At the CEDIA 2011 show in Indianapolis, there was a major announcement that shook the consumer video space - Sony had a consumer-grade 4K projector dubbed the VPL-VW1000ES. Retailing for a hair under $25,000, the VW1000ES represented the most affordable, true 4K experience a diehard videophile could hope for. Not to be outdone, though perhaps overshadowed, JVC also announced a couple of 4K products, only unlike Sony's product, JVC's offerings weren't exactly 4K. JVC's two new "4K" projectors utilized a sort of pixel sleight of hand in order to achieve what JVC dubbed "4K Precision." Though one could argue (and I did) that JVC was somewhat misleading in their use of the term 4K, there was no getting around the simple fact that the JVC projectors cost a fraction of the Sony. More importantly, there is still no consumer 4K content, making both JVC's and Sony's 4K claims difficult to quantify. On paper and if you follow post-show reports, Sony walked away from the CEDIA show the clear winner, with JVC being dubbed "Faux K" by yours truly. But was I wrong?
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JVC's new consumer flagship reviewed here is the DLA-X90RBU, which at $11,999.95 is the most expensive in the line that includes two other models, the $7,999.95 DLA-X70RBU and the $3,499.95 DLA-X30BU. All three models are D-ILA designs, a JVC staple, and are 3D-enabled. However, only the X70RBU and X90RBU feature JVC's e-Shift or "4K Precision" scaling capability. So what exactly is e-Shift? e-Shift is what it sounds like, an electronic shift of the displayed pixels where it effectively upscales the incoming 1080p (or SD) signal and offsets the duplicate pixels to simulate a 4K-like resolution or, in this case, QFHD (3,840 x 2,160). Does this make the X90RBU a 4K projector? No, it is still a 1080p projector and will always be one, despite its 4K Precision claims, but this isn't an all together bad thing as I would find out.
Looking past the e-Shift aspect of the X90RBU's performance specs, there's still a lot to like about its HD capabilities. For starters, it is THX, THX 3D and ISF certified, meaning it possesses the necessary image controls and calibration picture profiles (that are not calibrated out of the box) for each that can be finely tuned and saved to memory for the utmost image fidelity and long-term enjoyment. The X90RBU is also an active shutter 3D-enabled projector and, unlike other projectors on the market, it comes standard with the appropriate emitter and two pairs of active shutter glasses. The benefit of active shutter over passive in the projection realm means you can utilize any type of screen on the market today, as opposed to one optimized for polarized or passive glasses. This in turn could save you money, which is a good thing when discussing a roughly $12,000 projector.
Another new feature to the X90RBU is its inclusion of lens memory. The X90RBU's lens is motorized and, because of this, its final positioning, including focus, can be saved for later use. This feature comes in handy for those who are fans of both 1.85:1 aspect ratio content and 2.35:1, for it allows you to essentially set the lens to maximize both in a dual screen setup and then save them to memory to be recalled at the touch of a button. A quick practical example of this would be if you had a dual format screen such as the Elite Osprey screen, which possesses both a 16:9 and a 2.35:1 screen in one enclosure. Lens memory would allow you to zoom the image out until the black bars usually associated with 2.35:1 content fall above and below the projection surface, aka the white part, but also allow you to have a setting for the smaller 16:9 screen as well. Cool and, again, potentially money-saving, for it's a way to do Cinemascope without having to resort to using an anamorphic lens attachment, which can get costly.
Aside from some of the newer features, the usual JVC niceties are present and accounted for. In terms of its raw specifications, the X90RBU boasts 1,200 ANSI Lumen rating, 120Hz processing, 120,000:1 contrast (dynamic), as well as a myriad of picture, lamp and calibration modes. Input options include two HDMI (1.4a), a component, Ethernet, RS-232 and PC. There are also 12-volt triggers, as well as the 3D emitter port. A detachable power cord is standard.
The X90RBU remote is all JVC all the time, in that it looks and functions much like every other JVC remote I've encountered over the years. It's fully backlit at the touch of a button and is slender enough that it fits comfortably in hand, yet it isn't too long to make it unwieldy when operating it with a single hand. As with JVC's reputation for calibration control, their remote control is topnotch and among the best you're likely to find.
I've been a JVC customer for years now, so integrating another one into my system, even one as new as the X90RBU, was relatively easy. The X90RBU is substantially larger than my reference Anthem LTX-500 (a rebadged JVC), at 18 inches wide by nearly seven inches tall and 18.6 inches deep. It's also heavier at a stout 33 pounds, making it just light enough to hang on my own, but hefty enough that I should've employed the help of a friend. If you've never hung a projector before, the X90RBU definitely qualifies as one you won't want to tackle solo. Better yet, have your dealer or installer do it for you. To secure the X90RBU to my ceiling, I relied on my trusty Sanus VP1 projector mount. I connected the X90RBU to my Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp via a 30-foot run of Transparent's Performance Series HDMI, which just so happens to be 4K-capable, though the JVC itself is not a true 4K projector.
My Integra was fed HD and SD source material via my newly constructed HTPC using the Media Center software JRiver. While HTPCs and integrated graphics have come a long way in recent years and even months, I still believe in and use dedicated graphics cards or GPUs in my HTPC builds, which in my case meant a Galaxy GeForce GT 520 using NVIDIA technology. I also utilized my Sony BDP-S580 Blu-ray player for single-disc application and tests. All source components were connected to my Integra pre/pro using one-meter runs of Monoprice high-speed HDMI cables. My screen of choice for the duration of this review was a 100-inch tab-tensioned matte white screen from Dragonfly. The Dragonfly matte white surface has a gain of 1.2, giving it a little "pop" over that of, say, a neutral gain screen, but not so much that it overly enhances or changes the visual experience.
Once the projector was securely fastened to my ceiling and the requisite connections made, I aligned the center-positioned motorized lens, using a series of built-in grids and test patterns (another JVC staple), before employing the help of my friend and THX-certified calibrator Ray Coronado of SoCalHT to help dial in the JVC's picture. JVC has built a reputation, both in the consumer and pro worlds, for excellence when it comes to their level of control and ability to be made "dead nuts," as Ray puts it in terms of their image accuracy. Using the Spectracal CalMan software and C6 meter (with adjustment tables applied), we began to calibrate the X90RBU to SMPTE standard. Out of the box and in its THX picture mode, the X90RBU is close, though with some minor brightness and contrast adjustments, we were able to increase its light output by several foot lamberts, so that it fell well within SMPTE guidelines. From there we began the process of adjusting the CMS, which in both our collective experiences has been a process that is largely drama-free. For whatever reason, the CMS controls for the X90RBU seemed to be counter-intuitive, reacting in ways that defied logic - for instance adjusting, say, cyan resulted in a global brightness shift rather than a single color one. We were about at our wits end and ready to bust out my DVDO Duo, which also has full CMS control and doesn't suffer from the problems that plagued the X90RBU when we learned of a firmware update that corrected the anomaly. We've both since spoken to a number of other calibrators who had the same initial impression we did, but have changed their tune following the firmware update. Those of you who may consider purchasing the X90RBU following this review should have nothing to fear, for the errors described above should be but a distant memory with newer units. After what seemed like forever and following the news of an update, we were able to make the JVC accurate within an inch of perfection on my screen and in my room, which was nice, seeing as how our last calibration session, one involving the Sony 4K VW1000ES, didn't end as well.
Following the calibration of the X90RBU, I set out to find its e-Shift control, only to discover no control existed - at least, not at first. In order to test JVC's "4K Precision" claims and e-Shift as a whole, I felt I needed to be able to turn it on and off. If you just go by what the manual and JVC shows you on the onscreen menus, this seems an impossibility, which proved not to be true. However, in order to disengage the X90RBU's e-Shift feature, you must enter the projector's service menus, which JVC doesn't tell you how to do, so I will. By quickly pressing "up," "down," "right," "left" and then "enter" on the directional key pad, you can pull up the projector's service menus. Paging over to the third and final page will reveal an option called MRC, which is the e-Shift feature. I'm not sure why it's called MRC, but it does turn the e-Shift functionality on and off. While JVC may be cross with me for divulging this service menu information, I'm glad I was told about it for, as it turned out, my review unit's e-Shift was turned off! I might have done this whole review with the understanding that I was experiencing e-Shift, when in fact I hadn't. Not good, but a problem that was easily remedied and something you may want to double-check for yourself. While you're in the service menu, you may be tempted to screw around with other options or settings - don't.
With everything buttoned up and ready for action, it was time to see what the X90RBU could do.
4K versus "FauxK" (e-Shift)
Some of you may have already read my review of the Sony VPL-VW1000ES 4K projector and noticed that, despite its bleeding-edge technology and true 4K DNA, I came away less than impressed. The reason for this was simple: there is more to 4K than mere resolution. In fact, increased resolution beyond what we already have is difficult to discern unless your home theater has the ability to host a screen in excess of, say, 120 to even 150 inches or more. Even then, from proper viewing distances, it's hard to see. However, because all that the consumer manufacturers seem fixated on at the moment is 4K's resolution, testing these so-called enhancements is easy. When viewing 4K content through the Sony 4K projector, the image was nicely appointed and extremely detailed and sharp. You're going to have to take my word for it, because Sony is only making 4K content available to those reviewers who have been granted an audience with the VW1000ES, however short that period may be. On a side note, Sony was quick to remove the VW1000ES from my possession when they learned of my plans to do a head-to-head with JVC's X90RBU. Since there is no 4K content as of yet, both the Sony and the JVC are nothing more than 4K upscaling projectors.
Read more about the performance of JVC's DLA-X90RBU on Page 2.
From an upscaling perspective, there is little to no difference in image quality between what JVC is doing with e-Shift and Sony's native 4K projector from practical distances of, say, six or more feet. Once you get inside six feet or so, you may begin to notice a difference in overall image quality (emphasis on maybe), but from six feet away, one cannot take in an entire 100-inch screen comfortably, so the argument then becomes moot. Both e-Shift and Sony's true 4K sensor take the HD pixel structure, visible from up close, and effectively turn it into, more or less, grain, not too unlike what you'd experience when viewing up close 35mm film projected onto a screen. The best way to truly see e-Shift in action is to watch a film's end credits sequence, where added resolution is more easily seen, thanks to the often stark contrast and sharp lines associated with text. With e-Shift disengaged, letters with round edges appear decidedly pixilated up close (within a foot of the screen), whereas with e-Shift engaged, they're more or less smooth. HD animated films, such as the newly re-mastered Beauty and the Beast (Disney) do benefit, however slightly, from e-Shift, though CG animated films like Cars (Disney) don't benefit as much as does conventional animation. Does e-Shift hurt or degrade the image in any way? Not in any of my tests from practical distances, which leads me to believe that, while it won't revolutionize or transform your HD viewing experience, it won't ruin it, either. While Sony possesses greater light output, when both projectors are brought within the same SMPTE standard, there is little to differentiate the two, meaning as an overall value proposition, I give the upper hand to the JVC - at least, until actual 4K content becomes available, which I'll discuss in my conclusion.
HD Viewing with e-Shift
Having worked out the differences between upscaled 4K via a true 4K-capable sensor and the X90RBU's e-Shift technology, it was time to simply see what the JVC could do. With e-Shift permanently engaged, I cued up a couple of Blu-ray discs, starting with The Grey (Universal) starring Liam Neeson. The Grey is a decidedly noisy film that hides - indeed buries - whatever e-Shift benefits there would be in a thick, almost 16mm-like grain structure. The film was surprisingly shot on film and, given some of the on-set conditions (the environments are full of snow and ice), I'm sure the filmmakers had to push the film stock to its limits, hence the more noticeable grain. That said, there is a lot to sink its teeth into for a projector such as the X90RBU. Contrast was superb throughout, as was white-level detail (remember, the predominant color in the film is white). Black levels were inky smooth and the low-light detail, texture and clarity were also of reference level, easily besting both my Anthem and what I recall of the Sony, if I'm honest. Even with a lot of digital trickery happening in the background, motion, especially fast motion through strong horizontal and vertical lines such as the winter pines, was smooth and artifact-free. Edge fidelity was good, as was the sense of depth and dimension, though I've seen better. However, I am attributing the less-than-reference performance to the enhanced grain, rather than to any issues with the JVC. Skin tones, whether processed or affected by the outside elements, appeared natural, while the CG hair of the marauding wolves was vividly real, even if the wolves as a whole made me laugh every time they came on screen.
Moving on, I cued up Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (Paramount), starring Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner. Ghost Protocol is a decidedly more colorful film than The Grey, allowing the X90RBU to flex a bit more of its muscle. The explosion at the Kremlin was stunning to behold as the levels of detail, texture and visual nuance were amazing via the X90RBU. Dust and debris during the lightning-fast sequence was rendered with such contrast, sharpness and dimension that there was a true sense of depth to the image that didn't require 3D specs to be enjoyed. Color fidelity and saturation were spot-on and wholly natural. Brightness is one of the factors that the human eye mistakes for increased or enhanced resolution and/or image quality, which is one of the reasons why high-end DLPs can often appear to be richer in color and/or clarity to the common viewer. D-ILA projectors, including the X90RBU, have never been "light cannons" in the same way that DLPs have been. However, all things, specifically light output, being equal, the X90RBU was more than sufficient to give DLP a run for its money and, in my tests using Ghost Protocol, the X90RBU took D-ILA's performance to another level.
JVCs and D-ILA technology on the whole have long been regarded for their superb black-level performance. To test this I turned to David Fincher's remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Sony). Shot in 4K using the RED camera system, Dragon Tattoo is among the most beautifully shot films I've seen in recent memory. This shines via the X90RBU. The film's visually dark scenes (you could argue the whole film is dark emotionally) have a very documentary or true to life feel in that they appear to be lit largely by natural or available light. This means that where most projectors (and displays) will show much of the image as black, you'll see gradations of dark grey with the X90RBU. This is a good thing, for it saves absolute black for, well, absolute black. This added depth allows the image to retain more information and detail in the film's many low-light sequences and also showcases the JVC's superb contrast performance. For instance, in the film's climatic chase sequence, we're treated to a lot of black on black cinematography, with hits of light and color from the street lights above racing across the screen. The sharp, almost violent reaction to these hits of light were captured and rendered beautifully via the X90RBU. The final explosion was also a prime example of the X90RBU's real world contrast in action, a test it passed brilliantly.
Admittedly, I'm not a fan of 3D. It can make me queasy, so I try to limit my exposure to it. That said, I fired up one 3D Blu-ray in the form of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount). Transformers: Dark of the Moon was originally shot in 3D, as opposed to being an after-the-fact 3D conversion like so many early 3D films. I've found that this 3D in, 3D out method does result in a better experience and Dark of the Moon via the X90RBU only cemented my feelings. Before I get too far ahead of myself, there are some additional setup steps you have to perform before enjoying 3D content via the X90RBU. First, you have to install the 3D emitter, which is a bulky plastic dongle that affixes to a stand and must rest in front of or at least above your seated position. This may mean you have to affix it to your ceiling, which will be noticeable, for when I tried to simply place it atop the ceiling-mounted X90RBU with it pointing at a slight downward angle towards my couch, the 3D sync between it and the glasses didn't work. Since I only had the JVC for a limited amount of time and I don't watch a great deal of 3D content anyway, I didn't install the emitter in a more permanent fashion. Instead, I set it on my coffee table in front of my couch, which the cable was long enough to reach. This implementation of active 3D is very clunky and frankly behind the times, for I've encountered 3D projectors costing much, much less that have the repeater built into the projector itself, thus negating the need for dongles and such. The glasses are comfortable enough, though do little to block out side or ambient distractions, which is one of the factors I've come to attribute to 3D fatigue or strain.
Still, focused straight ahead, the 3D image was quite nice. I especially liked that, when sensing a 3D signal, the X90RBU doesn't automatically snap into a 3D mode or picture profile. In fact, it kept my calibrated User 1 profile on and intact for 3D viewing, which resulted in a much more pleasing experience, as opposed to the often super-vivid one I've come to expect via active shutter setups. With my User 1 calibrated picture setting engaged, crosstalk or ghosting was minimal to none and motion was smooth. Thanks to the 2:35.1 aspect ratio, aspects of the image didn't fully break the plane of the screen itself, because the black bars were there to remind me of its existence, but the depth was quite nice and at times felt very convincing. 3D often gets a bad rap for its lower light output, but I didn't find the X90RBU to be lacking in this regard. In fact I was able to enjoy 3D viewing, in my User 1 calibrated picture mode, in ambient light conditions. Of course, the 3D effect and experience was better with the lights off, but being able to watch projected 3D with some ambient light is a testament to the X90RBU's overall light output. While I didn't sit and watch the whole film, the few chapters I did view were enjoyable and on par with the best I've seen, even if the physical implementation of the technology itself felt a bit wonky.
The biggest gripe I have against the X90RBU is in its implementation of 3D. The need for such a large outboard emitter at this stage in the game and at this price point is absurd and silly. Furthermore, the emitter's lack of flexibility due to its highly directional nature is also frustrating. The glasses are comfortable enough and I like that JVC does include two pairs with purchase, but an outboard emitter at the $12,000 price point is simply missing the mark.
Next, I found the lens memory feature to be a bit hit and miss. If you're asking it to make subtle moves, it's not what I'd deem to be precise in its recollection of your settings, as evidenced in my tests in switching between my two screens, each offset by several inches. The projector often got the zoom and focus right, but for some reason, it insisted on believing that one screen was about six inches to the left of its actual position was. When I made the difference in screen sizes, placement and/or dimension greater, as for example when I simulated a shift between the 16:9 and 2:35.1 screens, it was far more accurate, though still not 100 percent exact. It is to be hoped that this can be remedied in a firmware update, for when JVC gets it fully dialed in, I see it as a worthwhile feature.
Lastly, I believe JVC should have included the e-Shift feature in the main menu rather than the service menu, if for no other reason than to allow all consumers to easily see that it is activated. I'm confident mine was turned off due to the reviewer before me playing around with it like I did, but mistakes can happen at the factory and it wouldn't be impossible to imagine a unit being shipped with one of the X90RBU's biggest features mistakenly disengaged. I'd be pretty upset if I spent $12,000 on a projector for its 4K upscaling, only to learn that I wasn't enjoying it some days, months or perhaps years later. Also, on the topic of 4K, I suppose I should ding the X90RBU for not being a true 4K projector, as when a consumer 4K format is finally ratified, the JVC won't play it back, because at its core it is nothing more than a 1080p projector. I should ding it for this, but I don't think I will, which I'll explain in my conclusion.
Competition and Comparison
JVC currently holds a monopoly on 4K upscaling projectors, since the only other one attempting 4K upscaling is the Sony VPL-VW1000ES and the reason it upscales is because it is, in fact, a 4K projector. The VW1000ES costs more than double what the X90RBU does and, thanks to there being a complete lack of consumer available 4K content now and for the foreseeable future, both can be judged on a level playing field, where the X90RBU is the better value at present.
However, the X90RBU is not the better value among e-Shift-enabled projectors. That distinction falls to the DLA-X70R, which at $7,999.95 is cheaper and virtually indistinguishable from the X90RBU. In fact, minus a slightly lower contrast ratio and non-included 3D glasses and emitter, the two projectors are identical.
However, there is still one other projector to consider and that is the far less expensive JVC DLA-X30, which at $3,499.95 may just be the best bang for the buck in this category. The reason the X30 competes favorably with even the X90RBU is due to the fact that, from practical viewing distances when viewing SD and HD content, it difficult to discern the difference between HD and upscaled HD to 4K. Taking this into account, the X30 possesses most of the same features and functionality of the X90RBU, but at a third the price. It's even brighter in terms of light output than the X90RBU.
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So the question that remains is, "With 4K around the corner. should I buy the X90RBU?" If I were in the market for a new top-of-the-line, cost-no-object projector, knowing full well that there is no 4K standard as of yet, despite the existence of the Sony VW1000ES 4K projector, I'd probably go with the JVC over all others. From a resolution standpoint, there is little to differentiate the X90RBU from the costlier Sony in that both are nothing more than upscaling 1080p projectors at present. When viewed through that lens, both offer similar, if not the same, picture quality in terms of resolution. The JVC bests the Sony with regards to its ability to be calibrated to THX and SMPTE standards (not to mention ISF), which the Sony cannot achieve. While the Sony may be brighter, if you value image accuracy and calibration, its added brightness is all but wasted on anything but the largest of screens. If you have a screen in excess of, say, 150 inches or more, then I feel the X90RBU's light output will not be sufficient. In that case, the Sony or perhaps a DLP-based projector would suffice. However, in the real world, judging the two on an apples-to-apples basis, the JVC is the better projector. Furthermore, one could purchase the X90RBU now for just under $12,000 and a 4K projector later for the same amount of money and still be ahead a thousand dollars over Sony.
Where the X90RBU's legitimacy or value becomes murky is when it is compared to its own stable mates, for the DLA-X70R is essentially the same projector for $4,000 less. Furthermore, if you're inclined to hold out until JVC comes to market with a true 4K projector, then I'm afraid the DLA-X30 is the projector to buy overall.
Regardless, my greatest takeaway from my time spent with the X90RBU is this: while it may still be a "FauxK" projector, the X90RBU has nothing to be ashamed of regarding its performance, for it is the best projector JVC has made to date and one that manages to upset its true 4K competition for the time being.
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• Explore screen options in our Projector Screen Review section.
• Learn more about 4K and what it means.