Home theater projectors have advance rapidly in quality over the last decade while prices have plummeted. Inexpensive home theater projectors are better than ever and some of them are terrific. So it's time to ask an obvious question: how do today's moderately priced home theater projectors compare to the expensive high-end brands?
We've got two projectors on hand that created a fascinating side by side comparison--the Runco XtremeProjection X200i and the Epson Pro Cinema 6030UB. Runco's X-200i is a premium DLP-based home theater projector priced at $14,999 including a standard lens. The Epson Pro Cinema 6030UB at $3,499 is not in the same league pricewise, but we could not resist the temptation to put the 6030UB up against the Runco X200i to see how it would fare against a (presumably) much more substantial product.
Some important comments on set up
The Runco X-200i is very bright as home theater projectors go. It is rated at 1430 ANSI lumens when fully video-optimized in its lowest light output configuration, and we measured ours at 1378 lumens. It doesn't have any dimmer operating modes, and no eco-mode to reduce lamp power. Realistically, the X-200i is made for larger than average home theaters with screen sizes in the 150" to 180" diagonal range.
The first step in any side-by-side picture quality evaluation is to equalize two things--the projected image size and the average light level on the screen. Since the X-200i won't go any dimmer than almost 1400 lumens, the Epson 6030UB must be put into its bright Living Room mode which also puts out about 1400 lumens when the lens is at wide angle. (Note: All of the 6030UB's optimized theater modes--Cinema, THX, B&W Cinema, and Natural, are programmed to output around 800 lumens. Using any of them against the X-200i will cause the 6030UB to look quite dim by comparison.)
Another important factor in setting up this test was the impact of the 6030UB's zoom lens on its light output. The 6030UB has a long 2.1x zoom lens compared to the X-200i's 1.3x lens. From any given throw distance, the 6030UB will throw both a smaller and a much larger picture than the X-200i is capable of. So it's easy to use the 6030UB's zoom to match the image size to anything the X-200i is producing. However, if you go too far from the wide-angle end of the lens on the 6030UB, it begins to curtail light output. At the midpoint of the zoom lens, you've lost 20% of the projector's light potential. That means Living Room mode, which is about 1400 lumens at wide angle, is about 1100 lumens at the lens midpoint. That is enough to make the 6030UB's image look less vibrant as compared to the X-200i.
The bottom line is that if the projectors are placed in the same rack at the same distance from the screen, the 6030UB at wide angle will project an image that is much too large for the comparison. So it is necessary to place the 6030UB closer to the screen to allow the use of the wide-angle end of the zoom. In our testing, we projected two 5-foot wide images side by side on a 10.5 foot wide Stewart Studiotek 100. The Runco X-200i was 11 feet from the screen, and the Epson 6030UB was 8 feet from the screen. With this set up we were able to achieve parity in both image size and image brightness.
The Epson 6030UB and the Runco X-200i are each capable of producing bright, engaging, well-balanced video images. The most striking revelation was how competitive the 6030UB was against the much pricier competition. We were able to calibrate the 6030UB to render a picture that matched or exceeded the X-200i in color balance, sharpness, clarity, stability, and overall contrast. (The calibrations we used are included at the end of this article.)
While the pictures from these two projectors look extremely similar, they are not identical. When differences in the images appeared, they were most frequently related to one of three factors: (1) black levels, (2) the amount of digital noise in the source, and (3) the degree of motion and camera panning. The Epson 6030UB tends to outperform the Runco X-200i when the projectors are pushed in any of these ways.
Black Levels. The first noteworthy difference between the X-200i and the 6030UB is black levels. Here the 6030UB has the advantage. In a scene with a lot of black such as the Universal Studios opening logo or rolling credits, the 6030UB achieves a solid, rich black while the X-200i's image is dark gray by comparison. The 6030UB achieves its black levels in part with an auto-iris, which the X-200i does not have.
In scenes with higher average light levels and less black overall, the difference in black level is not as noticeable because the 6030UB's auto iris is opened wider and is thus less of a factor. Nevertheless, the 6030UB still maintains a modest advantage most of the time. The incrementally deeper blacks on the 6030UB overall help produce an image with more three dimensional depth.
The X-200i can approach the black level of the 6030UB if the Brightness control is reduced from its default setting of 100. When viewing HD material on Blu-ray we typically had Brightness set to 97. Blacks will go deeper the more you drop it below 97, but you begin to sacrifice shadow detail to an unacceptable degree.
Digital Noise. The presence of digital noise in a projected image can vary anywhere from just about non-existent to abundant, and it largely depends on the amount of noise in the source. Some of today's Blu-rays like the Bond film Skyfall and the magnificent Opus Arte productions of the Royal Ballet contain almost no noise at all. On the other hand, Blu-ray movies that are transfers from film often have elevated levels of noise, with some being obviously cleaner than others. Some Blu-rays and many standard DVDs can be filled with noise.
All good home theater projectors have noise reduction filters that you can activate to combat excessive levels of noise. However, using them can reduce image sharpness--the more noise you filter out the softer the picture becomes. Since HD 1080p projectors are all about getting the sharpest picture possible, most users tend to deploy noise reduction filters sparingly.
The noise vs. sharpness trade-off is quite different on the X-200i and the 6030UB. As a result, the amount of noise in the source has a huge impact on how the two pictures compare. Let's first consider a very low-noise disc like Skyfall. When this was popped into our Oppo BDP-103 Blu-ray player, both projectors delivered a rather noise free image, even with all noise reduction (NR) filters off. However, there was an obvious difference in image sharpness. With all sharpness controls also set to zero/off, the X-200i had a clear advantage in sharpness and detail resolution. The lines and wrinkles in the close-ups of M's face were more acutely defined on the X-200i, and fine hair had more precise resolution.
But that's not the end of the story. Both of these projectors have a basic sharpness control. In addition, the 6030UB has a Super Resolution processor that enhances image acuity and clarity. It is similar in function to Panasonic's Detail Clarity Processor and Sony's Reality Creation processor. No analogous capability exists on the X-200i.
In Epson's factory defaults, Sharpness and Super Resolution are set to zero, but they can be increased to a maximum of +5. These controls must be used judiciously, and high settings must be reserved only for certain types of material. However, boosting the 6030UB's sharpness control modestly from 0 to +1, and the Super Resolution system from 0 to +2 ends up refining the detail in the Skyfall image without adding any detectable edge enhancement or other unwanted artifacts. These settings made M's wrinkled face look every bit as acutely resolved on the 6030UB as it did on the X-200i. In essence, the two projectors end up looking identical in detail resolution when displaying a low-noise source like Skyfall.
The story changes when we move to a source with more noise such as the Blu-ray of the original Ocean's 11 from 1960. When displaying this film, the X-200i shows quite a bit more noise than does the Epson. The difference is great enough that we suspected the 6030UB was doing some preliminary noise suppression even though the noise filters were off. We asked Epson about this, and their engineers say that no noise reduction is happening when the filters are at zero.
When displaying Ocean's 11, the 6030UB's picture is clean enough that the NR filter can be left off. However, this is not true of the X-200i. The noise in the source is amplified quite noticeably and it produces a grainy texture to the image that compromises apparent image sharpness. So on this movie, due to the effect of the plentiful noise artifacts on the X-200i, the 6030UB appears to be superior in clarity and detail resolution.
So... time to bring on the NR filter on the X-200i. This filter control defaults to zero, but runs up to a maximum setting of 200. When set to 200 or anywhere close to it, the X-200i eliminates all trace of noise but it also eliminates most image detail in the process, turning an HD picture into SD and making skin textures look like plastic. So high NR settings on the X-200i (as with most projectors) are not useful in anything but the most unusual of circumstances.
With an HD source, the X-200i's picture begins to soften once the NR filter gets into the 40 to 50 range. Unfortunately, taking the filter up to 50 has relatively little noise suppression effect. When viewing Ocean's 11 or any other movie with a reasonable amount of noise, the X-200i's picture contains more noise with its NR filter set to 50 than the 6030UB does with its filters off. But since the X-200i's image sharpness is already being compromised at 50, pushing the filter any higher is not a viable option. So in short, when the source has some noticeable level of noise, there is no way to achieve the combination of low noise and image sharpness on the X-200i that the 6030UB is capable of.
Motion judder. Another key difference between these two projectors is that the 6030UB has a frame interpolation (FI) system and the X-200i does not. FI is now found on numerous home theater projectors from Epson, Panasonic, JVC, Sony, and BenQ, but it is missing on the Runco. For a $15,000 projector currently in production, this is a momentous omission.
Frame interpolation systems look at two frames of video in sequence and evaluate the movement that occurs between Frame 1 and Frame 2. They use this information to create and insert new frames between Frame 1 and Frame 2 that interpolate the incremental movement between the two. The result is a smoother presentation of movement, and less judder and shake in the image when the camera pans over a scene.
FI systems as implemented by most vendors provide several settings that control how aggressively the FI is applied. On the 6030UB the settings are Low, Normal, and High. The Low setting typically removes some judder and instability, the Normal setting removes more, and the High setting can remove almost all of it. The downside is that FI technology can add new artifacts that did not exist to begin with, such as some ghosting around characters walking across a scene. In addition, FI can make a film image appear hyper-realistic, as if it were shot with an HD video camera. Most videophiles object to this "digital video effect" or "soap opera effect" as a disturbing aesthetic compromise of the genuine film viewing experience.
The ideal setting on the 6030UB's FI system depends on the type of material being viewed, and on personal preferences. We typically select Low or Normal on the Epson 6030UB's FI system for movie viewing. The undesirable digital video effect is usually non-existent on Low, and often subtle enough not to be distracting in Normal. However, this effect varies from movie to movie and is in part related to the noise level in the source--there is no single setting on the FI system that works well for every movie. On the other hand, if the source is an actual video of a live stage or music performance, you want to make that material appear as real and present as possible, so setting FI to High can be beneficial. Users who have home theater projectors equipped with FI systems will want to experiment and find their own personal preferences for how and when to deploy this feature.
When the 6030UB's FI system is activated on either Low or Normal and set against the X-200i, the 6030UB delivers a smoother and more stable image. It is actually an effective demo of just how much jumping, flickering, and juddering there is in a movie that is being displayed on a home theater projector without any FI technology to mitigate it. This is particularly visible in slow camera panning scenes, in which a picture can literally disintegrate for a few seconds.
The noise issue discussed previously might be alleviated with the use of an external video processor on the X-200i, but there is no way to do frame interpolation in a pre-processor and feed it into the projector.
Overall Assessment of Picture Quality
One would assume that picture quality on a $3,500 home theater projector would in obvious and important ways fall short of the performance of a $15,000 projector. We started this comparison with that assumption, wanting to see just how much picture quality you must give up by going with the modestly priced product. To our surprise, we found that in almost every key aspect of picture quality including image sharpness, detail resolution, black level, contrast, and image stability, the Epson 6030UB can either match or outperform the Runco X-200i. The two projectors are for all practical purposes equal in color accuracy and saturation. We found no aspect of picture quality in which the 6030UB fell noticeably short, while the X-200i was compromised when dealing with any elevated amount of source noise. The one situation in which the X-200i had an edge over the 6030UB was with bright scenes that contained very little source noise and little to no black elements. Here the X-200i was able to show slightly better contrast and three dimensionality.
In addition to the Blu-ray and DVD material that we played on the Oppo BDP-103, we watched the NFL Championship games on these projectors via DirecTV. Here again, the biggest difference in the pictures was the noise levels--noticeably present on the X-200i and not as obvious on the 6030UB.
How did the 6030UB end up competing so well against the X-200i? The short answer seems to be that it uses non-traditional processing technologies like image clarity enhancement, the auto-iris, and frame interpolation to improve the picture. None of these features is present on the X-200i. The other competitive edge of the 6030UB is its inherently lower levels of noise.
Traditionally, the dedicated videophile has tended to reject the use of features like clarity enhancement, auto-irises, and frame interpolation on the grounds that they can compromise the integrity of the original source. And in the past there has been good reason to avoid these things. Auto-irises were slow and produced obvious ill-timed lighting imbalances. Frame interpolation produced (and can still produce) a bevy of undesirable side effects. Aggressive sharpening introduces edge enhancement artifacts that are not part of the original source, and make the picture look unnatural.
All of this is true. However, these various picture enhancement technologies have improved with time. They are now able to deliver more refined images while reducing or eliminating the unwanted side effects. Part of the reason that the 6030UB can succeed when put up against the Runco X-200i is that its Super Resolution processor, auto-iris, and frame interpolation system, when deployed in a judicious manner, combine to give it a remarkably sharp, clean and refined image that is largely free of the downsides that used to accompany these features.
This is not to say that the Epson 6030UB will meet or exceed the performance of all premium priced home theater projectors. Certainly the new 4K resolution Sony VPL-VW600ES at $15,000 is in a performance class by itself. And since JVC's usually outstanding products priced at $8,000 and $12,000 have more video processing features than the X-200i, it would be fascinating to see how the 6030UB would show against them.
In the meantime, if you ever have the chance to see the Epson 6030UB displayed side by side with the Runco X-200i, you will probably come to the same conclusion we have: Given the current state of the art in video processing technology, paying a substantially higher price for a home theater projector does not guarantee you'll get a better picture.
In this test we used a variety of HD and SD sources and made several different calibration adjustments on both projectors to optimize them for each source. One of our favorite test materials is the Opus Arte production of the Royal Ballet's Elite Syncopations. This material features very low noise, high contrast, deep blacks, high color saturation, a variety of skin tones, and lots of rapid motion. Due to its low noise level, it shows the Runco X-200i to its best advantage.
For the Opus Arte Elite Syncopations Blu-ray, we used the following adjustments to the factory defaults:
Runco X-200i Epson 6030UB
Overall, these calibrations worked beautifully on Elite Syncopations and other live performance sources captured on HD videocams. The settings used on the Runco were also good for low-noise movies like Skyfall. However, when viewing HD movies instead of live performances, the 6030UB's Super Resolution was reduced to +2, and frame interpolation was reduced to either Low or Normal depending on the degree to which the digital video effect was present in the picture. Completely different calibrations were used with standard DVD sources which are not included here.
Important disclaimer: Ideal calibrations differ on any projector based on the type of source material being viewed. Substantially different calibrations are advantageous when switching between HD and SD sources, and between film or digital movies and live performance HD video. Beyond this, personal preferences come into play. One person might want to drop Brightness another point or two to get a deeper black in exchange for some loss of shadow detail, while another might prefer more shadow detail at the expense of a richer black level.
In short, there is no such thing as a single ideal calibration for a projector. The calibrations above reflect my own preferences for getting the most satisfying pictures overall out of these two projectors when viewing a live stage performance captured with an HD video camera. We've included this data so that anyone who wishes to replicate this comparison will have an idea of what we were looking at.