UPDATE: This has been a great projector during its life, but it has been replaced by the Panasonic LC75U on our "currently recommended" list. (see home page)
With current street prices running well under $4,000, the NEC MultiSync VT540 stands out as the most formidable home theater offering in its price class. It is a native XGA resolution LCD projector with HDTV and EDTV (480p) compatibility. And it incorporates NEC's proprietary VORTEX image enhancement system which produces exceptionally fine color dynamics.
Brightness. The VT540 is rated at 1000 ANSI lumens. At this light output, the lamp life is 2000 hours. The system has an "economy" setting that reduces brightness to about 700 lumens. This reduces the fan noise (which is already low to begin with), and boosts lamp life to 3000 hours. However, we believe most home theater users will opt for the hi-brightness setting as picture quality is improved with the incremental illumination.
Contrast ratio. Contrast on the VT540 is rated at 400:1. This is high for LCD products in this price range and comparable to many DLPs. A 400:1 contrast ratio is high enough to produce an image with solid blacks and crisp whites in bright and well-lit scenes. In dark scenes the shadow details tend to lose some definition and the image does not have the snap that you'd like. However, given its current street prices, this projector does an outstanding job for the money.
HDTV and EDTV. The VT540 accepts HDTV and EDTV 480p video signals through a single 15-pin VGA port, and NTSC, PAL, and SECAM through either the composite RCA jack or the S-video jack. The use of a component-progressive scan DVD player is strongly recommended.
One of the common limitations of projectors in this price range is connectivity and the VT540 is no different in this regard. The single VGA port is the only input port for HDTV, line-doubled NTSC, and progressive scan DVD. Thus if you plan to run multiple sources you will need an external video switcher or an A/V receiver with switching capability.
Color. To achieve optimum white balance, the VT540 offers independent brightness and contrast adjustments of red, green, and blue for all sources. There are also three factory preset gamma correction settings, "Normal," "Natural 1," and "Natural 2." When setting up the system for home theater use, the gamma correction setting should be switched to Natural 1.
For NTSC sources, the DVDO iScanPro line doubler (street priced around $700), is recommended as an accessory. The image produced with the DVDO has noticeably greater sharpness and picture detail than that which is available via standard NTSC composite or S-video.
Comparing the VT540 to other options
For video nothing comes close to the price/performance of the VT540 in the well-under $4,000 price range. The combination of XGA resolution, a 400:1 contrast ratio, HDTV-compatibility, and the color dynamics of NEC's VORTEX image enhancement technology make this an outstanding offering for the money.
The native XGA-resolution LCD panels produce a modest but noticeable pixelation on the screen. This "screendoor" effect is not nearly as consequential as it is in SVGA resolution LCD projectors, but it is still present. If pixels bother you and you wish to reduce the visibility of the pixels to nearly nothing, you have two options. Either step up to the NEC LT150 or LT155, or move down to the economy-class InFocus LP340 (its DLP light engine reduces pixel visibility even at its lower SVGA resolution).
The VT540 vs. the LT150. If you can stretch your budget another $1,000 or so you can get the LT150, the next "highly recommended" product in line with respect to price. The LT150 is rated a bit less in ANSI lumens at 800, but that is not a significant difference. Particularly since the LT150 delivers a contrast of 800:1, or double that of the VT540.
The LT150 has a fixed lens vs the VT540's zoom. But this is not an issue in most home theaters once you ceiling mount the projector. You just need to be more precise in mounting the LT150. The LT150 is the same XGA resolution, but due to its DLP technology, pixels are entirely invisible. NEC's VORTEX image enhancement system is on board the LT150 as well. Both have the same variety of controls related to red, green, and blue channels, gamma, and color temperature. Overall, if you can take the step up to the LT150 financially, you will be rewarded with a notably superior image in terms of contrast and pixel-free imagery.
The VT540 vs. the LT155. For an incremental $500 to $700 or so (always check prices by talking to dealers--they change faster than we can write!), you can get the LT155. The major benefit of the LT155 is that it has Micro Lens Array, or MLA (the same technology that exists on the Sanyo PLC-XP21N). Though MLA's primary purpose is to boost light output, it has the side-effect of reducing the visibility of the pixel grid on XGA resolution LCD panels.
The LT155 is rated at 1200 ANSI lumens, or just a bit brighter than the VT540 (although you would never see the difference side by side). Like the VT540, the LT155 has 400:1 contrast, HDTV and EDTV compatibility, and excellent color dynamics from the VORTEX image enhancement system. It has the same "one VGA port" input limitation. The only downside to the LT155 is that fan noise is a bit more noticeable than on the VT540.
Overall, the most significant advantage that the LT155 offers is reduced pixel visibility. In fact, you can set the focal ring to a position just slightly off perfect to make the pixels disappear entirely (see LT155 write up for details). The bottom line is that if you want the beautiful color capability of the VT540 and you want to get rid of the pixels, your option is the LT155 for a bit more money.
VT540 vs. InFocus LP340. If you don't want pixels and you want a more economical solution, the other alternative is to step down to the InFocus LP340. This is an SVGA (lower resolution) DLP projector, reviewed elsewhere here. The pixel structure is less visible on the LP340 due to its DLP technology. However, the image of the LP340 is not as sharp and crisp as the VT540. Nor is the color as accurate. These trade-offs must be taken into account when judging just how important it is to you to have a pixel-free image. Neither projector is perfect, but home theater perfection does not exist in this price range.
Conclusion. The VT540 combines outstanding array of high-performance features that make it an ideal selection for home theater enthusiasts in this budget range. It is highly recommended as the best performer on the market for those with budgets under $4,000.