The biggest home theater trade show of the year is the CEDIA Expo (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Assn.). It is open to members of the trade and press, and it is the trade show most manufacturers of high performance video and audio products target for the unveiling of their latest offerings. The CEDIA Expo always happens in early September. This year it was in Denver, CO, and it just wrapped up four days of exhibit hall activity on Sunday.

In the projector industry, CEDIA 2007 will be remembered for the startling fact that Texas Instruments' DLP technology sudden found itself behind the 8-ball when it comes to contrast ratings in the spec wars. Since consumer attention is riveted by specifications (contrast specs in particular), vendors who make DLP-based projectors have always enjoyed the marketing advantage of being able to tout higher contrast ratings than their LCD or LCOS competitors. And for the most part, those higher contrast ratings reflected real performance advantages in black levels and dynamic range.

But this year, the truth appears to have changed. The Texas Instruments booth was featuring a pre-production sample of a Sim2 1080p projector with their latest DarkChip 4, the next generation DLP chip scheduled to appear in projector products next year. The contrast rating on that Sim2 projector was quoted at 15,000:1. Meanwhile, in the Epson booth a few steps away, Epson was unveiling its newest LCD projector, the Powerlite Cinema Pro 1080 UB (for "Ultra Black") with D7 panels and quoting up to 50,000:1 contrast. Sony's new SXRD product, the VPL-VW60 was boasting 35,000:1 contrast, and the newly announced JVC DLA-RS2 was being quoted at 30,000:1. (By the way, of these three, the JVC DLA-RS2 is the only one that does not have a dynamic iris which has the effect of exaggerating the contrast rating. So in reality, JVC's achievement of 30,000:1 native contrast with its D-ILA technology was of greatest significance, assuming the specification is accurate. To be sure, the demo did not reveal any reason to be skeptical of it.)

Consumer Alert No. 1: With the latest advances in contrast, the contrast rating on a projector is becoming less significant as a buying factor for most consumers. In order to get the full benefit of a projector that is capable of 30,000:1 contrast or more, it needs to be viewed in a pitch black room with no reflective surfaces. And indeed, many of the projector demos at this year's CEDIA were being staged in virtual black holes in which you could not see the person standing next to you. While a darkened room will always ensure the best performance from a front projection system, rendering a room totally black is not a realistic option for most consumers who want to use their living room or family room for purposes other than the dedicated screening of films. High contrast performance from a projector is indeed desirable. However, once it realistically gets beyond 10,000:1, other performance factors become just as important, if not more important, for the user's ultimate satisfaction with the image on the screen. So in short, though the latest contrast ratings are impressive, it is wise to keep them in perspective.

Consumer Alert No. 2: This year's CEDIA was unusual in that many vendors were announcing products without declaring their price--keeping their powder dry, so to speak. Many products which are scheduled for shipments in the forth quarter have not yet been priced. Manufacturers are watching developments in the marketplace, and will set a price only when they are ready to take orders. In such a volatile market, it is the common sense thing to do from the vendors' perspective, so we shall just have to wait for pricing to unfold on a number of the models discussed below.

New Projectors for the Fall
(in alphabetical order)

Epson Powerlite Cinema Pro 1080 UB
Epson Powerlite Cinema Home 1080 UB

Rated at up to 50,000:1 contrast including the action of the dynamic iris, the 1080 UB projector is without a doubt the finest video projector yet developed by Epson. In addition to high potential contrast, it has a high 1600 ANSI lumen brightness rating as well. The Home and Pro versions are the same projector, but packaged differently, with different warranties and accessories, to be sold through different channels. These models are scheduled for shipment in December, so pricing is not yet announced. However, the Pro version will be under $5,000, and the Home version will be quite a bit less than the Pro model. [BAN1]

You'd think that with a contrast rating of 50,000:1, the most striking aspect of the demo would be spectacular contrast. Not so, believe it or not. Contrast and black levels were indeed solid and impressive, but it was the magnificent natural color that was truly captivating. Of course, there is no way to quantify natural color quality on a spec sheet, so it will go unnoticed by those shopping via spec sheets. But the fact is that having seen the demo, if I were to buy an Epson 1080 UB for my own theater, I'd buy it more for its exceptional color than its ample contrast.

Epson MovieMate 72
Epson MovieMate 50

Epson has also introduced two new projectors with integrated DVD plays and sound systems. The MovieMate 72 is the first 720p resolution projector that comes in this sort of package. The projector itself sits on top of the DVD player, and is designed to swivel 180 degrees, so you can face the connection panel toward the wall while facing the DVD drawer outward--an ideal configuration for rear shelf placement. Or you can arrange the connection panel and the DVD drawer on the same side of the unit which is better for coffee table placement. The price is $1199.

A less expensive alternative is the MovieMate 50, which is a lower resolution model, 854x480 WVGA. This is a great economy model, with a built in handle that makes it easily portable. For just $799 you get the projector, DVD player, and speakers all packaged into a single box. [BAN2]

Epson Ensemble HD-1080
Epson Ensemble HD-720

Epson is doing something unique in the world of home theater--the company is packaging a complete home theater system that includes everything you need, right down to a hand drill. There are two Ensemble packages, one that includes the Epson Cinema 1080, and one that includes the Epson Cinema 400, which is a 720p resolution model. In addition to the projectors, the package includes a motorized screen that can be wall or ceiling mounted and retracted when not in use. It also includes a 5.1 channel surround sound system that has been integrated by Atlantic Technologies, and all of the nuts, bolts, mounts, power cables, HDMI cables, and audio cables you need to put it all together. If you don't want to go into the walls to run cables, you can string them along ceilings and down corners of walls, and hide them with conduits that can be painted to match your decor. The conduits are included also. Epson's objective was to think of everything you could possible need ahead of time, and make it available in one total solution.

The Ensembles will begin shipping in December. The HD-1080 is priced at $6,999, and the HD720 is $4,999.

InFocus Play Big IN82

The IN82 is the first 1080p product from InFocus. Featuring a single DLP DarkChip3, it delivers up to 1500 ANSI lumens, and can be set to a variety of lumen outputs based upon the user-selectable manual iris. It produces a remarkably engaging picture in high ambient light with the iris wide open. However, in a darkened room, the iris can be closed to reduce lumen output and significantly increase contrast. Contrast ratings on this unit are 4,000:1 with the iris open, and 12,000:1 with the iris at its smallest aperture. The IN82 will begin shipping this fall at a price of $5,499.

JVC DLA-RS2 (a.k.a., HD100)

The second generation of the popular 1080p resolution DLA-RS1, the RS2 is basically an RS1 with contrast improved from 15,000:1 to 30,000:1. Unlike many other projectors, this contrast rating is based upon true native 0 IRE and 100 IRE readings without the somewhat confusing interference of a dynamic iris that closes when the image is dark and opens when the image is bright. The demonstration of the RS2 was staged in a pitch black room so viewers could see the full effect of the high contrast, which was indeed remarkable. Other than the increased contrast, there is not much else different between the RS2 and the RS1. They look the same externally, and they have the same lens shift and throw distance. The DLA-RS2 will be shipping next month, and will be marketed by JVC Professional Products. JVC's Consumer Products division will be marketing the same projector under the model name HD100. No firm price has yet been announced, but it will be under $8,000.

Mitsubishi HC6000

The HC6000 is Mitsubishi's second generation 1080p projector, following the release last year of the HC5000. The HD6000 is an improvement over the HC5000 in three ways. First, the contrast has been boosted from 10,000:1 to 13,000:1. Second, the auto iris adjusts to changes in scene brightness much more rapidly than it did on the HC5000. Third, the initial price upon release has been reduced 11%, from last year's $4,495 to $3,995. As readers may recall, the Mits HC5000 was our reference 1080p product as far as image sharpness was concerned. The improved contrast on the HC6000 increases apparent sharpness, and produces a truly impressive, highly detailed high resolution picture. The HC6000 will be one of the first of the new 1080p projectors of the season to reach dealer shelves, shipping by the end of September.

Panasonic PT-AE2000U

Panasonic follows last year's release of the1080p resolution AE1000 with the updated and refined PT-AE2000. This unit has the latest D7 LCD panels, a 16,000:1 iris-assisted contrast ratio, and a bright 1500 ANSI lumen output potential. This unit was being demonstrated with a Blu-ray demonstration disc. The picture was extremely sharp and detailed. However, the most exciting aspect of this demo was the beautifully natural color and contrast. Overall, the image quality can best be described as elegant, balanced, and realistic. These same image characteristics were present in the Epson Cinema 1080 UB demo, which notably is using the same D7 LCD panels. Judging from the impressive strength of these new LCD products, we believe that videophiles who have thus far been most enthused with DLP will begin to recognize LCD as a technology that can match if not exceed the image quality of DLP. The Panasonic AE2000 will be shipping in late October or early November, and the price has not yet been announced.

Panasonic PT-AX200U

The AX200U is basically a refined and updated version of last year's outstanding PT-AX100U. Most of the specs are the same, including its 2000 ANSI lumen brightness rating, 6000:1 contrast, and the long 2.0x zoom lens. Newly added features include a second HDMI port, a redesigned auto iris, an enhanced Light Harmonizer that lets the projector automatically adjust to ambient light conditions, and a new Game Mode that makes the AX200 uniquely ideal for the display of video games. Though it is a 720p native resolution projector, it does wonders with 1080p material from Blu-ray and HD DVD, looking almost like a virtual 1080p projector. The AX200 will be available beginning later this month, and the price has not been determined as of this writing.

Planar PD8150, PD8130, PD8120

Planar announced three new 1080p resolution projectors. The top of the line is the PD8150 to be shipping in December at a retail of $8,999. This is a single chip DLP model rated at 15,000:1 contrast and 1000 ANSI lumens. The PD8130 and PE8120 are less fully featured versions rated at 10,000:1 contrast that will sell for $6,999 and $5,999 respectively. All three will be sold exclusively through CEDIA dealers on a restricted basis. [BAN1]

Samsung SP-A800

Samsung continues to retain the video calibration expert Joe Kane as a consultant in the development of their home theater projectors. The SP-A800 is the first 1080p resolution projector developed in this collaboration. It is rated at 10,000:1 contrast, with a brightness spec of 1000 ANSI lumens. It uses the antique DarkChip 2 edition of DLP, which we were surprised to learn is still being used for new video projectors. But it has a number of unique high performance features including an exceptional lens with virtually no chromatic aberration. Along with the meticulous calibrations of Mr. Kane, the SP-A800 is capable of producing an elegant and natural image designed to appeal to the most discriminating videophile. Indeed, it is only the most knowledgeable videophile that will be able to overlook the ho-hum specs (DarkChip2, 10,000:1 ??) and realize that the whole of this projector is much more than the sum of its specs. It will be shipping by early November. The price is yet to be determined, but it will be under $10,000.

Sanyo PLV-Z2000

Sanyo decided to sit out last year's rush into sub-$5,000 1080p projectors. So the PLV-Z2000 is the company's first 1080p resolution home theater projector. It is rated at 15,000:1 contrast, with 1200 ANSI lumens of brightness. At this year's CEDIA, Sanyo had a postage-stamp sized booth--a far cry from the large scale demonstration facilities they bring to CES and Infocomm. Unfortunately, the little booth at CEDIA was compromised with a lot of ambient light, so the projector was not being shown under the best of viewing conditions. However, the Z2000 features the same D7 panels that had such an impressive debut in the new Epson and Panasonic 1080p products. It will be shipping next month at an aggressive price of $2,995. Since the home theater consumer is highly price sensitive, we suspect this model will be selling like hotcakes once it hits the market in a few weeks. [BAN2]

Sanyo PLC-WXU10

For those anxiously awaiting the release of the Sanyo Z6, we have a news flash for you-there won't be one. Sanyo has discontinued the tradition of annually releasing a newer and better 720p model. However, the beautiful Sanyo Z5 continues to be one of the hottest selling 720p models, and at prices around $1300 we expect it will remain high on the Top Ten list for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, Sanyo is taking a different course with the introduction of a low cost widescreen multimedia projector. The WXU10 is in the 1280x800 format, which is 16:10 aspect ratio. This is designed as a cross-over piece that will do both widescreen video and native computer widescreen display in the common laptop format WXGA.

Sony VPL-VW60

Sony's latest 1080p projector is the VW60, which has just begun to ship this week at a retail price of $4,995. This is an SXRD projector, which is Sony's proprietary version of LCOS. It carries an iris-assisted contrast rating of 35,000:1, a native contrast spec of 7,000:1, and 900 ANSI lumens in its brightest configuration. The demonstration of the VW60 at CEDIA was in a well-darkened alcove on a 100" Stewart Studiotek 130 screen. The inherently high contrast subject matter being used for the demo looked spectacularly high in contrast, and colors were extremely saturated and vibrant. If one were to complain about anything, it would be that the contrast looked too high, as if artificially overdriven. However, what is true on the putting green is also true in the projector laboratory--better to overshoot the target than not reach it. If the projector is capable of extreme high contrast, then calibrating it down to a more natural looking image should be easy to do. We will be reviewing it this fall, so we will let you know.

There were many other home theater projectors being displayed at this year's CEDIA, but these are the most noteworthy new offerings under $10,000. We will be reviewing most of the models just mentioned as soon as they become available. Based on what we've just seen, this promises to be an exciting fall season for home theater enthusiasts.