NOTICE: This article was written in response to the high level of consumer interest in the Sony VPL-VW10HT and the InFocus LP350 as home theater solutions. By offering this comparative review, we do not mean to endorse these as the two best projectors for home theater on the market today. In many cases depending on budgets and other factors, there will be other projectors we would recommend as better overall price/performers than either of these two popular products. (EP, November 29, 2000)
NOTICE: See final update pertaining to DVDO iScan compatibility issues, and options for feeding higher quality signals into both the LP350 and the VW10HT. (EP, November 14, 2000)
Yes, I know. This is the second article featuring the InFocus LP350 to be posted. Normally we don't give this much coverage to any one product. But as a result of the last write-up we received boatloads of emails asking for more scoop on the LP350 as it relates to home theater. And of course the BIG question on everyone's mind is ...how does the LP350 compare to this year's home theater superstar, the Sony VPL-VW10HT?
So. Here we go with a side-by-side comparison of these two remarkable projectors. Let's start with a few of the basics...
Light engines. The biggest and most relevant difference between these two products is in their light engine technology. The Sony incorporates three 1.5-inch diagonal transmissive LCD panels and a 200-watt UHP lamp. Though the unit is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens, it has a "cinema black" mode that improves contrast over the normal mode and is preferred by many for home theater usage. Cinema black mode reduces the rated light output to about 700 ANSI lumens. After optimization with Video Essentials, the effective ANSI lumen measurement falls in the range of 500 to 550. If cinema black is not used, the picture is brighter but a bit lower in contrast. After optimization in normal mode the actual ANSI lumen output is about 750.
The InFocus LP350 uses a single reflective 0.9" diagonal DLP chip and a 270-watt SHP lamp. This projector is rated at 1300 ANSI lumens. There is no cinema black mode as contrast in normal operation is already superb. Optimizing it for best video performance drops the effective ANSI lumen output to around 1000. So in practical terms the LP350 produces notably more light output than either of the operating modes of the Sony when both projectors are properly calibrated for home theater use.
Resolution and Aspect Ratios. In terms of resolution, both products are in the XGA resolution class. However, the LP350's DLP chip has a standard 4:3 native format, or 1,024 x 768 pixels. The Sony features a unique 16:9 aspect ratio in its LCD panels, 1,366 x 768. So it has the same vertical resolution as the LP350, but the panels are extended horizontally to achieve the 16:9 format. It is this feature in particular that has made the Sony VPL-VW10HT far and away the most popular home theater projector in the year 2000.
Contrast ratios. The DLP technology in the LP350 contributes to a significantly higher contrast ratio than that on the Sony. One of the weaknesses of LCD in comparison to DLP has always been the comparatively limited contrast that it can produce, and the difference is clearly evident between these two units.
Video decoding, deinterlacing and scaling. To feed an NTSC signal into an XGA projector it needs to be converted internally from analog to digital via a video decoder, then converted from an interlaced format to a progressive format by a process known as deinterlacing or line doubling. Then the 480 lines of active NTSC video information need to be expanded and mapped onto the 768 lines of the physical displays, a process known as scaling. Some projectors have more comprehensive decoding, deinterlacing, and scaling capabilities than others. Rapid advances have been made in video processing lately, and the newer generation machines are reflecting those advances.
In the present case, the LP350 is a newer machine than the Sony. If the proof is in the pudding, the LP350 incorporates what appears on the screen to be more advanced technology in video processing. For if you run a standard S-video signal from a DVD player into the LP350, you get a remarkably stable image. Deinterlacing artifacts are minimal compared to other projectors we've seen in this price range, and scaling is smooth and stable to the point of looking essentially flawless. The VW10HT cannot match the stability and precision of the LP350's image in this regard.
Fan noise. A big issue for home theater buyers is fan noise. However there's not a lot of difference in fan noise between these two products. Both are unobtrusive and the noise pitch is relatively low frequency. There is not enough of a difference in noise to make it a decision factor in the buying process.
Portability. Not normally a concern for home theater buyers, but if portability is a desired feature, bear in mind that the LP350 is compact, has a handle and weighs 6.7 lbs. The VW10HT is comparatively bulky, it has no handle and it weighs 17.6 lbs. Bottom line: the Sony was never designed to be used as a portable device whereas the LP350 was.
Set-up, playback, and calibration features
The Sony VPL-VW10HT was designed from the ground up exclusively as a home theater product. Conversely, InFocus designed the LP350 as a crossover product with the intent of targeting both home theater buyers as well as those who have the need for a portable presentation tool.
Thus the VW10HT has a wide range of features that the LP350 does not have. For example, the VW10HT has six different settings for color temperature, four of which can be set by the user. The remaining two are factory pre-set. This gives you the ability to dial in an optimal 6500K for NTSC material and then switch to, say, a warmer 5400K for black and white movies should you choose to do that, or up to 9000K or higher for a colder crisper temperature for data material.
The LP350 has no ability to alter or control color temperature. However, the design target for color temperature of the LP350 out of the box is 6767K, or close to ideal for NTSC projection. Our sample measured in at 6850K.
For color calibration, the VW10HT has the ability to adjust contrast and brightness on red, green, and blue independently. The LP350 does not have this feature either. Thus between these controls and the color temperature calibration, the VW10HT has the potential to deliver somewhat more accurate color.
The VW10HT also features a variety of playback formats. 16:9 material can be displayed either scaled up to fill the full 1,366 x 768 display, or in a non-scaled 480-line format. You can choose among several options for the display of 4:3 material as well. 4:3 can be displayed scaled up to full vertical resolution in the center of the image with black bars on either side, or in a native 480-line format with black bars on all four sides, or blown up to the full width of the 16:9 display while truncating the top and bottom of the image.
On the other hand, the LP350 has 4:3, letterboxed 16:9 (which is also 4:3). True 16:9 material is resized and formatted into a 1024 x 576 pixel matrix. Furthermore, since the display is a native 4:3, the variety of 4:3 playback options that are offered on the Sony, the purpose of which are to fit the 4:3 image into its 16:9 native display, are not options on the LP350.
Component Video and DVI. The Sony has component video input and the InFocus does not. However, the InFocus has DVI. The Sony, being a year old at this point, was designed just prior to the appearance of DVI and thus lacks this feature. So in terms of higher quality source signal compatibility for non-HDTV material, each of these products has an advantage over the other.
While the Sony VPL-VW10HT was built exclusively for home theater, and while it has a variety of control and calibration features that are attractive to the videophile, it does not incorporate the latest price/performance advantages of the newest generation of equipment. In a side-by-side comparison, the following observations can be made:
Brightness and Contrast: The LP350 is visibly brighter and higher in contrast than the VW10HT. It achieves deeper blacks and better shadow detail. The LP350's image therefore has a sparkle and snap that is not present with the Sony in either normal or cinema black operating modes.
Resolution and sharpness with 480i video: Though the Sony's 16:9 panels give it an advantage with 16:9 high definition material, they don't offer an advantage with 4:3 source material. Unless you choose to truncate the top and bottom of the 4:3 image to fill the horizontal width of the panel, 4:3 material is typically displayed in native XGA 1,024 x 768 on both projectors. However the LP350 has superior video processing electronics on board.
The result is that for 480i the LP350 produces a clearer and sharper image. In fact, using the same Sony DVP-S7700 DVD player as a source, the standard S-video is more stable and artifact-free on the LP350 than is component interlaced video on the VW10HT.
Resolution and sharpness with HDTV. As one might expect, the VW10HT performs much better with a 720p HDTV signal than it does with NTSC or component video since deinterlacing and scaling are eliminated as factors in final image quality. 1080i also shows much better than NTSC or component video, although it isn't as pristine as 720p. In terms of image sharpness and clarity the VW10HT has a definite edge with HDTV that is derived from its 16:9 panels. The Sony's weakness again, compared to the LP350, is in image brightness and contrast.
HDTV material is resized on the LP350 to playback in 576 lines. So it is unable to present 720p in its native format without compression.
Color accuracy and saturation: The VW10HT has the edge in color accuracy, but not by much. There are no egregious errors on the LP350 and none but the most critical viewer will notice any deficiencies. Meanwhile, the LP350, due to higher light output and better contrast, has better overall color saturation.
Visible pixel structure. Since both of these products are native XGA-class resolution, visible pixel structure is not nearly the issue that it is on lower resolution machines. However, even at XGA resolution there is a clear difference in pixel visibility between the LCD technology of the Sony and the DLP technology of the InFocus. Always one of DLP's strong suits vis-a-vis LCD, the pixel structure is notably less visible. One could fairly say that pixel structure is invisible on the InFocus and not quite invisible on the Sony.
Non-image light escaping from casework. As noted in the previous LP350 write-up, this projector leaks light out the front grill to a degree that is not acceptable for home theater. There is enough light emitted from the grill that, if not blocked externally, it will reduce the contrast ratio from that otherwise attainable. Those who are considering ceiling mounting this projector for home theater should give serious consideration to placing a curtain or baffle some short distance in front of the projector to block this light. Do not, however, block the intake vent itself as the projector needs uninhibited airflow to operate normally. The Sony has no light leaks to worry about.
Update: External line doublers. Initial testing showed with our first evaluation unit yielded successful results with the DVDO iScan line doubler. However, subsequent re-testing with two more units produced radically different results. One unit was able to lock and hold the line-doubled signal intermittantly and the other could not lock onto it at all. InFocus does not officially support 480p video on the LP350, and thus external line doublers cannot be used reliably with this projector.
The Sony VW10HT does accept an external doubler, and the DVDO iScan improves NTSC picture quality on this projector. The deinterlacing of the DVDO is superior to that on board the VW10HT, so the DVDO-processed signal produces a cleaner and sharper image when compared to the direct composite or S-video inputs. With the Sony DVP-S7700's component interlaced output into the VW10HT, the differences between that and the DVDO-processed S-video were less dramatic. Color was better with the component signal than with the DVDO. However, since deinterlacing artifacts annoy me more than color inaccuracy, I still preferred the image produced by the DVDO.
However, several additional comments should be made pertaining to signals and image quality on the LP350. First, it should be noted that the LP350 produces a remarkably clear and stable image with a standard S-video input. In fact it is superior to the image produced by many other projectors with the DVDO iScan.
Second, as originally noted, the LP350 does not take component video of any kind. That means in particular that the new progressive scan DVD players cannot be used as sources on the LP350 (unless you use the regular S-video or composite outputs which of course is not the point).
Third, the LP350 does take DVI (Digital Video Interface) from a home theater PC. This in fact is the ideal DVD source for the LP350. A PC with DVI will output the original digital signal from the DVD scaled up to XGA resolution, and the LP350 will accept and display that digital signal without any conversion at all to the analog domain. The resulting picture is sharper and more stable than even progressive component since it avoids the two D/A conversions required to get a DVD signal from a progressive scan DVD player into a digital projector. The VW10HT does not have this option.
Fourth, if you have a home theater PC that does not have DVI output, the VGA output from this device is the next best thing to DVI. Testing the LP350 with VGA output showed some phase jitter that was not present in the DVI, but still the image produced was much superior to S-video from a DVD player. The Sony VW10HT will also take the VGA input from a home theater PC.
Bottom line: For DVD playback, if you want the best possible performance out of an LP350, your options in order of picture quality are (a) DVI from an HTPC, (b) VGA from an HTPC, and (c) s-video from a DVD player. Your options on the VW10HT in order of picture quality are (a) VGA from an HTPC, (b) progressive scan component from a DVD player, (c) standard DVD player + DVDO iScan, (d) component interlaced from a DVD player, and finally (e) either composite or S-video from a DVD player.
Which projector is better for home theater? The answer to this question is based in part on subjective judgment and in part on the type of material you will typically watch.
If you plan to watch a great deal of 720p HDTV (which of course is hard to do at this stage), the VW10HT will reproduce this particular signal in its most exquisite detail. While the LP350 cannot match the VW10HT's high resolution display of 720p, it will outperform the VW10HT in brightness, black level, shadow detail, and color saturation with any HDTV signal.
If you plan to watch standard NTSC with S-video input, the LP350 will outperform the VW10HT in most major aspects of image quality. Not only are brightness, black level, shadow detail, and color saturation better, but the deinterlacing and scaling are stronger as well. The picture is therefore more stable and clear. The LP350's one comparative weakness is in color accuracy.
For the videophile, the LP350 will be frustrating in that there aren't a lot of fine-tuning adjustments and calibrations to fiddle with. One might think of it as a Porsche 911 with an automatic transmission. Other than the generic adjustments for brightness, contrast, color, tint and sharpness, you get what you get, and that's it. However, what you get is amazingly good.
In this industry the average product lifespan of a projector is about a year, maybe eighteen months for particularly remarkable units. The Sony is about a year old. Newer products are appearing that show advances in digital video processing that one wishes were incorporated into the VW10HT. And with the rapid improvements in light output over the past twelve months, a projector rated at a maximum of 1000 ANSI lumens is behind the competitive power curve for home theater deployment.
Sony did a truly phenomenal job with the VPL-VW10HT. It has been without question the king of home theater products this year. However, technology marches on in this industry at a rapid pace. Based on the success of their original 16:9 format product, the VPL-W400Q, as well as the current product, Sony is sure to build on its success with yet another edition of a 16:9 format product in the future that will be brighter, higher in contrast, and more comprehensive in its video processing electronics.
At the moment however, I suspect that many home theater enthusiasts when seeing the LP350 and the VW10HT side-by-side will decide in favor of the InFocus LP350.