What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was a real snooze as far as the projector industry goes. Yamaha showed an impressive demo of the DPX-1, still six months prior to shipment. Sharp introduced the XV-Z9000 in prototype form with a lackluster demo that gave no hint of the dramatic performance that the production product would eventually deliver. Toshiba debuted the TLP-MT7, the industry's first 1280 x 720 widescreen LCD projector, to be delivered in May. And that was about it.

Flash forward to the present day. As I write this review the CES exhibit halls are closing their fourth and final day. Every major player in the home theater projector industry (with the notable exception of Sony) showed up this year. They were all there to demonstrate awesome advances in price performance. Front projection systems are truly arriving at the point where dramatic, high quality large screen video is affordable for the mass of consumers. To a large extent, DLP technology from Texas Instruments is the engine that is driving this revolution.

Projector Highlights

InFocus fans were excited and amazed at the beautiful demo of the new LS110, the name of which has now been changed to the Screenplay 110. At a retail price of $4,999, this unit features the new dual mode DLP chip in 848 x 600 format. That means that DVDs can be displayed in their native 848 x 480 format without compression. And that means you get a very clean picture.

But there's more-as part of the demo InFocus fed an HDTV 1080i clip into the Screenplay 110. The result was almost jaw-dropping--an amazingly crisp high definition image despite its compression into 480 lines. It's hard to believe until you see it for yourself. As far as home theater goes, from the looks of the demo on the show floor InFocus has a very hot product on its hands. We are anxious to get a unit in the lab for a closer look.

Another very pleasant surprise was to be found in the Optoma booth. The company unveiled its first projector targeted exclusively to home theater, the Optoma H55. Retailing at $7,995, this native XGA-resolution DLP projector was producing some very impressive and competitive images in the demo. The H55 is rated at 1200 ANSI lumens and 800:1 contrast. It has a 4x speed color wheel and the Silicon Image (DVDO) deinterlacing chipset on board. Fully HDTV ready and complete with DVI input, the Optoma H55 looks like it is positioned to give the Yamaha DPX-1 some serious price/performance competition when it commences shipment in March.

For those who want to keep their projector budget under $3000, Panasonic is poised to launch the PT-AE100 Home Cinema Projector. This is an LCD projector with a widescreen 16:9 layout on its SVGA panels-the pixel matrix is 858 x 484. The unit is rated at 700 ANSI lumens, features a 1.2x short throw manual zoom lens, and is HDTV compatible. The demo showed that it is capable of producing a very watchable image with vibrant color.

At one point Panasonic fed the projector a 720p HDTV source. The clarity was remarkable-another instance in which the compression of a high definition signal into 480 lines was accomplished with impressive results. With its 700 lumen output, zoom lens, HDTV compatibility, and 2000 hour lamp life, the Panasonic PT-AE100 appears to be in a position to give the similarly priced PLUS Piano HE-3100 some formidable competition in the economy home theater market. Panasonic says they are ready to ship within the United States at any moment, and you will see it as soon as Panasonic dealers can get their hands on it.

Speaking of high performance utra-portables for the economy-minded buyer, Viewsonic unveiled two new 5.3 lb, 1200 ANSI lumen, HDTV-compatible LCD products. The XGA-resolution version is the PJ550, with an estimated street price of just $2,495. The SVGA model is the PJ500, and the estimated street on that one is $1,895. Viewsonic did not have them lit up in their booth probably due to lack of space. But they are both shipping as of this month. We hope to get a closer look at them soon.

Texas Instruments' DLP technology gained significant headway in its push to establish itself as the world's leading technology for digital video systems. On the high end of the price performance range are projectors that feature the widescreen 1280 x 720 DLP. This chip made its first appearance (in a projector) in the Sharp XV-Z9000 ($10,000). Three more products built around this chip were on the floor this week-the Sim2 HT300 ($14,995), the DWIN TransVision 2 ($12,999) and the Marantz VP12S1 ($12,499).

Although each projector was demo'd in its own theater, one could easily visit all four in turn, thus achieving some semblance of a mini-shootout with this king of DLP chips. Though these were certainly not lab-controlled tests, it served as somewhat of a beauty pageant for the projectors' capabilities. Before commenting, I should hasten to say that at a trade show it is impossible to tell whether deficiencies in demos are due to limitations of the products themselves or due to limited resources available to those who set up the demo sources. So it is not a reliable way to judge a projector.

Having said that, with all the demos at hand in the same room one cannot resist comparison. If I were passing out medals, the Gold Medal would go to the Sharp Z9000. It is hard to beat the combination of image clarity, contrast and color accuracy that is achieved on the Z9000. Taking the Silver Medal and running a close second was the Sim2 HT300 which also produced a beautiful picture, although compared to the Sharp it seemed to be slightly lacking in color accuracy.

The Bronze would go to the DWIN TransVision 2. Compared to the Z9000 it appeared to be a bit weaker in color accuracy, saturation, and contrast. They are close, and it might not be quite as easy to call if one were to see them side by side with identical sources and screens. But in this demo environment the Z9000 appeared to have a definite performance advantage, as well as the price advantage, over both the HT300 and the TransVision 2.

The Marantz VP12S1 put in a poor showing and ran a distant fourth against its competitors. The unit was apparently not optimally calibrated-contrast was overdriven, color was off by a mile, and it had artifacts that lent the demo source of Shrek in particular a truly unique texture that I've never seen before on any digital projector. It is probable that the product would perform better under different circumstances and set-up. Marantz is clearly focused on its core audio products business, as it should be. The lack of attention to this demo seems to suggest that the company has not yet allocated sufficient resources to compete effectively in the video systems market.

Other New Projectors for 2002

Dream Vision previewed its new, fully redesigned Cinema Ten Pro, scheduled for shipment within another six weeks or so. The projector is rated at 1100 ANSI lumens and 800:1 contrast. It features an 0.9" XGA-resolution (1,024 x 768) DLP chip, and will retail for about $12,000.

Yamaha will follow last year's debut of the successful DPX-1 with a less expensive LCD product, to be known as the LPX-500. Scheduled for announcement and release later this year at an estimated MSRP in the range of $5,500 to $6,000, the LPX-500 will feature 1280 x 720 LCD panels, an anticipated 1000 ANSI lumen output, Yamaha's silent cooling system, and inputs for composite, S-video, component, RGB, DVI, and D4 video. This product is in prototype stage, and Yamaha did not demonstrate it at this show.

Similarly, Zenith will be jumping into the fray with the LWX-150, once again featuring 1280 x 720 LCD panels and a 1000 ANSI lumen output. Ship date is anticipated for this summer sometime, and no price range was quoted. The prototype was in Zenith's booth, but the unit was not demonstrated.

Screen Products

Several new and exciting screen products appeared at CES 2002. Leading the way once more was Stewart Filmscreen. Having created the "gray screen" concept with its novel GrayHawk (gain = 0.95), Stewart follows it with another gray material called the FireHawk. The FireHawk has an increased gain of 1.35, and further improves black levels. The material is best matched with DLP projectors that have low lumen outputs, and thus benefit from the additional screen gain.

Vu-Tec debuted a truly phenomenal new screen (not gray) called the SilverStar, which comes in two versions. The SilverStar is rated at 4.5 gain, and the SilverStar Pro is 6.0 gain. These materials make an image sparkle brightly even in high ambient light, and are ideally suited to commercial presentation use. Vu-Tec claims the 4.5 gain version is suitable for home theater applications as well, although it was not demonstrated under these conditions and we will reserve judgment.

Vu-Tec also has a more conventional gray material that it announced at CEDIA in September. Known as GreyDove, this material was demonstrated this week. Frankly, it looked great when compared side by side with the competition. Based on the strength of the demo, I would recommend checking it out if you are in the market for a gray screen. We will try to secure a sample for review.

Da-Lite also announced a new higher gain gray material. The company now gives you a choice of High Contrast Da Mat with a gain of 0.8, or the new High Contrast CinemaVision, with a gain of 1.1.

Draper Screens entered the world of gray screens for the first time, announcing a new material called High Definition Gray, with a gain of 0.8.

Loud speakers anyone?

We have not and will not spend much time with audio components. We have our plate full with video systems, and will continue to focus exclusively on them. However, we are routinely asked about recommendations for audio components to go with new home theater projectors. Since CES was chock full of audio demos, we have two comments to make in this regard.

First, one of the great unknown values in the market today is surround sound speakers by Clements Loud Speakers. They offer both box and in-wall products, and their newest line delivers simply outstanding performance for the money. If you want high performance surround speakers on an economy budget, the Clements line is tough to beat on a dollar for dollar basis.

Second, stepping up into a higher investment class, we've always been impressed with the elegant performance of Triad Speakers. That's what I've got in my theater, and I heartily recommend them to anyone. If you are not already familiar with Triad products, do yourself a favor and give them an audition if you are in the market for premium surround sound speakers.

Wrapping up CES 2002: DLP shines!

All things considered, CES 2002 was HOT. There is a lot of action in the world of home theater video projectors. New products abound. And at the heart of many of them we increasingly find a DLP chip. It may be the dual mode 848 x 600. It may be the standard XGA 1,024 x 768. Or it may be the widescreen 1280 x 720. But invariably, DLP means a smooth picture with invisible or nearly invisible pixels and a very healthy contrast ratio.

So manufacturers seem to be building products around DLP with more frequency these days. Even Sony recently embraced DLP with the 4.4 lb., 1000 ANSI lumen VPD-MX10 for portable presentation. And Mitsubishi has its finger on the pulse of a trend with its new combination commercial/home theater machine, the XD200. This is the first DLP product built by Mitsubishi. It's a 2000 ANSI lumen machine which incorporates both their ColorView Natural Color Matrix and Faroudja DCDi deinterlacing. The unit is designed specifically to target both home theater and commercial markets, and will commence shipment in another few weeks.

Thus at this writing there are just three major manufacturers left that remain exclusively committed to LCD in their projector lines-Epson, Sanyo, and Hitachi. In the next year or two it will become clear whether their total dependence on LCD technology will have served them well. But from the vantage point of the CES 2002 exhibit hall, if you are a video systems manufacturer the DLP bandwagon is not to be missed.

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