Introduction

The biggest drawback to front projection setups is that they typically need to be installed within an environment that some or total control over ambient  light. Over the years projection companies have tried their best to combat issues stemming from ambient light concerns by either a) making their projectors brighter, or b) developing ambient light rejecting screens. While ambient light rejecting screens do work, they’re not a cure all. It’s true projectors have gotten brighter over the years, some reaching light output in excess of 2,000 ANSI Lumens, though they typically fall short of the output needed to match that of today’s modern HDTV displays. There are a number of higher end (think high cost) high-output projectors, but they tend to be prohibitively expensive or too large to really be integrated into your typical home. This is why I’ve gone on record as saying that the best front projection setup is one you can treat like an HDTV, but that this is also why projectors remain a niche product whereas HDTVs continue to thrive. Therefore, when it comes to projectors, it’s all about the light.

But what if there was another solution, one that approached the problem from a slightly different perspective? A perspective that at first may seem troublesome, maybe even complicated on the surface, but upon closer examination is anything but. I’m talking about the AirFlex5D-30 Image Processor from -well -Airflex5D.

The AirFlex5D-30 is an image processor that allows the customer or installer to stack multiple projectors together and align them perfectly -down to the pixel -for one seamless image. While the notion of running multiple projectors may seem more trouble than it’s worth, stick with me for the premise has merit -even in the home. The AirFlex5D-30 itself retails for $1,499 (though prices start at $699) and is little more than a non-descript black box. The front of the AirFlex5D-30 features some manual controls for items such as “menu” as well as directional buttons (labeled “up, down, left and right”) and a few others in order to make adjustments to the system’s OSD from the device itself. There is a master on/off switch present on the front as well as a 3.5mm audio out and 3.5mm audio input.

Around back and going from left to right you’ll find the Airflex5D-30′s DC IN, CH-A Out (HDMI), DVI/HDMI 2 input, HDMI loop out, HDMI in, VGA in, CH-B Out (HDMI), IR EXT and RS-232 port. If some of that sounds confusing don’t worry, it really is very simple. The AirFlex5D-30 in a nutshell takes an incoming signal, either via its HDMI, DVI or VGA port and then splits the signal into two identical streams via its CH-A and CH-B HDMI outputs. These outputs in turn feed two projectors -presumably identical models. Now, you can get various AirFlex5D-30 setups that allow you to stack more than one projector, but for the purposes of this review we’ll only be dealing with the AF5D-30, which can handle two projectors simultaneously.

Why would you want to “stack” two projectors to create one image? More specifically, what does it even mean when one uses the term “stack” as it relates to front projection? The idea of stacking or using two projectors to create single image isn’t wholly new, though it’s not widely adopted within the consumer realm, because, well, it’s difficult. At least it is without a device such as the Airflex5D-30. You see the AirFlex5D-30 takes a process that was once left to the human eye and goes a step further by taking over and adjusting the image’s signal so that you can obtain perfect alignment between two different projectors. Turning two projectors into one can effectively double the amount of light hitting your screen thus making even ambient light viewing a greater possibility. This in turn results in a brighter image, and one that is able to be enjoyed in more environments. It also allows for the viewer to enjoy passive or non-active stereoscopic 3D content in the home rather than having to rely on active glasses or technology -both of which have been known to cause headaches in some viewers. It also allows for larger screen sizes to be accommodated, for rather than stacking the images one atop another, you paginate them as well. More on the benefits afforded by a two projector setup in a moment.

Lastly, the AirFlex5D-30 also comes with rather complex yet comprehensive, peanut-shaped remote control that is essential to the unit’s overall operation and control.

Specifications

There isn’t much by way of specifications given on the AirFlex5D-30 website, suffice to say the box itself is rather petite, measuring but  12 inches wide by 6.25 inches deep and 1.75 inches tall. If I had to guess I’d venture to say the AirFlex5D-30 weighs a whopping 2 to 3 pounds. Despite being an image processor, the AirFlex5D-30 doesn’t do any processing as in upscaling, rather it just handles pixel mapping and alignment. This means its maximum output capability is HD or 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. Sorry, no poor man’s 4K or UltraHD here.

Application

I’ve hinted at why you may want to employ a setup using multiple projectors and a processor such as the AirFlex5D-30 but now allow me to get into the nitty gritty. I reviewed the AirFlex5D-30 in my reference theater using two Panasonic PT-AR100U LCD projectors that were supplied by AirFlex5D for the review. The Panasonic PT-AR100U routinely sells for around $1,200 (though list price is $1,749) where ever Panasonic projectors are sold. The PT-AR100U has reported ANSI Lumen rating of 2,800, which is fairly bright by any stretch of the imagination. Now, the Panasonic’s 2,800 ANSI Lumen figure is no doubt obtained via the projector’s dynamic or high lamp mode, so your mileage may vary. However it stands to reason that two Panasonic PT-AR100U projectors working in concert could output as much as 5,600 ANSI Lumens. Single front projectors with that level of light output tend to reside in the commercial AV space or cost as much as some homes in middle America -in other words, 5,600 ANSI Lumens for under $3,000 is nothing if not a revelation.

But now comes the part of stacking the projectors, physically first. For the purpose of this review AirFlex5D loaned me a cart that they use when demoing the system on the road. The cart, while functional for say a church type atmosphere or tradeshow, wasn’t something that I would want in my home. For stacking multiple projectors in my home I’d probably turn to a mount such as Chief’s LCD2C stacking projector mount or the like. Hell, some tall bookcases might even do the trick if one were willing to think a little outside the box. The nice thing about the cart was that it allowed for a great deal of physical adjustment for the first step in the process is to align the two projectors the best you can by eye. The easiest way to do this is to put a signal to the projectors themselves -their on screen menus work great -and try and overlap the resulting image as best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just close enough. Once visually “aligned” you then add in the AirFlex5D-30 to the mix.

With the AirFlex5D-30 sitting between the two projectors, or in your rack, you can begin to go through its various grid patterns where you first align projector one to your screen and then the second atop the first. This whole process is carried out down to the pixel via the AirFlex5D-30. It really is straightforward;  you essentially align the corners of each projected image until you get a solid grid pattern void of any color -that’s how the AirFlex5D-30 lets you know things are aligned and all good.

Admittedly, I had some help setting up the Airflex5D-30, in the form of an AirFlex5D representative, who was on hand to walk me though its setup procedure in order to get me up and running a bit quicker. Still I have no doubt that an everyday customer, with a bit of help from the manual and maybe the tutorial video available online, they could do what we did and achieve the same results in short order. For what it’s worth, once the projectors were positioned in the cart and optically aligned, the remaining process of aligning the two images via the AirFlex5D-30 took but 5 to 10 minutes.

Since I had somewhat limited time with the whole AirFlex5D-30-an afternoon really -I didn’t connect it to my reference rig the way I would a regular projector. Instead I used my Oppo BDP-103 sitting on the cart itself and connected to the AirFlex5D-30 via a single, 1 meter HDMI cable from Monoprice. From the AirFlex5D-30 we then ran two, 1 meter HDMI cables to the individual Panasonic projectors. The image itself was then projected upon a 120-inch AcousticPro 4K screen courtesy of Elite Screens -more on this in a moment. While I am able to control the level of ambient light in my room, for the purposes of this review and in the video that accompanies it, all lights were left on and window shades open

Personal Impressions

HOLY $#*%. Sorry, was that too forward? I don’t mean to be crass but those were my exact words upon firing up the AirFlex5D-30 setup powering two Panasonic PT-AR100U projectors in my theater with all the lights on. I was beside myself. Keep in mind I didn’t bother calibrating the projectors for image accuracy, as this wasn’t so much a test of whether or not the projectors themselves were accurate but rather if the setup, and idea of stacking two projectors had any merit. After all you can use which ever projectors you like with the AirFlex5D-30-they don’t even have to be the same, though it’s recommended.

So is there merit to running two projectors stacked in one’s home or home theater? The answer is a resounding yes. While the physical requirements of having two projectors setup and firing at your screen may not be wholly practical in some installations, the results are readily apparent and welcomed. Being able to watch content via my 120-inch acoustically transparent screen with the lights on with largely the same fidelity one gets from an HDTV display was remarkable. The resulting image was bright, but not overblown. Blacks still had a richness to them that was on par with what I’ve come to expect via the lights off, but only now I was watching in broad daylight. Colors were rich and brilliantly saturated though I imagine that with proper calibration they, along with the image’s overall grey scale, would appear even more accurate and true to life. Again, I’m not commenting on the projectors’ performance, but rather the Airflex5D-30′s ability to align the two light canons. Detail was crisp and motion smooth. Even upon close inspection I could detect zero separation between the two images -in fact it was only when the image was paused did the alignment seem out of sorts. For some reason, when paused the AirFlex5D-30 offsets the two images but a pixel or two -a “quirk” the folks over at AirFlex5D are looking into. But who watches a paused image?

In motion, and without looking over my shoulder, I’m not certain I would’ve known I was looking at an image made possible by two projectors and a $699-$1,499 box. What I kept coming back to was the fact that my screen is acoustically transparent, meaning I know I’m giving up a bit of light due to its woven design and yet, you would’ve never known watching content via the Airflex5D-30. The image was simply that bright and enjoyable.

With the lights off it was too much -the brightness that is. But most modern projectors have user modes, meaning you could easily create a day and night mode to combat this. Or you could opt for using just one projector when you know you can control the light, versus two when you cannot. In other words an AirFlex5D-30 setup does afford you some flexibility.

As far as 3D is concerned, the optional kit consists of a series of polarized filters that go in front of your projectors’ lenses and 10 pairs of passive 3D glasses. Adding 3D to the mix however does increase the price of the AirFlex5D-30 system a bit. The AF5D-21SC is the model number with Cinema-grade 3D and it retails for $1,199 or $500 more than the standard Airflex5D-30. It’s not an insane upgrade in terms of cost, but it’s far from free. I’m not a fan of 3D to begin with, though if forced to sit through a 3D film I prefer it to be passive, something the AirFlex5D-30 with its optional 3D kit allows for in the home. The resulting 3D experience was virtually indistinguishable from my experiences watching 3D content in the theater -though admittedly I was unable to do a true, head-to-head comparison. Still, compared to many of today’s active 3D presentations, the Airflex5D-30′s 3D performance was superior in every way -for me. If you don’t have an issue with active 3D setups or presentations than maybe the optional 3D kit is something you could skip, but for those who still value the format, the AirFlex5D-30 represents the most cost effective way -I’ve found -to do true, cinema quality 3D in the home.

What else is there for me to say other than the AirFlex5D-30 system works, and works well and represents a possible solution to many enthusiasts’ woes when it comes to employing a front projection setup in their home. While there’s no getting around having two projectors and all that that implies, the results more than speak for themselves. Plus, if you buy the right two projectors -i.e. those that don’t cost too much -it’s possible to get commercial-grade brightness in the home for not a lot of money. The total cost of the rig reviewed here (not including the stand) was less than $5,000. Put that in perspective, the last projector I saw and experienced with a true 5,000 plus ANSI Lumens at its disposal cost over $30,000 -just for the projector. And it was large enough that its footprint was relatively equal to that of two Panasonic PT-AR100Us.

What I Would Change

I’m not certain there is anything to change about the AirFlex5D-30 system, but there are some things to be aware of.

First, when running two projectors everything must be multiplied by two -good and bad. For example; if your chosen projectors produce a lot of heat or as a result have noisy fans -it’s going to be twice as bad. Projector bulbs go out and with two projectors in tow that means the bill is going to be twice as much. Same goes for calibration, as you are now calibrating two projectors instead of one. These are simply things to keep in mind as you let the visions of having plasma or LCD-type brightness from a projection setup in your living room dance through your head.

If you can live with these facts then the AirFlex5D-30 really is the most cost effective way -that I have encountered, -for getting an HDTV-like viewing experience from a front projection setup regardless of a room’s ambient light.

Comparable Products

Admittedly I don’t spend a lot of time researching commercial video products outside of say D-Cinema compliant projectors, so I’m not the last word on whether or not products similar to the AirFlex5D-30 exist. What I can say is that in order to achieve brightness levels on par with say two inexpensive Epson, Panasonic or Optoma projectors stacked upon each other, expect to pay not thousands more, but rather tens of thousands.

If a single projector solution is what you’re ultimately after and money isn’t a factor, then the high light output projectors I would recommend you look at are either the SIM2 Sirio (up to 6,000 Lumens) or Digital Projection’s M-Vision Cine (5,500 Lumens). Of course if you really want to go crazy you could step up to a commercial Christie projector or Barco -if you were so inclined

Conclusion

I’m not certain the AirFlex5D-30 is for everyone or every setup, but it is a lot of fun and does potentially solve a lot of problems for both front projectors and their fans. While no solution is perfect, the AirFlex5D-30 manages to skirt some of the issues by simply being more affordable than the alternatives.

Like with any AV solution -especially those aimed at front projection setups -the AirFlex5D-30 is not a cure all. There are drawbacks to running multiple projectors, but none that can be associated to the AirFlex5D-30 itself -for what it does specifically, it’s near perfect. However, it is because of what it requires in order to achieve its brilliance that I’m not recommending everyone go out and buy two projectors and an AirFlex5D-30 straightaway.

If you decide a dual projector setup is right for you then by all means give AirFlex5D a call or consult with your local dealer; for I can think of no better, less expensive way for the front projection experience to match that of an HDTV, than a two projector setup based around an Airflex5D-30.