and a MaxFALL of 151 nits as reported by the projector's Info menu page. With these readings, the JVC system selected Picture Tone 3, Dark Level 0, and Bright Level 4. So, JVC's algorithm pumped up the picture brightness overall and the bright highlights more aggressively than my calibration. But I found that with this and other movies, the Auto settings could look marginally better or worse than my own, depending on the scene. At about six minutes into the film, for example, Churchill's new typist is taking instructions from his chief of staff in the dim hallway outside his bedroom, and on this shot my settings were too dark and buried her face in shadow. By comparison, the JVC's Auto settings nicely brought out the contrast in her face and around the outline of her dark dress, while also delivering a blacker black and more flushed out highlights on the leafy wallpaper behind her.
A moment later, she finds herself in Churchill's bedroom, which is bathed in bright sunlight and cast shadows. In this lighting, the Auto settings made the bright highlights a bit too hot and washed out some contrast in the dark areas, while my own settings made highlights look more natural while also better retaining (but not crushing) the darker, shadowy parts of the image. Still, as I watched through the rest of the movie, with its outdoor scenes and a variety of interiors ranging from palace parlors to the shadowy interiors in Britain's War Room bunker, I often found the JVC's Auto selections preferable to my own, and sometimes by a lot.
First Man, the biopic about Neil Armstrong's life in the astronaut program leading up to his moon landing, is a demanding HDR showcase that's moody and dark (literally and figuratively). There are tons of tough interior shots in shadowy cockpits and spacecraft, often punctuated with bright highlights of earth or the moon through a window. In Chapter 18, when the astronauts open the LEM hatch, the clarity of texture and bright sunlight on the gray lunar surface against the deep black of space in the top half of the frame was simply breathtaking on the NX7. Again, my DLA-X790 produced a slightly deeper black, but didn't match the brilliance of the highlights on the NX7 or show as clearly all the undulations and while speckles of light reflecting off the metallic rocks scattered about—probably a result of both the NX7's tone-map and better lens. The crisp white of Armstrong's space suit during his moon walk leaped off the screen, and the natural reflections in a shot of the sun coming off his helmet visor, helped bring this photorealistic scene to life.
The metatdata on this title reports as 1,000 nits MaxCLL and MaxFALL at 285 nits. This time, the JVC's Auto tone-map settings—Picture tone 2, Dark Level 0, and Bright Level 0—were virtually equal to my calibration. Only my Dark Level setting, at -1, was lower by one click. So differences between my calibrated tone-map and JVC's auto tone-map were more difficult to detect on this disc. Nonetheless, on scenes of mixed brightness the extra click up on the Dark Level commanded by the Auto setting gave just the right touch of helpful, extra brightness to the dark areas on the LEM without raising the highlights in any noticeable way.
Where JVC's algorithm did falter somewhat, whether with the Auto Tone-Mapping feature or the new Frame Adapt mode, was with very bright scenes on very bright movies, where it sometimes erred on the side of making things too bright at the cost of overall contrast and depth. Several examples were seen on The Meg, a modern-day reboot of Jaws featuring a giant, prehistoric shark (as in, we're gonna need a much, much bigger boat). The metadata on this disc reports as 4,000 MaxCLL and 1,193 MaxFALL, with both exceptionally bright highlights and average brightness throughout. As an example, a shot of a ship on the brightly lit ocean pumped up the sun's reflections on the water too much, sacrificing detail in that section of the image as well as contrast in the ship's white hull. Moving from the JVC's Auto-Tone Map feature in HDR10 mode to its new Frame Adaptive mode actually made things even brighter—one of the few times that the Frame Adaptive settings weren't preferable to the auto-tone map. By comparison, the Dynamic Tone-Mapping feature applied by LG's HU85LA projector resulted in a consistently darker image overall but one with more depth (see below). Still, the very best picture I could accomplish on this scene, and in The Meg overall, was delivered by turning off the automatic tone-mapping features in the JVC's HDR10 mode and manually adjusting its HDR gamma controls to fine tune it for this title—admittedly a challenging outlier among HDR discs.
Auto vs. Frame-Adapt Tone-Mapping. After loading in JVC's new firmware, I did some direct A/B comparisons between the Auto Tone-Map option in the HDR10 color mode vs. the independent Frame Adapt color mode. With Frame Adapt selected, you get two menu controls for fine-tuning. First, you can choose between Scene-by-Scene or Frame-by-Frame tone-mapping. And for either, there's an HDR Level control with Auto, Low, Medium, and High settings.
A JVC official described the Frame-by-Frame setting as being "more aggressive" than the default Scene-by-Scene option, and suggested it would be the right choice for most individuals. But in extensive viewing, I saw no easily discernable differences between the two, whether I compared still frames or entire sequences. In the end, I opted to just leave the control on the more granular Frame-by-Frame option. I also left the HDR Level control on Auto, which typically delivered the same result as the Low setting, though on some darker scenes raising the level to Medium or High had a modest effect. Critically, after some experimentation I also changed the JVC's Input Level control, which resulted in a much better HDR experience whether I was watching the HDR10 mode or the Frame Adaptive mode. Shifting it from its default Auto selection, which usually equated to the Video setting (video levels 16-235) to the 16-255 (Super White) setting allowed for similarly boosted bright levels but better retained depth and contrast in the mid-tone and darker areas .
While studying challenging still frames from different movie titles with these settings, I usually saw differences between the JVC's regular Auto Tone-Map (based on the disc metadata) and its Frame Adaptive tone-map. These were at once subtle and obvious, in that they cannily boosted very specific highlights or adjusted the dark areas ever so slightly to enhance the image in a way that gave it a clearly improved, more organic look. Engaging Frame Adapt had the most dramatic effect with darker scenes and those with mixed bright and dark elements, while its benefits were less obvious on overall bright camera shots.
One excellent example was the open of Chapter 15 in The Greatest Showman (1:07:35), in which Barnum is packing a suitcase for travel at the foot of his bed while his wife reclines at the headboard, wearing a lacy, blue chiffon night dress. Sunlight is streaming in through a large window and throwing some narrow beams on three spots: one on the bedsheet, one on the ruffles in the fabric on her knee, and one on her hand. Auto Tone-Mapping alone does a nice job contrasting the shadows in the room from the bright morning light and makes the scene feel very natural and beautiful. But, engaging the Frame Adapt HDR mode boosted the highlights ever so slightly and put them in noticeably greater relief, making the entire picture instantly more dimensional. Notably, those highlights were not aggressively punched up to where detail was suddenly lost in those areas for the sake of visceral impact. Instead, it was an almost granular alteration that simply took the image up a notch and made it look more real. It was as though the projector eerily knew exactly how far to push the brightness, and not a bit further, in only those spots where it was required.
Another great example of what Frame Adapt HDR can do occurs in Chapter 4 in Aquaman (32:29), a bright HDR movie with a MaxCLL of 3,241 nits and MaxFALL of 902 nits. This shot shows a facial close up of a dark-skinned pirate at night. He's wearing a black V-neck T-shirt, and the scene is subtly lit from the right, casting just a touch of highlight on his cheek and leaving the left side of his face in shadow against the dark background of his ship. It's a demanding, dark scene that doesn't look bad with Auto Tone-Mapping, but the Frame Adapt tone-map took the overall contrast to an entirely different level. It suddenly became possible to make out the clear edge of his left cheek and stubble against his black shirt, and it eliminated a gray haze over the blacks that I hadn't initially noticed with the auto tone-map and seemed to darken them. The barely lit skin below his chin at the base of the V-neck, and the edges of the collar, emerged from crushed darkness. Here again, these were very fine differences that affected both the lighter and darker portions of the image and made an otherwise low-contrast image far more three-dimensional and realistic.
I compared many other scenes and with few exceptions—all very bright scenes overall with even brighter highlights—the Frame Adapt HDR tone-map was preferable to the Auto Tone-Map. As noted above, I also compared the JVC's Frame Adapt tone-map with the Dynamic Tone-Map feature on the LG HU85LA, which also does frame-by-frame analysis. I found that in most scenes, the LG's algorithm generally opted for lower overall brightness and less punch on the highlights, though it still exhibited a very high contrast, HDR-like image overall with exceptional naturalness and depth. The JVC's Frame Adapt solution was preferable on dark scenes and those of mixed-brightness, but the LG usually looked more dimensional, contrasty, and less washed-out on very bright scenes.
More critical, though, is that both projectors delivered, by far, the best HDR experience I've seen from a projector. You can argue that a better image might have been accomplished on certain scenes with manual fine-tuning using the HDR gamma controls on the JVC, or, for example, the exceptionally wide-range 16-step HDR brightness slider on the new Epsons. But I'll repeat what I said in our review of the LG: having real-time, on-the-fly dynamic tone mapping hugely simplifies the user experience and squeezes the most out of what today's HDR content has to offer. In my opinion, every home theater projector manufacturer should be taking the necessary steps now to add this critical feature.
3D Viewing. The NX7 is Full 3D compatible with the addition of the PK-EM2 emitter, a $99 option, and either JVC's or generic RF active shutter glasses. I successfully paired the XPAND 3D Glasses Lite-RF, model X105-RF-X1, which costs about $40 on Amazon. Surprisingly for such an advanced projector, the NX7 does not automatically detect 3D signals and switch to a separate 3D viewing mode. However, any of the regular viewing modes can be engaged with 3D signals and you can dedicate one of the available User modes to 3D and tune it specifically for 3D content, including full grayscale and color points. The NX7 does automatically detect the type of 3D signal it encounters and adjusts, and provides menu sliders to tweak Parallax and Crosstalk Channel where the content or personal taste dictates.
Although the NX7 projector can't offer the brightness for 3D of some other 3D-compliant models, activating its High lamp mode, fully opening the manual iris, and boosting the Contrast control provided very satisfying punch on my 92-inch, 1.3 gain screen with a variety of discs—and still left more room to take the peak white even brighter for a larger screen. I didn't calibrate for 3D, but the color accuracy in the User 1 mode, which defaults to the D65 color temperature, looked great. An early sequence in an episode of the BBC series Dr. Who ("Dark Water") showed perfectly natural-looking skin tones on close-ups of a Caucasian woman and a black man talking on the telephone; an appropriate yellow on a close-up of some Post-It notes; and good shades and saturation of different types of green foliage in a sunlit park where the man was walking. I saw no crosstalk, and motion artifacts were restricted to the usual blurring that occurs with quick pans, such as those found in the Dr. Who opening animation. (You can engage the JVC's Clear Motion Drive frame interpolation to tame this, though at the usual expense of generating soap opera effect.)
The NX7's clean 3D performance carried through to The Walk, which chronicles Philippe Petit's high-wire journey between New York's Twin Towers. Whether in close up or on long shots of Petit on the cable, the high wire remained solid and stable with no hint of crosstalk, even on deep, vertigo-inducing camera shots looking down to the ground or up from the street. Animated fare, such as the brightly punctuated Minions or the dark and moody Coraline, also looked sensational.
Some additional, final notes: First, it's worth mentioning that I rarely saw dynamic iris pumping artifacts in the Auto 2 setting I used, even on some challenging content that has tripped up other projectors. Once in a while I did notice the auto iris aggressively oversaturating bright highlights appearing on a dark background in its effort to improve contrast, such as on the silvery Warner Brothers logo that appears at the beginning of Gravity, but those instances seemed restricted to credit screens and the like. And with these kinds of stark images, I sometimes saw the white letters momentarily appear yellow, an odd glitch that has been previously reported in at least one published review of JVC's DLA-NX9. But overall, JVC's dynamic aperture appeared to be well managed in this new generation of projectors.
On another front, I saw only the faintest hint of banding artifacts on challenging 1080p, 8-bit content, such as the transition from space to the earth's atmosphere on the Planet Earth opening animation, but it was invisible beyond a 5-foot viewing distance. And I detected no banding artifacts at all with any 10-bit UHD content, including in the grayscale wheels of the downloadable ProjectorCentral 10-bit HDR Grayscale test animation, which verifies 10-bit processing from input to screen.
Perhaps most notably, I saw some faint internal reflections and lens-streaking with two separate NX7 samples I used during my evaluation. This was evident with the bouncing Oppo screen saver coming off my disc player and with the "White Ball/Diagonals" moving test pattern from a Murideo Six-G signal generator. Both feature a large, white object bouncing slowly and diagonally around an all-black frame. These artifacts shouldn't really be there in such an otherwise fine and expensive projector, but, fortunately, they were never visible in any real-world content, either with white-on-black credits or when I looked for it on scenes with white space ships slowly moving across the expanse of space in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek , and Apollo 13.
The JVC DLA-NX7 will not be everyman's projector. To begin, it will fall squarely outside many enthusiast's price limit. Some prospective buyers will also find its relatively low brightness challenged for very large screens or ambient-light viewing.
That said, anyone seeing the DLA-NX7 under ideal conditions should be bowled over by its striking image—especially with UHD HDR content, where its color accuracy, excellent contrast, superb tone-mapping, and fine native sharpness come to bear. And while its $8,999 ticket makes it expensive among the higher-performing home theater projectors out there, it costs $1,000 less than Sony's VPL-VW695ES, perhaps the most directly competitive lamp-based 4K projector available. One can argue, then, that the NX7 actually represents good value in its segment.
In the end, your decision to pursue a DLA-NX7 will come down to your budget, your viewing conditions, and your passion for the very best image quality. If these converge for you, your purchase will deliver a level of performance, craftsmanship, and pride of ownership that comes only with the very best home theater projectors that money can buy.
|Review Contents:||Introduction, Features||Color Modes, SDR Viewing||HDR Viewing, 3D Viewing, Conclusion||Measurements, Connections|
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