Epson Home Cinema 8500 UB Review
For the second year in a row, Epson has riveted consumer attention by claiming the highest contrast ratings in the industry on its home theater projectors. Last year's models, the 6500UB and 7500UB were rated at 75,000:1. Next month the Home Cinema 8500UB, rated at 200,000:1, will hit the market.
That is a big contrast number, but the 8500 UB is a step ahead of the 6500UB in more ways than just contrast. The frame interpolation system produces much smoother results with fewer artifacts than its predecessor. Super Resolution, an image sharpening option, is a new feature that users will enjoy. Very high brightness modes pump out close to 2000 lumens, with very good color balance that is much better than typical high brightness modes on competing units. And a THX-certified operating mode has been added. This is the first inexpensive home theater projector to carry a THX certification.
Review Update: Epson has just announced that the price is $2,499 with a $200 mail-in rebate. The net price is therefore $2,299. [EP, 11/13/09]
Overview: Epson Home Cinema 8500UB
The Epson 8500 UB is a 1080p resolution 3LCD projector rated at 200,000:1 contrast and 1600 ANSI lumens of brightness. It is another excellent offering from Epson which is sure to strengthen the company's competitive position in the home theater marketplace.
Operating Modes and Lumen Output. Probably the single most compelling advantage that the 8500UB has over all of its competitors is its ability to generate an extremely bright picture that is well color balanced. In this respect, it is simply unrivaled. If you want a powerful projector for ambient light use, or you have a very large theater room and want to fill a huge 300" diagonal screen, the 8500UB should be at the top of your short list.
The brightest precalibrated mode on the 8500UB is Dynamic, which on our test sample measured 1835 lumens. That was with the zoom lens set to wide angle and the lamp on full power. At factory defaults, color in Dynamic is not as balanced as it is in the theater modes, but it is reasonably good for such a high lumen output. Color can be improved significantly with a modest amount of tweaking without sacrificing too much lumen output. Since we are working with a pre-production sample, the final factory defaults may end up being different than those on our test unit. But boosting blue and pulling down yellow takes some excessive warmth out of the picture. Color saturation in this mode defaults to +10, which is a bit too rich for our taste. But knock it down a couple points, and we end up with an exceptionally engaging image that the typical home theater enthusiast will love. All things considered, this is the most successful Dynamic mode we've ever seen on a home theater projector.
Living Room mode measured a maximum of 1602 lumens, or almost as bright as Dynamic. It is also reasonably well balanced, but a bit cooler in color temperature. Once again, some modest fiddling with color and saturation produces a very bright and extremely attractive picture. Though not dialed into videophile standards, this is a very striking, high contrast image that does not suffer from the overdriven greens that most high brightness modes have.
The Living Room and Dynamic modes on the 8500UB will provide an excellent and cost-effective solution for very large scale home theater, say with screen sizes up to 300" diagonal. Conversely, if you have more normal screen size in the 100" to 150" range, and are interested in using your projector in ambient light settings, or for football parties, etc., the two bright operating modes pay off big time with this type of use as well.
There are five other predefined operating modes on the 8500UB, and all of them are much less bright than either Dynamic or Living Room. At factory defaults, the THX mode on our test unit puts out a maximum of 637 lumens, Theater is 638, Theater Black 1 is 574, Theater Black 2 (which defaults to low lamp and 5500K color temp) is 424, and x.v. color is 471.
In all modes in which the lamp is on full power, switching it to low power reduces lumen output by 21%. All lumen measurements we take are with maximum wide angle settings on the zoom lens to get the highest potential readings. As you move a zoom lens away from its widest angle setting, lumen output drops. In this case, it drops by about 18% in the middle of the zoom range, and up to a maximum of 36% if you use the extreme long throw end of the lens. This is slightly less lumen loss than average for a zoom lens of this range.
THX Mode. The THX certification on the 8500UB is sure to garner attention among consumers. As noted above, THX is one of the seven pre-calibrated modes of operation, and it, along with "Theater," are the brightest of the video-optimized theater modes available. On our test unit, the THX mode measures an almost perfect straight-line 6500K gray scale. So out of the box, the THX mode is the closest to ideal color balance of all of the seven precalibrated modes. However, the THX mode's color saturation looks surprisingly low when compared either to the 8500's Theater Black 1 mode, or to the Panasonic AE4000 in Cinema 1 or Color 1. On the other hand, the JVC RS25's THX mode is similarly low in saturation. So the 8500 might be correctly set to THX standards, but it doesn't look that good on a very large screen. We are still researching this, and Epson is looking into it. But we don't consider it to be a big problem since the projector is clearly capable of generating rich color in other operating modes.
Meanwhile, Theater Black 1 as it is currently programmed shows some bias toward red, so it is not as neutrally color balanced as THX. But it has superb color saturation, contrast, and black level. With some modest color adjustment, to us it is the most appealing of the video optimized modes on our test sample.
Contrast. Though 200,000:1 sounds like a huge increase in contrast over last year's 75.000:1, it really isn't. We are now into a range of high contrast performance where small changes in black level can have an enormous swing in the statistical measurements. It is easy to suppose that the 8500UB must be "more than double" the contrast of the 6500UB, and that sounds like a huge thing. What it actually means is that black, which was already quite black on the 6500UB, is a shade blacker on the 8500UB. The difference is noticeable in a very dark room, on images that are predominantly black, like rolling credits, or images of stars in the night sky. With this type of imagery, the 8500UB achieves a black that is unsurpassed in this price range.
The increase in contrast has been achieved with further refinement of the auto iris system. While this has a noteworthy effect on black levels and on/off contrast specs, it has less impact on visible contrast in most scenes with average light levels. In scenes of a sunny day, or characters talking in a restaurant, the 8500UB's actual improvement in contrast over its predecessor is marginal at best. In short, while there are several solid reasons to buy the 8500UB, the fact that it has a 200,000:1 contrast rating isn't one of the big ones.
Frame Interpolation. This technology first appeared in the Epson product line on last year's 6500 UB. The new implementation on the 8500UB is significantly improved. It is smoother, it has fewer artifacts, and the artifacts that it does have are less noticeable. Among the improvements is the decision to suspend frame interpolation during momentary rapid pans of the camera when there is no hope of creating a viable interim frame. This eliminates completely the messy rapid movement artifacts that were problematic in the first edition.
Another clever twist is that the 8500UB comes with the ability to split the screen and test the effects of frame interpolation in one half of the picture while leaving it unprocessed in the other half. This lets you see side by side what frame interpolation is actually doing to the picture.
The updated Frame Interpolation system has four options... Off, Low, Med, and High. As one would expect, the amount of motion judder decreases as one moves from Low to Medium to High. Since the amount of video processing is increased, frame delay increases from Low to Medium to High as well. Thus, you will need an audio delay to keep the sound in synch with the picture, especially if using one of the more comprehensive settings.
One of the common side effects of frame interpolation that many people object to is the "digital video" effect, or hyper-real picture that such processing can produce. The image can look more like a live HD video broadcast than a film-based movie. This can indeed look eerie. There is something unsettling about James Bond looking like he's coming to you in real time--it interferes with the ability to immerse oneself in the fantasy "otherworldliness" of the film experience.
With frame interpolation engaged on the 8500UB, the digital video effect is present, but only to a modest degree in the Low setting. It is more evident in Medium and High. Now, this is not always a bad thing. Some people thoroughly enjoy the hyper-real effect of frame interpolation. We've had email from readers asking who could possibly object to the picture looking more real? But many people do, and if you ever experience it first hand you will understand why.
Our take is that the Low setting on the 8500UB removes a great deal of judder, while imparting only a modest amount of digital video effect. So as far as trade-offs are concerned, this is a good one that many users will go for. We are less inclined to use the Medium and High settings for film-based source material since the incremental amount of judder removed is less, and the sense of hyper-reality is increased. But for sports and animated films, the sensation of hyper-reality is irrelevant, and the more comprehensive modes are quite viable.
Basically, all of this is a matter of taste. There is no "right and wrong" way to use this technology. Overall, frame interpolation is a terrific option to have available on a home theater projector, and it is much improved on the 8500UB.
Super Resolution. Super Resolution is new on the 8500UB and 9500UB. It is an additional image sharpening algorithm that works differently than conventional edge enhancement. This feature also has four options, Off, 1, 2, and 3, with 3 being the most aggressive application of it.
The video purist may object to any digital enhancement of this nature. However, we find that with high definition source material, Super Resolution set to 1 yields a sharp but natural image without any objectionable side effects. With standard definition film-based material, moving the Super Res setting to 2 works quite well. Setting 3 is way out of bounds for normal film sources, as it imparts a graininess to fleshtones that we find problematic. However, it has a beneficial effect on animated material such as Pixar's Cars. Therefore, it is likely that many users will find a use for all three settings of Super Resolution depending on the type of material being viewed.
Exceptional Standard Definition Performance. Frame Interpolation and Super Resolution, when used judiciously in combination, produce an outstanding display of DVD and other standard definition material. In our testing of DVDs, setting Frame Interpolation to 1 and Super Res to 2 created a very clean, stable, sharp image that looked as close to HD as any SD source possibly could. Bill commented that frame interpolation is the best thing that ever happened to DVD, and I don't disagree. It can't turn SD into HD, and it can't salvage bad DVD transfers. But watching DVDs on the 8500UB with FI and Super Res engaged will make you want to re-watch many DVDs in your library.
Contrast Enhancement. This control also has four settings, Off, 1, 2, and 3. Though each of these settings yield an incrementally higher contrast image, they do so at the expense of making the picture, and skin tones in particular, look less natural. In our view, the 8500 UB has sufficient contrast in its native modes without any further artificial enhancement, so our preference was to run the projector with this feature off. However, others may feel differently. This is another one of those features that has been included to satisfy a variety of tastes among users. Some people will like it and others won't.
No powered zoom/focus lens. The 8500UB, like its predecessor, has a very long range 2.1x zoom lens, and extensive horizontal and vertical lens shift. However, these are all manual adjustments. Some of the competing models in this price range have powered zoom/focus, which for one thing makes it easier to adjust picture size to accommodate a 2.40 screen via remote control. If this capability is important to you, be aware that lens repositioning to accommodate both 2.40 and 16:9 material on a 2.40 screen will need to be done with manual adjustments of the lens.
No anamorphic stretch mode. If you want to add an anamorphic lens to your system, you will also need to add an external video processor to perform the vertical digital stretch. The Pro Cinema 9500 UB has this feature on board, but so do most 1080p projectors in the 8500 UB's price range. This has almost become a standard feature on 1080p home theater projectors, so the decision to leave it off the 8500UB makes it somewhat competitively vulnerable with buyers who value this feature. On the other hand, we're guessing there aren't too many buyers who would pony up $4,000 or more for an anamorphic lens while limiting their projector budget to under $2,500.
Remote control and menu. The remote on the 8500UB is reasonably functional, but it is not one of our favorites. The placement of buttons and the design of directional controls makes for relatively difficult manipulation of the menu. One can get used to it, but it takes more effort than usual to master it. We do like the fact that it is white, which makes it easier to locate in a dark room with only minimal ambient light. Dark colored remotes disappear entirely in a dark room.
The menu system does not recall where you were last, so returning to a specific control to make a secondary adjustment requires stepping all the way through the menu again. If you are making frequent adjustments to the Frame Interpolation or Super Resolution settings to see how they affect the picture, this gets tedious.
The remote is back-lit, but the light won't come on unless you press a button in the upper right corner. Many backlit remotes will light up the moment you touch any button. This is less of a problem once you get to know the remote by feel and don't need to see the buttons. And if you don't need the light, it probably saves on battery usage in the long run, so setting it up this way is not all bad.
Calibration? None of the operating modes on our pre-production test sample were perfectly calibrated to color temps that we'd prefer, except THX which was low in saturation. Some of them look very good, and many users will be extremely happy with the way they look right out of the box. However, each mode could use some fine tuning to achieve a more accurate color. All of this may change in the production units, so we can't say whether the user will benefit from a professional calibration. But this is a beautiful projector, and one way or another, having it tuned to its peak performance is well worth it.
The key advantages of the Epson Home Cinema 8500UB are these:
• The deepest black levels of any home theater projector in this price range.
• Solid, very competitive contrast
• Extremely bright high brightness mode with good color balance
• Bright theater modes for dark room viewing
• Smooth frame interpolation system
• Super Resolution for fine tuning of sharpness
• Excellent DVD display.
The official price of $2,499, less a $200 mail-in rebate, was announced 11/13/09. The 8500UB is an excellent value at this price, especially for those who need its key light output advantage. Nevertheless, this is a highly competitive fall season in the home theater market. Epson's lower priced Home Cinema 8100 is a formidable offering in its own right at just $1,599 ($1,499 with a $100 mail-in rebate), and Panasonic's AE4000 at $1,999 represents tough competition as well.