LED technology has become somewhat synonymous with HDTVs in the past few years, though one could argue it has failed to catch on in the front-projection markets. The reason for this may be the result of two contributing factors: first, early LED-based designs were dim in comparison to traditional lamp-based projectors and, second, first-generation LED projectors often cost more than their UHP lamp counterparts. Regarding early LED projectors' light woes, few possessed enough sheer light output to ignite screens in excess of 80 to 92 inches (16:9), which didn't put them high on enthusiasts' "must have" lists. As for LED's often higher cost, the value proposition behind having a projector that lasts 20,000 hours didn't resonate with consumers when the starting price was often triple that of a comparable UHP lamp- based projector. Additionally, there was zero savings at your electrical meter by going with LED, which flew in the face of conventional wisdom surrounding the efficient light technology and, for many, put the kibosh on what would've been the next front-projection purchase. However, we now find ourselves amidst LED's second (or possibly third) go-round in the front projection market, and the question on my mind is, what's changed?
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Back in August of 2010, I reviewed one of the industry's first consumer-oriented LED front projectors in the form of Sim2's MICO 50. The MICO 50 was big, semi-bright or bright enough in darkened environments, and very expensive at $22,000. It also was, at that time, the only LED available to consumers, as Vivitek, Runco, Digital Projection and others including the LED-based Pico projector products had yet to hit the market. So, with nothing to compare it to, the MICO 50 became the reigning king - if only by default. My, what a difference two years can make, for while all of the above-mentioned brands still offer an LED solution or two, Sim2 appears to be the only manufacturer moving forward in a positive direction with the technology. Sure, LED is catching on in the business marketplace, but those projectors are aimed at on-the-go presentations and computer connectivity, not large-scale HD entertainment. Few of the new projectors are HD-capable or bright enough to light up a 60-inch screen, let alone a 120-inch one.
This brings us to Sim2's latest LED-based projector, the M.150. Without belaboring the issue, it's expensive - as in $27,995 expensive. For now, I ask that you ignore the M.150's price tag, for there's a lot of good news ahead, not only for Sim2 and the M.150, but also for the future of LED technology in the home marketplace. The M.150 itself is a stunning piece of industrial design, as are most Sim2 products. Its glass-clad outer shell and soft-touch rubber heat sinks (they are heat sinks, right?) dress up the M.150's otherwise basic square shape. The projector itself measures 16.5 inches wide by 20.9 inches long and 8.7 inches tall, which is large. More impressive still is the M.150's weight, which at 61.7 pounds puts it in the Herculean category. The all-black glass affair is broken up in the front by the presence of the large SIM2 MICO custom-designed lens for LED optical light engine lens, which can be had in three varieties: T1 (standard), which has a throw ratio of 1.5 to 2.1:1, T2 at 2.1 - 3.9:1, or a short-throw option at .675:1.
The M.150 is a single-chip (.95-inch) DLP design, featuring Texas Instruments' latest darkchip 4 chipset, good for a native resolution of 1920x1080. It uses a SUPER Pure LED light engine sourced from Luminus, not unlike what is found in the Grand Cinema Mico lineup of products also in Sim2's stable. Because the M.150 uses an RGB (red, blue and green) LED light engine, the M.150 does not employ a color wheel and therefore does not suffer from the dreaded rainbow effect. It also means that M.150's life span is no longer rated in hundreds or maybe thousands of hours, but instead tens of thousands of hours, 30,000 to be exact. The M.150's LED light engine is good for a reported 1,000 ANSI lumens with a contrast ratio of 100,000:1 (full on/full off). Now, you might think that, because the M.150 employs LEDs as its light source, that they might somehow make it more efficient. Sadly, no, for watts are watts, and whether you require five or five hundred, it's all the same. In the case of the M.150, this means an operational power draw of 390 watts, with an eco standby mode of less than one.
Turning my focus to the M.150's back panel revealed a host of connection options and controls, the last of which are located behind a stealthily disguised trapdoor that I almost missed completely. The M.150's inputs include one composite video input, one component video input, a single RGBHV (D-Sub, 15-pin female) input and two HDMI inputs. The HDMI inputs are 3D, DeepColor and InstaPort-compatible, but not 4K, which we'll talk about more later. Communication ports include a single USB 1.1 input and RS232. The USB input is used for serial commands and firmware updates, whereas the RS232 port is for serial commands only. Outputs include a single VESA DIN-3 for use with the M.150's outboard 3D emitter, as well as a three 12-volt triggers, one for system on/off, aspect ratio control and anamorphic lens attachments.
In terms of 3D, the M.150 is a 3D front projector and comes complete with an outboard 3D emitter and four pairs of active 3D glasses. The M.150 is compatible with all HDMI 3D formats, as well as all DVB formats.
This brings me to the M.150's remote. Oh, Sim2 and your Italian ways. Up until this point, much of the ergonomics and design of the M.150 had been pretty straightforward, practical and, well, gorgeous. Sadly, the remote is none of those things, and while I can forgive it to a point (due primarily to the fact that most M.150 owners will probably never touch the thing), it's among the worst I've encountered. Buttons, while backlit, are not intelligently labeled and much of the layout seems haphazard at best. Furthermore, simple commands on other remotes require multiple keystrokes via the M.150's remote. Is it impossible to learn? No, for once I got over the learning curve, I was able to use the M.150 remote quite successfully, but it's not a remote you can just intuitively start using out of the box. Also, and more surprising, it possesses none of the visual or stylistic flair of the M.150 itself (or any other Sim2 product for that matter). Instead, it's rather cheap-looking and feeling, if I'm honest. If there was ever a projector that should ship standard with an Android tablet or iPad it as its remote/manual, it would be the M.150.
Unboxing and setting up the M.150 is a job best left to a custom installer or your dealer, which is how I imagine most M.150s will be installed. However, I did it solo anyway, which wasn't too difficult, despite the projector's size and weight. I removed the M.150 from its box and placed it atop my IKEA bookcase, which on paper sounds like a horrible idea. However, it's one of IKEA's more "chunky" bookcases, which has stood in for a projector mount on more than one occasion. The bookcase provided a stable platform for the M.150's operations, as well as putting the large lens at near perfect height - center mass of my 100-inch, 1.2 gain Dragonfly screen.
Aligning the image to my screen was easy as pie, thanks to the M.150's motorized lens and responsive nature. Zoom, shift and focus were buttery smooth. In terms of focus, the M.150 dished out one hell of a naturally sharp image. I connected the M.150 to my system via a 30-foot run of Transparent Cable's Premium Series HDMI cable, which in turn was connected to the second monitor output of my Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp. I set my Integra to pass-through mode, meaning zero video processing and/or manipulation would be applied to the signal going to the M.150. Source components included my newly-constructed HTPC, as well as my Sony BDP-S580 universal player.
Powering on the M.150 for the first time proved to be a somewhat frustrating experience for a moment, in that there is no power button on the remote. That's right: there is an off button, but no on button. To turn the projector on, you must know to hit one of the input buttons instead. Once powered up, you're treated to a bright Sim2 welcome screen that hangs around for what feels like 20 seconds or so before the on screen input label appears. The onscreen menus are nicely rendered, though their layout and navigation could be better. Still, once you've learned the ins and outs of the remote, both it and the menus are easy enough to navigate.
Out of the box, the M.150 is bright - really bright - measuring over 20 foot-lamberts (22 to be exact) in my room. For those of you who may not be aware of what this mean, that's bright, especially for an LED-based projector. Out of the box, however, the M.150's grayscale and color accuracy leave little to be desired. To assist me in calibrating the M.150, I employed the help of THX professional calibrator and friend Ray Coronado Jr. of SoCalHT. We used two different calibration techniques in order to not only dial in the M.150, but also to check our work as we went. One system utilized my SpectraCal C6 light meter working in conjunction with SpectraCal's CALMan calibration software and Ray's professional signal generator. The other method used Ray's new Konica Minolta meter, which is the reference standard among professional calibrators, as well as Sim2's own CMS software called Live Color. The Live Color software does not come standard with the M.150, though it's not an add-on, but merely a software package your dealer/installer or calibrator has. It requires the use of a PC, an RS232 to USB cable and the M.150 itself in order to function properly.
The first thing we did in tuning the M.150's image was to set its brightness and contrast, which we did by eye, using professional-grade patterns. Doing so brought the overall light output down within the range of SMPTE standards, which is between 12 and 16 foot-lamberts, less than the out-of-the-box 22 figure from earlier, but one that produced deeper, richer blacks while retaining proper contrast. From there, it was time to set the white point, which was accomplished by going into the M.150's onscreen color management menu and setting the primary color space to HDTV, with the white point set to User. From there, we were able to move the white point along the x and y axis of the Rec 709 (HDTV) color space until we got it dead center. With the white point set perfectly (or near as makes no difference), and with the Gamma Correction option set to Parametric 2.2 and LED overlap set to off, the M.150 measured a near-textbook perfect grayscale and gamma curve.
It was at this point that we began to calibrate the M.150's color, for once we set the white point properly and re-measured, using both the C6 and Konica Minolta meters, we noticed the color accuracy of the entire projector improved dramatically. Using the Live Color software and the C6 meter, we began the process of dialing in each of the M.150's primary colors. This was determined much in the same way as we did the projector's white point, meaning that we adjusted the point by moving it along an x and y axis until it reached its target box within the color spectrum. We basically played Battleship with the color coordinates until both the primary and secondary targets were reached. The Live Color software worked brilliantly and, once everything was set, the final calibration measurements were near-perfect across the board. Blue represented the largest error, but one that was still well below acceptable tolerances. In truth, neither Ray nor I had seen a projector measure as well as the M.150 post-calibration. So much for the myth that Sim2 projectors "can't be calibrated."
To be sure that what we were seeing was not a fluke, we ended up moving the M.150 to another location, Ray's personal theater, and repeating the above process over from the beginning, only to achieve largely the same results. I say "largely" because there was a difference in the M.150's measured light output in Ray's theater versus my own, due in part to his darker, less reflective walls. But outside of a slight drop in foot-lamberts (still within SMPTE standard), the grayscale and CMS proved to be near-perfect once again.
Furthermore, the M.150 features what Sim2 calls Autocalibration, which is a bit of a misnomer, even though the feature itself is cool as hell. Autocalibration is not automatic calibration, in that the M.150 will not calibrate itself. Instead it will, via a sensor in the optical path, keep your calibrated settings intact over the life of the projector. Meaning, in theory, once the M.150 is calibrated, it will remain so over the life of its LED bulbs, which Sim2 lists at 30,000 hours, or roughly 16 years, should you choose to watch for five hours a day, every day, until reaching 30,000 hours. In comparison to traditional lamp-based front projectors, each and every time you change your bulb, which could fall anywhere between 500 and 1,500 hours, you must also then re-calibrate said projector. Both new bulbs and fresh calibration can and will add up over time. Does it add up to $28,000? If you spent $3,000 on your projector initially, then probably not, but if you purchased, say, a $10,000 to $15,000 projector to start, then perhaps the M.150 becomes more of a value. Now, is it realistic to believe that anyone nowadays is hanging onto any video display for more than five to maybe seven years? No, which makes the idea that someone would still be rockin' a M.150 16 years from now even more absurd, even if it could technically survive that long.
I began my subjective evaluation of the M.150 with The Fifth Element on Blu-ray disc (Sony). This is a film I have - hell, we've all - seen countless times, which is why it has no doubt secured a spot on many of our demo lists: it's familiar. That said, the film, via the M.150, looked decidedly new, as the image appeared fresh, even poppy, and crisper than any other presentation of it that I can recall. The colors were rich, well-saturated and, above all, accurate. Contrast was superb, as were white and black levels. Fine details, textures and other visual nuances were present, accounted for and rendered without fail. Skin tones and textures were equally exquisite, but most of all, there was a natural sharpness and focus that simply beggared belief. When the action moved outside and to the scenes involving the flying cars and multi-tiered city, there was a real sense of depth and distance to the image that I had never really seen or experienced in all my previous demos. The M.150's natural edge fidelity was just so absolute and lifelike in its portrayal that it no longer seemed muddied by its digital pedigree. It was, for lack of a better word, organic. Furthermore, there seemed to be a lack of grain present in the image. I'm not suggesting the M.150 somehow removed the 35mm grain structure from the image, for it didn't, but it didn't feel or look as apparent as it had via my reference D-ILA projector. Truthfully, I could've watched the whole film from start to finish, so enthralling was the image.
Read more about the Sim2 M.150's performance on Page 2.
Moving on, I cued up Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount) and simply watched the opening sequence, which takes us from Cybertron to the moon to the Kennedy White House, and then back to the moon for the Apollo mission. The opening battle on Cybertron was presented in a decidedly cinematic way, reminding me of the images I witnessed when viewing the film in theaters. The black levels were out of this world, as was the M.150's low-light detail. I saw further into the battle, as well as minute details, like nothing I'd ever seen before. Motion was silky smooth, with nary an artifact present, despite the image's sharp, contrasting edges, mixed with rapid camera movement and onscreen action. Colors were rich, well-saturated (in fact, overly saturated, per the director's intent), and simply leapt off the screen in way only DLP projectors can seem to enable. When the action returned to Earth, the image remained as engaging as it had when it was among the stars. Skin tones, textures and period details were rendered faithfully and without any editorializing from the M.150 itself. Nothing escaped the M.150's lens, and had I had the Sony 4K projector on hand for a head-to-head, I would've sworn the image put forth by the Sim2 was the 4K one - it was that crisp. Moreover, having used the same demo during my Sony 4K review, I was more caught up in the image put out by the M.150, as I wanted to watch it rather than analyze it endlessly, which is what I did when viewing the same content via the Sony.
To evaluate the M.150's 3D performance, I stuck with Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is also available on Blu-ray 3D. I forced the M.150 into 3D mode (for some reason, I couldn't get it to automatically switch) via the remote, threw on a pair of included 3D specs and away I went. What struck me straightaway was that the M.150 didn't automatically pop me into some form of 3D picture mode, meaning my THX calibrated image settings remained intact. While that may sound like a bad thing, it wasn't, for the image had more than enough light to come across as bright and vibrant without burning my eyes with an overly bright torch mode. While I'm not the biggest fan of 3D, since most active demos give me headaches and nausea, I sat through the opening of Dark of the Moon in 3D and came away very impressed. The 3D effect was effective, thanks to the M.150's lack of crosstalk. Contrast remained strong, as did color fidelity throughout. Black levels were also very respectable. White levels did bloom in some instances, but not so much so as to be distracting. The included glasses were comfortable on my face and the added plastic around the side of the lenses kept most ambient light out of my peripheral vision, thereby aiding the 3D effect. The sync between the glasses and the emitter proved rock-solid and synced up without fail on every attempt. As far as 3D goes, the M.150 is as adept with it as it is with 2D. I only wish I could appreciate the 3D as much as I do the 2D. Oh, well.
As impressive as the M.150 is visually, there are a few functional items and day to day livability issues that need to be addressed. First, the M.150 is large and very heavy, which may make it difficult to install in some spaces. I have to imagine those with the means to afford the M.150 have dedicated rooms and/or can otherwise accommodate such a projector. Still, careful consideration should be taken when installing the M.150 anywhere, especially on a ceiling.
Second - I'm told this issue has been remedied but since I have not yet experienced this solution, I must address the matter - the M.150's liquid cooling pump is a bit loud. Sim2 assures me this is an anomaly exclusive to my review unit, but in case it isn't, you should be aware.
Speaking of cooling, the M.150, despite its LED nature, puts out a lot of heat, enough in fact to raise a room's ambient temperature a degree or two - yes, I checked. How much of this can be attributed to my particular unit using an early prototype or pre-production model liquid cooling system, I can't be certain. Suffice to say that, in my experience with my unit, things got a bit warm.
The M.150 does not have a lens cover, automated or otherwise, to help protect its gorgeous optics when not in use. Extra precaution should therefore be taken to insure that excess dust, debris and/or foreign objects are kept away from the lens.
Regarding the M.150's 3D application, I didn't much care for its use of an outboard 3D emitter. At nearly $28,000 retail, I expect the emitter to be built in, though Ray was quick to comment that, should you install the M.150 in its own enclosure or projection booth, you'd want an outboard emitter. While I understand his argument, I still feel as there should be an emitter built-in for those of us without projection booths, if for no other reason than to keep it from spoiling the projector's tailored good looks.
Lastly, and maybe this is more my personal pet peeve than anything else, the M.150's remote is just terrible and about as non-intuitive as anything I've experienced. It's as if all of the projector's features and functions were pulled blindly from a bag and attached to a button on the remote just as haphazardly and then labeled by a child. Seriously, the buttons are backlit, but many of their labels are not. Menu buttons are marked as + or -, whereas Enter is merely a graphic dot - what the hell is that!? At nearly $28,000, Sim2 could raise the price of the M.150 $300 to $500 and throw in a tablet PC or the like and none of their customers would be the least bit upset - at least, not as upset as they'd be if they had to use the included remote.
Competition and Comparison
While Sim2 is not the only front projector manufacturer to offer an LED-based product, it is, it seems, the only one moving forward with the technology in earnest, as both Runco and Digital Projection's current LED lineups seem unchanged at present. Both Runco's QuantumColor Q-750i and Digital Projection's M-Vision Cine LED Series projectors are good in their own rights, not to mention cheaper, but fail to hold a candle to the M.150 in terms of absolute performance. Even Sim2's own Grand Cinema Mico 50 LED projector is left in the dust by the M.150.
So where does this leave the M.150? Among LED-based projectors, I consider it to be atop the heap, but there is the issue of 4K one must now consider. Sony's latest flagship projector, the VPL-VW1000ES, is one such 4K projector. At a hair under $25,000 retail, it's cheaper than the M.150. Both have similar light output, meaning both can be used in large, purpose-built home theaters, but when and if a 4K standard is introduced to the home, the Sony will be ready, whereas the M.150 will not. Does that make the Sony better, or at least a better value? Value maybe, but better overall, absolutely not, for while the Sony may possess 4K powers, it's currently little more than a 1080p projector that upscales to 4K. In doing so, the Sony introduces noticeable grain to the image (I said grain, not pixels), which is nowhere near as laser-sharp as the M.150's natural HD image. Furthermore, there is no way to calibrate the Sony without having to resort to an outboard processor such as a DVDO Duo, which raises the cost of ownership to basically equal that of the M.150. However, should a 4K standard hit the consumer market, the added investment in a product such as the DVDO would be rendered moot, for its calibration features would be relegated to the HD realm only, meaning you'd have to buy another outboard processor or hope Sony updates the projector's firmware in a timely manner. So, with all those factors in mind, it is my opinion that the M.150 is the better all-round projector. When looking only at image quality, it is the hands-down winner.
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So how best to wrap up the Sim2 M.150 LED DLP front projector? On one hand, it is among the more expensive front projectors on the market at just under $28,000 (the most expensive LED model currently). On the other hand, it produces arguably the finest image I've ever seen from any projector, period. While the M.150 may not be the value leader among front projectors, LED longevity be damned, its ability to made near-perfect after calibration and the image quality that is enjoyed as a result is nothing short of amazing. If it were me, and I had the means and opportunity to purchase a truly reference-grade, cost-no-object front projector for my home theater or screening room, my list would definitely include the M.150. Having had the opportunity to experience and enjoy the M.150's impeccable image quality, it may be the only high-end front projector on my list at present.
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