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It seems like the new 1080p resolution format is giving projector manufacturers a chance to shine in the home theater market like never before. It is certainly true of Epson. For with the release this week of the PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 at just $2,999, Epson takes the lead in price performance by being the first to bring 1080p resolution to market for under $3,000. And they didn't do it on the cheap either-this is a fully loaded 1080p projector with all the features you'd hope to have. This is the most dramatic home theater product release we've seen from Epson since we opened ProjectorCentral in 1999.
The release of the Home Cinema 1080 follows the recent introduction of the PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080. This model is similar in performance to the Home version with almost identical specifications, but with some extra benefits thrown in. And while the Home version is being sold by resellers who usually offer little or no installation or design service, the Pro edition is being sold by custom home theater design specialists who can do the planning and installation for all audio, video, and environmental components of an entire theater, and provide user training on all of the equipment. So the decision to go with the Home Cinema 1080 or the Pro Cinema 1080 depends largely on how much professional assistance you want in putting your home theater together.
If you haven't been keeping up with developments in the projector industry, you may not know that all the buzz these days is about 1080p resolution projectors. They are the perfect match to go with HDTV 1080i broadcasts, as well as the new HD DVD and Blu-ray high definition disc formats, which are encoded in 1080p. Native 1080p resolution projectors have a 1920x1080 pixel matrix that allow signals from HDTV 1080i, HD DVD, and Blu-ray to be displayed pixel for pixel, without any video compression. The result is that you get the sharpest, most detailed pictures you've ever seen.
ANSI lumens: 1200
Contrast (full on/off): 12000:1 w/ dynamic iris
Light Engine: 1920x1080, native 16:9, 0.7" 3x LCD panels with a a 170W E-TORL lamp.
Video Compatibility: 1080p/60/50/24, 1080i, 720p, 576p, 576i, 480p, 480i. NTSC/PAL/SECAM.
Connection Panel: One HDMI port, one YPbPr component input, one 15-pin VGA port, one composite video port, one s-video port, one RS-232c, one D4/SCART connection.
Lens and Throw Distance: 2.1:1 manual zoom/focus lens. Throws a 100" diagonal 16:9 image from 9.8' to 20.9'.
Lamp Life: 1700 hours (3000 hours in eco-mode).
Warranty: Two years for the Home Cinema 1080, and three years for the Pro Cinema 1080.
Home Cinema 1080 Product Overview
Three years ago you had to pay upwards of $30,000 to get a 1080p projector. The fact that the Home Cinema 1080 is now available for just $2,999 illustrates how rapidly the prices have collapsed.
In addition to its native 1920x1080 LCD panels, the Home Cinema 1080 features a zoom lens and lens shift that let you install it just about anywhere in your room. The manual 2.1x zoom lens will allow you to hit a 100" diagonal screen from a throw distance of about 10 feet to almost 21 feet. In addition, the vertical lens shift has a range of almost three full picture heights, so at its most extreme off-shift, there will be a gap of one-half picture height between the centerline of the lens and the edge of the picture.
Horizontal lens shift allows you to offset the image 47% of the picture width in either direction from center. This is more horizontal shift range that we typically see on many home theater projectors. If you have an obstruction in the room that does not allow you to place the projector perpendicular to the center of the screen, the horizontal shift feature will enable you to get around it. However, for the most even illumination, the projector should be placed as close to the center of the screen as possible.
This full range of lens zoom and shift gives you great flexibility for installing the projector just about anywhere you want it. Nevertheless, we would suggest trying to avoid the extremes. At the telephoto end of the zoom range, you sacrifice quite a bit of lumen output, and at the extreme end of the shift range you compromise brightness uniformity (more on this below).
The most obvious cosmetic difference between the Home 1080 and the Pro 1080 is the color of the casework. The Home is white and the Pro is black. White is often preferred by consumers who are ceiling mounting on a white ceiling in a living room or family room, as it makes the unit less visible. However, it is not overly large in any case, measuring 16 inches in width, 12 inches in depth, and 5 inches tall. So it is not going to be a dominating feature in any room no matter how it is installed.
The cooling system exhausts air out the front panel. It is directed to the side of the projector and away from the path of projected light so heat does not interfere with it. This is the ideal design for placement on a rear shelf or ceiling mounting near a back wall, as it minimizes heat build-up.
One unfortunate aspect of the design is that both the air filter and lamp housing are accessed from the underside of the unit. This means it must be taken down from a ceiling mount every time you want to clean the filter or replace the lamp. Some might consider this to be a strong argument for shelf mounting.
The connection panel is adequate, but does not offer extensive connectivity. It includes one HDMI port, one 3-RCA component video, one 15-pin VGA for analog RGB, one composite, one S-video, one RS-232c, and a D4/SCART. The HDMI port is HDMI 1.3 compatible.
The menu is user friendly, easy to navigate, and fully featured. In particular there is full color calibration in the advanced section, with controls over R,G, and B gain and bias, and hue and saturation adjustments for R, G, B, M, Y, and C. The remote control is comfortable and ergonomically designed for ease of use.
Our overall assessment of the Home Cinema 1080 is that it is an outstanding value for the money. It does not perform quite like a 1080p projector that is double the price, but you would not expect it to.
Lumen output varies radically depending upon how it is calibrated and installed. It is rated at 1200 ANSI lumens. Believe it or not, in its brightest configuration we measured a whopping 1292 lumens. This is the first time in our memory that a projector has actually exceeded its stated lumen spec. To get 1292 lumens out of it, the projector needs to be set in VIVID mode, with the lamp on high and the zoom lens set to its widest angle. As you might expect, VIVID mode is not the ideal setting for quality video. But if you are projecting subject matter for which you are not overly concerned with accurate color, precision of flesh tones and the like, it is certainly a viable option.
Once you put the unit into HD color mode, which is more appropriately balanced for video, ANSI lumen output on our test unit dropped to 370-again, with the lamp on high and the zoom set to wide angle. Once you are in a video optimized operating mode, the biggest single factor affecting lumen output is the position of the zoom lens. If you move the lens to its full telephoto position, the lumen output falls from 370 to 205. That's about a 45% drop-not unusual for a very long zoom lens. So even though the 2.1x zoom lens gives you flexibility in throw distance, you pay a real price in reduced image brightness by using the long end of it.
The other factor that influences lumen output is the lamp power setting. In the Home 1080 menu, the control is called "Brightness," and it gives you two options, High and Low. (This is not to be confused with the other Brightness control in the menu which adjusts black level.) Switching the lamp Brightness control from High to Low reduces lumen output by 25% in whatever operating mode you are in. It also reduces audible noise. The fan noise in High mode is not loud, but it is a moderately pitched whirring that could become noticeable during quiet interludes if the projector was placed immediately behind and close to the viewers. Switching the lamp power to Low reduces audible noise to a very low level.
A side benefit of choosing the Low power lamp mode is extended lamp life. Epson estimates a 1700-hour life in High mode, and 3,000 hours in Low. The replacement lamp retails for $349, which is normal for this class of product.
There are several operating modes other than VIVID and HD Color, and they produce different lumen outputs and picture quality characteristics. Cinema Day, for example, lets you compromise some color performance while boosting lumen output into the 650 range. For a room with moderate ambient light, this could be an ideal compromise for either film viewing or video gaming.
Contrast is rated at up to 12,000:1, and the spec is based on the action of an auto iris. So you do not get 12,000:1 in any given scene. Overall, the actual, onscreen experience of contrast and black level performance of the Home Cinema 1080 falls just a bit short of the other 1080p LCD projectors in the market at this time, but it still produces a dazzling picture with HD material in particular.
Image sharpness and detail with high definition content is extremely good. The Home Cinema 1080 came very close to matching our reference Mitsubishi HC5000 in sharpness, and it equals the performance of the higher priced 1080p DLP competition. In short, no problem at all in this department.
Deinterlacing of both 1080i and 480i signals is outstanding. The Home 1080 passed every rigorous deinterlacing test we could throw at it with flying colors.
Brightness uniformity measured a very respectable 83% with the lens shift in its centered, neutral position. It holds very close to that until you get to the extreme ends of the vertical lens shift range, at which point the outer edges of the image will dim by about 20%. It is still quite functional in this position as a 20% differential in lumens is not a glaring problem. But for the best and most even screen illumination, try to avoid the extreme end of the vertical shift range if you have the option to do so.
In summary, the Home Cinema 1080 delivers a sharp, rich, thoroughly engaging 1080p image for under $3,000. Though it has very bright operating modes, its best video modes are not exceptionally bright if the telephoto end of the zoom lens is used. So for optimal home theater deployment, a judicious placement that minimizes the throw distance is in order.
The Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080
The non-performance related differences between the Home and the Pro are these: The price of the Pro edition is $4,999 compared to $2,999 for the Home. The Pro comes standard with a three-year warranty, and the Home has a two-year warranty. The Pro comes with a ceiling mount and a replacement lamp included in the price, whereas the Home unit does not. The Pro also comes with a $300 mail-in rebate that can be applied to the purchase of any screen of value greater than $300. And finally, the Pro version is sold by custom home theater installers that can provide ISF calibration, full installation and design services, and ongoing support. The Home is sold by retailers and online resellers that are usually not in a position to offer such full scale service.
As far as performance goes, the spec sheets are basically identical, so we did not expect to see any differences in the picture characteristics. In reality, our Pro 1080 test unit was about 12% brighter in lumen output across the board than was our Home 1080 test unit. That could be due to manufacturing variances in these two units or in these particular lamps, and a test of two random units is not sufficient to draw any conclusions about the relative brightness of the two models as a whole.
Also, in side by side testing our Pro model achieved an incrementally deeper black level than did the Home unit. We are not prepared to speculate on why this was the case, but we simply report it for your information.
In all other respects-scaling, deinterlacing, color saturation, digital noise levels, etc.--the images from the two models appeared to be virtually identical.
The Home Cinema 1080 is the most impressive home theater projector for the money that we have yet seen from Epson. In terms of bang for the video buck, it is a true winner. If you are a do-it-yourself home theater enthusiast, and have a passion for high resolution imagery from HDTV, HD DVD, and/or Blu-ray, the Home Cinema 1080 lets you step into this world for under $3,000.
Alternatively, if you want full professional design and installation assistance, professional calibration, and a turnkey home theater with in-home training on everything, the Pro Cinema 1080 is the model to consider. It is more expensive, to be sure, but the extended warranty, ceiling mount, and replacement lamp go a reasonable way toward closing the price/value gap. Beyond that, the custom installers who handle this model can tell you more about the services they can offer along with the sale of the Pro Cinema 1080.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 1080 projector page.