In July of last year, I reviewed the M.150 SIM2 projector, which was a single-chip, LED-lit design. I came away from that encounter forever changed, for not only did the M.150 challenge the notion that one needed to have 4K for big screen viewing (you don't), but it also redefined what it meant to be a benchmark product. The M.150, post calibration, measured better and performed higher than any projector I had seen to date, including the widely touted Sony VPL-VW1000ES, a native 4K projector, whereas the M.150 was merely HD. The M.150 was, and still is, prohibitively expensive for all but the top echelon in this hobby. I would argue that such performance often comes at a price. The buck stops with the M.150. I was so enamored with the M.150 that I tried to acquire it, but even I, what with my industry connections and accommodation pricing, could not make it happen. Rest assured if I could, I would. The M.150 did more than just upset my high-end apple cart - it ignited my newfound affinity for DLP.
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For years, I had been an LCD man, more specifically an SXRD and then later a D-ILA front-projection enthusiast. Despite reviewing a DLP projector here and there, none of them made me want to ditch my "chips" in favor of "mirrors" (remember that ad campaign). Then the M.150 came about and everything changed. In my quest to acquire the M.150 for both personal and professional reasons, I began to look at the concept of DLP on a whole and, in talking with SIM2 representatives, it became apparent that one of the traits that I found most attractive was the M.150's single-chip fidelity. While I am aware that there are three-chip DLP projectors, the single-chip design and its inherent sharpness is something no multi-chip anything can match. Knowing how regulated the DLP platform is by Texas Instruments, I asked the SIM2 people if they felt any of their other, "lesser" single-chip designs would be able to go toe-to-toe with the M.150, but at lower price point. The product they pointed me to was their Nero 3D-2, which is the subject of this review.
The Nero 3D-2 rests within SIM2's Domino line of projectors, which includes the more expensive Sirio, two Nero variants and a pair of low-cost Crystal projectors. The Nero isn't what anyone would call cheap - retailing for $19,990 the Nero 3D-2 is nothing if not a high-priced high-end product, though the Nero undercuts the M.150's retail price by a full $8,000. Although we live in an era that now has to contend with 4K, $19,990 is still a lot of money for HD. However, as I've pointed out in other articles and reviews, resolution isn't even half of the story when it comes to true image fidelity, so don't write HD or the Nero off just yet. In terms of appearance, the Nero is a decidedly SIM2 product, in that it (largely) shares the same physical shape as countless other SIM2 projectors before it. Suffice to say, you won't be mistaking a SIM2 projector, or the Nero, for an Epson, JVC or Optoma. The sculpted lines of the Nero chassis are clad in a sort of soft-touch rubber-like material, as opposed to bare plastic. The finish is matte black, meaning that, unlike other projectors, including the M.150, the Nero "disappears" in a dark room, rather than becoming a source of reflected light. This is a big deal. The chassis itself measures 18 inches wide by a little over eight inches tall at its highest point and nearly 18 inches deep. I say "highest point" because the custom Fujinon lens rests inside a "bulge" that protrudes upward from the projector's right side (facing the lens), thus adding more flair to its already sculptural shape. The projector, fully equipped, tips the scales at a respectable 25 pounds, so only the most robust of ceiling mounts need apply.
While nothing can be done about its off-center lens position, you can order the Nero with one of three lenses. The standard configuration is what SIM2 calls the T2 lens, which is how my review sample was equipped. The T2 lens has a throw ratio of 1.82-2.48:1. In practical terms, a Nero fitted with the T2 Fujinon lens can fill a 100-inch screen from a minimum distance of around 13 feet. SIM2 offers a shorter throw lens, the T1, which has a 1.37-1.66:1 throw ratio, good for 100 inches from just under 10. There is a longer throw lens, the T3, with its 2.54-3.90:1 throw ratio, which fills the same size screen from a minimum distance of almost 19 feet. Those with smaller rooms will most likely have to opt for the T1 lens, though I'm told the optics contained with the T2 and T3 lens are superior to that of the T1, which is why the T2 is the default lens for the Nero. The lens can be adjusted manually along the vertical plane, with focus and zoom being motorized via the remote. Aspect ratios supported include 4:3, 16:9 anamorphic, letterbox, panoramic, and pixel to pixel, plus three additional user-defined sets.
Following the Nero's round flowing lines around back, you'll find its input panel. The Nero's inputs include HDMI 1.4a (2), VGA-UXGA (D-Sub, 15-pin), analog component, composite, 3D sync out, RS-232 and USB. There are also three 12-volt triggers present for items such as motorized drop-down screens, as well as anamorphic lens sleds. A standard 15-amp power receptacle can also be found lurking on the back panel, along with a master on/off switch. The RS-232 and USB inputs can be used for control/calibration, as well as software and/or product updates. There are manual controls located on the back of the Nero as well, though once alignment of its optics is complete, most will opt for control via the remote.
Behind the scenes, the Nero is a single-chip DLP design, with a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. The Nero possesses SIM2's patented ALPHAPATH light engine, which is good for a reported 2,000 ANSI lumens (maximum). The lamp is rated for up to 3,000 hours in Eco Mode and 2,000 hours in standard. The Nero's DynamicBlack feature boosts its listed contrast ratio to 30,000:1. It also features SIM2's take on frame interpolation and/or motion processing in the form of PureMotion. There is a mode labeled PureMovie, which bypasses all processing and brings you the incoming signal in its "truest" form, something purists will no doubt gravitate towards (I did). PureMotion, on the other hand, is akin to many of today's frame interpolation schemes that endeavor to eliminate judder from fast-moving sequences by duplicating and/or creating frames based on those that come before and after the reference frame, i.e., the one present in the original signal. Nero features a PureMotion 3D mode as well, which may be more useful than its 2D counterpart. And yes, the Nero is a 3D projector utilizing active 3D technology, meaning an emitter with compatible glasses will be necessary to view 3D content, both of which are optional extras.
This brings me to the remote. The Nero's remote is the same as that found on the M.150, which I wasn't fond of then and still dislike today. It's quirky. It's not impossible to learn, nor operate in the dark as it is fully backlit, it just isn't very intuitive straight away. I really wish SIM2 would ditch it in favor of an app or something more universal, but alas, it's the wand you get.
Unboxing the Nero is an easy enough job for one, but mounting it to your ceiling definitely requires an extra set of hands (or two). Because I knew I wanted to mount the Nero on my ceiling rather than table-mount it as I had the M.150, I called Chief and had that company ship me a RPA Elite mount, complete with the custom SIM2 Nero mounting plate. The whole kit went together like butter and, thanks to Chief's rather ingenious pin and lock system, the Nero was hanging from my ceiling in no time. As a side note, if you're going to spend the money on a projector such as the Nero, or any high-end projector, for that matter, I strongly urge you to protect your investment by buying the custom mounting plates made by companies such as Chief, rather than rely on expandable armatures or the like.
Once on the ceiling, aligning the Nero's optics to that of my 120-inch AcousticPro 4K Elite Screen was no trouble at all. Minor adjustments were made to the lens' vertical alignment via an included Allen key, and from there, it was on to zoom and focus, both of which are handled via remote. SIM2 includes test patterns inside the Nero (what doesn't nowadays?) to aid in both zoom and focus adjustments. Once those tasks were completed, I simply put some hours on the bulb. Projector bulbs change, sometimes dramatically, over the course of their first few or 50 hours. They also change as they near the end of their lives, meaning that while the manufacturer-listed lifespan of any projector bulb may be 2,000 hours, figure the true usable time of that life expectancy is about half to three-quarters of what is claimed. It's still a lot, but it ain't 2,000 hours. This isn't an indictment of the Nero, but rather an observation on all traditional lamp-based front projectors.
Since I don't watch movies and/or television 24/7, it took me the better part of a few weeks to rack up about 50 hours on the bulb. Once the bulb settled in for the long haul, I gave my friend and resident calibrator Ray Coronado Jr. of SoCalHT a call. Ray aided me in the calibration of the M.150, a process that was unlike any other, as the calibration procedures for a DLP are markedly different from that of an LCD-based projector. DLP calibration is akin to a game of Battleship, which in the case of the Nero means employing two computers: one for the SpectraCal meter and software and the other for the Nero's own calibration software. Most Nero customers will never see this side of the Nero's installation, as a dealer or custom integrator will be carrying out these tasks without the customer's knowledge or input. In other words, it's just part and parcel of owning a high-end product such as the Nero (you hope).
With all the equipment plugged in and ready to rock and roll, Ray and I took some out-of-the-box measurements. It's no secret that SIM2 projectors are notoriously out of sorts in terms of their overall image accuracy out of the box, and the Nero is no exception. Out of the box, the grayscale was terrible, with an average Delta E of 9.6, with red representing the largest error. The Delta E for color, again out of the box, was 6.5. SMPTE standard necessitates Delta E be less than 3 for both color and grayscale, which obviously, out of the box, the Nero does not achieve. Also, light output was poor, measuring a paltry three-and-a-half foot-lamberts on my 120-inch screen. Now, my screen is acoustically transparent, so it is costing me and thus the Nero some measure of light there, but even with the typical gain of 20 percent (the average loss attributed to acoustically transparent screens), the out-of-box light output of the Nero would still be less than five foot-lamberts. My room is wrapped in black fabric, ceiling and all, so it wasn't as if I wasn't getting an image - I was - it just wasn't as bright as I initially expected.
It's after calibration that most SIM2 projectors, including the Nero, begin to make good on their high-end pedigree. Earlier I stated that the M.150 was the most accurate projector I had ever seen. While the Nero didn't quite match the M.150's performance, it came close. Post-calibration, the grayscale largely tracked true, with an average Delta E of 1.26, a far cry from 9.6 or three times the acceptable margin for error. Delta E of 1.26 is not only acceptable, it's remarkable, though red again was the weak link in the chain. Color improved exponentially, possessing a Delta E of only .8 post calibration, well below the allowed margin of error, and closer to mirroring the accuracy benchmark set by the M.150. Brightness also improved, though not by a whole lot, managing only five-and-a-half foot-lamberts on my screen. Add the 20 percent loss due to my screen's acoustic transparency, and you'd probably be in the neighborhood of six-and-a-half to seven foot-lamberts total. The resulting image didn't appear dull in any way shape or form, but I really wouldn't recommend pairing a Nero with a screen in excess of 120 inches. I consider 120 inches, even in a light-controlled room, the real edge of its capability as it pertains to light output. Those with light-controlled theaters with screens ranging in size from 92 to 110 inches will be far better equipped for the Nero.
Source components used for this review included Oppo's BDP-103 Blu-ray player, as well as the Dune-HD Max media player. The only other piece of equipment in the Nero's signal chain was my Integra DHC 80.2 AV preamp, which was set to "Through," meaning it did nothing but switch the incoming video signal, rather than try to convert it. With everything dialed in and saved to memory, it was time to get on with the show.
Read about the SIM2 Nero 3D-2 DLP projector's performance on Page 2.
I began my subjective evaluations of the Nero with James Cameron's Titanic on Blu-ray (Paramount). This stunning transfer looked positively brilliant via the Nero. In my light-controlled room, the image didn't appear down on light at all, but rather popped off my screen. No doubt this was a direct result of my room being swathed floor to ceiling in black fabric. Still, the colors were rich, vibrant and most of all true to the source material, with zero signs of editorializing on behalf of the Nero. Skin tones, despite some rather heavy color correction on the part of the filmmakers, looked natural set against the film's stylistic color palette. Black-level detail was good, though black levels on a whole were a few shades above absolute black - not uncommon for DLP-based projectors.
Actually, for a DLP, the Nero's black-level performance was near class-leading, but still not quite to the standard of, say, certain JVCs. Contrast was good, as details in both bright and dimly-lit scenes were easily discernable. More importantly, areas of high contrast, such as hair set against a largely white or light blue sky, didn't suffer any color fringe or panel alignment errors due to the Nero's single-chip design. I set the Nero to PureMovie, meaning I bypassed any internal video processing or frame interpolation. The resulting image was one that was cinematically smooth and free of artifacts. The Nero's detail and natural edge fidelity were astonishing, giving certain scenes and images a sense of organic dimension.
Moving on, I cued up Road to Perdition (DreamWorks) on Blu-ray. While not as punchy, as Titanic the image still felt alive. Road to Perdition is a decidedly darker film in its palette, which gave the Nero a workout, as both its black-level performance and contrast were tested. Again, the darkest regions of the image were not absolute, but rather a shade of 90 or 95 percent gray. Not perfect, but definitely worthy of enjoyment. Contrast was solid, evident in the detail still discernable in the film's darker regions, despite the Nero's inability to produce true black. Lighter moments were equally impressive, as sharp highlights remained composed and neatly defined. Any and all blooming present was there at the behest of the cinematographer and not a result of the Nero's inability to toe the line. Color, while far more steely than that of Titanic, still was portrayed naturally. Skin tones were especially organic in both their color and texture. Motion was again buttery smooth, and artifacts, aside from the usual digital compression (not the Nero's fault), were a non-issue.
I ended my evaluation of the Nero with Iron Man on Blu-ray disc (Paramount). I chaptered ahead to Iron Man's attack on the compound where he had been imprisoned earlier in the film. Focusing first on detail, I was amazed at how cleanly and clearly the Nero rendered each tiny speck of falling or exploding debris. When Iron Man is shot out of the sky and lands in a crater of his own creation, the following shot of him crawling out of the hole was so vividly real that the individual grains of dirt looked and felt like authentic dirt. Too often with multi-chip or panel designs, fine detail and/or contrast gets lost in alignment errors - not the case here. The contrast between the organic and non-organic in this same scene was staggering, as was the Nero's ability to keep its highlight composure, like when the sudden flash and shockwave of an explosion played out in front of a near-uniform sky. Colors, again muted, seemed true to the film and never looked to play favorites towards any one hue. Grayscale tracking appeared dead accurate, as whites appeared white and grays and blacks were properly gray and black. Again, blacks could've been a touch deeper, but it was never bothersome.
My biggest takeaway from viewing some of my favorite movies via the Nero was this: it always felt cinematic. Because of its single-chip nature, the way in which the Nero portrays an image is more film-like than what is provided by most multi-chip and/or panel-based front projectors. Via the Nero, things like film grain actually appear to look like film grain rather than subtle pixilation, not that you're seeing the pixels, per se. The simplicity and focus inherent with single-chip designs is something that, once experienced firsthand, is hard to live without. I wish the Nero could have been brighter, as I feel a few extra lumens would've done nothing but enhance its already wonderful picture. However, in spite of its lower light output, the Nero's image was still first-rate.
Lastly, and this is an issue that all fans and/or would-be DLP customers must face, is the rainbow effect. DLP has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and while the Nero may rely on a color wheel, any resulting rainbow-related anomalies are not really an issue. I'm susceptible to seeing rainbow-like artifacts, and I have to admit, while I saw a few on occasion, their occurrences were few and very far between. Again, this isn't a knock on the Nero, as all single-chip DLPs can suffer from this, though how bad a single-chip projector appears to be as a result is largely dictated by the viewer's own eyes. For example, my wife doesn't see rainbow artifacts at all, even when I purposely try to recreate them. Go figure.
There is a lot to like about the Nero, though it's not perfect by any stretch. First, I feel SIM2's light output claims about the Nero are optimistic, as I've measured other projectors with similar reported ANSI lumen ratings and have gotten far superior results. As it stands, I cannot in good conscience recommend that those considering building a theater around a screen in excess of 120 inches diagonal consider the Nero as a projector, as I just don't think it has the light output. Screens below 120 inches diagonal, in light-controlled rooms, should fare okay, with screens dipping down to 110 and even 100 inches diagonal faring even better. If your room has any ambient light, forget it, as the Nero needs what its name suggests: blackness.
The Nero runs warm and, as a result, is fairly loud under a load. This isn't wholly unique to the Nero per se, as all projectors, even LED-based ones, have fans. It's just that the Nero's fans aren't as quiet as some. They're not as loud as some others, though. Also, because most of the Nero's rear panel is dominated by fans and vents, those who choose to mount their projectors overhead should expect a subtle rise in the room's temperature. Plan accordingly. I mounted the Nero almost eight feet behind my primary viewing position, so temperature changes and/or fan noise were less of an issue, but in overhead tests, I could see it becoming a problem.
There's no automated lens cover or cap with the Nero or any SIM2 projector I've come across. Maybe it's the filmmaker side of me, but I like to protect my optics when not in use, rather than have 'em just hanging out there. I'm don't know whether future or newer SIM2 models have automated lens caps, but I sure wish one was present on the Nero.
Competition and Comparisons
There is no shortage of high-end front projectors, both LCD and DLP, especially ones retailing for around or less than the Nero's asking price. While I consider the Nero to be exemplary in virtually every regard - save maybe light output - it's not the undisputed champion that its sibling the M.150 is. That being said, the Nero competes favorably and in some instances bests projectors such as Sony's VPL-VW1000ES ($24,999), which despite its 4K capabilities still does not possess the liquidity and focus the single-chip Nero does. Nor does the Sony calibrate as completely as the Nero, though the former trounces the latter in terms of light output.
The JVC DLA-X90RBU is another solid contender, which admittedly has more in common with the Nero that perhaps the Sony, in that they are both native HD displays, capable of similar (though not the same) light output and can be calibrated within an inch of their lives, so to speak. The JVC is almost $8,000 cheaper than the Nero, though whether that makes it "better" is up to the end user, as their visual styles, D-ILA and DLP, couldn't be more different.
There are far less expensive single-chip DLP projectors available today, too. Digital Projection's M-Vision Cine 230 springs to mind at just under $7,000, though at that price, it's likely a better match or comparison to SIM2's Crystal projectors rather than the Nero.
For more on these great projectors, as well as others like them, please visit Home Theater Review's Front Projection page.
My journey with the Nero began because of how enamored I was with the M.150 which, sadly, I couldn't afford. While the Nero couldn't be more different from the M.150 in terms of internal architecture and build, the end results are eerily similar, as the Nero puts forth an accurate cinematic image not unlike that of the M.150. High praise, considering the M.150 is near-perfect both on paper and to my eyes. While the Nero may be down on light and thus requires potential users to consider screen sizes below 120 inches diagonal, in the right environment, it's flat-out amazing. Yes, it needs to be calibrated and, yes, the remote still sucks, but at the end of the day, when everything is said and done, I can think of few single-chip DLP projectors that do it better than the Nero.
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