Last week a reader in Canada wrote with the following question...

"Most of the projectors that you review and recommend on your site are from manufacturers that are generally better known in the computer industry, more so than the audio/video industry. However, when I go to audio/video stores here in Montreal that have experience in home theaters, they carry brands like DreamVision, Runco, etc., which are not brands you seem to talk about a lot on your site. Do projectors from NEC or InFocus for instance provide a better home theater experience than projectors from DreamVision or Runco? Or is it that the latter are better, but also more expensive and not worth the extra money?"

That's a great question. And it's true that there is a peculiar dichotomy in the market, as well as the press. If you pick up the recent Home Theater Buyer's Guide 2002, published by the folks at Home Theater Magazine, and you turn to the section on projectors, you find that they list only 12 projector vendors: DWIN, Fujitsu, Integra, Knoll, Madrigal, Nakamichi, Runco, SIM2, TAW, Vidikron, Yamaha, and Zenith. There is no mention of companies like Sanyo, NEC, Mitsubishi, or any of the other 50 or so projector manufacturers in the market today. Oddly enough, there is not even a mention of Sony or Sharp, which together probably sold more home theater projectors than all other vendors combined in the last few years.

Meanwhile, while we have reviewed products from Yamaha, DWIN, and Runco in the past year, in general the high-end brands that Home Theater Magazine includes in their Buyer's Guide get less editorial attention on our site than some of the commercial brands. "What gives?" you ask.

Well. Here's the answer. First, ProjectorCentral focuses exclusively on digital projectors--those based upon LCD, DLP, and LCOS light engine technologies. We don't discuss CRT projectors for several reasons--they are losing market share rapidly, they are difficult to install, and they require a lot of ongoing calibration and maintenance to keep them looking good. Furthermore, for the most part they now represent competitive solutions for those with projector budgets of at least $20,000, which is far more than most of our readers want to spend. So names like Runco and Vidikron, which are well-respected vendors in the expensive CRT business, don't often appear on our site in part because we don't address CRTs.

But there is a second reason also. Faced with the decline of their CRT business, the home theater brands have been under competitive pressure to come out with digital products of their own, based on the very same LCD, DLP, and LCOS technologies that are used in commercial projector products. The products they have come out with to date carry super-premium prices in keeping with their high-end image. However, the value proposition has been lacking since some of the commercial brand products offer video performance equal, close to, or on occasion better than the quality of the high-end brands, but at a fraction of the price.

The big question for you, the buyer, is--what are the high-end brands doing with digital technology that the commercial brands aren't, and does it make a real difference?

Components of a Digital Projector

Let's take it from the beginning. All digital projectors have a few basic components in common. They all have a fixed physical pixel matrix on their displays that produces the image. They may be LCD panels, or DLP chips, or LCOS chips, but they all have a fixed number of pixels on them.

Now, most video signals are broadcast in a number of lines that do not correspond to the physical number of lines on the projector's display. NTSC video for example has 480 lines of active video information. Meanwhile an XGA-resolution display has 768 lines, with 1,024 pixels on each line. So to display NTSC video, its 480 lines need to be mapped onto 768 lines of the physical display. It also needs to be mapped horizontally to fit the 1,024 pixels on each line. So all digital projectors have a scaler on board that converts the video signal from its native format to a format that can be painted onto its physical pixel matrix.

Furthermore, LCD, DLP, and LCOS displays are all progressive scan devices. You cannot paint an interlaced signal onto any of them. So incoming interlaced video signals must be converted to progressive scan format inside the projector before they can be displayed. To accomplish this, all digital projectors have scan doublers, or line doublers, or deinterlacers (all different names for the same thing), on board for the purpose of converting incoming interlaced video signals to progressive scan. There are no exceptions.

Quality Matters

The performance of the onboard line doubler and scaler on any given projector can be anywhere from terrific to terrible. The quality of these devices will determine to a large extent the quality of the final video image on the screen. Cheap scan doublers do nothing more than resequence the lines of video from interlaced "1,3,5,7, etc." to progressive "1,2,3,4, etc." More comprehensive line doublers will do more than that. For example, they will detect motion offsets between the odd and even fields, and smooth the image to reduce or eliminate the jaggies that are so irritating on a big screen. Good line doublers will do this reasonably well, and excellent doublers do it extremely well.

Scalers also vary in quality. Poor ones may produce a rather non-integrated, unstable picture, or a picture that is soft and fuzzy. The best scalers will produce a clean, clear image that makes the picture look like the signal format matched the native display format.

In the past, most commercial brand machines intended for use as data display products used cheap and rather ineffective doublers and scalers since at the time it made no sense to drive up product cost just to improve video quality. So historically one of the things that the home theater brands did to produce a premium product was to incorporate more comprehensive line doublers and scalers into their products than those being built into commercial brand products.

For a while, this created some significant product differentiation that helped justify a higher price. However, that did not last long. Line doubling and scaling technology has improved dramatically in the last few years. Meanwhile the cost has dropped precipitously. And commercial manufacturers, acutely aware that their products are being used increasingly for both data and video applications, have taken advantage of the new technologies and raced to improve onboard video electronics.

The result is that today, even some of the modestly priced commercial brand projectors have excellent doublers and scalers on board. For example, the deinterlacer used in the Yamaha DPX-1 ($9,995) is identical to the one used in the PLUS Piano HE-3100 ($2,995). It is in fact the same deinterlacer that is used in the Silicon Image "DVDO" iScan Pro line doubler--which is an outstanding unit.

And you may have noticed that Faroudja, a name famous in high-end home theater for top quality deinterlacing and scaling products, is now selling chipsets to commercial manufacturers. So products like the InFocus Screenplay 110 and the Mitsubishi XD200 are coming to market with Faroudja deinterlacing on board.

Bottom line-the performance gap between home theater brand products and commercial products in the area of line doubling and scaling has narrowed quite a bit.

Progressive Scan DVD players

Another recent development that has closed the performance gap between commercial and high-end brands is the progressive scan DVD player. When you use this type of player and send a progressive signal to the projector, the projector's internal line doubler is bypassed entirely. So for any projector that has a particularly weak line doubler on board, that flaw is simply neutralized with a good progressive scan DVD player. So the availability of high quality progressive scan DVD players at prices now well under $500 has tended to close the performance gap between high-end brands and commercial brands even further.

Other performance features

Fan noise was always a problem with digital projectors. Nobody likes fan noise, but it is particularly annoying in a home theater setting. The high-end brands have traditionally been more sensitive to this issue, and early on they moved aggressively to design products that reduced or eliminated fan noise.

However, fan noise has been reduced significantly on commercial brands as well. Lamps are smaller, lower in wattage, and not as hot as they used to be for the same lumen output. Cooling systems have advanced. Four years ago it was hard to find a commercial projector with an audible noise rating under 40 dB. Today it is rare to find one that is rated more than 40 dB, and many are very quiet indeed. So fan noise has become less of a differentiating factor between commercial and high-end brands than it used to be.

High-end brands have been better at designing easy-to-use, home theater oriented menus. Commercial products have been notoriously weak in this regard. Often many of the same image controls and adjustments are available on a commercial product, but they may not be as accessible or intuitive to use. When you need to enter ten clicks on the remote to get to the screen that lets you change aspect ratios, you know the designer wasn't thinking about the home theater application. Some commercial brands are getting better at this, but the user interface is something that is still, by and large, a weakness in many commercial projectors.

As their video performance edge has diminished, some high-end brands have attempted to use fancy, high-style casework to give their products a more expensive "high-performance" look. Sim2 Multimedia and DreamVision are two makers in particular that have gone this direction. Traditionally, commercial projectors have been more mundane looking. Some lack any design imagination whatsoever. Yet this is changing also. Some of the newer commercial products reflect a much better sense of style and design than their predecessors.

Distribution the Major Factor

So what we have come to is this. Commercial brands used to produce very poor video. But in the past few years, video performance on all digital projectors has improved substantially across the board, and the performance gap between commercial and high-end brands has diminished considerably. Today there are quite a few commercial products that make for impressive home theater solutions. Currently most of them are sold through professional A/V dealers who move thousands of units a year and who typically discount significantly off of the retail price. So as this channel moves to embrace the home theater consumer, the specialty retailers and custom installers that are the traditional resellers of the high-end brands are coming under increasing competitive pressure to pick up some of the same commercial lines.

The high-end brands are thus, for the moment, caught between a rock and a hard place. CRT sales are diminishing on the one hand, so the solution has been to supplement the CRT product lines with digital products that have a "boutique" spin on them. Meanwhile the entire juggernaut of the commercial projector industry is delivering ever-improving video products at a dizzying pace. This has produced some very strange pricing anomalies.

For example, compare the Infocus Screenplay 110 with the Sim2 HT200DM. Both have a single 848 x 600 resolution DLP chip and have native dual mode 4:3 and 16:9. Both are rated at 600:1 contrast. The InFocus is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens, and the Sim2 is 800 lumens. Both are HDTV and 480p compatible. Deinterlacing on both of these machines is first rate. Both have accelerated color wheels to eliminate DLP rainbow artifacts.

Now, the Sim2 has some features the InFocus does not have. For example, it has a power zoom and focus lens with lens shift, whereas the InFocus is a manual zoom. And most people would say it has a more artistic case design. Nevertheless, these two products are very similar in terms of light engines and performance specifications. So consumers will scratch their heads in amazement at the price difference: The Sim2 HT200DM retails for $10,995, and the InFocus Screenplay 110 is $4,999. One needs to ask the obvious question--is there something so superior about the image quality of the Sim2 over the Infocus that a typical consumer would be willing to pay an additional $6,000 for it? We don't think so. It is anomalies like this that we are trying to bring to the attention of the buying public.

Conclusion: Commercial vs. Home Theater Brands

The digital video revolution means one thing: high quality home theater is now available to the consumer at prices lower than ever. The performance gap between commercial and high-end brands has closed to a large degree, but the price gap has not. The result is that many of the most cost-effective digital home theater projectors are coming from the commercial brands these days. The high-end vendors make fine projectors, to be sure. But price and value are the issues.

To answer the reader's original question-we do not believe that as a rule commercial brands are better performers than the high-end brands in terms of image quality. However, we do believe that with the significant advances in digital video processing, the playing field has been leveled. Some commercial projectors are indeed equal if not better performers than their high-end counterparts, even without consideration for price. Why don't you see InFocus, NEC, and Mitsubishi projectors in your local home theater store? Because they are not there yet. But they are coming soon. The digital revolution in video has thrown the entire industry into transition. And the commercial brands are currently positioning themselves to compete as major players in the home theater market of the future.

The bottom line is--money talks. Once the significant price differential is added to the equation and it gets down to a real buying decision instead of a beauty contest, the large majority of buyers would opt for the best performing commercial products over most high-end brand products if presented with a side-by-side comparison and given a choice. For dramatic home theater performance at great prices, some of the most impressive commercial projectors are without a doubt the best bang-for-the-buck on the market today. That is why we frequently highlight them in our recommendations and bring them to your attention.