The Samsung SP-A800B was initially announced over a year ago at the CEDIA trade show in September, 2007. However, it did not commence shipments until last spring, and we did not get a review sample until three weeks ago. Normally we would not review a projector this late in its product life, but the SP-A800B is not just any projector. It was produced out of a collaboration between Samsung and Joe Kane, perhaps the best known video technology consultant in the business. Mr. Kane has a reputation for the pursuit of video perfection. Products designed under his influence tend to have a purity and elegance that competing products can't quite match. The SP-A800B is no exception.
To the extent that there are limitations in the SP-A800B's performance capabilities, and indeed there are some, they are related to the limitations of the underlying single-chip DLP technology itself, and not to the implementation. At its current price of $9,995, the SP-A800B does not offer the best overall value proposition in the current home theater projector market. However, this is not due to design flaws in the SP-A800B, but rather to the striking competitive advances in LCD contrast and black level performance that have come to market this fall. Had we reviewed the SP-A800B last spring its price tag would not have been viewed as quite as much of a liability. The SP-A800B is a solid projector in a fast moving, highly competitive industry.
ANSI lumens: 1000
Contrast (full on/off): 10,000:1
Light Engine: 1920x1080, native 16:9, DarkChip2 single-chip DLP, 6 segment, 5x speed color wheel.
Video Compatibility: 1080p/24/50/60, 1080i, 720p, 576p, 576i, 480p, 480i. NTSC/PAL/SECAM.
Connection Panel: Two HDMI 1.3 ports, one 15-pin VGA input, two sets of 3-RCA component video, one composite video, one S-video, one 9-pin D-sub serial (RS-232c).
Lens and Throw Distance: 1.25:1 manual zoom/focus lens, with manual vertical lens shift. Throws a 100" diagonal 16:9 image from 12.5 to 16.25 feet.
Lamp Life: 2000.
Replacement Lamp Cost: $499 MSRP; street may be lower
Warranty: Two years on the projector, 6 mos./600 hours on the lamp.
The Samsung SP-A800B
Features and Advantages
Color gamut. No 1080p projector that we've tested can match the wide color gamut of the SP-A800B. The ability to match and reproduce colors according to HD color specifications is a key strength of this projector, and in this respect it outperforms every other home theater projector we've seen under $10,000. We'd suspect it beats many projectors well above this price point as well.
Natural color. Related to the wide color gamut is the ability to deliver natural, realistic color, with a particularly impressive capability to define subtle differences in flesh tones. Competing units can come close to matching the SP-A800B's color accuracy, but none will exceed it.
Lumen output. The SP-A800B puts out a very bright picture in video optimized modes of operation. In Movie 1, which is optimized for color film and vido display, we measured 568 lumens. This is much brighter than many home theater projectors when they are calibrated to optimum color performance. In Movie 2, which is warmer toned for black/white films, it measured a bit higher--600 lumens.
On most projectors, Dynamic mode boosts lumen output at the sacrifice of color, but not on this one. Dynamic measured a bit lower at 520 lumens, and it did so at the cost of color accuracy. Thus, there is not a super-high lumen output mode for ambient light conditions as there is on some competing models. The SP-A800B was made for great dark room theater viewing.
The SP-A800B has a low lamp mode that reduces lumen output by 20%. It also has a relatively short 1.25x zoom lens which can have a minor impact on brightness--at the telephoto end of the zoom lens, brightness is curtailed by 8% from the widest angle setting.
Samsung SP-A800B Connection Panel
Sharpness. The SP-A800B has excellent optics. Viewed up close, the pixel structure on this unit is as well-defined as it gets, probably better than any DLP product we've seen. However, despite the outstanding optics, the projector has less than state-of-the-art contrast, as well as a subtle graininess in the image. These factors tend to compromise the impression of image sharpness (more on this below). The bottom line is that while the optical precision of the lens on the SP-A800B exceeds that of the lenses found on competing 1080p models such as the Sony VPL-HW10 and the Panasonic AE3000, the overall impression of image sharpness is comparable on all three models.
Brightness uniformity. Screen illumination is impressively even. On our test unit, there was no variation in brightness from top to bottom. Horizontally, the left side of the image was less bright than the center of the image by about 5%, and the right side was brighter than the center by about 5%. These subtle changes in brightness can only be detected with a light meter. When one looks at a solid white or gray field, illumination looks perfectly even with no trace of hotspotting.
Movie 2 Mode for B/W. Classic black and white films are best viewed at a warmer color temperature than we use for color films. In your home theater, you've got to see Casino Royale or Batman at 6500 degrees. But when Casablanca is displayed on a projector calibrated to the color standard 6500, it looks cold and uninviting, and certainly not as attractive as it does with a warmer color temperature. One of the common oversights of home theater projector manufacturers is the failure to include a precalibrated operating closer to 5500 degrees, which can be easily selected when black and white films are being viewed. This imparts a warmer tone to the image, and makes the viewing of B/W classics a much more satisfying experience. In addition, most projection light sources in commercial theaters back in the 1940s are thought to have been warmer than they are today. So the viewing of a B/W film at 5500 degrees replicates the look that audiences actually experienced back then. The SP-A800B's Movie 2 mode, calibrated to 5500 degrees, reflects Mr. Kane's sensitivity to this issue.
User Interface. The menu design is elegant and easy to use, and the remote control feels good in the hand and is easy to manipulate once you've had some time getting used to it. The projector responds to the remote bounced from the screen at a distance of at least 20 feet.
Though it is effective, the remote control is not one of our favorites. Buttons are spaced apart, which is good. However, they are small and the text on the buttons may be difficult to see in the dark for some users. There is backlighting, but it can only be activated by a small backlight button, which happens to be right next to the Power Off button. Once you get the hang of it, you can distinguish between the two in the dark. It's not bad, but we've seen more user friendly remotes.
Contrast. Contrast and black levels are good on the SP-A800B, but not as good as we currently see on the competing 1080p models that have just been released. ANSI contrast on our test unit measured 369:1, which is modest compared to other DLP projectors we've seen this past year. The LCD and LCOS projectors that have appeared this fall are producing higher ANSI contrast as well (Panasonic AE3000, 443:1, the Sony HW10, 416:1, and the Mitsubishi HC7000, 409:1). To be sure, ANSI contrast stats don't tell the whole story, but the fact is that each of these 1080p projectors achieve visibly deeper blacks and higher contrast when viewed side by side with the SP-A800B. This is one of the limitations of the older DarkChip2 DLP technology used in this projector. Most DLP projectors currently on the market are using DarkChip3 or DarkChip4, which generate higher contrast potential.
Clarity and three-dimensionality. As noted above, despite the sharpness of the lens, the overall impression of clarity is compromised by a subtle patina of noise in the image that looks like a slight grainy texture. This is not particularly noticeable when viewing the projector on its own. However, when one sets up one of the new LCD projectors side by side, the incremental clarity and three-dimensionality of their images is striking. The reason is two-fold: the new LCD products that we've seen thus far do not have the same graininess, and they are higher in contrast. These factors in combination make them appear clearer, smoother, and more three-dimensional.
Lack of frame interpolation. Several of the new 1080p models coming to market this fall have onboard frame interpolation, including the Epson Cinema Pro 7500, the Panasonic AE3000, and the Sanyo PLV-Z3000. The SP-A800B does not have it. Frame interpolation is the ability to evaluate the motion that occurs between two sequential frames of video or film, and to create one or more interim frames that are then inserted between the two real frames. This procedure tends to eliminate the judder and strobing one sees when the film camera is panning across a scene. These artifacts are most evident when a 24 fps movie encoded on Blu-ray is played back via 24p transmission. When 2:3 pulldown is used to convert the Blu-ray 24p source to 60p, the motion judder is reduced. However, there is still some judder related to the pulldown conversion. There is also a softening or blurring of the image while panning, which can be perceived as beneficial since it masks the judder. In any event, frame interpolation largely eliminates these artifacts and renders panning scenes smooth and clear.
This technique is controversial. Many videophiles believe the natural judder in film, which derives from the fact that the sampling rate of 24 frames per second is too slow to resolve camera panning motion, should not be tampered with because it is a natural byproduct of film. We could not disagree more. Judder is an annoying artifact, whether it is "filmlike" or not. And contrary to expectations, it is more distracting in 24p playback than it is in 60p. Ultimately, the way to get rid of motion judder is to film movies at 60 fps, which is coming in the future. In the meantime, frame interpolation techniques are an effective way to generate a reasonable approximation of what a 24 fps film would have looked like had it been captured at 60 fps.
Since several 1080p models coming to market this fall have frame interpolation on board, it constitutes a new innovation in projector design that many home theater projectors, including the SP-A800B, do not have. Many videophiles won't want it, and for them it is a non-issue. For those that do want it, users of the SP-A800B can acquire an external video processor that has this capability if it is desired.
When it comes to color accuracy and gray scale tracking, the Samsung SP-A800B does as well as any projector we've ever seen. It delivers a beautiful, natural picture that is exceptionally engaging. Joe Kane's attention to detail here is evident, as few projectors rival the SP-A800B's color accuracy and smoothness of gray scale. For any buyer who is concerned primarily with the highest level of precision in color accuracy, this projector should be at the top of the list.
Contrast and black levels are good, but competing units exceed the SP-A800B in this regard. The picture is quite sharp due to outstanding optics, but ironically not quite as clear and three-dimensional as some of the competition. This is due in part to the graininess in the image that is not as evident in the new LCD and LCOS projectors, and in part to somewhat lower contrast.
The competitive weaknesses in the SP-A800B are related to the underlying DLP technology. If we had reviewed this projector earlier this year it would have stood out as a stronger unit compared to most other 1080p projectors in the field at that time. But in light of the remarkable competitive revelations of the last two months, we are left wondering what marvel in home theater excellence could be produced by the resources of Samsung and the talent of Joe Kane if they were to collaborate on a projector built around a DarkChip4, or one of the latest LCD light engines.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Samsung SP-A800B projector page.