Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at HomeTheaterReview.com. His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.
One of Optoma's most exciting new products is their new HD20 projector. It is a 1080p DLP-based upon Texas Instrument's 65-inch BrilliantColor 16:9 ratio chipset. The HD20's brilliant color is provided via a six-segment (RGB), four-speed color wheel, with video processing courtesy of Pixelworks' PW392 video processor. The HD20 does not have an iris, auto or otherwise, but it does have a virtual iris through the use of Optoma's "Image AI" system. Many of you may be wondering why a projector of this description is so exciting; its feature set is unremarkable in the sub-$5,000 projector market. What makes this projector so remarkable is that Optoma's HD20 is only $999. This is the first and, to my knowledge, the only 1080p DLP projector at this price point. The HD20 allows a 1080p front-projection system to compete with a mid-sized flat panel displays. For the first time, someone looking for a large 1080p display can get a 100-plus-inch image for about the same price as a 50-inch-class flat panel display. If you watch a lot of sports or movies with guests, this can be a huge advantage.
• Read Adrienne Maxwell's review of the Optoma HD8600 projector here.
• Check out Jeremy Kipnis' review of the Optoma 806 1080p 1-chip DLP projector from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Read more front video projector reviews on HomeTheaterReview.com's front video projector archive page.
• Pick the best video screen for your DLP video projector from this HomeTheaterReview.com video screen resource page.
The HD20 is on the smaller side; it's a little over 12 inches wide by four inches high by 10 inches deep, weighing a spry six pounds, thanks in part to its lightweight plastic shell, which features an attractive curved industrial design. The front panel has an offset lens with manual zoom and focus, with a large portion of the front panel vented for cooling. Attractive grooves cover the unvented portion of the panel and match up with the ribs on the vents. A similar treatment can be found on the side panels. The rear panel has a modest connection panel with the following inputs: two HDMI, one VGA, one component video and one composite video. The rear panel also sports an IEC power connector, 12v trigger and mini-USB port. The HD20 also comes with a backlit remote and discrete buttons for power on and off.
The HD20's inputs can accept a wide variety of video signals, including NTSC, PAL and SECAM, as well as computer formats, including HD, UXGA, WXGA, SXGA+, SXGA, XGA, SVGA, VGA Resized and VESA, which will let it work with both PC and Mac computers. Optoma claims 1700 ANSI lumens of brightness and 4000:1 contrast ratio.
I replaced my reference front projector, a Marantz VP-11S2, with the Optoma HD20. While installing, I was skeptical that I would find the HD20's image to be as pleasing, or as enjoyable, as my reference Marantz, given its supreme affordability and diminutive size. I placed the HD20 on a stand immediately below my ceiling-mounted projector and connected it to a Marantz AV8003 processor with a 30-foot HDMI cable that NuForce was kind enough to supply, as my Kimber HDMI cable would not reach down far enough from the ceiling to work with a stand-mounted projector. Source units included Oppo's BDP-83, a Halcro EC-800 DVD player and, briefly, a Marantz UD-9004, which I just received for review.
The HD20's 1.2 zoom lens provides for a relatively short throw length, so I had to move the projector forward from my normal position in order for the image to fit my 110-inch 16:9 SMX screen. As the projector stand was immediately behind my seating position, it had to be high enough to clear the seats. This placed the projector about a third of the way up from the bottom of the image. When placed at this position, I had to place shims under the rear leg to keep the image on the screen. Unfortunately, this introduced keystone issues. I eventually placed the projector on a lower shelf and reclined the seat in between the projector and the screen to provide a clean path. While my temporary installation caused some challenges, a typical ceiling mount at the proper height and distance would remedy this. As with any other projector, make sure the projector's throw and offset work with your particular room.
Once I had the HD20 firmly in place, it was easy to use the manual zoom and focus adjustments to size and focus the picture with the internal pattern generator. An easy-to-navigate menu system presented many options. Users can select from several preset modes that include cinema and reference modes. If the user is capable of doing calibration personally, or decides to invest in a calibration, the HD20 allows the selection of color temperature, gamma and RGB gain, among other adjustments, that will allow the unit to be professionally calibrated, although I suspect many users at this price range will not spend the few hundred dollars that profession calibration requires. Lucky for us, the HD20 is pretty well set up straight out of the box. I suspect that the cinema and reference modes will work well in most theater set-ups.
In my set-up, the lamp's bright mode was not necessary and I kept the "Image AI" turned off. "Image AI" is a system that acts somewhat like an iris, lightening and darkening the image based upon content. While it did improve black levels, it was much slower to react to image content than the automatic iris systems found on more expensive projectors and I left it turned off. Lastly, I noted that the HD20 would even work with an anamorphic lens. Yes, I know that most anamorphic lens systems run several times the price of the HD20, but I am still pleased to see this feature on the projector. A friend of mine has an anamorphic projector set-up. His main projector has been in the repair shop for months and I have no doubt that he would have spent the $999 to buy the HD20 as a backup projector if he knew about it while his projector was unavailable.
I first checked out the Silicon Optix test disc. I was immediately impressed with the image quality. It was much more natural than other "bargain" display units I have seen. The first test I tried was the "Jaggies" test, with one rotating bar in a circle. The HD20 did fairly well, but fell just short of passing the test. The HD20 passed the second test, which has three bars moving back and forth like a pendulum. Detail and noise reduction were only fair by current standards, but will likely not be noticed by the non-videophile.
I then tried the Spears and Munsil Blu-ray, which has a good variety of test patterns, demo and set-up material. Despite its low price, the HD20 did fairly well with minimal visible artifacts on most materials, but its performance was only fair with the source adaptive materials. Although sharper than the DVD source material, the 1080p material did not appear as sharp through the HD20 as did most of the better 1080p projectors in the $3,000 to $5,000 range. I also tried using the HD20 as a computer display for my Macintosh with the output set at 1080p. The projector locked onto the signal quickly and did a fine job displaying images. Text was a bit more difficult to read, with some lines blending into the background. I found that changing fonts often alleviated the problem.
Moving on to the real world applications that most people will use this projector for, I grabbed a few movies to see how they would look. I began with Transformers on Blu-ray (Paramount Home Entertainment), as I hadn't seen it for a while. In my light-controlled room, the picture was bright and vibrant on the 110-inch SMX screen. The colors were reproduced fairly well without any artificial neon greens. The only noticeable color deviation was a slight red push that I noticed on flesh tones. The reds of the machines may have been a bit exaggerated as well, but as they are bright reds to start with, it was hard to tell. The few dark scenes lost some of the details in the relatively high black levels. There also appeared to be some image noise in the darker scenes that was not as apparent in the brighter scenes. Color uniformity was fairly good, with only slight deviation across the image. Having watched portions of this Blu-ray on many different displays, I was surprised to note that the HD20 did a surprisingly good job keeping up with projectors that cost several times as much. Where the more expensive projectors differentiated themselves from the HD20 were in black levels and sharpness. In these areas, the more expensive projectors clearly excelled. Otherwise, the bargain-priced HD20 ran with the pack.
The next movie I watched has been one of my favorite reference pieces of late, Casino Royale on Blu-ray disc (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). While I usually start with the dark opening scene, I often find myself getting so involved with the movie I end up watching much more than I planned on viewing. The first scene of the film takes place at night in black and white, with a man getting out of a car in front of a modern steel and glass building. I noticed a slightly higher video noise level in darker scenes, such as this one, than in the brightly-colored chase scene that follows. The images from the opening and subsequent chase scenes confirmed my initial impressions. The overall picture image is very good, but dark scenes suffer from less-than-perfect black levels and the finer details are slightly blurred, limiting the depth of field.
While watching football through a few different DirecTV 720p feeds, I let the Pixelworks processor in the HD20 do all of the scaling. The lines on the field remained mostly free from jagged edges, with only the occasional brief aberration. Again, the colors at the out-of-the-box settings seemed to be a bit over-exaggerated. They required a bit of downward adjustment, but were otherwise okay. The color fidelity was not super-accurate, but I never suffered through the neon greens or other aberrations that plague so many earlier inexpensive digital displays.
Standard DVDs were scaled better than I would have expected. Motion and scaling artifacts were relatively minor in nature and quantity. I played The Incredibles (Walt Disney Home Entertainment), which provides large fields of uniform color, to check color uniformity and also look for video noise against the film's clean backdrop. The images had minimal noise, but I could spot slight deviations in color uniformity if I watched closely for them. Watching a few live-action DVDs, the deviations in color uniformity were much harder to spot and will likely be unnoticed by the majority of viewers.
A few last notes about using the HD20. Even though the HD20 was positioned much closer to my seating position than my normal projector, noise was never an issue. Many other low-priced projectors tend to be noisier due to fans and/or color wheels that are not as well-implemented or acoustically shielded. Not so with the HD20, which was surprisingly quiet. Unfortunately, the large vent openings that undoubtedly help keep the projector quiet contributed to significant light leakage. When this projector is used in a multi-purpose room that already has ambient light, any impact will be minimal, but in a dedicated, dark theater room, it is noticeable.
In order to bring a 1080p projector to market at this price point, some compromises have to be made. The question for the potential purchasers is whether these compromises are important to you. The black levels of the HD20 were on the high side. The black levels will limit contrast levels that can be achieved with this projector. More important in most installations will be the lack of shadow detail the projector is capable of resolving. While this is an issue, this projector is likely to be installed in settings that are less than ideal for achieving optimum contrast and shadow detail.
In my dedicated, light-controlled home theater, the projector's light bleed was very noticeable. This could be an important issue in light-controlled rooms, particularly if the projector is placed in front of the viewing position and in the line of sight