Home Theater Projectors Fit Most Budgets and Rooms
There are some great values and nifty features to be had, from 3D to 4K to LED, no matter how much you're willing to spend.
January 24, 2012 by Steven Castle

READY TO GRADUATE from that 50-inch flat panel to something larger? If you want to go really big in a media room, family room or home theater, the answer is usually a video projector.

“When you talk about a 120-inch screen, there’s nothing quite like that movie experience,” says Jason Palmer, product manager of Epson America, the biggest seller of video projectors. “As projectors get brighter and more accessible, there’s really just nothing like the size differences.”

You don’t have to be rich to have 90,100,120 inches or more of immersive video. Sure, projectors costing just a few hundred dollars have been around for years. But now it’s possible to view great video from “entry-level” video projectors.

To define entry-level, we’re starting at 1080p HD resolution, which will still cost about a thousand bucks or more. Spend a few thousand more, and you can generally get better video processing, higher contrast and features like lens shift and 3D functionality. Step up to the big-spender category, and you can enjoy videophile-grade picture quality with great colors, deep blacks, and the kind of robust processing that might make you forget how much you paid for that sucker.

And guess what? Some features might not get “better” as you go up, up, up in price. Take brightness, which is expressed in lumens or ANSI lumens. Some lower-cost projectors are brighter, meaning they emit more lumens, than their “higher-quality” brethren. This is because they are intended for use in spaces that have more ambient lighting, like a family room, and therefore need to be bright in order to be seen. Some higher-end home theater projectors that are used only in dark, dedicated rooms don’t have to be as bright.

So don’t just shop numbers and specs. Select the features you need, whether it’s brightness, a superior picture with deep black levels, installation flexibility or something else, and buy the projector that fits those requirements.

Good Projectors: $1,000 to $3,000

Stuck with basics here? Not at all. Some “entry level” projectors of about $1,000 to $3,000 can get you features like 1080p resolution, decent video processing, and even “step-up” features like 3D capability and lens shift, which gives you the flexibility of placing the projector where it fits best and adjusting the lens horizontally and vertically to compensate.

You’re likely shopping for brightness here, so seek a projector with about 2,000 lumens or greater to battle ambient light. “Two thousand lumens at this point can get you a pretty good high-quality, high-contrast projector,” says Epson’s Palmer.

At this price point, you’re looking at an LCD (actually 3LCD) or single-chip DLP projector. LCDs tend to have wider ranges on zoom lenses and more lens shift options for placement flexibility. LCDs are also a good choice for rooms with high levels of ambient light. They also draw less power than other types of projectors, though many still prefer the higher contrast and better blacks of DLP projectors.
Innovations in both LCD and DLP technologies have come a long way, and there are plenty more feature-rich developments among entry-level projectors. Epson’s new line of 3D-capable LCD projectors, starting with the $1,600 PowerLite Home Cinema 3010, for example, feature a 480Hz Bright 3D Drive technology that mitigates crosstalk (when the left and right images required for 3D overlap) while eliminating the usual dimming that results when images are produced in 3D.

Spend $3,000, and you can get the PowerLite Home Cinema 5010, which is brighter (2,400 lumens to the 3010’s 2,200 lumens), better contrast ratio, (200,000:1 vs. 40,000:1), better processing through frame interpolation and more lens shift options.

Epson also offers split-screen capability and wireless HD options on some of its new projectors. Palmer isn’t sure we’ll see projectors themselves accessing the cloud wirelessly for apps and content. “I see some potential for that, but there are so many other components that plug into the projector that will have that capability,” he says.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

LED Revolution

Michael Bridwell of high-end projector manufacturer Digital Projection International thinks that energy-efficient and long-lasting LED lamps will change the video projector market, especially in the more value-minded entry-level segment. LEDs are already used widely in small, portable Pico projectors. And because the LED engine lasts as long as the projector, you should never have to buy expensive replacement lamps. “LED is long-term,” Bridwell says. “It will become ubiquitous on lower-end products.”

But Epson, which sells at that price point, isn’t convinced. The company has yet to introduce one of its LCD projectors with an LED lamp. The lower brightness of LEDs has restricted the use of these projectors to dark environments. The premium paid for an LED projector is another hurdle. “LED just doesn’t yet have the value for the price,” says Jason Palmer of Epson.

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