In the beginning it used to be that if you wanted to watch a 16:9 (1:85:1) or 2:35:1 native film on your 4:3 standard definition television, you had to live with black bars top and bottom of your screen. Now that 16:9 HDTVs have become the norm, black bars on 16:9 or 1:85:1 material have become a thing of the past. However that's not the case with 2:35:1 or anamorphic material, which still renders black bars top and bottom - albeit smaller than with older 4:3 sets.
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Anamorphic or "scope" aspect ratio films (1:85:1 is sometimes referred to as "flat") have been with us since the Fifties. Like 3D today, anamorphic films were released as a way to get theatergoers back to their area theaters in direct response to the arrival of the home television set. The term anamorphic refers to the spherical lens used with film cameras whereby a larger or wider image is optically manipulated or "stretched" onto a standard 35mm frame. In turn, an anamorphic lens must also be used to project that same image or negative in its proper aspect ratio (2:35:1). For example, when looking at a native 2:35:1 captured frame without an anamorphic lens, the image appears vertically stretched whereby the performers and/or the surroundings appear leaner and taller then natural. When viewing that same frame through an anamorphic lens, the lens itself either optically stretches the image horizontally or squeezes the image vertically (depending on the lens design), thus allowing it to appear in its proper format or ratio. Either method results in a properly displayed 2.35:1 image with the proper image geometry restored.
Now, with regards to home theater, a 2:35:1 or anamorphic film doesn't use the full resolution of a 1080p HDTV or projector. Instead it uses about two thirds of the available pixels, for the remaining pixels are being used to display the black bars top and bottom. In other words, despite your Blu-ray's claims of offering a true 1080p image, the "actual" image of your favorite Hollywood blockbuster is anything but full 1080p. In fact, with most 2.35:1 films you actually end up with a resolution of about 817p, with the remaining 263 rows of pixels simply shut off. What's a home theater enthusiast to do?
In the past few years, a number of higher end home theater projectors (there is currently no mass-produced 2:35:1 native HDTV available in the US) have begun offering what is commonly referred to as an anamorphic or vertical stretch mode, which is designed to be used in conjunction with an anamorphic lens attachment. Traditionally, these types of setups or home theaters have been expensive, requiring a 2:35:1 native screen, not to mention a high-end projector and anamorphic lens. That was then. This is now.
Panamorph, a company out of Colorado Springs, Colorado, has been on the forefront of anamorphic lens technology for the home cinema marketplace and with their launch of the FVX200J Anamorphic Lens System, reviewed here, they're out to prove you can have your home theater cake and eat it too. The FVX200J retails for $2,995 and is a fixed lens solution designed to work exclusively with JVC D-ILA projectors for their Reference and Procision series. Panamorph recently announced compatibility with Epson and DPI front projectors as well. For the record, Panamorph makes a variety of anamorphic lenses, fixed as well as motorized, which work with every major home theater projector available today.
The FVX200J is a straightforward, easy to use and install anamorphic solution for the home theater enthusiast or videophile on a budget. It's designed to affix to JVC or JVC-based projectors, such as my Anthem LTX-500 projector, via two small holes located on the bottom of the projector near the lens. Installation couldn't be easier, taking roughly two minutes to screw the lens into place and another three to five to align it properly in front of your projector's lens, at least that's all it took for me. Obviously installation times may differ depending on how familiar you are with your home theater projector's optics. The FVX200J is designed to work with the above-mentioned projectors installed in an on ceiling or upside down configuration.
The FVX200J is a vertical compression lens, meaning it optically squeezes the vertical image back down into its proper aspect ratio, in this case 2:35:1. Since the image itself is going to be displayed correctly via the optics in the FVX200J, you have to engage your projector's V-Stretch or vertical stretch mode. By engaging your projector's V-Stretch mode, you're telling your projector to stretch the incoming image or signal across the entire panel, in other words no more wasted resolution on useless black bars top and bottom. However, since the FVX200J is a fixed solution this also means that non 2:35:1 (i.e., 16:9 and 4:3) material will be viewed through the anamorphic lens, which will require you to turn off your projector's Vertical Stretch mode as well as set the projector's aspect ratio to 4:3. Since the lens effectively stretches the 16:9 image by 33 percent to fill the 2.35:1 screen, it needs a corresponding 25 percent compression to counteract the stretch of the lens so that 16:9 native material displays correctly. Remember, the FVX200J will vertically compress the 4:3 image to 16:9; however your 16:9 images won't be true 1080p now either, instead they'll be more in the ball park of 1440x1080 due to your projector rendering black bars left and right of the image (though once compressed via the FVX200J they are not visible). Sounds complicated, but I assure you it isn't, for you can easily program a remote to toggle between 16:9 and 2:35 material with ease - I did.
Yes, but how does it look? In a word... amazing. The effect of being able to watch 2:35:1 source material in its native aspect ratio, without bars top and bottom, is amazing. We've all seen 2:35 material in the theaters; personally I've mastered films in the format. And when it comes to viewing that same content in our homes we choose to "live" with black bars - well, not me, not anymore. The image is far more immersive than any big screen HDTV can hope to be. Furthermore the image itself gets an added punch of detail and impact thanks to the entire HD chipset being used on the imagery versus being wasted on useless black bars. The FVX200J doesn't rob projectors of any noticeable light output the way some anamorphic lenses can and do, meaning I was always able to enjoy a bright, beautifully saturated and crisp 2:35:1 image the way the filmmakers intended.
As for 16:9 material, the slight loss in horizontal resolution wasn't really noticeable if I'm honest, considering most of the 16:9 content I watch comes via HD broadcasts. The broadcast's compression robbed the image of clarity far more than the FVX200J did. Furthermore, while watching 16:9 material that does result in a slightly lower resolution then the 1080p standard we've all become so enamored with, there is far less being lost to black bars when viewing 16:9 content via the FVX200J than when viewing 2:35:1 content without it. Native 16:9 or 1:85:1 content on Blu-ray looked as impressive with the FVX200J installed as it did without it - I'd hardly call it a deal breaker.
Read more about the high points and the low points of the FVX200J on Page 2.