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.

4K TVs (Ultra HD TVs) are the kinda/sorta big thing this year. Every major TV manufacturer has new Ultra HD models either already on the market or coming in the near future. Sony is already selling a 4K video server (for $699), Netflix is prepping a 4K streaming service, REDRAY offers a download service, and there appears to be much more like that on the way. With so much activity in the development of 4K, there’s still one large hole in the marketplace.

Where are all the 4K home theater projectors?

If you walk into a well-supplied audio/video store, you’re very likely to see at least one, if not several, 4K TVs. LG and Sony led the 4K flat-panel TV assault early on by introducing the first products, but Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba and several others have also joined the fray. Unfortunately, those TVs max out at 84/85 inches (measured diagonally). What if you want a really big picture? A projector is the natural choice. That said, if you’re looking for a 4K projector, your selection is seriously limited.

Currently, there are only a few true 4K projectors marketed toward the home theater customer — and all but one cost over $100,000. That lineup includes the $225,000 Meridian 810 Reference Video System, the $160,000 SIM2 CINEMAQUATTRO 4K, ICE Cinema’s $160,000 DP4K-ICE (optimized from a commercial Barco Digital Cinema projector) and Sony’s $25,000 VPL-VW1000ES. Both the Meridian and Sony use LCOS light engines, while the SIM2 and ICE use Texas Instruments’ DLP technology. There some other examples, but like the SIM2 and Meridian, they’re commercial cinema products that have been optimized for home theater, and mostly they’re one-at-time products.

First introduced in 2008, Meridian’s 810 Reference Video System currently sells for $225,000.

There are companies offering 4K resolution flat-panel TVs for around $1,000. Yet to get 4K on a screen over 85 inches, you need to decide between sending your kids to college versus building your home theater dream system. At a time when really stellar 1080p projector performance can be had for about $2,500 (and entry-level HD projectors cost $700), it seems odd that the market isn’t swarming with 4K projectors. So why aren’t there more?

Well, it’s complicated.

“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.

There also seems to be a middle ground between the traditional 1080p projectors and the current 4K projectors, and that’s JVC’s e-Shift (currently in version e-Shift2). e-Shift is a technology that applies video processing to JVC’s 1080p D-ILA projectors to fill in the extra space and create 4K resolution on the screen. It’s not quite real 4K because the image chips themselves are only 1080p, but the screen resolution and pixel density resulting is 4K. “Our approach was to offer the best performance possible with what was readily available for consumers to enjoy, says JVC’s John Havens. JVC projectors with e-Shift are priced from $5,000 to $12,000. (Read a review of a JVC e-Shift projector here.)

JVC’s DLA-X75R 4K e-shift2 D-ILA Projector.

While most homes, even large ones, aren’t going to order 20-foot screens, 4K on a smaller screen still has some benefit. The main benefit is that it allows the designer to break the standard seating distance rules. “The pixel density is so great, you can sit a lot closer,” says Forsythe.

Are 4K Flat-Panel TVs Confusing the Market?

When I asked SIM2′s Fabiano if the market race toward cheaper 4K flat-panel TVs was confusing the consumer, he responded unequivocally: “Absolutely.”

“Everybody is searching for the key word so they can keep their shareholders happy. We don’t have to make anybody happy but our customer,” he adds (SIM2 is privately owned). “3D was another one of those key words,” he says, suggesting that consumers didn’t go for that either.

Is content the problem?

Short answer: Yes, but…

Many of the projector makers I contacted told me that the lack of content was a big part of the reason there’s no major push for 4K home projectors. Why make a product when there’s nothing to show through it?

“Based on the content we have available today and for the foreseeable future, there’s really no need [for the average theater] to have a 4K pixel density,” says SIM2’s Fabiano. “When you force a projector to display anything else — the processor has to fill those 8 million pixels — it’s manufacturing a resolution that doesn’t exist in the content.”

Content may be an excuse for some projector manufacturers, but it certainly isn’t holding back LG, Toshiba, Samsung, Sony, Sharp, Seiki and other makers form offering 4K televisions.

While part of the content problem is the delivery method (disc, download, stream), a universal format is still outstanding. The resolution of today’s flat-panel TVs (3840-by-2160) is different from the 4K digital cinema format used by movie studios, commercial theaters and the small selection of 4K projectors (4096-by-2400 or 4096-by-2160). Bridging these differences requires scaling, processing, masking and other technical challenges not yet solved. While there are a handful of 4K movies available for owners of Sony 4K TVs (the Sony 4K video server only works with Sony 4K TVs), that’s hardly a universal solution. “[Professional] 4K content is not easily translated into a home theater viewing experience,” says JVC’s Havens. “Once it becomes seamless to the consumer, it will be an easy transition.” However, that time hasn’t come yet. “When the time comes that a [4K] standard is developed, we’ll be at the forefront,” he says. “Right now, we feel we bring to the table a very good solution for getting toward a 4K experience in the home theater.”

Even current 4K flat panel TVs, which use HDMI 1.4, can’t pass through a 4K signal at 60 frames per second (which is necessary if we want 3D 4K) or 10-bit color.

Sony’s FMP-X1 4K Movie Server only works with Sony’s 4K TVs.

Until there’s a seamless system for viewing 4K content on 4K projectors (or 4K TVs, for that matter), video processing is key. “The ability to make HD content look better on a 4K device is very important,” says Sony’s Floyd. (For more on 4K video processing go here.)

Are More 4K Projectors Coming?

Yes. No. Maybe.

I received no comment from any makers of LCD projectors, so the assumption is that 4K LCD projectors are not in our near future.

Texas Instruments would not commit to any 4K future. In fact, none of the DLP projector makers I talked to said they had plans to offer consumer 4K products soon (aside from the one SIM2/Christie product), though one manufacturer said that Texas Instruments’ forecast to them put 4K projectors at least another two years down the road.

JVC, which makes their own LCOS projectors as well as supplies LCOS light engines to several other manufacturers, told me not to expect any surprises at this year’s CEDIA Expo. UPDATE: JVC’s David Walton sent a follow-up statement saying CEDIA attendees will be “pleasantly surprised with what JVC will be showing in the area of 4K projection.”

More than one manufacturer told me that they would offer more and/or cheaper 4K projectors if their technology partners who make the image chips offered such an option, so the ball is in someone else’s court.

That leaves Sony. When asked what Sony’s 4K projector lineup down the road would look like, Floyd responded, “I would definitely come to CEDIA.” When I asked if 4K projector prices will be coming down soon, he paused for a minute, then offered an intriguing, “I don’t think it will be very long.”

Until Then?

So what does the home theater enthusiast do in the meantime? You’ve been hearing about 4K flat-panel TVs for more than a year. You see several models in audio/video showrooms and are told that 4K is an important new feature, but you want a theater, something with a screen over 100 inches wide. What do you do?

“Users should look for the best product for the application,” says SIM2′s Fabiano. Is resolution the most important factor? Many home theater professionals will likely tell you that it isn’t. The difference between a 4K image and a 1080p image, when viewed from 10 feet on a 110-inch screen is going to be difficult to discern, especially when you’re viewing upconverted 1080p material.

The message from many manufactures is that you don’t really need 4K for a home theater of typical size. If you can’t see it, then what good will it do you? Truth be told, we haven’t heard a lot of complaints about the poor picture quality of 1080p projectors. Unfortunately, until we have a wider selection of product to choose from and compare, then we can’t really say with any authority if the resolution matters. People also said that when 1080p projectors first started to challenge 720p projectors. What lesson was learned then?

“Assuming you’re working with high-quality source content, there are three main considerations regarding overall picture quality: image brightness, accurate color representation and stellar contrast ratio,” says DPI’s Bridwell. Those picture factors haven’t changed over the last several years, no matter what the resolution.

Let us know if 4K projectors are important to you? Will you hold out buying a new projector until there are more 4K models? Do you believe 4K makes a difference in picture quality?


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