September 13, 2012
| by Grant Clauser
People who like to watch big screens in custom-designed rooms know that projectors deliver a much better movie experience than even a large flat-panel TV. The place to learn about the newest projectors is the CEDIA Expo, and this year again there were plenty of them.
The crop of new projectors looks good for anyone who plans to outfit a media room with an envy-making picture. However, if you’re looking for major trends in the projector market, you may need to wait until next year. Before I get into what was there, I’ll share what wasn’t:
4K was big news last year because Sony introduced the word’s first (and only) true 4K resolution home theater projector. Did Sony come out with a new projector to blow that one out of the water? Nope. It came out with a new 1080p projector. A nice one, for sure, but nothing unusual about it.
Did other companies step up to 4K this year? Yes, one. SIM2 partnered with Christie for a 4K projector (more later), but it doesn’t wear the distinctive SIM2 race car style. JVC added more modes to its line of e-eshift projectors and improved the optics as well.
So does the stark shortage of 4K mean most makers don’t believe that 4K is worth the effort? Maybe, but more likely it means that the triple play of price, awareness and return hasn’t been achieved yet. To make a 4K projector, you need 4K resolution imaging chips. For DLP, that means Texas Instruments needs to produce DMDs at a reasonable quantify to make them worth putting in something people will buy. The same goes for LCD, LCoS and SXRD. You also need enough consumer awareness to push them to market, and I’m going to guess that the projector makers are waiting for the flat panel TV makers to create that awareness for them. So what about the return—what does 4K bring to the big screen experience that 1080p doesn’t? That’s a debate which can’t properly happen until we have both more 4K products and at least some 4K material. Until then, the benefit is all about fill ratio, seating distance and pixel envy.
Another thing I was expecting was a greater variety of 2:35:1 aspect ratio solutions. All the home theater screen companies offer the ultra-wide screens, and most have masking options, but making the screen shape-shifting easy has been a challenge. Last year Digital Projection released a projector with a DMD chip that natively supported full HD resolution for Cinemascope. It’s an awesome projector, but costly (though you save by not needing an additional anamorphic lens and lens sled. A year later, that product remains the only one of its kind.
So what was big this year? LED, for one thing. LED’s have already taken over the LCD TV business, and they seem destined to replace traditional lamps in home theater projectors. That might not happen right away though. LED-based projectors are still significantly more expensive than they’re xenon lamp counterparts, and their brightness also doesn’t yet match up.
Speaking of brightness, it’s amazing what powerful headlights today’s projectors are. Brighter was a big part of the message among many projector announcements. Along with that went the darker trend—as in better black level. The idea is to get the best of both worlds: a bright picture in a media room with the lights on, while still achieving inky blacks on the screen.
All this ranting shouldn’t suggest that there aren’t great new projectors about to hit the home cinema market. There are, and the ones I experienced in Indianapolis last week were impressive, just not paradigm changing. What I found were small, but welcome improvements in picture quality, lamp life and features.
And finally, despite most of the public’s shrug, we’ve entered the era of ubiquitous 3D. There were zero non-3D projectors to be seen, even among the sub $2,000 models shown. It’s safe to assume that 3D is a given on any new projector that isn’t designed for a boardroom or fits in a pocket. Whether the home theater enthusiast public cares much is another matter. It’s kind of like keystone correction. It’s a feature that every projector has, but might be better left alone.
Here’s an overview of the most notable new home theater projectors (the brightness and contrast specs were provided by the manufacturers and may not reflect the real-world calibrated results on your screen).
Grant Clauser has been covering home electronics for more than 10 years with editorial roles in several consumer and trade magazines. He's done ISF-level damage to hundreds of reviewed products and has had audio training from Home Acoustics Alliance and Sencore. He's also the author of the book The Trouble with Rivers
. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.