So I bought a projector...

The future of home entertainment

Late last year, while I was waiting to move into my new flat, I looked into buying a new television. My previous set, a 42" back projection model had developed a scratch on the screen, probably while I was moving out of my old place and I thought I'd treat myself to a new TV as a housewarming gift to myself. A decent-sized plasma telly was a bit out of my price range so I decided I would go for either an LCD set or a DLP back projection TV.

I went to a home cinema show to see what was on offer. The theme of the show was the forthcoming high definition revolution and I was very impressed by all the HD-ready televisions. The DLP sets showing hi-def footage looked particularly good.

Then I ducked into a booth demonstrating an LCD projector. It was showing the Mark Wahlberg remake of The Italian Job on a 120 inch screen which took up most of one wall. I was stunned by what I was seeing. This wasn't like watching a big television, it was like being in a cinema. The picture was far superior to what I was expecting. The biggest factor that puts DVD enthusiasts like me off projectors is the assumption, made without seeing one in action, that mere DVDs won't look good blown up to projection screen size.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

With a good projector and screen, the picture quality of a well-mastered DVD is not far off cinema quality. The image is astonishingly sharp, clear, bright, colourful and vibrant. The first time you see a DVD showing at this size is a revelation. "That's what DVDs can do?", you'll exclaim. "And there I was showing them on my small widescreen set for years!"

You may be reading this sceptically, thinking, "He's exaggerating - it's probably nothing like cinema quality and more like what football matches look like down my local". If that's you, you owe it to yourself to arrange a demo.

I saw a couple of projectors running high definition material, a preview of what HD-DVD and Blu-Ray will soon be delivering. The image is undoubtedly sharper than DVD and hi-def looks particularly good showing computer animation and native high definition video footage. However, I must say that when it comes to showing ordinary, live-action cinema films, the difference is not nearly as pronounced and it could even be argued that the slightly softer DVDs look more cinematic. Nevertheless, all of the projectors I looked at and which are named in this article are HD-ready.

The projector showing The Italian Job was an Epson EMP-TW600. I also saw a Sanyo PLV-Z4 showing The Day After Tomorrow and some DLP models screening Gladiator. In all cases, the picture was stunning.

My Hitachi PJ-TX200 in all its glory

I was sold. I was going to buy a projector. One of the benefits of my new flat is a large living room so there was plenty of room for a nice big screen. First things first though: I had to choose a projector.

My budget was £1000 - £2000, which is low-to-mid-range. There are good projectors available for under a thousand and there are some stunning top-of-the-line machines for rich folk who can afford to pay five or ten thousand but the ones that had impressed me had all been in the very low four-figure bracket. In the end, I paid just under £1300.

I did my research. I read a lot of reviews. If you want something you can read on the train, Home Cinema Choice is the best British magazine. Their number one projector for under £3000 is the one I bought and I agree entirely with their assessment.

There are also some excellent online resources:

Projector Central is a great American site, offering very helpful reviews and reader feedback.

Germany's Cine4home provides more in-depth evaluations.

Some highly technical reviews can be found at Asian-based AV Buzz where a clever fellow calling himself CKL casts a beady eye over the latest machines. Be warned - he nitpicks. What's just about passable for CKL will probably seem amazing to you.

C-Net review projectors amongst many other things.

This article at 3D Answers provides a very handy comparison between the top mid-range LCD and DLP projectors -

Forums are an invaluable way of learning about projectors from experts and consumers alike. I lurked at two major home cinema forums - the British AV Forums and the American AVS Forum and I kept a close eye on threads referring to the projectors in which I was interested. I ruled out one or two based on negative feedback.

The most important thing of all is find a good retailer - someone honest who knows what he's talking about. It can be a minefield. I visited a branch of a certain high street chain that specialises in hi-fi and home cinema equipment and the salesman there tried to flog me a projector costing twice as much as I wanted to pay, telling me things I knew from my research were bare-faced lies to put me off buying a cheaper model. There are good retailers out there, usually run by enthusiasts. One talked me out of buying a particular projector even though he lost the business.

These three I can personally recommend from my own experiences (confirmed by reading the opinions of others):

Nexnix in Horsham, West Sussex
Discount Electrical in Colne, Lancashire
Ivojo in Havorfordwest, Pembrokeshire

Try and find a retailer not too far from you, preferably with a showroom since you'll want to see at least a few projectors up and running before you buy one.

My living room. Excuse the mess!

I spent a couple of months doing research, during which time I looked at a number of projectors in my price range. Eventually I settled on the Mitsubishi HC3000, a highly regarded DLP model. Most consumer projectors use either DLP or LCD technology. Both have their pluses and minuses but the difference between them is constantly narrowing. At this point in time, DLP offers a slightly but undeniably better picture.

I called a retailer that stocked the Mitsubishi and arranged a demo. As expected, the picture was nothing less than spectacular. The demo disc was The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers and it showed off exactly what this projector could do.

Unfortunately there was a problem. Affordable DLP projectors suffer from a phenomenon called the Rainbow Effect (or RBE). The way DLP works is by using a spinning colour wheel to alternately display the three colours that make up a colour TV picture. Red, green and blue images flash on your screen so quickly that the human eye resolves them into a full colour image. However, some people's vision is sensitive to this and they see bursts of brightly coloured light, particularly when there's fast movement and high contrast on the screen. RBE can cause some viewers to get headaches and even become ill.

I saw the rainbows. About every 30 seconds I saw a flash of bright colour. After the ten-minute demo, my head was fuzzy for a couple of hours. Only a minority is affected by RBE but it's a serious issue. If you're looking at DLP projectors or DLP back-projection televisions for that matter, it's essential you arrange a proper demo and you bring along your family, your girlfriend, anyone who's going to be watching films regularly with you.

For me it had to be LCD. This format also has issues, such as Screen Door (or Chicken Wire) Effect caused by pixels looking visibly separated on the screen and Vertical Banding, which displays an outline of the LCD chip on large, lightly coloured areas of the screen (eg: the sky). However, a good LCD projector should all but eliminate these problems. I've yet to experience them on the one I ended up buying. The top range DLP models also eliminate rainbows by using 3 separate colour wheels but currently this technology is well out of most people's price range.

I went back to the projector review sites and forums and I narrowed my choice down to four machines: the Sanyo PLV-Z4, the Epson EMP-TW600, the Panasonic PT-AE900E and the Hitachi PJ-TX200. Each of these projectors had its champions and its critics but the general consensus among the reviewers and the forum posters was that you couldn't go far wrong with any of them.

A screen that does justice to Lone Wolf McQuade

I decided ultimately on the Hitachi PJ-TX200 (known in the US as the Hitachi Ultravision HDP-J52), which for me had the best balance of brightness and picture quality. Too much brightness can damage picture contrast but I'd need a machine with a lot of lumens since I wanted the biggest screen I could fit in my flat. Incidentally, don't rely entirely on the lumen ratings you see on manufacturers' spec lists (1000, 1200, 1600 etc). There are other factors involved. Read reviews and feedback and ask for demos. This is also true of contrast ratios and other specs, which are often outrageously exaggerated.

My next task was to get a screen. Like I said, I wanted the largest screen I could fit in my living room, that would still show a sharp picture. 120 inches is roughly the maximum recommended size for a projector screen with today's technology. That was slightly too large for my room but 115" would fit nicely. Living on my own, I don't have to worry about whether a screen "dominates" my room (one of my married mates is forbidden from having a TV larger than 36 inches!) but there are screens that roll up into convenient cylinders if this is an issue.

I looked at screens on the net and priced them and I soon realised I'd be paying the best part of £1000 for a decent screen of that size. However I noticed through reading the forums that many members built their own screens or projected onto white walls covered with special paint. The wall option was out because of the unusual shape of the room but building a screen seemed feasible. My dad, a retired director of a textile company, had spotted in a magazine advertisement that the fabric some companies used to make their screens was a popular roller blind material he had sold (American PVC-laminated blackout fibreglass) so we went to one of his former customers and bought a 10 foot roll. We then bought a 9-foot by 6-foot board from a timber merchant along with two thick posts, a pair of metal feet for the posts and a number of bolts. The screen ended up costing under £200 and it does the job superbly.

I already had a sound system - an inexpensive but perfectly good Yamaha amplifier and speakers. Make sure you have one yourself since projectors tend not to come with any sort of sound.

My collection of classic mid-80s movies

Now came the fun part - turning on the projector and watching DVDs. I was delighted to discover the TX200 is a superb projector right out of the box. Just switch to the Cinema High setting with the remote and you're ready to go. Certain other projectors, like the Sanyo Z4 need a fair bit of manual tweaking to look their best. You can tweak the Hitachi too but it's not necessary. Technically my baby is flawless. I've had no issues with it whatsoever in four months.

Of course you do really have to watch movies in the dark - not necessarily pitch blackness but if you're going to be watching during the day, you'll need blackout blinds or curtains. There are bright projectors - the Epson TW600 in particular - and most have picture settings that are designed for use in daytime. However, the brighter settings won't have a cinematic picture quality and they're better suited for watching TV or playing games via your computer or console. Films just won't look their best. If you want a cinema-style picture, you will need cinema-style light conditions.

The most pleasant surprise was that it's not just the "demo" DVDs, the recent blockbusters that look sensational on my 115" screen, it's ordinary back catalogue titles as well. So far I've mostly watched movies from the eighties and early nineties - Lone Wolf McQuade (R1), Code Of Silence (R1), Tightrope (R1), Fletch (R1), Under Siege (R2). All of these look terrific. When I have put on a "demo" disc, like Blade II (R2) for a mate or Shrek (R2) for my cousin's little girl, the results have been truly amazing.

Of course discs that are less well mastered look less impressive. The one serious disappointment I've had is that an alarming amount of my region 2 discs suffer from poor transfers. Problems like edge enhancement and aliasing, which I could ignore on a 42" TV are a distracting eyesore at 115". Bad transfers seem to be overwhelmingly region 2 discs. The problem is mostly confined to older DVDs - many of the early Warner titles look horrendous - but newer ones suffer too. Fox's Fantastic Four (R2) is riddled with nasty shimmering effects.

In certain cases I was able to directly compare region 1 and region 2 discs of the same film and in all the examples I viewed, the region 1 version was better. Usually there was just a bit of shimmering or some jagged lines on the R2 that weren't there on the R1. However, in some cases, like Mission: Impossible II, the R2 looked like a bad pirate copy of the R1 version.

I was surprised because I had assumed that region 2 would have an edge over region 1 at such a screen size because of PAL's greater resolution. This is not the case at all. At 115", there's no discernible difference in picture quality between well-mastered, anamorphic PAL and NTSC transfers. I've had these findings confirmed by several other projector owners so I'm confident it's not just my personal set-up.

On the whole, I'm thrilled with my new toy. My living room has now become my own personal cinema. Okay it has a broken-down old sofa instead of luxury seats and my cheap Yamaha speakers can't quite compete with the Empire Leicester Square but on the other hand there are no morons answering their mobile phones and the refreshments are loads cheaper.

If you want to watch movies as they’re meant to be seen and if you have the space, think about getting a projector. You won't regret it.

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