Editor's Choice Award
Our Editor's Choice award goes to products that dramatically exceed expectations for performance, value, or cutting-edge design.
Epson has been making LCD-based home theater projectors for over five years now. The line started with the industry's first 1280x720 resolution model, the TW100, which was released in the summer of 2002. That unit has been followed by a line of newer, better, and cheaper projectors that have appeared periodically ever since.
Epson not only makes projectors, but they also manufacture the LCD panels that go into them. That puts Epson in a unique competitive position in the marketplace, since other vendors like Panasonic, Mitsubishi, and Sanyo all use Epson LCD panels in their products as well.
Epson home theater projectors have traditionally been good and dependable, but never quite leading edge in terms of price/performance. I've always had the feeling that they were holding back a bit in the design and marketing of their own home theater projectors, perhaps so as not to undermine the wider distribution of LCD panels to their corporate clientele. If that was indeed Epson's thinking, that strategy appears to have changed with the recent release of the Pro Cinema 1080 UB, the Home Cinema 1080 UB, and the entry level Powerlite Home Cinema 720. These three units are without question the most formidable competitors ever released by Epson in the home theater projector market, and they are right there on the leading edge of price/performance.
Differences between Pro 1080 and Home 1080
This review focuses on the Pro Cinema 1080 UB and includes notes on the Home Cinema 1080 UB. For all practical purposes, these are the same physical projector internally. But they are packaged, priced, and distributed differently. We have used a sample of the Pro version for this review. The actual differences between the Pro Cinema 1080 UB and the Home Cinema 1080 UB are as follows:
• The Pro version is black, and the Home version is white.
• The Pro is priced at $3,999.99
• The Home is $2,999.99
• The Pro comes with a ceiling mount and spare lamp, whereas the Home does not.
• The Pro has a 3-year warranty, and the Home is 2 years.
• The Pro model features an Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) certification.
• The Pro model is sold by resellers who are trained to install, calibrate, and support the unit. The Home model is sold by resellers who typically do not offer this level of support.
The Cinema 1080 UB is a relatively small home theater projector with a form factor that is wider than it is deep (almost 16" wide and 12" deep). Fan exhaust is out the front left corner as you face the unit. The design makes it particularly convenient for mounting on a rear shelf.
The projector has manually controlled vertical and horizontal lens shift. Vertical lens shift allows a total movement range of almost three picture heights (2.9 by our measurements). This is more than ample for both rear shelf mounting, and for most ceiling mount situations. It is about as much vertical shift range as we ever seen on home theater projectors.
[NOTE: In the review as initially posted, we erroneously reported a vertical shift of two picture heights, and noted that this range was restrictive in ceiling mount situations. We also noted that the vertical lens shift range was less than the Panasonic AE2000 and JVC-RS1 in the comparisons with those units below. In fact, all of these units offer about the same vertical shift range. This review as been updated with the correct data as of 1/23/08. EP]
A key advantage is that the Cinema 1080 UB is a very bright projector, and that it has a range of brightness options so you can adopt it to your particular room, screen size, and intended use. It is rated at 1600 ANSI lumens, and believe it or not, in its brightest operating mode ("Vivid") we measured exactly 1600 ANSI lumens, with the lens set to its widest angle configuration. I can count on one had the projectors that have measured at or above their rated lumen spec since we started reviewing projectors in 1999.
The Vivid operating mode is fine for a Super Bowl party, but as usual you trade color accuracy for extra brightness. If you want better color, opt for Cinema Day or Cinema Night modes. Cinema Day produces a whopping 800 lumens, and Cinema Night delivers a still very bright 470 lumens. These measurements are, again, with the lens in wide angle position.
The Cinema 1080 UB has a long zoom range, 2.1:1. The good news is that it gives you great flexibility in throw distance for any desired screen size-you can light up a 120" diagonal screen by placing the projector anywhere from 12 to 25 feet from the screen. The bad news is that when you move it to maximum telephoto, you sacrifice about 45% of the projector's maximum light output. For example, Vivid drops from 1600 to 870 lumens just by shifting the lens from wide angle to telephoto. That's not unusual for a 2x zoom lens, but it means that installation of the projector must be done with consideration for the screen size and operating mode that is anticipated. If you are going to be operating in Cinema Night mode, the use of the extreme telephoto end of the zoom will drop light output from 470 to about 260 lumens. That in turn would limit the screen size you'd want to go with, and/or it may argue for the use of a higher gain screen.
Therefore, despite the added complications of ceiling mounting, you may indeed wish to opt for a ceiling mount to get the projector closer to the screen rather than setting it back on a rear wall. If this sounds a bit confusing, professional installers can help sort it all out for you, which is one of the benefits of buying the Pro version from them rather than buying the Home version and doing it yourself.
Without a doubt the most sensation specification on the Cinema 1080 UB is the 50,000:1 contrast ratio-at this writing, this is the highest contrast ratio claimed for any home theater projector on the market. This is achieved with the action of an auto iris, which changes from scene to scene-in a bright scene the iris opens to boost highlights, and in a dark scene it closes to achieve deeper blacks. The native contrast spec on this unit is 4,000:1, which is the contrast range it can achieve within any given image frame.
The important question is, what does it really look like? The answer is that it looks remarkably good. The combination of the latent contrast and action of the auto iris delivers much more apparent contrast than we would have imagined possible. In Cinema Day mode, overall apparent dynamic range comes within a hair of matching that of the JVC DLA-RS1 when viewed side by side. Of course, the DLA-RS1 is a pricier projector with a much higher native contrast rating, so the fact that the Cinema 1080 UB can compete so well against it was surprising and remarkable.
On the test unit we had, the factory default settings in the various color modes were quite inaccurate, with all of them pushing green to a greater or lesser extent. None of them were acceptable out of the box. However, the system offers extensive controls for calibration, including the ability to adjust hue, saturation, and brightness on RGBCMY in each of the six preprogrammed color modes. These adjustments give you the control needed to balance out the projector. In addition, there is a skin tone control in the menu which should be used with caution. It can be set from 0 to 6, with 3 or 4 being the factory defaults depending upon the color mode you select. But use it judiciously, with the understanding that it has an effect on most colors in the spectrum, not just skin tones. The good news is that, once it is tuned up and properly calibrated, the Cinema 1080 UB is capable of delivering beautiful, natural, well balanced color.
In general, the factory defaults on our test unit for color saturation, contrast, and sharpness were overdriven for our taste. Color was simply too intense, and reducing the saturation control yielded a more naturally balanced color. Highlights had too much of an artificial glow, and pulling the contrast control down a few notches solved this problem. Finally, the picture looked a bit too sharp and too digital at the factory setting for sharpness. Reducing the sharpness control a few pegs yielded a more filmlike image without compromising image acuity. However, this is a personal preference-some people really like the appearance of the absolute sharpest possible image. If that's what you want, the Cinema 1080 UB definitely has the juice to deliver it.
As far as fan noise is concerned, in the less bright operating modes like Cinema Night, there is very little. But setting the unit in Cinema Day not only boosts light output substantially, but it raises the fan noise to a noticeable level. I wouldn't call it loud, but it is more noticeable than competing home theater projectors in their high lumen modes. If one were opting to run in Cinema Day mode on a regular basis, we would suggest positioning the projector as far from the seating area as is practical.
This is an interesting comparison. Both projectors are extremely good, and both have distinct advantages over the other.
The Cinema 1080 UB clearly trumps the AE2000 in brightness and dynamic range. On a black screen with white credits, the Cinema 1080 shows both deeper black and whiter white. But in most film/video scenes with a lot of mid-tone values, black level on the two units is for the most part comparable, and on occasion slightly deeper on the AE2000, the differences being due, we would guess, to the different behavior of the auto irises on each unit. Highlights are invariably slightly brighter on the Cinema 1080, but overall picture luminance and snap are similar when viewing scenes with average light levels.
As far as lumen output is concerned, the Cinema 1080 UB is about 25% brighter in comparable calibration modes for dark room viewing. On the other hand, the AE2000 produces a bit more lumen output in its Normal mode (about 900 lumens), than does the Cinema 1080 it is comparable Cinema Day mode (about 800 lumens).
At factory default sharpness settings, the Cinema 1080 UB looks a bit sharper than the AE2000, and it accentuates more detail in facial features. However, as noted previously, the factory sharpness setting is somewhat overdriven on the Cinema 1080. Meanwhile, the AE2000 is factory preset at close to its minimum, so sharpness can be boosted if the user desires.
While the Cinema 1080 UB shows stronger performance in black level, dynamic range, lumen output, and perhaps a slightly sharper image, the AE2000 has advantages of its own. First, it shows less digital noise. This is true in both standard and high definition material, but it is most noticeable in SD. Even with its noise reduction filter off, the AE2000 shows less noise than the Cinema 1080 with its filters on. The result is that the image on the AE2000 has a smoother, more filmlike characteristic.
The AE2000 has no pixelation due to the SmoothScreen filter. The Cinema 1080's pixelation is a bit more apparent. However, at 1080p resolution, we do not consider the pixel structure on any 1080p projector to be an issue of concern at normal viewing distances.
The AE2000 has quieter fan noise in all operating modes. In low lumen modes, the Cinema 1080 fan noise is low and unobtrusive, but the AE2000 is virtually silent. In the brightest modes, the AE2000 is still extremely quiet, whereas the Cinema 1080 puts out some noticeable audible noise.
The AE2000 has greater connectivity, offering three HDMI ports and two component ports, compared to the Cinema 1080 two HDMIs and one component. However, the Cinema 1080 has a 12-volt trigger which the AE2000 does not have.
The AE2000 has a vertical stretch mode to accommodate an anamorphic lens, whereas the Cinema 1080 does not, at least in HDMI.
Finally, the AE2000 has several features that don't exist on the Cinema 1080-its split screen calibration is unique, it has a waveform monitor onboard to assist in calibrations, and it has a learning remote that enables you to control several devices in your theater from the one remote control.
So the bottom line is that the head to head competition between the Cinema 1080 UB and the Panasonic AE2000 is a toss up. There is no clear winner as neither outperforms the other in all ways. The decision to go with one or the other depends on which among the various features and image characteristics offered by each projector are the most important to you.
This side by side shootout was quite fascinating as well. First and foremost, the question was which would show better black levels and dynamic range? The RS1 has a native contrast rating of 15,000:1, whereas the Cinema 1080's native rating is just 4,000:1, but it is assisted by an auto iris that clearly improves its actual performance.
The results of our viewing were that the RS1 has just a slight edge in performance on these characteristics, but the Cinema 1080 UB is surprisingly close. In a number of scenes there was no practical difference. We were very surprised to see the Cinema 1080 show so strongly against the RS1, considering the huge difference in their native contrast ratings.
Of course, the Pro Cinema 1080 UB has a price advantage. Not only is it selling for a thousand dollars less, but the price includes a spare lamp and ceiling mount. And the Home Cinema 1080 UB has an even more radical price advantage, selling for at least two thousand dollars less at the moment. So if you want contrast and black level performance that is almost equal to the RS1, but don't want to spend the money, the Cinema 1080 models will get you there.
We found it much easier to get to an ideal color calibration on the RS1, starting from that unit's factory defaults. The Cinema 1080 required more extensive manipulation, and for most users a professional calibration will be needed to get the most from it. (We say this based on our experience with one early test sample. Epson could alter the factory defaults at any time, so it is possible that customers will have better luck with out of the box color performance than we did.)
The RS1 is a D-ILA based projector, which is JVC's version of LCOS. One of the attractive attributes of LCOS technology is the lack of pixelation. Accordingly, the RS1 has less apparent pixel structure than the Cinema 1080 UB when viewed up close. But as noted previously, we don't find anything to complain about as far as pixel structure on the Cinema 1080 goes-it is not visible at normal viewing distances unless you have the eyes of Superman.
The Cinema 1080 is much smaller and lighter than the RS1, actually about half the size and weight. That makes it easier to shelf mount, less bulky to ceiling mount, and in general less visible in the room when not in use. If you are planning an installation in a multi-purpose room and you don't want your video system to be seen in the room when you are not using it, the Cinema 1080 is the more unobtrusive choice.
Connectivity on these two units is almost the same. Both have two HDMI ports and one component port. However, the Cinema 1080 also includes a VGA connection and a 12-volt trigger as well. The Cinema 1080 is HDMI 1.3 compatible whereas the RS1 is not.
In their brightest operating modes, there is some fan noise on both units, but the RS1 is a bit quieter than the Cinema 1080. In lower lumen modes, fan noise is a non-issue on both of them.
Neither of these models offers a vertical stretch aspect ratio to accommodate an anamorphic lens.
In short, the Epson Cinema 1080 UB competes extremely well against the RS1. Once it is tweaked up, it is capable of delivering a picture that comes very close to matching that of the RS1, and it does so for a lot less money.
The Epson Pro Cinema 1080 UB is a beautiful projector once it is calibrated. And in buying the Pro version you are likely to get some assistance with the calibration. The overall package is fairly priced, and a highly competitive value proposition. If you want to budget about $4,000 for your next home theater projector, it would be difficult to find a better choice than the Pro Cinema 1080 UB. We can give it our Editor's Choice Award with great enthusiasm.
Since we have not yet seen the actual Home Cinema 1080 version, we will reserve further comment on that particular model for a later date. For those who are adept at video display calibration and who prefer to do everything themselves, the Home version may be the better choice from an expense perspective. More on this to come ......
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 UB projector page.