The CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) trade show, held every year in early September, has established itself as the premier show for the unveiling of new products for the home theater industry. This year CEDIA attracted over 28,000 attendees, most of whom are specialty retailers and custom installers. These are the folks who design, sell, install, and support custom home theater systems. Products featured at this show include video systems of every sort, screens, audio components and speakers, DVD players, AV receivers, cables and interconnects, control systems, lighting systems, wall treatments, theater seating products, curtain fabrics, decorative posters, popcorn makers, and pretty much everything you could imagine being used in home theater design.

The theme for this year's show came across loud and clear: 1080p video is finally here. And not only is it here, it is affordable. We have anticipated a rapid collapse of 1080p pricing, and it materialized in spades at this show in both flat panel and front projection products. Consider that it was just two years ago that Sony introduced the Qualia 004 for $25,000, lens not included. That unit featured Sony's proprietary reflective LCD technology known as SXRD in 1920x1080 resolution. Last year Sony followed with the VPL-VW100, a projector with the same 1080p SXRD engine at $9,999. And last week they introduced the latest projector in their 1080p family, the VPL-VW50, which brings 1080p resolution down to $4,999.

The lowest price quoted thus far for 1080p front projection comes from Mitsubishi. Their new HC5000BL, retailing at just $4,495, is a full 1920x1080 resolution LCD projector with a contrast rating of 10,000:1. It includes a 1.6x powered zoom and focus lens and powered lens shift, a 5,000 hour lamp life in low-power mode, and a two year warranty. Mitsubishi expects to begin deliveries later next month.

Another low-priced 1080p LCD projector, the Panasonic PT-AE1000 will be released somtime in the fourth quarter. Pricing was not yet available at the CEDIA show, but given Panasonic's aggressive posture in the world of home theater projectors, we would encourage readers to stay tuned for the release of this one.

As far as the high end of the market is concerned, we offer an enthusiastic standing ovation to Digital Projection International (DPI) for staging one of the most spectacular video systems demonstrations ever assembled for a trade show of this type. The DPI theater featured five screens showing both single chip and 3-chip DLP 1080p and 720p models. There were two 12-foot wide Vutec Vision XFT screens at eye level side by side. On the left screen was DPI's Titan 1080p-500, which retails for about $50,000. On the right screen was their Titan HD-250, a 3-chip 720p DLP projector retailing for about $21,000. In a second row above these two large screens were three somewhat smaller Stewart Snomatte screens that were featuring (a) the dVision 1080p single chip DLP ($29,995), (b) the iVision 20HD single chip 720p ($6,995), and (c) the dVision HD single chip 720p, $17,995).

All of these projectors were driven simultaneously by the same HD content. The purpose was to demonstrate side by side the trade-offs in image quality involved in single chip vs. 3-chip engines, and 1080p vs. 720p physical resolution. DPI did their dealers and potential dealers a great service by staging this remarkable display. It was intended to eliminate any doubt in viewer's minds that Digital Projection is among the elite makers of the highest quality digital video systems in the market today. In our view it surely accomplished that.

Overall, over a dozen new 1080p projectors showed up which are scheduled to commence shipment between now and the end of the year. In addition to the Panasonic AE1000 for which there is no announced price, the new 1080p projectors (in ascending order of retail price) were as follows:

Mitsubishi HC5000BL, LCD, $4,495
Sony VPL-VW50, SXRD, $4,999
Optoma HD81, DLP, $6,999
BenQ W10000, DLP, $8,999
Planar PD8110, DLP, $9,999
Runco Reflection RS-1100, DLP, $11,995
SharpVision XV-Z20000, DLP, $11,999
Sim2 Grand Cinema HT3000, DLP, $15,995
Runco Reflection RS-1100 Ultra, DLP $19,995
Digital Projection Titan 1080p-250 (3-chip DLP) $42,995
Sim2 Grand Cinema HT5000 (3-chip DLP) $49,995

The Other Big News: 720p Gets Better and Cheaper

Going hand in hand with the drop in 1080p pricing is a commensurate drop in 720p prices. As announced last week, the Optoma HD70 brings 1280x720p resolution down to a remarkable $999 for the first time in the industry's history. Our review of this projector is available here.

Another noteworthy new entry is the Mitsubishi HD1000, a 720p DLP projector that will retail at $1,495. This model has 10-bit color processing, as compared to the Optoma HD70's 8-bit. In addition it is rated at 1500 ANSI lumens as compared to the HD70's 1000 lumens. So there are good reasons for it to carry a higher price.

Everyone has learned to anticipate new releases from Panasonic this time of year. And right on schedule, Panasonic has announced their newest generation 720p product, the PT-AX100U, which replaces the popular AE900. Black level and sharpness are both improved on this new model, and maximum light output is boosted to 2000 ANSI lumens for use in ambient light situations. Moreover, it has an ambient light sensor that allows it to automatically recalibrate itself to varying room light conditions. We expect this to be another solid entry from Panasonic.

There will be a new generation 720p model from Sanyo as well. The Sanyo PLV-Z5 is expected to appear on the market next month, but no formal announcement has been made at this time. Sanyo typically keeps its prior generation products in production for much longer than does Panasonic, so the PLV-Z5 is not expected to replace the PLV-Z4 any time soon. They will co-exist and be available at two different price points, just as the PLV-Z4 and PLV-Z3 have been this past year.

There were quite a number of other 1080p and 720p projector product announcements. To recount all of the brands, model numbers, specs, prices, and speculative ship dates in this article would be painfully tedious. Our database contains all of the information we have to date on each model released. By clicking Projector Brands you can select the brand you are interested in, and see each of the new and pending models from that vendor.

Should you buy 1080p or 720p?

Now that prices on 1080p projectors have dropped into a range that is accessible by many consumers, the big question will be whether to go with 720p or step up in budget and performance to one of the 1080p products?

Despite all of the hype over 1080p, for many buyers this fall the best solution will be to go with one of the new 720p projectors. There are several reasons for this. First, if your viewing material is primarily standard definition DVD and sports on broadcast HDTV, the 1080p projectors will give you almost nothing in image quality that the 720p projectors don't already give you. All HD sports broadcasts from Fox, ESPN, and ABC are in native 720p, and they will look as clear and razor sharp as they can possibly look when displayed on a native 720p projector. The additional resolution of a 1080p projector won't make HD sports broadcasts look any higher in actual resolution since the signals are limited to 720 lines of video information per frame.

Meanwhile, standard definition DVD (in the NTSC world) has only 480 lines of video per frame. On a 720p projector, the DVD signal is rescaled to 720 lines, and on a 1080p projector it is rescaled to 1080 lines. Assuming the use of a high quality upscaling DVD player or video processor, there is the potential that the 1080p image will look very slightly better than the 720p picture. However, the difference will not be dramatic, and in many cases it will not even be noticeable even in a side by side viewing. The reason is that DVD picture quality is fundamentally limited by the fact that there are only 480 lines per frame of video information in the source. So the DVD source cannot use the full resolution power of either a 720p or a 1080p projector.

Now-though standard definition DVD and HD sports broadcasts are what a lot of projector users are primarily interested in, that may not be you. A lot of prime time television programming on CBS, NBC, and other networks is broadcast in 1080i. The new 1080p projectors do have the potential to make this type of programming incrementally sharper than it will appear on most 720p projectors. There will not be a night and day difference, since 1080i signals compressed into 720p displays already look extremely good. But there is the potential for a slightly sharper image from HDTV 1080i broadcasts when using a 1080p projector.

Practically speaking, the most important new video sources that let you get the most out of a 1080p projector are the new high definition DVD formats, HD-DVD and Blu-ray, which are both native 1080p sources. HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs pack a full 1920x1080 resolution per frame of video, and they look their best when displayed on a native 1080p projector or flat panel display. The early adopters of these technologies are the ones who will derive the most immediate benefit from 1080p projectors in the short run. If you consider yourself to be a videophile or a serious hobbyist who spends money to stay out on the cutting edge of video technology, the new flock of 1080p projectors represent a whole new world of opportunity to upgrade your home theater that you won't want to miss.

The bottom line is that 1080p projectors are better and less expensive than ever. Many buyers who want the very best will jump at the change to order one of the new 1080p models now that they are within manageable price ranges. However, the large majority of consumers should not allow themselves to be distracted or consumed by the hype over 1080p-the powerful 720p projectors to hit the market this fall will be the best deals by far for the typical consumer who rents DVDs and watches Sunday sports and Monday Night Football. Either way, if you have not yet stepped up to the experience of very large screen (100" diagonal and larger) home theater, there has never been a better time to do it.