Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of Home Theater In a Box, or HTIB. Usually, these systems include a combination DVD player/AV receiver, a 5.1 speaker system, some cables, and a remote control. These systems can range in quality, and indeed many are overpriced and underperforming, but the idea is always the same - give consumers a way to enjoy surround sound without making them research the individual components first. What these systems don't do is provide a complete home theater experience. The whole concept of home theater, by definition, is to create an environment that looks and feels like a theater, only at home. A flatscreen television and some speakers do not truly recreate that big-screen experience.
What Epson has done with the Ensemble HD system is create the first true Home Theater in a box. The Ensemble system uses a high definition projector and a 100" 16:9 screen to bring a true theater experience into the home, in a way that is easy and accessible to the average consumer. You can now have a reasonably-priced 1080p projection system installed in your home in as little as four hours. If you have always wanted the big-screen experience but found the planning, component selection, and installation daunting, the Ensemble is made for you.
(Note: While this article discusses all current models of the Ensemble HD system, our ratings refer in particular to the model using the Home Cinema 6100 projector, as this is the version we had installed.)
There are three versions of the Ensemble system, at three different price points, but the only difference among them is the projector itself. The least expensive system, at $4699, includes the Epson Powerlite Home Cinema 720, which is one of the best 720p projectors on the market. The other two systems include the Powerlite Home Cinema 6100 and Powerlite Home Cinema 6500UB, which are both 1080p projectors. These systems sell for $5999 and $6899, respectively.
All of the remaining components of the system are the same. They all use the same 100" motorized 16:9 screen, the same speakers and subwoofer, and the same A/V controller. Since we have already reviewed all three of these projectors, this review will concentrate on the system as a whole, rather than the projectors.
Projector - Epson Powerlite Home Cinema 720, 6100, or 6500UB. All of these projectors have 2.0:1 zoom lenses, extensive vertical and horizontal lens shift, and quiet operation. All are fairly bright, so some room lighting during a football game or similar content is not a deal-breaker. Two of the three projectors appear on our Highly Rated list; the sole exception is the Home Cinema 6100, which is still an excellent projector in its own right (it missed making the list by half a point).
Projector cradle - The cradle incorporates the projector's ceiling mount, which can be mounted flush with the ceiling or lowered using a drop tube. The cradle also holds the surround speakers. Combining components like this helps the Ensemble system simplify the installation process.
Speakers - Made by Atlantic Technologies, the system incorporates the Left/Center/Right speakers on the screen itself, surrounds on the projector cradle, and a powered 10" subwoofer which also serves as amplifier for the whole system. We at Projector Central are not audio experts, so our evaluation of the speaker system is somewhat cursory - but the Ensemble system is loud enough to shake the room, which has an attraction all its own.
Screen - The 100" diagonal 16:9 screen is motorized, with extra black border space at the top so you can adjust placement on the wall. The screen is made of 1.0 gain white material, which is ideal for the viewing of film in darkened environments.
A/V Controller - The system's heart. This incorporates the DVD player (upscaling, progressive-scan), A/V Receiver (where you can plug in other components), auxiliary input, USB port, and radio tuner. Epson has incorporated an infrared extender leading to a sensor on the screen, so the controller can be safely tucked away in a closet without losing the ability to control everything from your seat.
Cables and hardware - The system includes all the connections you'll need to make between the components, as well as some spare video cables. The system also includes several different sets of screen-mounting and projector-mounting hardware, to account for differences between rooms. As we experienced during our own installation, these can come in handy.
Universal remote - The system's remote is made by the Universal Remote Control company, which can get a little confusing since every manufacturer calls their device a universal remote. This model is the MX-350, which uses both infrared (IR) and radio frequency (RF) emitters to get the signal to your system's components. It has a small LCD screen near the top, which you can program with different options depending on your needs. It comes preprogrammed with all of the Ensemble system's components, as well as a macro for turning everything on or off at once.
Equipment cabinet - the system includes an enclosure that is built to hold the A/V controller and powered sub, and has a spare shelf for any other components you would like to add, such as a Blu-Ray player.
These parts, taken as a whole, are the Ensemble system.
The Ensemble system can be installed several ways, with varying degrees of difficulty and varying amounts of time required. The first and most difficult method involves having a custom installer run cables through the walls and ceiling (or "in-wall"). This is the most expensive and time-consuming of the installation methods, and can take between 8 to 10 hours for a "typical" home. A worst-case scenario can take up to 16 hours. Labor rates for custom install houses can vary, so your best bet for a price quote is to call your local custom installer and ask for an estimate. The upside here is that in-wall installation is, without a doubt, the most professional-looking route.
The next method involves having a custom installer use the included wire management moulding (or "on-wall"), which runs along the wall and ceiling in your theater but does not require any holes in your walls. This can be accomplished by a competent two-man team in as little as four or five hours, as everything goes outside the walls of your home. There's no electrical work required, no drywall patching, and a bare minimum of mess.
The final method is doing the on-wall installation yourself. The time needed for this installation depends entirely upon your work speed and skill level, but it would probably be wise to devote the better part of a weekend to your installation. You will also need some tools, such as:
If you do choose to do the installation yourself, enlist the aid of a friend with a strong back (and preferably a second six-foot ladder) for mounting the screen.
While the specifics of the installation will vary from house to house, some important elements are the same. The general sequence is this: plan the location of the components and mark out mounting locations, run the cables (either through the wall or using the on-wall track), mount the projector, mount the screen, connect everything. These individual steps can vary quite a bit, however, depending upon the layout of your theater and your installation choices. Wiring alone can take anywhere from one hour to an entire day. The projector can be flush-mounted with the ceiling or use a drop tube, and it can also be used with a plate that positions it anywhere between two adjacent ceiling beams. The screen housing can be mounted to the wall or the ceiling. The component cabinet can be placed in a corner or closet, or even dead-center in the room as a showpiece. Epson provides enough options to ensure that at least one of them will work in your home.
For our installation, we chose to go with the professional in-wall option, and Epson sent over Kory and Joe from My Custom Theater of Torrance, CA. Kory and Joe came out to my home on the morning of Wednesday, July 8, 2009. Their installation took a grand total of about eight hours, with the bulk of the time on Wednesday and then a follow-up visit to apply some paint to the drywall patches the following morning. The guys did a fantastic job, owing to their high degree of experience with the Ensemble system and their overall professionalism. I would not hesitate to recommend them to a friend.
With a system as large and comprehensive as the Ensemble HD, attempting to make a complete feature list would create an article reminiscent of a 19th-century Russian novel. Instead, this section will focus on capabilities and features which are unexpected or novel. If you don't see a feature listed here, it is not because the Ensemble doesn't have it; on the contrary, the system is a fully functioning, high performing 5.1 1080p theater, and all typical capabilities of both a 1080p projector and a 5.1 surround system are present.
DVD Player / A/V Controller. The included DVD player is a progressive-scan model which automatically upconverts all content to 720p or 1080p, depending on which projector you are using. It can can show jpeg photos and play MP3 or WMA audio files from a USB flash drive plugged into the front of the unit, or play these files from a CD or DVD. A front 1/8" auxiliary input can be used to listen to an mp3 player such as an iPod. There's also a headphone port for those times when you'd prefer to listen alone, and plugging in a set of headphones automatically mutes the speaker system. The unit also has additional inputs on the back panel, including two HDMI 1.3 inputs and a set of YPbPr component ports. Since the system does not include a Blu-Ray player, this makes it much easier to add one.
Speaker System. The speaker system has some on-board calibration options which can be used to better balance your system. While meant to be used with a sound pressure level meter, users who do not wish to buy one should simply adjust the test tones provided until they sound like they are of equal volume from each speaker. The subwoofer also has some calibration controls, but you will probably need a sound pressure level meter to use them - it is more difficult to determine the volume of low-frequency sounds.
Remote Control. The universal remote can be programmed to work with any device which uses infrared (IR) signals for remote control. This includes a vast majority of consumer electronics, such as Blu-Ray players. If your equipment rack is positioned in a closet, and line-of-sight control is not possible, you can purchase a radio frequency (RF) receiver from Epson which works with the included universal remote. RF is not limited to line-of-sight, so it is ideal for installations where equipment is hidden away.
Finally, the entire system, not just the projector, has a two-year limited warranty, along with the standard 90 days on the projector's lamp. This should help alleviate any concerns about a piece of the system failing before the rest, as two years should be more than enough time to work out any kinks you might encounter.
Advanced Audio Codecs. The system does not currently support the use of high definition audio codecs. These codecs, such as Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, and DTS-HD, were introduced with Blu-Ray and HD-DVD and can handle up to 7.1 surround sound. While the Ensemble does use HDMI 1.3, which is normally all that is required to transmit these formats, the receiver is not currently capable of decoding them. As such, you will attain the best quality audio by sending these formats out of your high definition player over an optical connection. Epson says that they would like to include this feature in future revisions, but it is currently unknown whether that would consist of a hardware or firmware revision. For now, assume that the capability will not arrive any time soon.
Awkward lamp changes. When it comes time to change the lamp, you will need to dismount the projector from the ceiling. The easiest way to do this is to disconnect all cables and rotate the entire cradle one hundred and eighty degrees in order to unlock it from its mount. Once you have it on the ground, you can remove the projector from the cradle and change the lamp. What makes this particularly bothersome is that the Cinema 6100 and 6500 UB both have top-changing lamps, but the lamp doors are blocked by the cradle. The good news is that the air filter can be cleaned without taking the projector out of its mount, so you'll only need to undertake this ritual once every 4,000 hours or so. Let's put that in real-world terms: If you use the Ensemble system for 2 1/2 hours a day, every single day, you will need to change the lamp once every four years.
Hard to upgrade. As with most HTIB systems, the Ensemble is meant to work together as a unit, and as such the components rely on one another for many functions. The subwoofer serves as the amplifier for the entire speaker system. The A/V controller outputs sound from all of your components to the speakers. All of the speaker cables use proprietary plugs, so they cannot be swapped out. Put simply, if you want to upgrade any portion of the Ensemble's sound system, you need to replace the entire system. If you are a person who loves to upgrade and find the perfect setup for your home theater, the Ensemble isn't for you. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the simplicity of setting things up once and then leaving them alone, the system is perfect. On a side note, it is likely that the projector cradle will be compatible with future generations of Epson home theater projectors, so there is a potential upgrade path for video, if not audio.
The Ensemble is designed not to be the ultimate in home theater, but to be an all in one, easy to install solution that eliminates the mystery of assembling all of the components on your own. It is meant for the person who likes the idea of big home theater with a front projector and big, bold surround sound, but isn't quite sure where to start, but doesn't want to spend a lot of time in research and product selection. It is meant for the typical consumer who wants home theater but doesn't want to turn it into a full time job or hobby.
Overall, the level of polish on the Ensemble system is impressive. Epson spent a lot of time developing the system, and they had several groups of professional installers do demonstration installs. The concerns of these installers were then worked into the next generation of the product. The result is an easy to use, easy to assemble, complete home theater that keeps price reasonable but does not compromise on performance.
Many users have expressed concerns that the Ensemble might be too much of a compromise; they fear that the speakers will sound tinny, or the screen will be lackluster, or any number of other concerns. Thorough testing has convinced us that no one area of the system is lacking in an obvious way. The sound is rich and enveloping, with plenty of power to rattle the house. Epson's product development objective was to ensure that the Ensemble system would not disappoint, and they have succeeded.
But the real "Wow" factor of the Ensemble isn't found in the spec sheets. It's actually very simple: if someone told you five years ago that you could have a complete home theater, with 5.1 surround and a high-definition front projector, for less than $7,500, you would have laughed. Today, it is available at over 200 dealers around the country, as well as two authorized online resellers for the do-it-yourself crowd. If you are looking for a great big screen solution with the full surround sound experience, and want it installed in short order with no muss or fuss, the Epson Ensemble may be just the solution.