Editor's Note June 14th: The User 1/Dynamic setting on the BenQ W1100 produces more lumens than the regular Dynamic preset. We have edited the maximum lumen output rankings in this shootout accordingly and apologize for the error.
There are many great 1080p projectors out there, but some of the most exciting are those available for less than $1500. Today, not only are sub-$1500 1080p projectors fairly common, but they are of remarkable quality. Over the past few weeks we've been doing side by side evaluations of eight models priced between $900 and $1500:
After many hours of viewing, the subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between these projectors become apparent. Depending on what type of set up you want, one of them is sure to be right for you. They are each better for different uses. If you want to watch sports events with some ambient light, high brightness will be important for you. If you want to watch Blu-ray movies in the dark, you will probably want to give up some brightness in order to get a more refined picture. Lens shift and long zoom range may or may not be relevant to you depending on how you intend to install your projector, and what you intend to do with it.
Since each buyer will have a different set of criteria that is important to him or her, we've ranked each model based on how it compares to the competition in a number of different categories. We hope this will help you find the projector that's right for you.
Best HD Picture
Laying everything else aside, which projector has the best high-definition image available? The Mitsubishi HC4000 comes out on top thanks to its low noise, spot-on color, and excellent contrast. Videophiles will love its smooth, film-like picture. In a very close second place is the BenQ W1200, which is much brighter than the HC4000, but not quite as refined in ultimate picture quality. It has a bright, vibrant, dynamic image that will appeal to many, especially those whose viewing rooms have some ambient light. The Epson Home Cinema 8350 rounds out the top three, which picture quality closely rivaling the HC4000 and W1200. These three projectors represent an elite group among the eight under review, offering image quality a cut above the others. They represent the best of the best as far as HD picture quality is concerned under $1500. The Optoma HD20, which is likewise a great performer, is the best option for those trying to keep their budget under $1000.
Best SD Picture
To vary things up a bit, we fed these projectors a "worst-case scenario": a 480i DVD movie over Component. The Mitsubishi HC4000 distinguished itself yet again, but this time the BenQ W1200 did not do quite as well. The Epson Home Cinema 8350 and Optoma HD20 showed the best, along with the HC4000, thanks to good noise reduction and solid contrast.
Once these models were calibrated for optimum video quality, the BenQ W1100 and W1200 showed maximum color accuracy, though the differences between them and the Mitsubishi HC4000 or Epson Home Cinema 8350 are minuscule and detectable only by a color meter. Out of the box, and prior to calibration, the Mitsubishi HC4000 took top honors while the two BenQ models needed some fine tuning. We present two separate rankings, one based on out of the box color, and the other based on best color after calibration.
Color Accuracy: Out of the box, no calibration
Color Accuracy, after calibration
Video Optimized Light Output
Some folks looking for their first projector want something that can be used in the living room as well as the theater, or simply don't want to dedicate the space for a completely dark room. Some might just want the largest screen possible. For these purposes, light output is key. The Viewsonic Pro8200 is the brightest of the eight in its video optimized mode, while the BenQ W1200 and Acer H7531D finish second and third. Bear in mind that this is video optimized lumen output; maximum lumen output is not considered in this ranking. Also keep in mind that more lumens are not necessarily better, and that putting a bright projector on a small screen can produce eye strain. Finally, differences of less than 20% are often not visible to the human eye, so (for example) the Viewsonic Pro8200 and BenQ W1200 probably look equally bright in actual use.
Maximum Light Output
Sometimes you just need to blast an image onto the wall, and things like contrast and color accuracy become less important. In these circumstances, what is important is maximum light output. While the projectors below are ranked numerically, the Epson Home Cinema 8350 deserves special mention for excellent color accuracy in its Dynamic mode, a feat which no other projector in the shootout can match.
Best Placement Flexibility
In this category, projectors are not ranked individually; there are so many similarities that to do so would be arbitrary and nigh impossible. Instead, projectors are separated into three groups.
All of these projectors pack more of a punch than their prices would imply, but some stand out more than others. We offer our top picks and our reasons for choosing them. This is what we'd buy for dark room, videophile-oriented viewing:
Click through to the next page to see our assessments of individual models and their strengths and weaknesses.
The H7531D is built to be an affordable, 1080p projector for home theater. It has a bright picture and an auto iris, which is a first in a sub-$1000 1080p projector. This boosts on/off contrast, and darker scenes benefit the most from the deeper black levels it provides.
The major advantages to the H7531D are its bright picture and high on/off contrast. The H7531D produces upwards of 1100 lumens in Movie mode and 1925 lumens in its brightest mode, a feat only bested by the Viewsonic Pro8200 and its mighty 1475 lumens in Dark Room (video optimized) mode. The H7531D also has the deepest black and highest on/off contrast of the sub-$1000 group by far, thanks to its auto iris. The combination of brilliant, sparkling highlights and inky, abyssal blacks is appealing.
On the other hand, the extreme on/off contrast of the H7531D gives it an artificial quality, making it look less natural than comparably priced models like the Optoma HD20 and Vivitek H1081. Many scenes lacking bright highlights or dark shadows do not benefit from the additional contrast generated by the H7531D's auto iris, and the other projectors in this price range appear higher in dynamic range in those scenes. The H7531D shows a lot of digital noise, especially in fields of solid color like skies or grassy areas. Finally, the default color calibration needs some work, and those without a meter or other reference material might find themselves struggling to create a truly accurate picture. In contrast, the competing projectors in the sub-$1000 category generally have good default calibrations or only require slight adjustment.
The W1100 is a solid 1080p projector for gaming and entertainment and sells for $1,299. Its bright image and small size make it a highly portable option for sports, movies, and gaming, and dual 10W speakers mean you don't have to find another way to set up audio once you get where you're going. Color reproduction is quite good after some fine-tuning, but the default calibration could use some work.
The big advantages to the W1100 are its portability and calibrated color accuracy. The W1100 is lightweight at less than eight pounds and has 10W stereo speakers. Its aggressive upward throw angle is perfect for a coffee table. A plethora of connections make it easy to connect to a laptop or other signal source, and its 1100 lumen calibrated output makes it easy to use in a variety of lighting conditions. Contrast is deeper and the image is more three-dimensional than a projector like the Viewsonic Pro8200, so there is some benefit to its somewhat lower lumen output. Additionally, calibrated color on the W1100 is among the best in this price range.
While contrast on the W1100 is higher than the Pro8200, it does not match the other projectors in its price class. The BenQ W1200, Epson 8350, and Mitsubishi HC4000 all beat the W1100 in black level and contrast. However, this is not a downside when the projector is used for its intended purpose--gaming and entertainment in ambient light. In this situation, the contrast and black level advantages of the other units are neutralized. The real limitation of the W1100 is the default color calibration, which emphasizes green and blue and needs significant grayscale and gamut adjustment to get it optimized. This is unfortunate because of the W1100 is capable of great color accuracy once calibrated. If it were better calibrated at the factory the W1100 would be a much greater value to the consumer who does not want to mess with meters or custom calibrations on a gaming machine.
Whereas the BenQ W1100 is built for multi-purpose use, the W1200 at $1,499 is designed more for classic home theater. Contrast in particular is excellent, as is video optimized color and light output. Some glitches in the menu system and a lackluster default color calibration are the main downsides.
The BenQ W1200 is among the best projectors in terms of sheer image quality for home theater in this shootout, rivaling the Mitsubishi HC4000 and Epson Home Cinema 8350 in contrast performance. Once calibrated, color is slightly more accurate than either of those projectors, making it the best in the shootout. With 1325 lumens of video optimized light output, it is far brighter than the cinema modes of either the HC4000 or the Epson 8350. (However, the Epson 8350 has a Dynamic mode that puts out 1500 lumens without compromising color too much.) The W1200 is also the only projector in the shootout to offer frame interpolation, which gives video sources like live performance music concerts and broadcast sports an extra shot of smoothness and judder reduction.
The limitations of the BenQ W1200 are the poor default calibration that it shares with the BenQ W1100 and the prevalence of menu glitches. Frame interpolation turns itself on every time the projector is started up, regardless of your saved preferences. Detail clarity and sharpness in standard definition create an over-sharpened, grainy look which can be removed by adjusting Detail clarity in either direction, then setting it back to where it was. On occasion, the Advanced menu is "grayed out" when it should not be so. These should be relatively simple fixes, but could put people off of purchasing the W1200 until they are resolved. Our sample used BenQ's 1.02 firmware. They are currently shipping units with version 1.03, but we have not been able to determine if the bugs have been fixed in the latest update.
As the only LCD projector in the shootout, the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350 at $1,299 stands apart from the others in several ways. It includes both horizontal and vertical lens shift as well as a long 2.1:1 zoom lens. It uses an auto iris to boost on/off contrast and its native dynamic range is nothing to sneeze at, either. Its calibrated light output makes it ideal for home cinema.
The advantage of the Epson 8350 over the other projectors in this shootout is that it can be used in a wider variety of mounting situations. It can be placed in a ceiling mount, like all of the other projectors, or placed on or under a coffee table. But it can also be placed on a shelf in the back of the room thanks to its long zoom lens. Lens shift allows the projector to be placed over, under, or to either side of the screen while the image remains square without the use of keystone correction.
The Epson 8350 has excellent contrast, with a touch less three-dimensionality than the Mitsubishi HC4000, which won top honors in this category. A combination of good color, deep black levels, low digital noise and open mid-tones make the picture look natural and film-like in a way that few other projectors can match.
On the other hand, the Epson 8350 (along with the Mits HC4000) has a lower than average brightness in cinema mode, measured at 560 lumens. But the Epson 8350 also loses light when using the telephoto end of the zoom lens--up to 39%. The Home Cinema 8350 has other image modes, such as Living room, which offer more lumens at the cost of contrast and color accuracy, as well as a Dynamic mode which produces 1500 lumens for use in rooms with more ambient light.
Most serious home theater folks don't care about portability or onboard audio. Since the 8350 is designed for classic home theater, it has neither. It is the heaviest projector in the group at 16 lbs, so those thinking about portable applications will probably want one of the smaller and lighter models.
The Mitsubishi HC4000 is a high-contrast powerhouse for home theater that sells for $1,299. It offers the most natural image in the group, and requires very little adjustment to deliver a beautiful film-like picture with excellent contrast and color accuracy. In terms of image quality, it's hard to beat, though it lacks some of the features and versatility of the other models in the shootout.
With the HC4000, the name of the game is HD image quality. Color needs almost no adjustment, giving the HC4000 the best default calibration of the group. Contrast is superb and the image appears ready to pop off the screen, and black level is deeper than any other projector without an auto iris in the shootout. But these are not what make the HC4000 great. The projector has a natural image, free of excessive noise, color bias, or any hint of artificiality. It is a subtle yet undeniable effect that makes the HC4000 a pleasure to watch.
In optimized cinema mode, brightness is a lower than average 560 lumens, tied with the Epson Home Cinema 8350. It has a Sports mode, which produces 1200 lumens, but color and contrast are compromised more so than on the Home Cinema 8350. This limits screen sizes in rooms with less than perfect ambient light control, and even those in a completely dark space will want to keep to a 120" diagonal image or smaller. The other thing lacking is connectivity; the HC4000 has one HDMI port while every other projector in the shootout has at least two. For someone in a darkened room using an A/V receiver to switch signals, these concerns don't matter. For others, they might be important.
The HD20 is the "distinguished gentleman" of this shootout, having been released back in 2009. Fortunately, age has not dulled its prowess. At $899, the HD20 is the original sub-$1000 1080p projector, and it set the standard by which all others would be judged. By combining excellent image quality with a no-frills package, the HD20 is able to bring a high-quality image into the home for very little money.
The major advantages of the HD20 are its contrast, default color calibration, relative lack of digital noise, and natural image. While it is rated at only 4,000:1 on/off contrast, the HD20 makes almost any scene look like it's ready to jump off of the screen, proving once again that specifications never tell the whole story. The HD20's has more three-dimensionality than any other projector in the sub-$1000 category, and indeed it even gives the more expensive models a run for their money. Color needs very little adjustment out of the box, and some users will opt to run with the default settings as they are already very good. The HD20's picture has little digital noise, even in standard definition. These three factors combined give the HD20 a natural picture that is unmatched in the sub-$1000 price range.
The HD20 falls short of the competition in lumen output, producing about 620 lumens in its cinema mode and roughly 950 lumens at its brightest. While this is plenty of light for classic home theater, the other sub-$1000 models are brighter and tend to be more flexible for viewing in some ambient light.
The Viewsonic Pro8200 is the brightest projector in the shootout, bar none. It has plenty of crossover appeal, and it is the best value by far for a living room setup. Selling for less than $900, the Pro8200 is a good choice for the home entertainment buff who wants to take his projector with him wherever he goes, whether that be the backyard or a friend's house.
The big advantage of the Pro8200 is its whopping 1475 lumens in cinema mode without too much compromise in color accuracy or contrast. In its brightest mode, it jumps to 1941 lumens. When room lighting or very large screen size is a factor, the Pro8200 is the go-to projector in the sub-$1000 category. The high brightness also helps with portability, since room lighting is not always controllable when you're projecting away from home. The dual 10W speakers provide an onboard audio solution that is among the best you'll find on a projector in this price range. This is of particular value if you are thinking about portable applications.
The Pro8200's image also has a natural look to it, with open mid tones and good contrast that give the image a three-dimensional appearance. Color is good after some fine-tuning, but the default calibration is less impressive. Another kicker is the three-year warranty, the best of any projector up for review. This includes a full year of coverage on the projector's lamp, which should allay some fears of early lamp failure. The lamp itself is rated for 4,000 hours of operation in full power mode and 6,000 hours in eco-mode--another best in show for this unassuming little powerhouse.
The main limitation of the Pro8200 is digital noise, which is more apparent on the Pro8200 than on any other projector in the shootout. That shimmer can drive some viewers up the wall. Others, like myself, find the effect less distracting. If you are bothered by digital noise, you may want to give the Pro8200 a pass.
The Vivitek H1081 follows on the heels of the impressive H1080FD, which was one of the first 1080p projectors under $1000. The H1081 aptly demonstrates that Vivitek has not lost its touch when it comes to making impressive, affordable projectors. The H1081's contrast and black level are great for dark-room use, while its whisper-quiet operation is appreciated in any small space. Bright cinema light output allows for large screen use or living room projection.
The Vivitek H1081's value proposition is not in any one feature, but a combination of many. The H1081 produces 795 lumens in Movie mode, which is a step above the Epson 8350, the Mits HC4000, and the Optoma HD20 if you need the extra light for large screens or ambient light issues.
Contrast is second only to the Optoma HD20, which ekes past the H1081 in three-dimensionality and overall impression of depth. The same goes for black level, where the two projectors are neck and neck. Overall, the H1081 and the HD20 are remarkably similar, though the two images have a distinctly different character to them; the HD20 appears more subdued and natural, while the H1081 has a more vivid aspect. It is not unpleasant, and with certain kinds of material (broadcast and animation, most notably) this slightly artificial character can be desirable. The other notable feature of the H1081 is its nearly silent fan, the quietest of any projector under review. Those contemplating a table mount will be happy to hear that--or not hear it, as the case may be.
On the other hand, color on the H1081 exhibits a subtle greenish cast, and the color controls feel less responsive than those of the competition. Adjusting tint can mitigate some of the effect, but not eliminate it completely. Once adjusted, this slight color tint is not noticeable except when viewing another projector side by side.
The H1081 also has the shortest lamp life of all the projectors, at 2,000 hours in Boost mode and 3,000 hours in Normal mode. Finally, the H1081 has a 3x-speed wheel, meaning it is more likely to cause rainbow artifacts than projectors with 4x-speed wheels. If you are sensitive to the rainbow effect, this could be an important consideration.