Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
Over the years Epson has established itself as a leading manufacturer of LCD-based digital projectors. Its product line has always featured a wide array of business-class projectors, from very small portables to auditorium scale light cannons. Then in 2002 Epson entered the home theater market with the TW100, which was historically noteworthy as the first of the 720p resolution LCD projectors. Until now, Epson has never gained market share numbers in home theater to match its success in the commercial markets. But with the recent release of the aggressively priced Powerlite Cinema 550, and the more fully featured Powerlite Pro Cinema 800, that may be about to change. The Cinema 800 is not yet available, but our first look at the Cinema 550 suggests to us that the folks at Epson are determined to make the home theater market another one of their success stories.
Specifications. 1400 ANSI lumens, 3000:1 contrast, native 16:9 widescreen format, 1280x720 resolution 3x LCD panels.
Compatibility. HDTV 1080i, 720p, 480p, 480i. Full NTSC / PAL / SECAM.
Lens and Throw Distance. 1.50:1 manual zoom/focus lens. Throws a 100" diagonal image from a distance of 9.9 to 14.8 feet.
Lamp Life. 1,700 hours in high-brightness modes, 3,000 hours in low brightness modes.
Connection Panel. One composite video, one S-Video, one set of YPbPr component inputs, one D4 connector, one 15-pin VGA connector, one HDMI connector, an RS-232C port and a 12V trigger.
Installation Options. Table mount, rear shelf mount, ceiling mount.
Warranty. Two years.
The Cinema 550 is, first and foremost, a bright home theater projector. In "Dynamic" mode, which is its brightest precalibrated operating mode, the Cinema 550 pumps out a whopping 950 ANSI lumens. In this mode, color balance is not ideal, but it is still suitable for Superbowl parties, video games, and any application in which precise color accuracy is not mandatory. At the same time, light output from the Cinema 550 is highly adjustable, since not everyone needs or wants that much light. For example, you can switch from Dynamic to "Living Room" mode, in which lumen output is closer to 600 ANSI lumens. This may be a better option when maximum brightness is not required, but some ambient light must be compensated for. In both of these higher brightness modes, fan noise is a bit louder than you'd want in a quiet theater, but no problem at all for gaming or entertainment use.
The Cinema 550 can also be optimized for higher quality theater use. In "Theater black" mode, fan noise drops to a whisper-quiet level, and lumen output on our test unit is a respectable 235 ANSI lumens. Given the projector's very high contrast, this is enough light to illuminate a 100" diagonal 16:9 screen in dark viewing conditions. "Theater" mode yields similar results with 240 ANSI lumens.
As with many of the new LCD projectors for home theater, contrast is quite impressive. It is officially rated at 3000:1, but in our experience, Epson tends to be more conservative with its specifications than most other manufacturers. We see this once again with the Cinema 550, which delivers slightly deeper black levels and visibly better contrast than competing LCD models with much higher contrast ratings.
Brightness uniformity is good on most home theater projectors these days, but on the Cinema 550 it is almost perfect. Illumination does not vary by more than about 3% throughout the image. We can state categorically that we have never seen a projector come this close to perfection in the uniform illumination of the screen.
The Cinema 550 is capable of delivering excellent color balance and color saturation. However, there was an apparent convergence problem on our test unit that had an impact on overall color performance. A misalignment in the LCD panels caused the right half of the image to shift toward a pinkish hue. Also, the pixel structure was sharp and distinct on the left side of the image, but softened considerably toward the right. So in addition to a shift toward a pinkish hue, the loss of pixel structure definition caused the picture to soften somewhat toward the right side.
These flaws would not exist if the LCD panels were properly aligned. We assume that the misalignment we see on our sample is not representative of the product line. We have received feedback from one reader that his Cinema 500 is perfectly aligned and that he sees none of the symptoms just described. However, we have also received correspondence that leads us to believe our unit is not the only one to be manifesting this problem. So we have no way to know how prevalent a panel misalignment may or may not be in the product line.
In general, Epson has an established track record of high customer satisfaction ratings. In raising this issue with them this week, an Epson representative responded by saying, "Customer satisfaction is one of our most important values. If a customer is not satisfied with one of our products for any reason, we encourage them to contact our customer support representatives who will be happy to assist them." So we presume that if a customer happened to get a Cinema 550 that had any defect at all, panel alignment otherwise, Epson would take care of it.
We have received several emails asking whether there should be any worry about pixel response times on LCD projectors. If the Cinema 550 is any indication, the answer is no. Running a fast-paced video game is one of the harder workouts you can give a projector, and with this material we saw no trace of ghosting or any other signs of slow pixel response on the Cinema 550.
Epson Cinema 550 vs. Sanyo PLV-Z4
Lumen output: The Z4 is capable of outputting between 100 and 600 ANSI lumens; the Cinema 550 is able to output up to 950 ANSI lumens. If you have uncontrollable ambient light in your viewing room, the Cinema 550's extra 350 lumens will help you obtain a brighter, more vibrant image. So it is a better option for anyone with daytime viewing needs, or those who prefer to view television, video games, etc., with some light on in the room.
Contrast: As noted above, the specifications do not tell the story, as the Cinema 550, rated at 3000:1, was able to meet and even slightly exceed the Z4, rated at 7000:1, in visible contrast. The Cinema 550 is capable of producing slightly deeper black levels than the Sanyo Z4, and it delivers noticeably better separation of shadow details. On the other hand, the Z4 is able to create more brilliant whites and highlights.
Color: The Sanyo Z4 produces a balanced, well-saturated image. However, the Cinema 550's color saturation actually surpasses that of the Z4. Both units can be calibrated to very close to ideal color temperature for NTSC video, but the Cinema 550 required more tweaking to get it there than did the Z4. (Here we are ignoring the Cinema 550's pinkish color shift on the right, because in any case we would have it fixed prior to deploying it for home theater use.)
Deinterlacing/scaling: Our Z4 shows some instability with standard definition interlaced signals, whereas the Cinema 550 is more stable. The viewing of standard television, while never really good on any projector compared to DVD and HDTV, is somewhat more stable and smooth on the Cinema 550. On the other hand, with all sources including standard television, progressive scan DVD, and HDTV, the Z4 appears to deliver a slightly sharper image. However, the Cinema 550 is not far off, and it appears to be capable of rivaling the Z4 in sharpness. Once again, we are ignoring the softness on the right side that is attributed to panel misalignment. And in general, there may be subtle variations between individual units due to manufacturing tolerances, so when performance between two samples gets this close, it is inappropriate to make any blanket pronouncements about which is better. Basically, the Cinema 550 comes closer to matching the Z4 in image sharpness than any projector we've compared to it thus far.
Zoom and Lens Shift: The Z4's 2.0x zoom range is longer than the Cinema 550's 1.5x lens. This is relevant only if you need the Z4's extra throw distance range to accomplish your intended set up. Both units have comparable lens shift, with 150% up or down motion from dead center and 50% to either side available. At neutral position on both projectors, the center of the projected image is level with the centerline of the lens. It should be noted that the horizontal and vertical extremes cannot be reached at once, and the actual area of lens shift available is roughly oval in shape.
Miscellaneous features: The Z4 is the friendlier of the two units to live with for several reasons. First, the Z4's remote has very long range, and the projector always responds immediately to IR commands being bounced from the screen. The Cinema 550 did not perform as well in this regard. Aspect ratio can be switched easily on the Z4 without bothering with menu access. And the fan noise on the Z4 -- well, there isn't any in eco mode, and there isn't much in full power mode. The Cinema 550's fan is very low but not silent in its low power modes, and is clearly more noticeable in full power modes.
The Cinema 550 contains many advanced menu options as well as a few small quirks. The menu system is simple and elegant, and the translucency helps to keep it unobtrusive. There are options to move the on-screen display to any section of the screen, as well as an option to cut down on the explanatory messages that the projector gives. For tech-savvy users, the lack of superfluous information means a cleaner screen.
The remote control is somewhat large, but not unwieldy. There are direct access buttons for each source, as well as for some of the more commonly used image adjustments. But instead of color saturation and brightness and the like, Epson uses the remote buttons for "Color Mode", which switches the Cinema 550's basic operating mode, "Gamma", "Contrast", "Skin Tone", which adjusts the magenta or green levels in the image, "Pattern", which brings up a test pattern selection, and "Blank". There is an aspect ratio button, but instead of cycling through the aspect ratios available, it simply brings up the associated menu screen. It seems that the remote control has very little range, and must be pointed directly at the projector instead of bounced off the screen.
The Cinema 550's aspect ratio control is cumbersome. While there is an aspect ratio button on the remote, it does not let you simply toggle through the available options; rather, it calls up a menu that you then need to sequence through and select from. This could get to be a nuisance for anyone who switches video sources with any frequency.
Color adjustment is one of the Epson Powerlite Cinema 550's strong points, as you can adjust color in several different ways, depending on your level of expertise. Aside from the standard Tint and Saturation controls, there is a color temperature slider that can be set anywhere from 5000K to 10,000K in 500 degree increments. On our test unit these markings were mostly accurate, off by a couple hundred degrees at most. For further color fine-tuning, though, you can either use RGB Gain and Offset controls, or RGBCMY (red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow) hue and saturation controls. This gives you the ability to have complete control over the Cinema 550's color performance.
The Cinema 550 has a comprehensive sharpness control; there are options for high-band enhancement, low-band enhancement, and horizontal/vertical sharpness. High-band enhancement affects details such as hair, clothing, and other fine detail; low-band enhancement has an effect in backgrounds and large contours.
The Epson Powerlite Cinema 550 is among the strongest of the new high contrast LCD projectors released this fall. Those who make their projector selections based on manufacturer's specs will tend to overlook the Cinema 550 with its official 3000:1 rating, and go for one of the competing units rated at 5000:1 or higher. They do so to their detriment, for the Cinema 550 is fully capable of meeting or exceeding the actual contrast, black level, and color saturation performance of the other high contrast LCDs in its price range.
Our only concern is that there is sufficient anecdotal information to suggest that some examples of the Cinema 550 may have panel convergence problems that can result in undesirable color shifts and a softening of the image. A Cinema 550 that is properly aligned will be a truly phenomenal performer for the money, and it will be well worth it to seek them out, and we know that properly aligned units are available. This convergence problem may be a non-issue, or it may be something more prevalent that buyers will have to resolve with Epson and/or their dealer. Accordingly, if you buy from a dealer with a solid reputation for first rate customer service and satisfaction, there will be no risk of getting stuck with a unit that is not up to its full potential.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Epson PowerLite Cinema 550 projector page.