While we may all aspire to own a SIM2 Mico M.150 or Sony VPL-VW1000ES front projector, the truth remains that many of us live in the real world and, because of this, cost is most definitely an object. Thankfully, there are brands like Epson out there for those of us on a beer budget, and among the company's many front projectors rest a wide variety aimed at the budding home theater enthusiast. Case in point: the PowerLite Home Cinema 3020e reviewed here. Retailing for $1,899, though some authorized resellers like VisualApex have it listed for less, the 3020e aims to be all the projector any first-timer or even seasoned veteran needs, but does it hit the bull's eye? That's what I wanted to find out and with the help of my calibrator friend Ray Coronado Jr. of SoCalHT, I put the 3020e through its paces and came away with some surprising findings.
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The 3020e doesn't look much different from the 3010e it replaces. In fact, the two look identical. The price increased $600 between iterations, but then again, the 3020e does pack a few more features. The 3020e is clad in Epson's trademark cloudy white and grey color scheme, very reminiscent of an Apple-branded product. The center-mounted all-manual lens rests between two large exhaust vents, encased in flowing rounded lines that do an admirable job of disguising the projector's physical size. As for the 3020e's size, it measures 16.6 inches wide by 14.4 inches deep and five-and-a-half inches tall. It feels heavier than its stated weight of 13 pounds. Suffice to say, its build quality is rather stout.
Inputs, which are initially hidden behind a removable plastic flap, include one composite, one component and one VGA computer input, followed by two HDMI (1.4a) inputs, as well as a single USB (type A), an RS-232 input and two analog audio inputs. That's right: also located along the back of the 3020e are two 10-watt stereo speakers for those impromptu movie nights or football parties. Manual controls are located atop the 3020e and consist of power, source, menu and directional keypad. The lens' manual zoom and focus are handled via a pair of rings located inside a small hole atop the projector, located closer to the lens itself. There is also a slider for manual keystoning, though this feature must first be activated in the projector's onscreen menu system.
Under the hood, the 3020e is a three-chip, LCD design with a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 or full HD. It also is 3D-capable, which may account for its higher than average light output of 2,300 ANSI lumens. Epson is trying to pioneer a movement among projector manufacturers to establish another form of light measurement, this time in terms of a projector's color brightness, which is an area where all Epsons, including the 3020e, excel. It's not that Epson is full of it, for color brightness is a measurement, but right now, the use of such measurement is largely one-sided, as few other manufacturers use the metric when describing their products' specifications to the general public. The 3020e's color brightness is to 2,300 ANSI lumens. The 3020e's native aspect ratio is 16:9, though it can accommodate 16:10 (popular among computer users) and 4:3; sorry, no anamorphic modes possible here. The 3020e uses a traditional 230-watt UHE lamp that is rated up to 5,000 hours in ECO mode and 4,000 hours in normal. Speaking of ECO mode, in its ECO setting, the 3020e draws 285 watts, whereas in its normal mode, power consumption increases to 372 watts. Contrast is stated to be 40,000:1, with color processing said to be full 10-bit, though I argue it will only receive eight-bit as that is what your Blu-ray player is spitting out. The center-mounted lens has a throw range of 1.32 to 2.15 making it very, very versatile and theoretically capable of filling a screen ranging in size from 30 to 300-inches. Again, it's an entirely manual lens, but its zoom ratio and focal length help it to fit a wide range of screen sizes on the fly.
While the 3020e does have a host of input options available on its rear, it has five more HDMI inputs located on its wireless HDMI receiver. That's right, you can also connect the 3020e to your home theater setup via a wireless connection. The wireless HDMI receiver also has an HDMI out to allow it to pass an HDMI signal to an HDTV should you employ both in your setup. There is also an optical audio output.
In terms of the 3020e's remote, it's large, full-featured and 100 percent backlit and, if I'm honest, more a wand befitting an AV receiver than a front projector. Nevertheless, it is supremely functional, not too directional and has all the control and functionality you need to get the most from your 3020e, including control of the wireless HDMI receiver.
Unboxing and setting up the 3020e is an easy job, or easy enough for a first-timer, so long as you take note of two things: first, the projector's center-mounted lens and second, its wicked offset. It is clear that Epson has designed the 3020e to be mounted on a table, for instance, a coffee table, for the lens has a huge upward shift, meaning it does not fire straight ahead - instead, it fires somewhat upward. From a position six to eight inches off my floor, the 3020e shined light upon the center of my screen, with the bottom edge 24 inches off the ground. Think about it - with the center of the lens at six inches and the bottom of the projected pattern resting at around 24 inches, that's a lot of native shift, which you cannot correct without tilting the projector. Keep in mind that tilting the projector will add optical keystone to the image, and correcting it via the 3020e's keystone controls comes at the expense of resolution. The zoom on the lens did allow for the 3020e to fill a 120-inch screen from a distance of roughly 10 feet, which says a lot. I could also fill the same screen from a distance of roughly 18 feet.
Once I had the 3020e aligned and firing true at my 120-inch Elite Screens' AcousticPro 4K screen, it was time to connect it. For the purposes of calibration and test pattern testing, I used a direct connection between the 3020e and my Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp via a 30-foot HDMI cable from Monoprice. The Integra's internal processing was set to "through," meaning it employed none. Source components used were the new Oppo BDP-103 universal Blu-ray player and my trusty Dune HD Max media/Blu-ray player. I also connected the wireless HDMI receiver, but through the Integra's second HDMI output. This allowed me to A/B any differences in picture quality, while at the same time testing the wireless connection.
Out of the box and being fed a signal from a calibrated signal generator, THX calibrator Ray Coronado and I began to measure the 3020e's performance. Before we dove too far into the process, we both noticed there were some noticeable alignment issues present among the 3020e's three LCD panels. We were able to correct it via the 3020e's internal menus, but nevertheless, it wasn't even close to acceptable. With the alignment issue solved, we determined that the light output was 13.7 foot lamberts in the 3020e's "Cinema" preset. It should be noted that, because I employ an acoustically transparent screen, my light output figures listed in this review may differ slightly than those of a non-perforated or woven screen. Rule of thumb: add 15 to 20 percent to my figures for a rough estimate of the 3020e's actual light output if projected upon a non-acoustically transparent screen. If you apply such thinking, it stands to reason that, on a unity gain screen, the 3020e might measure in the ballpark of 15 to 16 foot-lamberts in its "Cinema" preset.
Right away, we noticed that all of the 3020e's colors were grossly oversaturated, and skewed red. This obviously included grey scale, too. We were able to correct the grey scale, though we both found the CMS to be, well, not exactly textbook. While the 3020e does have CMS controls, they don't work quite right, as we could get the colors to measure correctly using SpectraCal software, but the resulting image using demo material and test patterns we were both familiar with were anything but natural-looking. We ultimately abandoned the CMS, reset it to factory, and merely adjusted the color and tint by eye, using a blue filter and familiar test patterns in order to achieve a more pleasing and natural-looking image. It should be noted that the grey scale was able to be fully calibrated via professional means and, once completed, did clean up the majority of the 3020e's other woes. A good example of CMS that works, measures correctly and looks right when viewing content, is that of the JVC D-ILA projector, as it is largely regarded as the reference standard.
Another thing to keep in mind, as I told myself this repeatedly during the review, is that the typical entry-level customer purchasing an Epson projector, such as the 3020e, might not always spring for the labor costs of a full THX-calibrated setup. It is important to note that you can adjust the 3020e's image to be more pleasing, using off-the-shelf methods such as Digital Video Essentials on Blu-ray or the like and achieve very agreeable and suitable results - just don't call the image calibrated.
I began my performance evaluation of the 3020e merely by testing its wireless connectivity. The wireless HDMI receiver is great when it syncs up and works, but in my home and my tests, it wasn't 100 percent. I found that line of sight helped matters, as did bringing the receiver closer, but the point behind such a device is to be able to place it where you want - within reason, of course - not where the projector wants. Once the signal locked on, I'd say it was close to rock solid, dropping out only twice for brief moments in over a dozen viewings. The real problem was that, when you changed sources, discs and/or inputs on the receiver, it had to then reinitialize each and every time, a process that isn't lightning-quick. For those keen on this feature, it is my recommendation that you rely on it only if a wired connection is out of the question. If you do use it, then be sure to have your mind made up on what you wish to watch, for if you plan on skipping about, the wireless receiver will most likely not keep pace. Still, I saw no loss in quality when comparing the two connection options, which is a very good thing. However, for the duration of this review it should be noted that my findings were arrived at via a wired connection.
Read more about the performance of the Epson 3020e on Page 2.
Kicking things off, I fired up The Patriot (Columbia Pictures) on Blu-ray. Right away, I took note of the 3020e's bright, punchy image. Even after making a few adjustments by eye, there was still a slight overemphasis on red, which was apparent in many of the character's skin tones, but nothing that was too distracting. My wife commented on the 3020e's "warm" image with this particular demo when asked if she spotted any irregularities. Black levels were better than average but not class-leading. Still, among the darker regions of the image, there was solid detail and texture, which showcased a lot of the 3020e's contrast chops. One thing that I noted was that image, despite its true 35mm origins, looked more grainy than merely possessing organic film grain. The screen wasn't a contributor in this regard, as I did put up a smooth, unity gain surface to check against and came away with the same findings. Furthermore, in the film's brighter moments, especially in highlights associated with hair and/or harsh rim lighting, I could see pixel structure from a distance of eight feet. Increasing my viewing distance to 10 or more feet eliminated the problem, but edge fidelity was not what I'd call sharp. I also noticed that, for whatever reason, engaging the projector's "Expanded HDMI" setting smoothed things out a bit, though it lifted the 3020e's black level considerably, forcing me to re-adjust using my DVE disc. Expanded (or enhanced, in some cases) HDMI means that the projector is now displaying above or more than video black and white, i.e., the full range, as opposed to what is dictated by aging broadcast standards. Whenever possible, you should ensure your projector is operating in this mode. While Expanded HDMI seemed to smooth out some of the noise, albeit ever so slightly, it didn't eliminate the issue altogether.
Moving on, I fired up The Amazing Spider-Man on Blu-ray (Columbia) again. With Spider-Man being a more "modern" film, as it was captured via digital means using Sony's new F65 camera system, which resulted in a finer, "smoother" print, as evident in the 3020e's less grainy image. Popping the 3020e into high or "Normal" lamp mode helped to bring out the low-light detail and contrast in this particular demo. With the change in content and lamp mode, the image was altogether pleasing and felt very natural in its presentation. Edges were still not as smooth as I may have liked, which did cost the film that last ounce of dimensionality, but neither would probably concern the average non-filmmaker viewer. Motion was smooth and I detected no visible artifacts being introduced and/or made worse by the 3020e's presence.
Next I cued up Disney/Pixar's Brave on Blu-ray (Disney). There is a reason when you go to trade shows that the bulk of the material being demoed in front projection booths is generally CG or animation-based, because it looks bloody brilliant. By far the best showcase of what the 3020e can do was on full display in Brave. Those with children should take note, for the 3020e's prowess with animation, coupled with its built-in speakers, makes movie night a truly family affair. I will argue that the speakers aren't going to replace a discrete system or even a soundbar but if you need to use them, they're there for you, which is more than can be said for Epson's competition. The colors simply leapt off the screen and, for the first time, the image had a true sense of 3D dimensionality without needing 3D gimmicks or glasses. Contrast was superb, allowing for the finest of details to be rendered largely free from any excess noise or pixilation that I alluded to earlier. In short, the entire presentation felt, well, cinematic.
Speaking of 3D for a moment, the 3020e is a 3D-capable projector and comes with two pairs of active 3D glasses. While I do not particularly enjoy 3D, it should be noted that the 3020e does an admirable job with the format and possesses the requisite brightness in its 3D modes that make viewing such content relatively easy. I sat through about 10 minutes of Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D (Screen Gems) on Blu-ray and came away impressed. While 3D is not my cup of tea, the 3020e does an admirable job of dishing out a pleasing 3D image, though many of my aforementioned findings are not eliminated when viewing 3D content.
The 3020e is a solid entry-level projector, though it does have some drawbacks that one must keep in mind. Chief among these is the projector's lens. It's all-manual, all-the-time functionality makes setting up the 3020e a bit of a chore, especially for those users who are not going to simply "set and forget" it. Furthermore, its offset is huge and may inadvertently introduce keystoning in many installations, where other projectors would not. I'm not saying the 3020e cannot be properly aligned and "dialed in," but it isn't as simple as you'd think it would be, given its center-mounted lens assembly.
Also, the 3020e is fairly noisy. In ECO mode, which is standard, the noise level is considerably less than in its "Normal" or high-lamp mode, but nevertheless, you will hear it. Furthermore, many of the 3020e's automated light or lens functions are also very loud. Disengaging them solves this issue, but some users may prefer to have features such as auto-iris on. In this case, be prepared for some robot-like sounds to emanate from the back of your room.
The wireless HDMI receiver is a novel idea that manages to work 85 percent of the time and, in doing so, looks identical to its wired version. However, for the other 15 percent of the time, when it decides it doesn't want to cooperate, the wireless HDMI receiver is infuriating. You could pop for the 3020 non-e model and save yourself $300 if you feel you're not going to need or use the 3020e's wireless HDMI connectivity.
Lastly, the 3020e cannot be fully and properly calibrated using professional methods and tools, despite possessing the requisite controls, as the controls simply do not work. I applaud Epson for trying here, but the company misses the mark almost completely.
Competition and Comparisons
The sub-$3,000 front projector market is hotter than ever and, while Epson is arguably the leader in the space, both the company and the 3020e face some stiff competition. Those worth and priced in or around the 3020e's suggested retail tag of $1,899 include BenQ's W7000, Optoma's HD33 and Panasonic's PT-AE8000U. There is even another Epson, the 5010/5010e, that isn't much more than the 3020e, but brings better optics to the party, as well as greater contrast.
Of course, if absolute accuracy is your cross to bear, then JVC's entry-level D-ILA in the form of the $3,499 DLA-X30B isn't a bad way to go. Yes, it does cost more than the 3020e - twice as much - but then again, you get a lot more projector for your money if your budget allows it.
Still, among its primary competition, the Epson's real opponent in my experience is going to be the Optoma, for both are priced about the same, both are figurative "light cannons" and both appeal to the same entry-level or first-time front-projection enthusiast. One is DLP-based (Optoma), while the other is LCD (Epson). Which one is right for you is going to be your call, but both warrant a look, in my opinion. For more on these and other projectors like them, please check out Home Theater Review's Front Projector page.
The Epson 3020e HD front projector at $1,899 represents a solid entry-level value that gives you more than enough bang for your buck, especially through authorized channels such as VisualApex, though it doesn't embarrass nor challenge the competition above its range. For what it is, it is good, and I believe that is the whole point, for your typical first-time buyer isn't going to be too consumed with matters of CMS or ultimate edge fidelity. For that buyer, the thought of having a true big-screen experience at home for less than two grand is what is going be most exciting and, in that regard, the 3020e is exceptional. Is it the last word among budget projectors? No, but it may be the last word for someone looking to make that initial step into front projection. The 3020e is definitely worth a look.
Read more front projector reviews written by Home Theater Review's writers.
Explore pairing options in our Projector Screen Review section.
See more reviews in our Blu-ray Player Review section.