The annual CEDIA trade show just concluded Sunday in Denver, Colorado. This show is focused on high-end home theater, and it is attended primarily by custom home theater designers and installers. But it is also the show at which many new home theater projectors are unveiled, regardless of whether they are priced for the high end market or the larger consumer market.

Three observations about this show:

1. Cinemascope 2.35 widescreen format was definitely in vogue in a way that it has never been in the past. Swing the proverbial dead cat, and you'd hit a booth with an anamorphic lens in it. If this show was your only exposure to home theater, you'd think that quaint old 16:9 HDTV format was a relic of the ancient past.

2. LCD technology made a significant competitive advance with new contrast ratios heretofore unheard of--up in the 60,000:1 to 75,000:1 range. And this was not just plain ole overhyped contrast ratios based just on dynamic irises. This new breed of LCD projectors were showing major improvements in black levels and apparent ANSI contrast--that is, dynamic range within a given frame. And Sony's latest high contrast SXRD model, the VPL-VW70, with contrast rated at 60,000:1, appeared to have ANSI contrast improvements similar to those of the LCD competition.

3. It was eerily quiet on the DLP front. Though there were several new high-priced DLP models from the boutique vendors, those looking for new and improved DLP home theater projectors under $10,000 were disappointed. Sharp, InFocus, and Planar/Runco released no new 1080p models, and Optoma didn't even come to the show. Mitsubishi, which uses both LCD and DLP in their product line, has opted to go with LCD for their newly announced "Diamond" series projectors. Come to think of it, Texas Instruments didn't even bother to stage a DLP promotional booth in the exhibit hall, which hasn't happened in our recent memory. Meanwhile, of the latest high-end DLP models, contrast ratings remain in the 10,000:1 to 15,000:1 range where they have been for the last year or two.

Contrast: The Primary Battleground

The battle between LCD and DLP in the area of contrast performance appears to have taken a new turn. In our lab tests over the past year, we have found that DLP projectors built for home theater have tended to yield ANSI contrast measurements in the range of 500:1, whereas LCD home theater projectors have measured in the range of 250:1 to 300:1. So until now, even though LCD and LCOS projectors carry much higher Full On/Off contrast ratings, DLP projectors have maintained a significant performance advantage in ANSI contrast (the ANSI method measures contrast within a given frame of video and eliminates the effect of a projector's auto iris).

In the past, LCD and LCOS projectors with auto irises carried very high Full On/Off contrast specs that tended to mask weaknesses in the projectors' actual contrast potential within a single frame of video. Accordingly, knowledgeable consumers have learned to take them with a grain of salt. Therefore, with the latest releases that proclaim stratospheric contrast ratings, it is natural to assume we are getting more of the same. Last week's announcements included the Epson Pro Cinema 7500 UB (75,000:1), the Mitsubishi HC7000 (72,000:1), the Panasonic AE3000 (60,000:1), and the Sony VPL-VW70 (60,000:1).

However, the real news is not that these new models have high contrast ratings--it is that a significant part of these contrast increases are coming from innovations other than the auto iris. They are coming from improved light control in the light engine, the use of polarizers, and other creative tweaks that the vendors are using to wring additional contrast out of the LCD panels. These improvements are collectively increasing ANSI as well as Full On/Off contrast performance. Last year's Epson 1080 UB was rated at 50,000:1, so this year's increase to 75,000:1 is not earth-shaking. However, if we discover that the ANSI contrast on the new unit has been boosted to 500:1 or more, that is revolutionary. And based on the Epson demo, it looks like this could be the case.

The bottom line is that it appears that this latest generation of high contrast LCD projectors (or LCOS in Sony's case) have at least narrowed the gap in contrast performance between LCD and DLP, and it is possible that DLP's advantage has been eliminated entirely. We will not know for sure until we get them into our lab to do ANSI contrast measurements on them. But it appears from the demos we have seen that these high contrast LCD projectors represent a game-changing competitive development. If so, it will turn up the heat on Texas Instruments and the vendors who build DLP projectors to respond.

Noteworthy Product Releases

The most intriguing product release of the show, in our view, was the Panasonic PT-AE3000. Why? It has several features which collectively make it a unique proposition for the mass consumer 1080p home theater marketplace. Not only does it have substantially improved black levels and apparent ANSI contrast compared to its predecessor, the AE2000, but it has two other new features that should earn it a great deal of consumer interest: (1) lens memory, and (2) frame interpolation.

The AE3000's lens memory enables the user to set the lens in a position for 2.35 widescreen Cinemascope viewing, and memorize that lens position. Then the lens can be zoomed to fit a 16:9 image into the height of a 2.35 screen, and that lens position is memorized as well. With these settings, the projector will automatically reconfigure itself at the press of a button for either 2.35 or 16:9 viewing. Essentially, what you get is the widescreen 2.35 and native 16:9 viewing experience without the cost or nuisance of an anamorphic lens. As far as we know, this is the only projector on the market that has this feature, and it should attract a great deal of consumer attention.

In addition, the AE3000 offers what Panasonic calls "Frame Creation" or frame interpolation. When displaying 1080p/60, it will generate half-step frame interpolations, and play them at 120 frames per second. The advantage is that it eliminates the motion blur that some users find objectionable on LCD projectors. Based on the demo we saw, the feature seems to work quite effectively. However, we are anxious to see it with our own sources and test clips before making any final assessment. Panasonic expects to be shipping the AE3000 by the end of October, and as of this writing, the price has not yet been established.

Epson released a series of new home theater projectors including the ProCinema 7500 UB and the Home Cinema 6500 UB, both rated at 75,000:1 contrast and up to 1600 lumens. They offered an outstanding demo of the 7500 UB in a black viewing room, with the projector being fitted with a Panamorph anamorphic lens. The film demo clip showed the projector was capable of extraordinary black levels and excellent shadow detail. The 7500 UB and 6500 UB also have what they call "FineFrame" Technology, which is similar to Panasonic's Frame Creation, and is intended to suppress motion blur. They also feature Silicon Optix HQV Reon-VX video processing. These two models are expected to ship in December. Prices have not yet been declared, although the 7500 UB will come to market under $5,000.

Epson also introduced two lower priced 1080p models, the Pro Cinema 7100 and Home Cinema 6100. These are slightly brighter at up to 1800 lumens, and have lower 18,000:1 contrast ratings. They do not have the FineFrame technology, nor do they have the Silicon Optix HQV processing. But they do have extended lamp life, up to 4000 hours in low lamp mode, which will be an attractive feature for users who put many hours of use on their projectors. The 7100 and 6100 are scheduled to ship in November, and they are more aggressively priced than the 7500 and 6500--the 7100 is $2,995 and the 6100 is $1,995.

Mitsubishi released its first two Diamond Series projectors, the HC7000U and the HC6500U. Both are 1080p LCD units, with contrast ratings of 72,000:1 and 15,000:1 respectively. Both have Silicon Optix HQV Reon-VX processing on board. Both models have two anamorphic operating modes that allow the user to integrate an anamorphic lens without a track or rail. The anamorphic lens can be left in position no matter what type of material is being viewed. The user simply selects the appropriate scaling mode for the format of the material. This saves the substantial cost of the motorized track, or the cost and nuisance of manually moving the anamorphic lens on a manual track.

At CEDIA, Mitsubishi's exhibit hall demo facility was not darkened sufficiently to show the HC7000 to its best advantage. However, once we get it into the lab we anticipate that it will show notable improvements in ANSI contrast over earlier generations of LCD products. As with many other projectors on the show floor, it was configured with the Panamorph anamorphic lens. These new Diamond Series projectors are shipping this month, and we look forward to reviewing them soon. The HC7000U is priced at $3,995, and the HC6500U is $2,995.

Mitsubishi also released a super bright LCD 1080p model, the HD8000M, which begins shipping this month. It is rated at 5000 lumens and is intended for large venue, sports bars, restaurants, or open air viewing with ambient light present. The HD8000 is priced at $14,995.

Sony added two new 1080p models to their line of home theater projectors. Both are built around the company's SXRD technology, which is their proprietary version of LCOS. The new VPL-VW70 is priced at $8,000, above the VPL-VW60 which remains in production. It features a contrast rating of 60,000:1, which is the highest contrast projector Sony has yet released with SXRD. Meanwhile, the VPL-HW10 is Sony's new entry level model, replacing the VW40. It has a contrast rating of 30,000:1, and is priced at $3,500. The VW70 will be in restricted distribution when it ships in November. The HW10 will ship at the end of this month, and will be in open distribution.

Sanyo never attends CEDIA because their products are not distributed by CEDIA dealers and custom installers. However, the company usually releases new home theater models concurrent with the industry release activity driven by this show. This year Sanyo announced two aggressively priced projectors, the PLV-Z700 and the PLV-Z60. The Z700 is an LCD-based 1080p model rated at 10,000:1 contrast, 1000 lumens, with a retail price of $1,995. The Z60 is an entry level LCD home theater projector with 1280x720 resolution, also rated at 10,000:1 contrast, and selling for a retail of $1,295. Both of these will begin shipping by the end of this month, and we plan to have reviews done by the time they hit the market.

JVC continues to sell the popular DLA-RS1X and DLA-RS2, and has just added two new 1080p models to their line. They are the DLA-RS10 and DLA-RS20. These are intended to be lower priced alternatives, but our current information has them priced at the same level as the RS1X and RS2. We will need to research this a bit further to see what's up.

One noteworthy new screen was released at CEDIA. Da-lite's new high definition screen is called Affinity, and it is created specifically to reveal the detail available from 1080p projectors. The screen surface is exceptionally smooth, which is the key to its resolution. It is extremely light gray, almost white, with a gain rating of 0.9. The Affinity screen is developed in association with the highly respected video guru Joe Kane. It is scheduled to ship in a few weeks, and should be priced about 25% above Da-lite's excellent CinemaVision 1.3 gain white screen. We will get a sample in for review this fall and see how it stacks up against Stewart Filmscreen's current edition of the Studiotek 130, the G3, which is also endorsed by Joe Kane.

We have not mentioned all of the projectors released at this year's CEDIA, just those we think our readers would be most interested in. To be candid, some of them are not worth discussing. Who, pray tell, would be interested in a new 720p resolution projector priced at $6,000? Nobody, we hope. But believe it or not, there it was--a brand new, sexy 720p projector right there on the CEDIA show floor being quoted at $6,000. There are suckers born every minute, so the only criterion for a product's viability is that it be pitched with a straight face. We are sure that some poor buyer will be hosed out of six grand for a 720p projector, but it won't be one of ProjectorCentral's readers.

What about 2.35 CinemaScope format?

This year's CEDIA was dedicated to the promotion of 2.35 as the new and better home theater format. There is a practical reason for this. Dealers make a lot more money if they can convince you to buy anamorphic lenses, curved screens, larger/wider screens, auto screen masking systems, and so on. And there is nothing wrong with that. Some people love the Cinemascope format and are willing to pay extra to get it.

I personally like the visual effect of the 2.35 format for 2.35 movies, but I don't like how small classic 4:3 format films look on that same screen. Batman looks great, but Casablanca looks terrible. So it depends a lot on what you like to watch. If you are a classic movie fan, the 2.35 format is an inefficient use of wall space. If you spend most of your time viewing HD sports on TV, or other HDTV broadcasts, you will want a 16:9 (aka 1.78) screen. If most of your viewing material is 2.35 or wider movies, then 2.35 screens may be ideal for you. As with everything else in life, 2.35 represents trade-offs that you may or may not like. For more discussion on the benefits and limitations of the 2.35 format and whether it is right for you, read this article.