This year, Epson released a couple of laser-driven home theater projectors that are generating a lot of attention. The flagship Pro Cinema LS10000, which we've already reviewed, has 4K enhancement technology and will retail for "less than $8,000." The Pro Cinema LS9600e shares a lot in common with the higher-end model, but lacks 4K enhancement and will sell for "less than $6,000." The LS9600e is the best 1080p projector Epson has ever built, without a doubt, but its big-budget price tag and the stiff competition already in the market combine to squeeze it into a very small niche.
The LS9600e is one of the first laser-driven home theater projectors, so it's causing a lot of buzz amongst home theater enthusiasts. Many people want their next projector to be lamp-free, and they think the LS9600e might be that projector. So let's talk about how to get the best possible performance out of this unique projector.
The Epson LS9600e is a "classic" home theater projector. It creates a super high contrast image that will look best in a very dark room that's dedicated to home theater. If you are considering the LS9600e, it wouldn't hurt to improve the viewing environment as much as you can, either by painting your walls and ceiling or by hanging curtains around the screen to cut reflections.
In such a space, the LS9600e is a gem. The projector's laser light source starts up instantly and comes to full brightness in seconds, not minutes. First startup can be disconcerting, because the projector's deep black level can make you think it hasn't turned itself on - until the EPSON logo jumps onto the screen.
This super-deep black is one of the projector's most striking features, and it's the reason why you need a properly treated room to fully appreciate the LS9600e. Any ambient or reflected light will lessen the impact of the projector's stunning black level.
The projected image is compelling. Colors pop, shadow details are well-defined, and there is very little digital noise. Detail is amazingly sharp thanks to the Super Resolution and Detail Enhancement features, both of which draw out fine detail in the source material without any noticeable edge enhancement artifacts. On the contrary, the enhanced image never loses its natural character. The 3D image is bright, colorful, and has minimal crosstalk, which we've come to expect from Epson projectors over the years. Using the LS9600e, you constantly come across little details that demonstrate Epson's many years' experience building great home theater projectors. It feels, front to back, like a refined, polished projector.
Reflective LCD. The LS9600e is a three-chip reflective projector. Epson calls their new imaging technology "3LCD Reflective," similar to Sony's "SXRD" and JVC's "D-ILA." They are all essentially LCoS, though Epson describes their chips as using a quartz substrate. Quartz is a silicon oxide crystal, and the silicon found in electronics is crystalline already, so it's not clear if there's a meaningful difference between 3LCD Reflective and other forms of LCoS. In any case, the LS9600e demonstrates all of the familiar strengths of LCoS, such as impressive contrast and a minuscule inter-pixel gap.
Laser light source. Epson's LS series projectors are the first 100% laser projectors for home theater, and their performance is encouraging. The LS projectors use a combination of laser diodes and a phosphor wheel to create red, green, and blue light. Unlike LEDs, lasers can easily match the lumen output of high-pressure lamps. And unlike some LED/laser hybrids, pure laser projectors have accurate, life-like color. Like other solid-state technologies, laser diodes will last much longer than high-pressure lamps. Epson estimates laser life at 10,000 hours in full power mode and 30,000 hours in eco-mode. The laser source will continue to run beyond these limits, but this is the point at which lumen output is anticipated to reach 50% of its initial brightness. By industry convention, this is considered "end of life." High-pressure lamps also tend to lose about 25% of their lumen output in the first 500 hours of use, whereas lasers degrade linearly, so they tend to stay brighter longer.
Customizable brightness. In a properly light-controlled theater, you don't need a super bright projector if you have a smaller screen. To this end, the LS9600e includes a manual lens iris that can cut light output by up to 65% in roughly 5% intervals. There are also three power settings for the laser: High (100%) power, Medium (80%) power, and Low (60%) power. Combining these two options allows you to fine tune the lumen output for a wide variety of screen sizes and types.
Lens Memory. The LS9600e is capable of 2.4:1 constant image height (CIH) projection without the use of an external anamorphic lens. Lens Memory allows you to save up to ten zoom, focus, and lens shift locations and then return to those saved settings with the push of a button. When paired with a 2.4:1 screen, the LS9600e can zoom and shift for perfect placement of super-wide movies, then zoom back down for 16:9 content. The Lens Memory system is quick and quiet, and there are direct-access buttons on the remote for memory locations 1 and 2.
Detail. The LS9600e includes two separate but interrelated systems that enhance fine detail in source material. The first, Super Resolution, helps to better define edges to give the image a sharper appearance without ringing or other ugly artifacts. Super Resolution has been a staple feature of Epson's home theater projectors for years now, and each year's system is better than the last. The second system, Detail Enhancement, claims to refine surface detail. The combined effect is, in a word, stunning. Even reference-quality Blu-ray movies benefit from this processing, giving them a sense of clarity and texture not found in the original source.
The Super Resolution and Detail Clarity systems are adjusted independently, and there are no "correct" settings. Live television benefits from higher settings, while movies look more natural with less enhancement.
Frame Interpolation. Epson was an early adopter of frame interpolation, and they've had a lot of time to get it right. So it's not surprising that the LS9600e has a frame interpolation system that is both effective and subtle, with little digital video effect in the High setting and none at all in Low. We use Low for 24p film and it drastically reduces judder in camera pans and rapid motion. The Medium and High settings are more aggressive, but are well-suited to digital video, television, and live performances.
Excellent noise reduction. Traditionally, noise reduction has involved a trade-off between noise and fine detail. On most projectors, using noise reduction results in a softer picture. But the LS9600e's noise reduction system, even on its lowest settings, removes a surprising amount of digital noise from the picture without softening the image in any perceivable way. Pushing NR to maximum will still soften the image, but we never found it necessary to do so, even on particularly noisy transfers.
Great Placement flexibility. The LS9600e uses a 2.1:1 zoom lens with powered zoom, focus, and lens shift adjustments. The lens shift is especially generous, allowing a total range of 2 2/3 image heights and two image widths. During adjustments, the shift will stop itself upon reaching center position, easily allowing you to find the neutral position again if needed.
Panel Alignment. All three-chip projectors run the risk of convergence issues, which occur when one or more of the imaging chips drifts out of alignment. The Panel Alignment feature of the LS9600e allows you to make small adjustments to the projector's convergence without sending it in for service. This reduces downtime and ensures the best possible picture for years to come, even after your warranty period ends.
Low Audible noise. The LS9600e is among the quietest projectors we've (not) heard recently. The projector's fan rises to a low hum during startup, but after a minute or two, the fan settles down and the projector is whisper quiet. If you are more than a foot or two away from the projector, you won't hear a thing unless you turn off your speakers and listen really hard.
WirelessHD. The LS9600e uses the same WirelessHD transmitter included with other Epson "e" projectors, such as the Home Cinema 6030UBe and the Home Cinema 3600e. The transmitter has five HDMI inputs, one HDMI output (to connect to a TV or other display), one optical audio output, a USB port (for charging 3D glasses), and some buttons up top for changing sources. All of the transmitter's functions can be controlled from the projector's remote control. The integrated controls, internal receiver, and abundance of connections give WirelessHD on the LS9600e a significant advantage over an after-market wireless HDMI product.
Light output. The LS9600e's brightest mode is Dynamic, at 1,393 lumens on our test unit - slightly above the 1,300 lumens claimed on the spec sheet. Dynamic mode is quite well-balanced compared to the low-contrast greenish bright modes found on some other home theater projectors. If you have cause to raise the lights in your home theater and want to give the image some more punch, Dynamic is a good option.
The next image mode, Living Room, measured 911 lumens at full power. Living Room is bluish, like Dynamic, but only about two-thirds as bright. Living Room has less intense black levels and more openness in mid-tones, making it more appropriate for use in ambient light.
The remaining image modes are: Natural (1,038 lumens), THX (842), Cinema (933), and BW Cinema (918). All of these image modes are intended for home theater use, but they differ in their details. THX is the projector's reference mode, and out-of-the-box performance is close to ideal. Cinema is a slightly "pumped up" version of THX, with more intense (though not inaccurate) color. BW Cinema, as the name implies, is for black and white movies; it has a white balance around 5500K so that films like Casablanca can be displayed with warmer tones that more closely match the viewing experience of theaters back in the day. Natural, with more open mid-tones, is a good choice for television and other video content.
The LS9600e's 2.1:1 lens is more efficient than most. Whereas most 2:1 zoom lenses lose at least 40% of light output at maximum telephoto, the lens on the LS9600e only cuts output by 27%. This gives you a little more freedom to place the projector where you need it.
Contrast. Epson doesn't publish a numerical contrast rating for the LS series projectors, instead opting for the term "absolute black." This isn't an exaggeration. When you feed the LS9600e a pure black test image, the projector emits zero lumens. Since you can't divide by zero, assigning a numerical value to the projector's on/off contrast becomes impossible.
On/off contrast represents an ideal test case that isn't representative of real-world use. But when watching movies on the LS9600e, the projector's black level in dark scenes is noticeably deeper than Epson's Ultra Black projectors, which already do quite a nice job in this regard.
Shadow detail is clear and crisp, though the factory gamma settings are a touch too bright. Moving the Gamma control to -2 is an easy way to bring gamma closer to 2.2, though the projector's Custom Gamma control is still preferable if you have the required tools and time to use it.
Color. Accurate color is critical to good home theater, and the LS9600e delivers. Cinema mode's factory calibration puts the grayscale at roughly 7500K, though it is consistent and smooth despite being too blue.
Cinema mode's Color Temperature control uses arbitrary numbers, and the default setting is 2. Reducing this control to 1 took some of the blue out of the image, but the grayscale was not as smooth. Instead, we left Color Temperature at 2 and made some quick adjustments to bring white balance in line with the desired 6500K.
Using the factory settings, THX mode measures roughly 6300K -- slightly too red. The LS9600e's white balance adjustments carry across image modes, so we saved our Cinema settings and made some slight tweaks to THX mode. The end result gave us a perfectly smooth, even grayscale that is ideal for the cinema purist who wants dead-on color accuracy.
Some solid-state projectors in the past have had issues properly reproducing the Rec. 709 color gamut. The LS9600e is not one of them. Color gamut in both Cinema and THX modes is accurate enough that no adjustments are necessary, strictly speaking - the gamut errors are small enough that they would be hard to detect without a meter. However, the projector does include a full color management system, with three-axis adjustments for all colors, so such adjustments are possible if you want dead-on perfection.
Sharpness and detail. The LS9600e is sharp from edge to edge, with no trace of softness in the corners or edges of the image. In terms of detail, the projector benefits immensely from the Super Resolution and Detail Enhancement systems, giving it a detailed life-like appearance that puts it a cut above the competition.
Input lag. Like other Epson projectors, the LS9600e has an Image Processing control with two settings, "Fast" and "Fine." Setting this control to "Fast" gives the LS9600e a significant speed boost, lowering input lag to 56 milliseconds (just over 3 frames at 60Hz). The "Fine" setting measured almost twice that, at 108 ms (roughly 6 frames).
White balance memory. The LS9600e can only store one set of grayscale adjustments in working memory. In other words, if you adjust white balance for Cinema and then switch to THX, your RGB adjustments from Cinema mode will still be there. This is an issue, because the adjustments for each mode will be different - sometimes vastly so. To get around this, you should save your settings to one of the projector's ten Memory locations after you've calibrated each mode, and then use those Memory recalls to switch modes rather than the Image Mode menu option.
Input lag. With a minimum lag of 56 milliseconds, it is difficult to use the LS9600e with games that require split-second response times. Examples would include fighting games and some first-person shooters. On the other hand, strategy, puzzle, and other less time-intensive games would perform perfectly well on the LS9600e.
For movies, know that the 108 millisecond lag of the LS9600e will require a corresponding offset in the source audio. This adjustment can be made in many A/V receivers, and some of the higher-end models even do so automatically. Features like Frame Interpolation will increase lag time, so it's a good idea to pick a preferred operating mode, set your audio delay time, and then stick with it.
Chromatic aberration. The LS9600e's lens performs best at the mid-point of its zoom range, and at this position there is no trace of color shift in a pure white test pattern. There is a subtle color shift when using either the maximum wide angle or maximum telephoto positions of the zoom, but only if the lens iris is wide open. Closing the iris by even a few points reduces the effects and brings white balance back to optimum. At iris -8, we saw most of the aberration disappear, and light output was only reduced by 10%.
At an MSRP of $5,999, the Epson LS9600e fits nicely between Epson's LS10000 at $7,999 and Sony's highly popular VPL-HW55ES at $3,999. All three are serious home theater projectors featuring LCoS-type reflective technology. All three have popular features like detail enhancement, frame interpolation, and panel alignment/convergence adjustment. All three come with a three-year warranty. So what are the differences?
Though it might be surprising, the big difference between the LS9600e and the HW55ES isn't picture quality. The LS9600e has a deeper black level in very dark scenes, slightly smoother frame interpolation, and detail enhancement that looks incrementally more natural. The HW55ES has higher contrast in all but the darkest scenes and higher overall light output. After spending hours and hours evaluating the two projectors in a side-by-side test, there's no clear victor. In other words, which projector looks "better" depends entirely on the content being viewed. The exception to this is in gaming, where the HW55ES's 24 millisecond input lag in Game mode makes it the clear choice for those into fast-action gaming.
The big advantages the LS9600e has over the HW55ES are the laser light source, powered lens adjustments, greater zoom and lens shift range, and full-featured lens memory system. But with a roughly $2,000 difference in price, it's surprising how similar the two projectors are.
On the other end of the spectrum is the Epson LS10000. Again, both it and the LS9600e are 1080p three-chip reflective projectors. Both use the same laser engine, though the LS10000 has a brightness advantage. The LS10000 costs $2,000 more than the LS9600e, creating a pleasantly symmetrical book-end with the HW55ES.
The big difference between the LS9600e and the flagship LS10000 is the latter's 4K Enhancement, which gives it a huge advantage in detail and a film-like, natural quality. If you haven't seen it, you may be skeptical. Some readers remain unconvinced that a native 1080p projector with 4K enhancement can even approach the performance of a native 4K machine. We say, don't judge until you've seen it. There is indeed a picture quality difference between the LS10000 and a native 4K projector like the Sony VW600ES. However for most typical HD and Blu-ray source material the difference in picture quality is much more subtle than you'd imagine. The LS10000 delivers a picture that more closely imitates the Sony VW600ES than it does any 1080p model on the market.
In other words, the LS9600e is a superb 1080p projector - one of the best we've seen. But it cannot match the sheer level of fine detail and pure, film-like quality of the LS10000. The 4K Enhancement of Epson's flagship model produces a picture that is dramatically different from even the best 1080p projectors we've seen, including the LS9600e. So while the LS9600e produces an outstanding image for a 1080p projector, those who can afford the additional outlay would be better off going for the LS10000 instead.
The Epson Pro Cinema LS9600e is one of the best 1080p projectors we've ever had the pleasure of working with. It is a complete package, offering every feature, bell, and whistle one could possibly desire for home theater--except 4K enhancement. The combination of 3LCD Reflective panels and an all-laser light source make it a unique projector not just in Epson's line-up, but in the world of home theater.
Where the LS9600e runs into trouble is price-competitiveness. The Sony HW55ES is priced $2,000 less than the LS9600e, and the price difference can be difficult to justify since the picture quality is almost identical. Of course, if you want the longer life laser light source and/or the automated Lens Memory that the 9600e has and the HW55ES does not, that makes the step up to the LS9600e an easier decision.
On the other hand, if you've already decided to go at least $5,999 for the LS9600e, Epson's flagship LS10000 with 4K Enhancement takes picture quality into a completely different league for just $2,000 more. Side by side viewing of Blu-ray material on the LS10000 against either the 9600e or the Sony HW55ES shows the LS10000 to be in an obvious class by itself. Any serious videophile who can spare the incremental $2,000 to gain this whole new level of image definition is well advised to do so. In short, while the LS9600e is an excellent 1080p home theater projector in its own right, the competitive options at the moment are giving it a case of middle-child syndrome.