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PLUS Piano Avanti HE-3200

Evan Powell, August 23, 2002
PLUS Corporation of America has just commenced shipment of its remarkable and unique Piano Avanti HE-3200 home theater projector. If you haven't seen it yet, this petite 4.4 lb projector that comes in a variety of bright colors will bring a smile to your face. At first glance it looks like a toy projector. But light it up, and it's a different story. The Piano performs more like a serious home theater projection system that you might ever imagine.

Product Overview

The Piano Avanti HE-3200 is an enhanced edition of PLUS' first home theater entry, the Piano HE-3100. As with the original, this one is rated at 450 ANSI lumens and a 700:1 contrast ratio, and features the 848 x 600 "dual mode" DLP chip. However, scaling and deinterlacing electronics have been improved on the HE-3200. A small zoom lens and an RGB port have been added. And most importantly, this model is HDTV compatible, a feature that was missing on the HE-3100.

Technically, the 848 x 600 resolution makes this an SVGA-class machine. And indeed if you feed it an SVGA signal it will be displayed in its native 800x600 format. However when it comes to video, widescreen DVD, and HDTV, there is relatively little use for the native SVGA format. So the chip has been extended horizontally by 48 pixels. That is a vital format change. For with this extra width, a 16:9 picture can be displayed in an 848 x 480 pixel matrix. That means that widescreen DVD material can be displayed in its native format without scaling, and that means you get a very clean sharp image.

The HE-3200 uses the powerful Silicon Image Sil504 chipset for deinterlacing and horizontal scaling. So although it will take a 480p signal, if you have a cheap progressive scan DVD player you should try the 480i output instead and let the projector do the deinterlacing. Depending on the DVD player, you may discover you get a smoother picture with 480i than you do with the progressive scan signal.

The connection panel features one DVI-D port, one 15-pin RGB, a set of three component RCA jacks, and an S-video port. There is no composite video jack, which is a refreshing diversion from the norm. Composite video has no place in a quality home theater system. By eliminating the separate composite video input as well as audio jacks which are useless for home theater, PLUS engineers were able to incorporate the four most valuable inputs onto the connection panel. The end result is impressive connectivity considering the projector's compact size. (If you must, you can use the Y jack of the component input for composite.)

The lamp life on the HE-3200 is 1000 hours, which is as low as it gets in the digital projector world these days. So if you expect heavy usage, you need to factor in the cost of replacement lamps as part of the cost of ownership. The good news is that replacement lamps are $259, which is notably less than the typical $400 we see on most lamps that run 2000 hours.

Audible noise from the cooling fan and the spinning color wheel is very low and nothing to be concerned about in operation. However you should be aware that the fan continues to run, cooling the power supply, while the unit is in standby mode. And you can definitely hear it if you are sitting quietly in your viewing room reading a book. Unfortunately you need to kill the power to the unit entirely to turn off the fan.

Performance

If set up properly, the Piano HE-3200 can deliver a stunning picture. But setting it up for optimum performance is the key. The projector has two inherent limitations—low light output and, compared to XGA class machines in its price range, relatively low resolution. Those two factors in combination mean that this projector is not appropriate for large screen use. We found the ideal image size to be 5.5 feet in width. We could take it to 6 feet without too much degradation, but a 7 foot wide image compromised the integrity of the picture as compared to the one we saw at 5.5 feet.

If we were to use the HE-3200 for our dedicated home theater, the screen size would be 5.5 feet (76" diagonal, 16:9), and the projector would be either table or (preferably) ceiling mounted at a throw distance of 9.0 feet. Seating would be placed at 11 feet, or 2.0 times the screen width to achieve optimum image integrity. Given this set-up, the Piano delivers a beautiful high-contrast picture that is larger and much higher in quality than a big-screen TV, but not quite the full-scale enveloping widescreen panorama that you can achieve with brighter, higher resolution projectors. It is ideal for small rooms in which ambient light can be eliminated. And keep in mind that a tiny ceiling-mounted projector like this one combined with a screen on the wall takes up NO floorspace—a big advantage as compared to the imposing physical bulk of a big-screen TV.

Overall image quality. We happened to catch the speedway scenes in Driven on HDTV, and the image resolution and stability were absolutely rock solid. Unbelievably so, actually. The Piano handled the motion and detail as well as any $10,000 high resolution machine. We used to believe that 480 lines of physical display was not enough to render a compressed 1080i signal with any degree of integrity. The Piano demonstrates that we were wrong. A good HDTV signal makes the Piano look like a true high resolution projector.

DVD also looks extremely good. The image has a refined elegance that is a pleasure to watch. In terms of scaling, deinterlacing, black level, and contrast there is nothing at all to complain about. Color saturation is also just about perfect, which is rare for a DLP-based product in this price range.

So. Is there anything at all wrong with the picture? The only significant flaw we found was the projector's ability to render an accurate red. Any subject matter that should have appeared as saturated red had a noticeable orange bias on the HE-3200. We see this in many projectors, and it is a particularly common problem in DLPs. Nevertheless, when comparing the Piano to other DLP products we have in house, the orange bias was a bit more pronounced than is typical for this class of product in general. We don't mean to say that the picture has an orange tint or cast; it certainly does not. The error is something you won't be aware of until you see something in the image that your brain already knows from experience is saturated RED, like a stop sign or the stripes in the American flag. These elements will have an orangish bias that we would prefer was not there.

Overall, PLUS has done truly amazing things with this projector. It is a great product compared to many others being used for home theater these days. We watched Immortal Beloved on it last night, and it was a pure joy. The color inaccuracy in the red channel is the only thing that keeps us from giving the HE-3200 an enthusiastic unqualified recommendation. But if you are looking for striking high resolution performance at a low resolution price, don't want too large an image, and can overlook a bit of color imperfection in exchange for all of the other dynamics the Piano offers, this may be the perfect solution for you.

Pricing and Distribution

The HE-3200 is priced at $3,299 (as of this review date). Unlike many projectors which are discounted significantly below their list prices, this one will not be. It is in limited distribution, which means that a limited number of dealers each have exclusive territories, and thus do not compete with one another. So don't expect them to discount. On the other hand, the $3,299 retail price is a great value for the money even if it is not discounted. You can find the dealer assigned to your area on PLUS' Web site (www.plushometheater.com).

The Piano HE-3200 vs. the Epson TW100

If you are budgeting in the $3000 to $4000 range, you may want to consider the Epson TW100 as well. The TW100 doesn't have quite the contrast performance that the Piano does, but it is much higher in resolution, quite a bit brighter, and has an edge in color accuracy. So if you are looking for something to fill a larger screen than the Piano can comfortably handle, we recommend the TW100 as an alternative (see TW100 review). The Epson is in open distribution, so it is being discounted heavily on the street from its suggested retail price.