Epson Home Cinema 3500 LCD Projector Reviewed

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Epson Home Cinema 3500 LCD Projector Reviewed

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Epson-HC3500-thumb.jpgThere's no shortage of Epson projectors on the market these days. The company introduces new models every year and usually keeps the older ones around for a good long while, so it can be challenging to figure out how they all line up. Late last year, Epson introduced the new Home Cinema 3000 Series, which includes the 3000, 3500, and 3600e. The 3000 Series essentially represents the midsized sedan of the current Epson 1080p lineup, falling between the compact Home Cinema 2000 Series of home entertainment projectors (check out our review of the Home Cinema 2030) and the luxury Home Cinema 5030UB home theater projector. At least on paper, the 3000 Series seems to fall closer to the home entertainment end of the spectrum, which means it's designed for the more casual viewing space where brightness is a higher priority than black level.

The subject of this review is the Home Cinema 3500 ($1,599.99), a 3LCD 1080p projector with a rated light output of 2,500 lumens and a rated dynamic contrast ratio of 70,000:1. This 3D-capable projector comes with two sets of rechargeable RF glasses (model ELPGS03). Like other home entertainment projectors, this one has a pair of built-in speakers, so you don't need a separate sound system for a night of casual movie watching or outdoor theater. The lower-priced Home Cinema 3000 ($1,299.99) has a slightly lower brightness rating of 2,300 lumens (for a 60,000:1 contrast ratio), and it omits the integrated speakers; otherwise, its specs are identical to those of the 3500. Meanwhile, the Home Cinema 3600e ($1,899.99) is the wireless version of the 3500, adding an integrated WirelessHD receiver and a supplied transmitter to wirelessly send HDMI signals across the room. Oh, and technically, the Home Cinema 3020 ($1,399.99) that was released in 2013 will remain a current member of the 3000 Series.

Did you get all that? It's okay if you didn't. Let's just focus on the Home Cinema 3500 and see what it has to offer.

Setup and Features
As you'd expect from the midsized sedan, the Home Cinema 3500's form factor is larger than that of the 2030 but smaller than the 5030UB--it's not quite as portable as the petite 2030 but is still small enough that you wouldn't think twice about moving it around the house. The cabinet design is a little more stylish than the budget model, with a rounded chassis in a high-gloss white finish. The lens sits just slightly off center to the right (when viewed from the front), with one large vent to the left. The Home Cinema 3500 lacks the lacks the automatic lens cover you get on the 5030UB.

Epson-HC3500-rear.jpgOn top, you'll find controls for power, source, menu, escape, and navigation, as well as knobs two lens-shifting dials. Around back are the two 10-watt speakers and a connection panel that includes two HDMI 1.4 inputs (one with MHL support), one PC in, one component video in, and one composite video in, plus a stereo analog in, a mini-jack audio out, RS-232, a 12-volt trigger, and Type A and B USB ports. The Type B port is for service only, while the Type A port can serve several functions. You can view JPEG photos from a connected camera/flash drive, you can attach Epson's Wireless LAN module to add network functionality, or you can power a compatible wireless HD system from this port (like the DVDO Air3C-Pro I had on hand).

The Home Cinema 3500 provides more setup flexibility than you'll find in many budget models and some similarly priced DLP models--thanks to its 1.6x zoom, as well as horizontal (24 percent) and vertical (60 percent) lens shifting. Compare that with a 2.1x zoom, 47 percent horizontal, and 96 percent vertical lens shift on the 5030UB. It took just seconds to size and position the 3500's image on my 100-inch Visual Apex�VAPEX9100SE screen, from a distance of about 14 feet away and sitting atop a 46-inch-high gear rack. The 3500 has a throw ratio range of 1.32 to 2.15 and can project an image up to 300 inches diagonally. Horizontal/vertical keystone correction and adjustable front feet are also included. The zoom, focus, and lens-shifting controls are all manual. The fully backlit IR remote is identical in size and button layout as previous Epson models I've reviewed, and it contains dedicated input buttons and direct access to lots of useful picture controls, as well as volume and mute for the integrated speakers.

The Home Cinema 3500 uses a 250-watt UHE lamp with a rated lamp life of 5,000 hours in Eco mode and 3,500 hours in High mode. Epson has now added a Medium lamp mode to the equation, providing even more flexibility to customize light output to suit your viewing environment. The Medium mode also strikes a nice mid-point in fan noise between the pleasingly quiet Eco mode and the more distracting High mode.

Epson's usual complement of picture adjustments is available, starting with five 2D picture modes (Auto, Dynamic, Living Room, Natural, and Cinema) and two 3D picture modes (3D Dynamic and 3D Cinema). This model lacks the 5030UB's THX certification, so there are no THX modes. Advanced adjustments include: multiple color-temperature presets with RGB offset and gain controls and skintone adjustment; a color management system to adjust the hue, saturation, and brightness of all six color points; five gamma presets and a customized mode; noise reduction; and an auto iris with Normal and High-Speed options to automatically tailor the image brightness to suit the content being displayed. This model does not have the higher refresh rate or frame-interpolation modes found on the 5030UB. Aspect-ratio options include auto, normal, zoom, and full, but no anamorphic mode to mate the projector with an anamorphic lens and watch 2.35:1 movies without black bars.

The Home Cinema 3500 has both Super Resolution and Epson's new Detail Enhancement functions. As Epson describes it, "Super Resolution detects the change in color from the edge of an object to the background color and sharpens or defines the image. Detail Enhancement uses a similar technique, clarifying the texture and surface appearance of the area within the boundaries of an object. As a result, both video processes work together--one on the edges, the other on the surface area of objects, to increase fine delicate structure in video images." You can independently adjust each one: Super Resolution has just five steps, while Detail Enhancement has 100. We'll discuss performance in the next section.

The Home Cinema 3500 supports picture-in-picture playback of HDMI and a second component/composite/PC source, with the ability to adjust the size and position of the PIP window.

On the audio side, the setup menu lacks any preset sound modes or EQ functions. The only audio tool is an Inverse Audio feature that lets you switch the left and right channels in those instances where the projector is mounted upside down.

I begin each display evaluation by measuring the various picture modes as they come right out of the box, with no fine-tuning. In this case, it was not the Cinema mode but rather the Natural mode that measured closest to reference standards out of the box...and measured quite well, I should add. The Natural mode had a gray-scale Delta Error of just 4.24 (anything under five is considered good), a fairly even color/white balance, a gamma average of 2.2, and generally accurate color, with cyan being the least accurate with a Delta Error of just 3.9. The Cinema mode, meanwhile, had a gray-scale Delta Error of 8.22, a notably bluer color balance, a gamma average of 1.97, and less accurate color points. See the Measurements section on Page Two for more details.

It's good that the Natural mode performs well out of the box, as it's less likely that someone shopping for a $1,600 projector is going to pay a couple hundred dollars more to have it professionally calibrated. And really, I didn't obtain significantly better results after calibration. I lowered the gray-scale Delta Error to 3.18, was able to tighten up the color balance a bit, and eked out a slightly darker gamma average of 2.22. With the available presets, I could not get any closer to the 2.4 gamma target that we use for projectors. As for the color points, the color management system allowed me to obtain slightly more accurate luminance (or brightness) for each color, but I couldn't do much to improve the saturation or hue.

As I said in the introduction, home entertainment projectors place a higher priority on brightness than black level, and the Home Cinema 3500 is no exception. The "dimmest" Natural and Cinema modes still cranked out about 38 to 41 foot-lamberts in the Eco lamp mode--that's with a full white pattern on a 100-inch, 1.1-gain screen. During calibration, I adjusted the contrast control to dial down the Natural mode's light output to 30 ft-L, which is the maximum ISF-recommended brightness for a projector in a dark room. Of course this projector can go even brighter for dim to moderately bright room: The Living Room picture mode measured 49 ft-L, and the Dynamic mode measured a whopping 91 ft-L. The latter mode sacrifices a great deal of accuracy to get to that number, though, producing an image that skews very green (although you can tame it a bit with the calibration controls, if you need that much light output in some situations). I generally stayed with the Natural and Living Room modes and found their brightness level to be ample to enjoy well-saturated HDTV shows and sporting events in a room with a fair amount of ambient light.

In the black-level department, the Home Cinema 3500 sports an auto iris that allows it to automatically adjust the projector's brightness to suit the image being displayed, and that helps to improve its black-level performance compared with a budget model like the Home Cinema 2030 that has no auto iris. In a head-to-head comparison with my reference Home Cinema 5020UB, the Home Cinema 3500 was definitely not in the same league in its ability to render a deep black. In various scenes from Gravity, the starry backgrounds were more gray than black, but I will say that that the Home Cinema 3500's black level was good enough to give the overall image a solid level of contrast and saturation in a darkened room. I also compared the 3500 directly with the lower-priced BenQ HT1085ST DLP projector that I just reviewed, and the BenQ had a slim but still visible advantage in its black-level performance. The darkest film scenes just had a bit more depth and texture through the DLP projector, but overall the Home Cinema 3500 proved itself a worthy performer with film content, and it did a nice job rendering fine black details in scenes from The Bourne Supremacy and Kingdom of Heaven.

When I switched to 3D movies, I really liked what the Home Cinema 3500 had to offer, thanks to all that light output. The better color brightness you get from 3LCD over DLP paid dividends here. Compared with the BenQ projector, I found the 3500's 3D image to be more saturated and more engaging. Even in the quieter Eco lamp mode, I felt the 3500 had abundant light output with 3D content, but you could push it even higher by switching to the Medium or High lamp mode. I saw only the occasional instance of crosstalk in demo scenes from Monsters vs. Aliens, Life of Pi, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. The 3D glasses were also more comfortable than the ones I received with the BenQ projector, which matters when you're talking about spending two hours plus with a 3D film.

In the processing realm, the Home Cinema 3500's performance is solid but not exceptional. With both 480i and 1080i test patterns, the 3500 correctly detected the 3:2 sequence in film content, and I didn't see much in the way of jaggies, moire, and other artifacts in real-world film-based sources. However, the projector didn't perform as well with video-based sources and failed most of the "assorted cadence" tests on the HQV Benchmark and Spears & Munsil test discs, which means you may see artifacts in non-film sources. Overall, I found the 3500's image to have a nice level of detail with both HD and SD content. I experimented with the Super Resolution and Detail Enhancement controls. As I've discovered in past models, Super Resolution adds too much artificial edge enhancement and makes the image look too processed for my tastes, so I kept it set at zero. Detail Enhancement was a bit more interesting, though. Using scenes from the Kingdom of Heaven Blu-ray disc, I gradually turned up the DE control and could definitely see some improved detail and texture, especially in facial close-ups. Turning it up too high will lead to that artificial-looking sense of enhancement, but the function is worth some experimentation to find a good balance.

As for the audio performance, it's fair to say that I have low expectations for the speakers integrated into a projector, so I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the Home cinema 3500's speakers. They have solid dynamic ability, and the vocal quality was more natural and less hollow/tinny than it usually the case with these types of speakers.

Click over to Page Two for Measurements, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...

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