Where Are the 4K Home Theater Projectors?
While 4K TVs proliferate, 4K projectors lag behind.
This opulent home theater, featuring a Meridian 810 4K projector, was designed by First Impressions Theme Theaters and installed by ISI Automation International.
August 14, 2013 by Grant Clauser

“New advances in projection technology take years to bring to market, so it’s very natural for integrators and enthusiasts alike to respond to new offerings,” offers Digital Projection Inc.‘s Michael Bridwell. However, new technology takes time and money, and projector makers aren’t moving as quickly as TV makers—partly because most projector manufacturers don’t produce the core technology themselves.

“It’s cost prohibitive to develop that kind of technology in-house,” says Ken Forsythe of Meridian. In fact, that $225,00 Meridian projector, first introduced in 2008, uses D-ILA technology developed by JVC for commercial and industrial uses, not for home theater. JVC’s own implementation is used in flight simulators, not for showing Hollywood films. When Meridian partnered with JVC to produce a home theater projector, they brought in video processing company Marvel to produce a custom scaling engine as well. That system divides the image into quarters and then seamlessly meshes them together, with four DVI inputs connecting the scaler to the projector.

Like the Meridian system, the SIM2 offering also comes from technology developed for large commercial venues. SIM2’s $160,000 4K projector is manufactured by Christie and uses Texas Instruments’ DMDs designed for commercial cinemas. Of the three 4K projectors, only the Sony uses imaging chips that the company makes itself. All the other companies are at the mercy of their suppliers—and those suppliers aren’t particularly interested in putting the money into developing home 4K systems.

SIM2’s CINEMAQUATTRO 4K projector uses DLP technology developed for commercial digital cinema houses.

The other part of the picture is the size of the market. “While 4K certainly has buzz, it is not the demand that we are truly seeing in the market this quarter,” notes Texas Instruments’ communications manager for DLP Kateri Gemperle in an email statement. It’s not that they can’t make a consumer 4K solution. They just won’t, at least for now, because they don’t think they’ll sell enough of them to warrant the investment. “DLP technology has absolutely no barriers to doing 4K resolution and beyond,” continued her reply.

While there certainly are lots of projection-based home theaters being built in the U.S., the potential market isn’t nearly as large as the flat-panel TV market. In fact, several manufacturers and custom home integrators acknowledge that the dedicated home theater room is in decline and being replaced by multipurpose media rooms where a flat-panel TV may perform better.

Runco, which produces DLP-based home theater projectors, sees the flat-panel solution as more suited to what it calls “flex theaters.” These are the living rooms, media rooms, family rooms, etc., where light-challenged projectors aren’t ideal. “The relative affordability, ease of design and installation of our UltraRes [4K flat panel] series (although they are certainly big) makes them very appropriate for media rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, and office installations,” observes Runco’s Jennifer Davis. “The response has been very positive from our Runco dealers to this new lineup, and as the offering expands, so will the opportunities for clients to experience great 4K in their homes.”

What’s 4K Good For?

Are 4K projectors only for the biggest, most expensive home theaters? At the moment, it seems that way.

“Our position is that 4K is where home theater is going, because you want to get the clearest picture on the largest screens,” says Andre Floyd of Sony. Sony is unique in that the company had already developed its own 4K projection system for professional digital cinemas and also is in the movie creation business, so they have an edge on more than one front.

Both the SIM2 and the Meridian projectors, based on systems designed for very large venues, are not for the average basement home theater. “The pixel density allows us to project on a 28-foot-wide screen, so you can stand within three inches and not see a pixel,” says Meridian’s Forsythe. That’s a far cry from the 120-inch projection screens that make up most of the home theater market. SIM2’s Alberto Fabiano says that their projector is designed primarily for screens 20 feet and wider. Sizes like that not only require extra pixels; they require extremely powerful light outputs—and high brightness can be costly.

Sony’s Floyd notes that while the company’s 84-inch 4K LED LCD TVs are something wonderful, it’s impractical to build a television of the size desired for a dedicated home theater. “Projectors are a natural for something beyond 84 inches.”

Sony’s first VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector was introduced at $25,000.

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Grant Clauser - Technology and Web Editor, Electronic House
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 training from THX, the Home Acoustics Alliance, Control4 and Sencore. His latest book is Necessary Myths. Follow him on Twitter @geclauser.

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