Editor's Choice Award
Our Editor's Choice award goes to products that dramatically exceed expectations for performance, value, or cutting-edge design.
The Epson Home Cinema 8350 arrives fresh from this year's CEDIA show, and it is a sight to see. Epson has really outdone itself this year--the Home Cinema 8350 is a sub-$1300 1080p projector that delivers some serious performance.
The Home Cinema 8350 is the successor of last year's Home Cinema 8100. The Home Cinema 8100 earned our Editor's Choice Award for being an exceptional value for the money. It had high brightness, great placement flexibility, and affordability both in purchase price and maintenance costs. The Home Cinema 8350 continues this tradition, bringing even better 1080p film and video performance into your home theater for less than $1300. There is no doubt this one earns this year's Editor's Choice Award for entry level 1080p home theater projectors.
Image quality. There's no sense beating around the bush: the Home Cinema 8350 is a fantastic value. It produces a great picture for a very low price. Out of the box, its factory presets are geared for high light output in ambient light. So the first picture you see is bright, with decent color and average black level for illuminated rooms. To get it set for optimal video quality, the first order of business was to turn on Epson Super White, engage the auto iris, and change color temperature from 6500K to 7500K (more below on this). After these simple adjustments, the projector is transformed into an inexpensive 1080p powerhouse for dark room viewing. Epson Super White and the auto iris bring black level down, while highlights are brilliant and sparkling without any loss of detail. Color is accurate and true-to-life. These minor changes are all it takes to bring the Home Cinema 8350 into the big leagues.
Lumen output. The Home Cinema 8350, like its predecessor, is very flexible when it comes to lumen output. This variability is accomplished through a variety of image modes, ranging from the very bright Dynamic mode to the more subdued Cinema mode. Each mode is built around an intended application, and all are useful in at least some capacity.
Dynamic is the preset to use in a bright room, as it produces the highest lumen output - 1507 lumens on our test sample. While this is a slight decrease from the Home Cinema 8100 which measured in the mid 1700s, it is still plenty of light for a room with a couple of small windows or table lamps. In this environment, a 100" diagonal image is probably the maximum you will want to consider--anything larger can make the picture appear too dim. Conversely, if you want to "punch up" the apparent brightness and contrast, use the zoom lens to shrink the image down to 60" or 80" diagonal. As far as color and contrast are concerned, color balance is exceptionally good for a Dynamic mode--this was true with the Home Cinema 8100 last year and it is true again now. While there is a slight greenish cast to the picture, it's nothing compared to the Dynamic settings on some competing units. Black level is not as deep as it is under the Cinema and Natural settings, but in a room with ambient light that will not matter.
Next up is Living Room. While the Dynamic preset is brightest, it also has a subtle green cast. Living room has more accurate and life-like color, deeper black, and a picture that is overall more appropriate for high-quality film and video. Our test sample measured 951 lumens in this mode. If you have a viewing room with some ambient light, such as a set of curtains that aren't quite opaque, Living Room is perfect. In this sort of environment, a 100" to 120" diagonal image is easy, while larger diagonal images are possible with better light control.
The Natural and Cinema presets both measure around 560 lumens, though they serve different purposes. Cinema mode is tailored for home cinema in a light-controlled room, and as such has the best available color balance, black level, and gamma. Natural mode is balanced towards a brighter picture and features lighter, more open mid-tones and higher color saturation. Neither one is too far from what we'd call the "ideal," they just have some slight differences between them.
In any of these preset calibrations, lamp power can be reduced to bring light output down by 22% and increase lamp life. For example, the Cinema preset is normally 556 lumens, and in Eco mode this drops to 434 lumens. If you have a light-controlled room, this is just about perfect for a 120" diagonal 16:9 screen--the image is brilliant and punchy without being so bright as to cause eyestrain or headaches.
Superb color. These days, plenty of home theater projectors can give you excellent color after calibration. It is still rare, however, to get good color out of the box. Enter the Home Cinema 8350, which only needs some slight adjustments to look its best. While all projectors are going to be a little bit different, our test sample's 6500K color temperature setting was actually closer to 5700K. Raising color temperature to 7500K in the menu system gave us a measured color temperature much closer to 6500K using our CalMan Pro calibration system. After this, there are some tweaks you can make to close the gap between the ideal and reality, but they are fine adjustments to gamut and color balance that really require a meter to perfect. In general, our test unit required a slight boost to green gain and bias, about three points each.
Placement flexibility. Epson's home theater projectors have always had excellent placement flexibility, and the Home Cinema 8350 follows in that tradition. The manual zoom/focus lens has a range of 2.1:1, just like the Home Cinema 8100. It can display a 100" diagonal 16:9 image from 9' 9" to 20' 10", or a 120" diagonal image from 11' 9" to 25' 1". The 8350's zoom range is the longest you will find on any home theater projector. As far as lens shift goes, the Home Cinema 8350 has a vertical range of just under two picture heights and a horizontal range of 25% in either direction.
The combination of extensive zoom and flexible lens shift means you can place the Home Cinema 8350 more or less wherever you like, whether that is a rear shelf mount, a ceiling bracket, or even a low coffee table. Since the 8350 is white, ceiling mounting it flush against a white ceiling helps to make it less visible in the room. However, the rear shelf mount is a favorite due to easy access and lower installation and cable costs. It is easy to set up, since signal sources can be placed on the same shelves as the projector for ease of cabling. It is optically ideal since the lens shift can be kept closer to the neutral position.
Audible noise. This paragraph may be titled "audible noise," but in truth there isn't any. The Home Cinema 8350 is almost silent during operation, even in high lamp mode. It will be difficult for viewers to hear the Home Cinema 8350 during operation unless they are sitting with their ears up to the exhaust vent.
Sharpness and clarity. Of critical importance to any 1080p projector are image sharpness and detail clarity. The Home Cinema 8350 has extensive sharpness controls, but the default setting does not introduce any ringing artifacts or other markers of artificial edge enhancement. Fine detail from 1080p Blu-ray movies was rendered accurately and crisply.
Price. Last year saw the release of the world's first sub-$1000 1080p projectors, as well as several innovative, higher performance projectors between $2000 and $3000. Epson's Home Cinema 8100 bridged the two categories at $1500. The Home Cinema 8350 at less than $1300 is more competitive than ever, raising the performance bar on the low end. In terms of "bang for the buck," it is hard to beat.
Zoom and Light Output. The Home Cinema 8350's 2.1:1 zoom lens is a great feature for placement flexibility. However, if you use of the telephoto end of the lens (the setting that produces the smallest image for a given throw distance), lumen output drops by 39% compared to what you get with the lens set at maximum wide angle. This light loss is typical for a 2x zoom lens, and it needs to be taken into account when choosing your throw distance and screen size. For example, Cinema mode delivers 556 lumens with the lens at wide angle, but only 340 lumens with the lens at maximum telephoto. 340 lumens is fine for a 100" diagonal screen in a dark room, but with larger screen sizes you may want to think about ceiling mounting to get the projector closer to the screen for maximum lumen output.
On the other hand, this does not mean you should simply use maximum wide angle at all times. Telephoto does have the advantage of focusing the light coming from the projector into a tighter cone, which will result in more even screen illumination. And as far as sharpness is concerned, the optical sweet spot of any zoom lens is in the middle of its throw range. So these things should be taken into account as well. All long zooms present the user with trade-offs between brightness, optical precision, and ideal screen illumination.
Black level. Out of the box, the Home Cinema 8350's black level is set for ambient light viewing. It can be improved very easily by enabling the auto iris (which is disabled by default) and enabling Epson Super White. You can also change Gamma from 2.2 to 2.3 or 2.4; our measurements indicated that the 2.2 preset was actually closer to 2.0, so this adjustment brings the projector more in line with established standards. But even after this adjustment, black level is not quite as deep as that of more expensive 1080p home theater projectors. To be fair, black level has gotten so good recently that it is hard to tell the difference without a side-by-side test, so this is not an issue that a user is likely to notice.
Heat dissipation. The good news is that the 8350 has a 2.1x zoom lens and lens shift. This means that in many instances, installation on a rear shelf or in a bookcase is easy. People buying a projector in this price range generally do not want to undergo the extra expense of ceiling mounting if they can avoid it. But be aware that installation in a bookshelf can be hazardous if there is not sufficient clearance around and behind the projector for the dissipation of hot exhaust and radiant heat from the case. If you install the unit in a constricted space that compromises heat dissipation, you will have premature lamp failures.
Manual zoom/focus. No 1080p projector in this price range has powered zoom/focus, and the 8350 is no exception. Its 2.1x zoom range will let you use it for Cinemascope 2.35:1 screens if that is what you want to do. However, the lack of powered zoom and lens shift means that you need to adjust the lens manually when switching back and forth between 2.35:1 and 16:9 material. For this type of use, you will want to make sure to place the projector in a very easy to reach position, perhaps on a table between the seats, or on a shelf directly behind the seats, so zoom/shift adjustments can be made with relatively little bother.
Epson Home Cinema 8350 vs Panasonic PT-AE4000U
The Home Cinema 8350 is an excellent value--so much so, in fact, that we put it head-to-head with the Panasonic PT-AE4000U, a $2,000 rockstar of a projector from the class of 2009. With a $700 price gap between the two, there are some obvious differences; what is most surprising, however, is how similar they are in picture quality.
Features. The AE4000 is in a class by itself when it comes to features, even compared to more expensive home theater projectors. The AE4000 has powered zoom and focus, a lens memory function for automatic resetting of the zoom lens for the display of Cinemascope movies, frame interpolation, split screen calibration, an on-board waveform monitor, a detail enhancement function that makes standard-definition movies look good, and several other features that make using the projector an easier, more intuitive experience. The Home Cinema 8350 does not have most of these things, nor do any other home theater projectors. As far as extra features are concerned, the AE4000 is unique in the industry.
Light output. In Cinema mode, the Home Cinema 8350 produces 556 lumens while the AE4000 produces 548, so the two are almost identical. In terms of maximum brightness, the Home Cinema 8350's Dynamic mode produces 1507 lumens, which is a bit brighter than the AE4000, and more importantly it does so with better color balance. Between the Cinema and Dynamic modes, both models have a middle option. On our test samples, we measured the AE4000's Normal mode at 792 lumens, and the Home Cinema 8350's Living Room mode at 951 lumens.
Contrast. While the brightness is more or less equivalent, the two pictures have a different character about them. Viewed side-by-side, the Home Cinema 8350 has more brilliant highlights, while the AE4000 has black levels reminiscent of inter-galactic space (read: very black). In terms of actual dynamic range they are very similar, though the AE4000 has a minuscule advantage. Lest we be accused of creating a tempest in a teacup, in the large majority of scenes the difference in black level is small enough that it would be hard to differentiate without putting the two projectors side by side. The AE4000's advantage in black level becomes more evident in very dark or black scenes such as rolling credits on a black background.
Color. Neither the AE4000 nor the Home Cinema 8350 is in need of serious color correction. After changing the Home Cinema 8350's color temperature slider to 7500K, the two projectors were nearly identical - though the AE4000 is a touch warmer, especially in skin tones.
Sharpness and clarity. The Home Cinema 8350 has a clear, razor-sharp picture with plenty of detail, so it should say something that the AE4000 seems a touch more detailed. This may be due to a number of factors, from the AE4000's slightly higher dynamic range (a higher contrast picture appears to have more sharpness and depth), the detail enhancement system, or an actual advantage in pure sharpness. Whatever the case, this difference is tiny, at best.
Lamp Life and Cost. The 8350 has an estimated lamp life of up to 4000 hours when used in eco-mode, which reduces lumen output by 22%. The replacement lamp is $300 retail, but can be purchased on the internet for around $250. Panasonic estimates lamp life at up to 3000 hours in eco-mode, which reduces lumen output by 32%. The retail price of the replacement lamp is $400, but it can be found through Internet suppliers in the mid-$300s.
Warranty. The Epson 8350 has a standard two-year warranty on parts/labor, with no stipulations on hours of usage. The AE4000's warranty does have such a stipulation. The purchase price includes parts/labor for one year or 2000 hours of use, whichever comes first. By filing a claim form similar to a mail-in rebate, Panasonic will extend the warranty to two years or 2000 hours, whichever comes first. The 2000 hour limit is not typical in the industry, and is something to be aware of if you anticipate extensive daily usage. If you run your projector for 5.5 hours per day, 7 days per week, you will hit the 2000 hour limit in 12 months. In this case the extension secured by filing the claim form does you no good. On the other hand, if you don't watch your projector more than 2.7 hours a day, seven days a week, you will get the full two years of warranty.
The Epson Home Cinema 8350 is a wonderful new home theater projector that brings big-money performance home for less than $1300. Its bright image has dynamic range to spare and color that will make you swear you're looking out a window. Even head to head against the Panasonic AE4000 it manages to hold its own--no small accomplishment considering the AE4000 was one of the best projector values of 2009. But the $700 price advantage in the Home Cinema 8350's favor makes it all the more impressive. At this year's CEDIA convention, the expensive 1080p 3D projectors attracted a lot of attention, so the Home Cinema 8350 was lost in the shuffle somewhat. It isn't 3D and it doesn't have some of the bells and whistles of pricier models. But it delivers a superb, high-quality home theater picture at a price that's tough to beat. The Home Cinema 8350 is one of the finest values in projectors we've ever seen, and we are enthused to give it our Editor's Choice Award.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 projector page.