For those new to the projector biz, CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) is the trade organization of custom home theater designers and installers. In September of each year the CEDIA trade show brings together vendors, dealers, installers, and retailers to showcase the latest in equipment and supplies that have anything to do with specialty home theater. Quite often many new home theater projectors are debuted at this show, which took place in Indianapolis over this past weekend.
This year's show featured a bumper crop of new projectors priced as low as $1,399 and as much as $30,000 or more. Thanks to innovation and competition there are great home theater projectors for every budget these days. Keep in mind that many of the prices and specs on models discussed below are preliminary information and subject to change. In some cases specs and prices are missing altogether if the vendor did not have them on hand at the show.
It is hard to know where to start, so we will just jump from topic to topic and try to give you a good overview of what happened in the world of projectors at this remarkable show.
TI Announces the new HD2+ DLP Chip
The big news a year ago was the release by Texas Instruments of the Mustang/HD2 DLP chip, with a physical resolution of 1280x720. The HD2 chip substantially boosted contrast performance over its predecessor, the HD1. Now at CEDIA 2003 comes the "HD2+." With resolution still at 1280x720, this chip again boosts contrast performance over the HD2. It also features dark video enhancement (DVE), made possible by changes to the color wheel architecture that were announced concurrently. The result is a reduction of dithering artifacts that are commonly visible in dark areas of a DLP projector's video image.
Five manufacturers who have been marketing projectors with the HD2 chip announced new models that will soon be available with the HD2+. These new HD2+ models include the InFocus Screenplay 7205 ($9,999), the Marantz VP-12S3 ($12,999), the SharpVision XV-Z12000U ($11,999), the SIM2 HT300 XTRA ($11,995), the SIM2 HT300 LINK ($14,995) and the Toshiba MT800 ($10,999). DWIN, Runco, and Yamaha currently market HD2-based projectors but did not announce plans for HD2+ upgraded versions. However we may safely presume it is only a matter of time.
Some of these new models will replace the HD2 versions in the vendor's product line. However some will not. InFocus, for example, intends to market both the new 7205 at $9,999, while continuing to market the HD2-based Screenplay 7200 at its recently reduced price of $7,999. Bargain hunters will want to watch for great deals on the HD2 machines this fall.
Sony's SXRD High Resolution Qualia 004
The much anticipated Qualia 004 is currently scheduled for shipment in November/December timeframe. This incorporates Sony's new reflective technology known as SXRD, and features a native resolution of 1920x1080, which is native format for HDTV 1080i.
The Qualia 004 is capable of delivering extremely high contrast and outstanding color at super high resolution. It is by far the highest performance digital video projector ever produced by Sony, and clearly in a class by itself. The base price for this gem is $25,000, plus two- to three-thousand extra for the lens depending on your choice of short, mid-range, or long throw. So don't look for this one to be showing up in your local Best Buy any time soon.
By the way, if you are willing to pony up $25K or more for high-end home theater performance, Sony will not be the only vendor able and willing to take your money. Another 1920x1080 resolution projector will be announced shortly (probably next month) that will compete directly with the Qualia 004. In addition, several vendors have announced plans to bring forth 3-chip DLP products that are expected to debut in this same general price range.
The 3-Chip DLP Products
At least six manufacturers (BARCO, Digital Projection, InFocus, Marantz, RUNCO, and SIM2) have disclosed plans to bring very high-end DLP projectors to market by the first quarter of 2004. These products will feature light engines built around three HD2 (1280x720) DLP chips. They have the potential to be much brighter than single chip DLP products. And of course with a dedicated DLP chip for each color channel, the need for a color wheel is eliminated, and with it any possibility of color wheel-related artifacts. Pricing may be expected to vary significantly by vendor and by model, but if you anticipate $30,000 you will probably be in the general ballpark for most of them.
It will be fascinating to see how the market sorts out competing options in this new high-end battleground. With no less than eight major vendors suddenly launching high performance projection systems in the $25K to $30K price range, vendor competition for dealer/custom installer allegiance as well as consumer awareness should be intense.
Samsung Debuts it First Projector: the SP-H700A
Samsung is a newcomer to the home theater projector market and was showing its first front projection system, the SP-H700A ($10,000). Video guru Joe Kane was retained by Samsung to help with the design of this unit. It appeared from the impressive demo that the collaboration with Kane will pay off for Samsung in spades.
It will be interesting to see what the market does with this product. Samsung is not known for projectors. Preliminary specs have the SP-H700A rated at 700 ANSI lumens and 2000:1 contrast in theater mode. It uses the Mustang HD2 chip (not the HD2+), and a 6-segment, 5x speed color wheel. The $10K price tag sounds like last year's pricing for this configuration. And spec junkies will be worried that it doesn't feature the very latest DLP chip. Frankly, if it were not for the fact that it produces the best looking video image we have ever seen from any DLP projector (bar none), we'd have guessed it would have a tough time in this highly competitive marketplace.
We can make no definitive judgments from a controlled demo. But we can say that the SP-H700A demo itself was truly exceptional. Samsung and Joe Kane appear to have pushed the envelope on DLP technology like it has never been pushed before. If everything goes according to plan (and with new products they often don't) this unit should begin to show up in October. The only thing we know for sure is that we will be keeping a close eye on this one.
TI's Matterhorn DLP Chip – more 1024x576 products unveiled
TI's recently released 1024x576 widescreen DLP chip known as the Matterhorn is at the heart of the new InFocus Screenplay 5700 ($4,999), a machine we recently reviewed with genuine enthusiasm. At CEDIA a couple more new products showed up that incorporate the Matterhorn chip in their light engines.
First, SIM2 debuted the DOMINO 20, an elegantly packaged unit featuring a motorized zoom and focus lens with +/- 10 degree lens shift, a 2000:1 contrast rating, and a whopping 6000 hour lamp life. This is the entry level unit in the SIM2 line, priced at a very reasonable $5,995 considering the richness of the feature set.
Second, DreamVision announced the DreamWeaver II ($6,595). This unit is packaged with Faroudja DCDi video processing, Zeiss optics, and eight video inputs. It is rated at 1100 ANSI lumens, and 1500:1 contrast.
Optoma: Two New DLP Projectors for Home Theater
Everyone who reads this site has been waiting for the Optoma H76, originally scheduled to ship in July and now anticipated for release within a few more weeks—end of September or early October. A not-ready-for-prime-time pre-production model was on hand in the Optoma booth. This unit will incorporate the Mustang HD2 chip and is rated at 2000:1 contrast. A super-quiet fan, DVI with HDCP, and an aggressive price of $5,999 make it high on everyone's list to check out. Once it ships it will be the least expensive of the Mustang/HD2 DLP machines on the market.
Optoma also unveiled plans for an H30 entry level home theater product. Also rated at 2000:1 contrast, this will be an SVGA resolution DLP product featuring a 6 segment 4x speed color wheel which will be priced at or below $1,399. Scheduled to ship in late fourth quarter, this would be the least expensive home theater projector on the market to incorporate the highly desirable 6 segment, 4x color wheel architecture.
LCD Technology is Better than Ever
With the exception of the Sony Qualia 004 with its reflective liquid crystal technology, it would appear from our report thus far that DLP products stole the entire show. That is not quite true however. LCD makers continue to push LCD technology to greater levels of performance. Another major story of CEDIA 2003 is that economy-priced LCD home theater projectors for the mass consumer market are beginning to deliver incredible picture quality. We saw pictures from LCD projectors that left us thinking...."was that really LCD? Nah, couldn't have been." But it was.
Sony Updates its Economy Models
You may recall that at last year's CEDIA Sony unveiled the VPL-HS2 and VPL-HS10. They received a lot of attention due to their widescreen format and low prices. This year those models are being replaced by upgraded editions.....the VPL-HS3 ($1,799) and the VPL-HS20 ($3,499).
Of particular note is the VPL-HS20, a WXGA class LCD projector (1386x788) with a substantial boost in contrast over not only the earlier HS10, but the VPL-VW12HT as well. The VPL-HS20 at the moment carries the highest contrast rating yet from an LCD product—a truly remarkable 1300:1. And evidence of it was certainly there on the screen. In addition, fan noise is reduced from the earlier HS10 and connectivity is enhanced. The price on this unit is just $3,499. So why bother with the much more expensive VPL-VW12HT you may wonder? Sony agrees; the 12HT is being discontinued.
The VPL-HS3 is the lower resolution (858x484) widescreen model. It is an improved edition of the HS2. Contrast is up to 800:1, brightness up to 1200 ANSI lumens, fan noise is substantially reduced, and connectivity is improved.
Both the HS20 and the HS3 are scheduled to commence shipments next month.
Sanyo Debuts the PLV-Z2The pre-show buzz included excitement about a new Sanyo widescreen projector. And indeed Sanyo announced the imminent arrival of a new addition to their home theater line up, the PLV-Z2. This unit has a lot more muscle than the PLV-Z1. It does not replace the Z1, which will continue to be marketed for the foreseeable future. Pricing on the Z2 has not been released as of this writing.
Featuring 1280x720 LCD panels, the Z2 is higher in resolution than the Z1 (964x544). Rated at 700 ANSI lumens and with much improved contrast of 1200:1, it also incorporates lens shift, a short throw lens, and an extremely quiet fan with up to 3000 hours of lamp life in reduced power mode. Ship date is a little fuzzy, but we should be seeing it sometime this fall.
Zenith Reenters the Projector Market
Zenith used to have several digital projectors in their line. Then they didn't. Now they have returned to the projector market. Featured in their booth was the RL-JA20, a widescreen WXGA resolution LCD projector rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 600:1 contrast. The price we were quoted was $5,995, which is either a mistake or a big problem for Zenith as that price is not competitive in today's marketplace.
JVC Announces First Widescreen D-ILA Projector
JVC had several units running in their off-site demo suites including the always amazing DLA-SX21 and a new 16:9 format model, the DLA-HX1U ($11,995). This new unit incorporates three 1400x788 D-ILA chips. Rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 800:1 contrast, it is the first native 16:9 product to be offered by JVC. It is currently expected to ship in December.
Most trade shows are a grind. This one was a blast. We felt like kids in a candy store. Noteworthy improvements in overall image quality were evident at every price category. With the products now hitting the market, even modest investments in home theater projectors will give you better picture quality than you find in a commercial theater. And the higher end machines are producing images that in some instances we thought were beyond the physical capability of the technologies. We will be reviewing lots of products in the weeks and months to come as this new crop of machines hits the streets.
Meanwhile, for bargain hunters looking for the best deals on the planet, this will be a particularly hot time to buy. Prices will be better than ever for current models that are being upgraded and replaced as dealers clear inventories and make room for the new models. Once those inventories are gone, so are the deals.