Home Theater Build: What am I looking for in a new projector?

In the last section of this series I am going to talk little about where I am looking to go with this theater. I think we all have a wish list of things that we’d like to address in our systems…new equipment we want to get and places we want to make changes. I’ll address my own personal thoughts here, and talk a little about what goes in to my decision making.

Being primarily a video person, I’m always thinking about new display technology. I generally don’t upgrade in consecutive years – most often the increase in performance in consecutive years doesn’t warrant the cost of the upgrade. We are approaching two product cycles after my RS-25 was purchased, so this year I’ll be on the lookout for possibly my next projector. What will I keep my eyes on? I’ll deal briefly with few areas of consideration that I believe we should all think about before we decide to spend money on a new projector.

Contrast Ratio-

The “Holy Grail” of digital video has always been increased contrast. Manufactures have made great strides in this area. Just a few years ago blacks were more gray and shadow detail was severely lacking. However, there is still farther to push the envelope in the production of deep blacks. I still have yet to see a digital projector that doesn’t cast a shadow when I walk in front of it when displaying an all black field. The gauntlet can and is being pushed forward by projector manufacturers, with better black levels being reported every year. Any new projector that I evaluate will be at this cutting edge, exhibiting best in class black level performance.

While increased contrast ratio is something that we will always talk about in new displays, it is worth noting that for projectors, the room will always be part of the equation. It is important to keep in mind that increasing a projectors contrast can be all but negated by improper room conditions. As we push the contrast envelope further and further, leaked and reflected light in the room becomes increasing important. Before spending money on a projector with huge contrast ratio numbers, take a critical look at your room – if it’s painted white, with white carpets, you may not gain much benefit from all of that extra money.

Light Output-

Personally, given my screen size, projector brightness hasn’t been an important factor for me. At 92” I’m well within the range for most residential targeted home theater projectors. For those with bigger screens though, increasing brightness in a smaller and more economical package is always desirable. We are also looking for projectors that can produce a brighter picture, without sacrificing contrast. Again, while this isn’t a major concern in my current set-up, this is an active area of innovation for projector manufacturers. If you like your image really big, advances in projector brightness will be worth paying close attention to.

Software and Features-

With any new crop of projectors, manufactures will always try and convince us that a given set of new set of features or innovations is a reason for us to buy their product. It is impossible to ignore these and while I generally feel that many are unnecessary, there are a few things that it is important to always keep an eye on. The first and most important of these, in my opinion, is calibration features. Displays have gotten increasingly advanced in their ability to be properly calibrated, making the purchase of costly external advices to make up for deficiencies in features unnecessary if the right unit is purchased. At the very least I look for a projector that is allows user calibration the gray scale, gamma and primary and secondary colors (commonly referred to as a Color Management System). I consider this to be the most important feature of any display – whether projector or flat panel. I always pay attention to what advances manufactures are offering in the calibration features for a unit and, when possible, try and look at these features personally to determine whether they are actually sufficient to perform a proper calibration. Just because a unit possesses all of these features doesn’t mean that they will be accessible, easy to use, or even functional. Because of this, every time I’m evaluating a new unit, I make sure to gain as much information as I can on what has been done, and in the case of systems I know, what has been changed.

Last year’s JVC projector line up was a great example of why you must pay attention to not only what’s new, but also what has changed. The calibration menu’s in my current JVC RS-25 are fantastic. Unfortunately, last year, JVC elected to make significant changes to the software and menu structure of its calibration system. Many reviewers, including myself, found these changes to be a large step backwards, making calibrations using internal controls exceptionally difficult.  Had I been buying a projector last year, I would have considered looking at a different brand to purchase. The best way to get a gauge on this is to do research. Read reviews that include calibrations – like those in Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity – and make sure you read the calibration section where reviewers will often comment on how the calibration went. If they say it’s really difficult, I’d look elsewhere.

Outside of calibration capabilities, I don’t pay much to other features being offered. I personally have no interest in 3D – I find it a gimmick at best, even in the most high-end implementations. Undoubtedly the next unit I purchase will be 3D capable, but I would be very surprised if it is ever used in my home.

“Next Generation”

I’m going to throw a bunch of things into what I call next generation features. Generally for these I’m thinking of aspects that are not mainstream yet, or that are still at a price point that they are prohibitive. While these aren’t things that are on my immediate radar, they are things that I consider important enough advances that I’m paying close attention as they make their way to more purchase friendly levels.

Where does this light come from?

Like everyone, I’m currently paying attention to changes in the way light is generated in projectors – namely LED based technologies. Our projectors are “aging” from the minute we turn them on – with bulbs decreasing in brightness a little with every use. The implementation of a technology that doesn’t age at the same rate, avoiding costly bulb replacements, would be something that every projector owner should be paying attention to. Thus far, LED based projectors have carried very high price tags. At the same time, promises of infinite life are just those – promises – we’ve yet to see these units actually perform in the wild long term to see how they stand-up to day to day use. Regardless, as LED technology advances and finds its way into more mainstream projectors, I’ll certainly be watching closely.

Constant Height…without all of those parts?

About 5 years ago, prior to the advent of 1080p, when projector manufacturers had little to tout in terms of technology advances, we saw an explosion in constant height set-ups. I have always toyed with the idea of going to a 1:2.35 screen, but several things have held me back. The two part systems (lens assembly/sled + projector) were not only very expensive, but also complex in their installation and execution. Top of the line video processing was needed to effectively stretch the image without adding any artifacts, adding to the cost. Lastly, even the best lenses can cut the light output of your projector and add unwanted artifacts to the image. On top of all of these considerations, my current room wasn’t really configured to accept at 1:2.35 aspect screen. Still, being primarily a movie watcher, 1:2.35 screen was always at the back of my mind.

Last year at CEDIA we saw the release of a handful of projectors that dealt with several my chief apprehensions – native ultra wide projectors. These units were all based on DLP technology, and contained chips whose native resolution was no longer 16:9, but rather fit with wide screen applications. These WQXGA projectors didn’t need a two part system, and could natively fill a 1:2.35 screen without the aid of a lens (and its associated complications). As I have written in earlier sections of this feature, I have never been able to deal with DLP based projection systems because of my high sensitivity to color separation artifacts. However, I am hopeful that this approach becomes more widely accepted, finding its way into LCOS based projectors. When it does, I’ll be eyeing very close a conversion to a constant height set-up.

Home Theater Build: A return to video processing?

I have written previously on secrets about the recent renaissance in video processing. Even though I just stated above that calibration controls inside the display are of paramount importance, I still feel that an external processors can have an advantage, and that advantage is growing.

The ability to use VP’s as sophisticated calibration boxes has become not only more advanced, but also more approachable. Both CalMAN and Chromapure, the two most popular calibration software’s available, are now offering interactive calibration that allow each program to interact directly with video processors, implementing and measuring changes in real time during calibration. We have reviewed CalMAN 4’s interactive calibration feature here at Secrets; senior editor Chris Heinonen will soon be publishing a review of Chromapure’s interactive features. In addition to increased ease of use, video processors are also gaining relevance as we turn to more and more Internet streamed video content. This content can benefit greatly from video processing and that found in products from companies like Lumagen and DVDO are far more advanced than what found in our current displays. For these reasons I’m actively evaluating adding a video processor back into my system.

Home Theater Build: Multiple Subwoofers

Almost any room can benefit from multiple subwoofers. Low frequencies are more susceptible to detrimental effects from your room. I’ve already talked about how the placement of a subwoofer is critical to achieving good bass in a room. Proper placement can minimize how much a room is affecting the bass, but even perfect placement can rarely fix all problems. Bass can still be uneven, as a room acts to magnify some frequency while it quenches others. In order to truly achieve even base response, our best approach is to start adding multiple subwoofers. Two, three, or even four subs can yield superior results to having just one. Are we looking to achieve louder bass? No, we are looking to attain more even bass – so that all frequencies are represented equally. Properly setting up a second subwoofer has never been easier. Audyssey MultiEQ XT32, which debuted last year in several receivers and preamp/processors, is capable of independently equalizing two separate subwoofers. Prior to XT32, even if your receiver was capable of powering two subwoofers, the signal sent to each was identical. With XT32, the levels and equalizing of each base can be performed independently, thus maximizing the results one can attain from a two-subwoofer set-up. If you not in the market for a new receiver, fear not: the same technology that is built into MultiEQ XT32 is available in an external box. SVS Sound manufactures the AS-EQ1, which is an external subwoofer EQ system, capable of performing independent subwoofer calibrations using the same algorithms used in MultiEQ XT32 receivers. I owned an AS-EQ1 before upgrading to my current receiver which contains XT32 and can attest to both its ease of use and effectiveness in helping you get great bass from your current equipment. Even a one subwoofer set-up can benefit from something like the AS-EQ1.

I am most certainly looking to add a second subwoofer to my existing system. It is probably of the highest priority of all of the upgrades I’ve discussed here. Given my room is small, good smooth bass has always been a challenge. An important note: identical subs are not necessary – you can add a sub of a different make or model than the one that you are currently using, though it is important to use a sub of generally similar quality.

Home Theater Build: Conclusions

This being the last section of this series, I want to reiterate one of the pieces of advice that I gave in the first installment: take your time. While it may be easy to get excited and try and tackle everything all at once, this is entirely unnecessary. Start small, and gradually work your way up. Do you need to start with all top of the line gear? By all means no – not only does this add significant cost, but it is also possible that as a first pass you might not truly be ready to appreciate where your extra dollars are going. Video projectors targeted at the home market have never been more accessible, and quality screens never cheaper. It takes very little to “get into the game” and start enjoying a true cinematic experience. So don’t get overwhelmed: start small, make use of the gear you currently have, and make baby steps. Begin upgrading equipment incrementally, changing this that will make the highest impact first, then moving to more niche things. One of the great things about this hobby is that there will never be a shortage of new things to research, contemplate, and buy. Enjoy –