Every year around this time we experience the CEDIA trade show. This year it happened last weekend, Sept 10-12, in Indianapolis, IN. CEDIA (which stands for Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association) is the trade show for the "high-end" home theater dealers, installers, and specialty retailers. As far as home theater projectors go, the subtext of this show is always the battle between DLP and LCD as the two leading display technologies used in projectors. This year LCD made the biggest splash with significant performance advances in low cost LCD-based home theater projectors.

(NOTE: We have linked all model names below to their respective database spec sheets. However, since these are new models many of the specifications and product photos are as of this writing unavailable. We will complete the spec sheets as data and photos becomes available.)

The New LCD Projectors

Two new LCD projector products established what appear to be new benchmarks in price-performance--the Panasonic PT-AE700U and the Sony VPL-HS51. These are scheduled to ship this fall with retail prices at $2,995 and $3,795 respectively. You may be thinking, "What...LCD is still alive and kicking?" Absolutely. And based on the demos we saw they are capable of producing highly competitive video images you won't believe.

First, consider the Panasonic AE700. This is a 1280x720 resolution projector rated at 2000:1 contrast and 1000 ANSI lumens. If you are a new reader to this site, 2000:1 contrast represents a new and vital breakthrough in LCD contrast performance. The increase in contrast is achieved in part through a dynamically reconfiguring variable aperture (iris), that adjusts itself to the brightness level of the image on a frame by frame basis. Practically speaking, it means you get better color saturation, shadow detail, and black levels than ever before from LCD technology. Furthermore, the AE700 appears to beat every other projector under $10,000 in one extremely remarkable way: pixel structure is almost invisible. Standing 12 inches from a 100" diagonal screen, the pixel structure is barely detectable. We did not expect that an LCD projector would ever outperform a high resolution DLP product in the area of pixelation, but last weekend we saw it live.

In addition, a variety of other features have been incorporated into the AE700--a 5000 hour lamp life, extremely low fan noise, horizontal and vertical lens shift, and an HDMI interface. It also has an extremely long 2.0x zoom range that lets you achieve a 100" diagonal image from a throw distance of anywhere from 10 to 20 feet. That means it will fit into a wide variety of different viewing room environments. But perhaps most importantly, it has an advanced 10-bit color processing system that is capable of producing over one billion colors rather than the typical 16.7 million, which is extremely rare on products in this price range. Thus it can deliver more realistic, natural color than was achievable on earlier generation products. Overall, we thought last year's entry from Panasonic, the AE500, was a great machine for the money. This one appears to be a thorough transformation of the AE500, improving upon it in virtually every important respect. The AE700 is expected to ship in the next four to six weeks. We will review it as soon as possible.

The other stellar release on the CEDIA show floor was Sony's VPL-HS51. This projector also features three 1280x720 LCD panels. It has a brightness rating of 800 ANSI lumens. But it has a contrast rating of a stratospheric 6000:1, which is also achieved via a dynamically reconfiguring variable aperture control. This projector has an audible noise rating of 24 dB, which means it is basically silent. Sony has also added vertical and horizontal lens shift which was not available on the previous model, the VPL-HS20. The system also incorporates a 1.6x zoom lens with a short throw on the wide-angle end of it, enabling the unit to be used in smaller rooms while still getting a very large image.

Of course the one question on everyone's mind is, "Does it really do 6000:1?" The answer is that it is impossible to tell from a demo, so we have no idea how close to the spec this unit's actual performance may be. We can say that the demo showed substantial improvement in contrast performance over all other LCD products of the past, and that it appeared to be at least equal in performance to DLP products rated in the 2000:1 to 3000:1 range. Thus once again we appear to have an LCD product that has neutralized what has been an important competitive advantage of its DLP competitors.

We didn't get as much spec detail on the HS51 as we did on the AE700, so there is much more to say about this product that we don't have at hand. Sony's demo space for this unit was small and cramped, and one could not step back to see the image from a normal viewing distance. But based on the demo it appears capable of delivering an outstanding image for an attractive price--Sony quotes the estimated street price on this unit at $3,495 and retail at $3,795. Sony plans to commence shipment of this unit in either late October or early to mid-November. We will review this one momentarily. (Watch the Projector News posting on the home page for anticipated review dates.)

A third new LCD projector debut was the InFocus Screenplay 5000. This one is noteworthy in that it is the first true HDTV 1280x720 resolution projector to be brought to market at a retail price under $2,000. It has DVI (HDCP) and can accommodate an HDMI interface with an adapter. It is rated at 1200:1 contrast, so it does not quite have the contrast capability of the two units just discussed. But it will sell for a lot less on the street as well. Given an aggressive street price, this one should be an attractive alternative for entry level home theater buffs on a tight budget. InFocus did not have it set up in a good demo environment at the show, so we cannot say much more about it at this time. But we look forward to reviewing it soon.

Considering the dramatic LCD product releases just noted, Epson was rather quiet at this year's CEDIA. The company released an improved version of the Cinema 200, calling it the Cinema 200+. This boosts lumen output from 1300 to 1500 ANSI lumens, and contrast is raised from 800:1 up to 1000:1. However, these are modest improvements and the price is still $2,999.

The New DLP Projectors

Given the aggressive competition from LCD in the low to moderate end of the price range, vendors with DLP-based products are getting more aggressive as well. Perhaps the most noteworthy of the new DLP projectors was the Sharp XV-Z2000. This is the first projector to feature an HD2+ 1280x720 DLP chip to be released with an official estimated selling price under $4,000 ($3,999 to be exact). It is rated at 1200 ANSI lumens and 2500:1 contrast. It is also much smaller than Sharp's more expensive home theater projectors, so this one has portability as a feature. The Z2000 is scheduled to ship in November.

We are anxious to get the Sharp Z2000 into the lab. For the question now is, just how good is it? If you can get HD2+ performance at $4,000, is there any point to paying $10,000 to $17,000 for the boutique high-end brands that feature the same DLP chip? Clearly the higher end brands will have some performance and connectivity advantages as well as some slick cosmetics. But the huge price gap between the various projectors that all feature the same HD2+ chip is looking very strange at this juncture.

With respect to the big consumer products companies, it is clear that they are all lining up to capitalize on the coming explosion in consumer home theater. The biggest growth segment is in the under $2,000 projector market. Many consumers are moving their box TV into the kid's room and going for the large screen theater experience. And the adoption of large screen projection systems by the consumer is happening more rapidly than anyone had expected.

Two primary factors are driving the boom. First, video quality in low cost projectors has made quantum leaps forward; you can now get amazing image quality for not much money at all.

Second, HDTV has arrived. All major networks are broadcasting prime time shows in HD this fall, and more football than ever will be broadcast in HD this season by both ABC and ESPN. But the fact is that HDTV, while it looks good on a big screen TV, it looks outstanding on a 90" screen or larger. To truly gain the full benefit of HDTV resolution-that feeling of "being there in real life"-a projector is required. And you only need to experience the power and drama of today's low cost HDTV projectors once before you say, "Hey, that is something I could use in my house."

Based upon the product releases at this year's CEDIA, the larger projector manufacturers are keenly aware of this and are going for the under $2,000 market aggressively. NEC debuted two portable home entertainment products, the HT410 and HT510 at retail prices of $1,499 and $1,999 respectively. Both of these units are rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 1200:1 contrast. The primary difference between the two is resolution; the HT410 is 854x480 and the HT510 is 1024x576. Both have up to 3000 hours lamp life in eco mode, and both have extremely quiet fans. Both of these models will be shipping soon.

Toshiba announced the MT200, a 16:9 widescreen DLP projector with 854x480 resolution, 800 lumens and 2000:1 contrast, at a retail price of $1,799. This unit features a DVI (HDCP) interface and a six-segment, four speed color wheel. It is beginning to ship this month. The MT200 was not being demo'd live in the Toshiba booth, so we can't say much more about it. We are anxious to get it into the lab for a closer look.

HP is jumping into the fray also. The company is entering the consumer home entertainment market for the first time with a new line of inexpensive projectors. The HP Home Cinema EP7120 ($2,499), the Home Cinema EP7110 ($1,499), and the Instant Cinema EP9010 ($1,999) will all begin shipments next month. They all feature DVI (HDCP) digital interfaces and 2000:1 contrast.

Of particular note, the HP Instant Cinema EP9010 is the industry's first "all in one" projector. This unit incorporates stereo speakers, a subwoofer in the base, Dolby 5.1 and DTS audio, AND an integrated DVD player all into one projector package that weighs 23 lbs. This is designed to take all of the muss and fuss out of home theater-just plug it in, point it at a wall, pop in the DVD, and presto, you have instant large screen audio/video entertainment without the installation, cabling, and so on. This might end up being a very attractive solution to a lot of consumers who want the fun and excitement of a huge picture and big sound, but don't want to make a weekend project out of installing it. Moreover, you can set it on the coffee table when you want to use it, and put it in the closet when you don't.

Therefore an assortment of new DLP-based home theater products will join the InFocus Screenplay 4805 and the Optoma H30 in the sub-$2,000 marketplace. As product options expand and the competition heats up, the big beneficiaries will be consumers who have been waiting for high quality HDTV and DVD movie projection systems at affordable prices. With products of this caliber now available and a wide assortment of HDTV programming being broadcast nightly, consumers have everything they need to transform part of their living space into a part time or full time theater or home entertainment center.

Of course, the sub-$2,000 arena was not the only action in town. There were a lot of products released at higher price points as well. Just above the magic $2,000 bar, at $2,395, was Dream Vision's new low end unit, the Dreamy. Like the Toshiba MT200 and the NEC HT410, the Dreamy uses the 854x480 resolution DLP chip. It puts out 850 lumens with contrast rating of 2400:1. The unit features several inputs including a DVI interface.

For another few bucks you can step up to the new Mitsubishi HC900U. This projector uses the 1024x576 DLP chip and achieves up to 4000:1 contrast with its dynamic electronic aperture control. It carries a low 30 dB noise rating, and generates 1500 ANSI lumens. The HC900U will begin shipments in another few weeks at a retail price of $2,999. This one looks like it could deliver remarkable image value for the money. However there was too much ambient light in Mitsubishi's booth to draw any inferences from the demo. So we will request a review unit and get a closer look at this one.

Another new model to incorporate the 1024x576 DLP chip is the Optoma H57, which begins to ship in October at a retail price of $4,995. This product is rated at 1100 ANSI lumens, 3000:1 contrast, a very quiet 28 dB noise rating, and a 3000 hour lamp. Clearly there is more to report about this model as well, but we don't have the data at hand.

The high-end boutique brands featured a number of new projectors incorporating the HD2+ DLP chip, including the Yamaha DPX-1100 ($12,500), the Marantz VP-12S4 ($13,499), and the DWIN Transvision 3 Plus ($10,950). Sim2 Multimedia debuted two new units which are the first to use the TI DarkChip3, which is alleged to boost contrast by 25% and reduce pixelation as compared to the HD2+ chip. The two Sim2 products with this chip, both rated at 3500:1 contrast, were the Grand Cinema HT300 E-LINK ($14,995), and the Grand Cinema HT300 E ($11,995).

Moving beyond DLP in the high end, when it comes to truly magnificent video for the wealthy JVC never disappoints. JVC products do not use either conventional LCD or DLP technology. Instead they use their own proprietary implementation of liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS), which they market under the trade name D-ILA (Direct-drive Image Light Amplifier).

But enough of the alphabet soup. What is most important is that JVC's new super high resolution projector, the DLA-HD2K uses their proprietary technology and delivers full HDTV (1920x1080) resolution at 2000:1 contrast. Furthermore it is integrated with a Faroudja front-end processor that transforms standard DVD into virtual HD quality images, or at least as close to HD quality as you could imagine was possible. For those who happen to have $29,950 set aside for their next video system, this one is a thing of pure beauty that must not be missed. As for the rest of us, we will just have to wait and hope for the day when video of this phenomenal quality is available to the common man.

LCD vs. DLP: What just happened?

The two leading technologies used in projectors under $10,000 are LCD and DLP. For years now DLP has been the preferred technology for videophiles for two reasons: DLP generates higher contrast than LCD, and DLP has less pixelation and "screendoor effect" than LCD. Due in part to these perceived deficiencies LCD projectors have tended to sell for less than comparably featured DLP products.

Suddenly, with two dramatic announcements by Panasonic and Sony, all of that conventional wisdom about DLP being the better video technology is thrown into question. Certainly pixelation and the screendoor effect of LCD has improved steadily in the last few years, rendering it less of a competitive issue between LCD and DLP than it used to be. However, Panasonic's new AE700 takes it a step further and appears to eliminate pixelation altogether. Furthermore, the boost in contrast to 2000:1 puts the AE700 into the same contrast ballpark as many DLP products. Of course a number of DLP products carry higher contrast ratings that 2000:1 at this point. So DLP maintains a lead in terms of statistical measurement. But from a practical perspective there is little difference in perceived image contrast in a typical viewing room among projectors rated between, say, 2000:1 and 3000:1. In reality, when there is any ambient or reflected light in the room, the use of a gray screen has more impact on perceived contrast than does the contrast capability of the projector.

Meanwhile, resolution now rules. The Panasonic AE700 is native 1280x720 resolution. Football fans in particular should be ecstatic about this. Both ABC Monday Night Football and ESPN Sports Sunday Night Football are being broadcast in HDTV this season. Fox is broadcasting a number of NFL games in HD as well. And as luck would have it, all three networks are broadcasting in 1280x720p, the same native resolution as the AE700 and the Sony HS51. That means you can now get the NFL in pure progressive scan HDTV with absolutely no scaling. Those are the ingredients for the clearest, sharpest possible image you will ever see of a football game. Of course there are a lot of DLP projectors using the 1280x720 format as well. But they are relatively expensive, and none of them are anywhere close to the street prices we expect the Panasonic AE700 will be selling for.

The Sony VPL-HS51 represents a slightly different configuration of benefits. It also has the 1280x720 resolution panels. But in addition it claims a contrast rating of 6000:1, which actually trumps every DLP product on the market in the specifications war. The HS51 does not appear to have the same pixel suppression capability that the AE700 does, but it has features that should make it a blockbuster product as well. And at 1280x720 resolution with MicroLens Array, the pixels are so small that pixelation is not much of an issue anymore (from typical viewing distances at any rate). Whether the HS51 actually gets 6000:1 will be irrelevant. It is clearly in the same contrast performance league as DLP technology, and for the money it appears to offer a formidable value proposition.

Thus the AE700 and the VPL-HS51 represent the beginning of a possible paradigm shift in projection technologies, both in terms of technology and in terms of cost. Dynamic aperture control is used on both the AE700 and the HS51 and is the key to the boosts in contrast that have given new life to LCD. Obviously this same technology can be used with DLP as well with similar results (Mitsubishi has it on their new HC900, which boosts contrast to 4000:1). However at these contrast performance levels the whole contrast issue becomes moot. All projectors at 2000:1 and up have plenty of contrast to produce a terrific image.

Therefore the reasons people have traditionally preferred DLP for video may soon be neutralized. No doubt other makers will be hitting the market with 2000:1 or higher LCD projectors before too much longer; no doubt others will follow Panasonic's lead in reducing visible pixelation. With pixelation and contrast rendered insignificant as competitive issues, the two remaining factors (as far as the display technology itself is concerned) are resolution and price. And at the moment LCD delivers more resolution for the money than does DLP.

The Sony and Panasonic LCD releases will also have an impact on the perceived value of projectors across the entire price spectrum. For example, compare the Sony HS51 to the Marantz VP-124S. Both are 1280x720 resolution. Both have the same lumen output. Both are apparently in the same range of contrast capability. Both are extremely quiet. Both have HDMI and component video interfaces. Both have physical lens shift. The only obvious differences on the spec sheets are that the Sony is LCD while the Marantz is DLP. The prices? The Sony is $3,500 while the Marantz is $13,500. How many consumers are going to believe that there is a $10,000 differential in value between these two units?

Now of course this comparison is an oversimplification. There are certainly real differences that can justify part of the price spread. The Marantz undoubtedly has more expensive optics. We would hope that it has more comprehensive video processing electronics on board. And it probably has some convenience features in terms of connectivity that may be valuable to some users. We would guess that if these two units were shown side by side with the same source material, the Marantz would produce an image that most viewers would prefer. But would viewers think it was worth an incremental $10,000? Not likely.

The bottom line on this year's CEDIA show is that, assuming the Sony VPL-HS51 and the Panasonic AE700 have no design flaws that would render them problematic for users, it appears that these products have the potential to set new price/perfor-mance standards against which all other projector products will be measured. They should put pressure on the higher end manufacturers to drop prices in order to reduce what is now an obvious price/performance gap. If nothing else, the AE700 and the HS51 will certainly reinvigorate the debate over whether LCD or DLP is the better technology for video.