- The Home Cinema Experience
My first front projector experience came by way of an old Epson Powerlite LCD front projector that I bought off Craigslist for -I think -$300 many moons ago. The Epson wasn’t even HD, but rather an SD, 4:3 model aimed more at the business market than the home theater one. My first screen was actually a bed sheet pinned to painted drywall -it was epic. In truth, I bought the projector on a whim in order to host an impromptu Halloween movie night in my first apartment while still in college. Little did I know that the tiny Epson would spark a love affair with front projection setups that would remain with me to this day.
Since that fateful evening I haven’t had a home theater setup that has not relied, in some facet or another, on a front projector. Until recently, this meant having a dual purpose rig; one that featured both an HD front projector and a large HDTV. Why two? Well, for starters, unless you can control the light in your room, front projection based setups are basically useless until after dark. Even if you can control the light to a certain extent, unless you can make your room pitch black, you’re still not going to get the same clarity as you would from a HDTV display. Now some of you may be thinking, Andrew just get an ambient light rejecting screen. I’ve gone down that road and while negative gain or ambient light rejecting screens do help, they are not a cure-all. So light is the enemy. Another enemy is the projector itself, specifically its bulb.
The majority of projectors rely on some form of UHP lamp or bulb. These bulbs have a limited lifespan, typically 1,500 to 3,000 hours. While that may sound like a lot, know this; a typical UHP bulb can take anywhere from a few hundred hours to say 500 hours to “settle down and act right.” That’s a lot of time potentially wasted on non-optimal performance. Moreover, UHP lamps tend to degrade once they pass about 1,000 to 1,500 hours. So while they may “last up to 3,000 hours,” they’re not going to be as good or as bright as they were at say 1,000. This is why those with front projectors in their setups either a) have a HDTV elsewhere in the their home or in the same room or b)use their projectors for appointment viewing only.
When your lamp finally runs “dry” a replacement can cost anywhere between $300 and $1,500 depending on your projector. While I don’t consider replacement bulbs to be a “hidden” cost when it comes to projectors, an often overlooked expense is recalibration. If you have or believe in having your projector professionally calibrated (you should) then each time you replace your bulb you need to have your projector recalibrated. This raises the price of a bulb replacement from say $300 to possibly $600 or more. Hardly chump change. To put this into better perspective, let’s say you purchase the entry level JVC D-ILA projector for $3,499.95, which is a great projector. The initial purchase price includes a bulb. Now, tack on initial calibration of $350 (average) and you’re out almost $3,900.00 plus the cost of a screen -say an additional $350-$500 on the low side. So for roughly $4,500 you can enjoy big screen viewing (100 -inch diagonal) for the next 1,500 hours. If you use your projector as your main display that means you will more than likely have to replace your bulb once a year. If you use it less, than obviously you would probably have to replace it every 18 months to two years or more. The average person gets between five and seven years out of their TV or HDTV purchase. Putting front projectors on the same path and accounting for a bulb change and recalibration every year, the cost of owning even a basic projector such as the JVC jumps to anywhere between $7,500 and $8,700 give or take. Not as much as some but then again not as inexpensive as the projector’s initial asking price of $3,500.
But then there is that light issue again.
This is why, arguably, front projectors have never shared the same success as their HDTV counterparts, because they simply cannot be treated like HDTVs. You can’t turn ‘em on and leave ‘em on. They don’t work in ambient light and they require maintenance. This is where I believe LED based projectors come into play as a possible solution.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I presently own an LED based front projector by way of the SIM2 M.150. The M.150 is not by any stretch of the imagination “cheap,” but my time spent with it is what has spawned this little rambling of mine. Please understand that I’m not writing this in an attempt to get you to buy an M.150 as I have, but rather to get you thinking, and to hopefully get other manufacturers, along with SIM2, to put more weight behind LED as a light source for front projectors.
On their own, or should I say compared to traditional lamp based projectors, LED based projectors tend to be one of two things; first, prohibitively expensive or second, low on light. To get an LED based projector that also possesses the requisite light output to do what I am about to suggest means you’re most likely going to come out of pocket not thousands of dollars, but rather tens of thousands. Right there, I know many have to tap out, but even if you cannot afford it, stick with me, because the concept is interesting through and through. For example; my M.150 from SIM2 retails for close to $28,000. That’s a lot of money no matter how you slice it, especially when I just laid out an example above that showed you can do it for less -albeit with a UHP lamp -for well under $10,000 over the life of the projector. But remember, we’re trying to get the front projection experience to be equal in every way to that of the a HDTV. My M.150 is rated to 30,000 hours much like any HDTV (and UltraHD display) available today. So longevity is now equal. The M.150 is very bright (20 plus foot lamberts from some distance away), not as bright as some LED HDTVs when set in their “dynamic” mode, but bright enough to be enjoyed at sizes in excess of 100-inches diagonally even with some ambient light still in the room. Control the light and look out.
Now here’s where HDTVs have to now catch up. Currently, the largest HDTV readily available to consumers is Sharp’s 90-inch LED HDTV. Sharp’s 90-inch LED HDTV retails for around $10,000. Still not as much as the SIM2 but then again, in my opinion, it’s not nearly as good, nor will it ever be able to present you with an image larger than 90-inches diagonally. Ramping things up to say 100 or even 150-inches diagonally from a flat panel display and the costs skyrocket to over six figures. I believe the 150-inch Panasonic plasma retails for over $200,000.
That’s a rather large delta if you ask me. $10,000 may be justifiable for some, but $200,000 plus? That’s a house, and a big one, for 90-percent of hard working Americans. What’s more interesting is even when stacked up against Samsung, LG and Sony’s current crop of UltraHD displays, which retail for anywhere between $17,000 and $25,000, the M.150 puts out a comparable image -remember, pixels aren’t everything. Comparable in quality, but like with all front projectors, the M.150 can be an 84-inch display as easily as it can be 150-inch one.
This is what I mean when I say or suggest that it’s possible that with LED light sources we’ve reached a point where the front projection experience can rival or even surpass that of flat panel displays, all things being considered. Yes ambient light is still a factor with LED based projectors, but I argue it is with any large format flat panel too, as it doesn’t take much to turn any HDTV’s surface into a mirror. What isn’t known, is how LED based projectors hold up over time. We have countless of examples of how HDTVs and their back or edge lighting schemes “shift” and/or degrade over time, but none with regards to LED and front projectors. This is why I, along with my good friend and THX Certified calibrator, Ray Coronado Jr. of SoCalHT, plan on testing my M.150 every couple of weeks in order to track the platform’s legitimacy compared to both plasma and LED based flat panels. We plan on sharing all the information and resulting measurements with you as we proceed. We’re doing it to better educate ourselves (and because we’re nerds), but we also hope that the data helps others, not just SIM2, potentially develop better LED based projectors in the future.
As always, thanks for reading. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…