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Mitsubishi XD460: 4:3 Home Theater?

Performance
5
Features
Ease of Use
Value
Mitsubishi XD460U Projector Mitsubishi XD460U
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2500:1 Contrast Ratio
2600 Lumens
Street Price: n/a

"Why aren't there any home theater quality video projectors in 4:3 format?" We get this question more often than you might imagine. Though most home theater folks are happy with the 16:9 widescreen format, the traditional 4:3 format still appeals to many. There are good reasons for this. Some want to use their projectors for both home theater and commercial presentation use, and don't want to sacrifice video image quality in the process. Others are into classic films, and want to see them viewed in very large 4:3 format, just as they were shown in commercial theaters before the early 1950's (a very cool experience, I might add). Whatever the reason, there is still demand for high performance 4:3 video projectors.

Unfortunately, there aren't very many of them. The reason is that vendors know that most people buying 4:3 projectors are buying them for commercial use. In the commercial presentation world, home theater quality video is neither necessary nor appreciated. Buyers surely do not want to spend extra cash for top quality video processing electronics, lens shift, multiple video inputs, etc, just to get a pie chart on the wall. And for data projectors, lumens per dollar is far more important than black level. So vendors optimize the design of 4:3 projectors to deliver maximum bang for the buck in commercial applications. Video performance on these machines is often good, sometimes surprisingly good, but rarely up to the best home theater machines in the same price ranges.

The Mitsubishi XD460 is one of the unusual exceptions. This is a native 4:3 format projector (XGA, 1024x768 resolution) featuring DLP technology with Texas Instruments' new BrilliantColor(TM) processing. The primary target market for this model is conference room and portable presentation use. So it lacks some of the features you would want on a home theater projector—there is no physical lens shift, no separate 3-RCA component video input, and the 1.2x zoom is adequate to make small adjustments to fit a screen, but your throw distance options to fit a desired screen size are relatively limited. On the other hand, it has a monitor loop-through feature which is desirable in classroom and presentation use, but of little use in home theater.

The XD460 has a built-in throw angle offset of about 5%, which means that for every 100 inches of throw distance, the bottom edge of the projected 4:3 image will be about 5 inches above the centerline of the lens. Depending upon what you want to do with it, this could be ideal projection geometry. It is perfect for conference room table top use. But it does create limitations on how you might install it for theater use.

However, assuming you can live with the inherent limitations, the advantages are numerous. The XD460 produces a bright image, even in eco-mode, in which lamp life is estimated at 5000 hours. In practical terms, that is enough lamp time to watch two 90-minute movies a night, five nights a week, for seven years. Many users of the XD460 will want to upgrade to the next generation projector before they ever have to replace the lamp.

Fan noise in eco-mode is not silent, but it is low and unobtrusive. In full power mode, you get a 24% brighter image, but you cut lamp life to 2000 hours. Also, when the lamp is turned on high, fan noise is elevated beyond a point that most home theater folks would find ideal, though it is not high in pitch, and is comfortable for conference room use.

The reason we are drawing particular attention to the XD460 is that we get a remarkably high quality video image with standard DVD and interlaced input. The picture has a rich, natural quality to it that evokes the elusive "filmlike" descriptor. The BrilliantColor technology combined with the DarkChip 3 DLP produces plenty of color saturation and contrast with natural, well balanced pastels and flesh tones. Black levels and shadow details are sufficient to give the picture beautiful definition. For the most part, the projector gets out of the way and allows you to immerse yourself in the movie experience.

I say "for the most part" because the image is not perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect image in this price range—every projector on the market gives the perfectionist something to complain about. In the case of the XD460, the most apparent defect was the presence of some digital noise in the image. Oddly enough, with 480i input, the noise was present but typically not distracting. We watched it for hours without being bothered much by noise artifacts. However, when switching to 480p, the noise level increased substantially to the point where it really was overbearing in some scenes. This is another one of those projectors in which the picture quality is noticeably better with component interlaced input than with component progressive. So do not make the assumption that your results will be optimized by using the progressive scan option on your DVD player.

As far as the home theater application is concerned, the other issue that always needs to be addressed is that of wheel speed and rainbow artifacts. The XD460 has a 5-segment color wheel that rotates at 2x (that is, two refreshes of the R,G, and B signals per second). That means that those who are sensitive to color separation artifacts (rainbows) will see them on this unit. I am among those for whom rainbow artifacts are merely theoretical—I cannot see them on projectors with 2x wheels, and I have come to believe that about two-thirds of the population either cannot see them at all, or sees them so subtly and infrequently that they do not rise to the level of a bothersome distraction. However, for the one-third of the population (my personal guess based on anecdotal input and no scientific data) for whom rainbow artifacts on 2x DLP projectors are a visible distraction, they can be so much of an annoyance that the projector cannot be enjoyed for home theater use.

By the way, regular readers of this site already know that rainbow artifacts are much less of a problem in data applications than they are in video. There are two reasons for this, and both are related to eye movement. First, you tend not to sit as close to the screen for a data presentation as you do for home theater. That means the angle of view from one side of the screen to the other is typically much smaller, so your eye does not need to move as much in order to take in the whole image. Second, data images are static, so your eye is not continually reacting to random movements on the screen. Since eye movement is what causes you to detect color separation, the phenomenon is more problematic in home theater than it is in data or graphics presentation.

Therefore, if you are considering the XD460 for dual-purpose data and home theater use, you must first verify that color separation artifacts are not a problem for you (or regular viewers in your household) on DLP projectors with 2x speed wheels. But if you are like me, all you will see when watching the XD460 is very impressive video.

The selection of a native 4:3 XGA resolution projector for video use has its advantages and limitations. The advantage is that you get a very bright image that can fill a large 4:3 screen. In the case of the XD460, our test unit measured 1190 ANSI lumens in "standard" mode, and 725 ANSI lumens in "theater" mode (both measurements with lamp on normal power). For presentation use, there is a precalibrated "presentation" mode that pumped out 1820 ANSI lumens.

Furthermore, the XGA projector produces a 4:3 image with a native 1024x768 pixel array. That means you will get a 4:3 picture that is brighter, larger, and higher in physical pixel resolution than you can get from a native 1280x720 widescreen home theater projector. This is a great way to view the great classic films like Casablanca, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wizard of Oz, and many others that were filmed in very close to native 4:3 format prior to the age of television. (A small factoid: The standard 4:3 television format was designed to match traditional Hollywood film aspect ratios, and Hollywood's move to widescreen formats in the 1950's was a competitive response to the introduction of television).

The downside of using a conventional 4:3 format XGA projector for home theater is that 16:9 widescreen material is displayed in a pixel array of 1024x576. All HDTV programming is compressed into this format. Now, HDTV still looks exceptionally good, and much better than DVD even after the compression. But it does not have quite the precision that projectors in 1280x720 format are able to deliver.

The bottom line is that the selection of a projector, like everything else in life, involves trade-offs. But that is a good thing—what may be critically important to you may be irrelevant to someone else. The trick is being aware of the tradeoffs you are signing up for. But for now, I must wrap this up. I want to go fire up that Mitsubishi XD460, light up my very large scale 4:3 screen, pop in my DVD of Gone with the Wind, and take a trip in time back to 1939.


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