Epson has gotten much more serious about the home theater market with the release of their latest home theater projectors. The Epson Cinema 500 is their current top of the line unit for home theater. This projector is a relatively compact 14 lbs, and is loaded with an assortment of desirable features including horizontal and vertical lens shift, power zoom and focus with a long 1.5x zoom range, and an HDMI interface. This unit retails for $4,999. Epson also offers a less expensive edition of the same basic projector with a reduced feature set which is the Cinema 200, retailing for $2,999.
The Cinema 500 and Cinema 200 are both 1280x720 resolution LCD projectors using 0.7" widescreen format LCD panels. The primary differences between the two are as follows: the Cinema 500 is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens and 1200:1 contrast, while the Cinema 200 boosts lumen output a bit to 1300 lumens, and reduces contrast to 800:1. On the 500 there are two ports, an HDMI interface and a network port, that do not exist on the 200; in addition the 500 offers two 5-RCA component inputs whereas there is just one 3-RCA component input on the 200; a "Theatre Black" picture mode is available on the 500, but not on the 200; there is Faroudja DCDi video processing on board the 500, but not on the 200; the casework of the 200 is slightly smaller; and the 500 comes with an optional rear cap to hide wire connections in ceiling mount mode.
Connectivity. The video inputs on the rear of both units include one D4 port, one composite video, one S-video, one RS-232c, one USB port, and one trigger output. In addition the 500 offers two 5-RCA ports for component/RGB, an HDMI port, and a network port, while the 200 has one 3-RCA component port.
Compatibility. Signal compatibility includes HDMI (HDCP) on the 500, and both have component and RGB HDTV 1080i, 720p, component 576p, 480p, standard component video 480i, 576i, S-video and composite. Color systems include NTSC, PAL, and SECAM. Computer compatibility includes digital and analog PC and Macintosh from VGA to XGA.
Lens. Both units have a power zoom and focus lens with an extended zoom range of 1.5x. They throw a 100" diagonal 16:9 format image from a throw distance range of about 10 to 15 feet, lending the user or installer some flexibility in the placement of the unit.
Lens shift. Both models feature manual horizontal and vertical lens shift. The horizontal shift lets you position the entire image either to the right or to the left of the centerline of the lens, or anywhere in between. Vertical lens shift allows the image to be placed either 100% above the centerline (in tabletop orientation, with centerline striking the bottom edge of the image), or 100% below the centerline.
Color modes. The Cinema 500 has six "color modes" and the 200 has five. Both offer Dynamic, Living Room, Natural, Theatre, and sRGB. In addition the 500 has a Theater Black mode. These modes consist of preprogrammed combinations of color temperature, flesh tone (tint), lamp power, and (on the 500) an internally driven variable aperture control (iris) which closes down when Theatre Black is chosen. There are no independent user controls for lamp power or aperture adjustment-the settings are fixed based on the color mode you choose to run in. The Dynamic and Living Room color modes put the lamp into high output, thus raising fan noise and reducing estimated lamp life from 3000 to 1700 hours.
Color adjustment onboard. On the 500 there is a color temperature adjustment that runs from 5000K to 10000K in 500K increments, with the image taking on a decidedly bluish tint when pushed above 8000K. 6500K is the NTSC standard. However, as noted in other reviews, the ability to drop the color temperature to 5500K for the viewing of black and white classic films is a great feature that many projectors don't offer. In addition to color temperature, there is a separate flesh tone control, which is basically a fine tuning of magenta/green balance.
This is another small difference between the 500 and 200. The 200 does not have the incremental adjustment capability. Instead it has three color temperature settings, Low, Medium, and High, with Medium being the most neutral for color imagery.
Cinema Color Editor. Epson provides a separate software system for color balancing that the company calls the Cinema Color Editor. It runs on most Windows or MacIntosh systems with an XGA or better display adapter and monitor. The computer connects to the projector via either USB or RS-232c serial cables. Optionally on the Cinema 500 it can be connected via the network port as well.
Once you are hooked up the system provides a wider assortment of image control adjustments than are available onboard. In RGB mode you can adjust offset, gamma, and gain for each of the three signal colors. In RGBCMY mode you have hue and saturation adjustments for red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow. Once each setting is calibrated it can be saved to one of nine memories onboard the projector. Additional calibrations can be programmed and saved to your computer's hard drive if needed.
Brightness. The amount of lumen output you get from these projectors depends on the color mode setting you select. On the Cinema 500 lumen output can range anywhere from about 250 to 750 lumens. Most users calibrating the system for optimal video performance will tend to experience results in the lower half of this range since lower lamp power reduces fan noise and increases lamp life. This projector should be used in a viewing space that has no ambient light for best video results, or low ambient light if being used for computer games or for material like televised sports events in which image brightness is more important that perfect color balance. Theatre Black mode for maximum black levels should be used only in fully darkened environments.
The Cinema 200 is a brighter unit and more suitable for home entertainment with low ambient light. Lumen output on this model ranges from about 400 to 850 lumens depending on color mode setting. The lack of a Theater Black mode is not significant unless you plan to operate in a fully darkened viewing space (walls, ceiling, floors, etc, all treated with dark, non-reflective paints, papers, or fabrics). However, those going to this extent to create an optimized viewing room will also want to opt for a higher contrast projector as well.
Contrast. At 1200:1 contrast rating, the Cinema 500 is among the best LCD projectors in contrast performance on the market at this time. Relative to DLP based home theater projectors in its same price range however, the contrast is lacking. This is the single most notable weakness of LCD as compared to DLP. With this in mind, a smaller screen size will allow you concentrate the fixed amount of light from the projector on a smaller surface area, thereby increasing image brightness and apparent contrast. So, as we've noted in other reviews, for optimum image quality we would suggest not going too much larger than about 100" diagonal. Of course you can opt for a much larger screen size--image size vs. image quality is a trade-off that is a matter of personal taste, and people will have different opinions about what is most important.
The Cinema 200 is rated at 800:1. On this unit the incremental brightness tends to compensate for lower contrast when it is viewed in low ambient light, since it is the projector's brightness (lumen output) that determines white levels while the contrast value of the room determines black levels. Nevertheless, there are other projectors in its price range that produce similar lumen output with higher contrast.
Brightness uniformity. Virtually perfect, with light falling off no more than 5% at the corners of the image.
Overscan. The unit has two modes for overscan, "Normal" and "Larger". Normal crops about 4% at the edge of the image on all sides; larger gives you 100% of the signal. This works perfectly with both interlaced and progressive scan signals on component video inputs (not active on composite or S-video), and is a very nice feature.
Vertical banding. Initially we found some vertical banding on the Cinema 200. However the unit has a feature in the menu called "LCD Panel Adjustment." Within two minutes, using this adjustment we were able to clear any hint of vertical banding from the image. The Cinema 500 came without any vertical banding to begin with, but it has the same adjustments in the event your power environment produces this artifact.
Image sharpness. On the Cinema 200 the image is noticeably soft on interlaced inputs, and quite a bit sharper with progressive scan signals. On the Cinema 500, we preferred the image quality on component interlaced inputs over the progressive scan feeds. However the digital input via HDMI is the best option on this model.
Fan noise. Fan noise is very low when the lamp is in low power mode. Fan noise increases noticeably in Dynamic and Living Room modes with the lamp on full power. However, this operating mode would usually be reserved for situations in which fan noise would not be as much of an issue as it would for quality home theater viewing, so we do not see it as a significant issue.
Epson builds consistently fine products, and the Cinema 500 and Cinema 200 are no exceptions. They are both capable of delivering beautiful video images from both standard and high definition sources. The Cinema 500 is clearly the more elegant of the two for refined home theater use, while the Cinema 200 is specifically designed for multipurpose home entertainment for those on a smaller budget. Owners of both of these models will get excellent performance from them.
Ultimately the question that is always asked is one of value. How do these models stack up in the delivery of image quality and ease of use relative to the price? An appropriate comparison can be made with the Sony VPL-HS20, since it is also a widescreen LCD projector with similar capabilities.
The HS20 carries a retail price of $3,495, or $500 over the Cinema 200, but it sells for street prices below $3,000 so it is in the same general price range as the 200. In terms of features and performance, the HS20 has higher contrast, color saturation, and physical resolution than does the Cinema 200. Furthermore it has HDMI (HDCP) whereas the Cinema 200 does not. So in general HS20 is capable of delivering a somewhat better image overall, and in particular its HDTV 1080i picture is difficult to beat.
On the other hand, the Cinema 200's advantages are primarily in installation and set-up flexibility. It's wider angle zoom lens lets you install it within just ten feet from the screen for a 100" diagonal image, while the HS20 needs at least 12.5 feet for the same image. Also the Cinema 200's lens shift capability provides for easier installation. Finally, the 1280x720 panels are native HDTV 720p resolution, so the picture quality on 720p is outstanding. So there are trade-offs between the two that the consumer will want to consider.
From a performance perspective the Cinema 500 is actually more closely matched to the HS20, with important common features being their higher contrast and HDMI interface. However there is a $1500 difference in their MSRPs. Once again the most salient advantage of the Cinema 500 over the HS20 is lens shift and longer zoom range, making it more adaptable and easier to install in a wider array of viewing spaces. However, if the installation challenge can be accommodated by the HS20, then the question is one of image quality for the money. In this situation, for the Cinema 500 to offer a similar value proposition a substantial discount off of the list price would be required. Therefore, though the Cinema 500 is a very fine projector, we would be more enthused about it if the MSRP was reduced by about $1,000.
An important caveat needs to be added: the fact is we don't see many networkable home theater projectors, and the network port on the Cinema 500 stands out as a unique feature. The typical home theater enthusiast probably won't find a lot of need to network projectors in the home. However, for those who are considering the installation of multiple widescreen video/data units for classroom or training center use, the networking capability of the Cinema 500 is a feature that offers a distinct competitive advantage over most other high quality video projectors, and thus may be an important factor in the final equipment decision.