Last year, the Mitsubishi HC3800 was a sleeper hit - a little $1500 DLP 1080p projector that filled a previously empty niche. Fitting right in between sub-$1000 and over-$2000 1080p home theater projectors, the HC3800 was an inexpensive way to get a beautiful, film-like picture into your home without spending a ton of money.
This year's model is the HC4000, and it definitely continues the legacy of its predecessor. The HC3800 and HC4000 are mostly the same, but the one clear area of improvement is contrast. With a new DarkChip 3 DLP chip, single-frame (ANSI) contrast is even better than before--and that's saying a lot, because the HC3800 was already excellent in this regard. And as of today, the official street price has been reduced to $1,299, making it more affordable than ever. Even better, the price now includes a full two-year Advance/Exchange replacement warranty, and a one-year warranty on the lamp.
(Editor's note: this review has been edited on 1/5/2011 to include further comment on the lens throw angle and installation options as well as a word on fan noise.)
The HC4000 is a 1080p DLP projector with a great picture, but not a lot of bells and whistles. It has a bright cinema mode--bright enough to use it on a 120" diagonal screen in a room with decent light control. The projector has a 1.5:1 zoom lens. But it lacks any form of lens shift and has a steep upward throw angle offset of 33%. For a 100" diagonal image, this means the bottom edge of the image will appear 16" above the centerline of the lens. This makes it a perfect choice for a ceiling mount, as it will not require the use of a drop tube in most circumstances. A low table mount between the seats would also be simple to set up. The zoom lens gives you some flexibility in throw distance, so it's a great option for folks with complicated ceilings; for example, I have a ceiling fan in my theater, 'conveniently' placed in the ideal spot for a projector (I still have to thank the builders for that one). Thanks to the HC4000's 1.5:1 zoom, I can place the projector in front of the fan and still get a 100" diagonal image.
The projector looks its best in a fully darkened room, but a touch of ambient light will not hurt things much. Black level is not as deep as other 1080p projectors that use auto-iris systems, and indeed full on/off contrast is not one of the HC4000's selling points. The darker you can get your room, the better, but don't run yourself ragged trying to plug up every light leak.
Great picture. The HC4000 is an impressive projector, and in terms of sheer picture quality it punches above its price class. Even fresh out of the box, with no adjustments made, the HC4000 produces a bright, clear, three-dimensional image that practically jumps off the screen. Every detail in every shadow is reproduced cleanly. Colors are vibrant and accurate (we actually brought color saturation down a few pegs as it was slightly over-driven). The picture is balanced, smooth and natural-looking, without any 'digital' character or artificiality to it. This is no mean trick, since digital video is exactly what we're watching.
Lumen output. The HC4000 can be used in a variety of lighting situations, from a pitch-black cave to a typical living room. Maximum ANSI lumen output is rated at 1300, just like the HC3800. The brightest mode by far is Sports, combined with the High Brightness color temperature preset and the lamp at its full power setting. This combination of settings measured 1212 lumens, a slight decrease from last year's 1346 but still very bright. The Sports/High Brightness combination lacks the high contrast that makes the HC4000 look so good with film and video, and there is a noticeable green bias. However, when you need every lumen possible for a Sunday football game in the living room, Sports/High Brightness will do just fine. Combining Sports with the Medium color temperature preset gives better contrast and color accuracy, and drops brightness to 705 lumens.
For the best possible picture quality for film and video without calibration, here's how it's done: using Cinema mode, pick the Medium color temperature preset--that's it, you're done. This mode yields excellent contrast and very good color accuracy for a factory preset, along with 560 lumens with the lamp at full power. Dropping the lamp to its lower-powered setting reduces lumen output in this and every mode by 21% for a new reading of 442 lumens. That's still enough light for that 120" diagonal screen as long as you are careful about light control. For a more vibrant, punchy picture, consider a 100" diagonal instead. It's still bigger than any television you are likely to see in stores.
As you know, long zoom lenses transmit the most light when at their widest angle/shortest focal length setting and the least light at their longest focal length. This drop is often on the order of 25% for a 1.5:1 lens. The HC4000 performed much better than average in this regard, as our measurements revealed only an 11% drop in lumen output from the shortest to longest focal lengths of the lens. In other words, you can use the full range of the lens without stopping to consider the impact on lumen output, because such a subtle change is almost impossible to notice with the naked eye.
Regarding BrilliantColor: yes, the HC4000 has it. It is enabled by default in Sports mode, and turning it off will reduce lumen output in that mode by 20% while creating a more balanced picture. It is disabled in Cinema mode, but you can certainly turn it on if you so choose for a quick lumen boost. Just be aware that it will raise the brightness of highlights without affecting other areas of the picture, so that much vaunted "balanced, film-like picture" will lose some of its balance.
Contrast. The HC3800 had excellent contrast, but the HC4000 is even better. While the two have the same rating - 4000:1 - ratings never tell the whole story. While full on/off contrast remains the same, single frame contrast receives a significant bump in the HC4000. The result is a dynamic and three-dimensional picture that is the equal of much more expensive projectors. The HC4000 performs best with content that is neither all dark nor all light; night-time shots, for example, would look better on a projector with an auto-iris and higher on/off contrast. However the majority of scenes in movies are comprised of many levels of illumination. It is in scenes with average to above average light levels that the HC4000 truly shines.
Sharpness and Clarity. Sometimes it is hard to differentiate between the inherent sharpness of a projector and the appearance of sharpness produced by high contrast; all else being equal, a higher-contrast projector will appear sharper. So we switched the HC4000 into the Sports/High Brightness mode mentioned previously, its lowest-contrast mode, in order to make sure we weren't mistaking one for the other. The HC4000 is indeed sharp. Fine detail is never muddy or blurred, even during fast motion. What's more, the HC4000 has very little digital noise, which aids in the perception of detail.
Throw Distance Flexibility. With a 1.5:1 zoom lens, the HC4000 is head and shoulders above most of its DLP competition when it comes to throw distance. The HC4000 can display a 120" diagonal image from a distance of about 12 to 18 feet. Since home theater rooms can take many different shapes and sizes, the long zoom range will help get the HC4000 into more homes.
Lamp life. The HC4000 has an estimated lamp life of 3,000 hours in high lamp mode and 5,000 hours in eco-mode, which is above average for this class of projector. What's more, replacement lamps cost only $299, meaning it costs between six and ten cents per hour to operate the projector.
Audible noise. Audible noise is important on a projector like the HC4000, since chances are it'll be sitting directly over your head or between your seats. The fan is noticeable, but not loud. Fan noise is low-pitched and sounds more like air emerging from an HVAC vent than the sort of high-pitched noise one would associate with an electronics fan. This is good news; low-pitched noise with no whine is much easier to "tune out" than high-pitched noise--especially if your home theater speakers are capable of any significant volume.
Slow signal lock. To display video, two HDMI devices must first perform a 'handshake' to identify themselves to one another before sending data. The HC4000 takes a long time to lock, initially, compared to other projectors. While this has no effect on the actual watching of the movie, it can get annoying when the projected image flashes between black and blue several times before finally locking to the signal from your DVD or Blu-ray player.
Connectivity. While the HC4000 has just about every connection one could wish for, it only has one HDMI port. Since just about every signal source uses HDMI these days, this could pose a problem unless your A/V receiver also includes an HDMI switcher.
Placement flexibility. While the HC4000 has better throw distance flexibility than most DLP projectors, the lack of lens shift can limit your options for installation. The projector's 33% upward throw angle offset is just about perfect for a ceiling mount, placing the image slightly higher than center on a standard eight-foot wall. You may not want to ceiling mount your projector, preferring to put it on a rear shelf or bookcase behind the seats. If that is the case, the HC4000 will be difficult to use without tilting it and applying keystone correction. We always avoid the use of keystone adjustment on 1080p projectors, as it forces the projector to compress all 1080p image sources including those from Blu-ray. As long as we have a 1080p projector and a 1080p source, we want to see the image mapped pixel for pixel for the best possible resolution.
Last year, we compared the HC3800 to Epson's Home Cinema 8100, a 1080p LCD projector with a similar price. This year, Epson has released the Home Cinema 8350, an incremental upgrade to the 8100 that sells for $1,299. If we had an 8350 here to do a side by side, we'd do it. But we don't. Instead, we have the higher priced 8700 UB. So we decided to set the HC4000 up against this $2200 1080p LCD projector.
With a $900 price difference between the two, it is clear that the Home Cinema 8700 UB must have something the HC4000 does not. Indeed, the Home Cinema 8700 UB is comparatively feature-laden. It has a 2.1:1 zoom lens, horizontal and vertical lens shift, a frame interpolation system to reduce motion judder, super resolution to improve detail definition, two HDMI ports instead of one, and a free lamp and ceiling mount included in the purchase price. When it comes to features, there is no question which projector has the edge.
But things get really interesting when we look at picture quality. In a comparable theater mode, the 8700 UB is a little brighter - perhaps 20% - and has deeper black levels in dark scenes, such as a night sky. But in most scenes containing more typical average light levels, the HC4000 has better dynamic range. Whites are brighter, blacks are deeper, and the picture as a whole just "pops" better than that of the 8700 UB. Strange to say, but this unassuming HC4000 rated at a mere 4000:1 contrast often looks higher in contrast, with more three-dimensional picture depth, than the 8700 UB with its 200,000:1 rating. From an aesthetic perspective, the HC4000 has a slightly more natural-looking film-like image. With the 8700 UB's frame interpolation turned off, the HC4000 has less judder, which is of interest to those who do not enjoy the appearance of frame interpolation and want the best video image they can get without it.
This is not to say that the 8700 UB does not have advantages--it most certainly does. It has a higher maximum lumen output (1830 lumens versus 1212), a modestly brighter cinema mode (660 versus 560 lumens), and an auto-iris system that really does make dark scenes look incredible. With the 2.1x zoom and lens shift it is easier to install on those rear shelves and bookcases. Fan noise is slightly quieter, though neither is objectionable.
So the bottom line is this: which style of projector fits your needs the best? If you have the cash and you need or want all the extra features, the 8700 UB is a solid option for the money. If you are on a tighter budget, or simply don't want to spend money for features you won't use, the HC4000 is an outstanding value in image quality.
The Mitsubishi HC4000 is an impressive home theater projector. For a modest $1,299, you get a high quality cinema image that rivals that of much more expensive models. What you give up is a lot of the extra features you find on pricier units. It is a great projector for the budget videophile, the one who wants pure image performance but doesn't want to empty his or her wallet to get it. The Mitsubishi HC4000 is a remarkably vibrant projector that will give you a double "wow" factor: one for the sparkling, three-dimensional image you see when you light it up, and another when you tell your friends how little you paid for it.