Happy holidays one and all! For our annual gift guide this year, we've zero'd in on a variety of items that we think will bring joy to the home theater/projection enthusiast in your life (especially if that's you), or perhaps encourage you to share the joys of projection with family members or friends unfamiliar with the delights of bigscreen entertainment. You'll find a combination of lifestyle projectors, accessories to enhance the audio and video performance of your current system, and a few "educational" tools to engage the cerebral cortex of passionate hobbyists or ambitious installers who might take pleasure in soaking up the science and practical application of audio/video. We sincerely hope one or more of these ring your bells, so to speak. From all of us at ProjectorCentral, we wish you a truly wonderful and safe holiday season.
Sonos Arc Soundbar
Ever since the company launched its first products in 2005, Sonos has had an incredible track record for not only offering the friendliest wireless multiroom digital audio system on the planet but also delivering shockingly good audiophile sound quality for the money. The introduction this year of the Arc soundbar—the company's largest and first soundbar compatible with Dolby Atmos, was yet another triumph. You'll ideally want an up-to-date eARC HDMI connection on your TV to take full advantage of Atmos from discs and streaming devices, but even with non-Atmos soundtracks you'll be stunned by this bar's ability to steer sound and create virtual height speakers that seem to be emanating from your ceiling. For the full experience, add a pair of One SL wireless powered bookshelf speakers to function as rear surrounds ($358/pr); better yet, throw in the accomplished and attractive Sub subwoofer ($699), which was upgraded this year with new innards. You'll end up with one of the best movie and music home theater audio systems you can buy for under $2K short of a wired 5.1.2 Atmos AV receiver/speaker combo, and the basis for an easy-to-use wholehouse music system whenever you're ready to add Sonos speakers to other rooms.
BenQ GS2 Portable Outdoor LED Projector
The recently reviewed BenQ GS2 is one of those rare products in the projector world whose industrial design just makes you want to touch it. It's cute, cube-like case, with the softly-rounded corners, communicates fun from the get-go, and that's what this projector intends to deliver. Built for portability and use outdoors on a makeshift screen 'round the campfire or anywhere else, its rubberized exterior makes it both splash-proof (it'll withstand a light rain of up to 0.12 inches per minute) and drop-proof (from up to 1.6 feet). The integrated battery lets it project for up to three hours, and its built in wireless capabilities allow you mirror the subscription streaming services from a laptop or play from the built-in Aptoide streaming platform, or to mirror most other content from an Android or iOS mobile device. HDMI and USB are also on board for wired sources or a flash drive. For audio, you can use the built in mini-speaker or connect to a Bluetooth wireless speaker or headphones. With its rated 500 ANSI lumens of LED-driven brightness and 720p resolution, you won't be lighting up the side of a building with this little guy. But whether you're a parent stuck inside with the kids, or have a college student in your life who's making the most of remote learning—or binge watching—the GS2 offers up some sweet and no-doubt welcome lifestyle enhancement.
Optimal Audio and Video Reproduction: Improving the Listening and Viewing Experience
Price: $59.95 Paperback, $47.36 Kindle
Imagine if you could choose Home Theater for your major at college, and the professor assigned a comprehensive textbook for your introductory 101 course that would give you the lay of the land across all the audio and video subject matter and then function as a resource as you explored specific subjects more deeply in your advanced courses. That book would be Optimal Audio and Video Reproduction at Home: Improving the Listening and Viewing Experience, by Vincent Verdult. Indeed, it's priced like a fancy textbook (actually, it's a British import, which contributes to the price). But I know of no other book quite like this one. Published in spring of 2019 (so it's still current), it runs 346 pages filled with relatively small type and a ton of diagrams and charts. It is as densely packed as an overstuffed can of sardines, and filled with great info that explains technical concepts in surprisingly clear text that assumes some degree of technical acuity but makes no assumption of any prior knowledge. The opening chapter, Audio Video Basics, is alone worth the price of entry, and even taught this seasoned old-timer some things about the nature of video and acoustics that I'd never picked up in my decades of writing about home theater for enthusiast audiences. Along with the nitty-gritty, Verdult has thoughtfully scattered each chapter with standalone "Recommendations" to help you optimize your system—little pearls of wisdom for newbies, such as Recommendation 6.3: "To achieve a high contrast ratio, the blacks on your display should have the lowest possible luminance. Aim for 0.5 cd/m2 or lower." No, it's not a fun or charming read in the classic sense—but it is a remarkable reference and a great gift for yourself or the eager and curious home theater lover in your life.
SMPTE Color Bars T-Shirt
Those of you who do a lot of hanging around video displays will immediately recognize the test pattern on this T-shirt as the classic SMPTE color bars designated as a video standard by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. There are different variants of the SMPTE bars now, but the basic pattern created in 1951 at RCA during development of the NTSC color TV standard is iconic to video engineers and broadcast technicians—not to mention a legion of late-night TV viewers who nodded out during "The Tonight Show" and awoke at 3am to the "bars-and-tone" that networks parked on their channels in the days before 24-hour broadcasting. The SMPTE bar pattern was even awarded an Engineering Emmy in 2001 for its contribution to the industry. Explaining everything it's useful for would take more space than we have here (check out the Wikipedia entry if you like), but suffice to say this T-shirt, available on Amazon in five different colors (the shirt, not the bars), is one that any videophile can wear proudly. And when folks ask you what it is, well, now you know what to tell them.
Optoma CinemaX P2 4K Ultra Short Throw Laser Projector
If you've been tracking our 4K UST Projector Buyer's Guide, you know that the market for these laser-driven living-room projectors is heating up, with multiple new models offered for the holiday season. Among these, Optoma's CinemaX P2—the recent upgrade to the CinemaX P1 introduced last year—remains in our view the best value for those who seek both a well-tuned, essentially accurate out-of-box image for both SDR and HDR content, along with a relatively high, 3,000-lumen brightness. It delivers respectable 3D, which only a few of these new UST projectors can handle and don't always handle well. And it includes a good-sounding integrated stereo soundbar. If you're ready to give your family the gift of home theater this holiday season, you need only add a 100- or 120-inch UST ALR screen that will allow the projector to function in a lit room like a regular TV and, ideally, an inexpensive subwoofer to add some ballast to special effects in action flicks. You can read more about the CinemaX P2 in our review.
Spears & Munsil UHD HDR Benchmark
Spears & Munsil didn't invent the first at-home, videophile test disc, but they were in on the game early with their DVD Player Benchmark. Stacey Spears and Don Munsil have since gone on to collaborate in the last 20 years on what are arguably the most sophisticated test patterns and calibration Blu-rays offered to consumers and professionals for assessing and tuning displays. The UHD HDR Benchmark starts with versions of the usual grayscale and color patterns S&M has offered on prior discs for setting parameters like Brightness, Contrast, Sharpness, Color and Tint—though they're here in both SDR and HDR. Among the new additions is a particularly sophisticated "Color Space Evaluation" pattern that can be used to help find and verify the best settings for color space, gamma, HDR EOTF, and others. Perhaps most intriguing about the disc is the ability to set different brightness levels for HDR patterns and demo clips, in HDR10 or Dolby Vision, ranging from 600 nits to a maximum of 10,000 nits. That means, among other things, you can see how well a display handles ever-brighter content, and the disc will grow with your system as display capabilities increase over time. And the original HDR demo material shot for this edition offers a variety of challenging scenes and is alone worth the cost. Spears & Munsil supports the UHD HDR Benchmark with extensive documentation and educational articles on its website. Anyone interested in optimizing their projector or flat-panel (short of paying for a full calibration), or just wanting to better understand the performance of their video display, would rejoice at finding this stocking stuffer poking above the mantle.
Sennheiser RS 175 Wireless Surround-Sound Headphones
If you're like most projector enthusiasts, you probably lack a dedicated, acoustically-isolated theater room and your home theater is in a repurposed basement or shared living space on the main floor. That works just fine when the whole family is gathered for a viewing of The Avengers, but not so much when your spouse and kids are scattered around the house and the subwoofer is shaking the foundation while the 80-decibels-plus surround track screaming from your speakers is raising all manner of bloody hell. And that arrangement pretty much puts the kibosh on serious late-night movie watching while the rest of the gang is asleep, unless you want to turn the bass off and the volume down so low that it's a strain to hear the dialogue. Well, the Sennheiser RS175 wireless headphone is your solution. Built by one of the most respected headphone makers specifically for watching video, these closed-ear 'phones keep the sound in to avoid disturbing anyone nearby, and they deliver glitch-free, in-sync, wireless audio via RF transmission from the base-station/recharging stand up to a rated 328 feet by line-of-sight. The signal can even pass through walls to help you keep an ear on the action while you prepare a snack. Audio reviewers describe the sound quality as excellent for both movies and music, and since the RS175 is made for movie-watching, there are built-in faux surround modes and bass boost features. Just hook up the digital optical or 3.5 mm analog stereo input in the base station to your projector, source component, or AV receiver and you're good to go.
Epson EpiqVision Mini EF12 Smart Streaming Laser Projector
Compact, portable lifestyle projectors are all the rage now because, quite simply, they fit modern lifestyles for TV binging, movies, and sports watching without the hassles associated with a big home theater rig. But Epson's new EpiqVision Mini EF12 manages to distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded field. The first clue: while virtually all the options among this product type use LED light engines, the EF12 boasts a powerful 1,000-ISO lumens laser source for an impressively bright image even in lit environments. (It's rated for up to a 150-inch image). Along with the usual benefits of equal white and color brightness and no rainbows attendant to the 3-chip LCD architecture, the EF12 offers full HD 1080p resolution along with the ability to accept 4K HDR content and display an HDR image at native resolution (albeit without the 4K PRO-UHD pixel-shifting found in Epson's better home theater projectors). An integrated Android TV wireless streaming platform makes it "smart," and it has Chromecast built-in for screen mirroring. Throw in a Yamaha-designed sound system with spatial image enhancement (and Bluetooth support for streaming music from a smartphone), and you've got a little 7 x 7-inch cube-like box that really packs a punch. A sibling projector, the EF11, costs $799 and goes without the fancy sound system and HDR support, but it won't make the same impression out of the box on Christmas morning as the remarkable EF12.
Panasonic DP-UB820 UHD Blu-ray Player
A few years ago when Pioneer stopped making its much sought-after Kuro plasma televisions, Panasonic filled the gap at the top of the market with what ultimately became even higher performing plasma sets than the best Kuros. Coincidentally, history repeated itself after Oppo dropped out of the Blu-ray player market a while back, and Panasonic began making what are now regarded by many as the best UHD disc players out there. You'll need to step up to the top-of-the-line DP-UB9000, at $999, to gain the kind of build quality reminiscent of the Oppos. But the real secret sauce in Panasonic's players is the integrated tone-mapping controls that are particularly helpful for tuning HDR images for projectors, which—as we've repeated ad nauseum—lack the brightness required for today's HDR content and therefore require a certain degree of engineering finesse for the best on-screen results. Fortunately, those features are available in some of Panny's less tank-like step-down models, including the $499 DP-UB820, which I purchased earlier this year to function as my reference player and can wholeheartedly endorse. Image quality is stunning whether with 1080p SDR or UHD HDR, and it does a wonderful job with audio from CDs (if you remember those). I'm especially fond of the information screens, which tell you at a glance things like the resolution, dynamic range, bit depth, and soundtrack type coming off the disc; the signal types the player is actually sending to the display based on its capabilities; and the metadata on HDR discs (where it exists) for the max peak and frame-average brightness. Granted, the menu adjustments and readouts from this player amount to overkill for most users, who will just appreciate the great picture and sound. But for serious users they amount to a real tweaker's delight.
ISF/CEDIA Video Calibration Certification-Level 1 Online Course
Price: $500 for CEDIA members, $600 for non-members
The Imaging Science Foundation was created in 1994 by Joel Silver, a passionate videophile hobbyist who recognized that the television displays of the day were coming out of the factories badly misaligned with the studio and broadcast monitors being used to create and transmit the content. Back then, merely gaining access to the controls required to let viewers see an accurate, industry-standard image involved hacking into a TV's hidden service menus and potentially voiding its warranty. Since then, the ISF has been responsible for almost single-handedly raising awareness of image quality and pushing display manufacturers into providing consumers with menu access to critical settings; consulting with many display and screen companies; and training literally thousands of professional calibrators. Full display calibration ultimately involves some costly instrumentation and software (let's call it a mimimum investment of about $5,000), but the basic education has never been more affordable than it is now with CEDIA's new online ISF Level 1 calibration course. Silver has greatly expanded the classroom material he used to pack into the first day of a three-day Level 1 course and broken it into 11 self-taught online modules that you can absorb at your own pace. The breadth of topics is extensive and includes, among others, the basics of color science and how we see, the development of current display standards and specs, and to how to use the workflows in the Calman calibration software widely employed by calibrators and reviewers. Completing the coursework—the only requirement to pass Level 1 certification—makes you eligible to attend the combined ISF Level 2 and Level 3 hands-on certification training. But whether you move on or not, merely stepping through this engaging coursework is sure to bring many hours of enjoyment to any home theater enthusiast, and teach them more than they ever thought they'd know about the magic of video and displays.