Traditionally the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) (which happens in Las Vegas every January) is not a big show for the digital projection industry. However, that may be changing. Prices have dropped and quality has improved to the point where consumers have a number of great options for easy-to-install high performance projectors for their own home theaters. The year 2001 will be the year the floodgates open for digital projectors to move into the consumer market.

Part of what is creating the buzz (for better or for worse) is the anticipated appearance of widescreen format projectors based on native 16:9 LCD panels or DLP chips. Sony has maintained a commanding presence in the home theater projection market heretofore with their popular 16:9 format VPL-VW10HT. However, 2001 is the year Sony's competition will show up.

Several new digital projectors appeared this weekend at CES which have been designed either primarily or exclusively for the consumer market. Here is a quick rundown on the new releases...

Yamaha DPX-1 Digital Cinema Projector This is Yamaha's first entry into the projector marketplace. The DPX-1 is a 1000 ANSI lumen DLP machine with a native XGA resolution (1,024x768), and a contrast ratio (according to the manufacturer's spec) of 900:1. The DPX-1 is 480p, 1080i, and 720p compatible, and will take both progressive and interlaced component DVD signals.

The DPX-1 is a 16.5 lb unit packaged in sleek, attractive contemporary casework and is made for ceiling mounted use in a home theater. There is a 1.2:1 manual zoom/focus lens. The connector panel features a 15-pin VGA port, 5 BNC connectors and a DVI port. Fan noise on this unit is virtually silent.

Yamaha's video demonstrations included a segment from the U-571 DVD and a clip of a rock group shot in 1080i HDTV. In these demos, the DVD signal was interlaced component, yet there were virtually no de-interlacing artifacts to be seen. Nor were there any scaling artifacts. The 1080i was equally artifact-free. It was quite apparent that the deinterlacing and scaling on board this unit is absolutely first rate. Furthermore, due to the XGA-resolution DLP, the picture was free of any visible pixelation.

Contrast appeared to be very good on the DVD material and outstanding on the HDTV clip. To Yamaha's credit they chose demo material with a lot of dark scenes to show the resolving power of the DPX-1 in the shadow areas. Few digital projector vendors would choose such challenging material for any product debut at a trade show. Yet while contrast performance was quite satisfactory, it appeared to be typical of many DLPs and nothing much out of the ordinary for this technology.

Those looking for the perfect projector may be disappointed in the DPX-1 in the areas of color accuracy, brightness, and price. Color did not seem quite as precise as one might hope for. And the DPX-1's 1000 ANSI lumen output, while adequate for home theater use, is underpowered compared to other XGA-resolution products in its price range that can be used for home theater. This will be even more of a competitive limitation come this July when the DPX-1 is scheduled to hit the market.

It is curious also that Yamaha chose to go with a standard 4:3 format XGA resolution chip rather than the new 1,280x720 DLP that is creating so much stir. This will unfortunately (and undeservedly) be a competitive limitation for the product. In point of fact, there were two projectors on the CES convention floor that were operating with the new 1,280x720 DLP chip, and neither of them looked as good in HDTV as did the DPX-1. Yamaha demonstrated conclusively that if you have excellent decoding, deinterlacing, and scaling, you don't need a widescreen format LCD panel or DLP chip to get a beautiful HDTV image.

Yamaha is now quoting a retail price tag of $9,995 which is probably unrealistic considering the market conditions that will exist this summer. However, six months is a long time in this industry. Perhaps this MSRP will be revised downward by the time you see the DPX-1 in your dealer's demo room. At a bit lower price, this projector could become a strong contender.

Sharp XV-Z9000U. Sharp was the only manufacturer to have an official product in operation that is based on the 1,280x720 DLP chip. However, there were no published specifications, no firm price, and no firm delivery date. One Sharp representative quoted delivery as "end of the year, maybe November or so." Another said "late third quarter." Both reps said price was unknown, but perhaps in the range of "$12,000 to $15,000."

The demonstration consisted of a 1080i HDTV loop. As with the Yamaha, the deinterlacing looked top shelf. However, the image was softer than the Yamaha, and the contrast was somewhat flatter. There are standard XGA-resolution projectors on the market today that produce better quality HDTV images. Though there were no specs published and no light meter handy, my eyeball calibration of the Z9000 concluded that it appeared to be producing in the range of 900 to 1000 ANSI lumens. Bear in mind that the unit being demonstrated was a pre-production unit, and there will no doubt be improvements by the time it is released.

Apparently we won't actually see this product until sometime in the fourth quarter. By that time the competitive landscape in this industry will have changed dramatically. There is little chance that the guestimated price range of $12K to $15K for the Z9000 will be in any sense realistic at that time.

Toshiba MT7 Mobile Theater Projector. Toshiba unveiled a widescreen 1,280x720 LCD product this weekend which they call the MT7. With a scheduled ship date of May, it may be the first of these new CES releases to actually make it to market.

The MT7 weighs 11.2 lbs and with an audio speaker on board it can be used for some portable presentation applications as well as home theater. However its primary market is clearly consumer home theater.

The MT7 is also rated at 1000 ANSI lumens. It is 480p, 1080i, and 720p compatible. It will accept and compress up to a UXGA signal, and will take both progressive and interlaced component video. It has a 1.3:1 manual zoom/focus lens and a whisper quiet fan. Toshiba quotes the MSRP at $8,995.

Toshiba was demonstrating the MT7 with a 720p HDTV source so there was no way to assess the performance of the on-board de-interlacing and scaling with DVD or 1080i material. Also, there was ambient light in the viewing area which compromised contrast somewhat, so no judgment could be rendered on that aspect of picture quality either.

The demonstration screen was 120" diagonal 16:9, and from a viewing distance of 15 feet there was a slightly visible pixel structure. My impression was that since 720p is the highest quality HDTV signal available, the MT7 should have looked a bit cleaner and sharper than it did. However, this was a pre-production model being demonstrated in less than ideal conditions, and it would be patently unfair to render any serious critique.

The MT7's quoted list price of $8,995 is within the realm of reality and it should sell well for Toshiba despite the fact that the 1000 ANSI lumen rating is a bit anemic for the price tag. We look forward to seeing one up close once it begins to ship in the second quarter.

PLUS - a concept prototype. In Texas Instrument's booth, DLP technology was being featured of course. And in one corner of their booth sat a prototype of a working 1,280x720 DLP projector displaying a 720p HDTV source. This unit bore the PLUS logo. However, PLUS has not yet announced this product. It does not have a name, a list of specs, a price, or a potential ship date. It is unknown if or when this particular unit will come to market.

It is only worth noting on the subject of contrast. This prototype displayed a clean, stable image as well as it should with 720p input. The puzzle was that it seemed to have the same lack of snap that I had noticed on the Sharp Z9000. Black levels just were not quite what one is used to on other DLP-based products. Since the Z9000 uses the same chip, it raised a question as to whether the 1,280x720 DLP chip will have a problem delivering contrast ratios equal to those of the earlier DLP formats. We cannot know based on these two prototypes, but it will be interesting to watch.

Sanyo PLV-60. Sanyo first debuted the PLV-60 at INFOCOMM last June. It is a widescreen LCD projector that uses Sony 1,366 x 768 LCD panels, the same as those in the Sony VPL-VW10HT. The product is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and weighs 19.9 lbs.

Sanyo also showed this unit at COMDEX in November, and again at CES this week. However, to date there is no scheduled ship date and no announced or estimated retail price. The official word is that nobody knows when this product will make it to market.

Summary

This year CES came at a very inconvenient time relative to the evolution of the widescreen projector technologies. Vendors felt the competitive need to debut products, but for the most part those products aren't quite ready for prime time. Of the new releases from Yamaha, Sharp, Toshiba, and Sanyo it was Yamaha that showed the best. It is exceedingly ironic that Yamaha won the battle of the HDTV demos against widescreen format competition with a product built around a standard 4:3 DLP chip.

Collectively the industry seems to be stuck at 1000 ANSI lumens for products in this category. The Sony VPL-VW10HT, which is the only widescreen format projector in production, is 1000 lumens. So is the new Toshiba MT7, the Sanyo PLV-60, and we would guess the Sharp Z9000 may be as well. Indeed, so is the 4:3 format Yamaha DPX-1.

As far as home theater is concerned, 1000 ANSI lumens is adequate but not ideal. The current NEC VT540 is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens. And at its current street price in the mid $3,000s it is an outstanding value. But for the money being asked for the new products at CES, 1000 lumens borders on unacceptable. So there is definitely a second wave coming in the future, a wave that will bring the lumen output of leading edge home theater units up into the 1500 range.

In practical terms, if you are a buyer that has been delaying a purchase in order to see if a new and better product would surface at CES, the answer is that there doesn't appear to be anything worth waiting for. There are a number of projectors in production right now that offer better video performance for the dollars spent (for both standard and HDTV video) than anything that showed up this week.

Recommended Home Theater Products

Due to the volume of email we receive asking for a list of recommended home theater projectors, we will publish one this month. That list will include the best overall video performers in each price range. As a partial sneak preview, we can say that the InFocus LP340 will be on the list for products under $3,000, the NEC VT540 will be featured in the "under $4,000" category, and the NEC LT155 will get some very good press in the "under $5,000" category. Stay tuned...more to come.