Epson Makes a Home Theater Mark
By Jim Bray
Epson may not be a name you'd associate ordinarily with high quality home theater equipment, but if its PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 is any indication, this is a company serious about being taken seriously.
Epson sent me a sample of this $5000 U.S. front projector, a handsome and sleek little thing that oozes "state-of-the-art" and we put it through its paces with DVD's, upconverted DVD's, HDTV and Blu-ray titles. Being a front projector, we had to set it up temporarily in a suitable home theater, which limited our choices of where and how we could mount it, but we came away from our viewing tests impressed at the overall price/quality combination of this unit. We'd be more than willing to make it the heart of our big home theater, replacing a 1080i rear projector CRT we've been using happily for more than six years.
The PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 starts off with just the specs you want: it's 1080p capable, with more than two million pixels in each of its three LCD panels. The result of this pixel count is full high definition capability that can run the newest video formats such as Blu-ray and HD-DVD natively.
Not only that, but Epson boasts that it has a contrast ratio of 12,000:1, which is traditional CRT and plasma territory and head and shoulders above most LCD TV's on the market today – some of which can't even offer more than 1,000:1 contrast (though, granted, those ones are also a lot cheaper).
Brightness is rated at 1200 lumens, which might seem low but was mostly adequate in our home theater installation. Remember, you'll probably have the lights low in a front projection theater anyway. I'd still love to see its output a little higher, but can easily live with it the way it is.
Epson includes an auto iris system on the projector that controls the lamp intensity constantly, based on the gamma and black/white levels you're projecting. The iris also helps "work" the contrast numbers, since the iris will close down somewhat to interpolate blacker blacks in dark scenes and open up in bright scenes. It also helps give truer blacks than possible before.
And instead of needing a "keystone" control to adjust the screen shape to account for the compromises often encountered in mounting the projector in the real world (where it may not be possible to mount it exactly in front of the screen), you have horizontal and vertical shift dials to ensure the picture is aimed just right. They work fine.
Focus and zoom rings surround the lens, and there's an infrared receiver and ventilation slots sharing the projector's front. A simple control panel is on the top (or bottom, if you ceiling mount it) and the rear offers all the connectivity you're likely to need: HDMI 1.3, component video, S and composite Video, PC, RS-232 control, trigger, and more. There's also an infrared receiver on the rear, for better coverage potential.
And here's something unexpected: the Epson comes with an extra bulb and a ceiling mount in the box!
Speaking of bulbs, the 1080 uses a proprietary lamp Epson says provides consistent light from corner to corner, using the least amount of power. Naturally, there's a cooling fan, and I wish there weren't (but such is the state of the technology). Fortunately, it isn't too obtrusive, especially when the projector is on its "low" setting.
Here's something else unexpected: the projector comes ISF-certified right out of the box, meaning it's already calibrated to meet the home theater industry's highest standards. This is great! I had my current reference rear projector ISF calibrated a couple of years back and was blown away by the difference afterward. It's a worthwhile investment if picture quality is important to you.
I'm not sure how "ISF in a box" translates into an individual viewing room, but if nothing else it's a great starting point considering that many TV's are sold with the brightness and/or contrast tweaked high so they stand out on a retailer's floor, not in their eventual home. Hat's off to Epson for doing it right; now let's see the rest of the industry take note.
(Update: April 24, 2008: I recently used Joe Kane's DVE HD Basics disc to check the Epson's calibration and was impressed by how close to optimal it was after several months of use: a very minor tweak to the red was all that was required to make it perfect. Well done, Epson!)
One thing that used to bug me about LCD projectors is how when you got truly large screen sizes you could make out the pixelization, making the picture look like you were watching through a screen door. There's none of that here; the picture is very clean and crisp and clear. I wish you could adjust the focus via the backlit remote control, but I guess they assume that once you've installed and set up the TV it'll never change. They've obviously never heard of Murphy's Law.
On the other hand, providing a "power focus" feature would likely would add to the very reasonable price tag. And on the other, other hand, we haven't had to adjust the focus since mounting it anyway.
Setting up the Epson is a breeze. Once you've placed it in front of the screen (and you have quite a bit of flexibility as to distance and location), all you really have to do it hook it up and power it up. From there, a fairly simple but quite comprehensive menu system will walk you through all the settings, from resolution to color temperature, front or rear/shelf or ceiling mount, etc. And you can save your favorite settings into memory.
The manual gives good information on how and where to set up the projector. We used a screen that approximated 96 inches in 16x9 widescreen mode, and we set the projector about ten feet back. That gave us a terrific cinematic experience, though if I were to install it permanently in my home theater I think I'd opt for something even bigger. Why? Because I can!
We set up the Epson using the Digital Video Essentials disc, and the color was good right out of the box. We did tweak the brightness down a tad, and lower the sharpness somewhat, but overall the projector worked well, mostly as it was shipped. Later, I put it back to its factory default settings and found them perfectly adequate as well.
For test material, we used a few Blu-ray titles as played on Sony's BDP-S1 player, as well as conventional DVD's we played in 480p and up converted to 720p, 1080i and 1080p on our reference Rotel RDV-1093 DVD player. The Blu-ray titles were all over the map, but on X Men III the picture was stunning. Contrast and color saturation were excellent, and the overall picture was very satisfying; we could see clearly that depth that only seems to come from a high contrast display in a progressive scanning mode. Even those stupid FBI warnings we're forced to sit through looked great.
The scene in XIII where we first see Kelsey Grammer's deep blue character and his meeting with the President displays great detail and depth, as does the one later when Magneto and his henchmutants spring Mystique from the prison truck – and the scene later where he moves the Golden Gate bridge looks very spectacular.
As for the Blu-ray titles being all over the map, this is the old "garbage in, garbage out" syndrome and relates to the quality of the discs, not the player or the projector. For example, while X-III shone, we were very disappointed by the softness of Superman Returns.
Likewise, the regular and up converted DVD's were also very entertaining. High quality discs like The Incredibles looked, well, incredible with the Rotel/Epson combination and, while I can see why someone would want to go the Blu-ray or HD DVD route for the potential of truly spectacular picture, the up converted DVD's (at least as played on the Rotel), are good enough to let you wait out the format war. Even regular DVD's played at 480p looked great.
We finally had a chance to try the Epson with HD television material, and it was very satisfying - we watched some high def sports broadcasts ('cause they traditionally give you the best picture), and Epson's performance was excellent. We could easily make out the texture on the gridiron, and in car camera shots of car races made you want to don a fire resistant suit.
Bottom line? The Epson PowerLite Pro Cinema 1080 is a terrific front projector, especially at its price. I've seen more expensive equipment that doesn't give a picture quality like this. Add its state-of-the-art resolution and input capability and you have a real powerhouse of a projector.
A front projector isn't for everyone, but if you have the room for it and the inclination, you can't go far wrong with this exciting home theater component.
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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