I’ve reviewed several such displays that cost around $1,000. In this article, I look at the Epson Home Cinema 640 LCD projector with an MSRP of only $359.99. It truly is a portable television that will fit in a laptop bag.
Epson Home Cinema 640 Compact LCD Projector
- Small lightweight form factor for easy portability
- Super-bright image, over 140 foot-Lamberts in Dynamic mode
- Two color-accurate Cinema presets
- SVGA (800×600) resolution
- Built-in speaker
- Automatic keystone correction
There are a multitude of choices in the portable projector market. Models that can be easily carried in a shoulder bag are plentiful at around $1,000. Epson’s new Home Cinema 640 checks most of the same boxes but it comes in at a super-cheap $359.99. You’d be hard-pressed to find a flat panel for that unless it’s quite small. This projector can throw an image up to 300 inches diagonal while nearly equaling the light output of most LCDs.
3-Chip Polysilicon TFT Active Matrix (LCD Microdisplay)
Native aspect ratio:
800 x 600
Anamorphic Lens Support:
3,200 Lumens White, 3,200 Lumens Color
1 x HDMI 1.3, 1 x Composite, 1 x VGA, 1 x S-Video
Rated Lamp Life:
5,000 Hours Normal, 6,000 Hours ECO
3.1″ H x 11.6″ W x 9″ D
Epson, Home Cinema 640, LCD Projector, Projector Reviews
What, you may be asking, has Epson left out? The principle thing is resolution. The 640 checks in at 800×600 pixels in a 4:3 aspect ratio. You also won’t find lens shift though there is zoom and a slick auto-keystone feature that squares up the image for you. The projector will accept 1080p signals up to 60Hz and it handles 24p film content properly so it works with any Blu-ray player. You can also hook up a laptop computer via HDMI or VGA and play videos that way.
I have yet to meet an Epson display I didn’t like and this one is by far the least-expensive model I’ve reviewed. Despite its intended purpose as a quick and easy portable display, I put it through a full calibration and my complete battery of tests. Let’s take a look.
The Home Cinema 640 is the smallest projector I’ve seen from Epson. At just over five pounds and less than 12 inches in its largest dimension, it will fit easily into a laptop bag or backpack. This hints at its origin as a business road warrior’s tool where it would likely be used to give presentations. In a home theater setting however, you need things like HDMI and correct video signal handling and those boxes are checked. Despite its computer-like 800×600 resolution, it will accept 1080p signals at both 24 and 60p.
The lens is offset from center and can be protected with a sliding door when not in use. This door doubles as an AV mute which means you can use it while the 640 is powered on. Ventilation is generous which makes for cool quiet running. In the bulb’s ECO mode, the fan is nearly silent.
Despite its low price, the 640 shares many features with its more expensive brethren. You won’t find a color management system or gamma editor but there are four fully-adjustable picture modes, two of which come pretty close to the mark without calibration. Further tweaking can be accomplished with a color temp slider and RGB gain/offset adjusters.
With a comprehensive set of controls on the chassis’ top, you can do without the remote in many situations. Just above the lens are a manual focus lever and a slider to adjust horizontal keystone. If you can’t align the projector with the screen (or wall) keystone correction will square the picture for you. Vertical keystone happens automatically when you operate the extendable foot on the 640’s underside. Also here are menu navigation controls, source select and a power toggle.
The input panel offers options for both computer and traditional AV components. The analog VGA port can be used with a traditional cable or a breakout adaptor. You also get composite and S-video connectors. Of course with most modern devices, the lone HDMI port will suffice. Also on the chassis’ rear is a single two-watt speaker. It works fine in a pinch but doesn’t offer much in the way of bass frequencies, or volume for that matter. Fortunately there are RCA audio outputs which can send signals to powered speakers or an external sound system.
The remote is small and compact with tiny buttons and is not backlit. It’s quite powerful and was able to bounce commands off my screen and even off the walls in my theater. The 640 has IR receivers on the front and back so you should have little trouble operating it regardless of placement.
Whether you choose to calibrate or not, there are still a few areas to visit in the OSD to ensure the best picture quality. Foremost is the Color Mode. There are four options, Dynamic, Game, Cinema and Bright Cinema. Cinema is a good out-of-box setting that will give you around 50 foot-Lamberts (fL) max output with accurate color, grayscale and gamma. Bright Cinema bumps that output up to over 65 fL. If you need maximum brightness, Dynamic tops 143 fL which is pretty amazing coming from a tiny box with only a 200-watt bulb.
The Image menu has everything you need to dial in the image regardless of which mode you choose.
The basic controls work as you’d expect but take note of the brightness and contrast. They’re fine left on their defaults but here’s a little trick. If you visit the Signal menu and set HDMI Range to Expand, you can pick up some extra dynamic range. The only tradeoff is levels below 16 and above 235 are not displayed. Video content shouldn’t include this information but there are sometimes exceptions to that rule. The Home Cinema 640 doesn’t have terribly high native contrast so I suggest performing this step. If you do, you’ll need set brightness and contrast with PLUGE patterns, like those found on the Spears & Munsil Blu-ray.
In the Color Temp menu you’ll find a slider that changes the white point with lower numbers representing warmer grayscale. You can also calibrate the RGB sliders yourself with gain and offset controls. There is no gamma adjustment but my measurements show good tracking around the 2.2 mark so it isn’t necessary.
Set the Aspect option to Auto if you plan to use 16:9 content with the 640. There will be black bars above and below the image but you can zoom those off the screen if you wish. The remaining options shown above are for analog signals. You can set the tracking, sync and position of images coming through the VGA or composite inputs.
If you’re looking for the lamp power control it’s here under Power Consumption. ECO provides plenty of output and makes the cooling fan nearly silent. If you need more light, set it to Normal. That will result in about 65 fL in Cinema mode and over 100 fL in Dynamic. Other power-saving options can be found in this menu.
I set the 640 up on a small table in front of my seating to create a 65-inch diagonal image. Anything larger will make the projector’s lower resolution fairly obvious unless you sit further back. From 12 feet, I couldn’t see any pixellation or screen-door effect.
After calibrating the Home Cinema 640, I knew that color would not be an issue in the viewing tests. Errors are fairly low with solid grayscale and gamma tracking so my main focus was to evaluate the effects of the projector’s 800×600-pixel resolution. Zooming out enough to fill my 92-inch screen resulted in visible pixilation and screen-door effect so instead; I placed it to throw a 65-inch diagonal image. The resulting projector-to-screen distance was then a little over six feet; about where a coffee table would be in a small living space.
Steve Jobs uses varying amounts of film grain to denote different eras during the 14-year span of its plot. The year 1984 is the grainiest and it was evident that resolution was not a factor in that regard. The grain lends a nice vintage feel to the image and I never thought it intrusive. Occasionally I could see jaggies on objects with straight lines when they stood out from the background.
Details in faces and clothing were sharply defined and never gave away the 640’s lower pixel density. Motion processing was also smooth thanks to proper handling of the 1080p/24 signal. Color saturation looked every bit as good as when I watched the same Blu-ray on my reference Anthem projector. With such high output, black levels were more of a dark gray but detail was well-rendered and overall contrast looked pretty good with the iris set on High Speed.
Speaking of the iris, Epson continues to offer one of the best implementations in the business with a control algorithm that minimizes pumping artifacts (which are pretty much non-existent) and truly expands the dynamic range of its projectors. The Home Cinema 640’s iris worked just as well as the ones in more expensive models I’ve reviewed.
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials is a movie full of stark contrast, difficult nighttime scenes and bold swaths of warm saturated color. This over-stated image is ideal for a bright projector like the 640. The SVGA resolution was only apparent here and there on objects with a lot of straight lines like fencing or grillwork.
The harsh desert landscapes looked appropriately warm and barren with plenty of detail in the vast sand dunes and rocks that littered the ground. One sequence takes place in the darkened remains of a mall at night. There is a lot of fine shadow detail here that demands correct gamma and the Epson delivered that without issue. You won’t find super-deep black levels but there is no evidence of murkiness or softness in any part of this film.
Ant-Man is super-clean digital presentation that alternates between warm and cool color palettes. Both were displayed with equal precision and plenty of depth. Fast action scenes were smooth and relatively free of motion blur. Details like Paul Rudd’s perpetual five-o’clock shadow popped out very well.
During one scene in a futuristic-looking laboratory, you can see an all-white model of a building. It’s a great test of highlight detail-rendering and the 640 passed easily. It’s material like this that continues to reinforce the importance of accurate color, correct gamma and proper saturation over resolution. While more pixels are better, they aren’t the holy grail of image fidelity. This projector proves that a great picture can be presented even at resolutions less than 1080p.
I finished up with The Martian, just so I could have another look at Ridley Scott’s breathtaking interpretation of the Red Planet. Most scenes on Mars are shot in an almost monochromatic color palette that can easily look flat, even on a high-contrast display. Despite the Epson’s relatively high black levels, I saw plenty of depth here.
I’m not saying I mistook it for my Anthem projector which achieves around 20,000:1 in sequential contrast. But the difference was far less than the numbers suggest. Even though I always favor a display with greater dynamic range and deeper blacks, a projector like the 640 doesn’t disappoint me. I enjoyed watching this fantastic film every bit as much this time as the first.
All grayscale, gamma and chroma readings are taken from the projector’s lens using an X-Rite i1Pro with the diffuser attachment. Contrast tests are done with a Spectracal C6 tri-stimulus meter positioned at the lens axis and measuring from the screen at a 12-foot throw distance. This method provides an accurate picture of the contrast performance seen in a typical viewing environment.
My reference screen is a Stewart Filmscreen LuminEsse fixed-frame system configured with StudioTek 130 material. It has a gain of 1.3 and is 92 inches diagonal in size. Patterns come from an Accupel DVG-5000 signal generator, and the whole procedure is controlled by CalMAN version 5. Color standards are Rec.709, with a white point of 6,500 Kelvins. Gamma is compared to the BT.1886 spec or the 2.2 power function where appropriate.
It is unlikely most users of the Home Cinema 640 will pay for a professional calibration that costs as much or more than the projector. However for those who can do it themselves or have a friend in the business, there are some gains to be had by adjusting the two-point grayscale controls and setting levels properly.
Of the four picture modes, Cinema is pretty close to standard and will require the least adjustment.
The 640 looks pretty good out of the box. There is a slight green cast to the multi-step grayscale pattern but in actual content, it’s hard to see a problem. The average error of 4.26 DeltaE (dE) is only a little above the visible threshold. Gamma tracking is nearly spot-on with the auto-iris turned off. This really help with perceived contrast and gives the image a lot more depth than you’d expect in a projector this inexpensive.
After minor adjustments to the RGB gains and offsets, grayscale tracking is pretty much perfect except at in the darkest steps which are slightly blue. The error is hard to see even in content with black backdrops like starfields for instance. And it’s better to err towards blue rather than green or red which would look more un-natural. Gamma remains pretty much the same as before.
Epson has come a long way with their auto-iris control algorithm; to the point where it has almost no effect on gamma. Here is what a gamma measurement run looks like with the iris set to high speed. Most displays would show much larger aberrations in the extremes of the brightness scale. Not only does the iris work with minimal pumping, it doubles the sequential contrast ratio and visibly improves black levels.
The only way to manipulate the 640’s color is with general color and saturation sliders which affect all six points at once. Given the measurements below, I chose not to adjust them.
There are a couple of interesting things going on here. If you follow the saturation levels on the CIE chart from the center outwards, it seems that every point is close to its target until the 100-percent mark. There red and green are under-saturated and blue is slightly over. The luminance graph shows that green has been bumped up to compensate which is the correct thing to do but red is lacking in overall brightness. The resulting errors however are not too grievous. An average of 4.25 dE is pretty low; especially so in a projector that costs under $400. After watching some content, I found nothing objectionable in the color department.
Calibration improves the color error to 3.15 dE which is a decent gain from just a grayscale adjustment. Red now looks more natural and most color errors are beneath the visible threshold. While other Epson projectors offer greater accuracy, they’ll cost you a good deal more money. I can’t think of any display that offers better performance at this price point.
The Home Cinema 640 offers a lot of light output making it usable in just about any room imaginable. Even with some ambient light, you’ll see a well-saturated image. In its Dynamic mode with the auto-iris engaged, I measured an incredible 143.1014 fL with a black level of .007 fL and a contrast ratio of 20,524.6:1. The iris works much more aggressively in this mode than the others.
Cinema mode with the bulb on its ECO setting was a better fit for my darkened theater. First I measured native contrast with the iris turned off. The peak white was 52.4799 fL, the black level was .1806 fL, and the contrast ratio was 290.6:1. Setting the iris to Fast resulted in 50.9206 fL max, a lower black threshold of .0772 fL, and a contrast ratio of 659.9:1. Bright Cinema ups the white level to over 65 fL while maintaining accurate color and gamma.
Since the Home Cinema 640’s native resolution doesn’t match any of the source material I have available, the traditional video processing tests do not apply. I did however check patterns for proper signal level handling, 24p cadence and jaggies. The projector will accept a signal at 1080p/24 and output it correctly without any frame skipping or judder. Jaggies in interlaced signals were not accentuated by any video processing flaws. They were visible only due to the 640’s SVGA resolution. I didn’t see any excessive line twitter in the ship clip from the Spears & Munsil Blu-ray.
The 640 will pass above white and below black signals if you set HDMI Signal Range to Expand in the menu. This has the downside of limiting contrast. Since there isn’t any to spare, I decided to leave the option set to Auto which will clip levels below 16 and above 235. Since properly-encoded video doesn’t include these levels, no detail should be lost. There are exceptions to this rule of course but I didn’t see any problems in the content I watched. And you’ll benefit from around 50-percent more contrast.
THE EPSON HOME CINEMA 640 delivers excellent performance and lots of light output for less than the price of an HDTV. It’s way more than one would expect for $359.99.
- Good color accuracy
- Excellent grayscale and gamma tracking
- Clear sharp picture
- Light output to spare
- Small and light with solid build quality
- Excellent auto-iris
- Fantastic value
- 1080p resolution
With so much focus on high resolution in the television world, it seems a little strange to be reviewing a display like this. But as I’ve said many times, pixel count is not the most important factor in image quality. Contrast, color saturation and color accuracy are far more crucial and if you can’t have those things, 1080p and 4K won’t help. What the Home Cinema lacks in resolution is more than made up for in these other qualities.
Thanks to excellent gamma tracking and a top-notch auto-iris, image depth and dynamic range are superb. Color saturation is there in spades thanks to a tremendously efficient light engine that manages to exceed the output of many LCD panels with only a 200-watt bulb. Accuracy is present as well with only a few small errors cropping up in my tests.
At the low price of only $359.99, you want a projector that can be set up and enjoyed without fuss. The Epson Home Cinema 640 is that. There’s plenty of output for environments where you can’t block all ambient light; four picture modes to further tailor the image; and even auto-keystone correction to square up the picture when placement is a challenge. And it all fits in a chassis not much larger than a hardcover book.
For those who like to take entertainment on the road, the 640 represents a great choice in the compact projector category. All you need is a video source and a white wall to create an instant big-screen experience. As the least-expensive projector I’ve reviewed to date, this tiny Epson is pretty impressive.