Closer Than It Looks Your Path to the Ultimate Home Theater Experience
With new ultra-short-throw and cheaper 4K projectors appearing on the market, your path to the ultimate home theater experience appears to be shrinking.
Last year in our annual front projection update (May 2017, available at soundandvision.com), we wrote about how the category wasn’t about to be left behind on the 4K, Ultra HDTV revolution. Nothing in this business stands still, of course, and we’re happy to report that “front projection’s reinvention,” as we dubbed it last year, is moving into yet another phase. Not only are 4K-compliant projectors more readily available, better performing, and in some cases much cheaper, we’re also seeing a batch of fresh ultra-short-throw home theater projectors reaching the market in 2018. So what does this mean for you if you’ve always dreamed about sitting back in front of that giant 100-inch screen? Read on to find out.
Let the Revolution Begin
Let’s start with the premise that, for now anyway, there is no viewing experience you can have with any conventionally sized and -priced flat panel that will match the impact of a large projection screen. Sitting, say, 12 feet back from a 100-inch-diagonal image ups the engagement factor, big time.
That said, it wasn’t too long ago that acquiring that big screen meant a serious commitment and willingness to deal with space
requirements, potentially complex installation, and the need to control ambient light to avoid washing out the image.
In the last couple of years, that’s started to change with the appearance of two significant front projection technologies: ambient-light-reducing (ALR) screens and ultra-short-throw (UST) projectors. The new ALR screens have been a game changer in their own right up to this point. Combined with UST projectors, though, they stand to introduce front projection and the really-big-screen experience to a whole new class of customers.
Let’s take the ALR screen first. Sound & Vision has been reporting for years on so-called “high-gain” or gray screens intended to boost contrast in modest ambient lighting or with inherently darker source material, such as projected 3D images. But their performance was marginal at best. Today’s ALR screens are another breed entirely, and they employ some sophisticated, multilayered designs to more directly eject light coming from overhead or the sides of the screen while reflecting light from the projector back to the viewer. As long as the projector has suitable brightness, some of these screens can produce a remarkably high-contrast image, even in a lit room, something impossible just a few years ago. So, ALR screens really open the opportunity for taking projection out of a dark-room home theater environment that requires controlled lighting and spreading it to multi-use spaces around the house as an alternative to the flat-panel TV. In response, projector manufacturers have been ratcheting up the light output as best they can on the latest projectors, even the more affordable budget projectors, with a few models hitting 3,000 lumens or more. To put that in perspective, until the advent of high dynamic range (HDR) content (more on that below), 1,200 lumens was generally considered more than enough to light up a 100inch-diagonal projection screen in a dark room.
There are some caveats with these screens, though. Although late-gen ALR screens are definitely appearing now at budget prices, these high-tech materials remain considerably more expensive than traditional matte screens, and the better examples of the breed can easily run $3,000 to $5,000 or more for a 100-inch-diagonal, 16:9 version.
More critically, although an ALR screen should provide a surprisingly high-contrast image when the lights are on, as well as a boost in contrast versus conventional screens when the lights are off, they may produce a pearly or sparkly quality to the image surface that could be more noticeable in dark-room viewing. So if it’s paramount for you to get a smooth, film-like picture in a darkened home theater, a conventional matte-white screen is still the best option. Keep in mind, too, that you can still keep your 65- or even 75-inch flat panel around as your day-to-day TV for lit-room viewing and let your den or family room do double duty as a darkroom projection theater with the pulling of shades and the push of a button that drops a retractable screen down in front of your everyday set.
Skip the Install
ALR screens may represent an opportunity to take front projection out into the light of your everyday living space, but the installation requirements for conventional projectors remain a serious impediment. For a 100-inch screen, most permanently installed projectors will likely utilize a ceiling mount placed at least 10 feet from the screen if not greater, which provides the necessary throw distance (depending on the projector) and a clean line of unobstructed sight that prevents viewers from casting shadows on the image every time they get up for a snack. That means hanging a projector in plain view in your living space or somehow concealing it at the back of the room, as well as snaking long cable runs through the ceiling and walls back to the signal source. It’s easy to see why so many people take the pass.
Ultra-short-throw projectors tackle this issue head on. A UST projector combines a small, typically component-like chassis that gets placed just below and only inches from the projection screen. An optimized lens allows it to cast a geometrically correct image of 100 inches or more on either a conventional screen material or an application-specific ALR screen that accepts light from below and reflects it to the viewer while rejecting it from all other angles.
It’s a simple matter to place your video sources and audio components nearby, perhaps in the same console furniture that supports the projector or in an adjacent rack, so there’s no requirement for any mounting or in-wall cable runs. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy, as some folks say.
So, what’s not to like? Well, although UST projectors have been around for the business and educational markets for a while, home theater-centric models are just starting to appear. And while the UST projector/alr screen combos we’ve tested so far have lived up reasonably well to their promise of replacing a TV for lit-room viewing, so far we’ve yet to see one that delivers the dark-room contrast and black levels of a high-performance theater projector. That includes the top of the crop, where Sony has its $25,000 VPL-VZ1000ES laser-driven 4K SXRD projector, or at the entry level where Epson has the new LS100, a lamp-driven 3LCD projector priced at $3,000 (both reviews available at soundandvision.com). In this issue, Al Griffin reviews the Hisense Laser TV, a 4K DLP projection system that retails for $10,000 and comes with its own
UST screen and offers a host of Tv-like features, including a built-in tuner. See page 58 for his results.
Still, we’re just at the beginning of this UST trend, and it’s reasonable to assume that in future generations manufacturers will get more serious about further improving image quality. One thing we’ll also be exploring in future reviews is how well these UST projectors might perform in dark-room applications with traditional white-matte screens. Given the ease of installation, a high-performance UST projector makes an attractive use-case even for a dedicated theater room with controlled light.
Most new flat-panel TVS today are Ultra HD models, and front projection is very slowly heading in the same direction. As we’ve frequently reported, the benefits of Ultra HD start with 3840 x 2160 pixel resolution, or approximately 8 million pixels of detail versus the 2 million for 1080p or “Full HD” resolution. That spec for Ultra HD comes close to the 4096 x 2160 pixel count for true digital cinema 4K—hence, the common use of both terms in describing UHD displays. The extra pixels beyond Full HD have frequently been dismissed by the pundits for displays of 75 inches or smaller, where the benefits are said to be lost unless you sit uncommonly close to the screen. On the other hand, they are most welcome for large projection screens, where they can visibly smooth diagonal and circular
edges on objects and generally provide a sharper overall image.
The more recently introduced UHD features of wide color gamut (WCG) and high dynamic range (HDR) are more obviously discernible. But while the additional color range of WCG is a shared benefit among both flat panels and projectors, the noticeably brighter highlights and deeper blacks of HDR just don’t come across with the same impact as they do on traditional TVS. Brightness has always been a challenge for projectors casting a large image, which explains why the digital projector at your local cinema is a monster that dwarfs any consumer product. But the ability to hit the high peak-brightness levels on small isolated portions of a projected image to provide the same level of enhanced viewing you get with HDR on a top-notch direct-view display has, for now anyway, not been demonstrated in any affordable consumer projector. Complicating matters is the fact that, while the industry has issued a clear technical target for what HDR should ideally look like on a flat panel, it has yet to do so for projectors. With no standard in place, projector makers have been forced to develop their own formulas for the socalled “tone-mapping” that translates the brighter highlights and darker blacks found in Hdr-mastered content to the screen. Some do it better than others, but all still seem to be feeling their way around for now.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t noticeable extra punch visible when these projectors are fed HDR content, just that the experience still falls short of the more visceral effects possible with today’s best flat panels. That shouldn’t be enough to steer you away from the quite dramatic engagement you’ll have with an enormous projection screen or to avoid seeking out a projector with HDR capabilities. But it’s something to be aware of.
Given the benefits of 4K projection with scaled-up 1080p material and native 4K content delivered by the Ultra HD Blu-ray format and video streams, you’ve got good reason to lean toward a 4K projector. Native 4K consumer projectors, which we define as those whose imaging devices deliver all the pixels of a UHD frame simultaneously, are still scarce. Until recently, Sony was alone in this market, delivering a range of models that started at $10,000 and went up to $60,000. JVC joined them last year with a $35,000 model. This year, Sony broke a new low price barrier for a native 4K model with its $5,000, VPL-VW285ES (review at soundandvision.com).
In the last year, though, several other manufacturers have introduced Dlp-driven projectors, including several under the $3,000 price point, that use pixel-shifting to bring all the pixels in a UHD frame to the screen. They use a new DLP chip that delivers the information in two sequential frames of approximately half-uhd resolution, with the pixels partially overlaid and diagonally offset from one another. The rapid sequencing of the frames allows the eye to blend them into one image. This approach officially qualifies as a UHD display under Consumer Technology Association rules, and our tests so far suggest that any difference in detail versus a true native 4K display is negligible with real program material. That said, in our admittedly limited experience to date, this DLP chip does appear to offer less native contrast than prior-generation DLP chips and would presumably need to be mated with suitable dynamic contrast-enhancing features such as an automatic iris or another method to sufficiently modulate the light source. We’ve only tested three models to date, the Benq HT9050 ($8,999), Optoma UHD65 ($2,500), and Hisense Laser TV (review this issue).
Only the latter provided reasonably acceptable dark-room contrast.
Alternatively, two manufacturers—jvc and Epson—are selling high-performance home theater projectors that accept 4K video signals (while providing WCG and HDR playback) and use similar pixel-shifting technology with 1080p chips to deliver onscreen resolution that is effectively in between 1080p and UHD. Although there’s some sacrifice in detail versus 4K projectors, the proven contrast and blacklevel performance of these projectors, coupled with the benefit of having access to native 4K content—especially on UHD Blu-rays, with their HDR- and Wcg-enhanced images— makes for a very reasonable trade-off. JVC’S projectors start at around $4,000, and late last year Epson introduced a $2,200 1080p pixel-shifter, the Home Cinema 4000 (review at soundandvision.com).
If a basic 1080p projector is all you need or can afford for now, you can find acceptable performance below that $2,200 price point, and for as little as $600. The $1,200 to $1,500 range is a particularly ripe sweet spot for projectors with quite excellent color, reasonably high light output, and average to above-average contrast. They are much improved over their predecessors in that price class of just a couple of years ago.
Pick Your Pic
There are three major display technologies used in today’s consumer projectors: the aforementioned Digital Light Projection (DLP), liquid-crystal display (LCD), and liquid crystal on silicon (LCOS). DLP uses pixel-sized micromirrors arrayed on dedicated micromirror chips (called Digital Micromirror Devices, or DMDS). The micromirrors reflect light toward the screen and oscillate at different speeds to brighten or darken the image. Most DLP projectors employ a single DMD together with a translucent color wheel that spins around to create the red, green, and blue primaries required for a full-color image.
Some DLP projectors employ three DMDS, one for each color, and dispense with the color wheel, but they tend to be very expensive. Optoma, Benq, and Viewsonic are among the popular projector manufacturers that typically employ single-chip DLP technology.
LCD projectors shine a light source through translucent liquid-crystal panels whose pixels can be individually opened or shut down to modulate the brightness. Of course, this is the same technology used in the vast majority of flat-panel TVS today. LCD projectors typically employ separate red, green, and blue LCD panels for the primary colors, hence the “3LCD” branding used by Epson, this technology’s chief proponent.
LCOS display devices are similar to LCD panels, but they have a reflective backing: Light comes in through the front, hits the reflector, bounces back through the LCOS device a second time, and is then directed through the lens and out toward the screen. JVC’S D-ILA (Direct-drive Image Light Amplifier) and
Sony’s SXRD (Silicon X-tal Reflective Display) are variants of LCOS.
Naturally, certain characteristics are attendant to each of these three display technologies.
But with careful selection, you’ll find highperforming and high-value projectors from all of them. Here are a few features and performance parameters to keep in mind as you shop:
Brightness. Projector brightness is usually spec’d in lumens. However, there’s no firm standard for making this measurement that all manufacturers adhere to, so it’s best to use this spec only as a general guideline or for gauging
the output of one projector versus another in the same manufacturer’s lineup. As mentioned, anything over 1,200 lumens will usually be enough to achieve adequate brightness on a 100-inch screen in a fully darkened room, but for high-ambient-light conditions, additional light output and/or an ALR screen might be required. Given the trend toward HDR among 4K-compliant projectors, more brightness is better—though in these projectors or any others, it ideally shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of contrast.
Contrast and black level. The ability to deliver something close to true black is as critical for image quality with projectors as with flat-panel displays. While high brightness can be had in many budget projectors, getting high output with good contrast is more challenging. Better projectors start with imaging devices that have a low native black level, then add a dynamic iris or other technique to modulate brightness on dark scenes to improve contrast. Lcos-based projectors have traditionally delivered the best blacks and have made them a favorite among serious enthusiasts, including the reviewing staff at Sound & Vision, but excellent contrast can be had with well-engineered, premium LCD and DLP projectors, too.
4K content playback. We’ve already covered the difference between true native 4K, pixel-shifted 4K, and the pixel-shifted 1080p projectors. All of these options provide the significant benefit of viewing 4K source material with higher resolution, wide color, and HDR, particularly from UHD Blu-rays.
Low fan noise. In many home setups where the projector gets mounted near the seating, it’s critical for the projector to have a sufficiently quiet cooling fan that won’t interfere with viewing. Our reviews point out when a fan is unusually noisy. Laser- and LED- versus lamp-based light
engines. Laser- and Led-driven light engines found now in some premium projectors have the benefit of not requiring the regular replacement of expensive lamps, which naturally lose brightness and shift their color profile as they age. And these projectors aren’t susceptible to damage from rapid or unexpected power cycles, the way lamp-based projectors are. Consider the rated lamp life of any lamp-based projector, and if you’re serious about always getting the best performance from your projector, be prepared to recalibrate periodically and replace the lamp prior to its rated half-life. (Half-life is the point at which the lamp’s output is expected to drop to half of its brightness when new, and it depends on how you use the projector—for example, the lamp brightness setting you select.)
Lens and setup options. In permanent installations, setup is something you do once, so the lack of remote-operated, motorized controls for lens shift, zoom, and focus shouldn’t be a deal breaker. But you’ll find this convenience in better projectors, along with lens memories that allow you, for example, to change from a 16:9 image to a widescreen 2.35:1 image with the push of a button. More critical, though, will be the potential lack in budget projectors of lens shift controls, or the burden of an overly restrictive zoom range. Make sure the projector you buy will fit your space and mounting requirements.
Some people think it’s OK to use a bare wall with white, off-white, or specialized screen paint for a home theater screen. Some projectors—usually cheap ones built on a biz-projector platform—even have menu adjustments to change the color temperature to correct for different colored walls!
You’re best off with a real projection screen. These will be designed to reflect back at 1.0 unity gain (or perhaps be more reflective as the situation requires), to optimize contrast, and to provide a smooth, uniform, ripple-free surface that evenly distributes brightness and color. High-quality matte-white screens around
100 inches diagonal that live up to those criteria are available today for perhaps $200 to $300 from manufacturers like Elite Screens, Visualapex (Vapex), and Silver Ticket.
That isn’t to say you can’t find good reason to spend more on a screen. The price range cited above is for fixed-frame screens that hang on a wall, typically stretched on a black-felt frame that creates a light-absorbing border around the edge. But if your application requires that your screen be hidden until you need it, a manual or motorized retractable screen can provide a stealth installation—and also protect the screen from damage in a multipurpose room. Retractable screens come in surface or flushmounted casings, and in tensioned (generally recommended) and non-tensioned versions. Such screens are typically more expensive and may require professional help for proper installation.
Should you need it, there are screens made from acoustically transparent materials that you can hide your speakers behind. And if you require use in high ambient light, there are those ALR screens discussed earlier. Note that some are stiff panels rather than roll-up screens, and they come in a variety of gains and styles, including a bordered or edgeless look.
Get the Big Picture
There’s no doubt that 2017 was an interesting year for the evolution of front projection, one that saw the introduction of more and less expensive UHD models and the emergence of a new category of product in the easy-toinstall ultra-short-throw projectors. With any luck, 2018 will bring more of the same and further smooth the path to front projection for everyone who’s ever dreamed about it. Stay tuned...
Thanks to DLP’S affordable new 4K imaging device, full-resolution 4K projectors are turning up below $3,000—with Optoma’s UHD65 ($2,500) among them.
True native 4K projectors, which can display all the pixels in a UHD signal at once with no need for pixel-shifting, remain rare in the consumer market. Sony’s VPL-VW285ES ($5,000) broke a new low price for the category.
LG’S recently announced 4K ultra-short-throw projector, the HU80K, has an upright design that allows it to project images from the floor, mounted on a wall, or hanging from the ceiling.
Some affordable projectors, such as the Epson Home Cinema 4000 LCD projector ($2,200, at right and below), accept 4K HDR signals but use 1080p imaging devices with pixel-shifting to enhance resolution.
High-tech ambient-light-rejecting (ALR) screens have brought front projection into the living room, but enhance contrast in home theaters as well. Shown is the Seymour Screen Excellence Ambient-visionaire Black 1.2.
Ultra-short-throw projectors mated with ambient-light-rejecting screens, such as the Sony VPL-VZ1000ES shown here ($25,000), are now an alternative to costly, megasized flat-panel TVS.
Texas Instruments’ new DLP chip uses pixelshifting to flash up two half-frames of 4K video and achieve full UHD resolution.