Though we never expected to have time during our one-day, 14-projector Laser TV Showdown to listen to the contestant's integrated audio systems, we knew that the quality of each projector's built in soundbar could be a key factor for some consumers. Although it's always recommended to join any home theater projector with an outboard sound system, mating a separate soundbar or center-channel speaker with one of these projectors isn't always aesthetically desirable or physically achievable. It would be nice to know which projector's audio system the average viewer can "get away with," and which are throwaways you should plan to replace by any means.
To find out, I rounded up the same projector samples that appeared in the Showdown and faced them off purely on audio quality. As a long-time audiophile and experienced audio reviewer, I felt fully qualified to conduct and judge this round on my own.
I'll explain how I did the testing, but to give you a sense of the results, the projectors whose sound was engineered by a brand-name audio company were typically the best in the lot—specifically the Formovie Theater system developed by Bowers & Wilkins, and the XGIMI Aura, VAVA Tri-Chroma, and ViewSonic X2000-4K systems engineered by Harman/Kardon. The AWOL Vision LT-3500 was also excellent and part of this "Tier 1" group. These models all exhibited a high degree of midrange and high frequency clarity for both movies and music, suitably loud maximum volume and good dynamic control, and sufficiently good spatial rendering (to the extent you can apply that term to a tiny soundbar).
Below these, I identified three Tier 2 performers that were a relatively small step down but still quite good for a projector, with the kind of detail, dynamics, and soundstaging on both movies and music that would also make them easy to live with day to day.
Beyond these were five Tier 3 performers that were an embarrassingly steep step down from the others. No one should mistake these for a permanent audio solution.
The only projector from the Laser TV Showdown not ranked here for audio is the Epson LS500. The LS500 is Epson's first 4K Laser TV projector and was built on a commercial UST platform. It sports a couple of modest utility speakers behind the front grille, but the company never made any claims to this being an acceptable living room sound system and advised that an outboard system was recommended. The LS500 is reaching end-of-life and will likely be replaced with a next-generation product that follows in the footsteps of Epson's LS300, a 1080p model with a more sophisticated on-board sound system designed by Yamaha. I listened to the LS500 briefly to confirm it still sounded as I remembered from my review, then dismissed it from the test in fairness to Epson.
How We Tested
The room at ProjectorScreen.com headquarters where we conducted the Laser TV Showdown was large and cavernous, with reflective walls that resulted in a long slap-echo and poor acoustics for audio testing. A smaller but still spacious demo room downstairs was the better choice, as it enjoyed a more regular rectangular shape with projection screens lining the walls to break up reflections, and a tile-carpet floor that resulted in a deader sound more akin to a typical living room. Still, it was a big space, about 18 feet wide by 35 feet deep with a 9-foot ceiling, which is a huge cubic volume to fill for these relatively modest speaker systems. I set up a table for the projectors on one of the short walls below a screen to allow viewing, and another table 12 feet back from where I played test content and listened.
The test material was essentially the same for each projector. It consisted of CD-quality music streams from Tidal via a Roku Ultimate media player, and Dolby Atmos movie test clips from a Dolby demo disc played on an Oppo UDP-203 Blu-ray player. I also played a series of descending bass test tones for each projector to determine where the bass fell off in our room, and maxed out the volume for each system once or twice on loud content to measure the peak sound pressure level on an SPL meter at the listening position. Note that these SPL readings would potentially be higher in a smaller room or from a closer distance.
I briefly listened to each projector's available sound mode options and chose what sounded best for the content type. In most cases that was a Music mode for music, and a Theater, Movie, Cinema or similar mode for movies that usually applied some degree of spatial processing to help spread out the front stage and sound effects. For the projectors that were Dolby Atmos compatible, I made sure that option was turned on to best optimize the Atmos soundtracks I was using.
Finally, I double-checked every projector to see if it would accommodate the addition of a powered subwoofer, and had a compact GoldenEar 8-inch sub on hand specifically for this test. I'm sorry to say that only one of them, the Optoma CinemaX P2, is engineered to do this. What a missed opportunity by the manufacturers, especially for the better systems that otherwise performed quite well except for the obvious limitations in bass response endemic to these projectors. As we reported in our review of the P2, that projector comes with a 3.5mm analog audio output feeding a full-range signal that tracks with changes to the projector's volume control. So you can connect that to the LFE input on a subwoofer with a simple cable adapter, then use the sub's onboard crossover and level control to blend it with the projector's built-in soundbar. Wow! What a difference it makes in the overall system dynamics and the impact of bass-driven special effects, not to mention the balance it brings to music.
The other models all had either analog or Toslink audio outputs that could still be fed to the subwoofer (the latter with an optical-to-analog converter I also had on hand). But in all cases, this was either a line-level output that could not be made to track volume with the internal speakers, or plugging into that output defeated the internal speakers with no way to turn them back on in the menu. I implore all Laser TV manufacturers to include a functional subwoofer output on their projectors going forward. It's not unreasonable to think that someone spending $3,000 or more on a UST projector with otherwise good built-in sound won't spend another $150 for a budget subwoofer that lifts the audio quality to a much higher level.
Music Test Tracks
- Sheryl Crow, "What I Can Do For You," Tuesday Night Music Club
A great pop-rock recording with some well-defined opening drum thwacks, a driving bass line, a big and out-front vocal, and overall demanding dynamics. I listen for the impact of the opening drum, the imaging on the vocal, the depth of the bass, and how well the system holds together when things get busy.
- Oscar Peterson Trio, "You Look Good To Me," We Get Requests
This well-recorded jazz track starts with some delicate piano scales, percussion dings on a triangle, and some very drawn out, textured pulls on the double-bass before the brushed cymbal and snare kicks in. I listen for the projection and roundness of the piano notes; the floating position of the triangle in the mix along with the quality of its timbre and detail and decay, and the detail/timbre of the bass, snare, and cymbal. This is also a good track for checking soundstage width and depth as it's just three instruments across a shared stage.
- Eddie Holman, "Hey There Lonely Girl," The ABC's of Soul, Vol. 1 (Classics from The ABC Records Catalog 1961-1969)
Everyone knows this oldie-but-goodie but probably not what a treat it is on a good audio system. It's a super-dynamic studio recording with a bigger-than-life vocal from Holman, whose falsetto will immediately expose mid-to-high frequency response anomalies by its shrillness or inadequate dynamics/power that can't keep up with his ever-louder and higher-reaching voice.
- John Mayer, "Gravity," Continuum
Simply a superb pop recording with loud and deep drum thwacks to start the track and a giant, lifelike, in-the-room lead vocal. On a system with no bass you'll immediately hear the anemic thuds from the drum and Mayer's voice suffering from the loss of chest cavity that gives it fullness and convincing presence.
- Luther Vandross, "Love Won't Let Me Wait," Live At Radio City Music Hall, 2003
I threw in this excellent live recording to see how well the systems conveyed audience sounds and hall ambience, as well as for the purity of Vandross's amazing vocal and the short little sax ditty that gets played near the top of the track.
Movie Test Clips
This clip is the scene where the storm first hits the mountain, so the howling wind and snow is ever present and the powerful thunderclaps provide a good test of bottom end impact. On a good system you'll hear the almost painful sharpness of the pounding sleet; if the system lacks detail it just becomes a whoosh. This clip is also a good test of dialogue rendition against the stormy backdrop.
- Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
In this scene, the Doomsday monster faces off against Superman and Wonder Woman. Honestly, it's an awful, strident score intended to create a sense of tension, on top of which are thrown a tornado of crashing, sharp, battle sound effects. This bit of soundtrack alone is probably what caused the movie to flop following its first theatrical weekend; it would have driven me straight from the theater. I threw it in there to see if any of the projectors could make it tolerable. None could, but some were better than others.
- Mad Max: Fury Road
The opening clip where, on a good Atmos system with real height speakers, the voices of the little girls who are haunting Max come from above and all over the soundstage. The monologue from lead actor Tom Hardy is also notable for the depth and body of his voice, and the engine sounds from Max's car and his pursuer's vehicles have a nice low-end component that's typically missing on systems with limited bass.
The opening scene in which the WWII bomber fleet is heading to its target. The sound of the prop planes as they come into the frame and grow closer/larger has a nice guttural feel on a system with good low bass, and the creaking sounds of the metal aircraft as heard from inside are an excellent test of detail. The gunfire during the attack is another good indicator of dynamics and bass component.
Tier 1 Sound
Formovie Theater. This was easily my top choice for audio among all contenders, which is nice to report in the face of this projector's excellent 1st Place showing in our Showdown image quality tests. It doesn't have the deepest bass among the group—that goes to the XGIMI Aura—but it gets down below 80 Hz before it starts rolling off, which isn't too bad for a tiny powered speaker system, and it most definitely plays loud without distortion, hitting dynamic peaks around 90 dB on some tracks in our large test room. What separated this B&W-engineered system from the pack were the two qualities I've always admired on B&W's powered tabletop speakers and soundbars. One is excellent dynamics with good impact on sudden loud peaks and great finesse with dynamic swells. The other is breathtakingly detailed and open sound accompanied by highly accurate and natural timbre. The detail heard in the driving sleet during the Everest storm clip had a natural bite and cutting sharpness unmatched by any other projector, and the creaks and groans of the old WWII bombers in Unbroken had the effect of transporting the viewer into the scene in a way the other projectors did not. Among the projectors with dedicated Dolby Atmos sound modes (which also included the AWOL and two Hisense models), it also delivered the best soundstage, surprisingly wide and tall for such a small projector (assisted in this case by side-firing drivers). This is just an outstanding audiophile sound system for both movies and music. Its lack of full impact on deep bass elements is its only real failing, though one shared with all of these projectors. If only Formovie (or B&W) had built in a connection for a powered sub...
XGIMI Aura. Harman/Kardon engineered the sound on the XGIMI, VAVA, and ViewSonic projectors tested for the Showdown. These are all excellent, audiophile-quality systems that performed well with both movies and music (which is the more demanding content to get right). They exhibited relatively similar sonic characteristics. One of these is excellent dynamics with the ability to play loud and build appropriately to crescendos, facilitated by enough effectively managed power to keep iron-clad control over demanding content. Simply put, these systems have that quality I like to call "authority." Like the Formovie B&W system above, there is sophisticated limiting circuitry at work to help keep the drivers and amplifiers out of distortion, even at max volume, yet there's no sense of the program being artificially or unnaturally compressed. These H/K systems also have excellent timbre and accuracy with both dialogue/vocals and instruments. My music test tracks sounded fundamentally right; tonally balanced through the mids and highs, with a nice open, unveiled rendering of detail. Spatially, they struggled a bit more in their "spread-the-sound" Cinema or Movie modes to get as wide or deep as the Formovie, but they were still quite impressive in their imaging among this group, especially given the tightly-spaced front baffles the drivers have to work with.
Where the Aura eclipsed the other H/K systems was in its bass extension. I was surprised to learn from playing test tones that after starting to roll off noticeably around 50 Hz, already much lower than normal for these projectors, bass output actually increased between 40 Hz and 20 Hz to where it was well off its peak but still producing audible energy down at 20 Hz. Most of these projectors fall into total silence below 50 Hz. I still wouldn't call this deep or prodigious bass, but it definitely added impact to demanding drums and bass lines, and to special effects with a low-end component. And the projector played plenty loud, hitting peaks around 88 dB in our large room from the 12-foot listening distance.
VAVA Chroma. Like the XGIMI Aura, the VAVA Chroma is a fairly large projector with a bit more room on its front face for speakers and perhaps a little more internal volume to support bass. In this case, the bass rolled off below a healthy 60 Hz and played loud, hitting comfortable peaks of 87 dB in our room. It got a little strained on the demanding falsetto of the Eddie Holman track, but peaked at a very loud 91 dB. Delicate music like the triangle dings on the Oscar Peterson track sounded natural and projected well into the room, and the soundstage, though not stretching much beyond the 100-inch screen width, had in common with the other H/K systems a rather tall image that mated well with the big picture on movies. Dialogue was clear and well rendered, and fine details like the sound of a lizard's tail as it drags through the sand in the Mad Max clip came through nicely.
AWOL Vision LT-3500. AWOL's LT-3500 distinguished itself by playing noticeably louder than the other systems. My Sheryl Crow music track hit a very loud max 94 dB with the volume max'd out, though without any obvious limiting circuitry to prevent driver overload, you could easily hear the system in distress. Fixing the volume control to about 75 out of 100 seemed to keep that in check, and on most music and movies I found setting volume to its halfway mark was plenty loud and sounded right on most content. Overall, the detail and accuracy of music was excellent, though over time I thought the sound exhibited a slightly bare, less-than-warm tonal balance due to its rapid rolling off of bass in our room below 80 Hz. Even with some adjustment of the low 120 Hz slider on its 5-band EQ, there wasn't quite enough bottom end or fill in the upper bass as I'd have liked. But the dynamics were excellent, with good power reserves on hand for sudden demands, and the system did a nice job tracking dynamic swells. The sound was clear and detailed from the midrange on up, and as a Dolby Atmos-compatible system it did a good job rendering both depth and height on the movie tracks.
ViewSonic X2000B-4K. This new ViewSonic was one of my favorite projectors to come out of the Showdown thanks to its good out-of-box color accuracy and contrast, and it reviewed well after a pre-Showdown evaluation by Mark Henninger. So I was pleased to find that its well-performing Harman/Kardon audio system helped round out the value quotient of this affordable projector. It's also the only system among these that offers both Dolby and DTS decoding on board, nice for those who watch a lot of Blu-rays and like staying with the native DTS soundtracks found on many discs. Bass rolled off pretty quickly below 80 Hz, but the test tones sounded very clean and well managed by the electronics and the small cabinet. The system hit pretty hard on the demanding music tracks, reaching peaks of 88 dB, and exhibited that nice H/K tonal balance, though with a slight lack of upper-bass that robbed it of weight and depth on some vocals and musical elements. Imaging from this compact projector wasn't terribly spacious from its smaller-than-usual front baffle, and even in Movie mode it couldn't really spread the soundstage the way the Dolby Atmos-models can. But it delivered excellent, natural timbre on instruments and convincing sound effects, with good dynamics and transient attack on all manner of content.
Tier 2 Sound
Samsung LSP9T/Samsung LSP7T. These two Samsung projectors, one a tri-laser and the other a single-laser, are cosmetically and sonically alike. I would rate them just a touch down from the bottom of the Tier 1 projectors, but generally quite good for both movies and music. They played loud, hitting volume peaks around 88 dB on some of my loud music tracks, and although their bass started rolling off below 80 Hz, it did so more gradually than most other projectors that shared this low-end limit and delivered a bit more energy in the 80 to 60 Hz range. Music played loud and without distortion, and mids and highs were clear, open, and unveiled. The Samsungs did a better job than most at reproducing the mechanical creaks of the bombers in Unbroken, for example. Imaging/soundstaging wasn't as good as the best in this bunch, and you could hear the lack of bass as you do with the other projectors, but these are very good systems you could live with as your primary sound in a secondary installation.
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Optoma CinemaX P2. The NuForce-designed system in the Optoma P2 exhibited the sonics I recalled from my review back in 2020. It's an overall excellent on-board sound system with two modest weaknesses, along with the usual lack of bass. One is slightly underpowered amplification that keeps it from the top echelon of dynamic performance, and the other is a slightly veiled mid-to-high end that doesn't quite deliver the openness and detail of the best projectors in this lot. But its less extended highs can have the benefit of making some rough-sounding music and movie soundtracks more palatable. It hit peaks around 87 dB but delivered noticeably less bass than the H/K models; you can hear the lack of power on things like kick drums and explosive sound effects. However, the one thing the P2 has going for it that none of the other projectors can claim is the ability to add a subwoofer via its audio output. Adding a sub truly catapults the system into Tier 1 performance, and although it won't fix the modest veiling of the mids and slightly rolled highs, it completely solves the dynamics issues and gives the system more real bass than any other here. You can read my review of both the P2 and the earlier CinemaX P1 to get more details on how this works and sounds.
Tier 3 Sound
LG HU915QB/LG HU715Q. Although the triple-laser LG HU915QB has a noticeably larger cabinet than its single-laser little brother the HU715Q, both sounded quite similar and performed notably poorly next to all the projectors above. Given the high $6,500 price of the HU915QB, and LG's long experience designing soundbars, I was surprised to see these projectors drop into the Tier 3 no-man's land where an additional, outboard sound system is, in my opinion, absolutely mandatory. These are a big step down from the Tier 2 models in terms of sound quality.
First off, forget listening to any music on the LG's; things just fall apart with any modestly demanding music track. The system lacked any kind of real dynamics, hitting about 82 dB at max volume, and exhibited little bass below 80 Hz. Playing the Sheryl Crow test track resulted in an awful, thumpy sound where drums should be, and on Music mode, vocals that should have projected into the room were terribly veiled and sat way back in the flattened soundstage. Things improved slightly with the expanded Cinema mode, though, and the projectors did better with both clarity and imaging on the less dynamic Oscar Peterson jazz track. For movies, these rendered passable dialogue that allowed you to follow the movie, but on a test track like the opening of Mad Max, there was no real soundstage spread beyond the front of the projector, and details like the crisp sound of the lizard's tail dragging across the sand were just lost. To spend the kind of money asked for the otherwise excellent 915QB and not replace its sound system would be to sacrifice a significant part of the experience you've paid for.
BenQ V7050i. The audio on the BenQ 7050i was another disappointment. It would be nice if the top-ranked single-laser projector in our image quality Showdown had better sound. Bass starts falling off below 100 Hz and rapidly disintegrates below 80 Hz, so the system lacks even a modicum of upper bass to give it some fullness, even in the Music mode which seemed to goose up the bottom a bit. And it barely hit 80 dB at max volume. The BenQ was better with sparse tracks, say, a female singer with guitar accompaniment in the beautiful ballad "Honey" by Kehlani, but it still lacked any kind of dynamic impact or the emotion a good system communicates on this vocal. Anything more complex ended up sounding forced and stringent. Movie soundtracks delivered in the Cinema Mode exhibited decent but somewhat veiled/muted dialogue and little to no impact from special effects—the projector simply couldn't get loud enough to deliver any weight to the thunderclaps or whirling storm on Everest, or to the sound of the prop planes in Unbroken.
Hisense 100L5G. The two Hisense projectors in our Showdown weren't exactly the same on sound quality, but they have in common being the very worst-sounding of this lot. The L5G is actually the larger projector and better of the two systems, but that's not saying much. What the L5G has going for it is a large enough amplifier to drive it to 87 dB peaks in our test space at max volume, and if you just go by bass test tones, it starts really rolling off around 80 Hz, which is common to a lot of these projectors. But music sounds awful. The bass reproduction is destroyed by a hollow-sounding cabinet that vibrates and resonates, and the thin-sounding drivers get screechy the more demanding the music or the louder you play it. Movies fared better, thankfully—although the L5G lacked bass for convincing thunder effects in Everest, for example, the projector's Atmos movie mode garnered a fairly large and spacious image that locked dialogue to the screen and threw some sound out into the room. But the haunting score that precedes the arrival on screen of the bombers in Unbroken was void of any real musicality, and while the sound of the props are impactful thanks to the system's ability to play loud, they lack any real low-end component, and there's no detail to be heard in the mechanical sounds of the plane creaking. I quickly noticed that, while there are some power reserves to be tapped and a lot of room to play on the volume control, you can't really use it due to the poor quality of the drivers and cabinet, which are quickly driven into overload.
Hisense PX1-PRO. You can take what I just said about the L5G, and turn up the critique for the PX1-PRO. I can't explain it except to note that this projector has a smaller, less dense plastic cabinet than the L5G and is targeted more toward a theater environment, so perhaps audio was just an afterthought in the product planning. A 100 Hz bass test tone came out as a buzz that got the whole cabinet vibrating. The bass output was down 5 dB by 80 Hz, then dropped off more rapidly. On music tracks there's essentially no low end, a muddled and veiled midrange, rolled off highs that lack any detail whatsoever, and no real imaging. The snare drum on the Oscar Peterson track sounded muffled, like it was inside an enclosure. The system was definitely better for movies than music and delivered passable dialogue, but everything sounds thin due to the lack of sufficient upper bass, and the blowing sleet in Everest ended up just being edgy noise. Plain and simple, the sonics on the PX1-PRO are not ready for prime time and you should plan on using it for video only.