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Epson is coming on stronger than ever this fall in the home theater market. The least expensive of their new 1080p models is the Home Cinema 8100. The next step up is the Home Cinema 8500 UB, with more features and higher contrast, at $2,999. We've seen but have not yet tested the Home Cinema 8500, but in the demos we've seen it looks like a very strong unit. Assuming it is as strong at its price point as the 8100 is at $1,599, these two models together represent an aggressive competitive move unlike anything we've seen previously from Epson. They may turn out to be the most potent price/performers ever unleashed by Epson in the home theater market.
Product Overview and Test Results
High Brightness. When metering Epson's projectors, we typically get lumen measurements at or close to the official specification. The 8100 is no exception. The Dynamic mode at default settings on our test unit pumps out 1749 lumens, and boosting brightness and contrast push it over the stated 1800 lumen spec.
Traditionally, "dynamic mode" is industry code for absurdly bad color. On many projectors, even some just released this fall, the Dynamic mode is bright, but horribly green to the point of being unwatchable. Epson has not overdriven green to achieve high brightness in its Dynamic mode. Color is, in point of fact, remarkably good. What you give up in Dynamic mode is black level, contrast, and color saturation. But in ambient light conditions you lose that anyway. On the 8100 in Dynamic mode, the picture remains quite acceptable from a color balance perspective, and you don't feel as though you're wearing green eyeshades. Still, people who buy the 8100 are buying it for maximum picture quality for the money, and Dynamic mode is not the ideal way to view the projector.
Epson Home Cinema 8100
There are several precalibrated modes appropriate for dark room home theater. Natural mode measured 598 lumens, Theater was 525, Theater Black 1 was 442, and Theater Black 2 (a warmer 5500K setting for b/w film viewing) was 402 lumens.
There is also a brighter Living Room mode that generates 825 lumens at factory defaults. The default color temperature in this mode is 7500K according to the menu. When in Living Room mode, if you move color temperature to 6500K, you end up with both better color balance and a brighter image. Lumen output was increased to 932 lumens with that change alone. So this is a very bright operating mode for good color, and a good compromise between the theater modes and Dynamic. There is again some sacrifice of black level and contrast, but in low ambient light, Living Room is a viable alternative.
ECO mode. No matter whether you calibrate the unit yourself or use one of the factory options, you can cut light output by dropping the lamp from Normal to ECO. This reduces light output by 23%, reduces fan noise, and increases estimated maximum lamp life to 4000 hours.
Zoom lens effect. The 8100 has a very long 2.1x zoom lens range. The good news is that it can be installed just about anywhere to hit whatever screen size you want. The bad news is that if you use the extreme long throw end of the zoom, you cut light output by up to 41%. This is normal for a zoom lens of this range, but it means you need to plan your installation carefully. If you intend to use Theater Black 1 for maximum black level and contrast, you are starting with 442 lumens at wide angle. If you don't think about the zoom effect and install the 8100 at its longest throw, you'll end up with only 260 lumens, and that's with the lamp on full power. That's fine if you want to limit screen size to about 90" diagonal. But most users will want to avoid the long throw end of the zoom if at all possible, in order to retain a wider range of lumen output and screen size options, and make the ECO-mode more practical.
Focus stability. Last year's home theater models from Epson showed some focus instability over time. The Home Cinema 6100 in particular tended to defocus as it warmed up over a 30 to 45 minute interval. Epson made some mid-run adjustments and minimized the problem on later production units. But readers will be happy to hear that no such problem exists on the 8100. Razor sharp focus is obtained after a five-minute warm up, and it stays razor sharp for the duration of the viewing cycle.
Inorganic panels. Last year, the two least expensive 1080p LCD projectors were the Epson Home Cinema 6100 and the Sanyo Z700. Both models used LCD panels with organic compounds, and as far as we know, they were the only two 1080p LCD models to use organic panels last year. Both of those models were susceptible to image persistence, which in our experience the inorganic panels are not. (Image persistence is the tendency for the projector to retain a subtle ghost image of material that has been displayed in static fashion for an extended period of time. It is not permanent; a ghost image can be erased by displaying a white field for a while and letting the LCD crystals return to their native resting state.)
Now with the 8100, we have run the test sample for a couple hours on a static image to see if image persistence occurs. It does not. Rather, it behaves like all other 1080p models with inorganic panels that we've seen. Thus our impression is that Epson may have gone with LCD panels containing inorganic materials on the 8100. It is Epson's policy not to comment on the type of panels they use, so the company has not confirmed or denied this. Thus, we don't know for sure at the moment, and if we ever do we will update this section. The benefits of inorganic panels include higher contrast, much longer anticipated panel life, and the virtual elimination of any possibility of image persistence.
Lamp life. Epson indicates that the anticipated lamp life on the 8100 is 4000 hours regardless of whether it is run in Normal or ECO mode. The replacement lamp retails for $299.99. So if you drop 15 cents into a jar every time you watch a two-hour movie, you'll have the cash on hand for the new lamp with the time comes to replace it.
Fan noise. In general, the less expensive 1080p projectors generate a bit more fan noise than the more pricey models, but none of them are very loud anymore. On the 8100, fan noise is a low whisper in Normal mode, and lower still in ECO mode. But you need to be sitting within about three feet of the projector to notice an audible difference when you switch modes. Even in high altitude operation, fan noise is a low whisper, just slightly more audible that Normal mode. In normal operation, if you place the projector about six feet or more from the audience, it is unlikely anyone would ever hear it. Few users will ever choose to run in ECO mode solely to reduce fan noise. Rather, getting the ideal amount of light on the screen will be the reason to use it.
Extensive vertical and horizontal lens shift: One of the competitive advantages of 3LCD light engines over DLP is the latitude to incorporate extensive lens shift. On the 8100, as on all Epson 1080p home theater projectors lately, the vertical shift is three full picture heights, and the horizontal shift is two picture widths. This makes it easier to install the projector in a variety of locations relative to the screen without using keystone adjustments.
As with the long zoom lens, the convenience of extensive lens shift has a small penalty. The ideal way to illuminate a screen and get the most out of the projector is to have the projector dead center and the lens shift in neutral position. The more one has to move the projector off-center, the more it decreases brightness uniformity. If the projector is ceiling mounted and shooting down at the maximum angle the lens shift will allow, some of the light may reflect to the floor in front of the audience, and the picture will not be quite as bright.
The ideal placement of the projector, if you have the space to accommodate it, will require no horizontal shift and a modest amount of vertical shift. In short, if you need the extensive lens shift range to get a picture onto the screen, by all means use it. If you don't need it, don't use it.
At a price of $1,599, it is silly to make a big deal about what the 8100 doesn't have. There are those who demand Porsche performance at Kia prices and are offended when they don't get it. But for those of us in the real world, the question is whether the set of features and functions being offered for the price are a great deal or not. And in the case of the Epson 8100, this is truly a great deal for the money in today's market.
Most of the competing home theater projectors in the 8100's price range are based on DLP technology. DLP projectors do not have air filters. Though it is often recommended that you vacuum the air vents periodically, they require less of this type of maintenance than an LCD projector. The 8100 requires a periodic cleaning of the air filter (every two months or so in a normal home environment) to get the maximum life from the lamp.
The 8100 lacks several features found on pricier models. The more expensive projectors today have incrementally higher contrast and deeper black levels. The 8100 does not have frame interpolation, but no projector in this price range has that capability as of yet. It does not have an on-board anamorphic stretch mode. It does not have a powered zoom/focus lens. But other than those features, the 8100 has most of the basic features that one would look for in an entry level model: good color and gamma calibration controls, excellent brightness range, and lens flexibility that is as good as it gets. Everything we've tested on it works as advertised.
At this writing there are two other 1080p models in the 8100's price range. The Samsung A600, at $1,799, is $200 more at retail, and the soon to be released Mitsubishi HC3800 is $1,499, or $100 less at retail. Street prices will vary from retail on each of these, so some shopping is in order to find the actual price differences. Also, the Optoma HD20 at $999 is a competitive alternative, representing lower performance at a reduced price. The Vivitek H1082FD ($1,299) and H1080FD ($999) are available on the low end of price range. We have not yet reviewed the Vivitek models, but will shortly. We have not yet seen a production sample of the Mitsubishi HC3800 either, so we are not prepared to make any comments about picture quality comparisons between these two models at this time.
Most of the Epson 8100's competition is based on DLP technology, whereas the 8100 is 3LCD. Accordingly, the 8100 trumps all of the competition in zoom range and lens shift, so it will be easier to install in a variety of problematic rooms that would be more of a challenge for the DLP models. The 8100 also has no DLP rainbow artifacts since it does not have a color wheel or other serial color updating.
In addition, the 8100 surpasses all of the competition in lumen output range. None of the DLP models are able to match the 8100's high brightness modes. In cinema modes, however, these differences don't exist. The HD20's Cinema, the A600's Movie 1, and the 8100's Natural modes are about equal in brightness. But in this comparison the 8100 still has a solid advantage in contrast and black level. The higher contrast makes it appear a bit brighter in side by side viewing. Beyond that, the 8100 has several theater modes that are less bright than its Natural mode, but give incremental improvements in contrast and blacks.
As far as picture quality is concerned, the 8100 handily outperforms the Samsung A600 and the Optoma HD20 in contrast, black level, and color saturation. The 8100 is equal to its competition in actual sharpness and detail, but in side by side tests it gives the impression of being a bit sharper due to its higher contrast. All three projectors have sufficient color calibration controls to balance out the picture, so none has a significant advantage over the others in color accuracy. As far as digital noise is concerned, the 8100 and the HD20 are both low in noise and are equals in this regard; the A600 manifests a higher noise level than either of them. The 8100 has a more three-dimensional image than either the A600 or the HD20, and there is an impression of superior image clarity that again is derived from its contrast advantage.
With respect to fan noise, the A600 and the 8100 are about even, with a very slight edge in favor of the 8100. The HD20 is the loudest of the three, but it still is not loud enough to be concerned about, especially considering its overall value for the money.
If portability is a concern, the HD20 wins hands down. It is the smallest and lightest of the three; the A600 is a bit larger and still portable. However, though its case design looks great, it is not as easy to handle. We would not want to be moving it around much. The 8100 is the largest and bulkiest of the three. It is not designed with portability in mind.
Overall, the Epson Home Cinema 8100 is an outstanding projector and a superb value for its modest selling price. It is important to emphasize that the HD20 sells for only $999, and it does a very fine job for a projector at this price point. For those who want to budget no more than $1000 for a 1080p projector, it is a solid choice and will deliver an engaging picture. However, if you can expand your budget to reach the Epson 8100, you will be rewarded with superior image quality and more lens and brightness flexibility. It is well worth the incremental price.
Having seen enough of the competition in this price range, we can assign our 5-star ratings on this model. We've given the 8100 4.5 stars for performance, only because there are more expensive models that deliver even greater image contrast and black levels. But at this price range the 8100 appears to have no competition that exceeds its image quality performance. It is awarded 4.0 stars for features, again only because there are more expensive models that have a greater array of features (powered zoom/focus, frame interpolation, anamorphic stretch, etc.) Ease of Use and Value are easily 5.0 stars each. In short, the Epson 8100 is a impressive projector with no flaws that we can detect. It is a significant step beyond last year's 6100 in performance, and lower priced as well. At $1,599 it is an outstanding value, and we are pleased to give it our strongest recommendation.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8100 projector page.