HomeTheaterReview's Home Video Projector Buyer's Guide

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HomeTheaterReview's Home Video Projector Buyer's Guide


I've been an avid video projector enthusiast for fifteen years now, and in that time, I've been astonished by the considerable jumps in overall performance and value in the digital home projector market. The improvements in image quality at every price point compared with projectors priced the same ten years ago simply boggles the mind.

Sony_Crystal_LED_CEDIA_2018.jpgAt the same time, however, we've seen large-format flat-panel displays get bigger and less expensive at an ever-increasing rate. Combine that with the impending proliferation of microLED and similar technologies (i.e., video walls), and some can't help but see signs that the home theater projector market is on the decline. While these claims may have some level of merit, I don't think the situation is as dire as some are making it out to be. 

For starters, I'd argue that no flat-panel television can give you the same experience that a high-quality projector, and even as large as they've gotten recently, no realistically affordable TV can match the sheer screen-size potential of a two-piece projection system. Granted, this is where microLED is forecast to take over, offering a modular and scalable solution that brings together the best of both worlds: massive image size and reference image quality.

But, for the foreseeable future, I have serious doubts about microLED replacing home theater projectors. At CEDIA this fall, Samsung showed off their 146-inch variant of The Wall, the company's flagship microLED display. On paper, the specs are pretty impressive. It offers up to 1,600 nits of full-field peak image brightness, wide color gamut capabilities, and nearly infinite contrast. But, in practice, microLED still has some limitations that I don't think work well for home theater-type installations. The most visible of these issues I witnessed firsthand at CEDIA.

CEDIA_2019_The_Wall.jpgWhen the video content got dark, the gaps between the microLED panels were quite visible. In all fairness, The Wall did have to compete with a lot of ambient light from the show floor, which, quite literally, shined a light on this issue. However, I suspect these same issues will crop up in real-world installations if the room isn't properly treated for both ambient and reflected light. My personal experience tells me that most home theaters (and ironically, higher end home theaters especially) simply lack the type of room treatments necessary to fully mask this issue. Some improvements in this area are sorely needed if this technology is going to entice current home theater projector owners to switch.

Another knock against current microLED technology is the somewhat limited pixel pitch performance. For those unfamiliar, pixel pitch is a measure of how closely grouped pixels are. When you compare microLED against current flat-panel and projection technologies, microLED leaves a lot to be desired. In commercial installations where the viewing distance is typically far away, this deficiency doesn't really pose a problem. But in a home theater scenario, where viewing distances are generally much closer, this higher pixel pitch could cause an issue with visible pixel grid from a normal seating distance. My vantage point at CEDIA was about fifteen feet from The Wall, which, according to THX, is the ideal viewing distance from a display of this size to maximize the benefits of UltraHD resolution. I don't know about the people standing next to me, but I could make out a distinct pixel grid at this distance. Again, we'll need to see some improvements here if we want microLED ready for prime time in our home theaters.

Then there's the cost issue. I've heard secondhand that The Wall shown at CEDIA will set you back anywhere between $300,000 and $600,000. This alone makes The Wall a non-starter for the vast majority of enthusiasts. It's going to take many years for the price of this technology to come down to attainable levels for most of us. I'd even go so far to argue that there's already a better alternative to microLED out there.

Christie_Eclipse_Projector.jpgChristie's Eclipse projector is native 4K, delivers up to 30,000 lumens through the use of direct red, green, and blue laser banks, which is roughly 1,600 nits of image brightness on a unity-gain 146-inch screen. It has a true 20,000,000:1 native on/off contrast ratio, gets close to full REC2020 color saturation, and you won't run into issues with visible panel gaps or pixel pitch at normal seated distances when using this projector. Oh, and it's starting price is about half that of The Wall.

But what about flat panel TVs and how they fit into the home theater. To explain how I feel, I'd like to first pose the question: what does home theater mean to you? I suspect the answer to that question has a lot of variability among us. For me, it's very literal. I want to create a similar experience to what you get at a commercial movie theater, but in the comfort of my own home. For that to happen, it requires a properly treated room, surround sound, a projector, and a screen.

Now, before I get bombarded with "but OLED is better" comments, I want to emphatically state that, yes, I'm fully aware of the benefits that OLED brings to the table. I witness them daily with the LG OLED in my living room. The problem is, even with all the lights out, I'm constantly reminded that I'm watching a television and that I'm watching said television in my living room. For me, this isn't recreating that cinematic experience. I've even brought the OLED down into the theater and, other than the massive difference in image size, there's just something so aesthetically different about how the OLED's image looks compared to my projector's, that it fails to recreate that classic theater experience for me. OLED just doesn't have the wholly analog aesthetic that my projector and screen manage to produce. And when you consider the contrast difference between today's high-performance projectors is somewhere between plasma and OLED, I'm willing to give up that last nth degree of image pop and black level performance if that means the experience for me as a whole is that much better. Others may disagree and that's fine. To each their own.

That's not to say projectors don't have their drawbacks as well. Trust me when I say they are far from perfect. Not only are they harder to properly setup, HDR is a bit of a mess on a projector. Luckily, there are some powerful HDR tonemapping solutions out there, some built into the projectors themselves, which help jump these hurdles.

Cost is also a relevant issue. You'll likely end up spending a hell of a lot more money going with a projector than if you go the flat screen television route (but still far less than microLED). To get the most from a projector, you really need a dedicated space with room treatments to control light; otherwise your image is going to take a hit. You also need a high-quality projection screen, which, on its own, can cost more than a high-end television.

With all of this said, I'm not trying to downplay living room theaters. Remember, each of us has our own definition of what home theater means and, for some, going the flat panel television route is clearly the better choice. My argument here is that if you have the means and want to recreate the movie theater experience at home, a high-quality projector is still hard to beat.

Let me know in the comments section how you feel on the matter. I'm very curious to hear your thoughts. If you're already sold on a two-piece projection system and are simply here for buying advice, though, let's get right to that.

A Guide to the Current Crop of Popular Home Projectors

Included in this guide, you'll find some most popular projectors amongst home theater enthusiasts, many of which I've already reviewed here on HomeTheaterReview.com. Instead of rehashing what was said in our review for each projector, I'll generally be focusing on the pros and cons, with some discussion about why one might choose one projector over another in a given price range. If you're looking for a more in-depth analysis or exact specifications for any of these projectors, I suggest you read the full review or check the manufacturer's website for these details.

All of the projectors listed below are highly recommended models that potential buyers should consider. At the very minimum, they all support Ultra HD. Some display a native UHD image, while others reach this resolution through pixel shifting. All of these projectors also feature HDR10 support, a REC2020 compatibility mode, and full 18Gbps HDMI 2.0 port(s). Most importantly, all models feature excellent image quality for the price.

Budget-Oriented Home Theater Projectors ($3000 and Under)

  • BenQ HT3550 ($1,699) (Reviewed here)
    On the more affordable end of our list sits BenQ's HT3550. This little home theater projector has a ton of technology packed into it. Not only is this the first projector I've come across utilizing Texas Instrument's latest 0.47-inch pixel-shifting XPR DLP DMD, but it's also the first lamp-based single-chip DLP projector that I've reviewed to support DCI-P3 color. BenQ has added a color filter in the light path that helps achieve deep saturated colors, which can be taken advantage of when watching Ultra HD Blu-ray and other sources that have color encoded past REC709.

    This new .47-inch DMD is unique for TI because it flashes it's native 1080p image on screen up to four times, with each successive flash optically shifted to create a single pseudo-4K image on screen. Prior to this, most 4K-capable single chip DLP projectors were using a larger, slightly higher resolution DMD, but they could only flash an image on screen twice, similar to how Epson and JVC pixel shift their projectors. This limited onscreen resolution to somewhere between 2K and 4K. That is almost completely fixed with this new DMD. In my review, I applauded the HT3550 for how closely it matched my reference JVC DLA-RS2000, which is a true native 4K projector, in terms of apparent on-screen resolution. In most instances I couldn't discern a difference. This is impressive when you consider the massive price difference.

    I was also impressed with the HT3550's color performance. If you had told me a few years ago that a sub $2,000 lamp-based projector would have DCI-P3 color, I wouldn't have believed you. The HT3550 falls just a little shy of reaching the full P3 gamut, but it's close enough, especially given the price. There are some far more expensive projectors out there that don't reach this level of color saturation.

    BenQ_HT3550_3.jpgThe HT3550's handling of HDR is commendable, too. The projector will automatically switch to its HDR mode when it senses an HDR flag. There is a basic HDR slider tool that may not be quite as comprehensive as some of the HDR tools you'll find on more expensive projectors, but what's offered works well.

    Those considering this projector should be aware of a few things before buying, however. Despite BenQ's claim of 2000 lumens image brightness, I only measured a little over 600 lumens after calibration. So, if you care about image accuracy and plan on using this projector's most accurate mode, you'll need to take this into consideration to be sure this projector will be bright enough for your needs.

    Contrast performance also isn't the greatest, even among DLP projectors. To help with this, my suggestion would be to use a high-gain screen that has a dark substrate with this projector. A screen like this should help tremendously with apparent image brightness and contrast.

    You'll also need to be careful about projector placement, as the HT3550 is fairly limited in terms of lens shift, zoom, and throw ratio. I discuss this in further detail in my review. 
  • Optoma UHD60 ($1,799)
    Next on the list, and just a small step up in price, is Optoma's UHD60. This model is actually a couple of years older than the BenQ HT3550, and likely due to its age, Optoma has reduced the MSRP by $200.

    This is one of the older XPR pixel-shifting DLP projectors that uses a dual-flash, but a higher native resolution 0.66-inch DMD. This means the UHD60 will be at a slight disadvantage in terms of on-screen resolution compared to the newer models that feature the 0.47-inch XPR DMD. With that said, most of the 0.66-inch DMD projectors offer better native contrast performance over the HT3550, with the UHD60 falling into this category. Compared to the HT3550. you can expect roughly double the amount of native contrast, and more if you opt to use the UHD60's dynamic contrast system.

    Speaking of dynamic contrast systems: compared to the HT3550, the lamp dimming dynamic contrast solution found on the UHD60 is less noticeable in its operation. Having more native contrast and a better dynamic contrast system can make quite a difference in apparent image quality, especially for movie viewing.

    While the UHD60 has a REC2020 color gamut compatibility mode for Ultra HD Blu-ray and other HDR10 sources, it doesn't have a color filter in the light path to achieve the same kind of color saturation performance the HT3550 has. So, keep that in mind when comparing these two models.

    Optoma_UHD60.jpgHDR on the UHD60 is handled in much the same way as the HT3550: You get a fairly basic HDR tonemapping slider tool to help compensate for a lack of image brightness. Again, it's not as comprehensive as what you'd find on more expensive projectors, but what's offered works well enough.

    The UHD60 also fixes some of the gripes I had with the HT3550 in terms of placement flexibility. You're given a much longer-throw-ratio lens, more zoom, and more lens shift. This will make setup easier and far less limiting in a given room. Having a longer-throw-ratio lens also means you can place the projector farther back in your room, potentially avoiding placement directly overhead, making the projector less audible.

    Those considering either the HT3550 or UHD60 should ask themselves what matters more to them: contrast or onscreen resolution? This is where I think these two projectors differ the most. For strict movie viewing, the UHD60's better contrast performance is probably the better choice for this type of material. But those who play video games or want to use their projector as a computer monitor may find having better onscreen resolution a better fit for their needs.

  • Epson Home Cinema 5050UB ($2,999) (Reviewed here)
    Epson's 5050UB is one of the more intriguing projectors in this guide. I say that because of the monumental value proposition this model in particular offers. As I pointed out in my full review, the 5050UB packs in features and performance normally reserved for projectors costing far more. A combination of high brightness, high contrast, a physical dynamic iris, a fully motorized all-glass lens, lens memories, DCI-P3 color support, and a versatile video processing solution combine to create a great price-to-performance ratio.

    While the 5050UB is technically a native 1080p 3LCD projector, I wouldn't write it off just yet. Like the DLP-based models previously discussed, the 5050UB uses a proprietary form of pixel shifting to achieve greater-than-1080p resolution on the screen. And while the DLP units will have an advantage with well mastered native 4K content, I think the 5050UB makes up for this deficiency, and then some, with the cumulative strengths found elsewhere in its image.

    For starters, the lens used on the 5050UB is on a completely different level, which does wonders for apparent image sharpness, despite the somewhat limited onscreen resolution it possesses. Brightness and contrast also go a long way in our perception of sharpness and overall picture quality. These are strengths the 5050UB possess in spades over the two aforementioned DLP projectors. But then again, at nearly double the cost, one would expect this.

    Epson_Home_Cinema_5050UB.jpgLight output and color saturation performance are extremely competitive for the price. Compared to the DLP models in this guide, the 5050UB can offer up more than three times as much calibrated image brightness. Color saturation performance can reach up to 96 percent of the P3 color gamut. This beats out some projectors costing thousands of dollars more.

    One of the reasons why you're paying more money for this projector over the cheaper DLP models is for better contrast. Depending on the DLP projector in question, the 5050UB can have up to an order of magnitude more native contrast. For movie viewing especially, this can make a world of difference in perceived image quality. If you take advantage of the dynamic iris, contrast is helped even further, firmly placing the 5050UB in a league of its own at or below its asking price.

    These aforementioned qualities do wonders for HDR10 content. As I mentioned in my review, the 5050UB offers a level of apparent dynamic range with HDR10 content that I haven't seen before from a projector at or below its price point. The 5050UB gives you access to a special gamma curve adjustment tool (on top of an HDR tonemap slider) to help you achieve a better subjective HDR image on your screen.

    From what I've personally seen, for movie viewing, I don't think you'll find a better HDR-capable projector for the price. If you were on the fence about this projector, wondering if the higher cost is worth it, I'd have to say that it is.

Enthusiast-Oriented Projectors ($3,000 and Above)

  • JVC DLA-RS2000 (also sold as the DLA-NX7) ($8,995) (Reviewed here)
    Arguably the most anticipated projectors released this year, JVC's completely redesigned line of native 4K projectors finally replace the company's aging pixel-shifters. The main aim of these new models was not only to compete with Sony's current native 4K offerings, but also to bring big improvements to HDR performance, which is something sorely needed in the world of front projection. More on this in a bit.

    On paper and in practice, the RS2000 is an impressive projector. It sits in the middle of JVC's 2019 projector line up and features the company's second generation 0.69-inch native 4K D-ILA display devices. The RS2000 boasts up to 1,900 lumens, 80,000:1 native contrast, 800,000:1 dynamic contrast, and full DCI-P3 color support through the use of an optional filter that sits in the light path. It also features an all-glass, high resolution motorized lens that yields an impressively sharp image on screen to show off all 8.8 million pixels (native resolution is 4096 x 2160, not the 3840 x 2160 typical of UHD).

    It's not just the hardware that's impressive, as you'll find a full suite of calibration tools that allow you to dial in grayscale, gamma, and color to accurately display the content being sent to the projector. Additionally, you'll find software tools such as smooth motion frame interpolation (which works up to a 4K60p signal), smart sharpening software, dynamic contrast modes, lens memories, scaling modes for use with an anamorphic lens, and much more.

    Unique to JVC projectors is something the company calls Installation Modes. These can be thought of as memory slots that can be used to tie numerous individual menu settings together for easy recall. So, for example, if you want to use a specific set of settings for SDR content, instead of manually changing everything when you switch back from HDR, all you need to do is select an Installation Mode to recall all of the settings you want with a single button press.

    The software prowess doesn't stop there. Instead of going with an off-the-shelf video processing solution, JVC went with a custom-programmable processor and software in an effort to render and tone map HDR content in a way that JVC thinks takes advantage of the real-world performance their new native 4K projectors offer. The result is a first in the world of front projection: real time, frame-by-frame dynamic tone mapping software.

    JVC_DLA-RS2000_projector_iso.jpgAs I mentioned above, HDR performance was a big focus point for these new projectors. At launch, the RS2000 featured an Auto-Tonemapping mode and a specialized HDR image mode that could be used in conjunction with a Panasonic Ultra HD Blu-ray player. In my review, I discussed these modes and was particularly impressed with the latter, saying it was the best HDR implementation on a projector that I've seen yet. Since that review, a lot has changed. This fall, JVC released a major firmware update for the RS2000 that elevates HDR performance to a whole new level. Instead of the projector taking cues from the (often incorrect) HDR metadata on the disc or a specialized image mode that can only be used with a handful of players, JVC has added dynamic tone mapping software (DTM) that ignores the static metadata and analyzes each frame sent to the projector. This software adjusts the tone map on the fly, so each frame is presented with maximum brightness, contrast, and color saturation. This software is only possible because of the FPGA I mentioned earlier.

    Now, it's not perfect, with other DTM software from Lumagen and madVR offering better subjective performance, but it's leaps and bounds better than the Auto-Tonemapping solution the RS2000 had before and immensely better than any tonemapping software you'll find in any projector, period. This is, again, the best HDR performance I've seen from any projector without outside assistance.

    At the moment, for strict movie and television show viewing, I don't think there is a better projector out there for less than $10,000. The cumulative performance is simply staggering and I can't recommend this projector enough. If you can afford it, you won't be disappointed.

  • Sony VPL-VW695ES ($9,999) (Reviewed here)
    Sony has been doing native 4K in the projector world for quite some time now. After introducing their VPL-VW1000ES back in 2011, Sony has been hard at work finding ways to bring the level of performance delivered by this $25,000 native 4K projector down to a more reasonable price point. In my opinion, the 695ES is Sony's first sub-$10,000 that nearly fits the bill.

    At its price point, one should expect exceptional image quality, and that's exactly what you get from the 695ES. It offers high brightness, high contrast, a tack-sharp image, and a robust video processing solution. In many ways, the 695ES is similar to JVC's DLA-RS2000 in feature set, performance, and price, but with a few notable differences. These differences are what I want to focus on here to help those on the fence decide which of these projectors to go with.

    Let's start with the strengths: Motion is excellent on the 695ES. Its SXRD panels offer a relatively fast response time of 2.5 milliseconds. This quick response time means less blur will be added to a moving image. JVC's D-ILA display devices, which have a slightly higher response time of four milliseconds, are at a small disadvantage here. But the motion advantage doesn't stop there. Sony's Motion Flow frame interpolation software is some of the best you're going to get from a projector. This software has matured to the point where motion is both pleasing to look at and largely artifact free. Those who watch sports, play video games, or just happen to like smooth motion on at all times should give the 695ES serious consideration.

    Another strength of the 695ES is in ANSI contrast performance. ANSI contrast is a measure of contrast when there's an equal amount of light and dark content in the image. This is an area where only DLP projectors normally excel, but Sony has designed its light path and optics in such a way as to eke out strong performance in this area. Video content that has a mix of bright and dark elements can show a bit more pop and three-dimensionality through the 695ES compared to the RS2000.

    Sony_VPL-VW695ES_lifestyle.jpgThe 695ES uses what Sony refers to as Reality Creation for image upscaling. Sony says this software is based off of algorithms created by artificial intelligence. Sony used A.I. to analyze libraries of native 4K content to better understand how to reconstruct a 4K-like image from lower resolution video, and the results speak for themselves. I think, without a doubt, Sony has some of the best video upscaling found in projectors today. So, if you have a large library of lower-resolution content, the 695ES can be used to great effect to make this video look its best.

    Now onto the weaknesses: The first should come as no surprise to those who are familiar with home theater projectors. The 695ES can't compete with the RS2000 in terms of on/off contrast performance. With darker video content, the Sony will have a grayer level of black. It's still leaps and bounds better than what you'll find in the sub-$3,000 market, but noticeably worse than the RS2000. The 695ES does have a dynamic iris to try and help boost contrast performance, but it's not particularly aggressive so its black level still lags a bit behind.

    The 695ES also lacks the DCI-P3 color filter the RS2000 has, so color saturation performance isn't as good. When you consider that Ultra HD Blu-ray and better-quality streaming sources take advantage of these more saturated colors, being able to reproduce them is important for accurate reproduction of this content. To give some context, the 695ES is able to achieve roughly 90 percent of the DCI-P3 color gamut, while the RS2000 can achieve up to 99 percent.

    Sony_VPL-VW695ES.jpgLastly, the 695ES lacks an equivalent dynamic tonemapping solution. It does have a static tonemapping solution, but it is in no way as versatile or high-performance as the solution found on the current 4K JVC projectors. So HDR can has a tendency to look dramatically better on the RS2000. If you do opt to buy the 695ES, I highly recommend considering an outboard tone mapping processor from madVR or Lumagen. It will help HDR performance on the 695ES dramatically.

    At the end of the day, I'd say that if you're going to be watching a lot of sports, playing video games, or watching a lot of brighter television content, the 695ES would be a better choice over the RS2000. Its better performance in motion and ANSI contrast make a difference here. But for strict movie watching, especially movies from HDR streaming services and Ultra HD Blu-ray, the RS2000 would be a better fit due to its strengths in contrast, color saturation and HDR tonemapping. Both are excellent choices, but each is better suited to different types of video content.

  • Honorable Mentions: The Rest of the JVC & Sony 4K Bunch
    You might be asking yourself: what about all the other projector models from Sony and JVC? I haven't forgotten about them. They aren't in this guide because I feel the models listed above represent the best value for your money. When you look at some of the compromises found in cheaper models, and how much extra you're paying for relatively small gains in performance from the more expensive models, I feel your money is best spent on the models listed above. That doesn't mean the less-costly and more-expensive models should be ignored. For some, these additional features and performance or cost savings are worth it.

    For instance, some are willing to pay a hefty premium for a laser light source. Others are willing to pay more for a bit more in the way of light output, contrast, and a nicer lens. In that same vein, others are happy to spend less because many of the features of the models listed above are still present on the more affordable models. To them, the compromise in performance at the reduced cost is hard to ignore.

    I may get some flak for not including a DLP projector in the $3000-and-above category. But, based on my personal experience, no DLP projector near or below the price of the Sony and JVC models featured in this guide come anywhere near the level of image quality these projectors deliver. Again, this doesn't mean these models should be ignored. DLP has some inherent strengths many can't live without, and for them, a DLP projector is the only way to go. But chances are that if you already have such a preference, you're not really looking for projector shopping advice.

 Additional Resources
• Read HomeTheaterReview's UHD Blu-ray Player Buyer's Guide.
• 
Read HomeTheaterReview's AV Receiver Buyer's Guide (Fall 2019 Update).
• If you're looking for more in-depth coverage of individual products, visit our Front Projectors category page.


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